How a Nightly Journaling Practice Can Help You Increase Happiness and Achieve Goals

I have journaled for many years. For a long time, I did it frequently, but without any real structure or schedule. That changed in 2011, when I was looking for strategies to help me feel more positive about life, during a particularly painful time. I learned about Martin Seligman’s “Three Good Things” practice. I have written about this practice previously because it has been (and continues to be) so meaningful to me.

The simple “Three Good Things” practice became the foundation for the journaling that I faithfully began doing each night. Every single night—even when I am Biking Across Kansas—I write in my journal about three things that went well during the day. Sometimes they are big things. Often, they are small things. The point of the practice is to stop and notice that good things happen, even on the most mundane day. Sometimes it is more difficult than others to come up with my three things. On a particularly difficult day, it might be something as basic as, “My warm shower felt good.” This helps me recognize gifts and blessing in the midst of challenges and disappointments. In addition to naming my three things, I follow each with the question, “Why?” and then write about why this was a good thing. This reflection is brief, but it is key to noticing why I feel good about something. In a 2005 study by Seligman, et al., participants who used the Three Good Things” practice for a week experienced improved mood for six months. I recognized the benefits so quickly after starting it that I made it a permanent practice.

This practice is so helpful that I have added check-ins throughout the day, when I am feeling stressed or tired or anxious. Mentally, I will take a moment to name three good things that have happened up to that point in the day. A variant that helps me get out of bed in the morning is to identify three things to which I am looking forward in the coming day.

Over time, I have added other questions that have benefitted me. Currently, in addition to my Three Good Things practice. Here are the others I use:

  • What do I want for and from myself tomorrow? This helps me to begin to set an intention for the next day. When I think about how I want the day to look, I can approach it consciously, making decisions that support my intention.
  • Do I have any regrets about my choices today? As I wrote in this post, my theme for 2019 is “No Regrets.” By checking in with myself each night, I take an honest look at the choices I made during the day and assess whether they were aligned with my values, goals and priorities. This idea of living to avoid regrets has become so compelling that I have recently refocused my coaching practice to help people who have become aware of how quickly time passes develop the energy, mindset and well-being to accomplish what they want to accomplish and live with no regrets. I strive to do this in my daily life, as well.
  • How will I live with no regrets tomorrow? This is when I decide if and how I need to adjust my choices the next day. It is also when I consider my responsibilities for the day and plan proactively to remain in alignment with values, goals and priorities.

Within the last couple months, I have added to my nightly journaling practice with the “Three Question Journal,” developed by Angeles Arrien. This practice has been used with medical students to help them recognize meaning in their work. I find that it can help me identify and acknowledge meaning in my life, too. Rather than overlooking or taking for granted events that have taken place during the day, I acknowledge the meaning they help create in my life. Here are the three questions:

  1. What surprised me today?
  2. What touched my heart today?
  3. What inspired me today?

The key with these questions is to write the first thing that comes to mind and to briefly reflect on it. One of the profound insights that I obtained in reading Kelly McGonigal’s The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You and How to Get Good at It, is her assertion that “A meaningful life is a stressful life.” I realized, upon reading this, that the mundane things that are part of my daily life, like work and family, while being significant contributors to stress in my life, are also significant contributors to meaning in my life. Recognizing this was truly life changing for me. This three-question practice reinforces this recognition.

My nightly journaling does not take all that long, but it is time well spent. It enables me to finish the day feeling centered, having integrated my daily activities and my thoughts and feelings about them. I finish by reading until I am ready to go to sleep and then choosing a quote from my collection for reflection, as I go to sleep.

My nightly journaling practice is one component of my non-negotiable self-care practices. Other things, like my morning mindfulness practice, exercise, plant-based nourishment and my various check-ins throughout the day round out my practice. Any of these is important alone, but together they support each other and add a greater sense of meaning and contentment to my life.

