7 Universal Habits for a Happier, Healthier, Meaningful Life

A week ago I had a chat with a friend who is working on improving his lifestyle. Like many people, he reads a lot of self-help content. He was telling me about how at the end of the day, he couldn’t seem to implement anything in the long term. He tries a routine for a couple weeks, then drops it, tries something else, just for the sake of experimenting with new habits. But he can never find something that actually feels natural and suits him.

I pointed out to him that while reading about other people improving their lifestyle is definitely inspiring, all these successful stories are based on the same core principles. Indisputable truths, facts that have been identified and proven to yield results in every area of life, for everybody.

I myself struggled for a long time with putting together a routine that would assist me in leading a better life. But something clicked when I realised the answer is to focus on the most basic elements of a healthy life, and to adapt them to your personality.

You don’t have to wake up at 4am if it makes you too tired. You don’t have to fast once a month if you can feel healthy in a different way. You don’t have to run a marathon, you don’t even have to run at all if it’s not your thing. But you do need to structure you day. You do need to stay healthy and to feel good in your body. Deep inside, you already know it.


The 7 universal habits

Here are 7 indisputable truths that can change anybody’s life for the better, by adapting them to one’s lifestyle. 99% of all improvement techniques are based on those core principles.

#1 Reading

Reading is essential for those who seek to rise above the ordinary.— Jim Rohn Click To Tweet

No person who ever made a difference in this world didn’t read consistently, and very few people who decided to change their life did it without books.

Reading comes with natural added value. It improves your imagination, memory, focus, concentration, and it builds your vocabulary. But the most benefit you will get from it is the perspective it will give you on yourself, your environment, and the world in general. Books offer an outstanding wealth of knowledge about anything you want to learn. Reading up on topics that interest you will transform you.

It is common knowledge that the most successful entrepreneurs read all the time. Warren Buffet reportedly devotes about 80% of each day to reading.Elon Musk used to read 10 hours a day. Bill Gates always reviews his favourite reads on his blog. Even if you don’t aspire to become a billionaire entrepreneur, reading will make you better at what you want to become.

Try to research about any of the people you look up to, in any field of expertise. Chances are, they didn’t get to where they are today without books.

How to start reading?

If you don’t like reading you haven’t found the right book — J.K. Rowling Click To Tweet!

It is so much easier to read a book in no time when you are actually interested in what you are reading. The first step in reading consistently is to find content that speaks to you.

After a couple books, you might find yourself starting to read about subjects that may be less interesting to you but still pique your curiosity. Those books might be a bit harder to read. Just set a reasonable number of pages to read per day, and stick to that.

It is best to read at the same time everyday. Most people do it before going to bed, and have done so for so long, it’s literally automatic. That is how you create a successful habit.


#2 Exercising

Exercise is to the body what reading is to the mind. True enjoyment comes from activity of the mind and exercise of the body. Click To Tweet

People who don’t like exercising will tell you that they don’t see the point, that it’s easier to enjoy life and at most eat healthy. But exercising requires practice to start loving it. Depending on how little you exercise at the moment, the first few times will feel more or less good. But you just have to keep training, and the more you do it, the better you will feel. All you have to do is try.

One of the most popular forms of exercise is running. It is easy, cheap, it doesn’t require a lot of equipment, and it gives a great sense of fulfilment. A lot of runners will tell you that there is nothing like a morning run, when the world is still quiet and the sun starts to rise. But the truth is, you don’t have to run if you don’t want to.

There are dozens of ways to exercise. Biking, Kayaking, Rowing, Handball… There are so many activities to choose from. Even going for a 30-minute walk is exercising.

How to start exercising?

Like reading, depending on your existing level you might need to start little by little. Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide by Hal Higdon is a great book for learning how to run. You don’t have to run a marathon, the tips in the book apply to anybody who wants to run better.

Stretching and drinking are important, no matter what sport you decide to practice. Again, you don’t have to limit yourself to running. There are so many sports out there, it’s impossible not to find something you would love.

#3 Eating healthy

Health is a relationship between you, your body and your mind. The habit of eating healthy tends to automatically develop with exercising and opening your mind to new horizons (reading). In fact, a good choice of a first book would be one about the reality of the food market in our developed countries. Reading only one book about the amount of crap in our everyday food will help you make the change towards eating healthier.

When you choose fresh, organic plant based foods, you will feel a change in your body almost immediately. It will only take a couple days before you feel like a new you. You don’t have to cook fancy masterpieces to eat healthy. Just good food from fresh ingredients.

You can’t expect to look and feel like a million bucks if you eat from the dollar menu. Good health is the most valuable wealth of your life, and it starts with healthy eating habits. There is not short-term diet plan. There is long-term lifestyle change.

How to eat more healthy?

Something that applies to a lot of people is to cut down the sugar. Almost everybody eats too much of it, and cutting it down is a good way to start feeling healthier after a couple days. How? By replacing the unhealthy snacks with food that actually makes your body feel great.

Learn about processed foods, healthy recipes, portion sizes and your daily intakes. Understand how much you need, where the food you eat goes, and how much crap there potentially is in your day-to-day diet. Learn how to read labels. Teach yourself how to cook, and enjoy the journey as you strive for wellness.

#4 Waking up early

The majority of people who are not early-risers are the result of years and years of waking up late. Before saying you can’t wake up at 6am and feel fine for the rest of the day, consider this: try to wake up early more than one morning, avoid going to bed after midnight, and stop staring at a screen for hours before going to bed. Consistency is key, and you can’t expect change by only trying one time.

