Spiritual Life Hacks for Success and Happiness: How to Thrive in any Situation
BY DONNA STONEHAM
learning how to thrive is not so much about taking action, but instead changing how you perceive life itself and the decisions you make therein.
What does it mean to thrive? How do people who learn how to thrive perceive and interact with the world differently from those who settle or live in a state of survival? What does it take to move from one state to the other? These pivotal questions have guided my work and life for twenty-five years.
As a teenager and young adult, I suffered from a debilitating depression that nearly took my life. I lived under a dark cloud of despair that I fought hard to survive throughout my early twenties. As a child, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. I didn’t fit in. I was very sensitive and felt things deeply. I often felt misunderstood and had few peers to whom I could relate. At an early age, I began comparing myself to others, was consumed by shame, and believed myself unworthy of being loved. Yet even in the midst of what often felt like unbearable suffering, the part of me that was whole, true, and essential yearned to know how to thrive. There was a “knower” deep inside me who believed thriving was possible, as reflected in this excerpt from a poem I wrote at age fifteen.
I yearn only for a peace which smiles,
To be happy as I walk the miles.
Just simple strength to ease the load
While traveling down life’s lonely road.
Mere hope and courage do I ask
To be the doer of my task.
I want to live a life that’s free
From pain and its inequity.
To look beneath this wretched me
Open my heart, gaze in to see
A boundless treasure, a priceless wealth
Of love and compassion within myself.
To reach perfect beauty as a rose,
To watch this spirit soar and grow
With lovely wings as I aspire
To reach unknown heights I will acquire.
Thank you, God, for what shall be,
For I shall live and will be free.
At the time I wrote the poem, what I knew in my heart but lacked the life experience to understand was that freedom from shame and self-recrimination was my personal key to thriving. At the heart of this freedom are universal traits that I’ve discovered that people who know how to thrive possess: self-acceptance, the courage to face our doubts and fears, and the willingness to hold those parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of with compassion. As we develop these three capacities, we cultivate a thriver’s mindset. At its foundation, this way of perceiving and interacting with the world is built on our ability to cultivate a belief in ourselves, a trust that life will support us, and a faith in something larger to sustain us, however we define that.
The mindset of a thriver also includes an ability to trust in the “flow” of life rather than always needing to try to control it. We have to learn to hold things lightly, rather than grasping tightly to outcomes we feel compelled to achieve. People who know how to thrive develop the capacity to perceive life through a lens of possibilities and opportunities rather than through a filter of obstacles and limitations. They look for why things can happen, rather than why they can’t. And thriving necessitates the ability to be present to what’s happening in the moment, rather than worrying about the future or ruminating over the past.
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Thriving Versus Surviving
Many of us carry wounds or traumatic experiences from childhood that influence our sense of worthiness, our belief in ourselves and our capabilities and affect our ability to thrive when left unhealed. The statistics on trauma are staggering. Though rates of incidents appear to be decreasing, recent studies claim that 25 to 50 percent of children around the world suffer from physical abuse, and 20 percent of girls and 5 to 10 percent of boys will be sexually abused during childhood. Globally, 35 percent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual intimate partner violence or non-partner sexual violence. In 2012, more than 10 percent of children in the US lived with a parent with alcohol problems, while seventeen million adults in the US suffered from alcohol addiction. Mental illness affects one in four American adults each year. Few people are untouched by some kind of challenge or trauma in our lives, but whatever our cross is to bear, if we choose to allow the labels of “victim” or “survivor” to define us and our view of our capabilities, we do so at our own peril.
In my case, perceiving myself as a victim narrowed my perspective and kept me from taking risks. It made me believe I wasn’t worthy of creating the life I yearned for, and it caused me to doubt myself. When we label ourselves and allow our past experiences to define the life we live now, we abdicate our power and limit ourselves from becoming all we were meant to become. It’s not the challenging experiences we accrue in our lives but rather how we use them as opportunities to transform ourselves that are the hallmark of people who know to thrive.
Being Present in the Moment
Celia, a director at a technology company in the Midwest, is one such woman I worked with who emerged from the fires of past trauma. By shifting the image she’d held of herself and changing what she focused on, she transformed herself from a survivor into a thriver. At the core of her being, Celia yearned to flourish in her job and really learn how to thrive in life, but she didn’t know how to get there. When we began our work together, I suggested that she practice being mindful of the differences in her feelings and thoughts in those moments when she experienced herself thriving, as compared with those times when she felt that she was settling or surviving. I asked her to notice what was possible in both states of mind, and how they differed. How did she engage with others? What did she focus on? What results did she create?
