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 Comfort Conundrum

For a long time, I have believed that it was nobler to choose a direction based on moving toward a desired destination than on moving away from a current condition. Recently, as I have thought about this idea, I have recognized what I am calling “the comfort conundrum.”

I have become aware that I sometimes have difficulty taking meaningful action toward a change because my current situation is comfortable. It is not always clear to me if inertia or a deep longing for stability is behind the pull of the comfort of the known. Maybe, it is a little of both. I have a strong fear of being mired in inertia, but I acknowledge that it is possible that inertia plays into the equation. As I get older, I am also aware of a longing for stability with relationships, with career and with habits.

Stability feels honorable. Inertia feels repugnant. Where is the line between them?

When pondering taking a risk to move in a new direction, as I have said in another post, I sometimes find myself thinking, “It would be easier not to . . ..” That is not a good enough reason for me, though.

As Michael Bungay Stanier says,

“You need to get clear on the payoff for changing something as familiar and efficient . . . as an old behavior.”

Or, as Simon Sinek would say, we must be clear on our “why.”

I realize that comfort is a blessing, a gift, something that so many people in the world do not have, in even the most basic ways. I am grateful for my comfort, but I am also troubled by the comfortable state of “good enough” because I am often just comfortable enough that I am not compelled to make a change. My pull to stay put can be a cyclical thing, varying with my current level of comfort or discomfort in a given situation.

This conundrum presents itself as ambivalence—a constant tug-of-war between the comfort of stability and the excitement of possibility.

Shortly before I left on a recent bike ride, I came across a simple method for quantifying happiness. I was reading the book The Upside to Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self—Not Just Your “Good” Self—Drives Success and Fulfillment, by Todd Kashdan and Robert Biswas-Diener. The book, as a whole, did not resonate with me, but it mentions a 1965 study by Dr. Hadley Cantril, which used a simple image of a ladder to quantify happiness. Dr. Cantril asked study participants to visualize the ladder with numbers from zero to ten on each ascending rung. With the lowest rung being the worst possible life, and the highest being the best possible life, participants rated both where they currently placed themselves on the ladder and where they expected to be in five years. I used my time on that bike ride to consider this ladder exercise for myself. It was revelatory for me to this, and I came to the conclusion that there is a tipping point in the conundrum. It is easier to recognize this, if I look at different aspects of my life, rather than at my life, as a whole. Quantified, the conundrum zone seems to be five to seven. In this zone, I am “comfortable enough.” Stability is appealing here because it is known and safe, and there are things I really like about it. The tipping point, where it becomes too uncomfortable to remain, seems to be four or lower. As Anais Nin said,

“The day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.”

Picturing my placement on the ladder in five years was an instructive wake-up call. It would be easy to remain in the zone of the comfortable known, around a six in certain areas of my life. But, when I consider that I would be in exactly the same situation in five years, without having moved the dial on certain things that I really do want to change or goals that I really do want to meet, I realize that I will have regret and disappointment.

Because the conundrum zone is comfortable enough, this recognition came with some sadness and even a little dread, but the fear of regret and disappointment in myself is even more persuasive than the draw of stability.

In certain areas, stability wins. In others, I know that I must dig deep for the courage to move out of the comfortable status quo, in order to avoid being in the same place (or possibly lower, due to regret and disappointment) on the ladder.

I also found it interesting to use this exercise retrospectively. It seems even more difficult than projecting into the future, but, looking back, where was I on the ladder—as a whole and in various aspects of my life—five years ago?

I haven’t solved the challenge of the comfort conundrum, but I have new insight on it, and on the necessity of overcoming it, after doing this exercise.

Although I don’t think this was the application that Dr. Cantril intended, the ladder exercise seems a useful tool for any of us who find ourselves struggling to achieve a goal or make a change that, on the surface, we believe we want. Paired with the idea of the comfort conundrum, we can recognize why we may not be following through on our goal, change or habits and ask ourselves how we would feel about being on the same rung in five years.

