What If You Only Tried to Be 10% Happier?

What If You Only Tried to Be 10% Happier?

Two weeks ago, I shared the news that I have been dealing with some pretty intense anxiety on a daily basis. In that same post, I asked if you had any recommendations for audiobooks or podcasts on the subject of meditation. I had concluded that slowing down and breathing more would be the solution to this problem, and I wanted to collect data and insight from all of you, so I could map out a plan to get back to my normal self as quickly as possible. Yes, I can see the oxymoron in that statement: I knew I would have to slow down, but I wanted to do it right away and get it over with. (More on this later.)

The first piece of advice I took was to listen to my friend Brooke McAlary’s interviews with Kevin Janks. I will admit that I was secretly praying I would find a story of someone who had gone through exactly what I was going through. (Isn’t that what we’re all hoping for, to some degree? To make that connection and feel like you’re not alone?) So, at first, I was disappointed because I couldn’t quite relate to his story about where he thought his anxiety stemmed from. In fact, it made me wonder what the heck I had to be anxious about. I don’t have a high-stress job or demanding clients or anything like that. My tasks are my own and most of my deadlines are self-imposed. I am in control of that part of my life.

But then Kevin started describing how his anxiety felt – like there was something crushing his chest – and I let out a huge sigh of relief. Yes. YES. That is exactly what my anxiety feels like.

In the weeks leading up to when I published that post, I woke up every day feeling as though there was an elephant on my chest. And if the elephant wasn’t there, at first, he stomped his way over by 8am and curled up to have an all-day nap. It wasn’t painful, but it did feel like there was a weight on my chest that had squeezed my lungs down to the size of peanuts. As a result, I was constantly gasping for air, feeling as though I could never get enough oxygen. And the worst part was that, as time went on and this continued, I couldn’t focus on anything. I would stare at my computer and think about working or writing, but I couldn’t. All I could do was try to catch my breath and calm my anxious mind.

Since listening to Kevin describe his experience, and identifying how my own anxiety physically felt, the solutions to help minimize it became a lot more clear. Aside from downloading those episodes of the Slow Home Podcast, I did two other things that day. The first is something I’ll tell you about in further detail in a future post. The second thing I did was meditate. It started with a simple 10-minute body scan. I closed my eyes, took slow and deep breaths, and focused on different parts of my body. During those 10 minutes, I couldn’t help but notice the weight was being lifted from my chest as my heart rate and blood pressure normalized. I opened my eyes and felt more relaxed than I had been in weeks.

Honestly, I felt like I was floating. The oxygen I so desperately needed had finally poured in. It was like the time I flew back to Victoria after being in Toronto for months and the fresh, ocean air made my eyes glaze over. There was no weight; only light. I thought I was cured.

So, you can imagine how disappointed I was when the elephant came back a few hours later. I didn’t even see him coming. He just stomped his way over, sat down and crushed my lungs again. Fortunately, when I noticed that it felt like I was gasping for air, I knew what to do. I closed my eyes and took a few more deep breaths, until some of the weight had lifted. As the day went on and the weight got heavier, I took more deep breaths. Eventually, I stopped what I was doing and meditated for 10-15 minutes. That seemed to remove about 90% of the weight, even 100% for a short while. And I have repeated this process every time I have felt him start to stomp across my chest since.

One of the most interesting things I have learned since starting my very-new-to-me meditation practice is that nothing is going to cure my anxiety overnight. But when I said earlier that “the solutions to help minimize it became a lot more clear,” the keyword in that sentence was “minimize”. I am learning that lots of things reduce my anxiety: switching tasks, going for a walk or hike, soaking in an epsom salt bath and even reading. And, of course, meditation has proven to be beneficial in more ways than one. I’m sleeping better, focusing more and getting all of my work done. The weight is still there, but these small wins show huge promise. I need to exercise patience and know it will take time to feel like myself again.

Aside from listening to Brooke’s podcast, I have read two books in the past two weeks, one of which was 10% Happier by Dan Harris (another recommendation from many of you). Like Kevin’s interview, I couldn’t relate to everything Dan shared in his book. However, when he started talking about the period of time in which he used drugs and alcohol as coping mechanisms, a rush of memories and thoughts flooded through me. Something I’m starting to come to terms with is that I have probably had a low level of anxiety for many years, but I used a lot of quick fixes to alleviate it. Alcohol, drugs, junk food, shopping, etc. Things that would make me feel 100% happier in the moment.

