Lessons from Machu Picchu

It’s just over 2 months since I completed my trek to Machu Picchu and I’ve only begun processing the experience. It still feels a little unreal, like a bizarre dream – only one which everyone knows about! I have been trying to make sense of it all and some lessons have emerged…

Machu Picchu view
  1. You get to decide what your goals are, but not how you achieve them.

If you had told me what I would have to battle in order to reach Machu Picchu, I doubt I would have tackled the challenge. I faced physical illness, a decline in my mental health and bereavement – and that was during the preparation. The trek itself brought the joys of constant rain, altitude sickness, a throat infection and panic attacks. It was worth it in the end, but I wouldn’t have chosen to go through any of those additional challenges.

I thought my toughest difficulties would be improving my physical fitness and social anxiety. These were factors in making the trek one of the biggest challenges of my life, but they were overshadowed by the ones mentioned above. Everyone knows that life is what happens when you’re busy making other plans (which is a phrase I always hear as John Lennon sings it, though I know he probably wasn’t the first to say it), but sometimes life throws so much crap at you that you think there must be a sadistic god somewhere, having a laugh as he hurls misfortunes your way.

Yet I still achieved my goal. I achieved it because I wanted it more than almost anything else in my life.

You get to define what you want out of life and the only way you will get what you want is by defining it; goals give you a target, something to drive towards. You don’t get to dictate exactly how you get what you want, because there will always be obstacles flung in your path, but you can try one way and change course when needed. As long as you keep trying, there is a chance you will get there in the end.

 

Peru mountain home
  1. Your limits are further away than you realise.

I felt like I was being pushed to my limit many times during both the trek itself and my preparations. On the last day of the trek, getting derailed every few minutes by panic attacks as I climbed the 3000 (apparently) steps to the Sun Gate, I thought I would never get there. I stumbled along, feeling utterly wretched. Yet I didn’t reach my limit – I wasn’t even as close as I’d felt at the time.

I was walking. Very slowly, but I was upright. If I had been close to my limit, I would have been crawling. And yes, I would have crawled before I quit.

I was stronger than I realised, though I felt weak. I think this is something I need to apply to the rest of my life, especially during worse episodes of mental illness. I think most people would be surprised at what they can achieve – if only they would set themselves bigger goals. Myself included.

 

  1. Most people want you to succeed.

Sure, there are some nasty, petty people in this world who take pleasure in other people’s failures and miseries, but the majority want others to do well. I have received a lot of support, encouragement and congratulations over the past year – some of it from unexpected sources. People like seeing others achieve their goals; especially when doing so helps others.

This makes a lot of sense: people are in a better position to help others when they are successful. By supporting others in achieving their goals, you might be helping yourself (and others) in the long run. Unfortunately, some people have a win-lose mentality, whereby they see someone else’s success as their own failure. This is nonsense in most circumstances, when people are not competing directly for a limited reward, but it’s an attitude to which some people cling. They view life as an individual race, not a team game.

Seeing others succeed can also inspire and motivate you. From the moment I signed up for the trek, I hoped that my experience would inspire other people – especially those with mental health problems – to follow their dreams. I have since found out that at least one person has done so as a result of seeing me achieve my goal, which makes every single moment of struggle and despair well worth the effort.

 

Winay Wayna ruins
  1. You can help yourself and others – there’s no need to choose.

Following on from my previous lesson, achieving your own goals can help others – even if the link isn’t apparent. I thought of my goal of trekking to Machu Picchu as inherently selfish, despite the fact that I was self-funding and raising money for Amnesty International, because I wanted first and foremost to do it for myself. I hoped to inspire others, but my main motivation was to prove to myself that I could realise a long-held dream.

I think this was symptomatic of my own version of the win-lose mentality. While my “winning” didn’t necessitate another person’s loss, I thought of the trek as an individual pursuit. In reality, it was a team game.

The obvious teammates were my fellow trekkers, guides and our group’s doctor, without whom I wouldn’t have reached my goal. We cheered each other on through the most miserable moments, when we were cold and soaked through, denied even a decent view by fog/low cloud.

