The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.
― John Milton, Paradise Lost
Beyond a minimum of material wealth and personal safety, happiness is largely a matter of mindset.
And while many a snake oil salesmen and self-help guru has tried to package this idea as simple and easy, it’s anything but:
- It takes patience and perseverance.
- It takes flexibility and open-mindedness.
- It takes humility and self-awareness
- But most of all, it takes courage.
Yes, cultivating a healthier mind will make you happier. But it’s a longer, more difficult road than you probably imagine.
As a psychologist and therapist, it’s my job to help people cultivate a healthier mind—and hopefully, find a little more peace and happiness in their lives as a result.
In this article, I’m not going to give you tricks or techniques or mantras to boost your mood or superficially feel a little better. Instead, I want to share a handful of principles that may guide you down your own path to a healthier, happier mind.
1. Be curious with your emotions
By nature, most of us are judgmental with our emotions—especially the difficult ones:
- You feel anxious and afraid and then immediately criticize yourself for being weak.
- You feel sad and instantly start worrying about getting depressed.
- You feel frustrated and angry and then beat yourself up for not keeping your cool.
This is understandable if you grew up being taught that it’s not okay to show—or even feel—strong emotion. It also makes sense because, in a crude way, we tend to assume that when something’s painful, it should be fixed or avoided.
But here’s the deal:
Just because a thing feels bad doesn’t mean it is bad.
In much of life, pain is actually a good thing:
- When your muscles are sore and painful after a good workout, your pain is a sign of growth and health.
- When your finger feels pain after touching a hot stove, that pain is helping you move your hand and avoid a serious burn.
- When you feel a jolt of anxiety after noticing your low fuel light blink on, that jolt of fear helps you remember to get gas.
Not only is pain often helpful, but by avoiding it or trying to eliminate it you could be making things worse on yourself. Think about it:
- It wouldn’t be very smart to stick a piece of tape over your low fuel light just because you didn’t want it to make you feel anxious anymore!
There’s a more general principle here that’s essential if you want to create a healthier, happier mind:
When you try to eliminate or avoid painful emotions, you only make things worse in the end.
When you get in the habit of running away from or trying to “fix” painful emotions, you teach your brain that your emotions are bad and dangerous. This means that the next time you feel bad, you’re going to feel bad about feeling bad because your brain thinks emotions are dangerous.
This is why it’s so important to stop being judgmental with your emotions, no matter how difficult or painful they are.
Feeling bad is hard enough without feeling bad about feeling bad.
Instead of a judgmental and combative relationship with your emotions, strive to be curious about them instead. Rather than enemies to be avoided, try thinking about your emotions as friends to be consoled and understood.
Or better yet, try thinking about your emotions as lights on your car’s dashboard: However they make you feel, they’re just trying to help.
Practice being curious with your emotions, instead of judgmental, and you’ll find that they are much easier to live with and understand.
2. Be compassionate in your self-talk
I’m always shocked at how brutal and mean people are to themselves with their self-talk:
- They criticize and berate themselves anytime they make a mistake.
- They compare themselves to everyone around them, usually in the worst possible light.
- And they devalue and minimize their many positive qualities too.
And while there are many reasons people develop such harsh, negative self-talk, the result is always the same—you end up feeling awful about yourself.
Because here’s the deal:
Things don’t cause us to feel bad; it’s our thoughts about things that determines how we feel.
It’s our interpretations and stories we tell ourselves about what happens that determines the quality of our emotions.
Here’s an example:
Suppose you’re in a meeting at work. A coworker makes a rude comment about your presentation as you’re walking out the door. Now, imagine two different stories or sets of self-talk and what the emotional consequence might be:
Ugh, I knew I screwed up that last slide. Why do I have to be so awkward all the time!
Well, I guess that last slide didn’t go as well as it could have, but he often makes rude comments to people… Probably says more about him than me.
In option 1, on top of feeling embarrassed, you’re probably going to feel ashamed about yourself and even depressed since you’ve told yourself you’re awkward “all the time.”
But in option 2, while you might still feel that initial embarrassment (we all do when someone says something mean!), you won’t be adding any other painful emotions on top of your embarrassment because your story changed.
Here’s the bottom line:
Negative self-talk compounds your emotions. And not in a good way.
When you’re overly negative and critical about yourself, you turn normal embarrassment into intense shame; everyday frustration into anger or rage; ordinary sadness into depression or despair.
But at the end of the day, self-talk is just a habit. And like all habits, it can be changed.
But rather than trying to eliminate your negative self-talk, it’s often more helpful to try and create an alternative: To learn to be compassionate in your self-talk rather than judgmental.
This is simpler than it sounds… If you want to start being kinder toward yourself, follow The Other Golden Rule:
Treat yourself like you would treat a good friend.
The next time you feel bad, imagine a good friend felt the same way and came to you for support and advice… What would you say to them?
If they had made a mistake at work, would you tell them how stupid that was and how they’ll never make anything of themselves? Of course not! You’d be compassionate. You’d help them take a balanced perspective, and tell a realistic story about what that mistake means (and doesn’t mean!).
Ironically, most people who struggle with negative self-talk are incredibly kind and compassionate with other people.
You already know how to be compassionate; it’s just a matter of aiming it at yourself.
3. Be realistic with your expectations
The trouble with expectations is that we assume they’re doing one job when really they’re doing a very different one.
