Right now, the world seems loaded with huge, way-of-life-altering events and power struggles that have one thing in common — they seem hopelessly, emphatically out of our control.
Like everyone else, we went to our NYE parties thinking that 2020 would maybe continue the streak of weirdness that has been the last few years, but business would continue more or less as usual.
A face mask, three pairs of very lived in sweatpants, and a ton of Netflix box sets later, we’re happy to throw our hands up and admit that we were wrong. We were all so wrong.
Understandably, that can make an individual feel very small and extremely anxious. According to a review paper published while the world was locked down, early evidence suggests that 16 to 28 percent of people showed symptoms of anxiety and depression in response to COVID-19, and 8 percent reported stress.
In a finding that will be of no surprise at all to those grasping at the enormity of what’s been happening, sleepless nights were commonly linked to anxiety and depression.
Even without a pandemic in the mix, life can be pretty complicated. Although most of us have plenty to manage in our day-to-day lives — jobs, relationships, family, exercise, sleep, wondering how “Baby Shark” has almost 6 billion views — there are only a few elements we can truly control.
We believe it’s absolutely central to happiness that you take stock of these, own them, and accept the wildcards life draws on your behalf.
This might sound like a distant concept when 2020 rocks up at your door, foaming at the mouth and flipping the bird. It’s exhausting to even think about changing your mindset. We know. If you got out of bed today, it sincerely counts as an achievement.
But hear us out. Once we become mindful of the seven parts of life that are 100 percent ours to manage and master, we may well be able to navigate to a brighter place.
It’s very easy for the mind to enter a worrisome spiral when trying to take in everything we can’t control. Instead, it’s more productive to plow energy into controlling the few things you can.
Seven is not many. You can count on two hands what’s really under your jurisdiction. But it’s still something. And if you can control even some elements of your life, you have a way to effect real change throughout your life.
Happiness and success (however you define either one) are regular bedfellows. Most people believe you can’t be happy until you’re successful. But a 2005 study found that happier people go on to have more success.
(Of course, being successful can lead to happiness, but it’s not the only ingredient. And there’s plenty of materially successful but desperately unhappy people.)
You can galvanize your path to both happiness and success by making small tweaks to your routine. Little by little, these add up to major changes in your lifestyle and mindset.
People make millions of seemingly insignificant decisions all the time. The result of each one is either net positive, net negative, or neutral. The more net positive decisions we can make (and the fewer net negative ones), the better.
Net positive decisions — brushing your teeth before bed, eating healthy meals, and regularly going to the gym — help you feel good and bring you one step closer to your goals, despite the effort they entail.
Net negative decisions, such as filling up on food that doesn’t make you feel good, skipping the nightly teeth-brushing, partying ’til the early hours for 5 days straight, or forgoing the gym — make it difficult to reach your goals.
These decisions won’t make you feel healthy, empowered, or confident. They take more out of you than they give, interfere with your energy levels, sap your motivation, and cloud your focus.
While the healthier choice may seem harder, it pays dividends further down the line. And you’ll be surprised by just how easy these choices can be once you can muster the effort.
By learning to master what you can control, you will start to make more net positive decisions and fewer net negative ones. With time and practice, empowering, positive behaviors will become second nature.
So let go of all the stuff you can’t control, and start using your time to use what you can control to feel better and live life to a fuller extent.
1. Your breath
Most people don’t even think about their breathing, but the ability to inhale and exhale sweet, sweet oxygen is one of the few things almost everyone has in common. Either you or a friend will, at some point, have started jabbering on for minutes without breathing.
Breathing is obviously important (yet never gets a shoutout in Oscar speeches, the ungrateful assholes). However, the ability to focus on it is equally vital for returning the mind to its center. It’s a built-in hack for slowing a refocusing an anxious mind.
If focussing can be difficult for you, we’ve a few questions to ask yourself while breathing deeply:
When you focus on your breath, you can count “one” as you inhale, “two” as you exhale. Start over on reaching 10.
- Can you feel your chest expand when you inhale?
- Does it get softer when you exhale?
- Where do you feel the rise and fall most?
- Can you feel the air moving past your lips?
As soon as you experience something unpleasant, just take a few deep breaths and focus not on how horrible the situation was, but on how awesome it is that you’re a living human being and you can breathe.