After Celia reflected on these questions for two months against the backdrop of her life, I asked what she had learned. She said, “This practice has proven quite revealing. My mind is in a really different space when I’m thriving, both at work and at home. I feel more energized. I don’t feel anxious. I feel confident that I can do what needs to get done. I’m not always second-guessing myself.”
As Celia continued to name the differences between how she felt when she was thriving versus surviving, three distinctions emerged. First, when she was thriving, she felt present to what was happening in her life at that moment, whether that was having a conversation with her children, working with a colleague, or meeting with one of her clients. She was able to stay focused on what was directly in front of her, rather than thinking about what was ahead or behind. She didn’t allow herself to be distracted or derailed by other things or people vying for her attention when she was embodying the actions and mindset of someone who knows how to thrive.
But when she found herself in a survival mindset, Celia allowed her anxiety to divert her attention away from where it was needed in the moment. She found herself worrying about the future or focusing on something that hadn’t gone well in the past, which resulted in self doubt. For example, in a recent meeting with her peers, she said, “I found myself holding back from making comments, worried they would judge them as not being valuable to the group.” Her fear caused her to become contracted and disconnected from herself and others which affected her ability to thrive. She found herself silencing her voice and withholding valuable contributions. When she was functioning in survival mode, she said, “I noticed I give away my power.”
Trust and Acceptance
The second distinction Celia made was that when she was thriving, she felt a deeper sense of trust in life and in herself. “I just had faith that things would work out,” she said, “and trusted that everything would be okay.” When she was able to maintain this mindset of trusting in the “flow” of life—the mindset of someone who knows how to thrive—even when things didn’t go as planned, she didn’t allow herself to get knocked off-center. She just took a deep breath, grounded herself, and moved on.
“I just felt a sense of trust in myself that whatever came my way, I could manage. When I focused on what was going well in my life, I stopped stressing so much about what wasn’t working,” Celia reported. “When I stopped being so attached to what I thought the outcome ought to be or about what others thought I ‘should’ be doing, and paid more attention to the places where I could make a difference, it was so much easier to accept whatever came my way.”
For example, Celia recounted that there were a number of projects she was responsible for that were all due within a short time frame. “In the past,” she said, “I used to get myself all worked up about how I would be able to get everything done and spent more energy on worrying than I did on accomplishing things. This time, I decided to take a different approach—the approach of someone with a thrivers mindset—and trust that I would get everything completed. I looked for ways to be smarter about how I was doing things and I asked for help from others, whereas before I would have tried to do it all myself. I looked back on my track record over the past few years and realized I always make it happen. So I asked myself, ‘Why am I wasting so much of my energy worrying about getting things done?’”
Focus on Opportunities and Possibilities
What Celia was describing is the third competency that people who know how to thrive learn to put into practice. Rather than focusing on the obstacles and limitations in their path, they look instead for ways to do things more effectively. They dismantle the obstacles that keep them from offering their greatest contributions. Instead of looking for all the reasons why things might not happen, thrivers hold a sense of positive expectancy, a faith that good things will occur, and a belief that they are worthy to receive them. This allows energy to be channeled in productive ways, rather than allowing a belief in limitations to pervade. Recent studies on the neurochemistry of the brain show that when we’re thinking negatively about something, our cortisol (stress hormone) level increases, which causes us to be more sensitive and reactive and reduces our ability to think as quickly or creatively.
The way thrivers experience life depends not on their circumstances, but on the ways they chose to respond to the hand they are dealt. What, for example, enabled Jonah, a common shopkeeper, to become a prophet and save a city? With the odds so stacked against her, what allowed Oprah Winfrey—an impoverished, abused girl from rural Mississippi—to become one of the most inspirational women in the world? What spurred a Viktor Frankl, a Jew dehumanized in a Nazi death camp, to emerge from that experience to write one of the most insightful books of the twentieth century? And what enables people like my client Celia, you, and me to learn to spread our wings and thrive?
The French philosopher Henri-Louis Bergson said, “The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend.” It takes developing the mindset of someone who knows how to thrive in order to become all that we are capable of becoming. What makes this mindset possible is our ability to unlock and use seven key capacities. These include the capacity to trust, to act with humility, to cultivate resilience, to learn to listen to our inner direction, to follow our vision, to assume an attitude of expansiveness, and to take responsibility for the choices we make.
