We all know the drill about self-improvement: drink water, eat better, exercise more, think positive, blah blah blah. Well, in between such Hallmark insider tips, there are a lot more practical, actionable ways you can bring yourself closer to your ideal life, and they aren’t the same, tired old advice you’ve seen on a thousand cat posters and infomercials.
Thanks to the twin wonders of academic research and modern science, we can confidently endorse the following ten counter-intuitive habits that you can start today to make yourself a better you–and not one of them involves dieting or physical exertion…unless you want them to.
10. Smell More Smells
Eyes may be the windows to the soul, but noses are a shortcut to the brain.
Aromatherapy isn’t just some New Age-y gimmick involving candles and patchouli incense. For one thing, even though humans typically rely on sight more for day-to-day activities, smell is the sense most closely tied to memory–the parts of the brain associated with both complex emotion as well as long-term storage are activated when you sniff things. That means following your nose is not only a solid way to help ensure recollection when you are trying to form new memories, it can also be used to recall old memories, even ones you’ve suppressed or neglected for years.
This last bit has become an increasingly popular technique among the shrink community; Freud can keep his talk therapy, because the union psychological treatment and aromatherapy has helped patients cope with everything from PTSD and anxiety to depression, insomnia, and run of the mill stress. The power of these alternative interventions are such that some doctors consider them a viable alternative to pharmaceutical-grade treatments.
You can practice developing your sense of smell through concentrated sniffing exercises–focus on mindful eating with an emphasis on smell; condition your ability to perceive and distinguish smells by managing expectation and associating words or other sensory descriptors with odor. This is what sommeliers do, by the way: if you’ve ever watched or read about some wino savant identifying obscure “notes” in a wine by sniffing it, it isn’t BS (well, sometimes it is). It’s just the result of exercise and memory association.
So whether you are looking to wean yourself off Ritalin or other study drugs, or trying to postpone the onset of dementia, taking a daily whiff could be for your mind what spinach is for Popeye’s stamina.
9. Cold Showers
Although First World conditioning may have you rebelling at the notion of deliberately doing anything uncomfortable, this one is a simple trick with a cascade of benefits. A cold shower is more bracing than a cup of coffee; as an addition to your morning routine, the shock of cold water can jump-start your body with a quick surge of oxygen (you’ll likely be gasping–but in a good way), dilating your arteries and giving all your internal organs a nice howdy-do, inside-out.
Even if you’re not a morning (shower) person, you still stand to gain all sorts of immune system benefits by cranking the dial to cold when you bathe. Athletes report better endurance and post-workout recovery; your system will filter out uric acid, staving off problems like kidney disease, hypertension, obesity, liver disease–pretty much all the top preventable killers of Americans. It can even promote antioxidant activity, without the need for caloric intake (so much for justifying your daily glass of wine and chocolate bar).
Jumping the turnstile from physical to mental, you’ll find that the body’s hormonal avalanche in cold water can also counteract stress as well as depression. The Russians figured this one out centuries ago, by the way: the ancient tradition known as mztitoz (“ice bath”) was originally viewed as a purification ritual for body and mind. Science has caught up with religion, it seems, and vindicated those crazy Ruskies.
Of course, it doesn’t hurt that in addition to all these internal effects, washing with cold water (or even lukewarm) is better for your skin, especially the sensitive skin on your face. Hot water is practically abrasive in the way it removes natural oils, drying it out and leaving it prone before the elements. Cold water is more gentle, and can actually help tighten your skin naturally, keeping it looking younger, longer. You can bet if we ever find the Fountain of Youth, it will be churning out liquid ice.
8. Deny Yourself Pleasures
“But wait,” you might be thinking, “I was promised no dieting. This sounds suspiciously like dieting!”
The difference here is that it isn’t merely a question of whether you indulge yourself, but of how quickly you go from wanting something to letting yourself have it.
It doesn’t particularly matter whether you are craving food, drink, or some other nonconsumable; the important thing is that before you cut loose, you take some time to pause, consider your options, and maybe even find something else to do before you go ahead and satisfy that impulse.
This is the essence of delayed gratification, and it works wonders for helping people to reset their minds and bodies for better overall health and happiness. From addictions like smoking and overeating, to problematic habits like procrastination, there seems to be an underlying symptom: when you immediately act on the impulse to do something you want to do (but shouldn’t), you build and reinforce neural pathways that associate that behavior with reward and pleasure. You literally train your brain, just like a pet dog, to associate happiness with instant gratification. This is why drug addicts can logically know they are poisoning themselves and ruining their lives, yet still give in to the drive to use. The behavior goes deeper than conscious thought. It isn’t a choice any more, because the brain has rebuilt itself around an obsession with instant gratification.
