This is my column this week in the New Zealand Herald, which is published in the digital edition every Thursday…
I’m always suspicious of blogs or columns that say some version of “the one change you can make NOW to improve your life” because, well it’s always more complicated than that, isn’t it?
Or maybe I’m just not a very good self-help columnist. A few people have taken the time recently to email me and point that out. Maybe they’re right?
So what would be the one thing, the one psychological skill that would make the biggest change to your life? What simple self-help tip would I give?
Human emotions are pretty amazing things, really. Not in a romantic “they make us human” kind of way, but in a survival, keep us alive kind of way.
They help us survive by redirecting our attention, our actions and our behaviour before we even know what’s happening: we hit the brakes without needing to consciously think about the car that just pulled out in front of us.
And actually, in a romantic way, there’s also little doubt that allowing ourselves to just go with our feelings – being passionate, impulsive, spontaneous – is one of the greatest pleasures in life.
On the other hand though, one of the most consistent predictors of life long success is our ability to manage our emotions. To not always do what we feel like doing. To have “self-control.”
The oft-quoted “marshmallow test”, where children around the age of four are left alone with a marshmallow and told NOT to eat it when the adult leaves the room (and with the promise of receiving more if they can) claims those who can show restraint (those that don’t eat the marshmallow) generally do better in life in all sorts of predictable ways.
When we can choose to not do what we feel like doing – when we have better self control – we are less prone to addiction, financial problems, health problems, acting violently and generally being impulsive in ways that are harmful.
It’s one of the main reasons mindfulness is so popular. It helps increase our ability to observe our emotions, not act on them, and make less impulsive decisions. It helps us think, while we feel – but it’s a simple idea that’s hard to do. They key is the practice, not the theory.
So get better at not doing what you feel like doing. Except when it seems like a good idea – or fun – but not dangerous fun. Unless it’s exciting, a little bit dangerous, but still fun.
Think about what you’re doing, but not too much… or something like that. (Told you I wasn’t very good at this.)
Actually, the one thing you can do that will change your life? Don’t eat the marshmallow.
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