This Is How I Improved My Life
Hopefully, You Can Too
Dogs have a lot to teach us about living in the moment, but we seldom pay attention. We’re usually too busy fretting about the past, the future or why we’re so unhappy.
This what my dog, Nanuk, is doing right now.
Do you think he’s concerned about the poop he left on the carpet last month? Or whether he’s as successful as the chihuahua down the street? Heck no!
Does Nanuk look like he’s burning himself into the ground with work? Or worrying about the best productivity hacks to get ahead? Nope. He’s just living in the moment and enjoying life.
If only it were so easy for us.
Well, maybe it can be.
Billion dollar industry
There are tons of unhappy people out there. Life can be hard, and people are always looking for short cuts. Hacks and quick fixes to improve their lives, productivity and happiness.
People are also fixated on things, as if a bigger house or new car will translate to personal happiness. Yet once the novelty wears off, their unhappiness returns. You’d be surprised how many wealthy people are unhappy.
Personal development and self improvement are a billion dollar industry. Walk through the checkout aisle at your local grocery store and what do you see? Magazines with models. Enticing headlines about how to lose weight. Articles about mansions and millionaire lifestyles.
Naturally, we begin to compare ourselves to what’s in those magazines. We forget that it’s mostly a grand, marketing illusion. Beneath the glam and glitz are people with their own problems and challenges in life.
Go online and you’ll find endless articles on personal development. Some are well written and give us fleeting jolts of inspiration. Occasionally, the advice is helpful. Often, it’s designed to get unhappy people to buy stuff.
The reality is that people endure their unhappiness instead of facing the work required to free themselves. They turn to self-help articles, quick fixes and “get ahead” courses. But somehow, they’re still not happy.
What do we need to do? Is it even possible to experience more peace and happiness?
Surrender to the fear
An excellent article in Inc.com explored the issue of happiness and noted that, “People are afraid of vulnerability, attached to their suffering, and stuck in their ways. They don’t want to change.”
I witnessed this in my law enforcement career. Routinely, I encountered people who were their own worst enemy.
Talented, intelligent people who kept going back to the same patterns and mistakes. Probably because they haven’t done the internal work. They became so consumed keeping up with the Joneses and “getting ahead” that they forgot to explore what “getting ahead” really means.
The Ink.com article went on to say this about unhappy people:
They think that happiness is an object that can be purchased. Whether in a book, a pill, a work-out plan, or a simple to-do list prescribed by a life coach. The truth is that real happiness is always present in your life — you just need to get out of the way to access it.”
“Convincing yourself that you are inadequate — that your life needs something more and that you need to achieve things, own things, and buy things to find happiness — is what shackles you to unhappiness.”
The unhappiness we’re talking about here is self imposed. It’s different than the kind of unhappiness brought on by sudden loss, clinical depression or tragedy. Losing a loved one, battling depression or becoming the victim of a crime will naturally darken our world for a period of time.
For the day to day unhappiness that so many of us experience, there’s only one way to confront it. And that is to stop fighting it. To let go and surrender.
It’s kind of like when I first learned to ski. Each time I got to the edge of the slope, I felt trepidation. I didn’t want to commit and go over the edge. “What if I fall and get hurt? What if I look like a total idiot?” These were the self-limiting thoughts in my head.
Eventually, I surrendered to the fear and went for it. Yes, a few times I tumbled down the slope like a snowball. Before long, however, I became a more confident and happier skier.
Happiness is not some external thing. It’s right here, inside you. You hold the power to bring it out.
You are the clouds
Matthew Jones is a talented writer who earned his Master’s degree in Counseling Psychology. He specialized in humanistic-existential therapy and addictions. He’s continuing his education and earning a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology, specializing in spirituality and contemporary relational psychodynamic therapy.
Matthew Jones, in Inc.com, wrote:
“If real happiness is the sun, you are the clouds.”
Jones went on to explain:
“These clouds fill with rain the more that you think through your emotional discomfort, the more that you remove yourself from the here-and-now, the more that you dilute your experience of now with thoughts of then. The darker and denser these clouds become, the less light you see, the less warmth you feel, and the faster you forget that the sun is always shining.
Stop preventing the rain.”
It seems that the more we agitate and distress over our unhappiness and worries, the worse off we are. As Matthew Jones noted in Inc.com:
“The truth is, you are unhappy because your attention is fixated on self-involved matters and worldly pursuits that create, at best, temporary and superficial pleasure. There’s an adage that states, ‘you become what you meditate on.”