I encourage you to begin a nightly journaling practice, if you don’t already have one. You may want to use some or all of the questions I include. While there are times that I simply free-write in my journal, these questions are always part of my nightly practice. If you are starting with just one part of what I do, I recommend starting with “Three Good Things,” since this has been shown scientifically to enhance happiness in people who did it. Anecdotally, I can attest to its effectiveness. Once you have that practice in place, trust your instincts to add others—either from the ones that are meaningful to me or some that you adapt.

I have tried and abandoned some strategies because they didn’t serve me as well as these do. Several months ago, I subbed, “Was I better today than yesterday?” for “What do I want for and from myself tomorrow?” I missed the latter question, so I added it back and included my “no regrets” questions. This feels like a better fit.

I find that the structure of the questions and the soothing ritual they provide increase the centeredness I feel from the journaling. The practice helps put everything in its place for the day.  I hope you will give structured nightly journaling a try and let me know how it affects your life.

The Bike Is Where I Remember Who I Am

“My workout is my obligation to life. It’s my tranquilizer. It’s part of the way I tell the truth . . ..” –Jack LaLane

The work week and the heaviness of the world can weigh on me to the point where I feel like I don’t have the time, mental space or the emotional capacity to process my higher-level goals or work on the things that matter most to me.

The bike is where I remember who I am.

Part of this is just the gift of the ride. Out on the road—usually alone—my head clears, and space is created for inspiration and introspection. On the bike, whether for one hour or several, I can release the worries, stressors, deadlines and obligations of the rest of life. Although it is temporary, and I am under no illusions that it is otherwise, it is a true gift that has allowed me to find solutions to problems and answers to troubling questions. Often these answers may elude me when I give thought to the questions or issues off the bike. But, setting out on the road opens doors to possibilities that I have not been able to pry ajar during the rest of life.

Alone on the bike, I am free from noise and distractions, and my focus can be given to deeper thought and clearer thinking.

In an article in Scientific American, psychology professor Justin Rhodes explores some of the physiological and neurochemical reasons that exercise enhances thinking. One explanation is the increased blood flow—to the brain and elsewhere—induced by physical activity. Our hyperoxygenated brain is more effective at solving problems and thinking deeply.

Rhodes discusses the role of the hippocampus in exercise. I find this particularly interesting and plan to explore further how the hippocampus may be responsible for much of the mental and emotional benefit I experience during exercise. Memory, emotions and motivation—all factors in the heightened state I feel on the bike—are influenced by the function of the hippocampus.

There is some speculation that the evolutionary explanation for the exercise effect on brain function is that it was beneficial for our ancient ancestors to think more clearly and encode memories more deeply when exerting to fight or flee a danger. While there very well may be some truth to this, I also experience a sense of peace and happiness on the bike that feels inconsistent with a fight-or-flight response.

However, neurochemically, there is basis for this explanation. Albeit volitional and generally positive, exercise is a form of physical stress (which is why it needs to be balanced with rest and nutrition), resulting in physiological adaptations to stress. The brain releases Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF), a protein that protects and repairs neurons throughout the brain and body. Endorphins, hormones which act as a natural analgesic, are produced when we exercise, both minimizing physical discomfort and elevating emotions. This produces the experience known as “runner’s high.” As internally produced opioids, endorphins help form the exercise habit and keep the movers coming back for more.

Those are some of the physical explanations for the emotional benefits of exercise.

It is even deeper than that for me, tough. I feel a strong spiritual connection to the Universe, both that which is tangible in nature and that which is intangible.

This connection goes beyond recognizing the natural beauty around me, as I ride on quiet, rural roads. I do recognize it, and it plays a part in my well-being. I also feel more open, though, to receiving guidance and wisdom from the Universe, and I have found that I can beckon the Universal guidance through a process that I have refined, but that may continue to evolve.

It used to be that ideas and solutions would simply come to me on the bike, fairly infrequently, but powerfully, when they did. As I have nurtured increased mindfulness in my life and have felt an acceleration in personal growth since doing so, I have sought the guidance of the road more consciously. By opening myself to the gifts of the Universe, I have found myself more often the beneficiary of this guidance. While I don’t claim to understand fully (or even at all) its Source, I do have a renewed belief in its existence. And, the bike is where it very often finds me. Or, I find it. I am not sure which it is. I just know that the bike is where I remember (or am reminded) who I am.

