In Hans Christian Andersen’s fable, The Red Shoes, a young girl longs for a pair of pretty red shoes. She ultimately tricks the blind woman who cares for her into buying her a pair.
Her love for the red shoes causes her to give them priority over the more important things in her life, and, as often happens in fables, karma is not on her side. The shoes become firmly stuck to her feet and force her to dance non-stop, to the point where she almost dies from exhaustion and starvation.
Parallels to real life
We can scoff at the little girl’s foolishness, but, in real life, we often do the same – we chase after things that we think will make us happy and don’t realise that we’re heading down a dangerous path.
We have to be very careful in choosing our pursuits, because our habits make us. Cultivating the right habits will send you in the right direction. They’ll help you to lead a more meaningful and fulfilling life.
1. Stay away from people who erode your quality of life.
If merely looking at a logo for a fast-food company can make you feel impatient, just imagine how much more impact a toxic person can have on your life.
They might be unhappy about your decision to stay away from them, and they might tell you very loudly just how unhappy they are, but isn’t avoiding them worth the cumulative effects of years of their negative influence?
There are always going to be toxic people who have a way of getting under your skin and staying there. Each time you find yourself thinking about a person who makes your blood boil, practise being grateful for someone else in your life instead.
There are plenty of people out there who deserve your attention, and the last thing you want to do is think about the people who don’t matter.
2. No more phone, tablet, or computer in bed.
This is a big one, which most people don’t even realise harms their sleep and productivity. Short-wavelength blue light plays an important role in determining your mood, energy level, and sleep quality.
In the morning, sunlight contains high concentrations of this blue light. When your eyes are exposed to it directly, it halts production of the sleep-inducing hormone melatonin and makes you feel alert.
In the afternoon, the sun’s rays lose their blue light, which allows your body to produce melatonin and this starts making you sleepy. By the evening, your brain doesn’t expect any blue light exposure and is very sensitive to it.
Most of our favourite evening devices – laptops, tablets, and mobile phones – emit short-wavelength blue light brightly. This exposure impairs melatonin production and interferes with your ability to fall asleep, as well as with the quality of your sleep once you do nod off.
As we’ve all experienced it, a poor night’s sleep has disastrous effects. The best thing you can do is to avoid these devices after dinner (television is OK for most people, as long as they sit far enough away from the set).
3. Appreciate the here and now.
Gratitude is fundamental to peace and happiness – not wealth, glamour, adventure, or fast cars, but simple appreciation for what you have.
Just because you can’t afford champagne and caviar doesn’t mean that you never enjoy a good meal. Hot dogs and beer with your friends taste just as good.
So, don’t fool yourself into thinking that you need something that you currently don’t have in order to be happy, because the truth is that if you can’t appreciate what you have now, you won’t be able to appreciate the “good life” if you ever get it.
4. Realise that things aren’t always as you perceive them to be.
This goes along with appreciating the here and now. That person you envy because they seem to have the perfect life might be dealing with all kinds of problems behind closed doors.
That “perfection” could be a total mirage. Your employer’s decision to move the office might seem like a huge hassle when you first hear about it, but it could end up being one of the best things that ever happens to you.
You’re not omniscient and you’re not a fortune-teller, so be open to the possibility that life might have some surprises in store, because what you see is not always what you get.
5. Get started, even though you might fail.
Most writers spend countless hours brainstorming their characters and plots, and they even write page after page that they know they’ll never include in the books. They do this because they know that ideas need time to develop.
We tend to freeze up when it’s time to get started because we know that our ideas aren’t perfect and that what we produce might not be any good. But how can you ever produce something great if you don’t get started and don’t give your ideas time to evolve?
Author Jodi Picoult summarised the importance of avoiding perfectionism perfectly, “You can edit a bad page, but you can’t edit a blank page.”
6. Get organised.
People joke about new ideas being in short supply, but I think that the one resource that’s really scarce is spare time. Do you know anybody who has some?
Yet we waste so much of it by not being organised. We touch things two or three times before we do something with them (like tossing the mail down on the counter then moving it to the table so we can cook dinner) and once we’ve put them away, we spend even more time looking for them.
Have a place for all of those little things you need to take care of when you get a minute, whether it’s your child’s permission slip for a field trip or an overdue bill, and then get to them in a timely manner. Otherwise you’ll be searching through a huge stack of stuff for the one thing you need.
7. Start a collection of the things that truly resonate with you.
Have you ever come across a quote or a meme that so perfectly summed up your feelings that you wanted to keep it forever?
You know that it’s in one of those coats you wore five winters ago, and you really hope it’s not the one you gave to the Salvation Army.
When you come across something that resonates with you – whether it’s something that expresses who you are or who you want to be – have a central place to keep those gems.
It doesn’t matter whether it’s a spiral notebook, a leather binder, or a folder on Evernote, have a place to collect the things that matter so that you can revisit them regularly.
8. Do something that reminds you of who you are.
We all joke about having “me” time, but what is that, really? It’s making time for those activities that we feel most authentically ourselves doing, when all the masks are off and we can just be.
Whether it’s going for a run or dancing around with your 80s favourites blaring at top volume, make time for those moments. They’re incredibly rejuvenating.
9. Say ‘no’.
Research conducted at the University of California in San Francisco shows that the harder it is for you to say “No”, the more likely you are to experience stress, burnout, and even depression – all of which erode self-control.
Saying “No” is indeed a major self-control challenge for many people. “No” is a powerful word that you should not be afraid to wield.
When it’s time to say no, emotionally intelligent people avoid phrases like “I don’t think I can” or “I’m not certain.”
Saying “No” to a new commitment honours your existing commitments and gives you the opportunity to successfully fulfil them.
Just remind yourself that saying “No” is an act of self-control now that will increase your future self-control by preventing the negative effects of over commitment.
10. Stick to realistic goals.
How many people start January by proclaiming, “I’m going to lose 30 pounds by March!”?
Big, scary, crazy goals can be incredibly inspiring – until you fall short, and then, instead of inspiration, you’re left with disappointment and guilt.
I’m certainly not suggesting that you stop setting goals that push and challenge you – just that you try to stick within the bounds of reality.
Bringing it all together
Your character is determined by your attitude and how you spend your time, and so is happiness.
Stop chasing the things that you think will make you happy and start realising that your peace and happiness is entirely up to you.
This article is also available in Chinese.