Life can be easy when you know how.
Do you know someone for whom life just seems ridiculously easy? Everything they touch seems to turn to gold? Here we are grinding away, overcoming challenges, confronting our weaknesses, working SO hard to win at life. And yet there seems to be others who get a disproportionate share of good luck. Everything just seems easy. They don’t worry about life and apparently they don’t have to either. It’s so bloody unfair. If we’re honest, and this is a safe place to be honest, we kind of feel like we are owed something they are not. Because we toiled. We suffered. They didn’t.
I hear you.
You may, like me, have previously identified with phrases like:
“No pain no gain”.
“If it’s too good to be true it probably is.”
“The harder the struggle the more glorious the triumph.”
In the military we were less profound and more masochistic. We used phrases like “if it’s not raining it’s not training” and “practice bleeding”.
These all have some truth in them. It reminds us of the inescapable truth that learning and growing is not the easy path. We need to work for it. And often it is adversity which reveals the greatest learning. But that does NOT mean we have to be martyrs to the cause. We can have some fun whilst we train our brains for greatness. In particular, it has been proven that fun has the ability to dramatically improve our capacity to cope with stress.
Why fun is good for us.
There have been extensive studies done on concert pianists, Olympic athletes and pilots ie, people who rely on their ability to keep their cool and perform to an exceptional standard under stress. Apparently James Bond wasn’t available that day. However, the results were conclusive. These individuals were ALL less affected by stressful situations. More accurately, when their stress response was activated they were more able to “switch on” the Parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) and calm their threat system more quickly. They found that this ability could be measured by “vagal” tone since we use the vagus nerve to activate the PNS. They also discovered something very exciting in the field of neurophysiology and it has to do with Heart Rate Variability (HRV). HRV is the measure of how regular our heartbeat is. We might think that a heart rate of 60bpm would mean that our heart beats once every second. But actually the intervals between the heart beats are not totally regular. And what’s more, this is good news. In fact the MORE irregular the intervals the higher the HRV and that has been linked to better wellbeing, heart health, performance and, crucially, stress resilience. So clearly there is a huge benefit to increasing our HRV. But how?
For that we can look at our concert pianists, Olympic athletes and pilots…remember I said they had ninja levels of vagal tone? Well there is a way to exercise the vagus nerve to increase vagal tone. We do this by being blissfully and fully absorbed in optimally challenging activities. Also known as FLOW. Here are the characterics of a flow activity.
-It’s optimally challenging (not too easy not too difficult – often known as “stretch”)
-It occupies our full attention
Think of the times when you have lost all sense of time because you were so absorbed by something that you find enjoyable. Maybe it’s building a kit car. Maybe it’s gardening. Maybe it’s building lego with your child. Maybe it’s even crafting a kick-ass presentation for work. These are all examples of being in flow. So flow is actually more accessible than we think. It isn’t reserved for concert pianists. They just happened to provide us with the evidence. So get into flow, do something you love doing and become a ninja at dealing with pressure. Play hard. Fight easy.
What about abnormally happy people?
Let’s go back to those annoying people that just seem to find life easy. Why does that happen? Why should they be “rewarded” when they’ve put so little effort into being the best version of themselves? To overcoming difficulty? Well, first of all, these people RARELY wear their struggles on their sleeve. Let’s ignore the social media trend of “I’ve got it worse than you” for a moment. In my experience, everyone has got something going in their life, or their heads, that they don’t put on show. Every human feels pain and fear. So it’s usually a good idea to suspend judgment on someone else’s “fairytale” existence because the truth is, it’s probably just as fucked up as yours.
However, there IS evidence that some people find life “easier.” And it’s because, whether by luck or judgement, they practice something which is now commonly referred to as positive psychology.
The basis of positive psychology is simple. Rather than studying people who are of lower than normal mental health and trying to figure out how to get them back up to the national average, they studied people who had unusually good mental health and tried to figure out why they were so happy and if we could copy them. Positive psychology is the antidote to over-therapised and overly diagnostic culture that we live in. For too long, in my opinion, the emphasis has been on finding out what is WRONG with someone, and in the case of therapy, understanding why this happened, and then trying to figure out how to FIX it. The problem with this is we are always looking for the worst. And if we look for it, we usually find it.
But what if it’s enough to acknowledge that we all have insecurities and challenges, and rather than devoting our energy to digging them up, we can focus on the things that make us smile. We don’t need to unravel our pasts. Revisit and ignite our disappointments. We can accept it for what it is and get then get on with enjoying life. And when we are having a good time, it’s kind of hard to remember to feel sorry for ourselves, be pissed off at others for having it better than us, or worry about how inadequate we are. In essence, have a bit more fun and it may surprise how your problems start to melt away. Could it really be that easy? The science certainly backs it up. What an exciting possibility.
When they studied unusually “well” people they found that not only did they spend their time doing meaningful things that made them happy, they also found that they were more successful in their personal and professional lives. They believed good things would happen to them… and they did. Much has been written about this, the most famous tome probably being “The Secret” which is based on the laws of attraction. If we expect good things to happen, we create the conditions for them to happen, we are more open to them happening and more likely to benefit when they do happen. In other words, good things happen because they CAN happen. Conversely the reason that good things don’t happen to us, is actually (and tragically) because we don’t let them happen.
In sum – Doing the things we love, particularly when they are optimally challenging is one of the best ways to train our brains to be more resilient. It is also proven to increase our overall wellbeing and sets the conditions for more favourable outcomes at work and at home. So please take this as an invitation to HAVE SOME FUN. It is unlikely to do any harm and may even do you immeasurable good.
Sarah has spent 20 years flying helicopters in the Royal Air Force on combat operations. Inspired by her experiences in military service she is now a keynote speaker, executive coach and writer. She specialises in training the mind to perform and thrive under pressure. She is currently writing her first book “How to be a Superhero, Not a Sociopath”. Sarah delivers her revolutionary training techniques through talks, workshops and coaching. Oh and through the medium of “winefulness”. To find out more contact Sarah@wellbeitcoach.com
Author: Sarah Furness – Founder of of Well Be It
Performance Coaching, Wellness, Health, Wellbeing