In my job I am very lucky. I get to talk about health, wellbeing and productivity with students and staff; topics which I find very rewarding to talk about. I am also lucky that as a result, students and staff often share their own wellbeing and productivity stories with me. Stories of recovery are particularly powerful because they package wellbeing concepts in a way that is very easy and engaging to read.
Recently, Tim from our service shared his story of recovery with me. I suggested he write it down cause it had lots of powerful ideas in it that I thought others could benefit from hearing. He kindly did this and the result is below.
It is a brave thing to share one’s story of recovery with others, and I commend Tim for doing so. Even if you take just one or two ideas from his story for your own life, then I know he will be incredibly happy.
Last night I think I might have slept for 3 hours on the couch after my wife finally settled our newborn at 11.30pm. You see, my three-year-old daughter came to our bed at 12pm and then proceeded to snore loudly in my ear and would not go back to her bed. I was reduced to about 3 inches of bed And as my frustration peaked, I decided to move on to the couch to try and get some sleep. At 4am I was woken up by my beautiful wife who invited me to come back to bed. By 7am my daughter was awake looking for food and something to drink, and thus started the morning routine of dressing and feeding my daughter, getting her to childcare, and trying to get me to work by 8.45am.
Because of sleep deprivation, I was struggling. At 8:15 I finally bundled my daughter into the car to drive her the 20-minute round trip to child care before I started the 25-minute trip to work. But when I went to start the car, the battery was flat.
If I were to tell this same story a year ago, it would have ended with me saying how crap my day was, that my life was terrible and asking why do these things always have to happen to me. Instead, as I got to work half an hour late and was walking down to the office that I work in, I could not help but think how wonderful the day was and that I was happy for all that I had.
So how then have I managed to go from my old way of thinking to being happy and grateful for what I have?
To understand this, we need to go back a little further to when I was at school. I had always felt that I was different to all the other children. This may have been due to being brought up in the city but going to school in the country. Not feeling like I fitted in meant I spent over five years programming my way of thinking to be negative, to have poor self-esteem and to be self-doubting. This was worsened by a couple of destructive long-term relationships that only added to these negative self-beliefs. By the time I came to be doing my degree in nursing I had already developed a strong sense of non-belonging and self-doubt.
Although I finished university, the negative self-talk of ‘I am not good enough’ and ‘I don’t belong’ remained. I went from job to job, always wondering how come I couldn’t be happy with, or successful at my chosen career.
After getting married and having my first child, I took a good look at who I had become and realised that I was unhealthy in just about all aspects of my life which negatively impacted my marriage and my relationships with my family and friends. When everything seemed at its worst and it looked like I would lose my family, I realised something had to change. The story of my journey to happiness had just begun and this is the story that I now wish to share.
So, in April of 2017, feeling depressed, unhappy and very alone I made one decision that would change every aspect of my life: I chose to try to make connections with people I had once cared about. I knew an old friend whom I had known for a long time but had not spoken to in 6 years was heavily involved in a gym program, so I plucked up the courage to ask him about it and if I might be able to come a long and see what it was all about. With all my self-doubt I could not simply just tell him that I missed the friendship that we had and that I was not doing well because I did not feel worthy of being helped. However going to the gym to make this connection was something I could try. At the time I did not know what I was stumbling into and how permanently it would change my life.
So, I started going to the gym.
But it wasn’t the going to the gym and working out part that was the most important part of my story. It was the philosophy that the gym had that was key to how I continue to succeed in changing my life.
The philosophy was simple, ‘check your ego at the door, everyone has started their journey to health the same way, work hard, and no mirrors’. What I had accidentally stumbled into was what I now recognise as a supportive community.
As someone who was overweight and could not run 200 meters without getting puffed, I can tell you it’s an exhilarating experience when the most fit people at the gym stand around you cheering as you push hard to complete your workout.
When that negative self-talk shows up – ‘I cannot do this’ or ‘it’s too hard’ – having 10 more voices telling you that ‘you can do it’ is the best way to drown out that negative self-talk. Furthermore, when you finally finish the workout and those same 10 people are saying ‘well done’, ‘good job’ and ‘you should be very happy with your efforts’, it inspires you to push that little bit harder next time.
I remember the first workout I ever did. Admittedly it was really hard, and I wondered why anyone would ever want to do this. However, I soon learned that the reason to go and push myself every day with hard workouts was the incredibly warm, welcoming and encouraging community attached to the gym. Whenever I had self-doubts there was someone there to tell me how I was doing a good job and that everyone had self-doubts and they had all been in the same mental space at some point in their life.