Everyone’s support was incredible. There were so many kindnesses. My roommate lent me fresh socks and carried my bag and walking poles up the monkey steps near the end of the trek. Team B (who know who they are!), kept my spirits up when I wanted to collapse on the bloody mountain and stay there. My success is their success.

However, I also had a great support team at home. My parents lent me money, enabling the whole challenge. My dad drove me to Heathrow and back (partly as my birthday present, to be fair), so I wouldn’t have to deal with the added stress of coping with public transport. My mum walked miles – literally – up hills to help me train. My friends kept encouraging me through the darkest moments, when I didn’t know whether I could carry on living, let alone training. Again, my success is their success.

I also realised that everyone I just mentioned (and more besides) took pleasure in my success. Just as I am glad when my friends and family achieve their goals. There might not have been an obvious or direct link which benefits others, but that doesn’t mean others didn’t benefit in some small way.

In fact, assuming your goals don’t cause direct harm to others, I would go so far as to say that achieving your goals always benefits other people – if only because you are showing them it’s possible.

 

Machu Picchu view
  1. Every step is significant, though most of them feel insignificant.

As long as you are moving forward, you are getting closer to your goal. It might not feel like you are progressing fast enough, or like you are progressing at all, but taking any action is a vital step. Again, this is something I need to apply to my life in general – I often feel frustrated because I’m not achieving my goals as quickly as I’d like. Of course, if your goal involves walking to a destination, there is a clear path (or at least direction) which will lead you there. For less tangible goals, you need to keep faith that you will reach your destination as long as you keep taking action.

When I was trekking to Machu Picchu, the majority of my steps felt insignificant. Having a clear path and destination, not to mention guides, didn’t stop my mental battles from hindering my progress. Blind faith didn’t keep me going – stubbornness did.

You have to apply the same determination to working towards your goals, regardless of how insignificant each step seems. The only other option is giving up, which is the one sure way to failure. I think individual steps will always tend to feel insignificant and it’s only in hindsight that you can see how fully they contribute to achieving your goals. It’s part of the challenge, to keep taking action when it feels pointless.

 

As I said, I’m still processing everything.

These are the initial lessons I have learnt, but I feel like the challenge has changed me in ways that I’m yet to notice or appreciate. The changes aren’t exactly what I expected either – sure, I have more confidence and am determined to achieve more goals, but I am still dealing with anxiety and depression so they get in the way. I wasn’t anticipating a dramatic transformation, but part of me is disappointed that I didn’t get one.

I guess the main change is that I trust my intuition more. My instinct told me that trekking to Machu Picchu would be one of the best decisions I have ever made (as much as I dreaded it might turn out to be the worst) and I believe that’s true. It was an incredible experience. Trusting my intuition more has also brought me closer to my core values, making me think more deeply about how I want to live my life.

I guess I have to wait and see what the long-term effects of my Machu Picchu challenge will be. Perhaps the dramatic transformation will manifest in the future…

Be Like a Bluebell

I took this photo because this is the first bluebell I’ve seen this year (a couple of weeks ago – I’ve since seen loads more). I thought I might use it in a blog post about hope or my relief that spring is easing my symptoms a little, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised how perfectly the picture demonstrates something else…

Bluebell
Bluebells are experts at showcasing themselves.

The contrast between their purple flowers (let’s face it – they are more purple than blue!) and green leaves makes them stand out. In the case of this particular bluebell, the surrounding plants are green and it stands out all the more. The colours complement each other and the spread of foliage acts as a backdrop. While a carpet of bluebells is spectacular, one alone can be stunning.

Bluebells also enhance each other, instead of competing, which is why the carpet effect is so spectacular. Being surrounded by other bluebells doesn’t detract from the beauty of a single one, but their beauty is multiplied through togetherness.

I think humans can learn a lot from bluebells.

We need to find ways to showcase ourselves and each other, working together instead of buying into a zero-sum philosophy which dictates that there must be winners and losers. A lot can be gained from a simple change in perspective: instead of criticising everyone and pointing out flaws, what if we actively look for things to praise?

