When we consider stress, we don’t usually think of meaning and purpose. But living a life that’s devoid of these qualities is inherently stressful. I’d even go as far as to say that the single best way of living a calmer, happier life is to do it with a strong sense of purpose. But what do I mean by ‘purpose’? One way of thinking about it is as living your life on purpose.
People with a strong sense of purpose enjoy significantly better health compared to those who don’t, including less likelihood of developing heart disease, strokes and depression. Research also shows that they sleep better and live longer.
Perhaps more crucially, though, people with a sense of purpose live happier lives.
But here’s the problem. In order to find out who we are and what our purpose is, and then begin to change our lives, we need time. And time is precisely the thing that the modern world is stealing from us.
There are many invisible costs to this, and one of the least understood is the fact that it robs us of the chance to really think about ourselves and our purpose in the world. We all need to feel there’s a point to our existence beyond picking up a pay cheque. If we don’t, we’re automatically living our lives perilously close to our stress threshold.
Firstly, we’re going to look at ways you can start seeing the life you have in a different, more positive way. This will help you achieve a mindset that’s strong and calm enough for you to begin to make changes.
Secondly, I’m going to help you eke out some more time in your busy day to really think. Then, I’m going to give you a new framework so you can start the process of finding your reason to get up in the morning and your true purpose. Once you find true meaning, you will be well on your way to becoming the best, most authentic version of yourself.
The Three Habits of Calm
First of all it’s necessary to set up the practices and habits that will allow you to start shifting your mindset. It involves what I call the Three Habits of Calm:
These are simple interventions that I’d like you to try, each at a different time of the day. You don’t need to do them all; they’re simply tools to try in order to get going. You can use them as they are or tweak them to suit your own life and preferences.
They’ll help get your thoughts in the right place so that you can start seeing the good that’s already there in your everyday life and begin to shift your attention away from the negative (which humans have a natural tendency to do) and into the positive.
My mother-in-law is convinced that affirmations have changed her life. An affirmation is a short, powerful and positive statement of intent which you repeat regularly. “It has to be succinct,” she says, “because you have to repeat it as often as you can. It has to be positive. It also has to be in the right tense: it is ‘I am’ instead of ‘I’m going to’.”
In an affirmation, you’re talking to your subconscious mind, programming in what you want out of your life. Regular practice will set you up for a calm, stress-free day and start changing how you see yourself and the world. If you don’t believe my mother-in-law, consider this: US soldiers who saw benefits in their deployment and agreed with statements such as ‘This deployment has made me more confident in my ability’ or ‘This job allowed me to demonstrate my courage’ were found to be less likely to suffer PTSD and depression. Affirmations have even been shown to improve problem-solving performance by undergraduate students.
Seven tips to making effective affirmations
1 Write down your affirmation. It should be short, as you will be repeating it, and it should also be in the present tense.
2 Think about what you may consider to be your negative qualities, e.g. ‘I am highly strung.’ An affirmation is a powerful way to flip this on its head. For example, your affirmation could be ‘I am calm and stress- free.’ Or, ‘I choose to be happy’ or ‘I am the architect of my own health.’
3 Experiment with different affirmations and see how they make you feel.
4 As you are saying the affirmation out loud, really imagine yourself as that person. If your affirmation is ‘I am full of energy’ – imagine yourself as a person who is full of vitality.
5 Say the affirmation every morning, even when you don’t feel like it. Try to do this at the same time every day to help it become routine. Just before breakfast or as soon as you wake up is ideal. Try to repeat the phrase continuously for about one or two minutes.
6 Repeat the phrase as often as you can throughout the day. Do it silently in your head, if in company.
7 Feel free to change your affirmations depending on what message you are trying to imprint within your brain.
2 Reframing the day
Our ability to be motivated and purposeful often depends on how we choose to interpret a stressful event. We all know that person in the office (and that person may be you) who always looks on the negative side: Why does that always happen to me? Just my luck! Why do I never get a promotion? It’s always me that’s being overlooked. The problem with this kind of victim mentality is that it tends to be self-fulfilling. By constantly thinking in this way we’re training ourselves to become that negative person. We all have bad things happen to us. But how we frame our particular situation is a choice. This framing is something we all do, all the time, whether we realise it or not. And you’ll do yourself an enormous favour if you take control of how you’re framing your life and make it work for you rather than against you.
