I’ll begin with a major theme of this book, and one which is essential to grasp if you want to put yourself on the path to happiness and peace of mind: Change. Right now, your opinion of it is probably not very positive. But it is the first step to take in making yourself a happier person.
When Ben Franklin said that two things were certain in life – death and taxes — he omitted to mention Change. Change is written into the DNA of life.
“All things are change, yet we need not fear anything new,” says Marcus Aurelius, whom I first quoted in the Introduction. Reigning at the height of the Roman Empire, Aurelius was a man who dealt with pressing issues on a daily basis, and he accepted change as a part of life that could be looked at with optimism. The more positive you become, the more you too will accept change, as you will realize that it often brings positive things. A sheer dislike of change is a symptom of negative people.
There are two types of change: internal and external. That is, there are changes we initiate ourselves, and changes which happen outside of our control.
What we are mainly concerned with in this chapter is internal change: the kind you have control over. Jack Welch, CEO of GE, used to tell his employees, “Change or die.” This is a bit extreme for our purposes, but we can admit that common sense tells us that if something is not working, you need to change what is being done about it.
During one of the most difficult periods of my life, I woke up one day in my hot, claustrophobic apartment, and BAM! The full awfulness of my life situation hit me. It had been a terrible year: money, my job, problems with friendships and relationships, you name it. And in thinking about all these things, over and over, for the millionth time, I finally “lost it” – I pounded the walls, swore, and shouted. I always thought that foaming at the mouth was something that only happened in cartoons, but I found out that it was real! And when I calmed down and sank to the floor in exhaustion and shame, the conclusion I came to was that something had to change. I waited and waited.
And waiting was the problem. For years, I went through my life expecting the circumstances around me to magically improve. At the same time, I disliked the concept of change. In short, I wanted my life to get better without actually changing. It was irrational, and I was expecting the impossible. Throughout all of this, it never occurred to me that the things that needed to change were inside my own head. I had a tendency to overthink, I drank too much, I read books that entertained me but which didn’t teach me anything about how to improve my life – just to name a
few of my shortcomings. And when this approach didn’t work, do you know what I did? I blamed luck, my IQ, the weather, the economy, my past – not once did I attribute it to my refusal to move with the current, and accept that I needed to make some serious changes.
In order to write this book, I had to change. I had to wake up early to find time to write, and I had to work around a busy job and part-time jobs. If I had kept on living life the way I did several years ago, I would be just as unhappy, and this book would never have been written.
The Beginningsof Change
Where can you start making changes? When you want your life to improve, you start by looking at your daily activities and routines, no matter how “ordinary.” Look at what is healthy, and what is not. You’ll be surprised at how many minor things accumulate into being harmful to your progress.
I used to insist on watching at least one movie per day, a DVD, after dinner; and often, if I enjoyed it, I would watch another. Then, on top of having spent four hours staring at the TV screen, I’d get to sleep late and not be fresh for the morning. While watching the films, I’d have more than a few drinks. In the morning I’d be dehydrated and hung over, and not in the mood for going to work.
The first change I made was making sure to get a good night’s sleep. It was basic: if I was tired all the time, there was no way I could do my best at work or look for new opportunities. What made matters worse was that I was a poor sleeper, often waking up several times during the night, as well as before my alarm clock. I saw a doctor about this, and his advice was simple: “Tom, if you need more hours of sleep, go to bed earlier.” I made sure I was in bed by 10 pm, and almost immediately, I started to begin each day with more energy and more positivity. The fact that I was able to get up with the alarm clock, and not hit the snooze button, meant that I got to enjoy the peace and tranquility of the early morning — without interruptions, phone calls, messages, traffic noise, and air pollution.
I highly recommend getting up an hour before you think you need to, and simply relishing that early-morning simplicity and freshness. Put on some smooth music and get a head start on the day by being calm, before the busyness starts.