Human brains love problem solving. As soon as you make a statement, your brain looks for evidence to support that statement. If you think “I am unlucky”, you can find dozens of examples as evidence. Likewise, if you think “I am lucky”, you will find dozens of examples. Neither is “true” because luck is a matter of perspective. This is why breaking out of negative thinking patterns is so difficult – your brain follows the well-trodden path and seeks evidence to convince you it’s the only path.

Taking a different approach doesn’t come easily, but it’s worth the effort. Seeking positives is empowering – both of yourself and others. When you start focusing on people’s strengths, including your own, opportunities come into view.

I have been trying to focus on my strengths recently, but it’s difficult. Not because I have none (though I certainly believe this at times, that’s just a symptom of my mental illness), but because our society seems so determined to knock people down. There is a constant stream of negativity from the media, social media, the general public, etc.

An article in the current issue of Mslexia, a writing magazine I otherwise love, the lead feature is about the financial difficulties writers face, especially in old age. It brings out the old “don’t give up the day job” advice, which is great for people without mental health problems who have a day job, but demoralising for those of us who are unable to work in the jobs most readily available, which all seem to involve a high degree of interaction with the public (not great for people with social anxiety). While the article goes on to explore a few solutions, I think it would have been much more interesting (and relevant) if it had taken a different approach: how can writers use their skills to earn a living and provide for their future?

I have discovered something interesting from my reading and talking to people: those who advise me to focus on my strengths and what I enjoy are happier and more successful.

I should clarify that I mean happy and successful according to their own terms. Many of us, believe it or not, don’t aspire to be millionaires. Sure, it would be nice, but money just isn’t a priority. If I could earn a living doing the work I love (which doesn’t mean loving every minute or every aspect of it, but loving it overall), I would be satisfied. I don’t need expensive holidays and designer shoes to make me happy (though both are appreciated!); I want to write and help people with mental health problems. Meanwhile, I’m trying to fight through the pessimism and find ways to help me achieve what I want.

I’m trying to focus my attention on what is helpful, instead of being demoralised by negative diatribes which assume everyone is physically and mentally capable of following the conventional path. I keep reminding myself to be like a bluebell, to show myself to my best advantage.

It’s also worth noting that while bluebells showcase themselves, they are not showy. They are modest flowers and all the more beautiful because of it. They don’t need to showboat, boast and seek attention. They quietly do their own thing and let their beauty shine for those who take the time to look. I think we can all learn a lot from bluebells.

New Year, New Me? No, Thanks.

 

It’s two days into the New Year and I’m sick of seeing adverts inviting me to become “a new you” or to start “your new life.” I like setting goals, whether New Year’s resolutions or otherwise, but I hate this emphasis on The New You. Using this language doesn’t evoke transformation – it implies obliteration.

The message is “you need to change every aspect of your being and become someone else.” This is not empowering: it’s impossible. If you aim to become this mythical New You, you are setting yourself up for failure. What a great way to start the year!

 

Value who you are.

You don’t need to become a New You. No matter how unhappy you are with your life right now, your core being is not the problem. There is nothing inherently wrong with you that needs to be eradicated.

Erasing yourself is not the answer; valuing yourself is the answer.

It’s a hard lesson to learn, but nothing really changes until you learn that you are valuable, useful and worthwhile. Until you decide that you are valuable enough to deserve everything you want, it’s extremely difficult to get anything you want. If you manage to succeed, you will find that the effects aren’t what you’d hope – winning a prize won’t make you value your own achievements.

Losing weight is a common example: when you don’t value yourself, you decide that your life would be perfect if only you were thinner (because you will be more confident, powerful, etc.) and you throw yourself into a punishing regime. Often, you will fail to lose a significant amount of weight because your regime is unrealistic. When a month of starvation results in misery, no energy and just a few measly pounds lost, you give up and believe you are destined to be a failure.

On the other hand, if you hate yourself enough to stick it out and reach your goal, there is a surprise in store: you realise that nothing much has changed. You have some new clothes and a temporary confidence boost (it’s alarming how quickly the confidence wears off after you lose weight), but the same life. The same you.

