“We first make our habits, and then our habits make us.”
~ John Dryden
Every person is different, but every person is human, meaning we all have things in common.
There are some habits so foundational to human well-being that they can single-handedly keep us going when we find ourselves in a difficult place. Foundational habits consistently improve our core elements—mind, body, and soul—which is why they are overwhelmingly positive for nearly everyone. If you’re in a rut or feel like you might be approaching one, put some effort into forming these habits to put yourself in a position to thrive.
Life can be tough. I just moved to a new city where I don’t know anyone. Being a writer, it means I don’t have a social outlet through work, and not being into bar or coffee shop scenes, forming relationships in this first month has been difficult. Given my lonely circumstances, I could fall into a negative spiral of self-pity, but I haven’t for the reasons I’m about to tell you.
When something isn’t going well, you can thrive (in other ways) with powerful foundational habits. They’re foundational because you can always rely on them. When you have foundational habits, you’re able to brush off poor circumstances with greater ease. They enable you to persevere, which is one of life’s most important skills.
These are the four foundational habits that every person needs for maximum well-being and resilience. You may be familiar with these habits, but read on for some unique insights you may not have heard before.
“Physical fitness is not only one of the most important keys to a healthy body, it is the basis of dynamic and creative intellectual activity.”
~ John F. Kennedy
Exercise is the greatest natural anti-depressant there is. The physical benefits are obvious, but exercise arguably benefits the mind as much as it does the body.
Exercise creates positive chemical reactions and increased blood flow in the brain. If you tend to have a lot of ideas while walking or running, it’s likely because increased blood flow is making your neural connections snappier. Increased blood flow is a key part of exercise’s magic.
In his book, Brain Rules, developmental molecular biologist John Medina says, “Any tissue without enough blood supply is going to starve to death— your brain included. […] The more you exercise, the more tissues you can feed and the more toxic waste you can remove. This happens all over the body. That’s why exercise improves the performance of most human functions.”
I believe exercise is the single most important habit a person can have. The cumulative mind and body benefits are incalculable and can be exponential as they impact other areas of your life.
People who exercise are more resilient to life’s hardships for a number of reasons, one of which is tension release. Just the other day, I was furious about something and poured that energy into my workout. I came out feeling great, physically and emotionally!
2. Reading Books
“Reading is to the mind what exercise is to the body.”
~ Joseph Addison
Reading books is surely underrated in the modern world, if only because it’s deserved dominance has been lessened by an excessive number of alternative entertainment and learning options. Reading has been the historic standard for expanding your mind, finding new information, and learning directly or indirectly how to become greater than you currently are. Books, in my opinion, are simply the best choice for quality reading and have the greatest impact overall.
I’ve read that CEOs read an average of 60 books per year, or about a book every week. This correlation between business success and reading is no coincidence. If you read a lot of books, you’ll…
- Be more interesting (in conversation, for example)
- Get smarter (reading trains the brain in multiple ways)
- Have more knowledge (the sheer amount of information you can learn by reading books is astounding. If you can speed read, that’s even better!)
- Be happier (depending on what you read, you can enjoy books for their entertainment value or gain important insights to improve your life)
- Get better in specific ways (after I read a book about building muscle, I applied the knowledge and gained 15 lbs of muscle in the coming months. There are books out there to help you do anything you would want to do.)
Those are significant benefits, and when you consider that reading a single book can change your perspective and life forever, that alone is a compelling reason to read and read often!
“I think we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation. It is not out of compliment that lovers keep on telling one another how beautiful they are; the delight is incomplete till it is expressed.”
~ CS Lewis
Ruts are illusions that we empower. When a basketball player misses a series of shots, he is declared by himself or others as “off” or “cold.” In reality, his next shot has the same chance as always of going in if he maintains his composure. Thus, it is not an actual rut unless he believes it is and loses focus.
When you woke up this morning, like every other morning, you had an opportunity to live life well, create opportunities, make progress on your goals, and be happy. Whether you did or not is besides the point. The point is that the present moment is always neutral. The past can’t happen twice, for better or worse, so it doesn’t do us any good to ruminate on it.