Of course, none of them worked. Quick fixes never do. They are bandaids put over deep wounds that need more love and care and a longer recovery time. Yet I continued to do these things over and over again for years, and paid for it in other ways that I ignored for even more years. I reached my heaviest weight, made countless regrettable decisions and ended up being maxed out financially – all because I was always looking for that quick fix.

The more I think about the title of Dan’s book, I can’t help but wonder: what would you do differently, if you stopped thinking every bad day needs to be “fixed” with something? Or if you gave up on the idea that any problem could be solved with one big purchase or one night out? Or if you stopped trying to increase your productivity or the number of workouts you do by 100%, 200% or more? Or if you stopped comparing yourself to your favourite influencers, and feeling as though you have to start doing exactly what they do RIGHT NOW to reach their level of success? What would it look like if you only tried to be 10% happier, in any given scenario?

Could it help you find even a few simple things to be grateful for on the seemingly worst days? Could it keep more money in your bank account, which could later be put towards things you truly value? Could it help you find more satisfaction at work, at home and in your relationships? Could it stop you from making regrettable decisions? Could it give you some perspective and remind you of the incredible progress you’ve already made? Could it make you 10% happier? And wouldn’t that be great?

When I think about some of the biggest changes I’ve made in my life – specifically, quitting drinking and impulse shopping – I know that they weren’t made overnight. The same way I’m learning that lots of things reduce my anxiety, there were a lot of things that helped me in those scenarios too – and oddly enough, many of them are the same. Deep breathing, walking, hiking, and reading in the bath. Writing about it here also helped. Right now, I’m doing a lot of that too, but in a notebook for my eyes only. None of these things has ever made me 100% happier overnight, but they have all helped me feel 10% happier in the moment. They are mini quick fixes, if you will, but part of a long-term strategy.

I know it’s not always easy to look at a long-term plan and feel like it’s going to work. Trust me, this is the #1 struggle people share with me when they talk about why it’s difficult to stay motivated when saving for retirement. But just like our monetary investments, I believe a long-term approach to happiness will give us the best results. You are worth the time and energy.

So, I’m not cured. As much as I wish I could, I can’t slow down, meditate a few times and expect my anxiety to disappear. But I can say I feel better. I still have two hours left of Dan’s audiobook to get through, so I don’t know the ending quite yet… but as I noticed myself feeling a little better each week, I applied the book title to this specific period of my life and realized that is all I could really ask for: to be 10% happier and healthier than I was the week before. Two weeks ago, I meditated and thought I was cured. Last week, I realized I was 10% happier. Today, I think it’s safe to say I’m about to hit the 20% happier mark. This feels like good progress. And I’m in it for the long haul.

What could you do today to feel 10% happier?

  • Congrats on finding some relief! I think the 10% happier idea is a very interesting one. It makes ‘happiness’ a much more achievable goal that isn’t completely out of reach. What would I do today to be 10% happier? Not get worked up over the tiny things in my job that I can’t control. I tend to feel responsible for everything that doesn’t go according to plan, even when it has nothing to do with my duties. Today I will try and take on 10% less of that!

  • Being happy is key to your success not just as a person but also in your work. I found myself achieving so much more at work once I found the right work/ home balance.

  • I have definitely switched to a more incremental mindset. I had always wanted to do everything immediately. I wanted to fix problems immediately and conquer skills immediately and be the person that I wanted to be immediately. With that mindset I failed early and often. I gave up on a lot of long term strategies that probably would have worked and looked for shortcuts and quick fixes instead.

    I switched to an incremental approach similar to the 10% happier idea (also after discovering meditation). I have a note on my desk that just says “Progress.” As long as I am making some progress towards my goals every day, I will get there eventually. A little bit less anxious. A little bit more productive. A little bit better writer. A little bit wiser from learning from mistakes. These build on each other day after day and eventually become much bigger and more visible jumps.

