We all desire health and happiness. However, the way these virtues are commonly portrayed is quite misleading. The images that represent health and happiness capture only the pleasant and beautiful aspects: exuberant smiles, fit bodies, or quiet and peaceful beings in perfectly serene settings.
In reality, every adult who has ever felt a deep sense of joy has also experienced some amount of suffering (e.g., heartbreak, loneliness, despair, a loss of faith). Every athlete with a sculpted body has dedicated hours of work in the gym, incrementally pushing the edges of their ability to newer, greater heights. Finally, every peacefully meditating monk on a mountain has endured hours of boredom and uncomfortable silence with themselves, as they observe their overly active minds wildly leaping from one thought to the next. So why is it that we still look for shortcuts when it comes to our health and happiness?
There is a phenomenon in the language of mindfulness that perfectly captures the reality of the slow, sometimes painful, sometimes regressive characteristic of this process: stickiness. This refers to the tenacity of worry, judgement, criticism, rumination, and any other thoughts that may make us feel “stuck.” This stickiness is not a sign that you are doing something wrong. Rather, it is a sign that you are a human being, with a drive to survive and avoid painful or threatening circumstances. So, your mind does the theatrical work of trying to predict and avoid the possibility of failure or suffering at any given moment (we all have an internal C3PO who is inconveniently calculating our odds for doom). In this process, we become so separated from the reality of the present moment, that we are “stuck” in our thoughts.
Stickiness comes into play when we are working towards these ambitious goals, like becoming more happy or healthy. We might try one of the well-known and often cited practices, like sitting in zazen, or deep breathing, or writing a list of gratitudes. We often ask ourselves “Is this even working?” Embedded in this question is the belief that the fruits of health and happiness should be instantaneously manifest. This doubtful thought becomes sticky in our minds, it keeps us always questioning our own competence, which thereby diminishes the potency of our efforts.
My colleague and friend, Dr. Kristin Layous, is an expert on the science of well-being. She recently completed a comprehensive review of this literature and found some interesting findings that speak to this subject . Research finds that frequently practicing positive behaviors may result in bigger benefit [2-3]. Similarly, having the motivation and making the choice to practice these behaviors can yield greater increases in wellbeing . As such, it can be helpful to find ways to work toward your wellbeing goals that feel natural and enjoyable for you, as these can result in better outcomes .
Above all, making major changes to our lives is a challenging process. Any behavior change requires consistency and engagement, even in the face of stickiness [6,7]. So, next time you feel like beating yourself up for not meeting a goal or giving up your meditation practice because it’s not “working,” remember that all of the failures and hiccups are natural and that your ability to continue to show up and sustain your efforts to honor these practices will get you closer to your goals. Becoming the healthy, balanced, happy humans we long to be is a lifelong practice. Writing a gratitude list once every six months helps, but these simple practices become all the more powerful when we do them from a place of desire rather than obligation, when we believe in their power, and when we dedicate ourselves to a consistent practice.
Be patient, do the work, and trust that you are making some good changes. It takes time to untangle neural pathways from a lifetime of practicing worry or sadness or self-sabotage; it takes time to rewire your mind for positivity and wellness. You are on the path. When (not if) you notice yourself deviating or getting mired by the stickiness of this life, please try to stay present and trust that the healing will follow.
Layous, K. (2018). Malleability and intentional activities. In E. Diener, S. Oishi, & L. Tay (Eds.), Handbook of well-being. Salt Lake City, UT: DEF Publishers. DOI:nobascholar.com
Lyubomirsky, S., & Layous, K. (2013). How do simple positive activities increase well-being? Current Directions in Psychological Science, 22(1), 57-62.
Parks, A. C., Della Porta, M. D., Pierce, R. S., Zilca, R., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Pursuing happiness in everyday life: The characteristics and behaviors of online happiness seekers. Emotion, 12(6), 1222.
Lyubomirsky, S., Dickerhoof, R., Boehm, J. K., & Sheldon, K. M. (2011). Becoming happier takes both a will and a proper way: An experimental longitudinal intervention to boost well-being. Emotion, 11(2), 391.
Schueller, S. M. (2010). Preferences for positive psychology exercises. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 5(3), 192-203.
Lally, P., Van Jaarsveld, C. H., Potts, H. W., & Wardle, J. (2010). How are habits formed: Modelling habit formation in the real world. European Journal of Social Psychology, 40(6), 998-1009.
Wood, W., & Neal, D. T. (2007). A new look at habits and the habit-goal interface. Psychological Review, 114(4), 843-863.