Thinking about the 4 levels of thinking

Level 1. What do I need? That is, how can I get the things I want? What’s in it for me? How does it affect me? Will I get caught or punished if I do not follow the rules?

Level 2. What do others think? That is, will they still like and approve of me? Will they still think that I am a good person? How do I fit in and avoid criticism? How will they feel if I tell them what I really think?

Level 3. What do I think? That is, am I maintaining and staying true to my own personal integrity, standards, and internal values? Am I achieving my goals and being guided by my ideals and values? How can I get them to subscribe to my belief system? Am I living, working and loving to the best of my ability and potential?

Level 4. What do we both need? That is, how can other people’s thinking and actions help me to develop and grow? How can I seek out information and opinions from others to help me modify my own ways of understanding? How can conflict and adversity be an opportunity to inform and shape my thinking? Where is the interconnectedness between us, and how can we best support each other as growing, learning human beings?

It turns out that our greatest adversities and most complex problems in life are best overcome when we look at them with the next level of thinking.

[Note: In my previous post, Why there is nothing wrong with being fat, I claimed, “There is zero scientific evidence that diet and exercise results in significant weight loss in the long-term.” In hindsight, this was an exaggeration of the evidence and it has been changed to, “There is minimal scientific evidence that diet results in substantial weight loss in the long-term (greater than 2 years).”]

2 ways to overcome a problem

One is to learn. The other is to grow.

We learn when we look at our problem with our existing perspective, but develop our knowledge and skills to overcome it.

“I want to lose weight for my wedding day, so I’m reading the newest detox diet book to find out how.”

We grow, on the other hand, when we reach an entirely new perspective in order for a better solution to be found.

“How much I weigh at my wedding will not actually influence my experience, as I see that, 1) I am so much more than my body, and 2) the possible judgements of others do not define who I am.”

Sometimes, of course, learning is exactly what is required.

But much of the time, the universe is full of wondrous things that are patiently waiting for our minds to grow, in order for us to see them.

Spreading the kindness-happiness bug

Want to make not only yourself happier and kinder, but also the world around you?

Here’s one way: Keep track of every act of kindness you perform today, recording your total number before you go to bed tonight. Do this every day, starting today, for the next 7 days.

(And if you’re stuck for ideas, here you go.)

How does this simple exercise work? Consider the following (and quite remarkable) scientific research:

Kindness increases happiness. Just thinking about sending kindness to others rewires the brain in a positive way, and doing the exercise I described here boosts happiness levels, on average, by more than 10%.

Happiness, in turn, further increases kindness. For example, in controlled research it has been shown that you are 4 times more likely to help another after you have been made to feel good.

Kindness is highly contagious. If you act kindly, you not only encourage the recipient of your behaviours to act more kindly. You encourage the recipient of the recipient of the recipient to act more kindly, too.

Happiness is highly contagious. If you become happy, you increase the probability that your next-door neighbour is happy by some 34%. Furthermore, becoming a new happy friend to someone can boost not only their long-term happiness by more than 4 times what them winning $15 000* would, it can even significantly boost the happiness of a friend, of a friend, of your friend!

Your emotions and behaviours are highly contagious. And because we live in extraordinarily complex social systems, they will spread far beyond what you can see, and have an impact on people who you will never meet.

How you live your life, matters.

More so than you can ever know.

[*estimated value after converting to $AU and accounting for inflation.]

The comfort zone paradox

Is that the people who make it a habit to step outside their comfort zone – who say yes to experiencing fear and discomfort – are the people who live more comfortably.

They are more happy, less stressed, have better health and a higher quality of life.

Why?

First, staying within your comfort zone means you hide, of course, from the very situations, people, experiences and places that make life joyful, rich and meaningful.

Some examples:

The person who isn’t their true self because it feels scary, risky and uncertain, also misses out on excitement, purpose and growth.

The person who doesn’t show vulnerability because it exposes them to fear, rejection and hurt, also misses out on belonging, creativity and courage.

The person who doesn’t allow their self to fall in love because it’s scary and exposes them to conflict, pain and heartbreak, also misses out on joy, meaning and connection.

Second, and this is most important: your comfort zone isn’t actually comfortable.

That’s right. It’s a myth.

Sadness, stress, setbacks and conflicts are a package deal that come with the gift of living. The truth is all of us experience discomfort, irrespective of how much we live in our comfort zone.

And if the comfort zone isn’t comfy, where are you going to live?

How to deal with difficult emotions

Here’s an exercise I recommend, that takes just 5 to 10 minutes to complete:

Step 1. Sit or lie down, with your eyes open or closed, and focus on breathing deeply as you call to mind a difficult emotion you experienced recently.

It may be anger, greed, jealousy, fear, grief, or anything similar.

