When I first sat down to write this piece for 5 Rules for Life, I wrote “Live without rules” five times, each followed by a reason to keep your approach to life flexible.
The way you live is largely a reflection of where you’ve been, who you’ve been, and the beliefs you’ve formed. Who am I to create a cookie-cutter hard-and-fast code that makes sense for everyone?
That’s when I realized I’d need to make a sixth rule to introduce these ideas: judge my words, and anyone else’s, against your own reason and moral code.
Buddha said, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.”
The Dalai Lama echoed that sentiment with, “The ultimate authority must always rest with the individual’s own reason and critical analysis.”
Be critical. I invite it. These ideas help me, and they may or may not help you.
With that, I give you five guidelines that have helped me feel happy, fulfilled, and meaningful:
1. Be honest with yourself.
One of the most valuable skills you’ll learn in life is the ability to call yourself out—when you’re playing it safe because you’re scared to fail or maybe even scared to succeed, or you’re closing off your heart because you’re afraid of being hurt.
In the moment it feels comforting. You can do what you always did and not push yourself into unfamiliar territory. But we tend to regret the things we didn’t do more than the things we did.
Don’t lie to yourself about your instincts or motivations. It may feel safe in the moment, but it will one day grow into regret about who you could have become.
2. Let yourself be vulnerable.
I once felt there was nothing more terrifying than letting go of control. I held a tight grip on who I really was because I wanted to shape other people’s perceptions of me. I had a very limited list of approved adjectives: smart, kind, talented, successful, awesome.
I don’t love knowing someone may form a different opinion of me, but it’s liberating to honor where I’m at in any moment, and let people decide for themselves what they think about that.
When you’re willing to be seen as someone who makes mistakes and has flaws, you’re essentially telling yourself being human isn’t something to be ashamed of.
People may sometimes form judgments. But they’ll respect your authenticity, and they may learn to let go a little themselves—something that can be a tremendous relief.
3. Live in accordance with your values.
Everyone has a different idea of what’s important and what it means to be a good person. If you try to align your life with someone else’s values, you’ll likely feel unfulfilled.
If your main source of joy is spending time with your family, would it really make sense to take on a high-paying job that limits the time you can spend with them?
Make a list of the cornerstones of your happiness and then take an honest inventory of your current situation. Does it parallel the priorities you listed?
4. See as much as you can of what’s right in front of you.
People often live life caught in two mental strongholds: regret for the past and worry for the future. In looking back on the years I’ve lived so far, I know I’ve spent more time engaging in those activities than truly being present.
Whenever I catch myself, I check in with my five senses and experience what’s in front of me as fully as I possibly can.
I notice the details. Hear the sounds. And seep into the moment. I know I won’t do this all the time, but it adds up to create more time truly living in the now.
5. Treat yourself like you want other people to treat you.
It happens all the time. You don’t get a job, so you start reviewing all your failures. You hurt a friend, so you start beating yourself up.
We make mistakes and we always will. As long as you acknowledge them, make amends as best you can, and learn from them, there’s no reason to stop treating yourself with kindness.
Other people will take their cue from you. You decide how you deserve to be treated.