The building blocks for creating a great life

We instinctively know what we need in order to feel good. And yet, in our obsession with playing busy, we forget the very things that are most important to us. It’s time to pay attention to what really matters and start experiencing joy and wellbeing—not some day in the future but every single day

The building blocks of a great life | Concept image with toy blocks stacked

At a glance »

Introduction: A great life is made up of…

  1. Embrace the real you: Cultivate a healthy self-concept
  2. Prioritize and nourish fulfilling relationships
  3. Choose a satisfying career
  4. Fuel your life with whole foods and optimal nutrition
  5. Get moving and find exercises you enjoy
  6. Explore your world through travel and connecting with others
  7. Live your life with purpose
  8. Cultivate emotional resilience
  9. Spirituality: Make room for the divine

Introduction: A great life is made up of…

Normally, when we think of building blocks of life, we think of DNA and microbiology, of the evolution of life from unicellular microorganisms to complex creatures such as human beings. But for humans, life is a lot more than just physical existence. We are multidimensional beings and our wellbeing doesn’t just depend on getting food, water and air. To live a life of meaning and joy, we need a lot more—we need good health, fulfilling relationships, satisfaction at work and a purpose in life, among other things. Doing well in only one or two areas of life at the cost of others never works.

Here are nine basic building blocks of wellbeing that constitute a great life. Without these in place, your life is likely to wobble and be at a risk of crashing any time. The best part about these building blocks is that they are easy to understand and integrate into your life. What you need is a commitment to live your best life with consistent effort until it becomes your natural way of being. So let’s get going!

The building blocks to create a great life

1. Embrace the real you: Cultivate a healthy self-concept

Man holding a mirrorRegardless of where you’re at, your timing is perfect. No matter how old you are, no matter how many mistakes you’ve made, no matter how much time you’ve wasted in unfruitful thoughts, activities, relationships or jobs, you are meant to be here, right now.

One day, you’ll see how all those “wrong turns” and difficult experiences in your life have worked together to create the perfect you and your perfect life. Right now, you are perfectly designed to live and serve the world in a way that only you can.

This isn’t about creating a self-indulgent “me, me, me” kind of life. Rather, it’s about finally having the courage to recognize the person who you really are, and to make your most important life choices based on that. Your most authentic life and your biggest contribution to society come from the wonderful tapestry made up of all the parts of you—your flaws, your mistakes, your dreams, your talents, your experiences and your natural likes and dislikes. You are completely unique on this planet and in history, and you are here for a reason. Until you start being the real you, in all areas of your life, you can’t possibly experience the fullness of the life that most certainly is waiting for you.

Before depression and desperation forced me to leap and embark on this wonderful adventure that is my life today, my days used to feel like a life sentence. 15 years ago, I was a depressed, anxious, burned out Emergency Medicine resident who panicked under pressure and felt faint at the sight of large amounts of blood.

One night, I reached the point where I no longer wanted to keep living. Thankfully a miraculously timed phone call from a concerned medical colleague saved me from the brink. She told me to take a stress leave, to consider quitting the residency program, and to think about who I really was and what I might want to do with my life. That phone call set me on a whole new path.

Today, I am a wellness and lifestyle expert who speaks internationally and coaches people around the world. I also work with international media and blog for Psychology Today. In the midst of it all, I became a professional flamenco dancer. There’s a lot more to my story [you can read about it in my book, Live a Life You Love: 7 Steps to a Healthier, Happier More Passionate You] but the bottom line is that once I realized who I really was and started making choices from that place, my life bloomed and transformed completely. Your life can, too.

Luckily I don’t always believe what people tell me, otherwise during my season of depression, I might have accepted the “reality” that I was a biologically depressed person who would have to stay on anti-depressants for most of her life. Today, I can’t remember when I popped my last “happy pill”. From the moment that I reconnected with who I really was, and gave myself permission to be my true self, I began making choices that were right for me, instead of listening to what other people thought would be best. And that was when everything began to turn around, and the darkness turned to light. Where once people used to feel sorry for me, today they tell me that they envy my fulfillment and freedom.

If no one else was watching and potentially judging or criticizing you, who would you be? What different choices would you make? What is the truth that is in your heart? These questions aren’t frivolous. They are vitally important in shining the light on the true beauty that is the one, the only, you.