By simply putting off that cigarette for a little longer, or distracting yourself with another activity before buckling in for a Netflix binge, you help interrupt the stimulus-reward connection in your brain that makes you do these things that you maybe shouldn’t be doing. Even if you aren’t a full-blown addict, conditioning yourself to expect pleasure to be withheld, rather than instantaneous, can help you align expectations in a way that makes it more probable they will be met–which may be the key to happiness itself.
At least, it may be the key to manage disappointment and adhere to goals. One of the chief reasons places like Sweden or Denmark consistently rank as the world’s “happiest” nations: people there aren’t profoundly happier, they just mitigate their expectations to avoid disappointment. When you stop expecting great things to occur instantaneously, you can teach yourself to be more patient, resilient, and focused. Treats really do become treats when they aren’t guaranteed.
7. Think Out Loud
This is more than a Stuart Smalley-esque daily affirmation or an early warning sign of insanity.
Talking to yourself, done correctly, has a similar effect to reading something out loud: it makes you write, and think, more clearly.
Reading internally (that is, silently) enables your brain to skip over errors, make leaps of logic, and generally do the editing mentally that should have been done practically. The same goes for thinking even when there is no script: silence permits sloppiness.
Externalizing your thoughts or even narrating activities forces you to organize them differently than if you perform a task silently or without thinking. It makes thoughts overt actions, engaging more of the brain and making you neurologically more engaged with what your body is doing. Thinking out loud can help you focus on a methodical task, and avoid skipping steps. As a concentration aid, it can also support better memory function. Even if what you are doing is studying or trying to memorize something, that verbalization brain booster can help trigger memory formation more effectively and create a stronger neural net around whatever you want to remember.
Before you discount this as too strange-looking a behavior to adopt, consider how you talk around other people. As social animals, communication is one of the lead ways humans interact, cooperate, and learn. It turns out, though, that upwards of 60 percent of that communication is just people talking about themselves, and evidence suggests that it doesn’t particularly matter to any given speaker whether anyone is listening. In effect, even in groups, people are generally still just talking to, and about, themselves. And that is a good thing. It activates the pleasure centers in the brain, helps generate creative thought, supports learning, and builds new memories.
Duplicating this behavior alone essentially allows you to enjoy the benefits of socialization even when other people aren’t around. The result is greater productivity, improved mental acuity, and even self-actualization–the more positive your self-talk, the more positive your internal dialogue becomes, and the more likely you are to fulfill this self-image. Stuart Smalley isn’t actually that far off after all.
6. Have Fewer (or no) Children
Now you might be thinking: this list is supposed to be things I can do regularly. Isn’t not procreating sort of a life decision?
Yes, but actively procreating is also a life decision that gets made in a rather compact timeframe, so opting not to do that becomes a recurring decision. It’s like a daily affirmation that keeps your loins from repeatedly fruiting.
The benefits of opting for a smaller family aren’t just economic, although it is hard to argue with the basic math: parents will spend nearly $300,000 to raise each child. Surprisingly, this number climbs to nearly $400,000 for higher income households. Mo’ money, mo’ childcare expenses, it would seem. And despite efforts to be thrifty and reuse cribs or hand-me-down wardrobes, generally those numbers are pretty static regardless of how many children a family has.
But parents pay for children with more than cash: research indicates that parents overstate their happiness as a coping mechanism to make the costs of their children seem worthwhile. Since society is more urban and technological and less rural and agricultural, the economic value of having more children has been overwhelmed by the costs of raising them, so parents make up the difference with mental gymnastics. Think Kevin Bacon in Animal House: the words just don’t quite match the sentiment.
Going childfree is also a way to fight prejudice. No, really. Culturally, there is a prolific prejudice against people–especially women–who aren’t interested in parenthood. Namely, that it is selfish to not have children. Women, in particular, are labeled this way when they opt to focus on personal development, their careers, or anything else that has historically been disrupted by maternity.
But for both children and parents, the evidence shows that less is more, and that emotional balance as well as work-life balance is better overall for smaller families than those that have many children. The weight of nuclear relationships on identity-formation, overcoming poverty cycles, personal, professional, psychological, and social development is all aided by smaller family size.
Considering the ongoing spike in suicide rates across all ages (but also especially women) around the world, and the pervasive stigma and neglect surrounding mental health issues in virtually all cultures, foregoing parenthood in favor of emotional development is at least as important to the greater population as a keeping the fertility rate on pace to sustain humanity.