The Seven Keys to Becoming a Thriver
1. TRUST: Have faith you’re never traveling alone.
2. HUMILITY: Navigate with confident humility.
3. RESILIENCE: Choose the right bus.
4. INNER DIRECTION: Follow your compass, it won’t fail you.
5. VISION: Walk into your vision, one step at a time.
6. EXPANSIVENESS: Broaden your horizons.
7. RESPONSIBILITY: Be accountable for your choices.
1. Trust: The First Key
In order to learn how to thrive, we must cultivate a trusting spirit. This means developing the faith that life will support us and provide the experiences we need to help us navigate whatever comes our way. It means trusting ourselves and our inner “knower” to take the right next step in our lives, rather than allowing our actions to be prescribed by others’ expectations or by our own insecurities. It means trusting ourselves to have the courage to step into the unknown, even without a guarantee of what lies around the next bend. And finally, it’s about having faith in the basic goodness of others, despite past betrayals or negative experiences that may cause us to doubt this is true.
2. Humility: The Second Key
Second, we have to develop true humility: the kind of humility in which we have confidence in our abilities without becoming self-inflated. We cultivate humility as we develop patience and build our capacity to be present with whatever is happening around us. Being present enables us to listen deeply to others, to respond to their needs, and to acknowledge and act on the deepest yearnings within ourselves. True humility is grounded in compassion and kindness for ourselves and for others, which enables us to be both vulnerable and authentic. Having compassion for ourselves means we learn how to step beyond self-imposed limitations by heeding the voice of our inner champion. In order to thrive, we also have to learn to be kind to those parts of ourselves we feel ashamed of, just as a loving parent would care for a frightened child. We learn to embrace, rather than resist, the parts of ourselves that were injured, while not allowing those wounds to dictate the choices we make or to take away our power. In order to express true humility, we have to learn how to love and accept ourselves as the imperfect beings we are.
3. Resilience: The Third Key
Developing resilience also helps us to thrive, even in times of great challenge. We build this capacity by taking care of ourselves and regularly refilling our well so we are able to bounce back quickly from life’s challenges and defeats. To learn how to thrive, we have to develop self-mastery in ways that allow us to listen and respond to the inner signals that tell us when it’s time to create, when it’s time to rest, when it’s time to play, and when it’s time to nurture our spirits. We can’t contribute our best if we’re depleted, just as we can’t help a child on an airplane without first putting on our own oxygen mask. Setting appropriate boundaries and taking care of our bodies, our spirits, and our emotions with regular self-care practices help us stay focused, grounded, and healthy. These practices are critical in nurturing the resilience it takes to sustain the capacity to live on the thriver’s edge.
4. Inner Direction: The Fourth Key
Our ability to thrive is also predicated on our ability to be inner-directed. It requires that we find the courage to break the cultural trance that says we have to acquire more, be smarter, work harder, be more conniving and more resourceful than the person next door. In order to be true to ourselves and appreciate that we are enough just as we are, we have to learn to stop judging and comparing ourselves to others. We can value others’ achievements, but we need to learn not to beat ourselves up with a set of should-haves, could-haves, or would-haves which work against us when learning how to thrive.
Comparing ourselves to others can cause us to feel diminished, unworthy, or insecure—or, conversely, to feel that we are better than others. These judgments separate us from being our best and keep us distanced from one another. We all have a path to greatness, yet each of those paths is unique. Learning to listen to the voice of our inner “knower,” and to follow the call of our heart, are things that people who know how to thrive do well.
5. Vision: The Fifth Key
Being a thriver requires vision. Thriving doesn’t depend on a roll of the dice. It’s a creative act. Painting a rich and vibrant life on a blank canvas requires intention, grace, surrender, and will, all in proper balance. But first we have to devote the space and time it takes to envision the life we’re being called to express. There is a clear and compelling purpose for every life, yet many of us rarely take the time to be still, to listen, and to reflect on what that purpose is. Those of us fortunate enough even to have the privilege to ask the question “Why am I here?” must be patient for the answer and have faith that if we listen long enough, our mission will be revealed. Learning to be present to ourselves, to those we care about, and to the world around us helps make this revelation possible.
6. Expansiveness: The Sixth Key
Cultivating the mindset of a person who knows how to thrive requires a deep commitment to our continued expansion and evolution, and it takes a dedication to lifelong learning. It is not a straight-line path, but a spiral that involves a circuitous journey round and back and round again. And with each time around the spiral, our wisdom is deepened by our openness to try new things, to take more risks, and to question our assumptions. To thrive means saying “yes” to life and new experiences. It requires we develop the capacity to live in the present moment while being open to what life delivers and willing to explore its many facets. In order to thrive, we have to take risks to step into the unknown. Thriving requires that we ask a very different set of questions and begin to focus on what we are being asked to give to the world rather than get what we can from it.