2. Prioritize and nourish fulfilling relationships

I frequently talk about relationships as being one of the most important contributors to your health and happiness. And it’s not just your closest relationships—the number of social contacts you have in your daily life [including the bank teller and your neighbor down the street] are directly associated with your wellbeing.

9-building-blocks-of-a-great-life-2-350x224I’m an introvert and could happily spend long stretches of time working and hanging out at home, without interacting with anyone other than my husband and our dog. Though I love people and deeply appreciate my friends, I don’t have a strong drive to regularly reach out to others. I’m terrible when it comes to calling people, and can easily let long intervals of time pass by without connecting. This hasn’t got anything to do with whether or not I like them, I’m just not very socially oriented. That said, I’m increasingly aware that given the health and happiness benefits of time with other people, it’s in my best interest to override my anti-social tendencies and spend more time with others.

Last week at church, the sermon highlighted three elements that are required to create a better relationship with the divine. While listening to it, I realized it was sensible advice about creating a better relationship not only with the divine, but with anyone who is important to you. Here are the three points, with my take on them:

Three elements to create a better relationship

1. Notice and act on your desire to connect with others

Whenever you think of someone, or spend time with someone, and feel a desire to spend more time with them in the future, make note of it. You might meet someone new who you really like, or hear a song on the radio that’s your uncle’s favorite, or run into an old friend on the street. In that moment, you may be struck by how much you enjoy that person’s company and feel a desire to see them again soon. What do you do when that happens? Like me, do you file it away in your mind, forget and then after five years pass them by and ask yourself, “Has it really been five years since I last saw Jenny?”

When you feel that desire to spend more time with someone, act on it. Make a date for lunch, even if the next possible opportunity is a couple of months or a year away. Pick up the phone and call them when you think of them, just to say hello. Send a quick Facebook or WhatsApp message to let them know you were thinking of them.

2. Spend “real” time together

Speaking of Facebook, I heard someone comment the other day that even though it’s so easy to “keep in touch” with people these days through social media comments, emails or text messages, it’s not the same as real time. Don’t let your regular brief contact with someone online replace face-to-face or voice-to-voice time.

3. Make a special effort that demonstrates your commitment and caring nature

Relationships don’t develop automatically and don’t deepen on their own—they take effort. Be conscious of this in your relationships and think about what efforts you can make to deepen your connection with people who matter to you. What kind of effort would be most significant to each individual? Some people don’t care about birthdays [or actually hate being reminded they’re a year older now], while others feel slighted if they don’t get a phone call or an e-card. Pay close attention to what other people value, and make the effort to connect with them on that level.

Make time for people in your life, especially the ones that you love the most and the ones that make you laugh the most. If a hermit like me can do it, you certainly can. In fact, last night after a long day of work and flamenco dance rehearsals, I dragged myself all the way back into town to go to a friend’s birthday party because I knew that her birthday was important to her. A group of us had dinner, ate heaps of rich flour-less chocolate cake, and then went out dancing. I had the time of my life. In retrospect it’s quite funny that I thought I was making the effort just to please my friend. When we’re good to our friends and family, we’re really taking care of ourselves.

To summarize, focus on helping and loving people, while still taking good care of yourself, and you will thrive.

3. Choose a satisfying career

Student pursuing MBBSYou can only go so far on talent alone. If you’re good at something, it gets noticed and valued by others, and it certainly opens doors. It can generate much-needed income, which can be very important. Yet when it comes to truly fulfilling your potential and knowing the joy of doing what you were meant to do, the only thing that will give you that experience is what you love.

I’m nowhere near being a truly great flamenco dancer, yet I have been paid surprisingly well to perform [more than I earn per hour as a doctor] on multiple occasions. Apparently there’s something unique I bring to performing, the value of which has everything to do with deep passion and much less to do with technique.

My dance performances are among the most cherished moments of life—the “I could die happy now that I’ve done this” moments. I feel the same way about having published a book.

According to my patients, I’m a pretty good doctor, and they often tell me that they wish I would practise full-time so I could be their family physician. I’m grateful for my education, the knowledge base and the ability to earn income practising medicine, but it would break my heart if it was the only vocation I was limited to. I’m quite sure I’d get depressed again.

No, what makes my heart sing is this: writing, public speaking, media work, dancing, and even just posting educational or inspirational Facebook posts and Tweets that help improve the lives of my online community.