You react to this problem of the same you in the same way – you find a different aspect of your life to blame for your unhappiness and set out on the same path of punishment and self-sabotage. The self-sabotage can crop up at any time, whether it’s a week into your attempted transformation or months after meeting your goal. You will find yourself adopting unhealthy habits which build more obstacles between you and the mythical New You you are trying to become.

As you probably realise, I have been through this on many occasions. When I was 18, I lost 60lb and thought my life would magically become a life I wanted to live. It didn’t, because I hated myself and hadn’t tackled the underlying problems, which included zero self-esteem and clinical depression.

It was an awful shock to reach the milestone I had been striving towards, only to realise that nothing had changed apart from my dress size and the assumptions ignorant people make based on one’s dress size. I wasn’t even much healthier than when I was overweight, because my weight loss tactic was eating very small amounts of junk food. My mental health problems worsened and I regained all of the weight, plus a lot extra, within a few years.

There are no short cuts or workarounds: you need to start with valuing yourself. So forget all ideas of becoming a New You – aim to be the same you, but better.

 

Use your goals to become closer to your true self.

Forget creating a New You from scratch – instead, focus on getting closer to who you really are. Think about what you want, not what the media, advertising and other people tell you to want. What would you like to do more? What would you prefer to do less? Move towards the things which are working in your life and away from the things which aren’t.

Don’t fall into the trap of doing what everyone seems to be telling you to do at this time of year. Even if you want to lose weight (I do – healthily and permanently, this time), it doesn’t mean you have to join one of the slimming clubs advertised on TV and join a gym. You can find the methods which work best for you, without paying undue attention to all the crap flying about.

If it helps, take time to consider what you want – many people seem to have the attitude that New Year’s resolutions involve throwing yourself in the deep end, but that is not the only option. You have time to research, make small adjustments, experiment, etc. and still achieve your goals by the end of the year.

Embrace who you are and what works best for you.

If diving in at the deep end is the most successful strategy for you personally, go for it. If you are more likely to reach your goals by making slow and steady progress, do so. I suspect most of us flourish from a combination of big and small changes at different times – but remember that the ultimate change, the mythical New You, is impossible.

 

Become a better version of you.

Instead of chasing the mythical New You, work on becoming a better version of who you already are. Because you are pretty awesome. Seriously. Everyone has admirable personality traits, talents and skills; make a list of your own if you need reminding.

Consider how you can focus on these strengths and use them to make changes in your life.

Achieving goals involves working out how to incorporate them into your current life. Your life may change as you progress towards achieving goals, but you will always have this starting point. You need to create a path leading from here and now to the life you want. It goes back to learning to value yourself – you also need to value your life as it is right now, even if you don’t like it very much. You can’t exchange it for a new one.

I’m not saying you should dream small – far from it! – but you need to figure out how to get from your current life to your dream life.

Stop thinking of yourself and your current life as things you are stuck with, but don’t buy into the fantasy of a blank canvas either. Instead, consider your current situation and your core being as materials which you can sculpt. You can’t change the molecular structure of these materials, but you can shape them into something beautiful.

I realise now that I don’t want a blank canvas. I’m enjoying sculpting my life. The materials are more interesting, problematic as they may be, and the flaws have their own beauty. I’m learning to chisel away the negative stuff and to polish the best material so that it shines.

Use the materials you already have and value their colours, shapes and textures. Say “no, thanks” to the mythical New You advertisers are trying to sell.

 

Beauty Can Flourish Amidst Devastation

Nature regenerates when faced with disaster
Nature regenerates when faced with disaster

Three years ago, in the location of the above photo, were hundreds of trees. I used to walk my old dog there regularly and it’s where my current dog had his first walk. Then, one winter night, a storm flattened all but a few of the trees. The woods became a wasteland.

But this year, just over 2 years after this loss, a field of foxgloves blossomed amongst the debris. The space is beautiful once again, in a different way.

