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The Best Mental Exercise is Physical

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


My grandmother started walking five miles a day when she was sixty. She’s ninety-seven now, and we don’t know where the heck she is.

  • Ellen DeGeneres

It’s no secret that exercise is good for our physical health. But exercise is vital for our mental health as well; and sitting a lot and not exercising is tremendously harmful for our emotional and psychological life.

There has been an upsurge in depression over the past several decades. One major contributor to this is how little physical activity we get. Exercise is just about the best treatment for depression, yet today 50% of men and 60% of women don’t exercise more than ten minutes per week.

Yes, that’s per week.

The most popular treatment for depression is medication. It’s quick to administer, it’s easy to do, but, statistically, for mild to moderate depression it’s actually no better than placebo. It also has side effects that can be pretty unpleasant over time, and when the medication stops, so do its benefits.

Exercise isn’t as easy as medication; it takes work, self-discipline, and perseverance. It requires us to do what we often don’t feel like doing (I’ve probably jumped into a swimming pool tens of thousands of times by now, and to this day I have never liked that moment of entering the water).

But exercise is as much as two and a half times as effective as medication for overcoming depression.

Once we develop the habit of exercise, we can easily overcome the inertia and the discomfort; then the benefits we gain against the depression continue, and the side effects are all positive.

But overcoming the inertia and discomfort – or even the self-concept – that exercise requires can be tricky.

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A Mindset that can Undermine Everything – and How to Change it

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


One of the most harmful ways of thinking of ourselves is as a victim. It can make it nearly impossible to find success, financially or otherwise, and undermines our capacity for relationships.

Yet this mindset is not uncommon, we’ve probably all experienced it to some degree. But for some it can create a more pervasive atmosphere in their lives.

As researchers Rahav Gabay and his colleagues have shown, this mindset has four specific qualities that lead to three specific biases, and one onerous tendency, that can skew our view of the world.

Today we’ll look at how to move away from this kind of mindset, and re-orient toward taking effective, positive action.

Changing a victim mindset is much more complicated than the kind of “get over it” advice that’s so common – and useless. We have reasons for feeling like a victim – sometimes because we have been seriously harmed in some way; sometimes because for some reason at some point it seemed like a good strategy to deal with challenging circumstances, and eventually became a habit.

Whenever looking at our habits or mindsets, it’s essential to start with compassion, to understand that we often build certain habits of action or thought because it’s the best we can do at the time, even if it ends up harming us later.

But if our habits are harming us, it’s well worth looking at them honestly and with courage.

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How to Avoid Unnecessary Crises

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


I’m used to hearing from people in crisis. As a psychotherapist and life coach, it’s part of my job. It may be a crisis in a marriage, a crisis at work, a financial crisis… There are many places for crises to wreak havoc in our lives.

Some crises are unavoidable. We control only so much of what happens in our lives, and sometimes life throws hardship, tragedy, or deeply chaotic circumstances our way. I don’t make light of or gloss over the realities of life; but I do make it my business to help people to avoid unnecessary troubles, and there is one thing that we can do to prevent some of the more predictable crises of life:

Make and hold your positive commitments all the way, without reservation.

It’s no mystery that making solid commitments is central to a happy, successful life. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe said, “At the moment of commitment, the universe conspires to assist you.” Pat Riley said, “There are only two options regarding commitment. You’re either in or you’re out. There’s no such thing as life in-between.” And then there are the famous words of Yoda to Luke Skywalker in the movie, “The Empire Strikes Back”: “Do, or do not. There is no try.”

There are so many great quotes and sayings about commitment that it’s easy for the profound truth to get lost in the platitudes. Today we’re going to ground this abstract concept into a tangible strategy for real-life results.

We all know – in theory – how important commitment is, and yet one of the biggest problems I confront with my clients on a regular basis is a lack of commitment. This undermines their work, their relationships, their striving towards the life they want to live.

So for all the beautiful sayings and lessons about commitment, something seems to be missing.

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Finding a Compelling Vision for Your Future

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


When we think of what we’ll be like ten years from now, most of us imagine that we’ll be just like we are now. Yet when we look back ten years, we’re usually different than we were then.

We’ve learned from experiences, dealt with some hardship, maybe suffered some loss, triumphed in some things, been delighted by epiphanies, and came to understand some things we had not understood before.

If there is something we won’t do now because we “learned it the hard way,” if we have things that we regret having done that we would never ever do again, we can thank our younger self for learning that lesson for us – so we don’t have to keep re-learning it, and suffering over and over again like some cruel Groundhog Day remake.

Of course we are different today than we were ten years ago – unless we’ve removed ourselves from any experience of living. Life is a continual anti-entropy endeavor. If we don’t expend energy to create order, the natural tendency of things to move toward disorder takes over.

If we don’t mow the lawn, the lawn becomes a growth of weeds; if we don’t use our bodies in some kind of physical activity, our bodies begin to break down; if we don’t use our minds to learn and think about new things, our minds will become less active and effective.

If we don’t grow and learn and change our behavior over time to adapt to what we learn, we will become stuck in a rut, passively holding on to the familiar while the world carries on without us.

We all must succumb to entropy to some degree of course, but we also all experience things, and learn, grow, and change as a result.

We will be different in ten years than we are now. That’s a fact of life. The question is, how will we be different; and will we be different mostly as a result of events, or through conscious choice?

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How to Find the Strength in Your Temperament

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


People who are extroverts – people who are more sociable, who like to be out, talk, and interact with other people, and who gladly put themselves out into new situations – tend to be happier than people who are not.

That’s great for those who, by temperament, happen to be extroverts. But what if we’re not naturally extroverted? We can still improve our overall happiness by doing extroverted things.

The delightful truth is that, from simply taking more extroverted actions, our overall happiness grows about the same as if we were naturally extroverted.