Changing my eating and drinking habits was next. As a bachelor, I was a lazy food shopper and a lazy eater. In some ways, this worked in my favor, as I rarely had extra food in the house, so I didn’t overeat! But I did need to lose some weight and eat healthier food. I’d forgotten about the importance of fruits and vegetables, and started to eat both regularly. Regarding drinks, I did allow myself a beer after work, but I noticed that I drank beer while watching TV as more of a tactile habit – it wasn’t the beer, rather it was having something to drink. I substituted club soda, and saw the results quickly: I was not dehydrated at all in the mornings, and was more clear-headed. On top of that, it was also cheaper! Soon, I didn’t even want that daily beer, and restricted beer drinking to weekends.
I now had a platform on which I could start improving my life. And I didn’t miss the extra hours of TV or additional beers. I actually felt better without them. With the extra time, energy, and money, I was able to acquire books about how to make myself a better person. I still gave myself time to unwind – we are not machines, and everyone needs to rest and laugh. But I cut the TV time down to an hour, and then was able to accept a part-time editing job. I would never have accepted such a job when I was on my previous nightly “schedule.”
Importantly, I would get into bed before I was sleepy, which enabled me to read a self-improving book about business or how to be more motivated. As Jim Rohn has said, “If you want to be wealthy, study wealth,” and there is an abundance of books on this topic out there waiting for you. The quote that helps sum it all up is one from Ben Franklin, and one that many of us heard in our youth: “Early to bed, and early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.”
Life and Change
Life doesn’t like it when we refuse to change. It basically says to us, “If you expect me to change, I expect you to change too.” The problem is that for the depressive, who is also a pessimist, change is always seen as going from bad to worse. We have a mentality of “Better the devil you know, than the devil you don’t,” and actually start to feel safe in our tunnel of unhappiness, because we think we have control. In fact, we don’t. And when change inevitably comes from the outside, we react with surprise and anger, refusing to accept that you can only “escape” change for a very short amount of time.
As I mentioned at the beginning of this book, at 20 I was happy-go-lucky and by my early 30s I was in the doldrums of depression. What changed? To begin, everything had changed except me. In my early 30s, I was still trying to live with the perspective of a 20-year-old: that life should be 100% fun and that there were no repercussions to a lifestyle of complete hedonism. Work, for me, was a “job,” with no concept of a career – and this non-productive mentality soon catches up with you.
Here are some changes we can start making today:
- Diet: It’s amazing how many people take better care of their cars than of their own bodies. Put the best “oil” into your own engine. Eat vegetables, fruit, lean meat; drink plenty of water (the hotter the better), and cut down on the desserts.
- Sleeping schedule: as mentioned, get into bed before you are sleepy, with a book that teaches you something.
- Scene: Aside from work, where do you spend your time? If you are mostly at home, take a close look at what you see there every day. We become so accustomed to our homes that we forget what they look like inside, and hence how they are affecting us. During the most stressful time of my life, when I had far too much going on in my head, I also had a cluttered apartment. Organizing my possessions – and throwing quite a few of them away – gave me a nice, clean, spacious-looking apartment to come home to every night. Likewise, when you are feeling depressed and that life is dull, put some decorations on the walls, such as posters of your favorite band. It’s amazing how powerful the subconscious can be in influencing your mood.
- Appearance: most people have their own style, but one should dress in a manner that accentuates his or her best features, and looks presentable. You can’t completely control the way you were born, but you can control how you dress. There’s not many things in life that we can control, but what we wear is one of them.
- Learning more. Ask yourself: When was the last time I learned something new? Not facts from the news, but a new skill or ability?
- Perspective: you’ve already taken the first step in changing that. Keep reading.
These are relatively large-scale changes, and after making them, you can focus on the smaller ones. At one point, the items on my list of things to change included drinking less alcohol, being less sarcastic, and reading more books about personal finance.
A quick note on external change. God can grant you many things: strength in adversity, understanding, patience, perhaps even seeing opportunities. What he cannot give you is external stability. Change is as inherent in life as breathing, and perhaps even more so. To refuse to change is to bang your head against a brick wall.
I’m not asking you to like it. At least not immediately. But if something is a fact, we have no choice but to accept it. An excellent parable on dealing with external change is found in Spencer Johnson’s Who Moved My Cheese. You can read it in an hour, and it is told in the familiar style of a fable. It teaches us how to see opportunity in change, and how the sooner we accept change, the faster we can move forward with our lives.