We all know the basics of being healthy: eat well, exercise, and get some rest (especially when you’ve got your country’s 500th anniversary to plan, your wedding to arrange, your wife to murder, and Guilder to frame for it) because, as they say, if you haven’t got your health, you haven’t got anything.
But how to improve the health that happens between our ears? Today, we’ll do a checkup of seven beliefs emotionally healthy people hold.
Two big footnotes on this. One: no one carries around all these beliefs all the time, without exception. We each struggle in our own way. So don’t be alarmed if you think your belief system could use some shoring up: Nobody is 100% healthy 100% of the time. Two: I’ll be the first to say there’s no rigidly definitive list of healthy beliefs. But IMHO, these are the biggies, so let’s count them down, leaving the most important for the end.
Belief #7: “I can stay the course.”
This belief gives rise to two attributes: grit and self-control. Grit is staying the course long term: it’s doing difficult or tedious stuff over months or years in service of a larger goal. You might make a commitment to study algebra every night, even if you hate it, to get your GED. You might bring your lunch to work and skip Starbucks for a year in order to save for that Alaska cruise. You might perform your standup routine to some lost German tourists, a couple of drunk guys, and the heckler who’s always there in order to further your comedy career.
By contrast, self-control is staying the course short term: Call this resisting temptation. It’s keeping your cool even when the bank teller seems to be working in super-slow-mo. It’s not taking the bait of the guy with the facial tattoo taunting you from the end of the bar. It’s sticking to your diet even though the Cheesecake Factory’s Oreo Dream Extreme made an appearance in your actual dream.
Don’t get me wrong; we all fall prey to temptation and instant gratification. I fritter away an embarrassing amount of time online myself. But to build our grit and self-control muscles, just like real muscles, we have to exercise them.
Why are grit and self-control so important? Because some wishes can’t be instantly granted through Seamless or Siri: A career. A loving relationship. Good health. All these things take time and staying the course to be built and maintained.
Belief #6: “I can do things I don’t feel like doing.”
This belief, in my opinion, is the best-kept secret of our time. The result is called mood-independent behavior, but really it’s just doing stuff you don’t feel like doing, and then watching your mood catch up.
Too often, we do things only when we feel like it. Feeling lazy? We stay on the couch. Craving a Big Mac? Eat it now. Not in the mood to work? The rabbit hole of the Internet is a swipe away. We let our mood define our behavior.
So try putting behavior first, especially if you know it’s something you’ve enjoyed in the past. Feeling draggy? Hit the rock climbing gym and watch your energy turn around. Not feeling particularly jazzy? Sit down at the piano and watch yourself get into the music. And if your mood doesn’t follow? No harm done. At least you got the thing done.
This little trick also works for facing fears. The way to build confidence is to push yourself out of your comfort zone a little at a time. If you stick to the things you’re 100% sure about, you’ll polish your current repertoire, but you won’t move forward. So tackle new things and face old fears. Struggle and frustration feel like failure, but really they’re just growing pains. If you can push through and get used to feeling temporarily incompetent or insecure—feelings we all hate—you’ll be on your way.
Belief #5: “I can roll with the punches.”
This belief allows you to handle challenges and be flexible. Life is full of disappointments, mistakes, roadblocks, and attempts to be efficient by bathing your cat during your own shower. But when things go wrong, emotionally healthy individuals adjust rather than giving up or being stubbornly inflexible.
Imagine a continuum and label one end “rigid.” Follow it down the line, and you’ll next encounter “flexible,” “spontaneous,” and finally, at the other extreme end, “impulsive.” We want to float somewhere in the middle—the flexible-spontaneous realm.
But being flexible doesn’t just apply to actions. To be sure, flexibility includes retooling your study habits after failing the first exam or rethinking your route home when there’s unexpected construction, but it’s also more than that.
Rolling with the punches also applies to emotion. Frequently flying into jealous rages (or just rageful rages, for that matter), freaking out, or sinking into a pit of sadness on a regular basis doesn’t mean you’re hopeless, but it does mean we need to change something.
