As we move into part 4 of our series on happiness and contentment, I am going to change the format a little. There will be no review of previous sections, no special thanks or disclaimers and no drawing things out to shoot for a specific word count. This article will focus on arguably the most important battle we all face on a daily basis: our mental and emotional state.
To begin with, I am not a doctor or psychologist. My thoughts on this issue have no medical basis and come solely from my life experiences and studies. However, I do feel comfortable with the following statement. Each person fights emotional battles every day of their lives. And these battles begin exactly where you think they would; in our brains.
Our brains are both our biggest strength as living beings and our biggest weakness. Our ability to think places us at the very top of the “food chain”. Place an average human with no weapons, gear or clothing in a pit against a hungry bear and we will not survive 30 seconds. However, by using our brains to develop hunting equipment, high-powered rifles, clothing to survive in harsh climates and the knowledge on how to use all of it, and that bear does not stand a chance. It is not through physical prowess that we are the dominant species on earth. It is through our cognitive skills and ability to reason that we hold that position.
However, our brains also hold us back. Our mind attempts to protect our bodies by always offering us the path of least resistance. There is no need to exercise, says our brain. We have plenty of food in our refrigerator. Our couch is very comfortable. It is in the low 80’s outside so we absolutely need to run our air conditioner at full blast; in our car and in our house. Our brains prefer our lives to be easy.
But, there is a problem with that. Life is not easy.
Whenever we choose the easy path in our lives, we are training our brains to continue to desire that easy path. If we never take chances or risks (and even horror of horrors, suffer failures) we are not emotionally able to deal with the difficulties that life throws at us. We may find that small things like running out of bread, negative comments made by a co-worker, or a post on social media that we do not agree with can totally zap our energy throwing our entire day off.
Emotional stress and mental illness are very real concepts. People seem to be suffering from them at levels never before seen. We have grown so comfortable with our easy lives that any outlier or difficulty we face seems like a crisis. Think about the following situation and analyze yourself honestly. How do you handle it when the power or internet goes out at your house? In all actuality, this is a minor inconvenience. Your life is probably not in danger. You more than likely have a vehicle you can drive, a phone you can use or a neighbor you can go see if you do feel threatened or have a medical emergency. Our brains, however, despise this temporary change in our lives. My social media feed is normally filled with angry comments about the lack of power/wifi. In the meantime, I am sitting on my couch with candles lit, reading a paperback book by the light of my headlamp. My brain has been trained that this is a temporary state that does not matter.
I even know of an elite ultra-runner who does not even believe in the concept of emotions or mental mindset. His claim is that the brain is part of the body and, like all other parts, can be trained to perform. While most runners competing in extreme events like Badwater (the 135 mile footrace through Death Valley taking place this July) consider the race to be mostly mental, he believes it is 100 percent physical since he has spent countless hours training his brain along with his legs, feet and core.
So how do we do it? How can we improve our emotional state of mind? Simply put, we have to do hard things in our lives. We have to face difficulties and failure so when those things do occur (serious issues like the death of a loved one, the loss of a career, or a broken relationship) we know how to handle them without becoming an emotional disaster. This is contrary to what society believes. Most people are going to search for the easy way out. They are going to follow the easy route that offers the least amount of challenge. The concepts of hard work and effort are now looked down upon. The new American Dream seems to be how much can one get for the least amount of effort.
People….do not follow that path!!! Take a chance. Do something hard. Try something difficult. You can even fail at it! It is totally ok. You can take the failures (and I have had many in my personal life) and learn from them so there can be a different outcome on your next attempt. Each time that you do, you are strengthening the most powerful part of your body: your mind.
That will put you on the path to a more satisfactory existence……guaranteed.