The Athlete's Way

Sweat and the biology of bliss

10 Keys to Happier Living Based on Self-Acceptance

"Learning to love yourself" might actually be "the greatest love of all."

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"Groovy" by Trevor Mikula
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A March 2014 survey by psychologists who study happiness identified “ten keys to happier living” and daily habits that make people genuinely happy. In an unexpected finding, the psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire who performed the survey found that the habit which corresponded most closely with being happy—and satisfied with overall life—is self-acceptance.

Unfortunately, self-acceptance was also the "happiness habit" that participants in the survey practiced the least. The new study is titled "Self-Acceptance Could Be the Key to a Happier Life, Yet It's the Happy Habit Many People Practice the Least."

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Last week, I wrote a Psychology Today blog post titled, “The Neuroscience of Social Pain” based on a study which found that social pain activates similar brain circuits whether someone was suffering personally or if they experienced the pain as an empathic response to another person's social pain.

A few days ago, I got an insightful and moving comment from a reader named Maria who said, “your last post reminded me of how I arrived at the realization that most of my personal anger and conflict was with myself. That being said, I now know how to deal with my unresolved issues because now I know the source. It has also served me in my quest for my life passions. I am a writer and now I feel I can really make progress because of the epiphany I experienced this last year.”

While reading this new study from the University of Hertfordshire this morning, I was reminded of Maria’s epiphany that: "most of her personal anger and conflict was with herself.” Hopefully, this blog post will help other readers have a similar life changing experience by finding ways to increase self-acceptance.

Through extensive research, the psychologists at the University of Hertfordshire identified three positive actions that can increase levels of self-acceptance.

3 Positive Actions That Increase Self-Acceptance

  1. Be as kind to yourself as you are to others. See your mistakes as opportunities to learn. Notice things you do well, however small.
  2. Ask a trusted friend or colleague to tell you what your strengths are or what they value about you.
  3. Spend some quiet time by yourself. Tune in to how you're feeling inside and try to be at peace with who you are.

Professor Karen Pine is a psychologist from the University of Hertfordshire and co-founder of Do Happiness, explains these three actions saying: "Practicing these habits really can boost our happiness. It's great to see so many people regularly doing things to help others—and when we make others happy we tend to feel good ourselves too. This survey shows that practicing self-acceptance is one thing that could make the biggest difference to many people's happiness. Exercise is also known to lift mood so if people want a simple, daily way to feel happier they should get into the habit of being more physically active too."

The ten “happy habits” included in the survey are based on a framework created by Karen Pine and her colleagues. These keys to happier living are built on the acronym GREAT DREAM. I agree with each of these habits wholeheartedly and love the acronym.

10 Keys to Happier Living

  1. Giving – Do things for others.
  2. Relating – Connect with people.
  3. Exercising – Take care of your body.
  4. Appreciating – Notice the world around.
  5. Trying Out – Keep learning new things.
  6. Direction – Have goals to look forward to.
  7. Resilience – Find ways to bounce back.
  8. Emotion – Take a positive approach.
  9. Acceptance – Be comfortable with who you are.
  10. Meaning – Be part of something bigger.

For this happiness study, 5,000 people were surveyed and asked to rate themselves on a scale of 1 to 10 based on how often they did each of the 10 habits. The survey also examined which habits were most closely related to a person's overall satisfaction with life.

All ten habits were found to be strongly linked to life satisfaction, although Acceptance was found to be the habit that most strongly predicted happiness. But again, it was also the one least practiced.

In addition to the advice given by the happiness researchers, I highly recommend practicing loving-kindness meditation (LKM) regularly. When doing LKM, you should systematically go through a 4-step process of directing loving, compassionate, and/or forgiving thoughts to four categories of people:

  1. Loved Ones.
  2. People with whom there is conflict or tension.
  3. Strangers.
  4. Yourself.

Loving-kindness meditation has been shown to change the structure and function of the brain and is a highly effective way to fortify compassion and acceptance of yourself and others.

Conclusion: The Dual-Edged Sword of Self-Acceptance vs. Self-Improvement

There is a potential paradox in terms of believing “I'm 100% OK” and was “Born This Way” being extremely positive ... and the potential backlash of believing “you're totally fine as you are” justifying complacency and keeping you stuck in a rut. It can be a thin line between self-acceptance and apathy.

It's important to identify specific lifestyle choices, habits, and character traits that you should happily accept while also being objective about things you might want to work on improving. Finding the sweet spot between self-acceptance vs. self-improvement requires being honest and compassionate about who you are, while simultaneously acknowledging that nobody's perfect and we can always improve ourselves. This can be a tightrope walk.

I'm optimistic that consistently practicing the three positive actions to increase self-acceptance, along with the 10 keys to happier living, and loving-kindness meditation can make everybody more self-accepting and happier.

If you'd like to read more on this topic, check out my Psychology Today blog posts:

Follow me on Twitter @ckbergland for updates on The Athlete’s Way blog posts.

Christopher Bergland is a world-class endurance athlete, coach, author, and political activist.

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