Importantly, although it is the bike for me, it might be a run or a walk (I have glimpsed it on both.) for you. Or, if you are an extrovert (I am not.), maybe it is in a group dance or exercise class. Maybe it is in a game. Wichita State University basketball player Ricky Torres was recently quoted as saying, “If there was ever a lot going on in my life, I’d go get in the gym. When I’m on the court, I feel nothing else.” (The Sunflower, Issue 21, Volume 123, November 5, 2018) I believe he is referring to the same phenomenon I encounter on the bike.

So, the first step is finding the physical activity that reminds you who you are by helping you shed the layers of stress and heaviness and worries that daily life can pile upon you. This may take some experimenting, or, if you are lucky, you already know what it is. Maybe it is not just one form of movement, but there is likely one that stands out more than others as most consistently eliciting positive physiological and psychological responses. Commit to incorporating it into your life on a regular basis.

Here is my current practice for prompting the benefit in my life:

  1. I choose a quote from my vast collection. I do it randomly, but move on to another if the one on which I land does not speak to me in the moment. I want a quote that evokes thought and invites pondering and/or serves as affirmation. I may paraphrase it to make it easier to recall or more personal. I commit it to my short-term memory for easy retrieval.
  2. Before I get on the bike, I take three “4-2-6” breaths. This means that I inhale for a count of 4, hold for a count of 2 and exhale for a count of 6. While there are many beneficial breathing patterns that can be used, and that I use personally, I can’t remember where I first heard this one suggested as a pattern to use when you want to be “on.” (I also use this one before presentations or other times where my performance is important.) In general, controlled breathing patterns stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, or the relaxation response. I have not been able to find documentation about why 4-2-6 works to increase focus and is beneficial before performance. I think it may be as much the act of the ritual as anything, but it is effective for me, so I do it.
  3. I think of my quote as I center my mind.
  4. I have found the addition of an evocative question to be particularly effective at inducing great thinking and inviting inspiration on the bike. On my most recent emotionally and spiritually powerful ride, I used four questions that Rich Litvin asked some of his coaching clients: 1. What are your three biggest gifts? 2. What are your top three professional successes? 3. What holds you back the most—and always has? 4. What is the dark side of each of your gifts? Wow! What I learned about myself by asking these questions was incredible and led me to some clear conclusions about where my energy and priorities should be focused. More often, it is just one question, frequently inspired by the quote I choose as my mantra.
  5. I set an intention for my ride. This usually includes the all-important “staying safe,” but my most introspective, insightful and impactful rides are the ones where I set an intention to have questions answered, problems solved, to be open to the best the Universe has to offer or to find peace around a concern. The more specific I am, the better.
  6. Then, I ride. I usually settle into the ride for a few minutes and get out of town before recalling my mantra. I will often visualize around the mantra and may even recite it out loud.
  7. I reiterate my intention and my openness to receive.
  8. I ask myself the question or questions and ponder them.
  9. My mind opens, and I pay attention to the wisdom and guidance that comes my way. When this happens, I find myself feeling lighter, happier, more excited and stronger on the bike. I often notice that I am smiling. I may want the ride to go on and on.
  10. Eventually, sometimes sooner, sometimes later, I must return home. I have recently become more consistent about reflecting as quickly as I can—maybe just after my shower—on what I have learned on the bike. This is best done in my journal, or, occasionally, in a document on my laptop. Much like waking from a dream, I find that I am more likely to be able to remember and use the insight from the ride by capturing it as soon as possible.
  11. I decide where to take action. This is key. Without action, if the insight calls for it, I squander the wisdom the Universe has offered. I have learned to act, if only by taking a tiny first step. It is a way of appreciating what I have been given.

