She generally gave herself very good advice (though she very seldom followed it).” That’s what Lewis Carroll wrote about Alice, and it’s true of most people. We go through life generally getting good counsel about what’s best for us—and then vigorously ignoring it.
What leaves you feeling bad, do less of. What leaves you feeling good, do more of.
This one suggestion is all I really need to find my destiny, form loving relationships, achieve optimal health, and have the best life story in the bingo parlor during my golden years. And it isn’t hard to remember. Yet many clever people, including me turn repeatedly to the very things that ruin our health and happiness: artery-clogging junk food, alcoholic lovers, soul-crushing jobs, negative relationships. I believe all human beings—even politicians—are born with the capacity for suffering and joy for a reason: so that we can navigate the world. I try pausing before any action I take and recall how that action made me feel in the past. If I think through how each action leaves me feeling, I’ll find myself more and more able to choose those that add up to my best life.
To achieve bigger goals, take smaller steps.
It turns out that the tiny-steps approach applies to any difficult thing, from schoolwork to parenthood to career. The bigger the task, the smaller my steps. If I feel myself tiring or avoiding tasks, I cut my steps in half, then in half again, until each step feels easy. Between steps, I give myself a reward—nothing huge, just a ten-minute nap, I read a chapter in a book, or some online window shopping via Pinterest. People find this surprising. They want to achieve big goals using spectacular leaps…slow and steady wins the race. It also cuts way down on my anxiety.
Lie down and rest for a while
Speaking of health regimens, there’s a big piece of getting fit that most of us shortchange: rest. This one, however, I have mastered, I believe. I am the queen of the nap; just a few short minutes on the sofa with the fan blowing on me. The problems caused by lack of rest can feel so intricate, but the solution is so simple: Lie down, dear. Just lie down. If you’ve ever attended a meeting after lunch, you know the mild coma endocrinologists call postprandial dip, which makes you want to lay your head down and drool during your boss’s PowerPoint presentations… Or during the Engineering MCAB meeting in my case. Totally relaxing for just ten minutes can reenergize your body, sharpen your mind, and make you much less likely to weep when you can’t find a stapler.
When you don’t know what to say, try the truth.
No matter what my truth may be—about political views, movie preferences, the desire to live “off the grid” eating roadkill—calmly expressing it cuts a clear path through the jungle of social connection. I used to really care what others thought of me…what I had done or hadn’t done seemed to matter a great deal. It was a lesson I learned, finally, that you have to take me for what I am, and for what I say. Now, I know, my Dad was right, the truth is best, no matter what. There are people in my life who, for various reasons, don’t want the truth. You may think you have to change those people to live in total authenticity. Don’t even try. You will be bashing your head against the wall.
Free yourself from dysfunctional people by refusing to try to control them.
I labored for decades to make sad people happy, rigid people flexible, aggressive people empathetic, and so on, before finally noticing that (1) this never worked, and (2) it drove me insane. Then I read codependency expert Melody Beattie’s advice on how to deal with dysfunctional people: “Unhook from their system by refusing to try to change or influence them.” (thank you James!) This felt totally alien and absolutely right, and it works. The key, I’ve found, is to stay the heck away from the idea of “making” someone do, feel, or think anything. This is not your job. Your job is to maximize your own happiness, kindness, and health. Let others choose whether to follow.
At this point, I should note that Alice in Wonderland did take some of her own advice. She remembered, for example, that “if you drink much from a bottle marked ‘poison,’ it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later.”
I’ve already had enough life experience to notice when a situation, a person, or a task is marked “poison.” I now remember how much that situation hurt the last time, and choose one that feels better now. Take small steps, lying down often along the way. Tell the truth and stay in your own business. Anything else is poison. And if you actually use this seldom-followed advice, you may one day wake up and realize that your life has become a wonderland.