The Secret To Lasting Happiness Might Be Just The Opposite Of What You'd Expect
At any given time, I am avoiding several projects of differing levels of importance. Right now on my list of ought-to-do-but-don't-get-around-to activities includes: call Bill back, fit in a workout, master my new Dragon Natural Speaking software, and pull my receipts together from last week's trip. Then I have a set of tasks that have been sitting around for quite a while: reading from my stacks of journals and professional books (continual project), watching Steve's video demonstration (two years overdue), fixing the speaker on the home theater (two years), cleaning the water cooler (six months — yuck!), and meditating (who's got the time?).
I convince myself to turn away from one of these tasks by using three judgments:
1. I evaluate it as just too unpleasant, confusing, awkward, boring, time-consuming, and/or stressful. Staying with the easy, comfortable option will make me happier.
2. I predict that the (more difficult) task will not be as satisfying as what I am doing now.
3. I elevate the need to remain confident and in control above all other possible states.
But these are errors in logic. We can find lots of data that says "easy and comfortable" do not equal "happy." And I have shown myself again and again that mastering a new skill, or accomplishing a task that requires my concentrated effort, brings me a sense of fulfillment. Plus, checking a long-standing chore off my list gives me satisfaction.
When I act from the mindset of prioritizing safety and comfort, my world gets just a little smaller.
I don't think I'm alone. It seems like we humans are continually on the lookout for the quickest, easiest, or most predictable path to any given end: convenience stores and fast food, escalators, faster download time, text messages. There's nothing wrong with any of that, I suppose. Google Maps provides us with the most direct route from A to B, and if the traffic indicators glare red, we can adjust that route to avoid the hassle. For many of us, a good day is one that is hassle-free.
We can continue to take a detour with every approaching pothole. But the trouble with trying to create a smooth, well-ironed environment is that the real world has bumps in it. Life is not a paved street; it has bumps along the way. It's flawed and full of surprises.
I say that our best asset is to turn toward the awkwardness that comes with daily life. We should train our brains to deal with the ever-changing path in front of us. This approach is not only better for us mentally — it actually has a significant effect on our physical health.
Ask the residents of Acorn Street in historic Beacon Hill, Boston, or those of the DUMBO neighborhood in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. Research suggests that people who live and walk on cobblestone streets have an improved sense of balance, an improved cardiovascular system, and all-around improved health, and we can attribute these positive health conditions to the "poor" (as in "not smooth and even") conditions of the streets on which they live. The bumpy, rocky, coarse, uneven, unpaved streets outside their front doors are actually doing them more good than harm.
Imagine you and I are now walking together down Acorn Street. Each time we take a step on that unpredictable cobblestone street, our brains are engaged in the task, giving both mental and physical instructions. Our minds are alert, constantly adjusting to the erratic ground beneath our feet; our cardiovascular system is making similar adjustments, changing the way it pumps blood through our bodies. We become healthier.
In that same way, when you work with a fitness coach, they're not going to put you on the elliptical machine on a steady incline at a constant pace. No, they're going to put you on the BOSU ball and do their best to make you just unstable enough. They'll pull you off the weight machines and put free weights in your hands because they want your muscles to feel awkward. When muscles are awkward, they start firing off more, and that in itself builds strength.
When you're in a spin class, the best instructors will have you in and out of the bike's saddle, at both high and low resistance, so your body never acclimates to the workout. Why? Because the purpose of any well-conceived physical exercise is to promote disruptive change. That's how you build strength, build muscles, increase stamina, improve balance, and improve performance.
So this is my pitch to you: Go ahead and study that foreign language, take that bowl-carving class, volunteer for the new project, try out Wednesday's New York Times crossword puzzle, choose to learn a new sport. If we're truly interested in living in the real world — the world of cracks and crevices and cobblestones, the world of instability and accidents and unexpected incidents — then we should all seek out activities that at least start off making us feel awkward, clumsy, insecure, maybe embarrassed, and sometimes even terribly uncomfortable.
See these as opportunities to build your ego strength and your mental muscles and to increase your grit and resilience so you can handle distress and rebound after a loss. They will add value to your life, and you will become stronger.