Caption: This is me on a Caribbean cruise. My shirt says, “Create Every Day.” My face says, “I love cruising.”
When you think about how to make the most of the one life you have, what comes to mind?
Many people, including myself, immediately think of things like traveling across the world, jumping out of planes, and surfing on the backs of whales. Extreme things. But such experiences, while individually spectacular, are only a small part of a great life. There are three things that are more important.
Be Flexible to Your Situation
I’m in a hotel lobby typing this. Three days ago, I was in a submarine 100 feet below the surface looking at a barracuda swim around a shipwreck (the arrow is pointing at the barracuda in the picture below). The day before that, I faced a fear as I tried scuba diving for the first time.
Life is going to throw all sorts of situations at you, and within each is something unique to maximize. If you believe that every moment has to be like a James Bond film, then you’ll be unhappy most of the time. Maximizing your life has more to do with your flexibility of perspective than your circumstances.
While I may have enjoyed scuba diving and submarining more than writing in a hotel lobby (maybe), writing is my most important career skill and I’m practicing it right now. Less enjoyable? Perhaps. Less valuable? No way!
The key to life is to find the value in every situation. In the submarine, it meant activating my childlike wonder as I saw an awesome shipwreck 100 feet deep in the ocean. In the hotel lobby, it means flexing my writing and creativity muscles. Even in the most difficult times, there are lessons to learn; overcoming those difficulties is rewarding and satisfying as well.
Enjoy Small Treasures
The grape I just ate was 3x more satisfying than the last. Why? I focused on its flavor, texture, and the pleasure of eating.
As I look outside, I see the wind play with plant life. I see the sun shining. This is easy to ignore, but just as easy to appreciate. (Especially in Seattle, we throw a party every time we see the sun.)
If you only focus on the big victories in your life, you’re missing out on the single greatest opportunity for happiness. Big wins are generally sparse, but small wins are all around you. Yesterday I ate an apple and liked it. I usually don’t like apples, so this was exciting. It wasn’t my book hitting the NYT Bestseller list, but it was a win, and I’ll take it!
Small pleasures are the main dish of life enjoyment. The big wins are dessert.
Monitor Your Expectations Constantly
Have you ever met (or been) someone who has 5x as many blessings as most everyone else, and yet is 5x more miserable than everyone else? Before we get angry at these people for being ungrateful, we should take a moment to consider what’s happened to them. Why do lottery winners often say it’s the worst thing that’s ever happened to them?
As your standard of living increases, it’s very very difficult for your expectations to stay the same. As your expectations increase, your enjoyment of life decreases.
I was in Las Vegas last month, and there was a long line to check in at the Cosmopolitan where I was staying. The man behind me complained for the entire 15-25 minute wait. Out loud. He was actually a nice guy once I started talking to him, but his expectations were much higher than everyone else’s.
From talking to him, I learned that he was a CEO of a major manufacturing company. He was there to give a speech to a few thousand people. Of all the people in line, he was the most agitated. Sure, the rest of us didn’t like waiting in line just to check into a hotel either, but not nearly enough to audibly complain.
There’s nothing wrong with success in any area of life, but be very careful that you don’t let it make satisfaction too difficult to achieve. I remember being disappointed one day that I had “only” sold 3,000 copies of Mini Habits during a promotion. I expected more.
I was disappointed to sell 3,000 copies of my book in three days! Seriously, Stephen?
It was humbling to realize that I had let my expectations ruin a very good thing. I readjusted my expectations and my day instantly got better. If you can keep your expectations in check as you continue to make progress in various areas of your life, you will be the most content person you know. Happiness grows by maintaining expectations and improving your life. If they grow in sync, you have to maintain your quality of life or you’ll be less happy whenever it dips.
Be Flexible: This means looking for how to maximize unique situations. If you’re on a hike, that’s different from being in a meeting, which is different than having the flu. Each of those situations can be maximized.
I remember when I had my wisdom teeth removed and had to rest in bed for a while to recover. I binge watched The Office and the fond memory has stuck with me. For some people, sickness can be an opportunity to finally relax without feeling that they should be doing something. That’s one way to maximize a negative situation.
By being flexible to your situation, you’ll maximize your opportunities (because opportunities are things within your current reach). We can’t always control the situations we find ourselves in, but we can control our response to them.
Enjoy Small Treasures: Life has so many good things. Even the act of eating is a pleasure we get to engage in multiple times a day! When’s the last time you consciously enjoyed your food (instead of inhaling it). I recommend practicing this with your next meal. Enjoy your next meal as much as humanly possible, and compare the experience to your previous meal.
Monitor Your Expectations Constantly: Expectations are like a helium balloon—if you don’t tie them down, they tend to rise. This is causes depression and is detrimental to happiness, as I detailed in How to Be an Imperfectionist.
You choose your expectations, but if you don’t consciously choose them, you’ll use the default expectations that your life experience and disposition have generated. The default choice is rarely the right choice unless you’re lucky.
When I was young, I would wake up at 6:30 AM and run into my parents room with a smile on my face, saying, “I waked up!” That’s the kind of baseline I want. If I wake up as a human being on planet Earth, that’s an amazing gift! You have reasons to be happy. Find them.