As a psychologist, I have to be a believer in change and growth. However, aren’t we all fans of change and growth to some extent?
In fact, this change and growth is a purpose in life. We evolved to evolve. As we age, we hope that our acquired knowledge, wisdom, and life experiences help us make more skillful decisions as we navigate a complicated world. We pursue a reasonably good life, which means we use flexibility to strive for greater levels of happiness while reducing our suffering. We don’t pursue this in a selfish sense, as our happiness is interconnected with that of others. Thus, we take this into account in our pursuit of happiness.
How Do We Change?
The process of change and growth can seem daunting and overwhelming. Where should we begin? In order to wrap our heads around the change process, I propose that we consider five major pathways of growth.
Some quick caveats:
- I’m not claiming that these pathways are original. I didn’t create them; they exist apart from anyone delineating them. However, I didn’t directly appropriate these pathways from any particular individual, at least not to my knowledge.
- These five pathways overlap, as I’ll describe.
- You might organize or name them differently, which is perfectly fine. I find that most other ideas fit within one of these five pathways, but it’s possible that I’ve missed something important.
- Within each pathway, there are virtually endless specific strategies that we might use.
- A pathway that works great for one person might not work for another. Find out what works best for you. Also, some pathways work better than others depending upon the nature of the problem or challenge. Be creative and keep trying different pathways and strategies.
The 5 Pathways of Change
1. Environment. Sometimes, we find ourselves in unhealthy environments—schools, workplaces, social groups, online forums, neighborhoods, romantic relationships, etc. Trying to be happy when we are in a toxic environment is like trying to stay physically healthy while breathing polluted air. In many cases, our unhappiness in its many forms (e.g., stress, anxiety, depression) is a symptom of a “bad fit” between us and our environment. For instance, we might be in a “toxic” romantic relationship, but this doesn’t necessarily mean that the other person is toxic. The toxicity might be a symptom of an extreme relationship mismatch. While it isn’t always possible to leave a toxic environment, it is important to recognize when our environment is causing us to suffer.
2. Chemistry. Our body and brain chemistry, and thus our emotional well-being, is affected by numerous factors, including genetics, heredity, hormones, menstrual cycle, thyroid, neurotransmitter levels, the gut-brain, exposure to pollution and environmental toxins, drugs and alcohol, caffeine, sugar, diet, sleep, exercise (or lack thereof), and so on. While genetics can definitely play a role (some estimates are that around 50-80 percent of our happiness or unhappiness is due to genetic factors), our environment and behavioral choices can also affect our chemistry.
While this doesn’t necessarily mean that medication is the answer, it can be helpful for some people. For example, if a person suffers from bipolar disorder, medication can help reduce mood swings. Even so, behavioral choices can also influence these mood swings (e.g., taking amphetamines or getting inadequate sleep).
3. Behavior. Probably the easiest and most direct pathway of change is to change our behavior. Our behavioral choices profoundly affect our well-being. As discussed in an earlier post about escaping the depression trap, changing behavior is much easier than changing thoughts. Changing behavior is the “B” within the cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) model.
Some of the many behaviors that can affect our well-being include exercising, sleep hygiene, diet, spending time in nature, socializing, engaging with a hobby, going to a concert or an amusement park, helping others, being productive, and so on. Again, our behavioral choices can affect our chemistry as well (e.g., exercise can release endorphins and other “feel good” neurochemicals). Moreover, we can choose behaviors that put us in different environments, which, in turn, can affect our happiness.
4. Thoughts. The way we think about things affects the way we feel. This is the “T” within the cognitive behavioral therapy model. In Hamlet, Shakespeare wrote, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” Stoic philosopher Epictetus said, “People are not disturbed by things, but the view they take of them.” And our own experiences support the idea that thinking affects our happiness.
Often these thoughts are just below the conscious level, but with practice, we can learn to change our thoughts, which can then change how we feel and what behavioral choices we wish to make. Moreover, the stories that we tell ourselves—our narratives—can help us toward growth or leave us feeling defeated and hopeless. That said, changing our thoughts can be tricky because as soon as we make efforts to change them, they can ensnare us in dark, sticky thought loops, like the Tar-Baby.
5. Consciousness. We could argue that any pathway of growth we decide to embark upon must begin with a change of consciousness. There’s an insightful quote, often attributed to Albert Einstein, that illustrates this point: “A problem cannot be solved by the same level of thinking that created it.” We cannot seek any change without some higher level of consciousness, a meta-awareness, coming into play. The type of consciousness to which I’m referring allows us to utilize our free will. Mindfulness would also fall within this pathway, but the consciousness to which I’m referring is more about an awareness—perhaps our “observing self.”
Thus, we might notice ourselves having a certain type of experience or engaging in particular behaviors (e.g., an awareness that we are feeling anxious, stuck in negative thought loops, starting to drink too much alcohol, etc.). It is only then that we are in a position to choose a different pathway that engenders growth. In this sense, a mindfulness meditation practice can be used to increase our conscious awareness. In turn, this allows us to exercise our free will and direct our attention to more skillful behavioral choices that enhance our well-being.
A purpose in life is growth and change. We don’t all begin life at the same starting place. Many of us, through absolutely no fault of our own, have the cards stacked against us. Perhaps we have a genetic predisposition toward depression, a rough family upbringing, or were raised in poverty. No matter our starting point and no matter what hardships we encounter in life, there is always room for growth. A reason we have free will is to pursue this growth. In turn, we use this growth in pursuit of a reasonably good life. As we consider the different areas in which we seek growth, these five pathways of change might serve as an organizing framework for the journey.