Likewise, leaning too heavily on unhealthy coping like self-injury, drowning your sorrows, or otherwise obliterating your feelings with drugs, sex, sugar, shopping, video games, or anything else pop psychology has deemed “addictive” is a sign that we need more coping tools in our toolbox.
So what are the tools that allow you to roll with the punches? For one, feel what you feel. Allow yourself to feel the more difficult emotions—fear, shame, guilt, vulnerability—rather than just bravado and rage. You can also access your feelings through your body—consciously relax, exercise, or mindfully breathe. Reach out to people who care about you. Do things that make you feel better but without a huge cost. Find the balance between treating yourself and numbing yourself. Drinking everything in the house and staying in bed for a week probably isn’t rolling with the punches. Some Thin Mints and a few episodes of “The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt,” followed by taking your cat to a professional for that bath? Roll on.
Belief #4: “Everyone deserves to be treated with respect.”
Sirius Black got it right when he said, “If you want to know what a man’s like, take a good look at how he treats his inferiors, not his equals.”
And while none of us likely has a house-elf named Winky, all of us encounter people who do things for us every day—customer service reps, the bus driver, custodians, drugstore clerks—and each of them deserves our respect.
An important note: the knowledge that they’re getting paid to help you isn’t a substitute. Respect and money aren’t interchangeable, plus in the long run, respect buys a lot more than money.
Now, as for how to treat people who take up two parking spaces, that’s another episode...
Belief #3: “I can laugh at myself.”
When we’re only in it to win it, we’re definitely taking ourselves too seriously. Red flags include being judgy, micromanaging, always having to be right, getting defensive, holding grudges, never apologizing, or anything else that smacks of holier-than-thou self-importance.
So how to laugh at yourself? What are the things you’re embarrassed about? What are your worst qualities? What are the things your haters say about you? Own them. Stephen King once said, “I am the literary equivalent of a Big Mac and fries.” George W. Bush famously said to the Yale graduating class, “To those of you who received honors, awards, and distinctions, I say, well done. And to the C students — I say, you, too, can be President of the United States.”
If you’re the first to laugh at yourself and say you’re hypersensitive, dramatic, or a stick-in-the mud, you magically transform your failings and vulnerabilities into self-deprecating charm.
Belief #2: “I am capable.”
Call this “I can do hard things,” “I can handle whatever life throws at me,” “I’m competent. “Believing we can’t handle things—that we’re incapable or incompetent—drives all anxiety. Indeed, growing people’s belief in their own competence is 50% of what I do in my clinic every day.
So where does the belief of “I’m capable” come from? Experience. Push yourself a little, then a little more. Try new things, talk to new people, go to new places. The reward is a sense of your own power and capability that will carry you through the years.
Belief #1: “I can love and am worthy of love.”
Believing you are worthy of love and can give love in return—which everyone is, even if you worry you’re the exception—pays off for a lifetime.
To build our case, let’s look to Harvard University’s Study of Adult Development, which has followed the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. The study began in 1938, and it continues to this day and beyond. The researchers have gathered data on everything: the men’s physical characteristics, their drinking, their careers, their marriages, their relationships with their mothers, and much more. And what did they find?
Quite simply, as Dr. George Vaillant, the longest-tenured of the study’s four directors, summed it up, “Happiness is love. Full stop.” Indeed, the men in the study who were the most satisfied in their relationships—those who felt loved and gave love—at age fifty were the healthiest at age eighty.
Now, if you grew up in a family where you had to earn love through achievement, obedience, or simply keeping quiet and out of the way, this belief might not come easily for you. You may carry around in your core the idea that love has to be earned or worth has to be granted. If that resonates with you, you deserve more than a podcast episode; search out a qualified therapist you like and trust and do some good work.
All in all, believing you can love and are worthy of love allows you to connect to other people, which in turn makes life happy, healthy, and long.