Express gratitude and uncover your happiness.

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When I look at the news, check my social media accounts or have passing conversations with strangers, I am often left with feelings of anger, fear and hopelessness. The reason for this response is that so much conversation is about how our world, country, state or city is a terrible place to live.

I have had this discussion several times in the past year, but truly believe that we live in the greatest time to be alive. In five hundred years, I am confident that school children will learn about how primitive we were in some ways, such as how we struggled to treat people with equal kindness. However, I also believe they will identify this period on a timeline as a point where the human race made exponential changes, for the better. We live in an amazing and extraordinary time. I think about this each day, wondering what part I can be in leveraging these changes to support and empower others.

You do not have to share this perspective of mine. In some of the discussions I have had, I realize that I am likely in the minority by holding this perception. I definitely have friends that believe we are in a dramatic decline and live in the worst time to be alive. Like I said, these conversations make me sad. When you have that perspective it can be really difficult to find happiness.

I just shared my macro observation about our current status and place in history. Where I personally struggle is finding the joy and happiness in the day to day realities that we all face. These things include: work tasks, daily chores, regular upkeep of a house and all the other daily requirements we have. It can be easy to fall into a trap where these things become just items to get done. When any of those items start to create problems in my day, I can lose perspective quickly.

The strategy that I have worked on to find more happiness, is a daily expression of gratitude. When you first start to express gratitude on a daily basis, it is easy to find things you are thankful for. Then at some point, after you’ve been thankful for your family for the sixth day in a row, you realize that it might be useful to identify other things that are a blessing in your life.

You begin to notice smaller things in life, that often go unnoticed, yet are blessings and bring you happiness.

I have an example of a blessing the past several weeks that fits this scenario. I have been in Custer, South Dakota the past couple weeks, for the Sundance to Spearfish and Crazy Horse Marathons. When I first arrived, without wifi access readily available, I began searching for a solution. There were only a couple options. One of those options was Calamity Jane Winery and Coffee Shop. I have used their wifi and consumed their house coffee since discovering the shop.

A person could easily overlook the blessing that this has been. However, Custer is primarily a tourist driven town and many shops are starting to close. Some of those shops have been put up for sale. Therefore, I am extremely thankful that Jim (the shop’s owner) has chosen to stay open. The second thing that I am thankful for, is the hospitality that Jim and his wife has shown. While it would be a big enough blessing to have access to the wifi and coffee, they have made me feel welcomed to their small town. They were genuinely interested in the things I was up to, why I was around town for six weeks and shared suggestions for things to do. This lead a decision to attend the Buffalo Roundup, one of the best experiences of my trip.

The point in sharing this story is to recognize that it would be easy to view Calamity Jane Winery as just another coffee shop. It has been more than that, it has been a blessing. In fact, approximately 25 percent of the Happier and Healthier You program has been written while sitting in their shop.

When you develop a habit of expressing gratitude over the smaller things, it makes uncovering your happiness much simpler. When you find satisfaction in the tasks and experiences you encounter everyday, it is difficult to live with fear, hate and hopelessness.

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Change your setting to change your habits: it can be as simple as going around the block

There was a period of several years that I lived in a townhouse in the south side of Lexington, Kentucky. In the mornings, I had to wake up and get to the training studio to see clients through the early hours. As I rushed to get ready and be on time, I would find myself driving down Hartland Parkway, taking a right turn onto Tates Creek Road and follow that all the way into Chevy Chase. I would then navigate my way to the studio, heading down Ashland Avenue. One of the things that was a constant irritation was sitting at the Tates Creek and Man ‘O War stoplight. It seemed to last forever and I almost always had to wait for it. However, despite the irritation, I took that route day after day. At some point they put in a Starbucks in Chevy Chase on Ashland Avenue, which also became part of the regular routine.

As I look back on that behavior, I am a little amused and confused at the same time. If I had just evaluated that behavior and asked myself, “are there any other options”. I could have easily found that there is a route that would have allowed me to enter the Man ‘O War and Tates Creek intersection off Man ‘O War, giving me a right turn. Due to the early time of day, I would not had to wait long at that intersection, even at a red light.

The question that I have asked myself many times since I realized this behavior, is “Why did I not make this observation?”

The answer is that it’s a common part of human behavior, for many people, not just myself. We develop routines to help limit the amount of decisions we make each day. These routines limit the cognitive load we encounter, allowing our decision making to be dedicated to more critical analysis. Imagine a day where you had to consciously consider every decision you made. It sounds exhausting.

When you look at the routines and patterns that exist in your life, how many of them are automatic? Your morning routine in the bathroom. Your first 5 minutes after you get home from work. The way you tie your shoes. The way you park the car in the driveway. How many of these regular activities, do you have to spend mental energy on?

There is value in having these patterns. As noted, it allows us to focus our attention on more critical decision making. However, these patterns can also create problems for us, when we are trying to live happier and healthier lives. For example, my happiness was less than it could have been, simply because my route to work was on autopilot. What about the Starbucks coffee? What happens if that coffee is loaded with sugar and fat? How often do we turn on the television at night and can not find anything enjoyable to watch, yet we continue to search for hours out of habit?

When you understand that these routines can be positive or negative, it becomes important to review and analyze the patterns overtime. Have you developed helpful patterns or harmful behaviors? The follow up question, once you understand what your routines are, is how can you change them? This entire behavior change program is about establishing routines, by starting and growing positive behaviors. That being said, there is one strategy that I have found very beneficial over the years to break me of these routines and providing enough space to evaluate what those behaviors are.

That strategy is to change your setting and environment.

Think about the last time you were on vacation, what did it feel like when you woke up in a new room and had to get ready in a different bathroom. It was pretty strange, correct? At the moment I am in a pretty blessed position to have been in the Black Hills of South Dakota for 5 weeks. In the time here, I have had the following priorities: prepare for brother’s wedding, write, run, work on programming jobs and finding new work. What is interesting about having this opportunity is that many of the daily activities I have while at home, are no longer necessary. It has provided the space necessary to look at what some of those activities are and question if they are truly critical. When I return home, I can decide if I will keep them, eliminate them or replace them.

The reality is that I have had an opportunity like this previously, which upon returning home, I quickly fell back into my standard routine. That observation highlights the power of settings and environment. The routines and behaviors have a way of returning when we put ourselves back into the original setting. While you may not have the opportunity to remove yourself from your day to day environment for several weeks, I would encourage you to be observant of your routines the next time you have a vacation. Even if that vacation is being gone for a day.

Here are some other actions you might consider to take advantage of the power your environment has on our behavior:

  • Move the living room furniture around, so your seating and television are in different locations.
  • Take a different route to work everyday.
  • Reorganize your kitchen cabinets, especially the pantry.
  • Reorganize your refrigerator.
  • Change the decorations in your office or cubicle at work.
  • Change the air freshener scent in your car.
  • Move your bathroom items to a different bathroom and use it for your morning routine.
  • Rearrange the bedroom furniture.
  • Remove anything from the bedroom that doesn’t have to do with sleeping, dressing or sex.
  • Eliminate any distractions, primarily televisions, from the dining room.

The value of routines in our lives can not be understated. There are many habits we develop that are carried out without any thought on a daily basis. The environment that we live in reinforces many of those behaviors, as our minds work to limit the amount of decisions it has to make each day. Changing your setting not only provides an opportunity for you to evaluate those behaviors, it puts you in a position to be more successful as you develop routines that lead to greater happiness and health.

Check out my free behavior change program:  Happier and Healthier You