I have been drawing some parallels with my own life: just as I would rather the trees hadn’t been uprooted, I would rather not have experienced mental illness, but the experience has enabled some good things to happen. My life isn’t a wasteland, though it may have appeared so for a while, because new growth is possible. New growth that might be more beautiful than what came before.

You can find beauty in your own life
You can find beauty in your own life

After all, if I didn’t struggle with mental health problems, I wouldn’t have been forced to focus on my priorities. I wouldn’t have found the courage to take risks or to actively pursue a writing career. Mental illness also shows you who your friends are — and which people in your life are unsupportive and best cut out.

I think we often forget that beauty can flourish amidst devastation. Yet we are all conscious of famous examples, such as the fields of World War One erupting in poppies. The same is true on a human scale: Malala Yousafzai comes from a war torn area of Pakistan and nearly lost her life when she was shot by the Taliban, yet she is a strong, intelligent, inspiring woman whose message is so far-reaching precisely because of what she has suffered.

Why shouldn’t the same apply to you?

Why shouldn’t beauty flourish in your life? No matter how disastrous your current situation appears, the laws of nature apply to you — that’s part of being human. You can go on to achieve things you never thought possible.

My own achievements (so far!) are very modest, but there were times when I thought they were impossible. I believed I could never go to university, let alone gain a BA and MA. I didn’t even think I would learn to drive. Sure, I have had to do things in somewhat unconventional ways, such as living at home with my parents throughout university, but I still did them.

Nowadays when I feel hopeless and useless, I try to remind myself of how stupid and ignorant I was when I thought that going to university and driving were beyond me. I don’t know what I am capable of achieving — but I do know I will never find out until I try.

Look for the beauty in your own life

Search for the shoots of potential foxgloves. It might be as simple as deciding you would like to do something. It might be acknowledging a couple of wonderful people in your life. But even if it all looks disastrous, remember that there is hope — beauty can flourish.

The Wednesday Recommendation: Dream Save Do

Dream Save Do: An Action Plan for Dreamers Like You by Betsy and Warren Talbot is exactly what it says. Whatever you want to achieve, you can use this book as a guide to get you there. It’s full of practical advice and examples, with a particular emphasis on funding your dream. Of course, it’s up to you to use the information in the book to work out the details of your action plan — at the very least, you will need to do some research to find out how much your dream will cost — but the Talbots demonstrate how to tackle every aspect of your plan.

Betsy and Warren Talbot decided to take a year off to travel the world. They were persuaded to do this sooner rather than later when two people close to them experienced serious health problems in their mid 30s. They realised that putting off travel until retirement was not a wise choice when they might never reach retirement. So they saved like mad and decided to travel in the year they hit 40. The Talbots did not achieve their goal — they surpassed it, travelling much longer than they had originally planned.

The relentless practical focus of this book is inspiring. You can’t make excuses for not pursuing your dream when you are provided with a plethora of practical advice which tells you what steps you need to take. Sure, you will need to figure out the details of those steps, but the book gives you a template.

The book is realistic and honest too, telling you that it will be hard to turn down things which stand in the way of your dream. You will have to sacrifice a lot in order to achieve your goals, whether that means studying while your friends are socialising or not being able to afford meals out. There will be difficult times as you prepare to achieve your dream — but it is, ultimately, worth the sacrifice.

I love the proactive approach advocated by Dream Save Do. My own situation is very different to the Talbots (they were yuppie types with a big suburban house and no debt), but their advice is universal. Their dream is different to my own, but the route I need to take to get there runs parallel to theirs. The very title of the book reminds you of what needs to happen if you want to be happy and fulfilled: dreaming is not enough on its own. You need to work out how to fund your dream and then go out and live it.

Learning to Play Big

This post is dedicated to Kathryn Bond, one of the most awesome women I know.

A couple of months ago, I read Playing Big: A practical guide for brilliant women like you by Tara Mohr and was inspired. The book calls on women to stop limiting themselves, to stop believing  the crap society tells you about knowing your place and to chase your dreams. Women tend to “play small” in their careers and personal projects. They regard hugely successful women with awe, wishing they were like her, instead of realising that they — and you — are that woman.

