IP#31 The 7 life-changing habits that NOBODY knows – 5th December

The 7 life-changing habits that NOBODY knows

Reading time: 12 minutes 58 seconds

In 1978, a surprising study by Philip Brickman, Dan Coates, and Ronnie Janoff-Bulman explored the overall level of happiness between a control group, recent lottery winners, and accident victims. There were two startling findings.

First, lottery winners did not experience a significantly higher amount of happiness than the control group.

Second, the difference between the levels of happiness between accident victims and the control group was not nearly as big as expected.

The lesson we can learn from this is the relative nature of happiness. More on that later.

When I read a study, my question is always ‘So what?’ I want to know what I can do as a result of the research. So I figured it would be helpful to walk you through a number of rarely discussed strategies and techniques that can be game changers in terms of their impact on your mental health and your performance that are backed by science.

Specifically, I will provide you with seven life-changing habits. These are the product of years that I have worked with high-performing individuals and based on decades of research and evidence-based insights that can improve your life. Let’s begin with bribing yourself.

1. Bribe yourself

In 2014 Kathy Milkman, Julia A. Minson, and Kevin G.M. Volpp did a fun study called “Holding The Hunger Games Hostage at the Gym: An Evaluation of Temptation Bundling.” The study involved individuals who wanted to exercise regularly but didn’t. They were given access to engaging audiobooks (like The Hunger Games) but could only listen to them while working out. They visited the gym and worked out significantly more than the control group.

This approach is known as ‘Temptation Bundling’. It’s a clever and effective strategy for making us want to engage in habits that aren’t as much fun by themselves.

Since Ivan Pavlov, John Watson, and then B.F. Skinner came along and made popular the area of Behavioral Psychology, the idea of conditioning ourselves has become well-known and understood. When we associate something positive with a particular behavior, we are more likely to engage in that behavior. At a fundamental level, this is known as positive reinforcement. In the example above, we are using a reward called a ‘fun audio-book’ to positively reinforce working out.

I use this all the time. I have two or three of my favorite podcasts and only let myself listen to them when I am running or working out. It works!

Not only that, I also do this with my work. Whenever I have things to do that I like and don’t like, I always do what I don’t like first and then reward myself with the things I do like. I constantly reward myself for what I’m doing and it helps me be very productive.

2. Schedule your worries

In April 2008, I met Michael. Michael had volunteered to be part of a TV show that I was doing for the national television station RTE at the time. The TV show was called Not Enough Hours and it ran for two seasons during which I was the presenter and the expert. Each week, I would work with someone who struggled to manage their time effectively and sought help. I would help them. That week was Michael’s turn.

Michael’s big struggle was based on his habit of worrying. He was procrastinating and hesitating to take the actions he needed to because he constantly stressed about money. He had a young family and worked as a sports journalist so he lived month to month. Among the various suggestions that I proposed to him, one of them was what I called a ‘Worry Book’.

Every time Michael found himself worrying, he would have to write it down in a book. He would then go over the worries at the end of the day to see if he could do anything about any of them. The idea is that when we worry, we hold these ideas as something to keep our attention. When we write them down, they no longer need our attention because we have them recorded.

Expressive writing as a proven technique to alleviate anxiety has been around since the 1980’s. It involves expressing your thoughts and feelings on paper. It really helps.

Michael described the worry book as a game changer for him. He explained that he slept better than he had in years since using it. Of all the techniques I shared with him, that was the most effective. I’ve since shared it with thousands of others and use it myself.

Scheduling your worries works by writing any of them down and scheduling time at a later stage to go through them and plan whatever actions you can. The beauty is that even if you can’t do anything about them, by the time you go over them they no longer seem nearly as bad.

3. Practice intentional releasing

In 2005, a study by Bartholomew, Morrison, & Ciccolo found that when people who suffered from depression believed that exercise would have mental health benefits, they were significantly more likely to experience them. While exercise itself can benefit our mental health, believing that exercise can benefit our mental health makes this effect even stronger.

Several studies done by Ellen Langer and Alia Crum have shown that there are physiological changes that occur based on the expectations we have of our physical activity. Your beliefs matter.

I’ve adopted this approach into something that works wonders for me and my clients. International releasing is the name I give to something I practice regularly. Whenever I engage in any exercise, I focus on how that exercise is benefiting me. Not only that, but I also imagine that as I am engaging in this exercise I am releasing any tension, stress, worry, or negative feelings as I exercise. This is incredibly powerful for me.