Best selling author and blogger Mark Manson isn’t a big fan of positivity. He recognizes that bad stuff happens. Cars break down. Promotions pass you by. It sucks. Yet, Manson believes that we need to get over these indignities and pick our battles.
Life is too short to be passionate about every little thing. Should we really devote mental energy over mean people and unfortunate events? Or should we learn to let go more? Roll with the stuff beyond our control and concentrate more on what we really care about.
Manson wrote the best selling book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***. Here are a few excerpts from his writing:
“The avoidance of suffering is a form of suffering. The avoidance of struggle is a struggle. The denial of failure is a failure. Hiding what is shameful is itself a form of shame.
Pain is an inextricable thread in the fabric of life, and to tear it out is not only impossible, but destructive: attempting to tear it out unravels everything else with it. To try to avoid pain is to give too many fucks about pain. In contrast, if you’re able to not give a fuck about the pain, you become unstoppable.”
Manson’s point is that life is going to throw you some lemons. Rather than spending all your time trying to make those lemons into lemonade, just learn to stomach the lemons. Put your energy into the things that matter most to you. The things you really want to give a f*** about.
I was blessed to grow up in a loving, well-to-do home. My father was an administrative law judge and my mother a homemaker. I attended private schools, played varsity tennis and loved to draw in my sketchbooks.
I wanted to study art in college, but my Dad recommended a more conservative career route. He feared that making a living as an artist would be difficult (and there is some truth to that). So I majored in criminal justice administration and eventually began a career in law enforcement.
Policework was both challenging and rewarding. I learned volumes about the nature of people. I saw ugliness, violence, death and despair. But I also saw tremendous grace, hope and the very best in people.
I spent the last ten years of my career as Chief of Police. I was thrust into the world of politics, hiring, firing, speeches and endless decision making. Despite feeling “successful” in my career, I realized that I wasn’t entirely happy.
In many ways, I was the accidental police chief. I had managed to carve out a successful career in law enforcement, but I often felt displaced. An artist in a cop’s body.
Early in my police career, I used to moonlight as an editorial cartoonist for the county newspaper. My cartoons were popular and fetched a lot of letters to the editor. Unfortunately, as I rose in rank, the police brass felt my newspaper cartooning was a distraction. I was encouraged to give it up.
Reluctantly, I left the newspaper and turned my creative attention to painting. I took vacations to study landscape painting in Idaho with a renowned artist, Scott L. Christensen. Painting provided an important, creative outlet for me.
I struggled througout my career, wondering what life would be like had I become an artist. While I didn’t regret the personal growth and wisdom gained from my police career, I never felt completely fulfilled.
I chased promotions in an effort to find happiness and more money. I compared myself to friends in other industries, and wondered if I was as successful as them. I longed for a bigger house. All the usual trappings of success. Or at least, what we believe success looks like.
A simmering malaise
Author Cal Newport, in his book So Good They Can’t Ignore You, argues that matching our job to a preexisting passion does not matter. Passion, Newport states, comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. Put another way, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.
Newport has a point. There are many people who found career happiness in work unrelated to their passions. Gardeners, for example, who succeeded in corporate positions. Musicians who made their full time living in technology jobs.
In my case, I grew to enjoy aspects of my job in law enforcement. I found great fulfillment in helping others and modernizing my police department. I enjoyed finding ways to infuse creativity into my work. But, deep down, there was always a simmering malaise.
Cal Newport may argue that what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it. I believe there’s some truth to that, but in my case, success at work still didn’t fulfill me completely.
The blessing and bane of being a creative person is that the muse is always inside you. Whispering. Longing for release. All the success in my law enforcement career couldn’t silence that voice within my heart.
Late in my police career, I used to suffer from panic attacks. They never happened at work, when I was in the thick of stress and responsibility. They’d happen at home, or in a movie theater. Always during the downtime, when the slower pace allowed my turmoil to surface.
My doctor did a great job of helping me work through this period. I started to rearrange my schedule, so I could put more time into my artwork. I learned to let go more, and accept stuff I couldn’t change.
I believe that happiness is not a constant state but a feeling that comes and goes. However, there are several strategies, changes and new perspectives that increased the frequency of my happiness. I’ll bet they can work for you, too.
How I improved my life
The following five approaches are how I improved my life. They bring me more peace, health and moments of happiness. To Mark Manson’s point, we can never escape all the lemons in our lives, but we can learn to stomach them more easily if we pick our battles. And if we embrace the right approaches. Here are the five that helped me.