If you tend to be an introvert, if your natural comfort is to be more solitary, shy, or quietly inward, I’m not suggesting that you deny your nature, or pretend to be someone that you’re not. There are significant strengths to introversion that I’ll discuss in a moment.

But you can get some of the benefits of an extrovert as well by practicing certain skills; then you can have the best of both worlds.

Try doing something each day that challenges you to be more outgoing. Don’t worry about doing the world’s most socially engaging activity – you don’t have to become some social thrill-seeker. What matters is the direction, not the mileage.

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Making Good Enough Choices

By Habits and Strategies, Happiness


Having choices is wonderful. Today we have more options in terms of goods and services to choose from than any time in the history of the human race, and the options for spending money are nearly endless. This is part of the Great Enrichment I’ve written about earlier, and when we manage it well, it can contribute to our quality of life.

When we don’t manage it well, it can ruin our quality of life – even in the midst of incredible abundance.

On one end of the spectrum, we can get into trouble with our money when we don’t think enough – we spend too much on things we don’t really like once we have them. On the other end, we can devote too much time and emotional energy on making absolutely sure that we’ve bought the very best thing, at the very best price, with everything we buy.

This is where it’s essential for our happiness that we aim for making choices that are good enough, rather than trying to maximize every single purchase we make.

This is the message of Barry Schwartz’s excellent book, The Paradox of Choice.

When we habitually obsess over our purchases, it can undermine our well-being, drain the pleasure from what we buy, and even drop us into depression.

It’s important to put the time and energy into research and comparisons for some purchases. But if you spend hours deciding between one pair of shoes or another, or days fretting over whether you’re getting the best deal on a coffee maker, you might just be overdoing it.

Doing this with one or two choices won’t cause much trouble, but cumulatively, over time, this kind of painstaking deliberation can seriously erode our sense of joy and satisfaction.

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How to Overcome Our Old, Limiting Beliefs

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Have you ever felt that in striving toward a goal of some kind, that there’s something holding you back? Something that you can’t see or grasp clearly, but you feel it’s there, slowing you down – like you just can’t get traction?

This is something that most of us have experienced to one degree or another.

Maybe we find we hit a wall with how much income we earn; or we find a pattern in our relationships that limits our sense of closeness; or we feel there’s some obstacle in our work that we can’t seem to overcome.

It can feel like there’s a threshold that we can’t seem to cross, no matter how hard we try. We struggle to improve whatever it is, but it’s as though there’s something working against us, like a gravitational pull that keeps drawing us back within a certain range.

When this happens, what we may be experiencing is the effect of a rotten belief.

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If You Want to be Miserable, Compare Yourself to Others

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


We have a unique capacity to envision an immense variety of possible future states. This allows us have ideals and strive for them, to plan, to learn and grow… and to want things.

In an essential way this orientation toward the future is what makes us human. We can imagine something we want to achieve, something we want to avoid, something we want to have, and then we can plan and aim ourselves toward achieving, avoiding, or gaining possession of whatever it is.

But there’s a downside.

What if I want something that other people have, and I don’t?

What if I want something that I had in the past but no longer have?

What if I expect to have something, but don’t end up getting it?

What if I want something I can’t have?

That gap, between what we have and what we want, can inspire us to strive, to persevere, to lean into our lives more… but it can also make us miserable.

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Mastering Emotions Through Sensing Your Body

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


Learning to feel, understand, and use our emotions is central to mastering the complexity of life. Our emotions become much clearer and easier to use the more we pay attention to the physical sensations that go with them.

For many of us, emotions are something of a mystery. On the one hand, they can be delightful; they give life meaning and depth that would be impossible without them. On the other hand, they can be uncomfortable; they can hinder and disturb us; and anger in particular can sometimes cause a whole lot of very big trouble.

How do you know you feel afraid? Is your breath more shallow, your chest tight, your belly vibrating?

For many of us, the first sense we have of fear is when we’re already overtaken by the emotion, uncomfortable with the need to avoid or endure something that feels threatening.

In the case of panic attacks, the physical process leading to the emotion of panic can start much earlier than the panic itself. A tightening of our chest, a constriction in our breathing, can lead to a change in CO2 levels in our blood as early as 40 minutes before we feel anything! By the time we’re actually panicking we’re already in trouble, with an intensity of emotion that can be genuinely disabling.

Often, panic is not about an external fear at all, it’s a physical response to feeling like we’re suffocating – because the CO2 levels in our blood are telling us that we are.

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A Strategy for Quieting Painful Memories

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness


About a hundred years ago, Russian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik was sitting in a café in Vienna waiting for her coffee refill. It never came. She noticed that her waiter had an excellent memory for all of his customers’ orders, but somehow had forgotten her coffee.

Bluma set herself to the task of investigating this phenomenon further. What she found in her subsequent studies was this: People tend to remember the details of things exceptionally well when those things are unfinished. She had already paid her waiter, so he had forgotten about her because he was finished with her as a customer.

What is unfinished haunts us. It stays with us, nagging us to bring it to completion. There is something immensely useful to understand here.

Bluma theorized that incomplete tasks create psychic tension within a person, which motivates them to complete those tasks. Painful memories of the past often have a quality of regret. Regret for having had to endure some sort of trauma; for having missed out on a relationship we might have had; for having done something that went against our values… or having not done something that mattered to us.

What is fascinating is that these painful memories seem to lose their energy as soon as we do something in the present, so that we are no longer perpetuating what was painful in the past. If we are lonely, and have been lonely for a long time, the emotional energy of our loneliness dissolves as soon as we begin having the kind of social interactions we have been longing for.

The reality of our past loneliness doesn’t disappear, but the sadness and the draw to ruminate on the memory of it does.

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