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7 Rules to Live By for a Happy Life

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

In Gretchen Rubin’s experimental and call-to-action book, The Happiness Project, she writes about her “12 Commandments of Happiness”. These Commandments are little heuristics that she has written as guiding principles by which she tries to live life to maximize her happiness. For example, her first one is to “Be Gretchen” — this principle has helped her accept herself for who she is, specifically for what she likes and dislikes. It has helped her to stop pressuring herself into doing things she really doesn’t enjoy doing, and to stop judging herself for the things she genuinely does enjoy doing, freeing her energy and time up to truly “be Gretchen”.

Firstly, I loved this book and highly recommend it as a good exploration of the successes and limitations of actively trying to live a “happy life”. Secondly, I thought I would try my hand at creating my own Commandments, or heuristics to live by. I didn’t come up with 12, but I’m only 24 years old — this world still has a whole lot of lessons to teach me.

1. Turn on the light.

A number of years ago, I was searching for a book I had left in the kitchen late at night. I was getting pretty frustrated because for the life of me, I couldn’t find it, and to make matters worse I kept stubbing my toes and banging my body into cabinet corners. My mother, hearing the commotion, came downstairs (it wasn’t late enough for anyone to be sleeping yet), and confusedly asked me, “why don’t you just turn on the light?”.

The completely honest answer is: I thought I could find the book in two seconds and didn’t need to waste my time turning the light on and off again. In fact, that’s how I usually operated — taking as many shortcuts as possible. Rarely did I turn on a light in a room that I only intended on being in for a minute, tops.

Well, since then I’ve realized that by trying to save time and energy by taking measly shortcuts, all I do is waste time and energy. This heursitic reminds me to make my life as easy as possible for myself. Follow the one minute rule (if it’s going to take you less than 60 seconds, do the task now). Invest the extra few moments.

Turn on the damn light.

2. Step back, then act.

This heuristic does two things for me: it reminds me that it’s okay to feel what I feel, and I absolutely should give myself the time and space to feel it. Anger, sadness, anxiety, crippling fear or exhilarating hope and joy — whatever it is, lean into it.

Stepping back both allows me to be in the moment with the feelings, to fully process them, and then gives me the psychological distance I need to decide what message my emotions are sending me. When I’ve decoded the message, then I can choose what to do about it. This way, whatever I decide to do will be informed by a broader, more levelheaded and calm perspective. And while the stepping back is important, it’s equally as important to act upon the messages of my emotions, and not get caught up in overthinking or analysis paralysis.

Step back, then act.

3. You always only have Now.

Eckhart Tolle says it best:

Time isn’t precious at all, because it is an illusion. What you perceive as precious is not time but the one point that is out of time: the Now. That is precious indeed. The more you are focused on time — past and future — the more you miss the Now, the most precious thing there is.”

Do your best to be present, because that’s all you ever have in this lifetime. It is simultaneously the most reliable and slippery thing to grasp hold of. But try to do it anyway.

You always only have Now.

4. Do your best.

The phrase I will always remember from my Dad is “if you’re going to be there anyway, you may as well do your best.” As a kid and teenager, this mostly applied to my competitive soccer career— whenever I would complain about having to attend practice, this phrase would inevitably surface.

A decade has passed since I stopped playing soccer, but wonder of wonders, I still hear my Dad’s voice in my head whenever I don’t want to follow through with a commitment, or I’m resenting being somewhere, or I’m anxious about doing something. And a second insight has arisen as I’ve grown up: “You can’t know that something isn’t right for you until you’ve given it your best.”

Don’t let fear get in your way. You can analyze it all after the fact. But while you’re doing whatever you’re doing, always do your best.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

5. “Happiness is the experience of climbing toward a peak.” — Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar

Four and a half years ago I tweeted, “Wherever you are, whatever you’re doing; make sure you’re doing it because the journey is worth it, not the end result.”

First of all, my use of punctuation was incorrect. Second of all, while a nice sentiment, today I would have to correct my naive, inexperienced younger self because as it turns out, the end result does matter.

In Dr. Tal Ben-Shahar’s 2007 book “Happier”, based on his extremely popular positive psychology class at Harvard University, Ben-Shahar explains that goals are important not because of what they specifically are, but insofar that they provide you with direction. He writes:

“The proper role of goals is to liberate us, so that we can enjoy the here and now...If we do not know where we are going or even where we want to go, every fork in the road becomes a sign of ambivalence — neither turning left nor right seems a good choice as we do not know whether we want to end up where these roads lead. So instead of focusing on the landscape, the scenery, the flowers on the side of the road, we are consumed by hesitation and uncertainty…If we have a destination in mind, if we more or less know where we are going, we are free to focus our full attention on making the most of where we are.” (70)

Having goals, things to work towards that you’re motivated to achieve and excited by, is a key ingredient in the recipe for living a happy life— whether you end up achieving them or not. If we have lofty goals, we may never reach the peak. But knowing what peak it is that we are climbing towards is critical to being able to enjoy the climb — which is, like my younger self said, what really matters. So maybe she got it half-right.

“Happiness is the experience of climbing toward a peak.”

6. Listen at Level 3.

I’m currently in the process of training to become a Personal Coach (self-development field). One of the first things we did was divide the act of listening into 4 different levels.

Level 0: Distracted listening. Listening while multi-tasking, or having two conversations at once — one with the person in front of you and one with a person behind a screen. What I used to do as a kid when my Mom got home from work and wanted to know “all about my day.”

Basically not even listening.

Level 1: Listening that’s focused on the words that someone is saying insofar as they relate to us. Listening with the intent to reply, and connect what the person is saying back to ourselves.

Level 2: Listening that’s focused on the words that someone is saying insofar as they relate to the other person. Hearing what the words mean to them. Really hearing what their words are trying to communicate to you about their experience.

Level 3: Listening that’s focused on the words, the energy behind the words, and the body language that someone is communicating. Hearing both what is being said and what isn’t being said. Listening with a completely clear and present mind. Being completely, wholeheartedly with the other person in that moment.

As much as you can, connect with the people in your life by listening at Level 3.

7. “Being good to people is a wonderful legacy to leave behind.” — Taylor Swift

I just saw the Toronto tour of Hamilton and it was absolutely phenomenal. A big theme of the show is legacy — what it means, how it’s formed, and who propagates it.

I haven’t thought much about my legacy. Maybe I’m too young, and it’s a generational fallibility. But I do often think that if the only thing people say about me when I’m gone is that I was good to people, that would be enough.

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