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).”]

5 steps to creating a life you love (and a freebie)

  1. Be true to what your heart desires.
  2. Drop your stories and believe you can create any and all possibilities.
  3. Be all of you and share your vulnerabilities with others.
  4. Do not let the judgements or opinions of others influence you.
  5. Remember that you are capable and trust that you are supported in all ways.

[Hattip to Jules O’Neil, whose teachings are the source of this post.]

Plus, you can download and print my body acceptance manifesto for free, here. Since body image is something many of us struggle with, and improving it predicts healthier behaviours, confidence and motivation, I hope you take the time to read, print or share.

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.

It’s healthy outside

Research shows that our environment has a significant impact on our health, mental functioning and well-being.

When we spend time outside and connect with nature:

  • our attention is restored,
  • our thinking expands, and
  • we gain a sense of relaxation and peace within us.

Immersing ourselves into an environment with plenty of greenery, trees or water is often what’s required when we feel overly stressed, need to clear our head, or wish to deeply reflect on life’s priorities or goals. 

In order to function best, both physically and mentally, we need and thrive on connection. Not only to ourselves and to others, but also, to the natural world around us.

The magic of simply sharing you

If there is one topic I have come across within the literature that has had the biggest impact on my own well-being, it is the topic of vulnerability. Having an intellectual understanding of its importance, as well as developing the courage to practice it daily in my own life, has made my life richer and changed the person that I am for the better.

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability is the simple (yet extremely challenging!) act of being and sharing all of you. It involves stepping into the uncertainty and risk associated with sharing our true and imperfect selves with others, including our deepest feelings, doubts, fears and truths.

Understanding vulnerability and its importance starts with an understanding of what so often gets in the way of us being vulnerable more often: we want others to like us.

We all care so deeply about others liking us because this is essentially what makes us human. Connection with others and the sense of belonging it brings invites love, joy, purpose and meaning into our lives.

The really big problem with wanting everyone to like us

The problem comes when we sacrifice vulnerability and trade in who we really are to be someone we’re not, in an attempt to meet our need for connection and belonging. We can so easily fall into the trap of hiding our deepest feelings, fears, struggles and truths to be liked and fit in, presenting ourselves to others in the way we think we should be, instead of risking the possibility of being rejected for who we truly are.

Yes, I’m well aware that fitting in and hiding parts of ourselves feels like the easiest and safest thing to do. But there are two significant downsides we’re rarely told about that come with choosing this approach.

First, when we hide who we truly are and how we truly feel, we almost always experience either anxiety, depression, addiction, blame, resentment, grief, or a multiple of the above. These emotions and behaviours arise when we pretend to be someone we’re not, or do not fully open up and be vulnerable by sharing our deepest selves to those around us.

Second, when we sacrifice who we truly are in order to connect with others, what we actually sacrifice is, ironically, the opportunity to experience true connection.

The beauty of your imperfections

Being vulnerable and sharing all of you – including your deepest emotions, insecurities and imperfections – is actually at the very core of meaningful, human experiences. When we share all of ourselves with others, we create the opportunity to cultivate a sense of connectedness that is far deeper and richer than we would ever experience by substituting who we are for the hope of fitting in. And when we open up and share ourselves, we also invite and help those around us to do exactly the same, too.

Understanding and practising this has (and still is) changing my life. Before, I had spent much of my life sacrificing and hiding parts of who I truly was, using my achievements and ‘successes’ as a shield. The sad thing with this is that it was all in an attempt to build a sense of connection, yet all I was actually doing was restricting true connection from occurring.

3 steps to being vulnerable

Of course, the journey from fear and fitting in to risk, uncertainty and vulnerability is a difficult and scary one, and one that I still constantly struggle with. But after much thought and reflection, I think that it begins with these 3 steps:

  1. Learning to be completely okay and accepting of all of who you are, and reminding yourself that you are enough, exactly as the person that you are right now. You must remember also that once you see this, others will easily see it, too.
  2. Remembering to define yourself as so much more than the image someone else may have of you. And if you are judged, remember that it is only a reflection of the one doing the judging, and does not mean that you are wrong.
  3. Letting go of the unhelpful belief that you need to be loved, or well liked, by everyone in your life.

