A happy, successful life does more than make you feel good. It also serves to strengthen you, and to open your mind to options and opportunities that you would otherwise not see. In difficult times, this can make the difference between living in fear and flourishing.
What makes for a successful life? This is, of course, a very personal issue. You may say that it's your faith, or your family, or some political or charity work that you do. But there are two general elements that are common to most everybody:
Work that you can enjoy and be good at, and that has meaning to you.
Relationships that are satisfying, joyful and meaningful.
You would no doubt add something else for yourself but today I want to focus on these two areas of life and give you some very tangible things that you can do to improve them.
Let's start with work.
If you're looking to find work that suits you better or to craft your present work so that it's a better fit, consider this: What matters to you, what are you good at and what do you enjoy? These three questions can help you to focus and give you some perspective on what to look for.
In addition, get to know your strengths. A good place to start is at authentichappiness.com. Go to the VIA strengths questionnaire and spend the 20-30 minutes it takes to fill it out. You will get a read-out of 24 general areas of strength, such as Curiosity, Courage, Zest, etc. Look for your top five, and give some thought to how you use those in your life presently.
Now see if you can think of ways that you could use these strengths in new and different ways.
Maybe curiosity is a strength for you but you don't tend to "think outside the box" much at work. Maybe there's a way that you could begin to wonder about new ways to solve problems that haven't been considered yet. We all get caught up in habits and routines; see if there's a way that you can try something new.
Once you get a little better oriented toward what you want to do, how can you get really good at it?
The answer is simple, sort of: Practice, practice, practice.
But practice in a particular way: Practice deliberately. What I mean by this is to focus intensively on one piece of a skill that you want to master. Spend some serious time going over and over that one element until you have it down precisely; then move on to another piece of that or to a different skill.
A professional basketball player or a concert pianist will practice differently than somebody just out shooting a few baskets or goofing around on the piano. That difference, continued consistently over time, is what makes an expert versus someone who's just playing at the edges.
This includes practicing within your own mind.
Have you ever seen those Olympic skiers before a race, at the top of the hill, standing there, crouched down as though they're skiing but they're not going anywhere? Their bodies sway back and forth and they are obviously totally absorbed in something.
What they are doing is visualizing the run they are about to ski. They're seeing it in their mind's eye, and they're experiencing it in their body. When they actually start the race, they've already been down the hill in their mind and it helps them to master their run.
When I was playing water polo competitively, after every practice I would visualize the shots that I didn't block – particularly those that I thought I should've blocked (I was a goalkeeper). I would never just ruminate about having missed the shot; instead, I would see myself doing what I could have done to actually block the shot.
I would see it over and over, and often the next time I was in that situation, instead of repeating the mistake that allowed the goal I would do what I had imagined and block the shot (of course, there would always be another one that I would miss for me to work on. Being a goalkeeper is great practice for getting used to failure).
See yourself succeeding at your task – but not in a general, wishful-thinking sort of way. See yourself in a very specific, precise way mastering your skills and overcoming obstacles to your own excellence.
Now let's look at relationships.
First rule: Avoid contempt. Once you let contempt into your close relationships – your marriage, your kids, your friends – it eats away at love and joy. Contempt is poison for any relationship.
Think in terms of a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative emotions. If you're spending too much time being critical, nagging or arguing and not enough time enjoying each other, you'll be undermining everything you hold dear together.
On the other hand, if you spend five times as much time enjoying each other as you do in conflict or feeling bad, the positive experiences will come much more easily and there will be little or no place for contempt to rear it's very ugly and destructive head.
Two specific behaviors will help:
If somebody you care about asks in some way for your attention, physically turn toward them and respond. This takes maybe several seconds to do, but each time you do you're giving your mate, your child, your friend a sense of being seen, respected and cared for.
Those few seconds, played out many times each day, make more difference than almost anything else you can do. This is tremendous leverage. Use it!
Sometimes people are reluctant to respond because they think it will mean they have to do whatever they may be asked to do at that point. But whether or not you do what's being asked for is insignificant compared to the effect of that initial response. If you're too busy to do what's asked right now, it's really okay. Respond first; then work out the details.
When someone you care about brings you good news, respond actively and positively.
Positively means that you express joy and excitement at their good news. Give their excitement and joy the respect that it deserves and take the opportunity to join them in the celebration. This can be as simple as saying something like: "Wow, that's so cool!"
Actively means that you ask a couple of questions. Show that you're interested in their good news by wanting to know more about it.
This simple response to good news, practiced consistently over time, can make the difference between a good relationship and a great relationship. If this is something that doesn't come naturally to you, it doesn't mean that you're being "phony" about it; it simply means that you haven't practiced it enough. Let go of the cynical labeling of anything you don't already naturally do as "phony," and get to work practicing the skills that actually make life work.
These skills will help you to live a more successful and resilient life.
You might be thinking that you should put this off until after the crisis – whenever that will be – but time is going by right now. Your precious life is being lived right now. Don't put this off until the external circumstances of the world are just right.
If you're letting the dangers of the world get you too scared and constricted to enjoy your life, here's something to consider: Human history is filled with awful times, terrible people and tyrannical governments. Even in the best of times, there's always been something that you could worry yourself sick over.
But human history is also filed with good times, wonderful people and the striving for freedom and goodness.
Be aware of the dangers and problems; but keep that awareness in context and use that awareness to focus on solutions. There are more opportunities than you are aware of if you look for them.
When you stock up on food and supplies so that you have them just in case, you don't buy things that you never eat. If you don't like beans, you don't go out and buy a year's supply of beans. You stock up on what you already normally eat and rotate it out as part of your normal eating habits over time.
In the same sense, preparing yourself psychologically for difficult times involves doing what would improve your life anyway. Don't withdraw from life; don't constrict yourself in the face of potential trouble. Lean into life; especially when times are hard.
Use the skills that make for a happy, resilient and successful life no matter what the circumstances are. That's what will see you through the hard times and in so doing, you will be creating good times for yourself and those you love.
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