    • I love that so much, Matt! Thank you for sharing. I might have to write the word “progress” on a post-it note and stick it to my fridge :)

  • I have been going through the exact same thing lately… anxiety because of work and what you described is the exact same symptoms. What I have been doing lately is meditating (Deepak Chopra 21 days of meditation), journaling, yoga (when I can) and diffusing some essential oils that are meant to help relaxe, downsize on coffee (apparently coffee will only nourish your anxiety). All of these things have helped but I fear the anxiety is not gone.

    What would I do today to feel 10% happier? Something for myself ; taking a long walk, working out or simply finding a moment to read. Good luck !

    • I believe I would say the same thing, Marie-Claude: find a moment to read. I’ve been trying to read a little bit each day, even if it’s only a handful of pages. It has helped. And I’m with you on reducing the amount of coffee I drink, too! A few people mentioned that to me, so I’m down to 1 cup first thing in the morning and not until after I’ve eaten. On the days I have 2 cups, I notice my anxiety starts creeping in before I’m even done the second.

  • I’m glad to hear that you’ve found a way to focus on progress in this area, rather than stressing about being 100% cured. I struggled with postpartum anxiety after my second child was born (and am an anxious person in general), and one of the most helpful things a friend said to me was, “You will have to suffer through this.” She was not saying just deal with or ignore it. It was in the context of getting help and working through things. But taking the pressure off feeling like I needed to be completely better right away was actually very freeing. I stopped being anxious about my anxiety and could just get through the tough moments without completely freaking out, while working on the deeper issues over time.

    • I think that’s a really important statement, Kalie: it’s a reminder that it will take work to get through to the other side. And “stopped being anxious about my anxiety” – wow, did that hit home. I feel like I have worked past that, at least to some degree. But it was so frustrating at first that I could not stop worrying about it and wondering when it would go away.

  • Baby steps, baby steps. 10% at a time and you will get there Cait! What could I do today to feel 10% happier? Take pictures (although its a rainy day outside, LOL), read a mystery novel, smile, pay a compliment to someone I know or even a stranger. Hug my kids. Kiss my husband. Have another cup of coffee and curl up in my comfy chair and look out my living room window. And none of these cost a cent. I think that’s a great start for me!!

  • Glad you feel 20% happier Cait. I think it is woven into our culture that things need to happen straight away and to be always looking for that quick fix. I like the concept of Kaizen (a Japanese philosophy) which is about continuous improvement – one small step at a time. This will lead to massive changes over time. I’m sure you can see that with your simplicity journey. At the start you only took one small step and now look where it has gotten you. :) With anxiety we have these ingrained habits that have been built up over a lifetime and just being aware of them is the first step towards change. But like all journeys it has it’s up and downs. I guess it’s about being ok during those downs. Although, that is sometime I am continuously working on. But hey we are human! Rome wasn’t built in a day…… :)

    • It’s funny, even as I was writing this post, I felt this need to say I was 30% better… but it just didn’t sit right. I looked at the number and realized “that is not true, I just wish it were”. We always want the quick fix. Waiting sucks (or so we’re told). But this will take time, and that’s ok.

  • Make sure to also read Care of the Soul by Thomas Moore. It is helping me to see problems i«on a different way, and I am not feeling as overwhelmed.

    I’m very happy that you found something that works for you. (:

    Yesterday, I discovered that I love to go to the park with my son, because I’m allowed to be a child without judgement. It felt so good to swing again! These little things really add up.

    • The other day, someone asked me to remember a time in the last month when I felt most at peace and like myself. I smiled and said it was when I was out for a hike with my 7-year-old niece, and we were skipping and jumping and goofing off. Kids are miracles. <3

  • I’m so glad you’re finding techniques that work. Thanks for sharing with us all here.
    Sometimes it’s a particular worry or health scare, and sometimes it’s just life, but we all feel overwhelmed at times and it’s essential to have some self-rescue options.

    • Self-rescue options. Wow, I wouldn’t have thought about it like that, but you’re right friend – that’s exactly what they are.

  • I’m glad you are finding some relief, Cait. And thank you for sharing – your openness is so helpful to so many.

    I love the concept of 10% happier (and also read the book recently). The book inspired me to start meditating (though I admit it’s been sporatic the last few weeks and I need to get back to it). I’ve had many doctor visits lately and one thing I noticed is my blood pressure was significantly lower after I started meditating. No doubt, the benefits are far-reaching.

