When things are less than satisfactory, it’s only natural to ask the question, “How can I change my life?” But what if I told you that was exactly the wrong question to be asking?
It’s not that I have anything against positive change – I make my living helping people change things for the better. It’s just that an external focus on getting the world around you to cooperate so you can be happier is limiting at best, and often a recipe for dissatisfaction and unhappiness.
A better question is, “how can I change my experience of my life?”
Why is that so much better? Two reasons. First, because making external change is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to improving your experience. And second, when you insist that life look the way you want it to before you can be happy, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment.
And to be clear, I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t be proactive about improving the external circumstances of your life – I’m just suggesting that if you limit your happiness to getting life just right, you are missing out on a huge portion of what can make life better.
Three levels of change
When I talk about changing your experience of your life, I’m really talking about change at three levels:
Let’s look at those one at a time:
In my Aliveness CODE framework, I call that energized and open state the Aliveness Zone. This level of change is about building a foundation that helps you naturally spend more time feeling energized and open, and less time feeling constricted (e.g., stressed) and drained.
Some examples of things we can do at the inner level to build that foundation include:
An ongoing meditation practice: Over time, this actually rewires your brain so it’s easier to feel more grounded and less reactive, and to move back into that space when you lose it.
A regular exercise routine: Exercising regularly over time has an energizing effect on your body. It helps your brain work better. It contributes to your mental and emotional well-being.
Habitual positive focus: If you make it a long-term practice to, for example, constantly scan your life for what’s good, your brain starts to wire itself to notice more of what’s good.
The inter is where your inner world interacts with the outer world. You can use this level of change on the fly, as life unfolds. This can be either a positive practice you want to cultivate, or first-aid to apply when your day goes sideways. (Check out my free ebook, The Aliveness CODE First-Aid Kit for more tips on “how to bounce back when your day goes splat!”.)
Some examples of how you can make change at this level:
Focus on your breath: When you’re stressed, pause and focus on your breathing for five slow, deep breaths. More if you want. Don’t force it, just relax and follow the breaths.
Change the story: If you find yourself feeling bent out of shape about something, it’s a sure bet you have an unhelpful story underneath it. Notice the constriction, and ask, “What story am I telling here? What am I making this mean?” Then ask, “Is there another story I could tell that would offer a better (or at least less bad) experience?”
Change your focus: If you find yourself caught in a loop, ruminating on life’s irritations, stop and check your focus. A simple way to change your focus is to ask a question like, “What’s good here,” or, “What can I be grateful for,” or, “What can I admire or appreciate about this person?”
Do a physical intervention: If you’re feeling stressed, go for a brisk walk. Take a short dance break. Laugh.
Reach out for support: We human beasties are social critters. It’s how we evolved. If you find yourself feeling twisted up, ask yourself, “What kind of support do I need?” Then reach out. For example, that might be emotional support, knowledge support (e.g., a mentor), or a feeling of connection to community.
This is what most people default to when they’re dissatisfied with life. They might look for a new job, or try to get their partner to change, or buy that new car.
And to be clear, it’s definitely an important part of the equation in changing your experience for the better. When you change your circumstances, by definition you change your experience. It’s just not the whole story.
(I would give a caveat here that sometimes, especially when those external circumstances are unhealthy or destructive, outer change can be a vital priority for well-being.)
Change takes time
My Aliveness CODE framework has its roots in work I have done over the years helping frustrated career passion clients improve their here-and-now while we worked towards longer-term change. The idea was to create more inner space, more emotional and energetic room to maneuver.
Even if you decide that outer change truly is called for (e.g., it’s time to make a career change), often that change isn’t possible at the flip of a switch. It can take time. So the more you can take advantage of the changes available at all three levels, the more you can thrive along the way.
Look at your life through the lens of each of those three levels of change. Where are the change opportunities?
Pick one thing at each level and experiment with it. There is no single “right way” to do it. But there is absolutely a “wrong way” – and that is to do nothing.