There’s plenty of fantastic evidence that shows we can gain huge benefits from altering the way we view our daily stresses. One 2012 study found that if we change the way we think about a stressful event we can improve our physical health and also the way our brain reacts to Micro Stress Doses (MSDs).
Compared to the group who didn’t, the participants in this study who reframed their MSDs had lower blood pressure, higher attention levels and even improved efficiency of their heart muscle. When we reframe a stressful experience, not only does it feel good but we benefit from powerful physiological changes in our body. We’ve helped mitigate the damage that MSDs can do simply by looking at the problem in a different way.
When you’re in the middle of an MSD swarm, your emotional brain becomes dominant and your rational brain is sidelined so you’re unable to look at things logically.
You often tend to dwell on situations that you find distressing or upsetting, or when you replay a problem over and over again in your mind. In the short term, it may feel as though this is helping; in the long term, it will be damaging. You will be training your emotional brain to become more powerful, which in turn makes it more likely that you will spend time ruminating in the future, and so it’s more likely that you will become anxious.
Three tips for effective reframing
1 Write down the experience. When we write, we tend to automatically adopt a more rational and distant viewpoint. We’re able to give the situation context and clarity in a way that we can’t when we replay it over and over in our head. And when we write, we tend to be kinder to ourselves.
2 Focus on the cause. For example, if someone cut dangerously in front of you while you were driving to work, instead of focusing on you and your own stress levels, try to think about the fact that the other driver may be stressed because their mother may be unwell, angry because they had a row with their partner, or not had enough sleep because their kids were up all night. As soon as you focus on the other person and what might be going on in their life, you begin to put the event in context. Remember: other people’s negative behaviour is evidence that they’re in a bad place and that their lives are not going well.
3 Replay the event as if you were an observer. Think of yourself as a sports commentator, narrating your situation. Call yourself ‘he’ or ‘she’, or give yourself a different name. This takes you out of the heat of the moment, forces you to take a broader, less me-focused view and helps prevent you from catastrophising.
3 Gratitude in the evening
As we’ve learned, rumination can be incredibly damaging. Gratitude is the antidote to rumination. Because we’re programmed to focus on threats, we miss so many of the positive things that happen to us all the time, whether it’s an email we receive saying thanks for some good work or the fleeting scent of blossom as we’re driving to the office. This intervention is partly inspired by the practice of ‘loving kindness’ meditation.
Daily practice can have profound knock-on effects. Studies have found it can trigger a wide variety of positive emotions, including love, joy, gratitude, contentment and hope, as well as reducing the activity of the emotional brain.
Practise the three Ps
A daily practice of gratitude is a fantastic way to lower your stress levels. You can do it at any time of the day but the evening can be a particularly effective time. It can really help to lower your stress levels, helping you switch off and fall into a deep, relaxing sleep.
My own remixed version of loving kindness meditation involves spending just a few minutes at the end of each day projecting gratitude towards the three Ps:
* Person * Pleasure * Promise
Think of a person you feel grateful towards that day and, with all the power you can muster, focus on wishing them gratitude. Then do the same, but towards a pleasure you experienced during the day. Whether it was a lovely cup of coffee or a precious new memory you made, with one of your children perhaps, flood yourself with a powerful feeling of gratitude. Finally, think about something that popped up in the day that held some promise for the future. Imagine that promise of the future really happening and, once more, focus powerfully on feeling gratitude for the hope that it’s brought you.
Schedule your time
The 3 Habits of Calm – affirmations, reframing and gratitude – will help you significantly reduce your stress levels and put you in the right frame of mind for tackling the big questions of meaning and purpose. But you will need something else: time.