There is no “success” gene or magic elixir. There is nothing fundamentally different about the women who achieve great goals; all women have such potential. The difference is, ultra-successful women have seized opportunities ities, persisted in the face of criticism and aimed high. When they have been discouraged and their confidence has failed them, they keep going. Mohr calls upon all of us to keep going and to support others in their endeavours.

Read Mohr’s 10 Rules for Brilliant Women for an introduction to how to play big.

Another woman who is no stranger to playing big, Mayim Bialik, launched a website last week: GrokNation.com. For anyone who doesn’t know, Bialik plays Amy Farrah Fowler on The Big Bang Theory, was the eponymous Blossom in a former life and got a PhD in Neuroscience in between. in addition, she has published books on two of her passions: veganism and holistic parenting.

I have enjoyed reading her posts on GrokNation so far — it’s refreshing to read open, honest viewpoints on a range of issues, especially from someone in the public eye. I don’t share all of Bialik’s views, but I admire her integrity and intelligence. I was also delighted to read (in a reply to a reader’s comment) that she plans to write about mental health.

My mentor, Emylia Hall, is another amazing woman. She has written her third novel, The Sea Between Us, which will be published in paperback on 27th August and is already available on Kindle. It’s a love story with a difference — the protagonist finds fulfilment in herself, through surfing, family relationships and art, becoming a whole person in her own right. Whether or not she gets the guy who seems to be her destiny is another aspect to her life, not its raison d’être. 

Emylia’s first two novels, The Book of Summers and A Heart Bent Out of Shape are also fabulous. They also tackle issues of identity as young women learn about themselves and their place in the world, which is one of my interests — probably because identity struggles are a common element of Borderline Personality Disorder. I think it’s a topic that doesn’t get discussed enough, particularly when you consider that women are in a strange position, experiencing a lot of inequality and prejudice despite not being a minority group in any society (bar a few religious enclaves).

Emylia is also an incredibly supportive mentor. I was selected as her mentee after I applied to the mentorship she was offering through the WoMentoring Project, which links aspiring female writers to mentors who are established in their fields. It’s all done on a voluntary basis, which means people of limited means (like myself) have access to mentorships. Emylia has continued to encourage and advise me, long after my initial mentorship ended, for which I am incredibly grateful.

I’m trying to play big and struggling, but reading about other women who are defining success on their own terms and striving towards their goals keeps me motivated. The women I know who do amazing things every day, like working with children with challenging conditions like autism while raising a toddler and being an awesome friend, also inspire me.

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 4: The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau

The Art of Non-Conformity by Chris Guillebeau is a call for revolution. It’s about challenging convention and figuring out what you want from life, not what others expect you to want. It’s about discovering a lifestyle which works for you – whether that means travelling the world or living on an isolated mountaintop, working a few hours a day or making your work your life, spending your time partying or wandering alone. Your challenge, should you choose to accept it, is to look past the limitations put on you by society and live your dream.

Guillebeau is living his dream and uses his experiences to explain and illustrate his points throughout the book, but he also features many other people as case studies or examples. You might not want to follow Guillebeau’s lifestyle of frequent travelling (I don’t) but there is plenty of inspiration for different types of people. The Art of Non Conformity will appeal to anyone who has wondered “why should life be like this?”

It’s refreshing to read a book that encourages you to follow all of your crazy goals. So many lifestyle guides and self-help books take the opposite approach, asking you to reduce your goals – or abandon them – and focus on what’s “realistic” or “achievable”. The problem is, we don’t know what is achievable until we try. Throughout history, people have achieved what was previously believed to be impossible. Many of those things have become banal – I’m typing this post on a laptop that is more powerful than any computer that existed a few decades ago, yet it’s not the best model available (by a long shot) and although it’s purple and I like it, it is not particularly impressive. Some ordinary tasks, like online banking and internet shopping, have only taken off in the past decade. What if the people who originally had these ideas gave up their goals because they seemed unlikely to succeed?

