Is your life excellent? According to a Harris Poll taken earlier this year, only 1 in 3 Americans reports they’re “very happy.”
Achieving the highest level of happiness requires more than managing negative emotions that arise in stressful situations. It means mastering the skills necessary to create circumstances in which you’ll likely experience abundant joy.
“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives — choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” These words are as true today as they were when Aristotle wrote them more than 2,300 years ago.
Scientists who study happiness have confirmed that intention, rather than past behavior, is the best predictor of future behavior. You are not bound by what you have done in the past.
Yes, you have developed habitual ways of behaving that guide much of your behavior in the present. For the most part that’s a good thing because your brain can’t slow down to pay attention to every decision you need to make as you go through your day. It would be a nightmare if you had to figure out what to do every time you saw a red light while you’re driving.
However, when your behavior isn’t working out very well for you, slowing down and looking at alternatives is a wise choice. Adopt the “no mistakes, only lessons” approach to life. What’s the lesson you can take away from a bad situation that can help you create a new choice for responding to a similar situation in the future?
Slowing your thinking down to create a picture in your mind of actually seeing yourself acting differently in order to get a different outcome is how you create intention. It also, as Einstein reminded us, is the best way to prevent insanity.
“The road to hell is paved with good intentions” is a proverb whose origin is shrouded in the mists of time. But as with the Aristotle quote, words that endure through the millenniums are usually based on true wisdom. Creating intention is an essential first step as your brain must be able to first envision a goal in order to generate the motivation necessary to stimulate you to take action. But the next step is where it often goes bad.
It takes three to four weeks of trial and error effort to acquire basic competency with any new behavior, eight to 10 weeks before you’re performing really well, and six months of repeated practice until the behavior becomes permanent. Now in the course of your lifetime a few months to learn a new behavior that will improve your life forever seems like a wise investment.
So why don’t most people sustain their efforts for that long? Because there’s not usually enough immediate gratification to maintain momentum. Think about training your dog. You give your pup a treat right away for performing a new behavior, and you continue reinforcing that behavior forever. Guess what — you operate the same way.
Without relatively immediate reinforcement, your drive to accomplish your goal will diminish. You need your spouse, best friend, coworker, therapist, mom and/or some other significant person in your life to be providing encouragement.
If you’re trying to get more exercise, find somebody to tell about your progress (or even better — enlist someone to be your exercise buddy). Support makes a great deal of difference in whether you succeed or not.
Writing out an action plan improves your level of change readiness. Take time to write down why you’re making this effort: “I can see the advantages of making this change will be ….” This will solidify your beliefs about why the effort will be worth it in the long run.
Next, increase your optimism about being able to achieve your goal by writing out, “I feel hopeful about being able to make this change because I have the following strengths that I’ve used to be successful in the past ….” This will give you good feelings about your ability to make the change.
Finally, write about why now: “I am ready for this change to happen at this time because ….” What are the factors that support making a change right now? Who will encourage you? What resources do you have available that could help you? How will you reinforce your daily efforts to put your new behavior into action?
Post your plan somewhere that you will read it every day, e.g. your bathroom mirror.