My wife Vidh used to be a successful criminal barrister. At the age of 30, she decided she wanted to devote her time to being a mother so she made the decision to give up her career temporarily. We were both shocked when it became apparent that raising children left her feeling more stressed than the high-powered legal work she’d been doing for years. One thing that made her particularly anxious was the feeling that there wasn’t enough time in the day. “I just don’t get any time to myself,” she’d keep saying. “I don’t get anything done.”
Vidh and I began hunting around for something that would stop her feeling this way. I’d love to tell you that it was me who found the solution, but it was my brilliant wife. She started making a detailed daily schedule that accounted for every single minute of the day. She wrote down: ‘Wake up: 6.30, Get ready: 6.45-7.05, Breakfast: 7.05-7.25,’ and so on, like this, all the way through until bedtime. This seemed pretty intense to me. Surely this would build anxiety rather than lessen it? But Vidh found that it worked. She felt more in control of her life. She was able to get more things done and at the same time felt fully able to enjoy the time she had scheduled for herself, to practise her yoga, and even to spend time surfing the internet, without feeling any guilt.
But Vidh’s practice of scheduling had an even bigger impact than that. She started to beat her own schedule.
She began to enjoy doing so, almost as if it were a game she was playing against herself. She quickly found gaps opening up in her daily diary that hadn’t been there before.
I’ve since learned that many top CEOs around the world use scheduling for this reason. It helps them be more productive, while ensuring they have ample time to pursue hobbies as well as spend time with their families.
Of course, you may also find that you really do have too many jobs to try and fit in within a short timeframe. Scheduling will also address this: it will help you prioritise the most important things that you need to do, improve your efficiency and help you find time to do more of the things you love.
So I am going to ask you a series of questions and suggest a whole array of strategies to enable you to free up more of your time.
These strategies will ensure that you can do more of the things you love, feel less stressed and find precious time to be alone and think. I will also share an extremely effective technique that will enable you to start off each day a million miles away from your personal stress threshold and primed for meaning and purpose.
Three questions to help you schedule
1 Which activity would you love to spend more time doing, something you feel you can’t find time for in your daily life?
2 What are the three most important things you want to get done on any given day that would make you feel as if you have ‘won’ the day?
3 Which person (or persons) would you like to spend more time with than you currently do?
The best way to achieve these things is to schedule them in. You don’t need to strive for perfection – just thinking about these things and starting to schedule a few of them in will make a big difference.
Three things to schedule to reduce your stress
1 Something that brings you joy. It could be anything that gives you a daily dose of pleasure, such as five minutes of dancing when you get home, or listening to music. Chronic stress makes it harder for the brain to experience pleasure, so bulletproof yourself against this with a daily pleasure hit.
2 Something that trains your ability to delay gratification, such as taking up a new sport or hobby, or learning a new language or to play a musical instrument.
3 Something that involves movement or exercise. This can be a five-minute bodyweight workout or an hour-long class in the gym. There are no rules, but scheduling it in as an unmoveable part of your day will ensure that it happens.
Stare at a tree
One of the big problems with modern culture is that it associates ‘busy’ with ‘successful’. We like to feel our schedules are full to bursting because it makes us feel that we are in demand and important. There’s also a pernicious idea out there that to really excel in life we need to give all day, every day, over to our ambitions. Well, tell that to Armando Iannucci, a man who’s not only had a long career as one of Britain’s greatest living satirists but has broken America with his hit sitcom Veep and films such as In The Loop and The Death of Stalin. “I refuse to work evenings or weekends,” he told one newspaper. “If a script sees my character meeting for dinner, I put a line through the words and make them meet for lunch. After 6pm I turn my phone off. I told the Americans I don’t do calls after then.”
And what does he do with that time? “I really like to indulge in the doing-f**k-all thing. You know, just stare at a tree or something.”
I know you’re busy and under pressure, as we all are. What I’ve found is that, when I protect my own time by having a strict schedule, I’m infinitely more productive for the rest of the week. I’m happier. I feel calmer. We delude ourselves that we can continue working and keep going every single day, without consequence. We can’t.
An edited extract from: The Stress Solution – 4 Steps to Reset Your Body, Mind, Relationships and Purpose, Dr Rangan Chatterjee; Penguin Life; €19.99