The Real Leaning In

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I gulped down Sheryl Sandberg’s bestselling book in two sittings. The stories were engaging and the advice digestible. When I finished the last page – the point where you have to make the leap of integrating the advice into your own life – I began to think that none of it matters much. Why? The bulk of Ms. Sandberg’s advice is really about leaning out…trying to influence and control things externally. In the age of beeping, ringing, 24/7 connection, what we need more of is leaning inward.

A recent study estimates that your external circumstances – such as your job, your marriage and health status – can only predict 10 percent of your long-term happiness.Other research shows that specific circumstances, from winning the lottery to becoming a quadriplegic, don’t have a lasting influence on happiness. That means about 90 percent of your happiness is based on the conversation you’re having with yourself in your head.

If you’re a proponent of putting the least effort where you will get the most impact, then focusing on what’s happening inside your mind is your smartest investment.

While, intellectually, most of us likely agree, “you can’t buy happiness,” we invest most of our time in controlling all the outward stuff that is not a driver of our happiness and actually increases our stress levels. Most of us spend more time looking in the mirror at our outward appearance than we do noticing our inner state of mind, the driver of all of our decisions, actions and 90 percent of our happiness.

Re-think your greatest asset.
Consider this: before your belongings, your job, your bank account and even skill set, think of your attention as your greatest asset and act accordingly. Notice and protect your attention more than your most precious belongings and even more than your time.

How? It’s simple: on your to-do list, list ‘attention’ as your top priority. Keep turning your attention to what’s happening in your mind throughout all of your daily activities and tasks.  Just like building muscle by doing push-ups, you can build the muscle of attention through repetitively bringing your attention to your thoughts.

Over the last two years, I’ve been on a mission to identify the tiniest techniques that make the biggest impacts on the important things in life: happiness, stress levels, and interactions at work and at home.

Simplicity can be deceiving.
Here’s what I found: doing a few simple mental exercises per day can increase your happiness, decrease stress and improve your interactions with others in seven days. A pilot study I ran showed that four simple activities had quick and measurable impact across the majority of people studied.  After seven days of performing four activities, participants in the pilot study reported:

  • increased happiness (53 percent)
  • decreased stress (66 percent)
  • positive changes in interactions with people at work and at home (92 percent)

The activities are so simple and easy to integrate into your daily routine, that you may just forget about them. The challenge therefore becomes reminding yourself to do them. Since you’ve read this far in the article, you’re interested. So, right now, pick up a pen and a post it note or paper or email this article to yourself. Unless you do something now, it’s unlikely that you’ll remember enough about this tomorrow to put it into practice. If there was a pill that would deliver these results, you would most likely take it. So, read on.

Four bite sized mental techniques that will change your day — and life.
The best part is you don’t have to change anything you’re doing.  You only have to make some tiny shifts in how you’re doing them.  Over the next seven days, do the following:

Manage your mind. Throughout the day, simply put your attention on your attention. You have about 50,000 thoughts per day; most are mundane, some insane, a few may be brilliant, and most are repeated. It doesn’t matter what you’re thinking, only that you’re noticing it.  Simply by being aware of you’re the conversation going on inside of your head, you will start to self-manage and optimize your thoughts and attention.

Leverage your breath. Take a deep breath at least every hour. You take about 20,000 breaths per day. Try and use 30 or more of them to your benefit. Before you roll your eyes at the simplicity of this, think of your breath as the dashboard of the state of both your mind and body. Also, think of it as a lever to control the state of your body. Athletes and coaches know the value of this, and train themselves to use their breath to optimize performance. So can you. The trick is identifying cues from your daily routine that will cue you to take a deep breath – opening your inbox, checking your cell phone, washing your hands, starting a meeting, answering the phone, unlocking the car door or even answering “MOM?”

Write it out. Take five minutes each day and do uninterrupted writing about some event that was emotionally significant to you (something that triggered you, angered you or even made you feel happy). Keep writing, even if you start to draw a blank (you can even write “nothing, nothing, nothing,” until something comes up. You can do this at your desk at work in between tasks. After you’re done, tear it up or delete it. The purpose is not to keep this, it’s to notice and move on.

Do nothing. Take five minutes each day to do nothing: just sit still and notice the natural rise and fall of your breath. Sound easy? Just wait until your mind tries to convince you “This is stupid” or “I have things to do.” Anticipate the resistance, and when it comes remind yourself of the proven benefits: reduce stress, increase in immune function, reduce blood pressure and increase happiness levels are just a few. This is the most important of the practice; it’s comparable to shutting down all the open windows on your computer to help your brain to work optimally again. TIP: the purpose of this exercise is not to clear your mind, but to train the muscle that notices when it goes away and to bring it back. Expect that your mind will wander possibly hundreds of times in the five minutes.

In a world filled with beeping, blipping, ringing and pinging, it’s increasingly easy to distract yourself from what’s most important in your life…your happiness. Every day, we are faced with seemingly urgent emails, tasks, headlines and more. Separate the seemingly urgent and take just a few minutes per day to invest in what’s really important: your happiness.

As Arianna Huffington said in a recent forum I attended, “Onward, upward, and inward.”

Melissa_Laughlin

About Melissa Laughlin

Melissa Laughlin is an executive at a Fortune 500 company and the creator of The Happiness Method. She holds her MBA, BA in psychology and is a certified yoga and meditation instructor. Ms. Laughlin has studied with the world’s leading experts on mindfulness. Her passion is translating learnings from mindfulness practices into the everyday craziness of personal and professional life.