We are living in an era of great dissonance, of dramatic highs and lows, with lives that move at a pace and intensity impossible at any other time in history. These contradictions throw us off-kilter, out of harmony and balance. The problem, however, is not the havoc we might experience out in the world—life itself will always be a series of fluctuations: the good days, the bad days, the excruciating days—but the way we experience it. We cannot control what happens, but we can influence our stories, perceptions and physiology. This is the key to finding balance. It is the key to understanding and managing stress to your advantage.
The past several decades have seen an explosion of scientific research about stress and the fundamental building blocks of a meaningful and joyful life. We will explore ten principles that lie at the intersection of the science of stress and happiness, philosophy and spiritual writings.
These ten rules represent a carefully curated list from a diverse range of sources: many are traditional and others somewhat unusual.
Rule #1 Be Resilient
the human response to extreme stress and adversity is bell shaped. On one end of the spectrum are those with a bad, long-lasting reaction to a setback, and who will suffer from depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder, and be at higher risk for suicide. In the middle are the vast majority of people, who are mostly resilient. They may go through a very hard time for a short period, but within months they bounce back—by physical and psychological measures—to where they were before the crisis. On the other end are those who will suffer a major stress but who will emerge from the trauma much stronger. This is known as “post-traumatic growth.” As a whole, human beings are more or less capable of coping with adversities. A subset of us, however, is gifted at it, and the interesting reasons why provide a brilliant framework for understanding and approaching stressful situations in a constructive way.
Rule #2 Belong
It begins with belonging.
Belonging is not just a piece of the larger puzzle of what modern-day stress can teach us about how to live. It’s far more important than that. One of the most robust protective factors for those experiencing toxic stress is community and a sense of social belonging.
We humans have an urgent need to belong: to one another, to our friends and families, to our culture and country, to our world. Belonging can act as a key psychological lever with broad consequences. Our interests, motivation, health and happiness—our ability to live a joyful and meaningful life—are inextricably tied to the sense that we belong to a greater community.
The dark flipside of belonging—loneliness and isolation—turns out to be one of our most pernicious stressors that can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds, and lives.
Loneliness is painful. That it’s also a risk factor for serious health problems on par with smoking cigarettes and worse than even obesity or leading a sedentry life sometimes may come as a shock. If you were to conduct an impromptu poll of risky behaviors, you might expect a list of the obvious ones, like smoking, eating junk food, inactivity or even depression. But loneliness? And yet loneliness lords over the others exactly because it is so vital to our sense of happiness and well-being, for these in turn affect almost every aspect of our physical health, and how we deal with stress.
Rule #3 Be Creative
From an evolutionary standpoint, uncertainty was a bad thing. If you weren’t sure there was a predator in front of you, by the time you were sure, it was probably too late. Our brains thus evolved to take uncertainty and make it certain.
In recent times, we have approached the goal of creating certainty in our environment with a pathological sort of obsession, which manifests itself in virtually every aspect of our lives. (Recall Jill Bolte Taylor’s description of the left brain as the master of details, details and more details about those details.) This obsessive quest for certainty adversely impacts a trait that is key to resilience: creativity.
Creativity suffers from an odd sort of paradox. Psychologist and Wharton professor Jennifer Mueller studies creativity. Her research shows that even as people explicitly aspire to be creative and strongly endorse creativity as a fundamental driving force of positive change, they routinely reject creative ideas in their daily lives and show an implicit bias against them under conditions of uncertainty. Subjects in Mueller’s study exhibited a failure to see or acknowledge creativity, even when directly presented with it.
The phenomenon is identified by Mueller as the “creativity bias.” Even though most of us suffer from this bias, we are also in denial about it, since there is a strong social drive to endorse creativity. People feel such highly positive attitudes toward creativity that they are reluctant to admit that they do not necessarily wish to be creative themselves. And this is why Mueller finds the bias against creativity may be slippery to diagnose.
Rule #4 Be Free
Our values are often held by default. Sometimes we sleepwalk through life, stuck in a stasis surrounding our jobs, our environments, our relationships, even our self-identity. In a very fundamental sense, stress is about the resistance that comes about when our static definitions about life and lifestyles are threatened, and we don’t feel free to change.
Sometimes stressful life circumstances themselves can lead to change. We view these disruptions as calamities, but often they are the quakes that force our hand to tap into unknown potential, forcing a bloom, thereby becoming the calamity that creates providence. It is these calamities that give us no choice, but to “free” ourselves from rote scripts, habits and expectations.
Being free is closely related to creativity and there is some overlap, to be sure. But if creativity is the ability to take risks, to imagine, to play, to dare to engage in our deepest passions and sometimes fail at them, freedom is the power to extend our individual boundaries as far as possible. It’s about defining our own boundaries. And ultimately, being free involves daring to stretch to take up the entirety of the space we have each been allotted, as opposed to cowering, cramped, in one corner.
Rule #5 Be Happy
Studies show that the stress of work is consuming many of us. Confucius said that if you choose a job you love, you will never work a day in your life. Confucius must have known then what science now confirms: Passion and purpose protect us physiologically, allowing us to work longer and harder than we would if toiling away at a job we hate.
Ask people what they want out of life and there is a good chance they will tell you they just want to be happy. Follow up by asking what exactly that means and you are likely to stump them. It is one of life’s great ironies that most of us can barely say what “being happy” really means.