It was at this point that I realised something that had been missing from my life, and this was a community of people to pick me up when I was not able to do so myself. Whilst my wife had always believed in me as a person and expressed this on a regular basis, her single voice was not strong enough to drown out my own negative self-talk. However, the weight of her voice added to my gym community had now become strong enough for me to start doubting what I was telling myself. With every new physical achievement, I could feel the momentum of a growing sense of positivity in my life.
I had in fact stumbled onto something that my wife had always known from a very young age. This transformed my health, my belief in myself, and to my pleasant surprise started to filter through to my work practice as well. By April 2018, I had lost 15kg and was able to run 5 kilometres and do many things that I had never thought possible. Learning how to achieve goals and push myself to be better had become an addiction and I started looking for more.
In early 2018 I had a conversation with someone a friend introduced me to, about some business ideas, and particularly how to market the ideas that I had. This conversation turned out to be the next important step in my journey to happiness.
He talked about his role as a life coach and how he encouraged people to pick five new skills each year to learn as self-driven education and then put energy into learning these new skills. So I started to identify those areas in which I lacked confidence and set about learning these new skills.
My first new skill to learn was how to be a more effective communicator. I started listening to podcasts and watching seminars and lectures on Youtube on how to be a more effective communicator.
In the process I stumbled onto a video that has changed how I view happiness, and which is why, even after the morning I described in the introduction, I can honestly say that I am happy.
The video was a Ted talk on how to learn any new skill in 20 hours. The premise of the video was that whilst it took 10,000 hours to become an ‘expert’ in a dedicated field of practice, it only takes 20 hours to be ‘competent’ in a new skill. I then started thinking about happiness and came to the conclusion for myself that happiness is a set of skills that can be learned. If I could break down what the core elements of being happier were, I could easily become ‘competent’ at being happy. I did not need to become an ‘expert’ (maybe in five years’ time) but I could quickly get good at being happy.
So I asked myself ‘what is happiness?’. I found a definition that suits me which is:
‘Happiness is a state of feeling defined by positive or pleasant feelings ranging from contentment to intense joy or excitement.’
I could not believe this, as I had always associated happiness with intense excitement. But this was telling me that I could obtain happiness simply by being content and having pleasant feelings. After much research I was able to isolate four areas I could actively work on with 20 hours of dedicated focused practice to become ‘content’. These were: posture, understanding emotion vs feelings in myself, to be able to give every day, and to be thankful for what I do have in my life already.
Studies have found that we are able to impact our mood at the chemical level just by adjusting our posture. I practiced standing tall, speaking with my palms facing people, and adopting an open posture. I practiced this even when I felt like curling up in a ball or closing myself off. I found that this had a big impact on how people viewed me, also it helped me create more energy for myself when I felt like I did not have much left.
Emotions vs feelings
The next thing I tackled was the difficult thoughts and feelings that I had struggled with a long time. I had always found that once negative thoughts start, they are hard to stop. In my research I stumbled onto a definition of emotion as being ‘energy in motion’. What happens is that the accumulative input of our bodies’ senses to our brain are interpreted, and that ‘feelings’ are the interpretation of these emotions.
What I found was that by taking note of what my body was telling me (e.g. tension in my shoulders, clenching in the jaw) and identifying these as emotions, I was able to focus my efforts on modifying these emotions, and not let them progress to negative feelings and lead to the negative self-talk. So now I greet the emotion with a thank you, and then decide if it is useful or not. If it is not I ask it to come back again when it’s more appropriate. This has been the hardest part of my journey and has sometimes needed guidance from professionals. As an interesting aside, the same emotion you get from being anxious is not much different from the emotion you get when you are excited.
Giving every day
I’ve learned how to give every day, starting by giving to my wife and family, giving a smile to someone who I met walking down the street, to giving a compliment to someone who I felt deserved it. Now I am trying to give my experience to you (editor’s note: giving is associated with significant health benefits)
Being grateful for what I have can be easy and difficult at the same time, especially when I am tired or have a low mood. It has been helped by understanding that I cannot change what has happened in the moment and that that moment has already gone. Instead, by repeating positive phrases such as ‘what a great day’ or ‘thank you for all that I have’, I find that, over time, I find more things to be grateful for and it also has become easier to say (editors note: I’ve talked about the power of gratitude previously).
What I am discovering is that happiness is a journey that starts with a choice, a lifestyle choice, a choice to be happy. It does not matter in a moment if I find myself stressed or angry or even anxious as these are just moments and I will continue to walk on my journey of happiness as my lifestyle, and any bump in the road is just a small part of that journey.
Disclaimer: Stories of recovery and wellbeing improvement are highly personal to the individual and should not be interpreted as specific advice on how to make improvements in your own life. They can however be inspirational and motivational and give you confidence that individuals can find their way through difficult times.