Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness are the ideals that are celebrated each Independence Day. But even though Americans do enjoy a great deal of freedom in our everyday lives, we are still all too often imprisoned by unproductive patterns of thought and behavior.
We continue to eat poorly, even though we know we court obesity and chronic disease by doing so. We hold onto toxic relationships, despite their impact on our emotional and mental well-being. It’s not that we don’t want to pursue happiness, most of us are just notoriously inept when it comes to judging what is truly going to allow us to pursue our own sense of happiness.
This 4th of July, as we gather to enjoy backyard BBQs with family and friends, and gaze upon dazzling displays of fireworks, perhaps it’s time to pause and consider how we can break free of the agents of imprisonment in our own lives:
Bad habits: Habits are neutral, subconscious patterns of behavior that have been learned over time by repeating a given action. They serve as neural short-cuts, giving the brain more time and energy to attend to more complicated endeavors. What makes a habit bad, according to Lori Campbell, author of Awaken Your Age Potential, is whether or not it causes you (or someone else) harm. To break a bad habit, you might want to try adopting the following three-step strategy: Recognize, Visualize and Affirm. Recognize your bad habits and examine which situations and emotions appear to trigger them. Visualize a good habit that you can replace your existing bad habit with. Finally, verbally affirm why the new habit will be better for you. For example, if you want to swap out one of your daily diet sodas for a glass of water, visualize drinking the water and think about how much healthier it will make you feel. Say to yourself: “I am treating my body with respect so that it will last me as I get older” or “A healthy body is the key to leading a better life.” Consistency is crucial when making a habit swap. While deeply-ingrained habits may take a while to break, research indicates that simpler changes—such as going for a daily run instead of watching television—can typically be achieved after 66 days of regular practice. Learn more about how to beat a bad habit by suppressing your stress.
Counterproductive attitudes: We all get stuck in a mental funk from time to time. Maybe you’re having trouble with your boss, perhaps your significant other is acting especially distant, or you may just feel angry or upset for no specific reason. Unless the melancholy mood is caused by depression or another type of psychological disorder that requires professional help, one of the best ways to beat off a bad attitude is by practicing gratitude. “When we are feeling scared, worried, or overwhelmed in life, it’s hard to find our gratitude,” says Karol Ward, LCSW, a licensed psychotherapist. “Our minds feel caught in a loop of anxiety, which makes us view the world through a darker lens.” The remedy for these dire thoughts and feelings is to actively seek gratitude in everyday life. Instead of focusing on the stress and negative elements at play in your life, turn your attention to the positive ones: good health, loving family, supportive friends, etc. Notice the beauty around you and literally take the time to stop and smell the roses. And don’t underestimate the value of smiling at strangers you pass on the street. Science has proven that a genuine smile makes you more attractive, boosts your immunity, lowers you blood pressure and elevates your mood. Best of all, smiles are contagious, so you just might have the opportunity to brighten the day of everyone you meet.
Unhealthy relationships: Even if you love someone, there can come a point when you need to step back and establish some boundaries in your relationship. AgingCare.com Expert Carol Bradley Bursack calls this method “detaching with love.” The first step of detaching with love is to recognize that the other person’s behavior is ultimately out of your hands, so can’t do anything to control them. Then, verbally set clear boundaries with the person. “Detaching with love means that you affirm that you love the person, but will no longer tolerate being treated with meanness or disrespect,” says Bursack. In many cases, detaching with love can be an effective strategy. However, certain scenarios—such as verbal and/or physical abuse—may require more extreme action. If patterns of criticism and manipulation persist, you may need to seek alternative means of removing yourself from the unhealthy relationship.
Feelings of “If only…“ All too often, we find ourselves saying “If only I had _____ then I would be happy.” or “If only he/she would _____ then everything would work out fine.” The problem with this type of thinking is that the situation will only change when you decide to change it, according to Cindy Laverty, AgingCare.com Expert and caregiver coach. “There is a big difference between having a dilemma and making a decision. Dilemmas are an excuse to fret, but decisions force us to do something differently. Decisions force us out of our comfort zone.” Laverty suggests listing out all of the things that are giving you grief, being as specific as you can. Then, rank them on a list from most to least troubling. Set the list aside for the rest of the day. The next day, pick up the list and decide what thing (big or small) you’re going to change. Even a minor change—such as asking for help with something you would have otherwise tried to do all by yourself—can have a major impact.
True independence doesn’t happen overnight. As a nation and as individuals, we’re still fighting for freedom and equality, a full 238 years after our forefathers penned the legendary document that made the 4th of July date famous for all Americans. This week, honor the spirit of independence by giving yourself permission to break free and seek happiness in your life, and encourage those around you to do the same.
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By Anne-Marie Botek, AgingCare.com Editor