You’ve heard the expression, “It’s the little things that count.” Research shows that little daily practices can change the way your brain works, too, according to Dr. Rick Hanson, a neuropsychologist and the author of the best-selling book, Just One Thing: Developing a Buddha Brain One Simple Practice at a Time.
“Big changes start with just one thing,” insists Hanson, whose book offers 52 simple brain-training practices you can do every day to protect against stress, lift your mood, and find greater emotional resilience.
Each chapter offers a big idea, suggestions on how to incorporate it into your day—including tangible takeaways that you can put to work immediately. Here’s one to start the new year on:
Find Strength. To make your way in life—to enjoy the beautiful things it offers, to steer clear of hazards and protect yourself and others, and find friends and love—you need strength. Not chest-thumping pushiness, but determination and grit. Strength comes in many forms, including endurance, losing on the little things in order to win on the big ones, and restraint. For example, if you want to move a boat at the edge of a dock, don’t run into it with a big smash; you’ll just hurt yourself. Instead, stand on the edge of the dock, put your hand on the boat, and lean into it. Strength keeps leaning. From Chapter 21.
To celebrate the start of 2014, below is an outline of 52 suggestions—and our favorite idea from each of the five parts of the book. Here’s to a very happy new year!
Part 1: Be Good to Yourself
Be for yourself • Take in the good • Have compassion for yourself • Relax • See the good in yourself • Slow down • Forgive yourself • Get more sleep • Befriend your body • Nourish your brain • Protect your brain
Relax. It’s easy to feel stressed these days. Or worried, frustrated, or irritated about one thing or another, such as finances, work, the health of a family member, or a relationship. When you get stressed or upset, your body tenses up to fight, flee, or freeze. That’s Mother Nature’s way, and its short-term benefits kept our ancestors alive to pass on their genes. But today—when people can live 70+ years, and when quality of life (not mere survival) is a priority—we pay a high, long-term price for daily tension. It leads to physical health problems—like heart disease, poor digestion, backaches and headaches, and hormonal ups and downs—and psychological problems, including anxiety, irritability, and depression. The number one way to reduce tension is through relaxation, which feels great. Whether you’re stuck in traffic, wading through an overflowing in-box, or having a tough conversation, being able to relax your body at will is a critically important inner skill. From Chapter 4
Part 2: Enjoy Life
Take pleasure • Say yes • Take more breaks • Be glad • Have faith • Find beauty • Be grateful • Smile • Get excited
Be Grateful. We experience gratitude when we are freely given something good. Therefore, developing an “attitude of gratitude,” is a great way to notice and enjoy some of the gifts you’ve received. Gratitude does not mean ignoring difficulties, losses, or injustice. It just means also paying attention to the offerings that have come your way—especially the little ones of everyday life. When you do this, you’re resting your mind increasingly on good things moving toward you, on being supported, on feelings of fullness—on the sense of having an open heart that moves toward an open hand. Fuller and fuller, more and more fed by life instead of drained by it, you’ll naturally feel like you have more value inside yourself, and you’ll have more to offer others. From Chapter 18
Part 3: Build Strengths
Find strength • Be mindful • Be patient • Enjoy humility • Pause • Have insight • Use your will • Take refuge • Risk the dreaded experience • Aspire without attachment • Keep going
Use Your Will. Life has challenges. To meet them, you have to push through difficulties, stretch for other people, restrain problematic desires while pursuing wholesome ones, and do the hard thing when you must. This means using your will. We commonly equate will with willpower—the deliberate application of vigorous effort, such as lifting the last rep of weight at the gym. But will is a larger matter: it’s a context of commitment, as for a mother devoted to the care of her family. Will is giving yourself over to your highest purposes, which lift you and carry you along. This kind of will feels like being pulled by inspiration rather than pushed by stubbornness. It’s about surrendering rather than being driven. From Chapter 27.
Part 4: Engage the World
Be curious • Enjoy your hands • Don’t know • Do what you can • Accept the limits of your influence • Tend to the causes • Don’t be alarmed • Put out fires • Dream big dreams • Be generous
Tend to the Causes. Let’s say you want to have your own apple tree. So you go to a nursery and pick out a good sapling, bring it home, and plant it carefully with lots of fertilizer and rich soil. Then you water it regularly, pick the bugs off, and prune it. If you keep tending to your tree, in a few years it will likely give you lots of delicious apples. But can you make it grow it apples? Nope, you can’t. All you can do is tend to the causes … but you can’t control the results. No one can. The most powerful person in the world can’t make a tree produce an apple. Similarly, a teacher cannot make his students learn long-division, a business owner can’t make her employees invent new products, and you can’t make someone love you. All we can do is promote the causes of the results we want. From Chapter 37.
Part 5: Be at Peace
Notice you’re all right right now • Honor your temperament • Love your inner child • Don’t throw darts • Relax anxiety about imperfection • Respond, don’t react • Don’t take it personally • Feel safer • Fill the hole in your heart • Let go • Love
Notice You’re All Right Right Now. To keep our ancestors alive, the brain evolved an ongoing internal trickle of unease. This little whisper of worry keeps you scanning your inner and outer worlds for signs of trouble. This background of unsettledness and watchfulness is so automatic you can forget it’s there. So see if you can tune into attention, guarding, or bracing in your body; a vigilance about your environment or other people; a block against completely relaxing, letting down, and letting go. Try to walk through an office or store that you know is safe without a molecule of wariness: it’s really hard. Or, try to sit at home for five minutes straight while feeling undefended, soft in your body, utterly comfortable in the moment as it is, at peace: this is impossible for most people. From Chapter 42.
For more information about Rick Hanson, visit www.rickhanson.net.