Waking up early comes with a ton of benefits that are no match to sleeping in. One of the main benefits is the reduction of stress level. By rising early you eliminate the need to rush in the morning. You start your day more relaxed, and this positivity often stays with you throughout the day.

Another benefit is the increase of sleep quality. Early risers tend to naturally follow a stricter sleep schedule than night owls. A consistent sleep routine is a lot healthier than going to bed at a different time every night. 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night is the recommended amount.

Finally, getting up early gives you a kick start of the day. You feel in control and you are more efficient. You are also more adept in taking better decisions, planning and achieving goals.

How to start waking up early?

Take it step by step. Adjust your alarm by 15-minute increments. Place your alarm far away from your bed to avoid snoozing. Have a nice wake-up music, not a screaming sound. Get a Philips Wake Up Light, it seriously helps getting out of bed on the right foot by simulating the sunrise. Drink a glass of water first thing in the morning. It will make you feel fresh and activate your body, preventing you from going back to bed. Avoid sleeping in too much on the weekends, you will risk breaking your hard-earned habit.

#5 Planning and Reflecting

The main benefit of planning and reflecting is the peace of mind it can give you, and the action it calls for. Studies have shown many times that people who write down their goals are more likely to achieve them than people who don’t.

Planning is all about organising your use of time in the most optimal way possible. A good way to start managing your time is to think about it in blocks of 168 hours (1 week) rather than in block of 24 hours (1 day).

This time management technique made popular by Laura Vanderkam will seriously change the way you see your time, and your life. What if instead of trying to cram your whole schedule in one day, you tried to fit it in 168 hours? You would realise how much time you actually have, be able to make room for things you have always wanted to do, and even find time for real relaxation.

Reflecting is about seeing where you are on your life project timeline. Change and projects take a long time. Reflecting once a week will help you stay in touch with yourself and keep track of your milestones. It’s also a great way to stay motivated. As long as you stay consistent and actually stick to doing it once a week, it will help you stay on track.

What to keep in check? Here are a couple ideas:

  • What didn’t I do this week that I want to get done next week?
  • What are my high priorities for this upcoming week?
  • Where did I waste time this past week?
  • What was awesome about this past week?
  • What moment did I particularly enjoy?

#6 Being grateful

If you want to find happiness, find gratitude— Steve Maraboli Click To Tweet

This is a really, really tough one. How many people do you know around you who are truly grateful for their life? We have all heard of gratitude but very few of us actually practice it. Too many of us are stuck in a loophole of greed, consumerism and need for validation.

Being grateful will make you more empathetic and forgiving. It also reduces stress and helps sleeping better. It increases your happiness over the long term rather than faking it with the short bursts of consumerism. Gratitude also increases the quality of your relationships and makes you feel more fulfilled.

Being grateful often goes hand in hand with meditation. It takes training to simply relax, focus on breathing and count your blessings. We live in a world of constant motion where we literally are never doing nothing. Think about it. Even when you watch TV to relax, you are not just sitting. You are watching a show that is demanding part of your attention, using up what was left of free space in your mind for real mental relaxation and appreciating in the moment.

When you start counting your blessings, your whole life turns around. Click To Tweet

How to start being grateful?

A simple way to start is to use your breath to anchor yourself in the present moment. Next time you feel like watching TV, give yourself 5 minutes to bring your attention to your breath. Inhale, exhale, feel the air going through your body, in and out of your lungs. You don’t have to close your eyes or sit in the lotus position. Just focus on your breath for 5 minutes, and calm your mind.

Food is also a nice way to practice gratitude. Next time you eat something, think of how lucky you are to be able to pay for food, to have a fridge and to never have to worry about drinking dirty water. Develop compassion.

Next time you walk down the street, try to shift your attention to the objects around you. Look down, look up, right, left. Appreciate all these things you take for granted, realise how simple and easy your life can be without the need for the things you want.


#7 Being truthful

Three things cannot be long hidden: the sun, the moon, and the truth— Buddha Click To Tweet

There is no positive side effect to lying. We live in a world where lying is made easy and even acceptable, and that is where a lot of problems stem from in our society. People rise to power with lies and fabrications, and are put on pedestals as examples of success. This is a great mistake, and lying catches up on those people sooner or later.

Rising to power shouldn’t exempt people from telling the truth. Respect is earned, honesty is appreciated, loyalty and recognition are returned.

Lying only contributes to making your life harder. When you lie straight to a person’s face and he/she later finds out, what does that say about you as a person? No trustful relationship can ever be built with people perceived as liars.

And yet, everybody lies at least once in a while. Due to fear, greed, passion, even joy sometimes. Telling the truth can be hard but it will never be harder than having to live with a lie. One should always strive to be as honest and truthful as possible, as this is the only way to a fulfilling, balanced life.


How to start implementing those habits?

For each of the 7 habits presented here and for many other ones, they key to implementation is to start slowly. Don’t try to read 50 pages per day right away. Don’t go for a 5-mile run on your first day of running. Don’t go from waking up at 7am to waking up at 5am in one day.

The secret is to tailor each habit to your personality. Think of the most realistic commitment scenario. How early do you realistically think you can wake up everyday? 6am? Good, make it 6:30am. Giving yourself a margin for error will highly increase your odds of success. How far do you think you can realistically run 3 times a week? 3.5 miles? Good, make it 3 miles. 10 pages a day? Make it 8.

Change takes a really, really long time, and it will not happen without dedication and commitment. Motivation will enable you to fight the lows and enjoy the highs. Define realistic targets, lay out your habit plan, and stick to that plan.

The path to success is determined action. There will be days where you will skip reading those 8 pages, or running those 3 miles. But people who succeed are not people who never fail, they are people who never quit.R

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