    • Isn’t that incredible, Amanda? Yet I’m not at all surprised, based on what I’ve read/heard and experienced in just two weeks.

  • I struggled with what I called “breathing issues” for years before it finally got so bad that I saw a doctor and was diagnosed with anxiety. At that point, it wasn’t much of a surprise! Given the amount of stress I was under, medication was a huge help in addition to coping exercises like meditation and journaling. The Booster Buddy app was also a big help to me. It has a giant list of different coping mechanisms along with ways to track your feelings day to day. It’s geared to teens and young adults, but I loved the coping exercises so much that I used it anyway!

    • Wow, I just looked up the app – what an incredible resource, Sara. I see it was created by the Vancouver Island Healthy Authority (I grew up on the island). That makes me happy. :)

  • What I could do to be 10% happier? Quit eating so much crap. And binging. This would actually probably raise by happiness by 10×10%! Junk food is such a crappy addiction (as are all addictions, I know). I quit drinking 15 years ago, I exercise every day, I try to go to bed at a decent time, I don’t smoke, I don’t do drugs, yet this junk food addiction I can’t seem to kick…. Why, oh why?!
    Did you? How? What are your eating habits now, if you don’t mind sharing? I’m curious because you are mentionning this in your post.
    Have a great day!

    • I don’t mind sharing! I would say… 90% of my food decisions are good!? I don’t have any junk in the house, and I only eat out maybe once/week now (and it’s usually a meal like breakfast). I’ll eat some chocolate during my time of the month, and maybe eat a pizza then too, but that’s about it. Something that helps me is BEFORE I eat any junk food, I commit to feeling no guilt about it. So if I want that chocolate once/month, I just buy it and enjoy it. And then I go back to eating normally. I think the guilt/shame is what keeps us stuck in vicious cycles. You want the bad thing, do the bad thing, feel bad about it, then give up on trying to be good… it takes time, but removing the “feel bad about it” stage disrupted the whole thing.

  • Hi Cait,
    Wonderful to hear you’re finding relief from anxiety. I’ve been experiencing the same thing! I’ve let it go for too long and now my health is paying for it.

    The title really caught my attention. I never thought of things this way but I would probably be feeling better if I did. Something you said really hit home for me: “Or if you stopped trying to increase your productivity or the number of workouts you do by 100%, 200% or more? Or if you stopped comparing yourself to your favourite influencers, and feeling as though you have to start doing exactly what they do RIGHT NOW to reach their level of success?” I’ve been trying to increase my productivity and workouts 100% and I only end up more anxious and stressed out, then I eat more because I feel bad about myself.

    I love this idea you have and I’m going to keep this in mind as I work to improve my health and my business 10% at a time.

    Thanks so much for your openness and honesty, you always inspire us. :)

    • If you see this, Christine, read my reply to Isabelle! It might add some more insight/thought. :)

  • I too have been feeling the weight of anxiety in my chest. And I’ve also been thinking about the things causing this and realising that I am wired the way I am, I’m a worrier at heart and I probably will never vanquish the anxieties I have, I can only learn to live with them and ty to shrink them to a tolerable low hum in the background. There’s so much unknown in life.

    • It’s true! And so much of this anxiety has been situational, because a bomb was dropped on me and then I was left with a ton of questions and no one to ask them to. The unknowns did serious damage.

  • I’m glad to hear you fell into meditation. :) I’ve suffered from it my entire life and I can say it’s NOT fun. If it persists, I’d recommend chatting with a counselor. They can help you make a focused plan to tackle your triggers and get at the source of the problem. It’s especially helpful if you don’t know exactly what’s making you feel anxious. I do a combo of meds and counseling and it’s been helpful.

    • I actually did reach out to a counsellor. That’s for the next post. Thanks for looking out, friend. :)

  • Kudos for being honest and talking about it! When you talk about things, you find out just how many other people have experienced the same thing. When you don’t talk about things, you think you are the only person in the world.

    I know of a few friends that use Headspace (https://www.headspace.com/) to meditate, but I have not tried it (nor am I affiliated with it).


    • I’ve done 5 days of the 10-day free trial and do like it so far! Not sure I’ll subscribe to it, but we’ll see :) thanks, Carl!

