By Major General U.S. Army (RET) Paulette Risher
President/CEO, Still Serving Veterans
As the vibrant, abundant, and live-affirming Spring emerges here in North Alabama, we turn to cleaning, planning, and planting. Life emerges and we shake off the damp grayness of winter – at least we try to. However, all too often we find ourselves going through the motions while feeling that we are missing something in our lives. We lack joy or feel disconnected from ourselves, others, and the Creator.
We struggle to find meaning, purpose, and fulfillment – and we find ourselves ruminating about the past, worrying about the future, and berating ourselves for falling short of someone else’s opinion about what we should do or be.
This bias to negativity is our biological heritage, but not our destiny. As author Rick Hanson says, “our bodies were designed to keep us safe, not happy.” According to the National Science Foundation we think 12,000 to 60,000 thoughts per day, 80% of which are negative. Dr. Ethan Kross observes that our inner voice chatters away during 50% of our waking hours, and 33-50% of that time is spent reliving the past or projecting into the future. So much of our self-dialogue is mean-spirited and critical. We talk to ourselves in a way that we would never talk to a friend. We lack self-compassion.
What can we do to intentionally improve our sense of well-being? First, we have to believe that we can be happier and fortunately, the work of Dr. Sonya Lyubomirsky provides insight on how we can do just that. Her research suggests that about 50% of our happiness is determined by a genetic setpoint, while about 10% is situational. The remaining 40% can be influenced by our actions and that is great news!
There is strong research from the areas of positive psychology and neuroscience that can help point the way to greater well-being. As someone who is personally committed to this work and likewise to assisting others, I would like to offer three steps and three practices to help in this endeavor.
The first step is what I call “getting off the rat wheel” of over-programed lives and creating time and space for quiet reflection. Take a deep breath and relax. Speak kindly to yourself. Get your ideas onto paper or electrons. Second, “listen to your own voice.” Make this private, personal work. Don’t share prematurely. Seek advice judicially. Set aside the din of social media and “experts.” Finally, “be not afraid.” We have a choice of either accepting the biological default or hunkering down, fearful, negative, reactive, and isolated or we can seek and claim our own well-being and happiness.
Three broad and interrelated approaches that have been shown to be beneficial in creating greater well-being are the practices of gratitude, mindfulness, and self-compassion. I would encourage you to spend some time reading and exploring these topics online. Three sources which I have found particularly helpful are Mindful Magazine, the Calm app, and Dr. Kristin Neff’s book Self-Compassion: The Proven Power of Being Kind to Yourself.
While with some intentional investment of time, tending and care, we can increase our well-being and quality of life, there may be times when we need professional help. This self-awareness is a sign of strength – take action!