I encourage you to try it. You may want to look first at where you currently would be on the ladder, from the perspective of your whole life. Then, where do you expect to be on the ladder in five years? Why? How do you feel about that? Where do you want to be? What would need to change, in order for you to move up to that rung?

Then, if there is a specific change you have been considering—a habit, a relationship, a career move, weight loss, something else—but have not made any real progress, apply the exercise to that change. Where are you on the ladder currently? Do you find yourself in the zone of the comfort conundrum—five to seven? If so, are you okay with still being there in five years? If you are, maybe it is time to let go of that goal and adopt one that is more compelling for you. If not, what needs to happen to put you on track to climb up the ladder to where you want to be?

After my ride and this thought exercise, I had a clearer picture that, although I am comfortable enough in certain areas of my life, the idea of remaining on the same rung in five years is heavy with the dread of disappointment and regret. With this recognition, I realize that I have the responsibility to take the necessary steps to climb to my desired rung on the happiness ladder.

How about you? Are you satisfied with where you expect to find yourself on the ladder in five years?

“You must want change more than you want the status quo.” Marcia Ramsland

What Limits Would Create More Freedom in Your Life?

Gretchen Rubin is one of my favorite authors. She writes about happiness and habits, two topics of interest to me. She has developed a collection of what she calls her “Secrets of Adulthood,” lessons she has learned over the years that help her to navigate life on a day-to-day basis.

I recently pondered one of these on my bike, and I decided I would pose the question it generated for me to you.

Rubin says, “Give yourself limits to give yourself freedom.”

While this may seem contradictory at first, it is not.

The question I encourage you to ask yourself is, “What limits can you give yourself to create more freedom in your life?”

You can start by considering whether there is something from which you would like to be free. Is there a habit you would like to eliminate? Do you long to be free from a negative self-image? Would you like to shed some physical or emotional weight? Is financial debt weighing you down? Is it the heaviness of regret or disappointment? Is there someone you need to forgive? Do you need to forgive yourself?

The sources of bondage are endless. Freedom requires proactive action. Rubin’s secret of adulthood is one of the keys to the kind of proactive action that can free you from whatever bondage has its hold on you.

During that introspective bike ride, I was considering where I could add limits to create freedom in my own life. One area that came to mind was my relationship with chocolate. Periodically, I can fall into the trap of using chocolate as a crutch. I have to catch myself, acknowledge it and be willing to impose limits, in order to free myself from its clutches and consequences. While different issues will call for variations on these ideas, using chocolate dependence as an example, here are the steps I recommend for setting limits to create freedom:

  1. Check in with yourself. A mindfulness practice is a great way to do this. Taking time each day to stop, quiet your mind and notice if there is anything that has you feeling unsettled can help you catch issues that are preventing you from being truly free.
  2. If there is a pattern that creates anxiety or raises negative feelings or something that you wish were different in our life, recognize it and acknowledge it for yourself. This might just be in your head, but it might be helpful to journal or talk to someone about it.
  3. Decide what limits you need to create freedom. I have treated my tendency toward dependence on chocolate in different ways at different times. When it was severe, 12 years ago when we moved to a new home with a toddler, I eliminated the option of chocolate consumption in any form. This felt necessary at the time. I did not allow myself any chocolate for three years. While difficult at first, it was very freeing. Once I had other safeguards in place, it felt safe to allow it back into my life in controlled situations. Overall, that served me for many years, but, in the past several weeks, I loosened my limits to compensate for perceived lack in other areas of life (That could be another whole blog post.), and I recently recognized and acknowledged to myself that I was disappointed with my lack of control (even though it is nothing like it was in 2006), and I wanted to do something about it. On my bike, when I was reflecting on Rubin’s secret of adulthood, I considered eliminating all chocolate again. That doesn’t feel necessary. I decided that I would allow myself chocolate in two situations (in addition to cocoa and cacao in my smoothies): one square of at least 70% cacao dark chocolate after dinner and infrequent dark chocolate chips when I have what I call a “comfort bowl.” This is something I do only about once a week, and it consists of some combination of the following items: raw oatmeal, berries or cherries, vegan yogurt, nuts and/or seeds, cacao nibs, cocoa, nut butter and dark chocolate chips. This feels like a comforting and decadent treat. That’s it. On a daily basis, I will not eat chocolate in other situations.
  4. Know yourself. Do you need the added accountability of acknowledging the problem to someone else, like a trusted friend, counselor or coach? Determine what support you need to remain within your self-imposed limits and seek it.
  5. Affirm your daily success. Each day that you remain within your limits, honor yourself and celebrate in a way that is aligned with your goals.
  6. Relish the freedom. Notice how much lighter and happier and FREER you feel.
  7. Build on the freedom and success. What is your next project? Where can you gain even more freedom by giving yourself limits?

