According to positive psychologist Dr. Maria Sirois, there are three pillars of humanity: resilience, happiness, mindfulness.
To self-actualize by becoming wise in doing what we love – also known as thriving in life – we should pursue the actions listed below. Each one is defined, explained through examples, and supported by rationale stemming from our current understanding of human needs.
Note that the list is not intended to be used as a checklist; rather, this is a menu from which you can select the actions that meet your unique needs. Each of the possibilities combines both short term and long term benefits, with an emphasis on the long term. Ideally, we should be investing in activities that stimulate long-term endorphin release over short-term dopamine fixes.
Social connection. Humans are designed to connect with one another. Whether we share in the joy of a friend’s accomplishment or support a family member through a difficult period, empathizing requires that we pay attention. Drs. Brené Brown and John Gottman describe bids for connection as sliding door moments, or opportunities to turn toward or away. When someone brings our attention to something – ‘Hey, have you seen Infinity War yet?’ – they are essentially looking for a means to relate to us. The potential responses to this sliding door moment are variable, and whether the answer is ‘Yes’, ‘No’ or ‘Other’ does not really matter – the bottom line is whether or not our response acknowledges the bid for connection. Saying ‘No, I have not seen it but have been wanting to – do you think it’s worth going to?’ is much preferable to ‘Yes’, followed by turning away. In our accumulated interactions with an individual, are we responding in a way that fosters connection in the majority of sliding door moments, or not?
- How might an anxiously attached person respond to rejection during a bid for connection? How might an avoidant attachment impact the interpretation of rejection?
- What measurable and reasonable actions can we take to foster connection?
Exercise. Physical activity is an effective means for dissipating the adrenaline rush of stress. Going for a brisk walk or taking on a more intense activity such as a game of squash, exercise functionally counteracts the negative physical impacts of stress. The added bonus is that we feel stronger, sleep better and improve our digestion!
Consider: How does a combination of exercise and social connection benefit a person’s overall wellbeing?
Goal-reaching. Progressing toward self-determined goals is the ultimate form of self-actualization. Being in tune with what we want and being able to articulate and actively execute an achievable plan is both intrinsically driven and intrinsically rewarded. Two pleasure related hormones, dopamine and endorphin, serve to encourage further goal-setting and goal-reaching, which increases a sense of personal accountability. Note that it is preferable to set process goals over product goals; i.e. exercising for 30 minutes three times per week (instead of losing 10 pounds in one month).
- When was the last time you reached a goal you had set for yourself? What was the goal? How much effort did it require, and how did reaching the goal make you feel?
- What direction do we move in when we do not have set goals? (Remember: inaction, or pursuing the status quo, is also a choice)
Grounded optimism. As opposed to misconstruing reality as ideal, grounded optimism is living with and. With fluctuations, everyone experiences both “good” (or enviable) circumstances and “bad” (or preferably avoided) circumstances. The goal is to recognize your life for what it is – both the bad and the good together – so that self-pity, victimization, and blaming others are counteracted with a more productive refocusing on the good in our lives. In action, this looks like: “my brother has broken yet another promise to my children, AND I have friends that my kids can rely on” or “my child has been diagnosed with cancer, AND I have access to some of the best medical care in the world.”
- Could you list your current frustrations and your current points of celebration?
- Which list do you tend to focus on? In other words, who do you choose to be in your given circumstances?
Healthy coping. Dr. Gabor Mate’s research on addiction strongly supports the concepts of socially acceptable and socially unacceptable forms of coping with childhood trauma. Between two individuals working late hours, the distinction between healthy and unhealthy coping is the internal relationship with the behaviour – is a person working excessively to avoid home responsibilities? Or is the person able to balance temporary extended hours with long-term social, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of being? In other words, is the behaviour compulsive or avoidant, or is the behaviour an intentional decision that serves self-determined goals?
One form of healthy coping is to take a strength-based approach, in which one identifies and leans on an already existing strength. For example, if one’s signature strength is a love of learning, during a difficult financial time in the family, one could gather as much information and gain a deeper understanding as a way to productively pass the time and find solutions.
- What are your signature strengths that you can lean on during times of stress?
- What are some strengths that you would like to develop during times of low-stress?
- How might a person’s experience of a difficult life experience shift if they are pressured to behave in ways that are unnatural to them, versus leaning into their personal strengths?
Frequent reflection. A critical element of transitioning from autopilot to intentional decision-maker, frequent reflection involves contemplating what we do, why we do it, the outcomes of our choices, and whether or not those outcomes align with our goals. After all, the consequences of our intentions is not always what we intend. What’s more, as beings capable of rationalization, we are adept at justifying actions – even those that do not align with our stated values and self-determined goals – external structures or objective input are essential to increasing consciousness of our actions, habits in particular, and assessing them against our stated objectives. One of the benefits of objective “assessment” tools and community connections is the divergent perspective that it offers.
- Do you have a daily reflection practice? How does this impact your day? If you don’t, how might you integrate it into your current routines?
- How is life without goals and reflection similar to playing golf without the flag on the green?
- Have you ever received input from a tool or a person that surprised you? Why or why not?
Gratitude and acts of kindness. An increasing body of mental health research is demonstrating the value of committing to gratitude and regular acts of kindness. Gratitude reminds us of the tangible good in our lives and prevents us from wallowing in fantasy; i.e. the “shoulds” and “coulds” of our lives. Acts of kindness feeds our social nature and elevates positive feelings in not only the recipient of the kindness, but also in the person acting on the kindness and anyone who witnesses the kindness. As such, acts of kindness have what is known as a “contagion effect” in which the simple acts increase the probability of reciprocation among multiple parties. Gratitude and acts of kindness are two simple means for becoming the change we want to see in the world.
- What are you grateful for? Does your list include both big and small considerations? Would you include yourself in your list?
- What are some memorable acts of kindness you had been the recipient of? How have they impacted your self-perception and world view?
- When was the last time you have provided a random act of kindness? What compelled you? What was the result?