See the Positive
Being “better” starts in your own mind, because you can’t create what you can’t imagine. The first step, then, is to train yourself to see the good that’s already there—in yourself, in other people, in situations (even those that might otherwise seem pretty crappy)—and to imagine new positive possibilities. When you can do that, it frees you up from negative thinking that may have been keeping you stuck in unhelpful patterns. After all, the word better requires something to change—otherwise, you’d just stay the same. Teaching yourself to see the positive helps you change the one thing you truly have power over—your own mind.
RETRAIN YOUR BRAIN TO FIND THE GOOD STUFF
The human brain is wired to look for threats—a trait that kept us alive when we were living on the savannas but that can prevent happiness in our modern lives. This so-called “negativity bias” can keep you focused on what’s going wrong (which explains why complaining is such a popular pastime). To bust out of this neural rut, train yourself to acknowledge when things go right. If you keep a calendar or a journal, make a point to write down what went well. If you’re more of a verbal processor, start your conversations with friends by sharing a recent win (anything that gives you that yesssss feeling). Where the mind goes, reality follows. The more you appreciate life, the more reasons you have to celebrate it.
LOOK FOR THE LOVING REASON
It’s one thing to look back at the past and see the good that came out of any rough patches; it’s a much rarer ability to trust that something you’re currently experiencing is working out to your advantage. Apply the wisdom of hindsight to the present by looking for the possible positive developments a current situation may be helping to create. This isn’t about wishful thinking—it’s about trusting that life is happening for you, not to you.
ASSUME THE BEST ABOUT OTHERS
You may know that to assume makes an “ass” out of “u” and “me,” but are you aware of how many blanks you subconsciously fill in every day? Whenever you decide that the driver in front of you is an idiot or that your spouse’s silence means he’s mad, you mistake opinion for fact. If you assume instead that this driver is on the way to visit a relative in the hospital or your partner is just thinking about his day, you’ll find yourself interacting with others in a kinder, more positive way. How else might you interpret the things you make snap judgments about? Other, more loving explanations exist—if you allow yourself to look for them.
Connect with Your Feelings
Because emotions seemingly come out of nowhere and can feel overpowering, and because we’re not typically given much—or any—education on how to work with them, the thought of getting more in touch with your emotions can seem scary. But it’s more like popping a bottle of champagne than opening Pandora’s box; there may be a rush at first, but soon it turns into a manageable flow. It’s worth the effort to connect with your emotions, because they are messengers—they reveal what you truly think and feel. And without this information, it’s impossible to lead with your heart.
As an added bonus, learning to work with your feelings will help you stop acting out of a desire to hide them or ignore them—a natural impulse that typically does not lead to wise choices, whether that’s choosing to eat, drink, or bite your lip in an effort to stuff those feelings down; tell a lie to make yourself look better; or jump to getting angry because it’s more tolerable then feeling sad or hurt. Managing your emotions feels so much better. And when you feel better, you can do better.
FORGIVE YOUR MISTAKES
It’s tempting to ignore your missteps, or worse, to beat yourself up about them. But if you can’t forgive yourself for your slipups, you won’t be able to forgive others for theirs, which creates a downward spiral of disconnection. Start by taking out a piece of paper and writing “I forgive myself for…” You might be surprised how many things pop into your head, and how cathartic it is to name and release them. Notice how doing it for yourself helps you forgive—and feel closer to—others.
LEARN TO RECOGNIZE YOUR INNER CRITIC
Do you have a mean voice in your head that critiques every little thing, from the shirt you choose to the plans you make? Because it’s coming from inside your head, it’s hard to be objective about this voice—you may confuse it for truth. But 99.9 percent of the time, it isn’t truth at all: that inner critic can be quite a bully. You’ll never be able to pull this off. What are you thinking? You’re so stupid. What kinds of mean things do you think about yourself over and over? Write them down. Seeing them objectively will help you stand up to the negative voice in your head, and you and others will be better off for it.
DRAW YOUR INNER CRITIC
Here’s a way to get even more perspective on that mean inner voice: draw a picture of it, even if you “can’t” draw. Does it wear glasses? Have a mustache? How old is it? Drawing the critic helps you see that this voice is not you, and also helps you laugh at it a bit, which can deflate the stress that voice creates.
It’s hard to be a better person if you’re feeling tired, stressed, or sick. Taking better care of yourself gives you more energy for the important stuff and the fun stuff. Feeling great physically also translates to feeling great mentally. When your body is humming, your thinking gets clearer, which helps you continue to make the choices that lead to being a better person.