  • Thank you for sharing what you are going through, Cait. I think it helps many readers to know that they are not alone in dealing with anxiety. I am glad you are reading 10% Happier. His book changed my perspective on meditation. In fact, I downloaded the Calm app as soon as I finished his book a few months ago :)

    • So cool to know you connected with the book too, M! I believe I saw you were on quite the meditation streak a while ago? (Did I see this on Instagram?)

  • I’ll just add a little positive note in here – in the beginning of my Mindfulness Meditation training, the anxiety was so overwhelming I’d cry with frustration because it just always seemed to be present. About 5 months or so down the road, I got to a point where – although still frustrated – I could at least summon some humor when I felt it coming on again. I’d be alone in a room, on my meditation bench and when I felt it, I’d start singing, “Here come those fears again ….” a la Jackson Browne. With an excellent, certified Mindfulness Meditation teacher, and dogged determination, I’m here to say, anxiety can become manageable!

    • Thank you so much for sharing this, Emilie! I will admit, I have cried twice during meditation – well, once during it and once right after. That second time, I had a huge breakthrough about how I felt about someone in the situation that had caused me so much anxiety, and I realized I wasn’t actually mad or hurt by their actions. They are just trying to get through life, the same way I am, and sometimes that’s messy and complicated. Talk about a huge weight lifted off my shoulders (and my mind)!

  • Cait, thanks for the honesty and openness here. It’s so easy to have that elephant snuggle up to you these days. It seems that each day that passes urges us to become more productive, more useful, more accomplished, more confident, more everything. Realizing we are all just human and taking off the superhero cape is the first step.

    Thanks also for tipping me off here to the Slow Home podcast. I’m listening to the first episode right now.

    • Your comment actually reminded me of what I wrote in early January re: why I was starting these slow living experiments: “I don’t know about you, but the new year has only just arrived and I’m already exhausted. It feels as though every article that’s been shared on Twitter recently is telling me how to be bigger, better, faster and stronger in 2017. Grow your business, build your brand and read this specific list of books. Get more work done in fewer hours, make more money and invest it in things that will help you grow further. Finally, because you’re not busy with all of that, make sure you also eat better, exercise daily, and lose the weight once and for all. I’m tired just from writing that out, let alone doing it. In paying attention to how I feel every time I look at Twitter and Feedly, I’ve realized that the best thing I can do for myself (and for you) is to steer clear of those articles. You know, the ones that make you feel like you’re already failing at life, but here are five ways to become a better version of yourself this year. I’m done. Over it. And it’s not really surprising that I’m done and over it.” Interesting that my body and mind KNEW I couldn’t handle any more of this months ago… https://caitflanders.com/2017/01/02/a-year-of-slow-living-experiments/

      • Ha! Yes! THAT!! All of that in a nut shell is exactly what I feel nearly any time I inexplicably find myself on Facebook or Pinterest. In a strange way, I’m thankful I do not have children yet…. I’m imagining taking that monstrous list that you’ve mentioned and adding on keeping up with the super moms as well. One day at a time. I need a nap now. :)

        I’m hoping that the move to beautiful Squamish has continued to encourage your slow living this year. I’m in Vancouver and have been hearing smaller towns call to me for the last couple of years but haven’t acted on it. Perhaps my body and mind know better also.

  • Thank you for this post, Cait! I can completely relate. I recently started giving myself permission to be ok with where I am and what I truly want, and I’ve noticed a huge shift in my stress levels and my anxiety. Rather than constantly striving 200% for what I thought I wanted or where I thought I “should be,” I have started reminding myself that it’s ok to be exactly where I am, especially if I am happy with there! It takes multiple daily reminders sometimes- lol. I love the concept of 10% happier. I’ll definitely add this to my ongoing long-term strategy ;) Thank you for sharing!

