In the previous articles in this series we’ve looked at the high-level overview of how to build a happy life.
Over the next bunch of articles we’ll dig into the details – your Happiness Essentials.
Since happiness is when your life fulfills your needs, let’s look at how your Well-being needs become fulfilled on your pathway to living a happier, more fulfilling, and satisfying life.
What is Wellbeing?
As I described in part 1 of this series, Wellbeing is one of the nine WE PROMISE Elements for happiness that covers the range of your essential human needs.
Wellbeing involves your physical body and how your body “speaks” to your mind.
Since happiness is a state of mind, to feel happy, your body needs to feel happy, too.
A happy body is a body in balance: rested, fit, adequately fed, free of excessive stress, and able to feel fully.
Achieving that balance, in alignment with your personal needs, defines your overall Wellbeing goal, a goal seriously compromised in many ways by our modern lifestyle of poor diet, insufficient fitness, alarm-clock driven sleep cycles, seemingly endless sources of stress, and everyday addictions.
In Control, Out of Control
As with all the Happiness Essentials we’ll be talking about, some are more under your control than others.
Health, for example. You can’t really control your health. While you can do much to prevent yourself from becoming sick, you don’t have all that much control over non-lifestyle diseases and accidents, and none at all over your genetics.
As John Lennon put it, “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
Just because you can’t control everything, that doesn’t mean you can’t control anything. And it is those things you can control that we call your Happiness Essentials.
One last note before we go over them. I am making the assumption (probably accurate if you are reading this) that you have adequate food, water, shelter, air, etc. to survive. If not, get that first, then you can worry about improving happiness.
To do this, let’s follow John as he turns his Happiness Plan into specific actions he’s going to take.
John is a 44 year old mid-level manager at a Fortune 500 company. His career has been going well but, like many colleagues his age, he’s starting to feel age creeping in. That youthful vigor he used to have has disappeared under a bit too much weight and a stressful schedule. His daily commute to 10 hour workdays and family obligations on the weekends has left him tired, out of shape, and unhappy.
Let’s see what choices John makes in each of the five Happiness Essentials that make up his, and your, WE PROMISE Wellbeing needs.
John has read numerous articles and books which all showed how a fit body would help improve his mood and energy levels, and provide a physical foundation to enable all his other pursuits in life (his other Happiness Essentials).
John could see that by compromising his physical base, he was reducing his options in the vast array of other aspects of life that affected his happiness.
He also saw, and was starting to feel, that he had set himself on a path more likely to include health problems that may be permanent or not as easily controlled as building a little muscle.
Simply by being active, walking regularly, taking the stairs instead of the elevator, parking at the edge of the lot when he went to the store, and doing light exercise at work and home, John has begun to improve his physical abilities – and he’s seeing results.
Fitness isn’t simply a matter of exercise. How you fuel your body matters even more.
Food: You Are What You Eat
Eating a healthy diet is one of the most important aspects of Wellbeing and can have an incredible amount of impact on your happiness level.
What we eat has become a huge topic of discussion and one, as John discovered, with an ever-increasing degree of new research showing that the conventional wisdom of a largely grain-based diet with plenty of fruits and vegetables is not healthy.
Speaking from personal experience, I can tell you that gluten sensitivity is a major concern for many, if not most, people. Wheat, barley, and rye-based foods, the three gluten-containing grains, cause a host of inflammatory illnesses due to the way the gluten interferes with the proper operation of the digestive tract.
Contrary to the conventional wisdom, saturated fat, demonized as the villain of heart disease is turning out to not be the cause of the problem. Inflammation associated with excessive insulin production has been identified as the likely root cause.
The link between insulin, overweight and obesity, heart disease, and excessive carbohydrate consumption is rapidly becoming the defining model of the disease of modern man, and an indicator of the direction we need to go to achieve a healthy diet.
In addition, work is underway to better understand the symbiotic relationship between the healthy bacteria that live in our gut (and are required to properly digest our food) and our overall health.
We tend, as humans often do, to become “religious” about our diets. What can be said currently is that a full understanding of what “healthy eating” means is still being researched. The final answer will probably have to be personalized based on where you live and who your parents were.
Personally, I’m finding the paleo / primal/ancestral approach, when used sensibly, to be a promising move in the right direction and in alignment with our genetics and this is the route John has opted for.
Whatever approach to healthy eating (and the other aspects of Wellbeing) you choose, you have to acknowledge that most of us are like John. What we are doing today isn’t working. Obesity, diabetes, and cancers are all on the rise and are well into epidemic proportions.
More of us are sick or unhealthy in some way. Some of us, and maybe this is you, too, are sick and tired of it all. Sick and tired enough to do something about it. I hope you do like John, and take action.