This blog post is one of the actions I am taking after a particularly insightful, if short and cold, ride I had last weekend. I sense that there is much more to come from what I learned on this ride. I am grateful and look forward to creating possibilities, based on my guidance on Saturday’s ride.

The bike is where I remember who I am. It is where I reclaim my power after work and daily life and stressors have eroded my belief in it and loosened my grasp of it. It is where, even more than in my daily meditation, I find myself to be the most open vessel to collect the best wisdom the Universe has to offer. It is a gift to know this about myself, and it is a gift that I want to give you—the awareness of mindful movement as a tool for growing into your Highest Good, Greatest Self and Grandest Life. I have not reached any of those yet, but I know that my bike rides propel me more quickly down the long, winding, head- and crosswind-riddled road of my journey to realizing these things in my own life. I believe the intentional pursuit of them is my responsibility, as well as my gift, even if it is painful and challenging at many junctures, not unlike some bike rides.

“Say ‘meditation’ to someone, and they usually picture someone sitting in a quiet, dark room. But you can just as easily meditate, relaxing yourself and visualizing, while your body is in motion during a Moving Meditation. It’s where the real you pops out. It’s when your true integrity, drive, passion, perseverance, tenacity, grace, and patience start to show and shine.” –Stacey Griffith

“But, I was only in my late 70s when I did that.”

“But I was only in my late 70s when I did that.” When I heard those words, I knew this chance encounter was even more special than I had initially realized.

I wanted to write this post the minute I got off my bike on Sunday, because I was so pumped about meeting Dale, but life has been very full, so it had to wait a couple days.

I look forward to my longer weekend rides all week. Work and family obligations encroached on my time this past weekend, and I anticipated Sunday morning’s ride feeling frustrated that I would not be able to ride as far as I would like. However, I was determined to make the ride a positive experience and celebrate the miles I would get.

Empowered movement combines mindset and movement. Before I get on the bike (or practice yoga, do strength training, go for a walk, etc.), I choose a quote on which to reflect and set an intention for the ride. On this ride I decided that I would reflect on my quote and repeat some mantras and affirmations each time I turned a different direction.

One of the advantages of riding on quiet, rural roads is that I can talk out loud most of the time. Each time I turned a corner, I spoke my quote, some related affirmations and other words that came to my mind. It was all very stream-of-consciousness. I felt more inspired and energized each time I voiced my empowering words.

I was excited by the time I stopped for a bathroom break 23 miles into my ride. As I came out of the bathroom on a rail trail just off the road where I was riding, an older man rode up and propped his bike against a park bench. We greeted each other, and then he said, “I see you all the time on 21st Street. We are usually going opposite directions, and I say to myself, ‘There is the lady on the white Fuji, and she goes WOOSH!’” He introduced himself as Dale, and we shook hands.

We talked about how lucky we are to have great areas to ride and about various organized rides we have done. He said he had seen me riding with my son on the Wicked Wind this year, a ride in May, where it was pouring rain. We commiserated about how cold we got on the Wicked Wind. He told me about riding the Katy Trail and how well-supported that ride was. We were just two cyclists, enthusiastically sharing stories and our mutual love for cycling.

I asked Dale if he had ever done Biking Across Kansas, which I ride every year. This is when the conversation took an amazing turn.

Dale said, “No, I have never done BAK, but my brother and I rode across Kansas in four days. (BAK is an 8-day ride, often with multiple days in the 70-90-mile range.) But, I was only in my late 70s when I did that. I’ll be 90 in two days.”

Holy smokes!!!!!

Dale told me that he started riding at age 71, when he purchased a $10.00 bike at a garage sale. He said, “I went for a ride and thought, ‘This is fun!’”  He bought many bikes after that, including some very nice ones, but said he had trimmed his bike stable from seven to two, just in the last few weeks.

“Until I was 85, I rode 7,000-7,500 miles a year,” he told me. (I ride 4,000-4,500 miles a year, and that is quite a bit.) “Now, I only ride 3,000-3,500.” Still, not too shabby for a nonagenarian!