The chances of that coming to be are so slim, but you’re doing the hell out of it. You can’t control the horrible thing that’s happening. But breathing is a start.
2. Your self-talk
You need only look at the gazillion different cuts of “Blade Runner” to see the the same movie is made sucky by an overdramatic and annoying voiceover and amazing without.
Our brains are similar, and we don’t have a Ridley Scott to remove our self-talk in a Final Cut. Our inner monologue is here to stay. So it’s helpful for our growth to make it compassionate and positive.
However, in many people, that voice can be a full-on buttface. Imagine an irritating, screechy man constantly strapped to your shoulder, complaining about the last risotto you made. Admit it, that does not sound ideal. So why talk to yourself like shit?
It’s hard to fix something you haven’t fully appraised. Try to count the times you reflexively engage in negative self-talk each day. It may surprise you how regularly it comes up.
Recognizing and dispelling the Negativity Gnome in your brain and replacing it with encouraging statements will start to reshape how you feel about the world. Try talking to yourself with compassion.
For example, instead of telling yourself you’re not good enough, remind yourself that you are worthy of love and attention, or that it’s okay to make mistakes — we all do!
(For example, we used the word “Negativity Gnome” to describe your negative inner voice, which was dreadful. Rookie error. Moving on…)
3. Your gratitude
The results of a 2003 study suggest that feeling gratitude — the simple act of counting your blessings — can benefit both how you feel and how you interact with people.
Planting the seeds of gratitude every day gets our minds used to hope, inspiration, and optimism. You don’t need setbacks not to happen — you need a way to summon up resilience in the face of setbacks so they knock you a little less far back with each passing event.
Plus, saying a little thank you for what you have provides a mood boost that can keep you coasting on the vibe for long enough to get through the more difficult days.
Lockdown might be tough, but everybody has something or someone to be grateful for, even if it’s the cat the prowls around your house glaring at you or the relative at the end of a Zoom call.
Your connections to the world might feel distant right now, but try to focus on the people who make you thankful. You’ll feel better even if they’re miles away.
4. Your body language
People can spend so long fretting about the ins and outs of everyday existence that they lose sight of what they’re doing with their hands, face, and posture.
If you’re self-conscious about your body language, relax — no one else is driving the bus and you have control. Which is great, because it means you can work on it and become more comfortable as a physical communicator.
The authors of a study in 2010 found that rocking a power stance can increase testosterone and reduce levels of the stress hormone, cortisol.
For example, adopting a powerful stance — arms on your hips and feet planted wide, causing you to take up more space — increases testosterone and decreases the stress hormone cortisol.
More recently, in 2019, researchers carried out a similar experiment and found that “power posing” didn’t significantly affect the levels of these hormones, so the jury’s still out on whether regularly striking a dominating pose actually makes more hormones whizz around your body.
However, if power posing makes you feel more confident, then go for it. Think about this before you meet with a potential client, go to a job interview, or even just before you leave the house.
Yoga can be a wonderful way to address many of the controllable aspects of life, especially posture and physical comfort. Learn 30 basic yoga moves.
5. Your mental and physical fitness
You mind and body are your soul’s house and garden. Only you have the keys to access what’s right for you, and using discipline to advance the health of both can be a powerful tool in regaining a sense of control over your life.
Yes, we know it can be hard. But ignore the sweating for a second. Exercising is a chance to listen to your music and think about nothing. It’s glorious.
You don’t have to go to the gym, but we all ought to take 20 minutes out of our days and move it. Researchers have even found that walking, sedate as it may seem, can enhance creative thinking.
Giving your brain a workout is also easy and crucial for well-being. It might seem like hard work at first. But it’s way easier than running through worrying hypotheticals and their outcomes in your head. Drown out the noise with some good, old-fashioned thinking.
Whether you play Sudoku, smash out crossword puzzles, play video games, or read books, your brain will feel the difference. You can get a similar benefit from meditation.
People can feel the mental health benefits after just 30 minutes of exercise per day, such as feeling less anxiety and depression and having improved cognitive function.
And if you have health conditions that get in the way of exercise, talk to a doctor or physical therapist about exercises you can do that are comfortable and sustainable.
Essentially, exercise makes your brain work and feel better, and you get to control the role that it plays in your day.
6. Your diet
Even though it might taste great, junk food is a net negative. It makes your brain and body slow and sad. Consuming too much sugar has been linked to all kinds of medical conditions (including metabolic syndrome and cardiovascular disease).
