Secrets of Survival: 9 Basic Dimensions to Thriving
I was getting ready for rounds after a long night on call, prepping for my presentation on palpitations. As I got up to find the team, I collapsed. I woke up embarrassed with my attendings and colleagues around me. They triumphantly diagnosed me with hypoglycemia and palpitations (ugh the irony), and made me feel I possibly wasn’t equipped to be a physician. “She’s only been awake for 25 hours,” I heard them say. I felt exhausted, emotionally numb, overwhelmed and disengaged. Later I would find out that I was burnt out. I didn’t realize my chronic stress and poor habits could lead to physical and psychological manifestations. Sure there were signs before this- anxiety, irritability, headaches, insomnia- but I kept going thinking I must finish residency. My life was a war torn territory, and my body and mind the battlefield. When I had the courage to research my symptoms, I found the solution- thriving.
When I first heard the word “thrive,” I did not know what it meant. Yes, the dictionary told me that the definition was to grow or develop successfully. But what does that mean to me? As a physician, I knew what failure to thrive meant in a few contexts. See above. But we are not talking about the opposite of thriving here. Thriving refers to the optimal development of your life (Bundick et al., 2010). It is an active process with measurable growth towards a hopeful, positive and purposeful future.
But because you and I will change throughout the stages of our life, your definition of thriving will probably also change. Shockingly, only 20% of adults feel that they are thriving today. That means we have a long way to go!
The psyche is made up of a set of discrete human drives and dimensions that communicate their agendas when their needs are not met. Thriving occurs when we can decipher our needs and meet them. To be honest, I had a couple more wake up calls like the above situation before I started to implement the strategies and tools to help me flourish in the way that felt good for me. Below, you will find a set a capacities or needs that have been shown by researchers to be fundamental to human flourishing. When I first saw this list, I think I was doing only one or two of these things regularly. This sucked, and it got me down. Don’t go through that! Know that this is the first day of you discovering a new way of optimizing yourself. Every day, you may want to try applying one of these techniques. Little by little, you can move from surviving to thriving.
Only 20% of adults feel that they are thriving today
Here are the nine basic dimensions that contribute to thriving. First we will talk about your sovereignty, where you have complete power. These three realms feed our need for control and help us regain it when needed. Interestingly enough, most human beings are not taking charge in one of these key areas. Next we will cover support from others, from yourself and from your passions. Lastly we will discover what brings the spark to our lives. In each category you will find some suggestions that can help you master these dimensions in no time.
Autonomy is the ability to make decisions and act on your own behalf. To thrive fully, we need to be in the driver’s seat. The desire to be in charge also means that we want to have the life that we want to live. This is what pushes some people to weight loss, exercise and better habits. Autonomy is the best motivator to stick to the habits you desire. In contrast, doing what other people say you should do is not as strong of an influence and does not help when it comes to sustaining a habit.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: Is there one place in your life where you feel you are in charge? Reflect on that and relish in it.
A large portion of our brain is dedicated to planning things, organizing and getting work done. I like to call this my “GET SH#T DONE Center.” Those with attention deficit may have to work harder at it, but they can learn to get important things done with the help of a professional. Executive function works best when you have your essential needs met: eating healthy food, having a place to stay, good sleep, ways to be more calm, etc. In my story above, I was not doing many of these things!
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: At the end of the day, review what you have accomplished. Thank yourself for getting one thing done, even if that one thing was getting out of bed.
Our bodies are always seeking a state of homeostasis.
Now most of us totally suck in this area, including me. Our bodies are always seeking a state of homeostasis. Homeostasis is a healthy state that is maintained by constant adjustments of biochemical and physiological pathways. For example, your blood pressure is maintained by a series of fine adjustments made by the cardiovascular, neuromuscular and hormonal systems. When we listen to our bodies’ signals, we can get better at achieving homeostasis. Given the high prevalence of lifestyle-related chronic diseases, it seems that the body regulator is being drowned out by other needs. Let’s say that you have had a really hard day at work, and by 5 PM, you are so exhausted that you can’t even climb into your car. However, your friend is having a birthday party that night. You really like and appreciate this friend, so you go even though your body says NO WAY.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: Check your energy levels throughout the day. How are you feeling? Do you have enough energy to keep going? Or do you need to reserve your energy for something coming up? Do some fine adjustments throughout the day to keep you going until the end of your day. If you have a partner or family, remember to have energy for them too! Many of us spend all our energy in our careers and passions and leave ourselves with no stamina for the ones we love most. They deserve more and so do you. See the relationships section below.