Low Stress: Critical to Wellbeing
John, through his research into healthy eating, learned that inflammation is a major disease factor. Not only for his heart health, but throughout his body, and that stress hormones are one of the main ways our body communicates the need for inflammation.
Constant stress, whether it is from, as it is for John, overwork, over-commitment, traffic jams, family issues, or any of the many sources in our hectic lives, is a serious inhibitor to Wellbeing and happiness.
To a large degree, we bring the stress on ourselves.
For John, this was a tough lesson to learn. He was trying to “do the right thing” to support his family (with two kids in college, a mortgage to meet on his large home, and the occasional family vacation). Things John thought were “required” but now sees as choices he made, and can slowly unmake.
John came to recognize that the food he was eating stressed his bodies with unhealthy cycles of insulin highs and lows and the waking to the stressful ring of alarm clocks wasn’t helping.
He saw how he had built a complex life filled with massive debts that bound him to overwork at a job he often didn’t enjoy.
He committed himself to so many after-work and weekend activities that there was no time for the stress hormones in his body to reset to normal.
His evenings, short as they were, were often spent vegged-out in front of the television or computer screen until he collapsed from over-stress exhaustion into a poor night’s sleep.
There are many ways to reduce stress and almost all require significant lifestyle changes. Entire websites are devoted to this topic. Zenhabits is one popular and informative resource you may wish to explore.
John opted to drop some of his after-work activities, hire someone to mow his lawn, and spend more time playing with his kids when they were home from school or relaxing on his patio with a good book.
John also learned one trick that I highly recommend. Consider the real costs of those things you choose to buy. Ask yourself why you’re buying that thing. Do you need it or are you hoping that it will make you happy?
If it’s happiness you seek, I suggest you look elsewhere. That money you spend represents extra time at work, not only to buy the thing in the first place but also to have somewhere safe to keep it. Every little purchase, and especially the big ones, adds up to more stress, more work, and less time to…
Sleep: The Gateway to Wellbeing
Sleep is essential to happiness. Sleep is the body’s restorative cycle and it’s been programmed by our genes to work very differently than the way our modern, electrified life has permitted.
In the natural world, we wake at dawn and get sleepy after the sun goes down. We also tend to be diurnal, meaning that we sleep twice daily, one long sleep at night and a second, much shorter nap time in the mid-afternoon.
If you don’t get enough sleep you throw your whole body out of balance. Most of us, like John, do that every day.
With his sleep cycles constantly disrupted, John didn’t have the energy to pursue many of his other Happiness Essentials.
It’s a bit of vicious circle. John over-committed and under-slept because of it. As a result, he was inefficient while awake so those commitments took more time, leading to even less sleep.
Improving your sleep will give you the energy to start working on the rest of your Happiness Essentials.
John decided he would stop surfing the internet after 9:00pm each evening, turn off the television, and read for an hour before going to sleep around 10:00pm. That would allow him to get a good night’s sleep and wake naturally (or at least well rested) by about 6 or 6:30am.
The added productivity he gained from being rested easily offset the hour of wind-down time he gave up.
Freedom from Addictive Substances
Most people enjoy a few addictive substances from time to time. Alcohol, nicotine, and caffeine are popular.
For John, it was three or four cups of coffee during the day and a beer or two in the evening.
While a little of these substances can be pleasant or useful, used regularly they interfere with overall happiness by altering your brain chemistry.
If you rarely drink alcohol, one or two glasses of wine are more than enough. Drink frequently, your brain adapts, and you need more to feel the effects. It is this alteration of your brain chemistry that limits your ability to feel properly and fully.
Happiness is entirely a matter of mental perception. There is no physical definition of happiness, no scientific formula. It is, literally, all in your mind.
When you alter your mind, you alter your ability to be happy.
You may actually enjoy the experiences you have on these substances but significant moderation or outright exclusion will set you on the path to being sensitive to the more subtle nature of happiness and will allow you to fully feel all aspects of your other core WE PROMISE needs, including Pleasure.
John, while he didn’t feel that he had a problem, decided to slowly taper back his coffee and beer habits. After a rough start, John started to only have a beer when he was out with friends and to cut his coffee down to two cups a day.
His sleep improved and, combined with the diet changes he made, he noticed he just felt more “solid” somehow. Now he’s trying to cut the caffeine out entirely.
John worked hard to alter his lifestyle to better fit his Wellbeing needs. It took no small amount of research, patience, and willpower to make all these changes. And they didn’t happen overnight. John spent months putting it all in place but the results will last him a lifetime.
What are your top priorities for your Wellbeing? And which of your Wellbeing Happiness Essentials are you furthest from meeting? Set a goal to start on one – the one that is both furthest from completion and is most important because that is the one you’ll get the most benefit from.
In the next article we’ll talk about how the world around you affects your happiness and cover everything from where you live to the need for beauty – and try to explain why we even need beauty to be happy.