The Art of Non Conformity teaches you to become a trailblazer. It doesn’t matter if your goals are small or weird or unique to you: you can experiment and discover new ways to lead your life. You might have an innovative idea that could change the world, or you might want to work out how you can do as many of your favourite activities for as long as possible. It doesn’t matter – be the trailblazer for your own, personal lifestyle.

It’s early days, but I have been inspired by The Art of Non Conformity and I’m trying to create the life I want. Guillebeau presents a range of advice and I can’t do it justice by summarising everything, but my favourite piece of advice is to write a to-stop-doing list. This is what it sounds like: a lists of tasks which waste your time and sap your energy, getting in the way of you achieving your goals. My list includes “watching TV programmes I wouldn’t bother recording” and “stressing about ‘what-ifs’”. If you would like to change your life and are looking for inspiration and ideas, read The Art of Non Conformity and check out the blog at www.chrisguillebeau.com

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 3: The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky

The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky is a practical guide full of scientific evidence – the strategies outlined in the book have all been proven to make people happier. Lyubomirsky is a psychology professor working in the field of positive psychology. The How of Happiness draws on her own research, as well as that of others, to explain the current science behind happiness and how you can use this knowledge to improve your own happiness.

The book focuses on how you can find ways to be happier which fit your own personality, needs, situation, values, etc. It helps you choose the strategies which will work best for you. There is also The Oxford Happiness Questionnaire, which you can use to track your progress. In short, The How of Happiness provides you with the tools to help yourself and become happier.

And it works. I have seen the proof in my own questionnaire records and everything is backed up with rigorous psychological research. Everyone can find at least a few strategies which will work for them – you can do this by filling out the Person-Activity Fit Diagnostic included in the book. There is also an appendix which suggests further activities to try if you benefitted from a particular strategy. Everything is geared towards you taking action to improve your happiness.

The strategies include expressing gratitude for the good things in your life (which we all have, even during the darkest times), cultivate optimism and committing to your goals, all of which I personally find helpful. Other strategies are nurturing social relationships, practising acts of kindness, avoiding overthinking and social comparison, taking care of your body, practising religion and spirituality, learning to forgive… You can experiment to find which tactics work best for increasing your happiness. You might choose to adopt two or three and leave it there, or you could keep adding new strategies as the old ones become habits.

The book’s style is informative without being dry or obscure. I enjoyed reading it, because Lyubomirsky presents a wealth of information without being condescending. She illustrates her points with real life examples and her tone is encouraging. Every strategy is explained and includes practical advice on fitting it into your lifestyle. Whether you want to overhaul your life or would just like to make a few tweaks in order to be happier, The How of Happiness is an excellent starting point.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Reads to Rewrite Your Life 2: Quiet – Susan Cain

Quiet: The power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking by Susan Cain is a book which celebrates people who are often ignored by society. Those of us who will happily chatter away to friends but clam up when trying to make small talk with a stranger. Those of us who will never be described as the life and soul of a party. Those of us who get shoved aside by people with louder voices. Cain points out that whereas extroverts are lauded, the advantages wielded by introverts are disregarded – and it’s time that changed.

Cain uses scientific experiments, case studies and her own experiences to illustrate the strengths and opportunities of introversion. She discusses how Steve Wozniak and Warren Buffett found success because of their introvert nature, not in spite of it. She compares extroverted cultures, like Harvard Business School, with introverted cultures, such as the majority of Asian communities. She includes a lot of information on how extroverts and introverts can relate to each other without conflict. In short, Quiet is a fascinating and incredibly helpful study of introverts.

Quiet separates introversion from traits which get mixed up with it: many introverts are shy, for example, but shyness is not an indicator of introversion. Introverts gain energy from being alone and feel drained by highly social situations. They tend to feel over-stimulated in noisy, crowded environments. They are accused of being “in their head” too much – though Cain points out that this is simply called being a thinker. Because introverts find it difficult to express themselves in groups, they are often accused of being slow, stupid and lazy, or are overlooked.

