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3 Mindful Practices That Can Make You Happier

Reconnect to what matters most today.

Lesly Juarez/Unsplash
Source: Lesly Juarez/Unsplash

Everyone is connected by the desire to live a healthy, meaningful, and fulfilling life.

We’re all trying our best with work, family, and our health. However, remembering to prioritize your emotional well-being is tricky when you’re stressed and busy.

To celebrate the release of my co-authored book, A Mindful Year, which I wrote over the course of a year with Dr. Seth Gillihan, I’d like to share three practical, mindful rituals to mental wellness that only take a few minutes each day.

The Happiness Paradox

When economics professor Richard Easterlin turned his attention to the study of happiness in the 1970s, he found a surprising paradox: While there appears to be a link between happiness and income among countries, happiness levels do not rise over the long term as a country’s income increases.

In the U.S., overall wages have risen in real terms over the past three decades, and yet happiness levels have decreased overall. The prevalence of mental disorders has slightly increased since 1990. While there is an ongoing debate about whether life satisfaction accompanies economic growth, there is data that challenges the fundamental assumption that money buys happiness.

On a daily basis, so much of our time and energy is focused on our financial progression and other outward markers of “success.” The importance of money, fame, status, and power are embedded in our social fabric. We’ve become consumed with our careers, often to the detriment of our mental wellness, physical health, and close relationships.

As a high-performance psychologist, I’ve worked with individuals at the top of their professional game in the entertainment industry, finance, and sports. These men and women often have achieved global fame, industry recognition, and amassed fortunes into the tens and hundreds of millions of dollars.

All too often, however, even at the peak of their “success,” rather than experiencing inner contentment and fulfillment, there is fear, anxiety, and dissatisfaction. Net worth does not equate to self-worth. Material comforts do not fill the void and eradicate the feeling that there is something “missing” from life.

The Two Paths

There are two paths in life: the external and the internal. The external centers on our career and material circumstances. The inner journey relates to emotional growth and fulfillment. Both are important. Both are worthy in their own right.

Whether we’re conscious of it or not, most of us expect outer success to bring inner peace. We fall into the trap of becoming fixated on the external. We jump onto the hedonic treadmill, striving to attain and achieve more while staying in the same place emotionally and spiritually.

If we wish to have stronger mental and physical health in the long term, it’s crucial to progress on both paths. The issue is one of balance.

A Daily Practice

The ancient Stoics recognized the importance of taking a little time each day for quiet reflection. Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Roman leaders known as the Five Good Emperors, created this space each morning to prepare for the day ahead. This practice forms part of the art of living, wisdom, and self-mastery.

Without a framework for managing the stresses of everyday life, few of us carve out the space necessary to clear our mind, learn from our experiences, and have greater control over how we respond to what life throws at us. Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, websites, and TV programs compete for our attention.

Although we’re more connected than ever by the internet and social media, we’re missing a true sense of connection to the things in life that provide us with deep meaning and fulfillment. Somehow we’ve lost our way, prioritizing financial and technological progression over our mental, emotional, and spiritual health.

Below are three simple tips to find your way back to a deep sense of satisfaction and connection each day. Try these practices in the morning to connect to what you value—to what truly matters.

1. Let values be your guide

Consider these three questions:

1. What type of person do you want to be? 

2. How would you like to be remembered? 

3. Who do you admire?

These questions will help you to discover the values that are important to you.

Invitation: Try writing your answers down somewhere you can access easily, perhaps in a note on your phone or on a small piece of paper you can keep in your purse or wallet. Throughout the day, bring these values to mind. Take a few slow, deep breaths. With each out-breath, say each value in your head or whisper it. Smile a little. Allow it to fill your body, to live in the present moment, and to guide your actions. 

2. Mindfully enjoy your food

Many of us struggle to be present as we eat. Countless times, I’ve found myself eating in a rush, even if I’m not all that hungry.

When we’re able to experience it, food can provide connection. Years ago a good friend of mine had a freak heart attack at age 36 (she recovered completely). Her sudden life-or-death crisis called into question the assumptions we make about life’s stability. That evening, I found such comfort in the familiar ritual of guiding my knife through vegetables as I prepared dinner.

We have at least three opportunities a day to deliberately experience our food. We can appreciate the colors and textures of the food, the aromas that trigger salivation, the feel of the food in our mouths, the sounds of our utensils, and of course the tastes—all five senses. We can also notice our emotional responses to food: the craving if we’re famished, the satisfaction of the first bite, our gratefulness for another nourishing meal.

Invitation: At each meal today, experience eating with as much presence as possible. Savor your food with awareness. Notice how this approach affects your relationship with the act of eating. Bon appétit!

3. Develop compassion for yourself

As humans, we’re extremely good at being hard on ourselves. We hold rules and standards for the way that we look, think, feel, act, and interact. And when we fall short of these benchmarks, we can come down on ourselves like a ton of bricks, hurling internal abuse and insults.

Self-criticism often develops as a protective mechanism. Our brains are wired to protect us. The ability to discern when our actions might expose us to danger is adaptive. Self-criticism, however, can easily tip from constructive communication into destructive dialogue.

If we want to be our own source of care rather than condemnation, the first step is to become aware of our inner voice, particularly during those moments when we are charged with hostility rather than warmth. The second step is to acknowledge that our mind is just trying to keep us safe, even it if may be hurting us more than it is helping. The third step is to speak to ourselves in a way that will uplift and inspire.

Invitation: When you notice an inner critic speaking, acknowledge that it’s trying to help. Then ask yourself, what would I want a good friend to say to me?

A conversation I had with Dr. Seth Gillihan about mindful presence is available here: "How to Connect With What You Love Every Day of the Year."