The notion of ‘catharsis’ has not had much support in the clinical data. It is the practice of expressing an emotion to gain relief from it. In some cases, it makes things worse. One way to think about it is that the more you vent, the more you are ‘practicing venting’ and getting yourself worked up.

What I’m suggesting is different. You are using exercise as a vehicle to release the emotions. You are not engaging in the negative emotions and thoughts but rather imagining them leaving your body as you burn the calories. Burn the calories. Burn the worries. The benefit comes in the expectation effect. Just as believing you are getting healthier through exercise makes you healthier, believing you are reducing stress works the same way.

4. Categorize your emotions

I don’t get angry very often. I’m pretty easygoing, to say the least. But I noticed recently, that I found myself being ‘triggered’ quite easily by a couple of situations. In a meeting, somebody said something that I reacted quite strongly to. Later that day, I found myself overreacting to an airline making a mistake with my reservation. In both cases, I was justified in feeling annoyed but I was furious. I don’t get ‘furious’!

At the time, my reaction was very quickly to blame the two incidents for making me this way. The truth, however, was that neither of them was responsible for my reaction. Instead, my recently broken arm was hurting and I didn’t sleep well the night before. As a result, I was agitated. I was cranky. The pain and tiredness soon became anger and while I initially misattributed the cause of my reaction, as soon as I understood what was going on, I started to calm down.

To explain what was going on here and how you can use this technique, we must refer to the work of neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett. She uses the concept of ‘Emotional Granularity’ to describe the ability we have to be specific and accurate about whatever emotion we are experiencing.

According to the work she and her colleagues have done, the better we are at describing the emotions we are feeling, the better we are at regulating them. The basic idea works like this:

Our brains are constantly predicting what will happen next. They use three input sources to figure this out. First, the outer world of our senses. Second, the inner world of our bodies. Third, the memories and concepts that we have learned from the past about what things mean.

As a result of processing data from these three input sources, our brain regulates what’s going on in our body and decides what actions to take. We experience what is known as an ‘affect’, a type of feeling. It either feels good or bad. It’s either high in energy (arousal) or low in energy. Based on the context and our brain’s concepts of what’s happening, the brain determines what emotion we are experiencing.

This radical theory of how emotions are constructed is very different from the intuitive ideas that we’ve had of these ‘universal emotions’ happening ‘to’ us. The research suggests that we actively create the emotions we are feeling.

Since your brain figures out what you’re feeling based on the concepts it has, you are at the mercy of the language you use to describe what’s going on.

When you become more specific in identifying your emotions, your concepts become more finely tuned and the brain then has better information as to what it needs to do.

The more accurately you can describe how you feel, the better predictions your brain will make and the better you will start to feel.

In the earlier example, when I more accurately described why I was feeling the way I was feeling, I instantly started to calm down.

So, take some time to expand your emotional vocabulary (even researching emotion words in other languages) and get into the habit of being as specific as you can about how you are feeling.

5. Edit your thinking

One of the best things that I have learned from my mentor, co-author, and friend Dr. Richard Bandler is the idea of learning to think on purpose. Ellen Langer, involved in the mindset studies mentioned earlier, describes her version of mindfulness as becoming better at noticing what is going on in the world so that you are no longer stuck in automated thinking processes.

When I say ‘edit your thinking’, I am talking about a specific way of doing this.

There’s a special kind of language described as ‘e-prime’ by David Bourland in his work based on the field of general semantics. E-Prime is English with the verb ‘to be’ removed. The idea is that by avoiding using words like ‘is’ or ‘are’ we can be more accurate in our language. Instead of saying ‘That is bad’, we would say ‘That seems bad to me’. This form of thinking is not only accurate; it is also much more useful than what we normally do.

So many of the worst kinds of thoughts and feelings we have experienced are a direct result of the generalizations and exaggerations we use in an attempt to keep things simple. When you edit your thinking, you aim to be more accurate in what you say and how you think.

Notice when you use generalizations to others. Notice when you use hyperbole and exaggeration to others. Notice when you use them to yourself. Write down your thoughts regularly, go through each sentence, and correct it so that it becomes more accurate.

Challenging incidents of exaggeration, hyperbole, and changing ‘is’ to ‘seems’ in your speaking and writing can be transformational for your mental health. So many of the worst emotions we feel are built through these patterns.

6. Think with probability

My friend Tony is a really great poker player. He has won thousands at various poker contests. While I do okay when we play, largely because I’m decent enough at reading people, he is far superior. The last time we played I asked him to coach me to get better. Of everything he mentioned one skill stood out.

The very best poker players are always calculating odds. What is the probability that the card I need will arrive? What is the probability that they have a better hand than me? What is the probability that they are bluffing? This is a critical skill that every great player needs to have.