Given the present moment’s neutrality, it’s an opportunity to be grateful for what is going well in our lives. This easy action makes us come alive, and feel happy. In fact, some studies found gratitude to be the largest influencer of happiness.
“Participants in the gratitude visit condition showed the largest positive changes in the whole study.” (Seligman, Martin E. P. “Positive Psychology Progress: Empirical Validation of Interventions.” American Psychologist 60.5 (2005))
Note: the “gratitude visit” from the quote above entailed participants writing a thank you letter to someone who deserved their thanks, and then delivering it in person.
Practicing gratitude means focusing on what you’re genuinely thankful for in your life. The study found that the biggest jump in happiness came for those who did the “gratitude visit” and delivered the letter. They weren’t just thinking of things they were thankful for, but actively demonstrating their gratitude. As with most things, action seemed to have a greater impact than thought.
There is a caveat here, however, and it’s critical to this message. In the follow-up tests, the gratitude visit participants were happier at one week and one month, but not at three months.
There was another group in the study who practiced listing “three good things that happened each day and why they happened.” These people showed a more modest spike in happiness, but their increased happiness remained up to six months later!
This shows the power of habit over one-time events. Delivering an emotional thank you letter is the flashier action that seems more significant, but it was the daily gratitude that produced lasting change. Flash-in-the-pan moments are great, but we don’t need them as much as we need foundational habits to make our lives better in the long term. That’s why gratitude—a proven component of happiness—should be a habitual part of our lives.
“Half an hour’s meditation each day is essential, except when you are busy. Then a full hour is needed.”
~ Saint Francis de Sales
It’s interesting how the simplest things can have the greatest impact. Meditation is one of those things, and has changed many lives. It’s the simplicity of focusing on your breathing and nothing else that makes meditation so calming and relieving of stress.
Scientists have studied the brains of monks who have meditated “20-40 thousand hours.” The results? The areas of their brains that are associated with happiness light up like a Christmas tree. Measured in this way, their happiness was practically off the charts.
I think meditation works on the opposite side of gratitude—gratitude puts our focus on the positive, while meditation takes our minds off the negative. If you meditated a few hours a day like a monk does, your problems would seem less significant. This is so important because many of the problems that bother us are things we can’t control. Meditation helps us let go.
The other thing I’ve noticed meditation does is slow you down. We live in the technological era, and because of that, almost every process keeps getting faster (communicating, eating, cleaning, etc). This faster pace seems to have transferred to our state of mind, causing us to be anxious and frantic. Meditation reverses this by forcing you to focus on something inherently simple and slow—your breathing.
It’s a matter of how you spend your time. If everything you do is fast and rushed, you will be hard-pressed not to adopt that for yourself. Meditation is a great mental balancing tool for those of us who live fast-paced lives.
Do You Do The Right Things Occasionally Or Habitually?
It’s difficult to get in a rut with good habits. I mean it. Having good habits means you can always count your day as at least a minor success, even if other things didn’t go your way. But if you only do these things occasionally, then in your ruts—the time you need these the most—you’ll be less likely to do them because general motivation is always lower when you’re in an emotional down state. This is why the habitual component is crucial. Make these an automatic, daily part of your life.
And if you’re in a rut now, there’s no surer way to get out than with consistent steps in a better direction. But how can a person form these habits? I know it’s not easy to do when you have a busy life full of responsibilities. If you want to know the most reliable (and fun) way to form foundational habits, I urge you to read my best-selling book, Mini Habits.
The mini habits concept has changed thousands of lives of people who could never change their behavior with traditional methods. More than 35,000 copies have been sold, not because I have a large marketing budget, but because people are telling their family and friends about the strategy that changed their life. Mini Habits details the scientific principles and strategy I used to get out of a two-year rut and get into the best shape of my life.
I’m Stephen Guise. To hear from me each Tuesday morning about habit-formation, focusing, and self-mastery (and to claim my anti-stress book and desktop wallpaper set), join Deep Existence.