    • And thank YOU for sharing what’s been working for you, Carolin! I think you’re onto something with the idea of giving yourself permission to be ok with where you are. Last year, right before my surgery, I texted my friend David to tell him how nervous I was. He’s been practicing mindfulness and meditation for years, so I knew he would be the one person who could calm me down, and his reply was almost exactly that: maybe you need to just accept that this is something you feel nervous about, and let that be ok. :)

  • My personal method is : find at least one day a thing to be happy and smile about it: a coffe with friends, a talk with mum, walk with dog, a sunny day a good book…#enjoy the little things:D

    • Love that, Giulia! I found one new place I want to take a book to on our next sunny day here :)

  • Cait, I just found your blog a few weeks ago and want to say thanks for being so open about all of this. I absolutely love this 10% idea. I’ve struggled for years with perfectionism and low levels of anxiety and depression, and I’ve never thought about how much difference even 10% could make. No, it’s always been I hate conflict and want to hold what should be a much longer conversation about a changing relationship NOW, I want to magically pick up a meditation habit and be great about it NOW, I want to wake up one day and just know what it is I want to do in life, I’m constantly trying to be grateful for little things but those are only little things so what do they matter?, etc. I want things to change 100% or 200% immediately and no wonder I’m consistently mad at myself for not being able to fix things: that’s a completely unrealistic expectation! I will definitely be picking up this book (ahhh I need to read ALL the library books NOW!) so thank you for the recommendation.

  • I was reading your article and suddenly, I hear Alexia’s song “Happy”, on TV (it was a commercial)! I don’t know how coincidences work, but this one couldn’t have come at a better time :)

    Usually, whenever I feel down about something, I try to think about the things I’m grateful for in life. Because no matter how unhappy you might feel now, there are many who are probably having an even worse day.

    Also, whenever the weather’s nice, I make sure I never let a wonderful day go to waste, so I go for a walk or a jog, maybe listen to some music during. These methods work well for me. They don’t magically make bad thoughts go away, but they do help a little :)

  • For me, practicing gratitude gets me that 10% (or more) happier. Starting a gratitude blog really helped me through some very tough months and got me in the habit of reflecting on the everyday things I appreciate.

    I follow the same format for these “daily snapshots”:
    – I’m grateful for…
    – I’m hopeful that….and challenge myself to…
    – I enjoyed…

    Helps me to recognize the blessings in my life, but also gives me an opportunity to set mini-goals for myself for continuous improvement.

    Keep up the great work, Cait! <3 Much love from Waterloo.

  • Hi Cait,

    Like you said, it’s a progress rather than a 1 day finish-and-done task. Here are a few lessons that have helped me over the long terms when dealing with anxiety and stress, maybe they will help too.

    #1 Stress is really something that comes from our minds. We feel stressed because we’re looking toward the future and worrying about what’s going to happen. We, as humans, have a tendency to think too much about the future. In our heads, we think about what’s going to happen tomorrow, we think about what we need to do at work, we think about what tasks we need to complete, we think about who we need to talk to, and so on and so on. We are too busy looking forward into the future that we are ignoring what’s in front of us and what’s happening in our lives right at this moment.

    #2 Stress vs. Regrets
    You have regrets because of past experience, you are stressed because you’re thinking about the future. What you need to realize is there are only so many things you can control. There’s no point feeling regret about something you did in the past because it’s done and you can’t change the past. There’s no point feeling stressed out over things in the future you can’t control. What’s more important is be in control and dictate things that you can control.

    Hope this helps!

  • I’m glad you’re starting to find a little bit of relief. My anxiety manifests itself a lot like yours. The inability to take a deep breathe. When it first started it was the scariest feeling ever, which of course made me MORE anxious. Once I started to understand it, I would get frustrated because I would think, “what do I have to be so anxious about?!” Which made me more anxious. It’s a journey and there’s no healthy quick fix but the habits and strategies become more routine, just like with finances etc. Hang in there!

  • This post really resonated with me. After facing some of my own anxieties and finding relief in meditations, I know exactly the feelings. I like the idea of trying little things and being ok with small progress. I will probably keep referring back to this post as a reminder. Thank you.

  • Hello,
    I stumbled across your page on Instagram I think and have been reading your blogs, and this description of anxiety is so familiar.
    I’ve got that elephant on my chest and the struggle to breathe and even when I think I’m calm, my body disagrees! Exercise seems to temporarily ‘reset’ my breathing and I need to make more of an effort to do it each day which is hard as I have two teenagers and work as a teacher! I’m going to try to get back into meditation but sometimes when I focus on my breath it makes it worse… if I get enough sleep I always feel better the next day too. I know you posted this last year and I hope you’re feeling better. I love the idea of baby steps and 10% seems much more manageable. 😊

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