When I used to walk through my neighborhood, I’d often see garages filled to the brim with stuff. Boxes, exercise equipment, tools, and more. A lot of my neighbors couldn’t park their cars in their garages. It struck me that many people have way too much stuff.
I discovered Joshua Becker’s popular blog, Becoming Minimalist. Becker describes minimalism this way:
“Minimalism is the intentional promotion of the things we most value and the removal of everything that distracts us from it. It is a life that forces intentionality. And as a result, it forces improvements in almost all aspects of your life.”
I began to look at the clutter in my own life. While my wife and I were always neat, I still found plenty of clutter. I started with my art studio.
I began selling most of the paint boxes (pochade boxes) I had collected. I realized that every time I went on an outdoor painting excursion, I became overwhelmed deciding which paint box to bring. Once, I brought two paint boxes to a workshop in Idaho! It was a lot of unnecessary weight.
I read Marie Kondo’s popular book The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Kondo’s advice was to sell, gift or donate the stuff you don’t need. Only keep items that “bring you joy.” Before long, I made many trips to the Goodwill and our local dump.
I read blogger James Clear’s article, How to Pack Light: The Complete Guide to Ultralight, Minimalist Travel. I loved Clear’s tip about quick drying, wash and wear underwear.
I was able to travel to Ireland with just two pairs of socks and underwear, because I could wash them in the hotel sink and they’d be dry in a few hours. I also bought a Patagonia “Nano-Puff” jacket, which folds up into a tiny ball and fits in the bottom of my backpack. What a joy to travel with only a backpack!
Soon, I simplified my entire wardrobe down to essential items. Fewer, interchangeable clothing means less stress packing and/or deciding what to wear.
Embracing minimalism doesn’t mean you can’t own nice things. I own several Apple computer products because they bring joy to my life, and help me do my creative work more efficiently.
Minimalism helped me simplify many aspects of my life. I automated all my bills and banking so that I don’t have to write checks anymore. I cancelled subscriptions I didn’t need.
It’s amazing how freeing it is to simplify your life. Minimalism helped me do that, and I’ll bet it can help you, too.
I hate disappointing people. I used to worry what people would think if I told them no. Every time someone asked me to draw a cartoon for an event or birthday, I’d accommodate them. But later, I’d resent that the favor took precious time away from my own projects.
I was in our local Rotary club for years, attending weekly meetings and volunteering for weekend projects. Soon, I was the vocational chair for our club, and people encouraged me to become the president (a huge time commitment). It’s an honor to be thought highly of, but you have to know where your priorities are.
I was never a joiner. I prefer a degree of solitude and downtime. An introvert at heart, I like quiet settings over crowds and loud parties. I joined Rotary because it was suggested as a good career move. The people in the club were terrific, and I didn’t want to disappoint them.
Eventually, I realized that I needed more personal time to pursue my passions and be with my family. So I bit the bullet and resigned from the club. I imagined a lot of pushback and disappointment.
To my surprise, people were understanding. One guy who was extremely involved in Rotary, confided that he too was thinking about stepping down. He’d had a heart attack and wanted more time for family and other pursuits.
Saying no to people used to be hard for me, but it has gotten easier. Now, I nicely tell them the truth. If I’m invited to a function I’d rather not attend, I say, “Thanks so much for inviting me, but to be honest, I’d rather have a quiet evening tonight.” No long excuses or white lies. Most of the time, people accept your honesty. As they say, “the truth will set you free.”
Without a doubt, this is the most important part of improving my life. When I was younger, I exercised a lot. I played competitive tennis all through my teen years. I discovered the martial arts and trained in jujitsu for many years. But then life got in the way.
My early law enforcement career involved shift work. Getting off duty after a twelve hour graveyard doesn’t leave much motivation to go work out. Add to the mix a new baby boy and the result is sleep deprivation and fatigue.
I used to lift weights and ride my bike here and there, but exercise became inconsistent for many years. Stress and long hours tend to invite bad habits that provide momentary “pick me ups.” Like snacking on junk food and drinking beer.
Around the time I was promoted to police chief, I realized that I was out of shape and eating poorly. I was also drinking too much. Those Friday wine parties with friends were fun, but they weren’t helping my waist line or creative productivity.
I started jogging and bought a weight set for my garage. It was difficult at first but soon I looked forward to my runs. Having a dog helps, because Nanuk loves to go for runs. Every day after work he’d jump on my lap and stare at me, wagging his tail. The message: “Get off your duff and take me for a run!”
I had weights in the garage out of convenience. I didn’t want the hassle of driving to a gym and competing for different equipment. However, I later changed my position on this. I found a local gym and started working with a personal trainer (the gym offered three, free sessions).