Our relentless, almost culturally mandated pursuit of happiness lies at the core of a great deal of confusion and misunderstanding which, in turn, contributes to behaviors that create cycles of great stress in our lives. And when the dogged pursuit of the material becomes an end rather than the means, we effectively become trapped in that surreal space where you can be simultaneously “happy,” desperately dissatisfied and chronically stressed.
Rule #6 Give
The principle of giving a percentage of one’s income has a foundation in many spiritual doctrines—a tzedakah in Judaism or tithing in Christianity, for example—but the benefits of giving have also been validated by science. The work of Elizabeth Dunn, who has come to be known as the “happy money researcher,” is particularly illuminating. Studying money started out for Dunn as what some scientists call “me-search.” She had just experienced a major life change in her transition from a poverty-stricken graduate student making under $20,000 a year to having a substantial income. She had been a student of happiness for some time, and she was curious how she might use her newfound wealth to bring greater joy into her life. And as a psychologist, she had the tools at her disposal to look into the question.
She was surprised to see how little research had been conducted on the topic. There was voluminous research on the relationship between income and well-being, but not on how spending smartly and generously could bring greater joy to those who gave. She went on to pioneer the field through a number of fascinating studies on the link between spending and well-being
Dunn’s work sheds light on how we can become happier by being generous—and thus reduce destructive stress and anxiety. Among Dunn’s recommendations:
- If you truly love it, indulge rarely.
- Don’t spend on yourself; spend on others.
- Pay first, consume later.
- Buy time.
- No to gifts, yes to experiences.
Rule #7 Be Kind
In many important ways, we humans are open books. It was psychologist Paul Ekman who first identified a series of universal emotions—surprise, anger, fear, happiness, disgust and sadness (and later, contempt)—that form the basis of nonverbal communication among all humans, regardless of nationality or culture. Ekman and his colleagues also discovered that even when people are attempting to conceal their emotions, their involuntary “microexpressions” give away their true feelings.
Scientists had long known that humans transfer emotions to one another. But it was psychologist Elaine Hatfield who pioneered the field by bringing together many of the pieces of the puzzle of emotional contagion.
Many believe that empathy lies at the root of emotional contagion. Researchers have found that a person’s stress hormone levels can rise simply by watching someone else experience stress.This is particularly true for married couples. In fact, in-person interaction may not even be necessary—watching stressful moments on TV might be enough to raise cortisol levels. Following 9/11, for example, some people who didn’t experience the actual events firsthand were affected by post-traumatic stress. The severity appeared to correlate to how much television they watched.
Rule #8 Be Healthy
Everything in moderation. What does “moderation” mean in immoderate times?
This is an important question that we all must consciously ask ourselves in our quest to bring greater balance into our lives. What we eat is a key enabler in the cycle of chronic stress that keeps our bodies constantly flooded with the stress hormone cortisol and in a perpetual state of inflammation.
Emotional well-being also requires greater awareness of what we put into our bodies, and the impact food has on us. A balanced diet of mostly unprocessed foods helps us deal with stress optimally and gain the upper hand over inevitable stressors. Consuming better foods helps us escape the highs and lows of binges and crashes that can taint our perception of the challenges that come our way. Living a balanced life begins with eating a balanced diet.
Self-medicate with junk food and you will intensify destructive stress patterns. Do it over the long term, and you will trap yourself in a vicious cycle that will shape your mood and stress levels from inside out.
Rule #9 Declutter
All the decluttering tips in the world will not help us until we understand the compulsion to accumulate things we don’t need in the first place. Our clutter-free hero Babauta, now the author of Zen Habits, a wildly successful blog about his experiment with simple living, as well as a book, The Power of Less, helps us grasp this problem.
The proclivity toward clutter, Babauta explains, comes from two main emotional motivations. You either fear the future or are attached to the past. Fear of the future: You’re holding on to things because you think you might need them later. Attachment to the past: You can’t part with the physical representation, the mementos of the great things you’ve done in your life—things that make you feel loved or good about yourself.
Look around you. Does all that stuff bring you anything positive? Or are you just left with a mountain of meaningless things—along, perhaps, with debt?
Nothing you can buy will replace conscious living and presence. True joy can only come from an inner state of being. Not from being attached to the past. Not from being fearful of the future. Only in remaining firmly rooted in the present moment.
Rule #10 Be Present
It may have seemed tempting not too long ago to dismiss mindfulness and meditation as a hippy-dippy endeavor, but those views have been increasingly challenged and overwhelmed by science. Meditation and other contemplative practices are continuing to claim their place at the table of mainstream medicine. This is true for a variety of reasons—chief among them, the recognition that hordes of us are overwheled, that toxic stress wreaks havoc upon our bodies, and that the practice of meditation has significant and measurable stress reduction properties.
Hundreds of studies validate the health benefits of mindfulness training. The range is extensive: from strengthening the immune system and relieving chronic pain to thickening the brain’s cortex, lowering blood pressure and even healing psoriasis.
Not just beneficial to adults, mindfulness also increases children’s self-esteem and boosts school performance by improving their ability to ignore distractions and concentrate better, observes writer Judith Woods. It has even been advanced as a means of addressing attention deficit disorders.
The idea can be elusive, in part because its explanation seems so deceptively simple. Mindfulness is your intent to bring awareness to the present moment, both inside and out. It means, in essence, deliberately paying full attention to what is happening around you and within you—in your body, heart and mind. It is awareness without criticism, so that we may observe and clear our thoughts, without judgment, as they pass. That is, noticing our thoughts and our bodily sensations without labeling them or judging them.