7. Responsibility: The Seventh Key
Finally: In order to learn how to thrive, we have to take action. We must take responsibility for our conditions, whatever they are, and make a commitment to change them if we desire to have a different life. We have to be willing, as the Serenity Prayer says, to “change the things we can” and to not depend on those around us to make our situation better. Taking responsibility for our lives means accepting personal accountability for the choices we make and the life we’ve created, rather than blaming others for what we don’t have or haven’t yet accomplished. We may possess the most compelling vision in the world, but if we aren’t willing to brave the challenges we encounter while trying to bring that vision into reality, we will never fulfill our potential. We have the ability to make our mark in the world, or we wouldn’t have been given the aspiration. It’s our response to our abilities that separates thrivers from those who limit themselves.
Thriving is our birthright as human beings. Many of us have just forgotten how to do it because we’ve gotten lost on the road of comparison. We’ve grown so accustomed to focusing on what the traveler walking next to us has that we want, that we’ve lost who we are in the process. Becoming a person who knows how to thrive takes patience and practice. It requires courage, grace, and developing a level of comfort with ambiguity and not knowing. But its rewards far outweigh its effort and struggle. Becoming a thriver is the greatest gift we can give ourselves, extend to those we love, and bequeath to a world in need of transformation.
Reflection Questions and Practices on Developing the Mindset of a Thriver
1. In what situations and with whom do you feel most trusting? What makes that possible? In what places in your life would it benefit you to be more trusting and less controlling? How so? What would enable you to trust more readily in the flow of life and really thrive? If you were able to be more trusting, how would it change your life?
2. How much of your time are you able to be present in the moment rather than think about the future or the past? How would your life be different if you could focus more of your energy on being present in the moment and really learn how to thrive?
3. In all honesty, do you hold a glass-half-empty or a glass-half-full perspective on the world? How open are you to seeing opportunities and possibilities? What is one belief you hold about yourself that is limiting you from expressing more of your potential? What belief could you replace that limiting belief with that would help you create a more expansive, vibrant life? How would it help you to thrive?
An Invitation to Practice: Building Your Capacity to Thrive
Look at the seven keys to thriving (trust, humility, resilience, inner direction, vision, expansiveness, and responsibility). Which one is the easiest for you to experience, and which is most difficult? Examine the quality you best exemplify in your work and life. What makes that possible? What have you learned about yourself as you’ve demonstrated that quality? Identify lessons learned, and look for ways to apply your learning to the qualities you are seeking to develop.
Over the next month, pick the quality from that list that you find most challenging. Every day, practice getting a little better at it—as this is a key practice for teaching you to learn how to thrive. For instance, if you need to work on trusting more deeply and letting go of the need to control, give a job that you normally would do yourself to your child, your spouse, or someone at work, and let the other person do it. Resist the urge to tell them what to do or how to do it. Notice what happens to you and to the relationship when you’re able let go. Each day, stretch yourself to deepen the quality you are seeking to develop. Notice how doing so deepens your ability to be present, to see possibilities, and to cultivate a deeper sense of trust.
An Invitation to Practice: Building Courage to Change and Grow
For the next few weeks, practice doing one thing each day that pushes you a little further outside your comfort zone and forces you to act like a person who knows how to thrive. Each day, make a conscious choice to up the ante on the challenge. Start small and build. For some, this may mean setting a boundary with someone with whom you’re afraid to set limits. For others, it may mean picking up the phone and calling someone whose help you need in order to take the next step in your life that your intuition is telling you to take. Notice what happens when you face your fears and walk through them. Write in your journal what you learn about yourself and your capacity to express courage as you continue to engage in this practice. Aim high. Who knows where it might take you?
This article on how to thrive is excerpted with permission from The Thriver’s Edge: Seven Keys to Transform the Way You Live, Love, and Lead by Donna Stoneham.
About The Author
Donna Stoneham, Ph.D. is a Northern California transplant with deep Texas roots. For the past 25 years, she has worked as an executive coach, transformational leadership consultant, and educator, helping hundreds of Fortune 1000 and not-for-profit leaders, teams, and organizations “unleash their power to thrive™” through her company, Positive Impact, LLC. Dr. Stoneham has written for the International Journal of Coaches in Organizations and Presence, is a certified Integral Coach®, and is a popular speaker and media guest. When she’s not coaching, she enjoys swimming, traveling, writing, and spending time at home with her spouse and rescue dogs in Pt. Richmond, California. Visit her website: donnastoneham.com