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"The single biggest difference between people who get what they want and people who don't is energy," says Mira Kirshenbaum, psychotherapist and clinical director of the Chestnut Hill Institute in Boston. In this excerpt from her new book, The Emotional Energy Factor, she explains how to harness it so you can live the life of your dreams.
There's an energy crisis in America, and it has nothing to do with fossil fuels. Millions of us get up each morning already weary over what the day holds. "I just can't get started," people say. Or, "I feel drained just thinking about the long hours ahead." But it's not physical energy that most of us lack. Sure, we could all use extra sleep and a better diet. But in truth, people are healthier today than at any time in history. I can almost guarantee that if you long for more energy, the problem is not with your body.
What you're seeking is not the adrenaline-filled, bounce-off-the-walls kind of energy. It's emotional energy. It's an aliveness of the mind and spirit that connects you to the vitality and fun of life. Yet, sad to say, life sometimes seems designed to exhaust our supply. We work too hard. We have family obligations. We encounter emergencies and personal crises. No wonder so many of us suffer from emotional fatigue, a kind of utter exhaustion of the spirit, a sense that we're just going through the motions.
And yet we all know people who are filled with exuberance and joy, despite the sometimes grim external circumstances of their lives. Even as a child, I observed people who were dirt-poor or disabled or whose physical energy had been sapped by disease, but who nonetheless faced life with optimism and vigor. Consider Laura Hillenbrand, who, despite having been diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome, wrote the best-selling book Seabiscuit, about a horse who becomes an unlikely champion. Hillenbrand barely had enough physical energy to drag herself out of bed to write. But she was fueled by having a story she cared about and wanted to share. Or think of the painter Frida Kahlo, who endured excruciating pain her entire adult life, yet produced vibrant, deeply felt canvases.
Emotional energy came to the rescue. The best news? Unlike physical energy, which is finite and diminishes with age, emotional energy is unlimited and has nothing to do with genes or upbringing. So how do you get it? You can't simply tell yourself to be positive. You must take action. Here are seven practical strategies that work.
Very little that's new occurs in our lives. The impact of this sameness on our emotional energy is gradual, but huge: It's like a tire with a slow leak. You don't notice it at first, but eventually you'll get a flat. It's up to you to plug the leak -- even though there are always a dozen reasons to stay stuck in your rut. That's where Maura, 36, a waitress and would-be caterer, found herself a year ago.
Fortunately, Maura had a lifeline -- a group of women friends who meet regularly to discuss their lives "like on Sex and the City," she says, "but without the sex, the city and the gorgeous clothes!" The women's lively discussions about how to shake up their lives spurred Maura to make small but nevertheless life-altering changes. She joined a gym in the next town. She took up yoga. She changed her look with a short haircut and new black T-shirts. Eventually, Maura gathered the courage to quit her job and devote herself full time to her fledgling catering business.
Here's a challenge: If it's something you wouldn't ordinarily do, do it. Try a cuisine you've never eaten. Drive home via a different, scenic route. Listen to music you'd ordinarily tune out. You'll discover that small gestures pack a powerful emotional energy punch.2. Reclaim life's meaning.
So many of the patients in my psychotherapy practice tell me that their lives used to have meaning, but that somewhere along the line things went stale. The foundation is there, but the urgency is missing.
The first step in solving this meaning shortage is to figure out what you really care about, then do something about it. That's what meaning is: a heartfelt concern that is woven into your everyday life. A case in point is Ivy, 57, a pioneer in investment banking. "I mistakenly believed that all the money I made would mean something," she says. "But I feel rudderless, like a 22-year-old wondering what to do with her life." Ivy's solution? She started a program that shows Wall Streeters how to donate time and money to underprivileged children. In the process, Ivy infused meaning into her own life.3. Put yourself in the fun zone.
Most of us grown-ups are seriously fun-deprived, and it shows in our flagging energy levels. High-energy people have the same day-to-day grinds as the rest of us, but they manage to find something enjoyable in every situation. A real-estate broker I know, whose work load is enormous, keeps herself amused -- and energized -- on the job by mentally redecorating the houses she shows to clients. "I love imagining what even the most dilapidated fixer-upper could look like with a little TLC," she says. "It's a challenge -- and the least desirable properties are usually the most fun."
We all define fun differently, of course, but I can vouch for this: If you lighten up and inject just a bit of it into your day, your energy will zoom.4. Bid farewell to guilt and regret.
Everyone's past is filled with regrets, mistakes, and missed opportunities that still cause pain. These feelings are an index of our humanity, evidence that we have a heart and a conscience. But from an emotional energy point of view, they are deadweights that keep us from moving forward. While they can't merely be willed away, I do recommend you give yourself a good talking-to. Remind yourself that everyone has negative experiences. But whatever happened is in the past, and nothing can change that. Holding on to the memory only allows the damage to continue into the present.
People always talk about finding a passion, but something that exalted can end up being more draining than energizing. That's why I talk about flywheels, mechanical devices that store energy, then give it back to you as needed. High-energy people always have a flywheel -- an interest they connect with, no matter how eccentric. For Leslie, 29, that flywheel is collecting antique recipes. She loves to browse secondhand bookstores for old cookbooks. "I feel like an archaeologist who finds a rare dinosaur bone, only I bring the dinosaur back to life," she says.
If you don't have a flywheel, find one. Anything fun and absorbing will do, from bike riding to gardening. Anticipating the activity can get you up in the morning and get you through an otherwise blah day.6. Make up your mind.
Say you've been thinking about cutting your hair short. Will it look stylish -- or too extreme? You endlessly mull it over, debate the matter with friends. Having the decision hanging over your head is a huge energy drain. High-energy people make a choice and don't look back. The emotionally exhausted stay stuck, forever vacillating. Every time you can't decide, you burden yourself with alternatives. How to break the impasse? Quit thinking that you have to make the right decision; instead, make a good-enough decision. Any decision. Decide what you're going to eat tonight. Then decide about the haircut. That will get you in the ballpark of deciding about your future. In emotional energy land, what matters is ending your ambivalence.7. Give to get.
Emotional energy has a kind of magical quality: The more you give, the more you get back. This underscores the fundamental difference between emotional energy and physical energy. With the latter, you have to get it to be able to give it. With emotional energy, however, you get it by giving it.
But you have to take specific action. Start by asking everyone you meet, "How are you?" as if you really want to know, then listen to the reply. Be the one who hears. Most of us also need to smile more often. If you don't smile at the person you love first thing in the morning, you're sucking energy out of your relationship. Finally, help another person -- and make the help real, concrete. Give a massage to someone you love, run an errand for him, or cook her dinner. Then, expand the circle to work. Try going through an entire day asking yourself what you'd do if your goal were to be helpful rather than efficient.
After all, if it's true that what goes around comes around, why not make sure that what's circulating around you is the good stuff?
From the book, The Emotional Energy Factor: The Secrets High-Energy People Use to Beat Emotional Fatigue. Copyright 2003 by Mira Kirshenbaum. Published by arrangement with the Bantam Dell Publishing Group.