Every day we are inundated with suggestions and ideas for how we can ensure a happy and healthy lifestyle. Coincidently, at almost every panel I participate in I'm asked the question, "As a busy CEO of a growing startup, how do I still manage to find time for my family and friends?" Randi Zuckerberg has even jumped in on this topic of conversation, writing to tell entrepreneurs that out of the five main priorities in life -- work, sleep, family, friends and fitness (let's reframe fitness as health from now on) -- we have to pick three because we cannot have all five. To a certain extent I agree with her, yet I also have to beg to differ because I believe this "work all the time" mantra we cultivate in Silicon Valley is simply unsustainable and in the end her argument represents a false choice scenario.
A Life-Changing Accident
In 2009, my husband was severely injured in a motorcycle accident. Ironically, this turned out to be the best and worst thing to ever happen to us both. At the time, I was a 36-year-old wife who regularly enjoyed running, hiking and mountain biking with my active husband. Suddenly, our lives changed overnight. During the time of the accident and his life-shattering disability, I was working full-time as a clinician treating Veterans and writing grants to support my research, all while caring for my injured spouse. With everything combined, I was working 90-hour weeks, which was enough to flatten me in just a matter of months.
The author Mylea Charvat and her husband Mark Walther hiking in Yosemite Valley just weeks before the 2009 accident
After a series of surgeries, along with my husband's contraction of a massive, life threatening infection that went undiagnosed for weeks, we were both told to abandon hope that Mark would walk or live a full life again. Unwilling to accept this outcome, we set out on a journey focused on Mark's ability to learn how to walk after the accident. We built a treatment team of Western and Eastern healers, and completely altered our lives to accommodate Mark's healing process. Everything changed, but most of all, I changed (as did he) in a profound and positive way that I am deeply grateful for today.
The Journey to Happiness
Believe it or not, both Mark and I ended up happier, with an overall better wellbeing, even in the face of such extreme trials such as the process Mark underwent learning how to walk again one painful step at a time with a walker. Overall, it was Mark's remarkable recovery, along with my prior knowledge of neuroscience, which made Mark's path to healing possible. After all, Mark was not an average patient -- he was married to a Stanford Medical School Fellow, who had access to systems of care and tools not available to others. This privileged access we enjoyed and the profound impact it had on his ability to recovery, is what led me to start Savonix, my growing startup that provides low-cost, powerful cognitive assessment tools accessible for the first time to anyone.
This in mind, I want to say, "what doesn't kill us makes us stronger." As cliché as this expression may sound, it's certainly true in my experience. I recognized this during my trial by fire when my husband was gravely disabled. It was during this time that I learned a few hard lessons about some universal truths, truths that can ultimately lead to a happier life.
10 of these truths are:
#1: Self-Reliance is Over Rated.
Asking for help not only means you have a team in your personal or work life, it also creates and strengthens social bonds, which as it turns out are profoundly related to our long term health and overall wellbeing.
#2: Self-Forgiveness is Under Rated.
Perfection is a myth and the need to be right all the time leads to unhappiness, whether at work or at home. Learn to love yourself with all of your strengths and foibles. Strive not for perfection, but to be "good enough." When you fail, apologize sincerely and try again.
#3: Forget Lists of Things You Can and Cannot Have. No More False Choice Scenarios.
If you have a successful career, for instance, we are told that something else MUST give. Learn to think flexibly about how to incorporate fitness and family time into your schedule. I work out every day, even when I have 18-hour days. I also make sure to spend alone time with my husband everyday. How? Easy -- we work out together, we go for early morning walks where we talk, we swim together, we take hikes on the weekends. It's not as difficult as one would think to integrate the things that are critical in life, such as fitness and family time but it does mean making health and family a priority, not an option -- something we had no choice about during his recovery.
#4: Gratitude Makes You Feel Better.
Ever notice that when you're thinking negative thoughts you actually feel worse and worse? Yet, when you focus on the good things in your life, you feel better almost instantly? When my husband was gravely disabled (totally unable to walk), I was grateful for many things -- that we had health insurance, resources to care for him, family to help us and that I had a job to provide for us. Sometimes, it helps to make a gratitude list and tape it up somewhere where you will be forced to look at it daily. Remember, when things go wrong, the good stuff is still true too -- you just aren't focused on it.
#5: Let Go of Black and White Thinking.
Very few to almost zero things or people in life are all good or all bad. Simply put, the world is a mash of shades of grey. Black and white thinking locks you into a false world of disappointed expectations and judgment of others. Learn to look at both sides of any situation. Embrace the complexity of life.
#6: Control Is an Illusion.
Let go of your attempts to control situations, especially when it comes to other people. Remember, the only person you can control is YOU.
#7: Stop Abandoning Yourself.
Whether financially, emotionally, cognitively, with regard to your health, learn to take responsibility for yourself in any and every way, but remember number 2 on this list if you turn this into punishing yourself for not being perfect.
#8: Exercise Daily.
Yes, exercise every day for at least an hour. I didn't say work out intensely, but be sure to MOVE often. In every study of depression to anxiety, physical exercise is better at combatting a down or stressed mood than any form of therapy or medication. Turn off the screen and get up and move!
#9: Be Present Where You are Now.
Stop living in the past or the future -- the past is gone and the future is not guaranteed. Next time you are out to brunch or dinner with someone, put your phone somewhere out of site -- even better, turn it off for a couple of hours and interact with the person or people who are with you.
#10: Remember, Above All, It's Not Personal.
The mistake of over blaming people and not accounting for circumstances is so critical that psychologists refer to it as the, "fundamental attribution error." Remember, context drives behavior more than anything, and 99 percent of the time it's not about you. Be willing to look at other's behavior toward you as a reflection of their relationship with themselves -- not as a statement about your value as a person.
Mylea Charvat, Ph.D. is the CEO & Founder at Savonix an evidence-based brain assessment platform that is the product of decades of rigorous research. She completed her Ph.D. Fellowship in Clinical Neuroscience at Stanford School of Medicine and was an early employee at Preview Travel - now Travelocity. Follow her on Twitter.