“What is the smallest thing you can to do improve your life?” asked engineer turned social media technologist cum psychologist, Benjamin Ellis, today on Twitter.
An impossible question!
We can never answer that question and this is why.
When “life is going well”, we don’t ask.
– Not because life is going well, but because we have no issue with getting on with life. The next step emerges, then the next, then the next. We generate ideas as fast as we need them.
When “life is going badly”, we can’t answer.
– Not because life is going badly, but because we can’t imagine the next step. And because we can’t imagine the next step, we feel the way is lost. And when the way is lost, we worry that life is lost. And then we worry about improving our life.
“Life is going badly” means we can’t tell you spontaneously the small thing that we will be doing next!
The positive psychology answer
The positive psychology answer is to restore the feeling of well-being – not by another cup of coffee, though I am guilty of that.
And not by artificial crutches of well-being like positive chanting.
1 Actively savor
But by taking a small step “in the life in which we find ourselves”. Poet David Whyte says that “sometimes truth depends upon a walk around the lake.” Bringing forward one’s daily exercise and getting out into the fresh air and nature might restore our composure.
Rule of thumb: Bring forward a task that is important that we can do with enthusiasm and appreciation.
2 Meaningfully appreciate
Failing that, we simply need to pay attention to the task in front of us and do it mindfully. Feel the keys beneath our fingers. Feel the solid floor beneath our feet.
And if we do make some coffee, do it with care and appreciation.
Rule of thumb: Become engaged again with life through the things immediately to hand.
3 Ask for help
Mentors are important not just for their practical advice and or for the bolstering of our self-esteem. Mentors are useful for the simple questions they ask.
A good mentor takes us out of the mental space of panic and helps us pinpoint what’s next. They find it easy to ask the question that leads us to answer “What is the smallest thing we can do to improve our life?” When they are skillful and not inclined to take over our burdens, they ask the small obvious question that leads to a small obvious answer. @jackiecameron1 in Edinburgh, Scotland played that role for me yesterday quite publicly on Twitter.
She really does have the touch of the simple question that is so hard to ask.
Rule of thumb: Describe our conundrum to someone we trust. They will often ask a simple question that might make us feel foolish but it will point us to what we crave – what to do next.
What do positive psychologists do?
So that’s what positive psychologists do.
They return us to the positive ecology of doing small things that matter quite spontaneously and help us stay there if we are there already.
Not knowing what to do is the bad life, and the bad life is not knowing what to do. One does not lead to the other. They are the same thing. The bad life and being out of actionable ideas are the same thing.
But the first step of getting out of the bad life is very hard to take – by definition. If we knew, we would be doing it and we wouldn’t feel life is bad.
So that is what positive psychologists do. We suggest you just carry on but acting the good life because the good life is the action you crave and action is the good life.
We won’t necessarily like the advice because at the minute we’ve persuaded ourselves that we are not in the good life. But it is here. It is present. It is with us always.
Act out the good life right now in the life that you find yourself and you will forget the question of “What is the smallest thing we can do to improve our life?”
Fantastic post! I love the distinction between moving forward on good days vs. bad days. I do a lot of speaking on the distinction between the rational and the emotional mind. So you’ve hit on a core issue in my mind – the difficulty of finding the smallest thing one can to do improve his or her life when overcome by negative emotions such as fear, anger, sadness or guilt.
Thanks for sharing such an inspiring post. Job well done!
John Schinnerer PhD
Thanks, John. Hope all is going well with you!
I’ve been having serious eye problems, in fact, that is what kept me away from your blog for a long time. Now, I am forced to work part time – yes, life is bad.
My life revolved around reading and writing – until late into the night, my work meant a lot of reading and writing, my volunteer work entailed writing. Now I have to change my life completely.
I’ve already begun to take small steps – like meeting friends (who are not working/working parttime), walking on the beach etc. This post also helped me crystalise my thoughts, so thanks.
I’m so sorry Lubna. I think many people will count on you to keep writing through speech recognition software etc.
Until then, keep taking small steps,