Thankfully, getting healthier doesn’t mean you have to completely overhaul your diet or your life. This chapter contains suggestions for simple lifestyle changes you can make to live a healthier life, that are easy to implement yet yield big results. Each one will put more fuel in your tank to keep you going and help you feel great along the way. If you ever feel your momentum start to stall, return to this chapter and choose another one or two things you can do to support your body, so it can support you and your efforts.
CHANGE YOUR DEFAULT REACTION TO STRESS
You may not realize it, but you have a go-to reaction to stress. You may jump to anger, or dive into self-criticism, or feel overwhelmed. Maybe you reach for cookies or start skimping on sleep. What does your stress pattern look like? Write it down, then make a list of things you could do instead of those old standbys—taking a walk, making a cup of tea, belting out a song on the car ride home, or getting in a warm bath before bed are all helpful options. Even if you try one new thing before you start rummaging in the snack drawer, you’ll have interrupted your knee-jerk response. Responding to life with intention, rather than by reaction, is almost always a better approach.
REMIND YOURSELF OF PAST TRIUMPHS
You can’t escape stress, but you can learn to not let it escalate into a full-blown panic attack. Make a list of times when you handled a stressful situation well—when you organized a complicated move, for example, or met a big deadline at work—and look at it whenever you’re feeling strapped. It will help remind you that yes, you do have what it takes, and that this too shall pass.
TAKE A TIME-OUT
It may feel like you’ve got to move at top speed to stay ahead of your to-do list, but slowing down for even a moment can help you get more done with less stress. Challenge yourself periodically throughout the day to do nothing for a few moments—after you sit at your desk but before you turn on the computer, or while you wait for the coffee to brew. Practicing a good pace at these low-stakes times will help you remember to do the same when something seemingly urgent is happening, and will make you more effective when acting under stress.
There are no two ways about it—love is more than just a feeling. It’s a force that compels us to be the best that we can be—kinder, more compassionate, more giving, and more forgiving. The tips in this chapter help make you more openhearted. They will bring you closer to your partner, your family, and everyone in your tribe as well as the strangers you encounter every day—and as pack animals, we humans need all the connections we can get. Ultimately, being more loving is how you translate your efforts to be a better person into making the world a better place; it expands the focus and the benefit of your efforts to others. That’s powerful magic.
ADMIT YOUR MISSTEPS
Sure, it feels bad to let down someone you love, but avoiding the subject doesn’t make it better. When you’ve done or said something you wish you hadn’t, the best way to rectify it is to own up to it. “I messed up, and I’m sorry” can go a long way toward repairing the situation. It can also spare you from mentally raking yourself over the coals. Once you’ve owned your mistake, offer a plan or collaborate together on a way to make things right.
FORGIVE OTHERS THEIR MISTAKES
Forgiving others requires you to acknowledge their humanity and see their point of view even when you feel wronged, which is a true sign of empathy and maturity. You may or may not want to stay in a relationship, but either way, forgiveness will help set down the burden of that hurt. It sets you both free.
CHECK YOUR BODY LANGUAGE
You communicate with more than just your words—your body language is constantly broadcasting information to other people. Do you know what your typical postures and gestures are saying about you? An eye roll conveys irritation or dismissal, arms crossed over your chest implies a closed heart, and standing with hands on hips sends a message of power. Take stock of the impression you’re giving and make sure it’s the message you want to be sending.
Giving back is about more than being virtuous—it’s about caring more, believing in your power to do good, and creating positive changes in your community and in the world at large. The funny paradox about giving back is that it feels really good to help others, and those good feelings help energize you to do more and inspire others to do it too.
The tips in this chapter help you find ways to help others that suit you perfectly and that don’t require you to overextend yourself, all while having a big impact.
THINK ABOUT YOUR LEGACY
What do you want to be remembered for? Something you instilled in your kids? A value you perpetuated? An organization or cause you supported? These are big questions, but you do have models: think about the institutions, people, and organizations you support, that benefit you, and that you value and appreciate. How can you do your part to help those things carry on? A generation from now, maybe someone will be looking to your example to shape her own legacy, but only if you act.