I think the first time I read about this concept of freedom through limits, it was framed as freedom through discipline by Maia Duerr. It resonated with me at the time in a profound way. I could recognize periods in my life where the idea had been true, but it was the first time I had seen it named.

My hope is that by bringing your attention to this idea, you may be motivated to acknowledge an area where you could free yourself by limiting yourself and that you will find the courage to do so.

“The price of discipline is always less than the pain of regret.”
–Peter Clemons

My Favorite Books in 2016

Once again, reading was a rewarding and enriching aspect of my year. I am excited to share my second annual list, roughly, by the order in which I read the books listed in each genre, of my favorite books from a year of reading.

Memoir is one of my favorite genres, and it was interesting to note how many of the books I most enjoyed in 2016 came from that category. A number of them were about epic journeys of one type of another. I love the idea of a quest for personal growth and soul searching. Many of my bike rides become those in miniature for me. Vicariously, I learn and grow from the memoirists’ quests, and they inspire me to explore the idea of setting out on adventures of my own, whether geographic or metaphorical in nature.

These are the books that I gave four or five stars in Goodreads during 2016.

Business

Health

History

Memoir/Biography

Nutrition/Cooking

 

Personal/Professional Development

  • Retire Inspired: It’s Not an Age, It’s a Financial Number, by Chris Hogan—I felt motivated to take action toward improving my financial future after reading this book. Unfortunately, I haven’t followed through on everything that I planned at that time, but I do intend to refer back to this competent guide.
  • What I Know For Sure, by Oprah Winfrey—I just love Oprah, and this collection of her popular column, “What I Know for Sure,” in O Magazine is light, easy reading that imparts a lot of quotable wisdom.

Social Justice

True Crime & Justice

Writing

Walking on Sunshine: 52 Small Steps to Happiness, a Book Review

Walking on Sunshine, by British author Rachel Kelly, is a quick, easy read that is not really intended to be read through all at once. In a similar vein to Jon Cousins’ Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Walking on Sunshine provides bite-sized ideas for increasing happiness. In this case the happiness prescriptions are delivered one week at a time for one year, instead of one day at a time for one month, as was the case in Cousins’ book.

Kelly organized this book by seasons, beginning with spring, loosely defined as March, April and May. Personally, this organizational calendar did not appeal, for two primary reasons. The main one stems from one of my own happiness struggles—self-diagnosed Seasonal Affective Disorder. Just seeing the word “Autumn,” although less depressing than its alternative, “Fall,” causes me to feel heaviness in my body. In a book intended to promote happiness, that feels counterproductive. I recognize that is my own issue, and others may not have the same visceral reaction to the season that I do. The second reason that I would prefer a different structure is that it seems somewhat potentially difficult for someone to pick up the book and start at the “right” week, since the weeks are numbered, but begin with March, not January. Maybe there is no real “right” way to use the book, but for those of us who like order and logic, this feels a bit unnerving.

Those minor criticisms aside, I really like Kelly’s message, which, like Cousins’, is essentially that we have some power to help ourselves when we are feeling down. It does not always have to involve prescription medication or weekly therapy (although those things may have their places). Proactively brightening our own spirits can be as simple as a self-administered relaxation exercise, connecting with a beloved animal companion or volunteering for a worthwhile cause.