Human beings have a strong desire for appreciation and validation. We want the world to accept and approve of us and be fairly treated. Sometimes, this can lead to perfectionism and failure to meet the high bar you set. This can be hard for some, as the world we live in does not set achievable human standards with regard to weight, beauty, and abilities. Many of us question whether we are good enough; this may cause our inner standard setter to become our inner critic. I know I did for a very long time. And perhaps self worth is something we will always need to improve on. Even today, I find it difficult to feel that I am good enough on my tougher days, even though I have worked decades to feel good about myself. But once I discovered that 99.9% of my validation and appreciation must come from me, I started on my own journey of showing up for myself. The first person you need to support is you.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: Where did you look for approval and validation from today? Be cognizant of who you desire to approve of you or your actions. On a particularly hard day, put your hand on your heart and look in the mirror and say: “I appreciate you. I know today was hard and I did my best. Tomorrow is another day to thrive and I know I will.”
99.9% of my validation and appreciation must come from me
Meaning and Purpose
A sense of higher purpose is a strong foundation of life energy, especially when things get difficult. Connecting to a cause greater than ourselves has been shown in another recent study to help boost our immune system. This does not necessarily mean God or a religion. This could be how you feel about your standing in the world or your love of the environment. How you contribute to making the world a better place matters — however small you may think it is. Purpose can be a terrifying word as most people feel they need to have ONE true purpose. I don’t necessarily agree with that. Passion resonates with me more. I have many passions that give me purpose in my life. I do not have just one purpose here on this earth. Knowing what you are passionate about gives you a completely different type of sustenance that you or other people cannot provide you.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: What are you passionate about it? If you do not feel like you contribute to the world, look for a volunteer organization and do something small every now and then.
Remember the party example above? Relationships are a huge part of thriving. Serving others, taking care of others, and choosing to put others’ needs ahead of our own can be ways of helping YOU thrive. Brigham Young University reviewed 148 studies that tracked the social habits of more than 300,000 people. The researchers found that having few friends or weak social ties to the community is just as harmful to your health as being an alcoholic or smoking almost a pack of cigarettes a day. For some people, going to that birthday party after work may make them feel so much better and filled up. Usually extroverts rejuvenate when communing with others, but not necessarily all the time. Remember to watch your energy and take of yourself when you need to. This goes back to body regulation and knowing what you need when you need it.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: The next time you connect with someone you like, give them your whole presence and connect with them fully. See how that feels.
Curiosity and New Experiences
Curiosity brings in the excitement of trying new things and challenging yourself. Inquisitiveness can help us embrace uncertainty and discover something new, learn, and eventually grow. Life can be seen as one big experiment with exciting and unpredictable outcomes. Curiosity helps us leave the comfort of our sofas to explore the depths of the indefinite. For those who may feel uncomfortable with adventures, having a little curiosity about changing something small (like the color of your comfortable couch), may be good enough.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: What were you curious about today? What do you currently find intriguing? Yesterday I saw a teenager with the coolest tights on. Yes I wanted to ask her where she got them. And no I didn’t. But I was soooo curious!
Confidence and Competence
Self-efficacy or confidence is a strong predictor of successful performance at work, and these qualities also help us create and keep up new habits and maintain successful relationships. Keeping up our confidence and accomplishing our goals can help us feel more competent. When we feel more confident in our ability to do something, we do it more often and with more joy.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: What do you do especially well? It may be that you are an awesome flosser. Or you can make a mean omelet. Celebrate that achievement!
We are all creative creatures, whether we know it or not. As children, our imaginations get the best of us and take us to new and exhilarating places. When we start to become adults, we may feel like we have lost that ability. As our minds get constricted by the limitations of school or work, we can find other ways of being creative. Letting our mind unplug for even five minutes and watching where it wanders can be all you need to get into a more creative space.
⚡️ THRIVE ACTION TIP: Go outside and take a couple of deep breaths. Look around you. Let your mind wander. If you find yourself thinking about the things you NEED to do, gently tell yourself you’ll get to them soon and go back to meandering through all the marvels around you. If you need to, focus back on your breathing to center yourself.
Now you have a taste of what you control, what you need to support yourself and what stimulates you into thriving. Implementing these nine principles in my life has helped me reconnect with myself, my priorities and what fills me up. What’s your definition of thriving? You can find out mine here. Have absolutely no clue? Let’s think about it together.
Sameera Rana, MD is a physician and quality of life expert. She loves writing articles on her blog at The Wellness Experience, where she shares tips to help you prevent burnout and chronic stress. Her mission is to inspire women and men to step into their light and power so they can live the lifestyle of their dreams. She also loves Instagram, her Thrivers and emojis.