Indeed, Annie Duke, author of Thinking in Bets, suggests that life is like poker. We don’t have all the variables that we need to predict with certainty what will happen. We rely on luck and making the best possible decisions given the information available to us. Just because you have a great hand doesn’t mean that you will win. Just because you have a terrible hand doesn’t mean that you will lose. You calculate the odds. It’s important to do this in life too.

One of the biggest flaws in your brain is how quickly you can become certain of something. Every limiting belief that you’ve developed and every bad decision you have ever made are the result of this need for certainty.

Since your brain is a prediction machine, it is trying to be correct. It wants to understand what’s going on and it wants to do so now. As a result, you make assumptions and make guesses and you act as if these guesses are correct. You gamble on them and take action that might not always be the most useful given the context.

Thinking in probability is the solution here. When you start asking the questions ‘What percentage chance is this correct? How likely is this to be the right thing to do? What is the probability that this is the right assumption?’, this helps you to make better decisions.

When you are thinking in terms of how likely something is going to happen and you give it a percentage chance, you will avoid falling into the trap of overconfidence and you will think things through more effectively.

7. Change the comparison frame

Finally, let’s come full circle and return to the study done on lottery winners and accident victims. Happiness is relative. So what?

Former Google Executive and author of the book Solve for Happy, Mo Gawdat has proposed his formula for happiness: your happiness is equal to or greater than the difference between the events of your life and your expectations of how life should behave. Events – Expectations. This beautifully simple formula makes intuitive sense. If events are better than what you expect, you’re happy. If they’re worse, you’re sad.

Daniel Gilbert in his book Stumbling on Happiness pointed out that we are never as happy as we think we will be when something good happens and we are never as sad as we think we will be when something bad happens. This fascinating human tendency speaks to our brain’s ability to maintain an equilibrium in how we deal with the world.

When you expect things will be awful and things are pretty bad, pretty bad feels good in comparison. When you expect things will be amazing and things are good, good feels bad in comparison. This not only happens in our everyday life experience, but it’s also at the heart of value in the business world.

Dr. Robert Cialdini, author of Influence, explains the power of contrast in impacting how we are persuaded by others. The expectations we set and how we do in relation to those expectations will play a large part in determining how the other person will feel.

So, how can we leverage this? We need to master the art of changing the frame with which we are thinking about whatever is going on. If you’re feeling bad about something, spend some time considering how it could have been worse. Think about all the things that you’re taking for granted and what it would be like if they didn’t exist.

This, indeed, is beautifully depicted in the movie ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’ where the main character, George, gets to see a world where he was never born. In ‘A Christmas Carol’ Scrooge gets to see the future that awaits him if he doesn‘t change. Both examples use contrast to change the characters. We can leverage this too.

More than likely, the reason lottery winners fail to be significantly happier than the control group, is that we very quickly adapt to the new normal. The new money lifestyle becomes what they are used to and they stop remembering what it was like before they won.

Similarly, the accident victims aren’t as good at remembering what it was like before the accidents because they have a new normal.

What you compare to determines how you feel. It’s critical to take control of your comparisons and find ways to use comparison to help you feel better and succeed.

Finally, there was a third shocking finding from the lottery winners’ study. The lottery winners experienced less pleasure in everyday activities than the other two groups. Why? My best guess is that as our expectations rise, the pleasure we get lowers.

To summarize, here are the seven habits to get practicing to change your life:

1. Bribe yourself

2. Schedule your worries

3. Practice intentional releasing

4. Categorize your emotions

5. Edit your thinking

6. Decide with probability

7. Change the comparison frame

Practice these strategies and they will have a huge impact on your life.

All too often, we fall for the myth that happiness comes from what happens to us in life. This is problematic for two reasons. First, it positions us as the victims of our circumstances and fails to consider the power we have to influence our lives. Second, it ignores the obvious importance of your mindset and attitude.

When I coach executives, I empower them by getting them to focus on what they can influence. I explore with them how they are experiencing their lives. When they can start thinking more effectively, it becomes transformational in terms of what it allows them to do.

We live in an uncertain world. To succeed in such a world, you need to master the art of building new habits. You need to become skilled at releasing worries and stress. You need to regulate your emotions. You need to think better and believe better. Finally, you need to develop the art form of comparison framing.

When you do this, you’ll win the real lottery in life.

The windfall won’t be money but something far more likely to make you happy.




P.S. ‘The Art of Confident Vulnerability’ is my latest podcast episode – you can watch and listen to it here.




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