As someone who reads a lot of positive psychology and has made significant conscious effort to boost my own mood in a variety of ways, Kelly’s simple, accessible suggestions resonate with me. She makes references to poetry in several places. While it is not poetry, specifically, that centers me, words are extremely important to my mood management. My collections of quotes are some of my most powerful happiness boosts. Kelly seems to find some of her strongest boosts in poetry.

I recommend this book for its simplicity and accessibility. There is nothing Kelly suggests that can be harmful, and her easy-to-implement strategies may be just the spirit boosts someone needs.

Book Review: Nudge Your Way to Happiness, Jon Cousins

I initially read Nudge Your Way to Happiness, by Jon Cousins, all the way through because I wanted a feel for the entire book, but it is not really meant to be read that way. The book is designed to provide a customized, 30-day program for edging up one’s happiness. Reading it through initially, I found myself annoyed because Cousins frequently made statements such as, “Right now, when things are better . . .” and “Although you may be feeling well at the moment . . . .” I kept thinking, “How does he know how I am feeling right now?” Then, it dawned on me that the issue was with how I was reading the book vs. how it was meant to be read. Actually, a unique and interesting feature of the book is that Cousins provides three possible “nudges” each day. The reason he might make a statement about how the reader was feeling is that the particular nudge was designed for either a low-mood day, an average day or a high-mood day. Once that occurred to me, I was better able to appreciate the features of each exercise.

I read a lot of positive psychology and happiness literature, and Cousins utilizes strategies from many well-respected researchers and authors. The exercises he recommends are solid, practical and simple. They are brief enough and accessible enough that even someone experiencing depression could perform them.

After reading the book through once, I began my journey to work through the book day by day. Today is Day 21. Reading and utilizing the book as it was designed to be used is more rewarding than simply reading it as a typical book. Cousins suggests doing the exercises first thing in the morning, and that is what I am doing. I think the most important thing is to choose a consistent time.

I like the checklist that Cousins provides each day, creating an opportunity to check in with myself and see how I am feeling across 10 variables. As someone who is very introspective, I find myself looking forward to my morning assessment. Perhaps even more interesting or useful is the graph at the back of the book that provides an opportunity to plot the trends in my happiness score throughout the project. Each day, Cousins asks the question, “What happened?” This allows me to reflect on the reason for my current happiness score and to better understand the peaks and valleys in the graph.

Nudge Your Way to Happiness is a simple, but well-written and useful, book that draws from the existing happiness and positive psychology literature and translates it into a practical formula for thinking about our own level of positive vs. negative emotions and reflecting on the reasons for those levels. In addition to providing daily exercises that can serve as tools, not just during the 30 days of working through the book, but on an ongoing basis. The book’s value derives from both those tools and from the introspection the daily tracking inspires. Understanding more about the things that boost our mood and the things that drain us of energy and joy allows us to take action to incorporate into our lives more of the former and less of the latter.

I recommend this book for people who are seeking to enhance their happiness, ward off seasonal blues, push back a natural inclination toward the melancholy or to combat depression. It is a strategy that can do no harm and certainly can teach us something that may help us in both the short term and the long term.

Success, Redefined

“The secret of success is constancy to purpose.” Benjamin Disraeli

I have decided that constancy to purpose is also the secret to happiness and inner peace. After my wake-up call from stress-induced B6 toxicity and small fiber neuropathy, I realized that I needed to focus on the things that really matter to me and let go of other expectations whenever possible. There are so many obligations, options, opportunities, causes, people and ideas competing for our time and attention. Trying to keep up with all of them and stay healthy is just not feasible.

We each have to find our own best way to make a difference—to make the contributions we want to make to the world, while remaining as healthy and centered as possible. This requires focusing on our unique opportunities to be a positive force in the universe and spending our time and energy doing those activities that feel most right. These are some touchstones that I find helpful in striving for this focus:

Clear values. Compassion. Excellence. Integrity. Fitness. These are the ethical aims that drive me and the most basic characteristics for which I want to be known. When I am clear about what ideals are most important to me, they guide my decisions in the directions that reinforce and enhance those principles in my life.