However, the food we eat also fuels our brain. And how would your car run if you stuffed the gas tank with Cheetos? Yeah, didn’t think so. Eating healthier simply means that we have enough nutrients to make all of the necessary processes in the body run smoothly.
A review of studies from 2020 found that cutting out processed food and sticking to dietary requirements can have a significant reducing effect on depression, helping to prevent and treat it.
Simple fixes like keeping a bag of carrots or a bowl of fruit handy help us pick up the healthier choice when we’re depleted and hungry and reaching for the closest snack.
Easy-to-whip-up, convenient-to-carry portable snacks can be delicious and nutritious. We came up with 32 ideas for healthy snacking on the go.
7. Your sleep
Zzz’s. So good. A consistent, sustainable sleep pattern is one of the happiness touchstones. Depression and anxiety may well provide a barrier to sleep, but you can strike back by nurturing your sleep cycle to regularity.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI) says that getting enough sleep at the right time is critical for staying at peak mental and physical health, as well as maintaining a good quality of life.
Hacking your sleep cycle can feel so far away on those sleepless nights, but the solution is pretty simple: It’s best to set a routine. Make an active decision to turn off all screens and distractions by, say, 9 p.m. and actually follow through.
You can then treat yourself to a sunrise when you wake up.
If your brain can’t calm down while you’re trying to fall asleep, tell yourself, “I’m proud of the work I accomplished today, I’m going to let my brain and body rest now.”
You can also try other trusted you-snooze-you-win methods, including cutting back on alcohol (since people who booze more sleep less, according to research).
It’s a refreshing thing to realize that you have control over some essential aspects of life. This is the first step to building some resilience to life’s rockier events: Knowing you have and can control the tools to outlast uncontrollable events.
However, that’s the key to enduring adversity, not building a balanced, mindful, and joyful life. Setting goals for yourself is a way of crafting the chaotic abandoned Lego set of the universe into to a neat little Millennium Falcon that looks exactly how you imagined.
Plus, exactly like the Lego Millennium Falcon, you get the satisfaction of knowing you built it. There are three steps we feel are central to setting and achieving goals.
Here’s how to build a system that helps with any goal you set for yourself.
1. Visualize it
Whatever it is you most want to be doing, you must be able to see yourself doing it.
For most of us, the work we do while procrastinating is probably the work we should be doing for the rest of our lives. Practice visualizing this concept with your eyes closed for a few seconds.
You can ask yourself a few questions to guide the visualization, such as:
- Where are you working?
- What’s the room like?
- What’s the temperature like?
- How’s the lighting?
- How do you feel?
- Are you drinking a cup of coffee or a glass of water?
- What time of the day is it?
The more senses you involve, the more vivid this visualization of your future will be, and the more you’ll feel motivated to reach your goals.
2. Believe in it
You have to believe that you already have everything you need to be successful. Knowledge you don’t have can be learned. Resources you don’t have can be worked for.
Remember: You don’t need money to try out an idea. There are plenty of free and low-cost ways to get started with all kinds of projects — social media, blogging, smartphone apps, or fundraising sites, to name just a few.
When it comes to having the courage and can-do spirit — well, that’s not waiting for you on the shelf at Sam’s. That’s free and in you right now. And free shit is great.
3. Talk it up
Talk about what you do everywhere you go. Help can come from all angles. Make your goals known and build relationships, both professional and personal, that help you stack your life toward the goals that make you happy.
Whatever problem you’re solving or project you’re launching, share your knowledge and experiences with everyone who can benefit from them.
When you help as many people as you can, those people will connect you to everything you need to get started. Just let it happen, and smile to yourself about it when you can.
A helping hand is not one to turn down when you feel like the whole universe cannot be controlled and hates you. There’s nothing like knowing a person you have no control over has helped you out of their own free will because they like you.
Implementing any of our suggestions from this article won’t instantly make the world a totally kind, comfortable, and predictable place. Our aim was, however, to provide you a few tools for navigating feelings of powerlessness.
Focus on the few things you can control, and try to let go of any fear of the things you can’t.
You can control what you eat, how much attention you pay to your breathing, and how long you sleep. You can control how much you exercise and the way you talk to yourself.
Remind yourself that you’re lucky to have power over such elemental parts of being a happy, healthy human.