A Beginner’s Guide to Changing Your Mind and Living a Better Life
You are trapped by the shortcomings of your mind.
But, don’t worry — we all are. This is a bug of human existence.
Our minds are incredible things, there’s no doubt about it. It’s miraculous what they do. Our minds process the natural world into comprehensible bits of information so that we can, for the most part, successfully navigate it.
On the flip side, though, our minds cause us a lot of trouble. The mind is the source of our stress, anxiety, depression, frustration, anger, sadness, grief, and jealousy. Sometimes, these states of mind are completely overwhelming. And in these cases, our minds not only don’t work well, but they make us miserable, too.
Yet, some people appear to deal with these emotions better than others. Don’t they seem to bounce back from failure, loss, and mistakes? Don’t they seem to cope with life a little better than the rest of us?
All of the events in our lives are interpreted in our minds in a particular way based on what we’ve learned in the past. But, how we interpret those events matters. I think the only difference between someone who can bounce back from a failure versus someone who is mired in embarrassment, loss, and regret is how they think about the failure.
To be sure, changing how we think about the events in our lives is not easy. We can’t just snap our fingers and things will change.
Just like it takes consistent and prolonged effort to gain strength and endurance in your muscles, it requires the same kind of effort to change the mind.
And just as you need to know the right exercises to build strong muscles, you need to know the right exercises to change your mind.
Start thinking of your mind as a brain
This probably sounds like a weird piece of advice. But, hear me out.
Our minds can seem both mysterious and outside our control. Why did I get mad at my parents? Why do I feel so insecure around my boss? Why am I disinterested in my life? We often don’t understand why our minds behave as they do and this can cause us to feel like unlucky victims.
Thinking of your mind as a brain — as a physical thing —can help give you back a sense of control. Being a physical thing, your brain can change. You have experienced this firsthand whenever you’ve learned a new skill, like riding a bike. Your brain physically changed in response.
The ability of our brains to change is called neuroplasticity. And this process can give us hope for the future.
How you experience life today doesn’t have to be how you experience it tomorrow. Your life can change for the better. It’s worth reminding yourself of this, repeatedly.
How do we change our brains?
Our brains are stubborn things. They don’t like to change.
Just like your muscles, it’s only after repeated efforts that your mind will change. This means that if you truly want to change how you think, you’re going to need a strategy for changing your brain. And, most importantly of all, you’re going to need to persevere against its natural tendency to stay the same.
This is where you might fall into old patterns of thinking like, why are things so hard? What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I change?
It’s worth reminding yourself, frequently, that change is hard. Period. Sure, it might look like other people aren’t struggling as much as you are, but everyone is thinking that. Everyone is looking around them and feeling like shit that they haven’t already accomplished what other people have.
What we need to remind ourselves, again and again, is that people get to where they are by repeated efforts. Notice that no one is great at everything. Why? Because being good at anything requires time and sustained effort. If you can give time and effort to something, you’ll become good at it. But you only have so much time. Therefore, you will only be good at so much.
So, be cautious. Because you will more likely repeat in the future what you put your mind toward today. Choose wisely.
Practices that can change our brains for the better
We all have goals. Maybe you want to write a book. Maybe you want to be mortgage-free. Maybe you want to retire early and travel the world.
Whatever you want to accomplish, though, you might be wondering, do I need to wait until my goals are accomplished before I can feel good about myself? Is there anything I can do to live a better life, in general?
First, no, you don’t need to wait until your goals are accomplished before you can feel good about yourself. And second, yes, certain practices can help you change your perspective toward life itself, which in turn can help you live a more fulfilling life.
Below, I describe three practices that have helped me to re-think my perspective toward life and have brought me closer to achieving the life I’ve always wanted.
Meditation and mindfulness are buzz-words right now. Everyone and their dog are meditating. However, most people don’t really understand how to do it or what the benefit is.
Meditation is useful for many reasons but primarily because it can give us a newfound perspective on the workings of our minds.
So often, we fail to create new habits because we simply fall back into the old ones. Meditation gives us the tools to understand why we do the things we do and, critically, it can give us the space to choose another path.
Viktor Frankl has a beautiful quote that I think highlights the usefulness of meditation:
Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.
Typically, we are blind to the space that Frankl notes above. This is what keeps us stuck. Meditation can help to illuminate that space so we can change our lives.
If you’re curious about meditation, check out this article I wrote about getting started.
Most people have a negative perspective toward gratitude. It can feel ridiculous — why should I think about the things I’m grateful for? If I’m truly grateful for them, won’t I already think of them in this way?
Unfortunately, the answer is a resounding no.
For better or worse, our brains are set up to become accustomed to whatever frequently appears in our lives. This is called hedonic adaptation. Even lottery winners lose the excitement and joy they first feel upon learning they’ve won millions of dollars.
Amazingly, reminding ourselves of our good fortune can produce real benefits to our state of mind. Gratitude helps to take our focus off the things we don’t have (whatever we’re striving for) and re-orients it toward what we do have. When we re-focus in this way, those things that we previously took for granted can once again bring us joy.
How can we bring more gratitude into our lives?
The philosophy of life known as Stoicism recommends that we practice negative visualization. In essence, this is the practice of imaging that something we value is missing from our lives and considering how that would impact us.
For example, you could imagine what your life would be like if your car broke down, if your favorite coffee shop closed, or if you twisted your ankle. By going through this exercise, you will find yourself suddenly more appreciative of your car, the coffee shop, or your healthy ankle. The point of the practice isn’t to dwell on the negative, it’s to remember how lucky you are to have what you have.
Another way to bring gratitude into our lives is via a gratitude journal. In the journal, write down three specific things about your day you are grateful for and why.
The natural inclination of the mind is to dwell on the negative. By forcing the mind to point out the positive aspects of your day and consider why you’re grateful for them, you’re building a habit of noticing the positive. This practice helps to move your mind toward a more realistic interpretation of your life because you are acknowledging both the good and the bad, rather than just the bad.
Another practice recommended by the Stoics is voluntary discomfort. Essentially, this practice means occasionally putting yourself into situations that you would otherwise avoid.
For example, do you hit the snooze button every morning? Tomorrow, instead of hitting the snooze button, get up. Observe how you feel and notice that getting up without hitting snooze won’t kill you.
Do you love coffee? Tomorrow, don’t drink coffee. See what that feels like. Discover whether you can survive without that delicious, eye-opening beverage.
At this point you might be thinking, why would I want to cause myself needless suffering? But, this is far from needless. There will come a day when you aren’t able to hit the snooze button or you have to go without coffee. These will be new experiences that are forced upon you unless you have prepared for them.
It’s true that you can’t prepare for every possibility, but that’s not necessary. If you prove to yourself that you can survive discomfort, discomfort itself becomes less bothersome. This is a form of resilience training.
Train your brain to live a better life
All of us want to live good lives. This is a universal truth. The problem is that this can sometimes seem impossible.
Try the techniques that I’ve laid out for you in this article and you might find your perspective toward life shift. You might suddenly feel that life has opened up before you and that there are many more reasons to be hopeful than hopeless.
- Think of your mind as a brain. It can change, you just need to know how to train it.
- Remind yourself frequently that change is hard.
- Practice meditation.
- Practice gratitude.
- Practice voluntary discomfort.
Thanks for reading!