The gift of rejection

It is essential to understand that when we share our deepest feelings, fears and truths that some people may like us less, or even run away, and that this is perfectly OK. After all, just because someone rejects you for who you truly are, does not mean that there is anything wrong with you. And just because someone is not willing or able to love you as you, does not mean that you are not loveable.

And the magic of this rejection is that it opens the door to connecting with another because of, and not despite of, who you truly are. And I think that connecting with another because of who we truly are is possibly the most magical experience that there is in this life: it trumps any achievements, awards, money or fame that we will ever have, and feels so much richer than when we connect with another only because we are hiding a certain part of us.

One final thing

When you are next faced with the opportunity to either hide a part of yourself, or to be vulnerable, authentic, and share who you truly are and how you truly feel with someone that is important to you, I find that it helps to remember this:

The more of your true self that you share with another, the more of you that there now is for them to connect with and love about you.

And when we have people around us that do truly listen, empathise and love us unconditionally and without judgement when we are being all of us, it’s important to not take them for granted, and to tell them just how much gratitude we hold in our hearts for knowing and having them in our life.

For people like this are surely the greatest gift that we can ever receive, and my experience is that it hurts deeply when they are no longer around.

[Note: Hat tip to Dr Brené Brown and Jules O’Neil, whose research, work and teachings have collectively inspired this post. If you want to learn more about vulnerability and connection, I highly recommend Brown’s text Daring Greatly. It’s a brilliant, insightful and thought-provoking read.]

The single most important thing you can do for your happiness

Is to connect with others.

Connection is likely the most important factor of life satisfaction and emotional well-being.

When we connect with others:

  • we experience positive emotions such as joy, hope and love,
  • we grow as people,
  • our physical health improves,
  • we cultivate greater meaning and purpose within our lives, and
  • we do exactly the same for their lives, too.

I think that one of the biggest mistakes we can make is to spend all our time on work or the pursuit of greater status and power.

Because no matter what we achieve here, it still somehow finds a way to feel insignificant when compared to building a connection with the people we most care about.

The 12 steps to setting (and achieving) your New Year’s resolutions

Step 1. Brainstorm your dream list. Write a list of everything you may possibly want to achieve this year. Think big, without limits.

Step 2: Link each goal to your core life values. For each goal, ask yourself: Why is this important to me? What is it (exactly) that will make the sacrifice, discomfort and effort that’s required to achieve this goal truly worthwhile? If you don’t have a good answer, cross it off your list.

Step 3. Re-frame your remaining goals to capture your motivation. For example, the goals “Go to the gym” or “Lose weight” might become “A strategy to improve my fitness in an enjoyable and sustainable manner, which will be evidenced by having more energy and being able to enjoy playing with the kids when I get home from work.

Step 4: Decide on what’s most important to you. You can’t be an Olympic marathon runner and our Prime Minister at the same time. Of the goals you have left, decide which are most important. I suggest choosing your top 4, that you truly believe can be achieved together over the course of 1 year.

Step 5: Ensure there is a balance. If all 4 goals are about climbing the corporate ladder, is that really how you want to spend your year? Research shows our well-being is highest when we find a balance between relationships, religion/spirituality, work and generosity/focusing beyond ourselves.

Step 6: Re-check before you commit. Ask yourself: are these goals really, truly how I want to invest much of my time this year? (Hint: If you’re not screaming out yes, the answer is probably no.)

Step 7: For each goal, write a (very) specific action plan to get you there. Decide on the small and simple behaviours you will commit to regularly that will get you to your goal. They should be things to do (go to the cycle class on Saturday mornings) as opposed to things not to do (stop eating chocolate). Consider also any extra skills, knowledge and support you’ll need, as well as the potential barriers that may come up.

