I am wary, very wary of lists or books with suggestions for a happier/purpose driven/more meaningful/better life. As a compulsive list maker with an unhealthy need for perfection, lists and self-help books bring me more stress – so I avoid them all like the plague.
Which is why I nearly deleted the Harvard Business Review article that appeared in my in-box with my delete happy fingers – something, though, caught my attention in the nano-second it took the email to disappear, enough to make me fish it out of my trash. Maybe it was the legitimacy of the Harvard imprint which, let’s face it, made me pay more attention than if the same list had appeared in the barrage of emails I get from Refinery 29.
Like all of you, unless a lone Buddhist monk atop of a mountain, with wi-fi connection, is reading me, I am no stranger to stress. In fact, I am resigned to the fact that stressful conditions are par for the course of my life, even when I am aware that some of those conditions are fabricated by my precious self. Sometimes, I even thrive in stress, until something happens to point out that I am exhausted/depleted/not thinking clearly or just plain unwell. Yes, I know how to decompress, how to take care of myself, I learnt a lot over the last half century, but there are periods when I give in to my penchant for over scheduling or, simply, sometimes stressful external circumstances just cannot be avoided.
Maybe when the article showed up I was having a stressful day. I can’t quite remember. But I do remember reading it and being persuaded enough that some of the points made were valid and should be passed along.
Bill Rielly, now an Apple executive, is the sort of type A personality driven to the kind of success that, he thought, could only be attained with sweat and tears, a belief carried over from his days at West Point. The bar Bill set for himself was ridiculously high and hence carried a ridiculous amount of stress. And, if he was so successful, why was he feeling so miserable? Prodded by his wife – isn’t that always the case? – Bill spent years studying ways to better enjoy his life and came up with five, condensed, tools we are mostly familiar with. Some of them spoke to me more than others because they sorely lack in my life – the key, here, is to start small, very small. As I said, adding one more list to my list of lists would be an added stressor: we are talking about a couple of minutes a day of what makes more sense to you so that a habit is formed to build on.
Breathing. Every time he sat down at his desk, Bill took two or three deep breaths. He noticed this relaxed him and made him calmer. Taking the time to breathe also offered new perspective and distance to pesky problems. Nothing new here. Research on yogic breathing techniques validates this assumption.
Meditation. Harvard research has shown that “as little as 8 weeks of meditation can increase the grey matter in the parts of the brain responsible for emotional regulation and learning.” If you don’t know where to start, there are apps and meditating tools to be found online.
Listening. How often do I listen to someone while distracted? Because I am multi-tasking, scanning my phone, making dinner….listening to another human has become an incidental that happens while my body (or my mind) is engaged on something else. This really resonated. Listening with intent and focus, giving somebody my undivided attention, helps create deeper bonds. I tried it: listening with all of myself, without interjecting to give suggestions or opinions, also clears my mind. It doesn’t have to apply to every single interaction of my day but it should cover all lengthy conversations (and even brief ones with your spouse gentlemen!).
Questioning. Questioning one’s thoughts is a great outlet for all the negativity we inflict on ourselves. Noticing negative thoughts and asking whether there is any truth behind them allows us to acknowledge a thought without investing any emotions in it. “Is my boss mad at me because she didn’t say hi to me in the corridor? Is that an objective truth?” Probably not. Let it go.
Purpose. It would be wonderful to lead the whole of one’s life with purpose. Laundry still needs to get done. There will be years when we feel derailed or in a job rut. Applying intention to the task at hand is the purpose Bill is referring to here. Sitting down to really enjoy a meal, without checking emails. Watching Netflix with purpose and no apologies. Really committing to the task at hand.