5. Limit Your Choices
The best choice you can make is to make fewer choices. No, that isn’t a paradox. Particularly in the developed world, people are suffering from the tyranny of choice, also known as decision fatigue, because the stress involved in distinguishing among all options can actually make people feel ill. Nowhere is this more visible than in the supermarket. From chocolate bars to cereal, canned soup to sliced cheese; even the most mundane activities are permeated with countless choices.
It doesn’t particularly matter how high the stakes are for any given choice. It is natural to want to make good decisions, so every time alternatives arise, people tend to divert mental and emotional energy into holding the scales of justice and trying to exercise good judgment. In this case, practice does not make perfect. People’s capacity to navigate the labyrinth of options actually diminishes in the face of repetition.
The larger the number of options passed over in any given decision, the greater the dissatisfaction that decision will likely create. It is a destructive cycle: more choices, more stress, less decision-making skill, more struggling to make choices, more stress, and so on. Did we mention more stress? And with the Internet making people painfully aware of their full array of options, and enabling detailed research into every one, it can seem like it takes an expert to make a decision about absolutely anything.
Combatting decision fatigue begins by paying less attention to opportunity cost. That means, basically, that you practice ignoring the options you don’t elect, and focus on making the most of what you do choose. Yes, you could have gotten BBQ potato chips, but why not just try and enjoy your Sour Cream and Onion? Another popular trick is to simply limit the options you are allowed to consider. Rather than looking at every brand, you limit yourself to three. Instead of trying to find every flavor, you just decide between three. Rather than watching every Star Wars movie, you choose your favorite from between the original three.
Not only does artificially limiting the options you consider improve decision making, it can actually help you develop better willpower to resist the temptation of choices you logically know you shouldn’t make, but tend to indulge anyway. Making choices deliberately, and without worrying about the alternatives, cannot only make you generally happier, it can help you make better decisions, faster.
4. Train a Pet (or Child, or Old Person)
Children are instinctively curious little sponges of neuroplasticity. They come into the world knowing next to nothing, and immediately set to change that, with or without your help. With your help, though, that learning becomes mutual, rather than one-way. But this entry isn’t about teaching children–partly because that is an actual profession, and partly because children grow up and stop being children.
Pets, on the other hand–even the smartest birds–tend to stay on the intellectual level of a human child (or even exceed that benchmark). That means on top of being social, eager to please, and providing exceptional companionship, pets can help you stay on top of your own mental acuity.
From Jean-Pol Martin to Montessori, the research into education shows that teaching is the best way to learn. So even without committing to a career in kindergarten, you can take advantage of the science of cognitive development by training your pets. Along with dogs and cats, social animals like rats and birds (especially parrots) are eminently trainable, and can learn to do everything from coming when called to using a paintbrush.
If that sounds a bit farcical, remember: teaching these sorts of behaviors isn’t so much about the practicality of the tricks themselves, as the mutual benefits of going through the learning process together. Continual learning–especially in old age–can help stave off depression, improve self-image, make learners more social (and better at making/keeping friends), and even mitigate the effects of dementia. Having pets can be just as beneficial for children as well: owning and being responsible for an animal can help teach kids empathy, patience, and personal responsibility.
For those who simply cannot abide fur and feathers or sticky fingers, learning by teaching can still be attained through regular visits to the local old folks’ home.
While the elderly don’t truly revert to childhood, they can take on a similar fascination with the world, albeit without the same neuroplasticity that enables them to actually “learn” as children do. More than that, aging can take a toll on an individual’s sense of worth and ability to contribute economically. That can manifest as depression, or as a thirst for new knowledge, skills, and opportunities to perform useful work.
Since the overwhelming proportion of education spending goes to the under-25 crowd, that leaves the elderly as a ripe community for volunteer teachers. They aren’t pets, but they can still facilitate the learning-by-teaching process, as well as training their elderly peers on the skills they learn from younger folks.
3. Remember Your Mistakes
People like to use phrases like, “Hey, nobody is perfect,” or “I’m only human,” to excuse themselves in the aftermath of a screw-up. But keeping these truisms in mind can actually have a much more powerful influence than facile self-defense.
It is a popular pastime for humans to judge each other’s choices and behavior as a way to divert attention from their own misdeeds and shortcomings. If they would do the reverse, however, they wouldn’t just make themselves feel better, but would actually behave more ethically.
