You can’t fail to miss the approaches that currently espouse habits as being the core to self-improvement. And because we humans like things to be simple it’s appealing to consider habits or other ‘life hacks’ as a straightforward way of making our life better. But while habits are definitely a part of who we are, they are only a very tiny part in a complex jigsaw puzzle.
If you’ve tried working on your habits you’ve most likely realized that, despite delivering some results – you may for example manage to cut back on your junk food intake, or get up earlier in the morning and get more done – these things alone don’t get at the core of what makes you happy.
Some people use the phrase ‘putting in the work’ when it comes to self-improvement (which I personally hate, but I also hate the term self-improvement) and in reality, that’s what it takes. But the danger with many of these approaches including habits, is that you opt for the easy option, ‘put in the work’ anyway but do it on the wrong things. It becomes a bit like running on the spot – you graft away but don’t actually get anywhere. With habits for example you could work on all of the behaviours that will help you to do better at work – getting in early, speaking up in meetings, closing deals. This helps you to get a promotion, but really, you’re miserable, you don’t love what you do and what you really need is to take a completely different career path.
If you don’t know how self-improvement hacks of any sort fit into the bigger picture of who you are and what you really want from life, then they can result in a lot of wasted energy and even doing more harm than good.
So, what should you do?
The only approach that really works is setting out from a place where you accept that you need to put in the work but then doing so on the right things. That involves self-exploration (and this is never ending but if done right is also incredibly fulfilling) and defining what meaning means to you.
Why is meaning important?
Your sense of meaning provides the parts of the puzzle that every other piece fits into. It’s the compass that guides us. Say for example your meaning is to help people to live a more fulfilled life (and it doesn’t have to be as cheesy as this, this is just mine) – then forming habits around getting a promotion in a consulting job which is focussed on making money for clients (my experience which didn’t align with my values, strengths or sense of purpose) is not at all helpful to making me happier or more fulfilled.
If you know what meaning means to you, then when you do start to working on your habits, you’re doing so in a way that aligns with where you really want to go rather than heading off in completely the wrong direction.
But having a sense of meaning is more than a framework – it literally gives you a reason to get up in the morning. It’s so powerful that it has positive benefits via a wide range of physical and mental health outcomes: protecting against heart disease, diminishing the impacts of Alzheimer’s, improving our ability to handle pain, mitigating depression,curbing anxiety, and also lengthening our lives. Alongside this, research shows that meaning is a major component of well-being and life satisfaction.
Defining your meaning
Although meaning is unique to each one of us it’s built on some common foundations, which you can discover through self-exploration.
- made up of your values and passions (I was ignoring these when I became a consultant);
- reached by making use of your strengths and preferences (I was also ignoring these);
- found through connecting with others, giving back to others, and continually learning.
What meaning means to you
If you want to explore what meaning means to you I’d suggest:
- Starting with defining your values. Russ Harris has some great free resources for doing this (see below) and I also cover it in my book Defining You.
- Reflecting on what you’re truly passionate about – what are the things that make you light up or lose track of time? Sometimes it’s helpful to ask a friend or loved, they can often have a clearer idea of what you’re really crazy about than you do.
- Thinking about what you’re really good at. It’s often those things that you may just take for granted as being something that everyone can do. Again, asking a friend, loved one or a colleague can help with this.
- Exploring what this all points to? What’s the bigger picture for you? What’s your purpose? This isn’t an easy question to answer but once you’ve got a bit clearer on the elements above begin to think about what plays to all of these factors.
So please, resist the temptation to take the easy route to happiness, because it won’t take you where you really want to go. Proper psychological approaches may take a little more work, but they also result in a far better quality of life and well happiness. After all that’s what we’re all searching for isn’t it?
Adapted from Fiona Murden’s book Defining You for more guidance on how to find your meaning and references pointing to other people’s great work on this pick up a copy.
Russ Harris – http://thehappinesstrap.com/category/values/