I fully appreciate that you can’t always do what you want. Economic realities are what they are, and it would be foolish for many people to abandon the job that pays the bills in order to pursue their passion. Then again, there are plenty of people who have done just that, and have fared very well.

If you know what your passion is, and have gotten “stuck” in a job or career on the basis of merit versus passion, you might want to do what I did and transition gradually. For years I was a full-time doctor by day and a salsa and flamenco dancer by night, I look back on that season of change with so much fondness.

If you’re honest with yourself about what you really love doing, you owe it to yourself to pursue it in some form. When even a tiny part of your life is spent doing something you love, you would be amazed how bearable it makes everything else in your life that you “have to” do, at least for the time being.

How would you earn your income, if anything were possible? You would likely be amazed by what might actually be possible for you. Life can be so full of delicious surprises, if you’d only just step out and give it a chance.

4. Fuel your life with whole foods and optimal nutrition

Woman enjoying her nutrition foodHow do you feel about the foods that you usually eat? Could you be making better choices? Would you like to learn how to choose foods that will help you achieve your ideal weight, have more energy, or slow down the aging progress? I’m pretty sure I can guess your answer!

I’ve been studying nutrition for over 20 years—I have a university degree in Dietetics, and I wrote a monthly nutrition column for Canada’s doctors and health care professionals for eight years. Even though I’ve got these credentials and the related knowledge, I still face many of the same dietary challenges that you do. Some days [many days] I still have a hard time getting in the “recommended daily amounts” of fruits, vegetables and high-quality protein. I have to remind myself regularly to eat something healthy, rather than simply pop a handful of cookies that I prefer [sometimes I do let myself indulge in the cookies]. So I can only imagine how challenging it might be for you to eat well.

I’m pretty sure that if I stopped almost anyone on the street and asked them to list a few examples of healthy foods, they’d be able to. I find it hard to believe that anyone honestly thinks that a giant cheeseburger and fries is a healthy, balanced food choice.

You probably already know that regular consumption of unhealthy foods can increase your risk of heart disease, diabetes, high cholesterol, and even cancer. I’m not going to dwell on that here because you’ve heard all that before, and if you’re like most people, that knowledge alone hasn’t done much to change your eating habits.

What finally “cured” me of those habits was observing the huge effect that certain foods had on how I looked and felt. I promise you, you’ll be amazed at the effect that simple changes in your diet can have on your face, and the rate that you age in the mirror.

I must warn you that there’s a major side effect of this way of eating: The food choices that make you more beautiful and give you more energy also happen to be the foods that protect your body from illness and biological aging. Certain foods such as sugar, processed foods and white flour increase inflammation, disease and aging in our body cells and in our skin, while other foods such as colorful fruits and vegetables reduce inflammation and may even reverse some of the damage.

If you regularly eat balanced quantities of whole foods that provide good quality protein [such as fish, legumes or free range eggs] and healthy fats [for example from olive oil, fish oil or avocado] in combination with healthy high fiber sources of carbohydrates, you’ll naturally feel fuller and it’ll take longer for you to feel hungry again after eating. You’ll also avoid those blood sugar crashes that can leave you feeling tired and hungry after eating a high-carbohydrate meal or snack.

When you choose healthy whole foods your mind and body feel wonderfully alert and full of energy. I don’t notice it so much day-to-day, but I sure notice it whenever I abandon my healthy way of eating and spend a day, or several days, indulging in delicious but unhealthy foods. Believe me, you’ll notice it too.

5. Get moving and find exercises you enjoy

If you are reading this article, you probably know the importance of physical activity. Nevertheless, it bears repeating that exercising is vital to your wellbeing. If you get enough sleep, eat healthy food throughout the day and fit in a walk or a workout whenever you can, you’ll dramatically increase your ability to cope with stress and will improve your capacity to perform under pressure. You’ll be less likely to burn out, you’ll enjoy better moods and be less irritable, and you’ll also be much less likely to fall sick.

You don’t need to join a gym or hire a personal trainer in order to start getting more exercise. Ever since I was a teenager, going for walks has been my primary way of ensuring that I stay in shape and maintain my weight. Walking is easy on your joints and body, and is great for relieving stress. Best of all, it’s free! Dancing is another great way to get exercise without even noticing that you’re working out. Check out the classes offered by your local community center, or search online for classes in your area. Trust me—you’re never too old and it’s never too late to start dancing!