See, most people assume that expectations are a way to foster growth and achievement:
- Having high expectations for our children academically encourages them to do well in school and be successful at work.
- Having high expectations for our employees encourages them to work hard and do high-quality work.
- And of course, setting big expectations for ourselves leads to personal growth and self-improvement.
But often, we end up using high expectations as a way to soothe our own anxieties and insecurities.
Here’s how it works:
- Most people hate uncertainty. The idea that their kids won’t be successful and happy or that their employees won’t do their jobs without constant supervision, for example, fills them with anxiety and dread.
- But, because they can’t actually control their kid’s academic success or their employee’s performance, they settle for the next best thing: expecting those things to happen.
- When you create an expectation in your head—which is really just you imagining the thing you want to be true—it temporarily alleviates some of that anxiety and uncertainty. It makes you feel just a little more in control and a little more certain that things will go well.
- But in reality, your expectations are merely fictions you’ve spun up in your own mind. And often, they’re not based on much evidence. Which means, these expectations are likely to be violated frequently—the result being a lot of stress and frustration on your part plus a lot of shame and resentment on the part of the people you’re expecting things of.
Expectations are often unconscious coping mechanisms we use to make ourselves feel better—a little less anxious and a little more sure about things.
Not only is this a recipe for chronic stress and disappointment on your part, but eventually people in your life catch on that your rigid expectations aren’t really about their wellbeing and that they ultimately are selfish—a lazy way for you to make yourself feel a little better without addressing the real root of your insecurities.
- If you’re afraid that your kids won’t be successful in life, maybe you should work through that fear on your own instead of slamming them with unrealistically high expectations?
- If you’re afraid that your employees won’t work hard enough, maybe you should actually run some experiments and see how they do under different management styles and systems?
- If you’re afraid that your spouse won’t be as intimate and loving as you want, maybe you should try being assertive and asking for what you want instead of continually expecting them to read your mind and then getting upset when they don’t.
Expectations have their place. But they very easily run wild and start causing hugely unnecessary stress and unhappiness unless you’re vigilant of them.
If you want a calmer, more content mind, get in the habit of checking in on your expectations regularly and making sure they aren’t too far outside of reality.
4. Be assertive in your relationships
The concept of assertiveness is usually misunderstood. Most people hear assertive and they associate it with mean, rude, or even manipulative.
In truth, assertiveness is the healthy middle ground between passivity and aggression. When we learn to communicate assertively it means that we are able to communicate in a way that is honest to our own wants and needs but also respectful of the rights of other people.
Basically, assertiveness boils down to this:
The ability to ask for what you want—or say no to what you don’t want—confidently and respectfully.
Unfortunately, this is a difficult thing for many of us to do—mostly because we’re afraid of conflict:
- We worry about others getting bad or angry with us.
- We worry that people will think badly of us or not approve.
- We worry that we’ll look dumb or foolish if we express ourselves honestly.
But here’s the deal:
You will never have true peace of mind if you can’t communicate honestly with the most important people in your life—your spouse, your boss, your parents, etc.
If you constantly feel afraid to express yourself, your mind will be filled with worries and insecurities, or frustrations and resentments—or more than likely, both!
One of the best ways to cultivate a happier, more content attitude and outlook on life is to cultivate the courage to communicate assertively.
It takes practice and patience, but anyone can learn to be more assertive.
5. Be clear about your values
We all have values—the things that matter most to us in life. But the problem is, for most of us, those values are surprisingly vague and unclear.
And when our values are unclear—when we don’t know what we really want and where we truly want to go—it makes it easy to get lost in unhealthy habits like worry, rumination, and procrastination. And all of these make for a pretty unhappy and discontent mind.
Let’s look at a specific example:
Suppose one of your values is creativity. For you, the ability to express yourself freely and imaginatively is one of the most important parts of being alive. And while you know how much creativity matters to you, you don’t spend nearly as much time actually working on creative projects as you would like.
- Maybe you tend to start new projects but quickly get distracted and jump to newer and newer projects but never making traction on any one specifically.
- Or maybe you have one creative project that’s important to you, but you procrastinate on it all the time. Again, never making sustained progress in your creativity.
One of the reasons for this could be that your value of creativity is too vague and unclear. And what you really need—more than focus or better tools for dealing with procrastination—is to simply get more clarity and specificity about your value of creativity.
For example: here are some questions you might ask yourself that would clarify your value of creativity, and in the process, make it easier to actually live out that value:
- In what ways do I most enjoy being creative? What are the biggest obstacles to me pursuing those ways of being creative?
- Who are some of my creative heroes? What are the specific habits, practices, or routines they live by?
- What are my biggest fears and insecurities about creativity and being creative? Where do these come from and what habits am I engaged in that maintain them?
- What would the practical benefits of me being more creative be? How would being more creative improve my life, or the lives of other people, in tangible ways?
The point is simply this:
In order for your values to be strong enough to impact your behavior, they must be clear enough to take action on.
And when we do clarify our values—and align our actions with them—peace of mind and happiness tend to follow.
If you want to cultivate a happier, healthier mind, learn to clarify your values.
All You Need to Know
If you want to cultivate a healthier, happier mind, consider these 5 core principles:
Be curious with your emotions
Be compassionate in your self-talk
Be realistic with your expectations
Be assertive in your relationships
Be clear about your values