Thinking about your own previous misdeeds, moral lapses, and other comprises of integrity can help make you less likely to excuse your own future bad behavior. That’s according to research into what enables people to rationalize everything from selfish choices to petty crimes. The selfish tendencies of the human mind–along with a focus on gratification, rather than longer-term consequences–can lead to all sorts of hijinks that don’t reflect so well on one’s character.
Ideally, everyone’s behavior would be kept in check by thinking about the outcomes, but it turns out that it is much more effective to think back, rather than predict forward. Some combination of personal guilt and a reduced focus on the rewards for selfishness helps people resist temptation in situations where they’ve spent some time reflecting ahead of time. It doesn’t matter how closely the circumstances resemble one another. The important thing is to literally dwell on what you’ve done wrong.
Besides giving slight boost to your ethical impulses, this is also a handy way to bolster willpower. Much crime tends to be a response to opportunity, rather than premeditated. Same goes for people breaking their New Year Resolutions or having one too many drinks. Taking a pause from your day to remember that you are only human after all will help you a lot more than stating as much after you’ve already erred.
2. Talk About Death
There are few subjects more universally taboo than death. That goes double for when someone is at risk of dying, or already on his or her way out. Trouble is, that is exactly when a little chitchat about mortality is most important.
Even the entire field of medicine is basically designed to postpone death, people rarely broach the subject with their doctors–which means very few people ever put together advanced directives to guide the care they receive should they become unable to give (or withhold) consent later on. It isn’t a one-way failure, either. Doctors often don’t like to name their primary antagonist out of some combination of discretion and superstition. This can make things very difficult for their patients, and their patients’ families, when there are no more treatments left to try. The trauma is great for everyone in this situation, yet they may all be unwilling or unable to start the one conversation that could help them all cope.
Rather than having meaningful conversations about mortality, most people tend to relegate death to pop-culture status, right alongside evil twins and wizardly father figures in the litany of plot devices that exist simply to advance the story.
Yet discussing death can be beneficial for more than those facing end-of-life care or the loss of someone close–although those reasons alone should be incentive enough, since literally everyone will be in that situation eventually.
Speaking frankly about death can help ingrain healthier, more realistic perspectives on life that support better decision-making, a more positive outlook, stronger relationships, and an overall acceptance of the things in life that aren’t in your control. And just having the odd, one-off death discussion won’t cut it: in limited contexts, confronting something terrifying like death makes people much more reactionary, tribal, and less compassionate toward anyone or anything they don’t easily and instinctively relate to.
Basically, you can live in denial, become a jerk, or start looking at death as natural, inevitable, and manageable. When death is a consideration in decisions like healthcare or financial planning, people tend to find these subjects to be less stressful and easier to manage than those hiding from the grim reaper. Coping with the leading stressors of life more effectively correlates pretty well with overall happiness, which makes a daily dose of mortal musings a healthy habit for body and mind.
1. Plant a Tree
There is a good chance that any tree you plant will last longer than you do. Depending on the type of tree you plant, you may not even live to see it grow taller than you, or hold up that tire swing you’ve always wanted.
More than almost any other seed, vegetable, or flower, planting a tree is an act of faith–one that doesn’t require you to align yourself with any particular religion, or even live a particularly spiritual life. You put your faith in the tree to grow up strong, in the environment to nurture that tree and protect it over its life, in your community to value it and let it grow, and in society at large not to chop it down or otherwise destroy it. You put your faith in something tiny to grow into something larger, in the invisible processes of photosynthesis and respiration to clean the air and turn sunlight into organic matter.
Trees take longer to mature than most animal life on earth, and can certainly outlast the average mammal by a long shot. All the many benefits of trees–shade, absorbing carbon, making oxygen, housing animal life, as well as adding value to property and beautifying communities–aggregate over the many years they stand, and can be enjoyed by many generations beyond your own.
That’s a pretty powerful cascade of effects, especially considering that people–humans–are pretty selfish. You don’t have to be a misanthrope or a climate scientist to see it: self-interest is in our genes, and human cognition is constantly preoccupied with balancing the merits of altruism and selfish behavior to survive. But prosocial activities–from sharing to community building–have proven to have extraordinary benefits to the people who engage in them.
Planting a tree can be the ultimate act of generosity, precisely because you are unlikely to live long enough to be the main beneficiary. That kind of puts your own life and mortality into perspective, which means thinking about the tree (or trees) you plant can be a way of facing and coping with death. Trees can be a legacy that outlasts your own wealth, art, or family. If you care about the planet, planting a tree may well be the single most important thing you can do to keep it healthy.
And if your goal is to do something regularly to improve not just your life, but the lives of many, then by all means consider planting lots of trees.