Find something you like to do and it won’t feel like exercise. I couldn’t keep a commitment to the gym if I tried, but I walk my dog twice a day in the hills around my home and I love to flamenco dance, so I take twice-weekly classes and rehearse and perform regularly. Love going on a long chatty walk with your favorite friend? Make a regular date to do so. Love Latin music? Try Zumba. Get so stressed at work that you feel like hitting your boss? Try a kickboxing class.

No matter what you decide to do to get moving, aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate activity per week [for example, brisk walking], as that seems to be the magic number for optimal health and prevention of disease. Remember, exercise boosts levels of serotonin and dopamine in the brain, and has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants.

6. Explore your world through travel and connecting with others

Woman with a suitcase off on a tourWhen I was given that stress leave from residency 15 years ago, I didn’t know what I really wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t sure I’d ever find the courage to leave my residency, but I knew this: I was going to buy a ticket to Cuba. Why Cuba? I can’t explain it, other than I simply knew it. I didn’t even know anyone who had gone there. But now, for some reason, I knew that it was time to go. And I had to go alone.

Whenever you get a clear impulse to do or try something different, or to travel to a distant destination, especially when the idea seems to “come out of nowhere”, it’s usually something that will turn out to be important to your life path. That is, if you’re able to find the courage and faith to do it. The more crazy or improbable an idea seems, the greater its potential power to transform your life—in the very best of ways. Of course, the more unusual the idea, the more terrified and doubtful you’ll feel as you consider it.

When I got to Cuba and watched the other happy tourists gathered around the pool, I felt as if I’d suddenly woken up. I’d spent the last six years around medical students, residents and doctors, and had somehow gotten the idea that it was normal to work around the clock, sleep in hospital greens, and focus my life on textbooks, facts and diseases.

In Cuba, I was surrounded by people celebrating with their friends and families, who told me stories of other vacation adventures and the fun things they did at home. These people worked to live, they didn’t live to work. And some of them even liked what they did!

It was on that trip to Cuba, watching a group of salsa dancers perform in an evening show that I remembered that as a little girl I had dreamed of being a dancer. I went home, resigned from my residency, signed up for salsa dance classes and the rest, as they say, is history.

Sometimes you need to step out of your day-to-day routine and experience a different way of life in order to discover what needs to change in your life. If you can’t afford the time or money to take a vacation far away, take a mini-vacation to a nearby area where you haven’t been before. Expose yourself to new environments and people, break your daily routine—that is the key.

7. Live your life with purpose

Man enjoying the freedomIn those early days of life change, I remember reading books that talked about “finding your purpose”, and feeling so frustrated that I hadn’t found mine yet. I was convinced that I would never discover any kind of joyful, meaningful purpose to my life. I also remember reading books about happiness, and doubting that I would ever find that, either. During those early years when I read so many different inspirational books and longed for a different kind of life, I didn’t realize that my life had already begun to turn around. In my studies and experiences since, I’ve observed that many people hope for a single lucky day when everything permanently changes for the better. It might be the moment that they finally discover their life’s true calling, or meet their ideal mate, or finally get that big break. In reality, it’s rarely that simple. What I’ve discovered in my own journey is that changing your life from miserable—or just plain mundane—to marvelous requires a continually progressive, multi-layered process.

Purpose of life is unique to all; a phenomenon that’s so individualistic that I believe only you can actually know it or figure it out, though others may certainly help provide input and guidance.

I want to encourage you to release and let go of any pressures you might be feeling around the topic. Connecting with and living your purpose is a beautiful journey that typically unfolds in mysterious and surprising ways. It’s not something to be forced, or something to actively worry about “having to” find. I like to think of it as a treasure hunt, a perfectly paced adventure with your eyes and heart wide open.

All you have to do is decide to be open to this area of your life and be willing to take whatever steps or inspiration calls to you. I’m convinced that if you do that, you can’t go wrong, and you won’t “miss it”. Be curious. Enjoy the process. Marvel at life and its richness as you go along.

“Seek, and you shall find,” as the proverb goes.

Your purpose doesn’t have to be something really “big” either. The value of your impact on others and on the world has nothing to do with its scale.

In order for our world to function, we need people living and contributing at all kinds of different levels. If we could each find and inhabit the sphere we’re supposed to be in, and contribute what we were made to contribute, what a beautiful world it would be.

My true career or vocation is directly tied to my purpose, though the way you make your living does not necessarily have to do anything with why you are here. What is so you that you would just have to do it, no matter what?

