The keys to a good life
Emotional Health (Pt. 1)
You know those days?
Those days when the sun can’t set fast enough so you can crawl into bed and hope to wake up anew, refreshed and revitalized, the next morning.
We all have those days.
Bad days when something is off, but we can’t put a finger on what it is or how to fix it.
When we find ourselves or someone we love in a state of poor emotional health, we want nothing more than to return to baseline.
My goal is for this article to serve as your Emotional Health GPS so that when you’re having one of those days, you can identify what’s wrong.
In Part 2 next week, we’ll cover the actions that can help you rapidly return to — and maybe even elevate — your baseline.
Why does emotional health matter?
Much of what I write is targeted at ways to extend our lives.
But the secret to a good life isn’t necessarily a long life.
If your life is good, living longer can make it better by giving you more days to be joyous, satisfied, and fulfilled.
If your life is bad, living longer is just extending your jail sentence on this rock called Earth.
So, what’s the secret to a good life?
The quality of your emotional health determines how you feel about yourself, your relationships, and the world.
It determines whether you have good or bad days.
And ultimately, it’s what makes your life worth living.
What drives strong emotional health?
When you’re having a bad day, a helpful first step is to identify why you’re feeling that way.
Knowing why can help inform the appropriate strategy to improve your state and will better the relationship you have with yourself by deepening your understanding of what makes you tick.
So next time you feel off, start by reflecting internally and questioning which of these keys to emotional health is getting you down.
Seneca: "We suffer more often in imagination than in reality."
Shakespeare's Hamlet: "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so."
Buddha: "Your worst enemy cannot harm you as much as your own unguarded thoughts.”
Lao Tzu: “If you are depressed you are living in the past. If you are anxious you are living in the future. If you are at peace you are living in the present.”
From Buddhist monks and Roman Stoics to English playwrights and Chinese philosophers, mindfulness has been critical to emotional well-being since humans became self-aware.
Do you find yourself…
Reflexively reacting to people or events you can’t control?
Being tugged around by your thoughts, feelings, and emotions?
Unable to enjoy the present moment due to feelings of anxiety or depression?
Although the word “mindfulness” has lost its meaning to modern-day gurus and spirituality teachers, there are at least two hard, practical outcomes of mindfulness that can have a real, positive impact on your life:
Outcome #1: Create a space between external stimulus and your response.
Our bad decisions and big regrets often stem from reacting before thinking.
Being mindful allows you to identify a gap that is invisible to most.
That gap exists between when something happens to you and your response.
Utilizing the gap between stimulus and response allows you to process the situation and respond in a calm and reasoned way which results in you feeling better about your words, actions, and outcomes.
Outcome #2: Keep your train of thought in the present moment (not the past or future) for most of the day.
As Lao Tzu noted, living in the past leads to depression and living in the future to anxiety but, if you can live in the present, you will be at peace.
Of course, you should still spend some time living in the future (creating an investment strategy, planning trips, etc.) and occasionally revisit the past (joyously retelling stories and sharing memories with family and friends).
But most of your daily brain power should be spent in the present.
Greater mindfulness reduces the feelings of being rushed, anxious, and depressed, and helps you extract more joy out of your present experience.
Personal Story: My Struggle with Anxiety
Although I’ve always viewed myself as cool, calm, and collected, I’ve struggled with anxiety for the past four years.
For me, anxiety is purely physical and manifests itself in my breath.
When I’m anxious, I feel an elephant sitting on my chest and can’t get a deep breath.
The source of my troubles?
Living too much in the future.
When I’m anxious, it’s because I’m spending too much time thinking about and trying to control the uncertain future.
Emotional regulation exists internally and externally and largely stems from the nature of our self-talk.
Can you control your emotions within your own head (internal) as well as in your interactions with others (external)?
What does your self-talk sound like?
To assess your self-talk, compare how you speak to yourself versus how you would speak to a close friend who just did, said, or performed exactly as you did.
Do you internally berate yourself while treating your friend with kindness and compassion?
If so, that might be a sign your self-talk needs work.
Emotional regulation and distress tolerance (below) are linked and impact each other in both directions.
The higher your capacity for handling distress, the better your emotional regulation will be.
And the better you can regulate your emotions, the more equipped you will be to handle distress.
Do you feel overloaded with your responsibilities?
Distress tolerance is your ability to handle emotional stressors, whether that be work, relationships, or surprise disasters.
Our capacity to handle distress is partially genetic — some people are better at handling high workloads and stressful scenarios than others — but can also be worsened or improved through our daily routines.
When we exercise, sleep well, eat properly, get outdoors, spend time with people we like, and engage in recreational activities we enjoy, we improve our ability to handle distress.
But when we skip out on these positive habits or, even worse, engage in destructive ones, our distress tolerance is greatly diminished.
Distinguish between the things you can control (your habits, attitude, and actions) and the things you cannot (external events and other people), and focus your energy on the former.
I’m not religious, but the Serenity Prayer offers a fantastic reminder to live by:
“Grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference, living one day at a time; enjoying one moment at a time...”
Are you taking care of yourself?
Self-management starts with taking care of your basic needs like waking up on time, feeding and hygiene, and getting to school or work.
With those basic needs covered, it extends to your routines around exercise, sleep, nutrition, hobbies, relationship management, and so on.
Interpersonal effectiveness is how well you make your feelings and needs known to others and your ability to navigate your relationships.
A maxim I often repeat:
“When I’m good with myself, I’m good with the world.”
When I take care of the internal components of my emotional health (by performing the daily habits we’ll discuss in Part 2 next week), I’m equipped to navigate my relationships successfully.
By taking care of ourselves first, we are much better suited to effectively handle our relationships.
We’re still going to have bad days.
And that’s okay.
But by better understanding what drives our emotional health and the practices that improve it (Part 2 next week), we give ourselves the best shot at having more good days.