A personal trainer is an excellent way to learn how to properly work out. I quickly discovered how little I knew about proper form, stretching, and diet. Even if you can’t afford a personal trainer, there is enough online information to learn a great deal about proper exercise.
The bottom line is that, above everything else, regular exercise will go a long way to improving your life. Exercise has been proven to combat depression, and you’ll get inspired by the weight you lose and how different you’ll start to look and feel. You’ll have more energy and sleep better.
The best way to adopt regular exercise is to make it a routine. Schedule a recurring time and leave prompts to keep you inspired. I leave my running shoes by the door, where they constantly remind me to stay active.
The weird part is that the more you exercise and get in shape, the more it seems to inspire you to improve other areas of your life. You start eating better, sleeping better and making better choices.
I realize this approach to improving your life may not be possible for everyone, but keep it in mind.
This year, after 26 years of living in a small town in California, my family and I moved. There were many justifications for this change.
My son was ready to attend college, and he picked a university in Nevada. My wife spent her whole life in the small town she grew up in. As much as she loved her home town, she was ready for new experiences.
We had friends already living near the university my son selected, and they were excited to have us join them. Further, Nevada has no state income tax and homes are more affordable than where we lived in California.
I chose to retire from my law enforcement career before my pension maxed out. Namely, because I wanted to dive into my creative passions of writing and artwork. So, moving to a more affordable area made sense.
Moving gave us a chance to purge even more stuff we no longer needed. It also removed me from the typical requests that are asked of retired police chiefs. Requests like serving on local boards, or volunteering at community events. All worthy things, but if you are serious about making time for your passions, a new environment can be helpful.
Moving enables you to reinvent yourself. Apart from a few friends, no one knows me or my history in our new community. I have anonymity. I am free to present myself as a writer and artist. Back in my old town, practically everyone knew me. They saw me as the retired police chief, not an artist and author.
Sometimes, moving within your own community is all you need to change things up and improve your life. I know a retired police lieutenant who sold his expensive home and rented a smaller one. The income saved allowed him to do more things, like travel. He was no longer shackled to a mortgage.
Moving is not a good idea if you’re running away from problems that really stem from within yourself. You may think that moving to a new town will fix things, but those internal issues are still there. Better to seek therapy and/or do the work necessary to address the underlying problems.
I’ll be honest with you, I’m still working on this one. If you’re an achievement oriented person by nature, it’s hard to slow down. There’s always a sense of time urgency. Things to be done.
I thought after I left police work, my days would slow down and I’d spend them leisurely painting, writing and cartooning. Well, it doesn’t work that way. There are still social commitments, house repairs, dogs demanding a walk, etc.
The other thing is the perennial need to be heard. To matter. If you’re a writer, blogger or artist, you understand how good it feels to receive validation for your work. Yes, the creative work should be its own reward, but it’s nice to be acknowledged.
The problem with this is that it never ends. For every blog post I write that fetches a positive response, there are other posts that fetch crickets. One day twenty people subscribe to my newsletter, the next day ten unsubscribe. Readers ask me to publish a book, but then sales are a slow.
I did a video for my website awhile back. It was meant to show visitors a glimpse into my world and what I was about. In it, I tell people that “we need to slow down.” Here’s the video:
Watching the video recently, I realized that I wasn’t following my own advice. I was stressing myself out, trying to write, cartoon, paint and make a dent in the online world. I wanted to accelerate and promote my new career as an author and artist.
My competitive nature is to figure out who the top people are in a given field or endeavor, and then shoot for the same results and status. Why? For the success and recognition, I suppose. Except in the long run, this doesn’t necessarily bring happiness.
There’s always someone more successful. More recognized or famous. Richer.
So I return again to my own advice. Slow down. Stop trying to compete and be everything. Enjoy the moments more. Find joy, in and of itself, in your passion(s).
Yesterday, I grabbed my iPad pro and sat in the backyard, drawing. I was learning a new program called Procreate and having a lot of fun.
There were two mocking birds playing by the pool. A family of quail scampered along the back wall. There was a delightful, warm breeze. Before I knew it, an hour had gone by.
And that’s when it hit me.
I was happy. Content. At peace.
Try the five approaches outlined above: Minimalism, Saying no, Exercise, Moving, and Slowing down. Each of these strategies greatly improved my life. Hopefully, they’ll improve your life too!
Before you go
I’m John P. Weiss, fine artist and writer. Get on my free email list here to receive the latest artwork and writing.