Be careful of going in a direction just because others think you should. That said, it’s a good idea to pay attention to the way others compliment you. Is there anything that you’re particularly good at? Is there anything people ask you to do professionally, or do more of?

What is the one thing you want to experience, or do, or accomplish, before you die, so that on your last day on earth you feel satisfied and have no regrets in that area?

8. Cultivate emotional resilience

Man concentrating his mindLife is dynamic. Circumstances change, we change, the people around us change, and you constantly have to readjust to keep it all chugging along harmoniously. I’ve learned the hard way, and not just once, that emotional and life balance isn’t something you just create one day, and then forget about.

To live in a balanced, mentally healthy place, we need to consciously commit to it every day. Just like you stick to a healthy eating plan or an exercise program, emotional wellbeing is something that you decide that you’re going to create, every day, in order to reap its many benefits. It becomes part of your daily routine, like brushing your teeth.

Your life may be so out of control and busy that you don’t know where to start. Or perhaps you fear that you’re so far gone, you’ll never get yourself and your life back. As they say in the 12-step programs, life is about “progress, not perfection”. Any time you discover that you’ve fallen off the balance wagon, whether it’s for a day or for the last few years, you can renew your commitment and start afresh, today.

As soon as life gets crowded, most people push sleep, good nutrition and exercise out of the way, to make room for what we think is “more important”. We’ve got it backwards! We should see these good health basics as the foundation of our day, the non-negotiable framework of balance in our lives, rather than considering them as disposable options.

To survive the ups and downs of life and maintain good mental health, you need plenty of rest. You need to spend time regularly with people that you love. Be generous, help other people. Actively practise gratitude every day, and have a regular “gratitude practice” if at all possible. Gratitude is directly correlated to improved wellbeing and improved mental health in humans.

Watch your thoughts carefully. We all have a negative, critical voice inside us that lies to us, telling us we aren’t worthy of love, aren’t worthy of our hopes and dreams or aren’t good enough. Tell yourself the truth. You aren’t perfect—no one is—but there are good things about you. Focus on what is good and true, and express these qualities more and more in your life. And remember that God always loves you, no matter how imperfect you are.

9. Spirituality: Make room for the divine

Woman prayingIf I’m going to teach you what I know about creating a happier, healthier life, I’ve got to talk about spirituality and the divine. I myself am a practising Christian, but if the word “God” makes you uncomfortable, substitute whatever word or term feels right for you [e.g. “universe”, “higher power”, “creator” etc.].

In my book, Live a Life You Love, I referred an article called “The Psychological and Physical Benefits of Spiritual/Religious Practices” by sociologist Dr Ellen Idler. Idler describes some of the surprisingly versatile ways that different people undertake spiritual and religious practices. Her list of examples includes: meditating, singing with a choir, going on a weekend retreat, taking the sacraments, listening to inspired speakers like Dr Martin Luther King Jr, dancing at a wedding, lighting Hanukkah candles, saying prayers and contemplating a sunset view.

People who associate with a religious or spiritual group enjoy tightly knit social circles, which naturally provide many different kinds of support and help them deal with stress. When you walk into a spiritual meeting, people will embrace you with smiles and a warm handshake, and will be thrilled to see you return. Given today’s climate of social isolation and obsession with electronic communication, this kind of unconditional human contact and interaction is needed more now than perhaps at any other time in human history. Also, more than ever, we all need to relax.

Most religious or spiritual practices are both relaxing and health-promoting in nature. Sitting quietly in prayer, taking in the magnificence of a spring garden, or listening to a beautiful choir may be the only time you really stop and sit still in your entire busy week. Taking a few minutes to sit in silence in the morning, to pray and meditate on the things that are most important to you, can be an anchor of peace and stillness that grounds your entire day.

What brings you closer to God?

What practices or activities resonate with or inspire you?

What could you start doing today that would bring you more in touch with this element of life?

Parting words

I hope that as a result of reading this you’ve begun to see meaning, hope and opportunity in your most difficult challenges, and that you’ll simultaneously awaken the talents, dreams and life that uniquely belong to you. It’s my dream that you’ll learn to see and live life in a whole new way, a way that will make life feel better than it ever has before, no matter what’s going on around you. Here’s to your very best life, and may you be blessed with long lasting wellbeing.

A version of this article was first published in the November 2015 issue of  Complete Wellbeing magazine.

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