I used to make myself miserable in ways that turned out to be easily fixable. Sometimes it took ten, twenty years to see the obvious and do something about it. But that’s not even exceptionally slow. Many people go through their whole lives suffering huge amounts self-inflicted misery.
Here are the major quality-of-life improvements that have worked for me, so far:
1. Put people first.
It’s difficult, but worth it, to prioritize your most important relationships above everything else (including money, career, prestige, even optimal health).
But what does that even mean? I don’t think it means always doing what people want you to do. You can keep firm boundaries and still prioritize relationships.
For me it means asking “How do they feel?” and letting the answer influence my actions. How does my wife feel? My kid? My parents, friends, extended family, clients?
A little consideration goes a long way. Asking this question has made my life better and easier. If a situation or problem has a missing puzzle piece, this question can often identify it.
2. Have a “not anymore” list.
Sometimes I did things I didn’t really enjoy for years because I had to, or felt I had to, and when circumstances changed I kept doing those things out of habit.
And parades (being in them or anywhere near them).
The list is pretty long. The details aren’t important. The important part is the gaining the self-awareness, as an adult, that some activities and situations are a bad match for me, and avoiding those things.
Tried it, didn’t like it. Avoidance can be great strategy. And there are too many things to do and places to see than to spend time, energy, and money on the ones I don’t enjoy.
3. Do “good work” everyday.
I need to work to be happy. Without exerting myself in some way that benefits or potentially benefits other people (that’s my definition of good work) I don’t feel satisfied at the end of the day. Maybe there are some people that can be happy without this element, but most of us are either hardwired or culturally conditioned to want to contribute.
I don’t think the contribution has to be wide or deep to count. Cooking dinner for your partner or family counts. Working on music that might or might not get finished (or heard) counts. And by count, I mean feeling that you did something that gives back, or creates wealth, or has the possibility of inspiring or entertaining other people.
As my foot heals, I’m less helpful around the house than I’d like to be. So I’m writing more, and coding more. And also trying to unload the dishwasher and change the sheets, though I’m slower at those things at the moment. But the work keeps me happy.
The alternative is trying to avoid work, and filling life with as much entertainment and distraction as possible. I tried that (for a couple years when I co-ran the most popular dance music event in San Francisco), but it didn’t work.
4. High standards.
Maintaining high standards for relationships, the food I eat, how I allow people to interact with me, my working environments, my work, the books I read, how I dress, how I handle my finances, and even my own mental state have improved my quality of life.
Okay, maybe not high. I don’t need the best of everything to feel happy, or to have everyone address me as Sir Moyer. But keeping a baseline level of quality and self-respect boosts my self esteem and happiness. I eat good food. I keep my house clean (most of the time). I change my sheets every week. I don’t tolerate rudeness (I ask for better behavior, or if there’s no relationship there, just stop interacting).
Keeping extremely high standards can be stressful. My highest standards right now are for my fiction writing; it’s the area I’m mostly actively trying to improve. But wrestling with each sentence takes time and energy. If I tried to apply the same level of standards to the arrangement of food on my plate, or to the clothes I wear, I’d go crazy. But I don’t have to, because I don’t want to be an Instagram star. I want to be a novelist.
So baseline standards in all areas to maintain self-respect and enjoy a high quality of life. And high standards in the areas I’m actively trying to improve.
5. Have a direction.
I don’t necessarily know where I’m going in life. Life is twisty and unpredictable by nature. But I still have direction–I know where I’m aiming. My life is only partially governed my inertia, but I’ve made a huge effort to steer the ship by considering my life purpose.
Is it possible to build the life you want with a clear sense of purpose, creative visualization, planning, and consistent unrelenting work? Not if Earth is struck by a giant asteroid, or we destroy ourselves with nuclear war. But flexibility, persistence, and networking might get you far. As for actualization methods, I recommend Effectuation. Start with your current means and see what you can accomplish.
So that’s my Top 5. A quality of life bump of 10% each is probably underselling it. 20% each, for 100% cumulative improvement, is probably a better estimate.
What about you? What decisions and changes have you made that significantly changed your life for the better?