Knowing your tendencies as an introvert is valuable. Cain provides advice on how you can play to your strengths and work (or socialise) more effectively. She considers how different environments impact introverts and how these environments might be adapted. She teaches us how to compromise and when to change our behaviour to advocate for something we believe in. She describes how the internet presents new opportunities for introverts, allowing us to communicate to a lot of people without having to shout over the crowd.

After a lifetime of being told to be more extroverted, Quiet is refreshing and empowering. It reminds us that introverts are valuable members of society and can contribute a great deal to the world. Cain also gives plenty of guidance on how to be an introvert in a world which often seems to have been designed for extroverts. If you are an introvert yourself or have close friends or family members (especially children) who are introverts, I would consider this book essential reading.

 

About the Reads to Rewrite Your Life series

This series discusses books which have helped to change my perspective on life. Many will be self-help guides, some will be classics and others will be a little different… I aim to provide an eclectic mix to inspire everyone, regardless of whether or not you have mental health issues.

  1. Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway – Susan Jeffers
  2. Quiet: the power of introverts in a world that can’t stop talking – Susan Cain
  3. The How of Happiness – Sonja Lyubomirsky
  4. The Art of Non Conformity – Chris Guillebeau
  5. Wherever You Go, There You Are – Jon Kabat-Zinn
  6. Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
  7. Undoing Depression – Richard O’Connor

Make Kindness Your Superpower

The power of kindness is often experienced, but under-acknowledged. We tend to think of kindness as something that might brighten our day, but has limited impact on our lives. Wrong! Kindness can have huge effects: in the darkness of mental illness it can provide a light to help us find our way out. Performing acts of kindness can also help mental health problems, enabling us to reconnect with other people. Kindness can transform lives in small ways and big – look at the various charities who have provided people with clean water, basic healthcare, education, etc. And the best thing about kindness is that it benefits both the recipient and the person performing kind acts.

That’s why I want to invite you to make kindness your superpower. Use it to improve your life and the whole world.

Random acts of kindness have attracted a lot of attention over the past 10 years or so, celebrated for their eccentricity as much as their effects, but I prefer targeted acts of kindness. Targeted acts of kindness have more inherent meaning because they involve strong feelings about the recipient and/or the specific act of kindness. You might want to treat a friend who has stuck with you through the hard times, or who is going through a hard time herself. Perhaps you decide to donate to Amnesty International because you are passionate about human rights. Maybe you know a teenage boy who is always helping others and want to help him achieve one of his own goals. Targeted acts of kindness might not have the tabloid appeal of random acts of kindness, but I believe they are infinitely more awesome.

If we make kindness our superpower we can change the world, but we all have to start with a single person: you, yourself. It makes sense when you think about it – how can you access the full power of a value if you refuse to let it radiate in all directions, including inwards? When you are kind to yourself, you increase your ability to be kind to others. How many more acts of kindness could you perform if you look after yourself instead of beating yourself up all the time? How much more effort could you put into being kind to others when you gain the energy that comes from being kind to yourself?

Another awesome thing about targeted acts of kindness: they are accessible. Anyone can begin by doing something for a friend or loved one. Even if you are unable to leave the house, you can send an email to a friend thanking them for their support. You can make lunch for your parents if you can’t afford to treat them to dinner at a top restaurant. If you’re short on time, it takes seconds to send a charity donation via text message. Targeted acts of kindness cannot be quantified; when you are depressed, cooking dinner for someone is a massive act of kindness and the recipient will realise this, even if it seems insignificant to an outsider. A cheap surprise gift from a friend is more valuable than an expensive birthday present because it shows that your friend is thinking about you, without being prompted by a special occasion. Do whatever you can and remember that acts of kindness, in whatever form, are always important and effective.

So venture forth and have fun with your new superpower. Think of creative ways you can help someone achieve their dream. Aim to target acts of kindness at as many people as you can in a single day – then try to beat your record on another day. Shower a single person with kindness. Form a league of kindness superheroes with your friends or colleagues and use your combined power to bombard a local neighbourhood or a faraway nation with kindness. Don’t worry if you can’t do something “big” – just do whatever you can and let us know about it in the comments.