USE YOUR POWER FOR GOOD
You have more power than you can contemplate. While you often don’t consider it as you live your life, every thought you have and every move you make has an effect in your own life and in the lives of others. Periodically asking yourself, “How can I use my power for good?” is a gut-check that reminds you of your own agency and keeps you focused on using your influence with intention and purpose. Pay a compliment to the checkout clerk at the grocery store who’s clearly having a bad day, stand up and ask the unspoken question at the neighborhood association meeting, vote with your conscience instead of your party—there are numerous ways to exercise your power in a positive way if you look for them. Do more of it and you’ll create ripples that empower others to do it too.
SEEK TO UNDERSTAND COMPLEX PROBLEMS
It’s difficult to use your power for good if you don’t have an understanding of what’s going on around you. If you discern a problem that you want to help address—whether it’s something big, like prison reform, or something smaller scale, like the homework policy at your child’s school—your first step is to educate yourself. Read articles or books, talk to a couple of people who are involved first-hand, show up to meetings where the issue is discussed. You may not be able to grasp every nuance or learn everything there is to learn—that could take a lifetime. But being informed is key to making decisions from a wise—as opposed to a reactive—place.
Deciding to make a difference is a wonderful thing and a vital step on any journey toward positive change. But it is only the first step. Change doesn’t come simply from making up your mind; it’s the result of doing things differently on a consistent basis. That’s where a sense of commitment comes in.
The tips in this section will help you stay committed to making continual progress by keeping you in touch with your motivation, using your community to stay accountable, and keeping it fun. Best of all, these tips will help you get back on track when you lose momentum, which is bound to happen on any long-term endeavor, and to do it without beating yourself up.
GO FOR CONSISTENCY OVER FREQUENCY
Committing to a new course of action may seem to demand a grand gesture: I’m going to meditate for twenty minutes every day. But if you miss a day, all can seem lost, so—if you’re like most of us—you probably quit and tell yourself it’s too hard. To up your odds of success, lower the bar: I will sit on my meditation cushion at some point each day. Some days you may only sit on that cushion for ten seconds; some days it will be twenty minutes. Either way, you’re building your commitment muscles. More may be better, but some is always better than none.
WRITE A MISSION STATEMENT
To help make choices that take you toward what you want rather than away from it, write a personal mission statement—a short paragraph that sums up what you hold dear. To write one, start with a few keywords that describe traits or values that are important to you, then weave them together to form a sentence or short paragraph. That way, when an opportunity comes along, you have a barometer to use as a decision-making guide.
BE A LIFELONG LEARNER
Like all humans, you have an innate curiosity. Keep it fed by continually exposing yourself to new ideas. That doesn’t mean you have to enroll in a formal program, though you shouldn’t rule it out. You can read books, watch YouTube videos, enroll in workshops, or ask someone to show you the ropes. If you have even more elaborate goals, consider that program you’ve always wanted to do. However you pursue new learning, doing so will keep opening up new swaths of the horizon and opening your mind to new possibilities.
Let Go of Your Stuff
While you don’t have to become a full-on minimalist in order to be a better person, acquiring and tending to possessions definitely eats up a lot of time, space, money, and energy. And those are precious resources that could be put to use on more productive things, like developing relationships, deepening your skills, giving back, and having meaningful experiences.
In this chapter, you’ll learn strategies to help you buy a little less, take better care of what you’ve got, and get rid of what doesn’t serve you. It’s all in the name of lightening your load and freeing you up to pursue better things.
Challenge yourself to use electricity more mindfully—turn off lights when you leave a room, unplug appliances you aren’t using and any fully charged devices, and install a programmable thermostat to turn down the heat when you’re not home. Your bills will be lower and so will your carbon footprint.
WEAN FROM THE SCREEN
Smartphones are amazing tools, but overusing them can degrade your posture, your tolerance for downtime, and your ability to connect with yourself and with others. Reduce habitual use by making some parts of your life screen-free, whether it’s a physical area like the dinner table, a regular event—your morning walk is a great time to leave the phone in your pocket—or a time of day, say after nine p.m. With practice, you can curb your habit of reaching for it every time you have ten seconds to yourself.
LEARN THE FINE ART OF FIXING THINGS
Your grandmother knew how to do all kinds of basic repair—get a stain out, sew a button, patch a torn knee, and darn a sock. You may not have received that training, but YouTube makes it easy to teach yourself. There’s something incredibly gratifying about restoring a damaged but otherwise perfectly good item to a usable state. You’ll also be teaching your kids to be fixers and makers, and less-than-automatic consumers.