“The Lord’s been good to me,” he said. “I don’t take any medicine, and that’s pretty good for my age.”

No kidding!

Then, he said, “I’m kind of a health nut, too. My wife and I have been vegetarian since 1951.” I said, “That’s awesome! I’m vegan.” “To be honest,” he said, “we eat vegan all the time, except when a relative is trying to be nice and makes us mac & cheese because they know we don’t eat meat. When that happens, we’ll eat it. But, otherwise, we eat vegan.”

We talked for several more minutes, and I thoroughly enjoyed every one of them. Despite our age difference, we clearly understood each other.

Finally, we parted ways because we were heading different directions. I was excited and energized as I got back on my bike, really uplifted by our conversation.

Then, it hit me. Dale was a gift from the Universe, helping to affirm that I am doing the right work with my coaching practice, including my free Facebook group. My mission is to teach the lifestyle practices that help people live and age with power and purpose, while contributing to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world. Some of the key pillars of what I teach (and practice in my own life) are mindfulness, plant-based nourishment and empowered movement. Dale is the embodiment of living and aging with power and purpose.

And, seriously, what are the odds of running into a nearly-90-year-old, nearly-vegan cyclist on this particular ride, where I was putting so much energy into manifesting the conditions I want to create in my life . .  . in KANSAS?! He had apparently noticed me for years, but we had never talked until that day.

One of my mantras on that ride and since was, “I am grateful that I am attracting exactly the right people, at exactly the right time, for exactly the right reasons.”

As I pedaled north, I knew, really knew, that Dale was one of my people—a true gift from the Universe to encourage me to continue working toward my goals.

I am grateful for Dale and look forward to seeing him again. Meeting him was amazing! My only regret is that I didn’t think to ask him if we could take a selfie together. I have a great, warm picture of him in my mind, though. What a gift!

A Different Slant on Common Advice

One of my favorite and most frequently used mantras is, “My thoughts shape my perceptions, determine my actions and behaviors and create the world I envision.”

Goethe’s advice to live each day as if life had just begun contradicts the popular recommendation to live each day as if it is your last. I find the idea of living as if life had just begun much more hopeful and inspiring. While living as if time is short (which it is, in the big picture) can remind us to make the most of each moment and to prioritize what matters, I think such a mindset can also discourage pursuit of our dreams and even encourage a fatalistic perspective.

I prefer a more optimistic, proactive approach to life.

If I think that life is drawing to a close, I am less likely do something challenging like build a health coaching business or even put in the work to be a stronger cyclist or to live as healthfully as possible. If I am living as if each day is my last, why bother?

But, if I adopt a perspective that views each day as a clean slate, a new opportunity, a chance for a beginning (with the benefit of the wisdom I have earned along the way to getting here), my options feel, if not limitless, far less bounded by fate or even time.

Every day is a chance to make a difference, to live my purpose and my values more fully, to embody my personal and professional missions. By choosing this outlook, I can act accordingly. It feels worth the risk to go after my goals and worth the effort to improve and grow.

It is easy to get discouraged when goals are not achieved as quickly as I might hope because life and responsibilities get in the way. However, I am empowered by embracing the belief that each day gives me a new chance to work toward my dreams and to add value to the world in new and exciting ways.

Tim McGraw hopes we get the chance to “live like we are dying.” My wish for you and for myself is that we seize the chance to live like we are living—right now, every day—not just existing or biding our time until we until we really are in our last days.

The mission of my coaching practice is “to teach the lifestyle practices that help people live and age with power and purpose, while contributing to the creation of a healthier, more compassionate world.” I believe this mission is far better served by living each day as if life has just begun and goals are worth pursuing and that my efforts matter.

I encourage you to try on this perspective and see how you like it. Compare it to viewing each day as if it were your last. What would you do differently if you lived each day as if life were just beginning?

Equanimity in the Wind

We Kansas cyclists know wind.