Step 2. Notice and reflect, for a couple of minutes, how you feel about this emotion.

Are you uncomfortable? Do you dislike it? Do you wish you could have prevented it from arising? Do you feel ashamed, or consider yourself wrong, for having this difficult feeling?

Step 3. Spend at least a minute observing what happens when you translate this emotion to a state of pain and suffering.

How does this state make you feel? How does your body react to it? Does it feel overwhelming? Is it something you want to avoid?

Step 4. Now, for at least 2 minutes, if not more, take that pain and suffering and observe it being held and surrounded by a sea of kindness and compassion. 

If any uncomfortable thoughts or feelings about having this emotion come up, notice them for a moment, and then return your attention back to the ever-flowing sea of kindness and compassion.

What does this feel like in your body? How does your body feel differently about this difficult emotion now?

This short exercise forms part of a scientifically proven program that can be used in combination with journaling and sharing how you are feeling with another, whenever difficult emotions arise.

Well worth understanding, too, a couple of the reasons why this exercise works:

  1. Unlike other strategies you may use (such as trying not to think about it, or avoiding the situation where the feeling comes up), it does not try to control the arrival of these difficult feelings.

We must remember that difficult feelings arise naturally, in all of us, as certain events unfold in our life. Judging them, or ourselves, is unhelpful. Avoiding them is impossible.

Indeed, I believe most difficult emotions are actually pre-requisites for experiencing more joy, growth and expansion in our lives.

  1. It teaches you that you don’t need to be overcome by, defined by, fall into, act from, or avoid any difficult emotion.

Because whilst you cannot prevent them from arising, you can commit to recognising them, having kindness and compassion for them, and letting their hold over you go.

No, you can’t always choose how you feel.

But yes, you can always question how you choose to feel about how you feel.

6 practices for anyone who has ever struggled to accept who they are

1. The practice of self-compassion.

I believe that you are loving and beautiful. Yet when you believe the words that you (or others) say, it can be easy to see differently.

To practice self-compassion, you must understand that a perception of you does not make it true.

A perception is only a reflection of one’s unique beliefs and experiences, and so no 2 people will ever perceive the “same” thing about you in the exact same way.

Some examples:

  • Someone says you are impulsive; another says you are spontaneous.
  • Someone says you are always too quiet; another says you are an excellent listener.
  • You say you are unattractive; another says that you are beautiful.

Self-compassion is seeing who you are in this moment with a loving perspective.

Even if it differs from what somebody else – including yourself – may have told you is true.

2. The practice of authenticity.

Your feelings and beliefs are an important part of who you are, and hiding them a recipe for grief, anxiety and self-loathing over time.

To practice authenticity, you need to accept the fear and risk that comes with exposing yourself to what others may think.

To help you to do this, consider:

  • Being inauthentic directly harms your body and mind.
  • Praise, when you are not being you, can not make you feel better about yourself.
  • You appear more charismatic, courageous and authentic to others when you share your true self.
  • You admire authenticity in others, so why wouldn’t others admire the authenticity in you?

Authenticity is having the courage to live in alignment to your true self.

Even if it means being judged by another.

3. The practice of failing forward.

We all make mistakes. And mistakes often lead to despair, feelings of failure and giving up.

Yet mistakes are not only OK, they are essential for your personal growth and development.

This practice requires you to stop saying, “I am a failure because of my mistakes”, and to start saying, “I am grateful for my mistakes, because I have learnt and grown from them”.

Failing forward is trusting your past has been exactly right for you.

Even if you think that you have failed.

4. The practice of worthiness.

We’re surrounded with images of “perfect” bodies, millionaire celebrities and people living in fancy houses or going on luxurious holidays. Constantly comparing can leave us feeling inadequate, especially if we perceive their position as unattainable.

When you next compare, it is important to remember:

  • Comparison is a game you (and every single other person!) can never win. Everyone can find someone who appears more successful, attractive or intelligent if they look.
  • The images you see never tell the whole story. For example, that person with the expensive new house may also work 12 hours a day, and sacrificed their health, relationships and happiness for it.
  • No comparison is ever valid, as that person is on a different journey with different experiences, opportunities and genetics to you.

Worthiness is affirming your self-worth can never be diminished by somebody else.

Even somebody who appears to have it much better than you do.

5. The practice of embracing all of you.

There are so many things that make you the unique person that you are.

But whenever you become fixated on just one, your self-acceptance becomes highly fragile.

Some examples:

  • A leading executive attached to this identity struggles with self-acceptance after their redundancy.
  • A model attached to this identity struggles with self-acceptance as they grow old.
  • A housewife (or househusband) attached to this identity struggles with self-acceptance when their partner leaves them.