Step 8: Create a clear timeline for your action plan. Divide your behaviours into steps you can do on a daily (or at least weekly) basis.

[Important: if you’re not extremely confident that you can do the action plan, read this post, or change it so that you are.]

Step 9: Plan exactly when and where you will do the actions. Choose both a time and a place that you will come across every day (or week).

Step 10: Each day (or week) you encounter that time and place, do the action. I highly recommend creating a chart that you can mark off every night before bed so that you can see your progress.

Step 11: Put a monthly reminder in your calendar to review your progress. Don’t wait until the end of the year to realise that what you have been doing hasn’t worked. If you find that at the end of the month you are not making consistent progress towards your yearly goal, revise your action plan (and double check that it’s truly an achievable goal).

If the problem is that you are not doing your action plan, either i) make the action plan easier, ii) understand and question your thoughts that are holding you back, or iii) make changes to your environment to better support your desired behaviour. (Note: Don’t beat yourself up here. It’s normal to fail – the trick is to learn from it and change accordingly.)

Step 12. Celebrate! Decades of research shows that when you do this process, it works.

That is, if you have the courage to face the possibility of failure, you also have the ability to make your dreams come true.

The problem with pursuing happiness

Happiness is simply an emotion that arises from events external to us. When we get, achieve or do something we desire, we experience happiness.

Happiness is a pleasurable part of life, but the thing about happiness is that it almost always fades with time.

Well-being, on the other hand, is so much more than a single emotion. It is a construct that attempts to describe a life in which we flourish and thrive. Well-being includes the experience of positive emotions like joy, hope and love. But well-being also arises from:

  • growing as a person and accomplishing our goals,
  • pursuing challenging work that leverages our strengths,
  • developing deep and meaningful connections with others, and
  • giving back to them and the world in order to cultivate greater meaning and purpose within our lives.

The thing to remember is that if well-being describes the goal, happiness is usually not the path.

Rather, the path often involves hard work, failure, sacrifice, pain, risk, sadness, ridicule and heartbreak. These are almost always the prerequisites required for the personal growth, connection and meaning that allows for us to truly flourish and thrive.

Sometimes, it’s not about pursuing happiness or avoiding distress. It’s about learning to embrace the diversity of human emotional experience that comes with living the good life.

[Notes: i. Long-term happiness is defined and measured in the literature as life satisfaction. This too is more than a single emotion, and there are some ways to reliably increase life satisfaction, one which I have already mentioned. I discuss the others in future posts.

ii. The purpose of my blog is indeed to cultivate good health and well-being, which very much includes life-satisfaction, but also more. The use of the word happiness appears in my blog outline and numerous other posts as a substitute for well-being or life satisfaction, for simplicity’s sake.]

The science of love and kindness

Scientific research has shown how generating the feelings and thoughts of love and kindness changes us, for the better.

It not only cultivates positive emotions within us, such as joy, gratitude, contentment and hope, but it develops who we are as a human being. When we practice love and kindness, we become more self-accepting, mindful, experience greater social connectedness, improved physical health, greater purpose in life and enhanced long-term happiness.

The thing about love and kindness is that it is not a fixed trait we are born with. Rather, it is a practice we can actively develop.

Here’s one way: in a quiet space, imagine intentionally directing feelings of love and kindness from your heart to yourself and others. Start with a focused attention on just you, followed by your loved ones, your friends, strangers and then finally all beings. Throughout, simply authentically wish each group good health and happiness.

This very exercise brings about the scientific benefits described above.

Personally, this practice is one of my favourites for cultivating a life of health and happiness, and my antidote for any feelings of isolation or distrust I may have. It is a simple exercise that we can all do, and has changed my life for the better.

When we open our hearts with love and kindness, we not only grow as human beings and improve our own lives, but we of course create the opportunity to enhance the lives of others, and collectively make the world a better place.

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