My original blog post explained the inspiration behind the JustWind name and philosophy. Justwindmusings.com blog continues to evolve into my coaching practice website, justwindcoach.com. I was encouraged last week, when I reconnected with an acquaintance with whom I had had no contact in nearly a decade. Out of the blue, without knowing the name of my coaching practice or my blog, she told me that she has always remembered our conversation when I explained the concept of adopting the perspective that life’s challenges are “just wind.” Her recollection helped validate for me the benefits of applying the “just wind” reframe in the face of challenges and difficulties.

Winds in Kansas were so strong on Tuesday that my son’s track meet was postponed. This is a reminder that, even when viewing challenges as “just wind,” there are times when we must stop and regroup. Occasionally, doing so is both prudent and necessary. Sometimes we encounter an obstacle so big that it causes us to step back and adjust. The important this is that we do get back on track and that we take from it what we choose to aid in future growth and progress on our path.

Regaining Equanimity

“When force of circumstance upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.”—Marcus Aurelius

Because the winds of life will blow, sometimes even knocking us down or pushing us off course, it is crucial that we have strategies to help return to equanimity, which is a state of calm steadiness, even in the face of chaos around us. Here are some of the strategies that I use personally and that I teach my coaching clients:

  1. Mindfulness: To me, this means being in the present, rather than being caught up in the frenzy of past regrets or future worries. Practicing mindfulness allows us to think before we act, to remember our priorities and to make conscious choices. It is a decision to act with purpose and to remain in alignment with our values. I see mindfulness as having at least two parts—a dedicated time for practicing mindfulness (Morning works well for me.) and anchors and rituals to return to mindfulness at key times (such as meals) throughout the day.
  2. Breathing exercises: While breathing exercises are part of my morning and pre-meal mindfulness practices, I also employ them throughout the day in moments of stress, times when I need or want increased focus and when I want to reset my mood and mindset. Noticing the breath, intentionally deepening and slowing the breath and practicing particular breathing patterns can all facilitate a return to equanimity.
  3. Empowered movement: Setting an intention for exercise and reflecting on that intention throughout a movement session often evokes feelings of relaxation, peace, gratitude and even joy or euphoria, after a long, stressful day. I can literally feel the weight of the day lift from my body on a good bike ride, where I am really focused on my intention for the ride. Any kind of physical activity can serve this purpose.
  4. Powerful words: I have mentioned in previous posts how much I love quotes. I have collected them for years and refer to my volumes (I just started my sixth blank book!) at several points throughout the day to find words that speak to me in the moment. If I do this before an opportunity to think—like a bike ride, drive or shower—I will contemplate the quote or use it as a mantra during that activity. It is amazing what insight can come from this practice. It often allows me to reset and steady myself in the face of life’s winds.

Appreciating the Winds

“Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.”—Elisabeth Kubler Ross

As difficult as it can be in the moment, we have much to gain, and a better chance at achieving equanimity, if we can find appreciation for the winds of life that batter us. It may not be so much that we appreciate the winds or challenges themselves, but that we recognize that they are a big part of what makes us who we are.

I find that riding into 35- or 40-mph wind for hours, while not exactly fun, is much more bearable when I remind myself that the winds are making me stronger and increasing my mental toughness. I often draw back on previous experience facing brutal headwinds or holding my line in the assault of crosswinds. I tell myself, “This is tough, but it is not as tough as the Satanta to Ashland day (an infamous day on Biking Across Kansas 2006).” I finished that day (and then sank, exhausted, onto the school bathroom floor to nurse my 1-year-old son), so I know that I have it in me to survive other ordeals.

We become stronger when we face the winds and survive.

Not only that, but we are shaped and changed and made unique by our difficult experiences. Acknowledging this is not the same as asking for these trials. Like the wind in Kansas, though, they will occur. When we can appreciate them for the lessons we learn and the strength we gain, we are better able to handle them. We become more adept at staying upright and at keeping on course amid the challenges.

Adopting regular rituals and practices that allow us to return to equanimity positions us on a peaceful platform to reflect on, and benefit from, the growth that we can achieve through courageously pedaling forward in life’s wind.