We play many different roles in life (a son, a brother, a friend, a pet-owner, an amateur chef, a soccer player, a blog writer, …), and each of them contributes to our growth and fulfilment.

Embracing all of you is loving all of the qualities that lie within you.

Even when you feel pressured to focus on just one.

6. The practice of being the creator.

The final practice is knowing that you are responsible for the life that you are living right now.

It is understanding:

  • You are the sum of your choices, and
  • If you are unhappy with where you are today, you can go and change that by making a new choice.

Being the creator is feeling empowered that you can create your world to be an even better one.

Even though it’s easier to tell us why you can’t.

Why healthy living can’t wait for tomorrow

The biggest problem with the, “I’ll just eat cake today and start eating well tomorrow” mindset, is that it assumes it will be just as easy to change tomorrow as it is today.

It’s not.

Decades of research finds that today’s decision is connected to tomorrow’s behaviour. When you choose to behave in a certain way today, you increase the likelihood that you will behave that way habitually (without conscious thought) the next time you find yourself in the same situation.

Our choices define our habits. And our habits define who we are.

To start choosing what’s important over what’s easy, it helps to:

  1. Find your motivation: Ask, how does each behaviour contribute to the person that I want to become, and why does that truly matter to me? If you’re not feeling motivated to change, you need to keep digging, or explore a new behaviour.
  2. Be mindful: When you find yourself about to engage in an old habit, breathe calmly and recognise the unhelpful thoughts or emotions that are driving the behaviour. Once you understand what’s driving the behaviour, it’s easier to separate yourself from it.
  3. Understand habits: Remind yourself that this decision not only affects who you are today. It also affects who you are tomorrow.

How you choose to do anything, is actually how you choose to do everything.

Why your problem may not actually be the problem

Consider the Chinese proverb that tells the story of the Taoist farmer.

This farmer had only one horse, and one day that horse ran away. The neighbours came to condole over his terrible loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”

A month later, the horse came home, this time bringing with it two beautiful wild horses. The neighbours became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”

The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbours were very distressed. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”

A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son remained. The neighbours congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.

When you next find yourself feeling down about something external to you, worth remembering it may not actually be bad at all.

Indeed, what if it is exactly what’s required for you to create something exciting, wondrous and new?

How to find the meaning in life

The meaning of life question (“Why are we all here?”) is philosophical, and hasn’t been answered with consensus scientifically.

But the meaning in life question (“How can I find meaning and significance within my life?”) is one that has.

Here’s how:

  1. Align your everyday behaviours and choices with the person that you want to become. Our everyday actions bring meaning when they move us towards our longer-term goals and values.
  2. Use your unique strengths to contribute to something greater than yourself. This may be through charity work, pursuing a greater sense of spirituality, undertaking a new and fulfilling career, or often just engaging with your current work in a new and more purposeful way.
  3. Know that you are worthy and capable. Believe and trust that you are enough, and that you can indeed make a difference.
  4. Accept and embrace the setbacks, pain and adversity in life. After all, it is these events that can provide a greater sense of meaning than a constant state of peace and happiness ever can.
  5. Finally, prioritise connection with others. Our life is most meaningful when it is shared.

Having greater meaning in our lives predicts not just our mental health, but also our physical health.

And whilst science hasn’t answered the meaning of life question, I like to think the answer is partly about living a life that is full of meaning.

The most important ingredient of success

Is likely believing you can be successful.

Belief is the breeding ground for confidence, effort and persistence. And it is these qualities that predict success much better than your natural ability can.

When you believe that you are capable, you are (much) more likely to:

  • Set more difficult goals,
  • Engage in the behaviours necessary to achieve these,
  • Put in more and better-directed effort, and most importantly,
  • Persevere through the obstacles and challenges that come.

And belief not only predicts goal achievement. It also predicts physical and mental health, as it:

  • Helps to promote optimal well-being,
  • Is crucial for successful change in virtually any healthy behaviour, and
  • Directly improves your body’s physiological response to stress, including strengthening of the immune system.

The best news is that just like your health or fitness, belief is something you can actively develop.

Here’s how:

  1. Think about your strengths and reminisce on previous times you have achieved something important to you.
  2. Find and talk to people who have achieved what you want to, from a similar position to where you find yourself now.
  3. Spend some time imagining yourself actually achieving your goals.
  4. Surround yourself with people that believe in you, and question the people who don’t.
  5. Practice relaxation and deep breathing during times of failure, and be conscious not to explain your failure with a lack of ability alone, and
  6. Remind and affirm to yourself what we know to be true: that you are more than capable.

Develop an unquestionable belief in your ideas, goals and capacity for achievement, and you’ll not only be healthier.

You’ll also find yourself with very few limits to what you can actually accomplish.

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