A philosophy for living. It is my responsibility to use my strengths and maximize my gifts to ensure that my net contribution to the world is positive. I express my gratitude for the strengths and gifts I have been given by putting them to effective, positive use.

Awareness of my strengths.  Honesty. Love of Learning. Perseverance. Gratitude. Judgment. According to the VIA Survey, these are my top five strengths. I frequently check in with myself to determine how well I am utilizing these strengths. Focusing my energy, whenever possible, on activities that allow me to employ these strengths optimizes both my effectiveness and my ability to find personal fulfillment in what I do.

Acknowledgement of my gifts. This list could go on and on. I am aware that I have been given so many resources and gifts, ranging from a loving upbringing to robust health to a quality education to a love of cycling and a drive to be fit. As an undergraduate student doing both paid and volunteer work in the nonprofit sector, I felt guilty for having been given so much, when I regularly witnessed so much suffering around me. In the years since, I have transformed the guilt into a healthier ownership of responsibility. I strive to maximize, not squander, my gifts. To provide just one example, I celebrate and express gratitude for my good health by nurturing it through cycling; eating a whole-food, plant-based diet; parking at the far reaches of parking lots; taking the stairs—even to the tenth floor when visiting people in the hospital—and making responsible decisions to take care of myself. To do otherwise, in my opinion, would be to scoff at the universe that has given me so many wonderful resources and to neglect my responsibility to give back.

A mission. To contribute to the advancement of human evolution in the direction of compassion. Compassion is my cornerstone value. I strive to live a life of compassion and to structure my decisions and actions around this value.  I can’t magically change the world into the one I wish it were, but I can keep pushing the needle in the direction of compassion. I am encouraged by Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” By living and modeling compassion, I hope that I am planting seeds that will grow and flourish in this and future generations, gradually improving the conditions of both humans and nonhumans.

Recognition of the intersection of my passions, my strengths and the needs in the world. Aristotle said, “Where your talents and the needs of the world cross; there lies your vocation,” and theologian Frederick Buechner wrote, “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.” I picture these ideas together as a Venn diagram that guides me to my own best way to make a difference in the world. (I created a cool Venn diagram in a Word document, but I absolutely cannot get it to paste here, so I am presenting it as an equation below.)

Passions/Gladness+Talents/Strengths/Gifts+Need=Vocation


And that leads me to where it all comes together . . .

A motto. Fitness is advocacy. This is where all of the above ideas come together in a concise, encapsulated statement that directs my actions and focuses my efforts. There are so many needs in the world, and there are so many ways to address them. We each have to find our own best ways to serve the needs that speak to us most urgently. Represented in the above Venn diagram/equation and summed up in the motto, “Fitness is advocacy,” my unique way of adding compassion to the world becomes clear. When I am fit and healthy and ride hard, while fueling my body with plants, I demonstrate that no one has to suffer or die for us to be well nourished. Being a vegan cyclist has allowed me to educate people in small towns across Kansas about eating well on plants, and it has allowed me to inspire others to try plant-based eating. I give my mind, body and spirit the freedom and movement of the open road while advocating in an upbeat, positive way for compassionate living. There are many other important ways to make a difference. I sometimes participate in other strategies, but I have become clearer and clearer that my signature style of advocacy is through the example I set in my own life. In this way, I feel balanced and at peace.

I started this post with a quote about success, and I will finish it with one of my favorite definitions of success. Mike Ditka said, “Success is measured by your discipline and inner peace.” I have come to a point where I really believe that. I am successful when I adhere to the habits, routines and strategies—the disciplines—that help me to remain consistently focused on my purpose. Deviating from that self-discipline for very long throws me off balance and disturbs my inner peace. When I keep my purpose in focus, I feel peaceful. That is my bottom-line determinant of success: Does this (way of life, relationship, job, commitment, activity, food, etc.) bring me more stress or more peace? Choosing the direction that is consistent with my purpose and nurtures inner peace is success.