the change social changemakers need
Helena* is typical of most the social leaders that I work with. She’s been moving through life…instead of actually living it. On the outside, she’s remarkably accomplished and successful. Inside, she’s overwhelmed, stressed and fearful. Depleted. Anything but joyful and energized. I see it again and again. Quite contrary to what many would imagine, the most driven and competitive changemakers are often the ones most disconnected from their inner world and least able to master it.
We all seek inner wellbeing, consciously or not. For the vast majority, it remains frustratingly out of reach. Yet inner wellbeing should not be seen as something ‘nice’ to attend to, once all your other matters are taken of. It is not a luxury. Your inner wellbeing impacts – directly – your mood and personality. It impacts your business results. It impacts your role in the world. It impacts your impact.
In short, inner wellbeing is the very definition of your success.
When not in control of your inner wellbeing, you let pressure, stress and concerns in the outside world define how you feel inside. But when you instead let your inner state of wellbeing decide how you approach the world, you are in control of how you feel no matter what happens to you.
That one shift will redefine the quality of every single moment of life as you move through it.
That shift will move you from surviving into thriving.
That shift will enable you to succeed. Wildly.
What is inner wellbeing?
Inner wellbeing is often mistakenly interpreted as being free of stress, burnout, fear, sleeplessness, overwhelm or trauma; free of the things that hinder us from feeling empowered and unleashing our fullest potential.
But inner wellbeing is so much more than the absence of pressure and pain; it’s much more than existing in a neutral place of non-discomfort. Inner wellbeing is an active state of energy and power; a feeling both centered and joyful. More importantly, this positive disposition doesn’t emerge as a result of momentary good fortune, but is rooted in the very foundation of who we are.
In today’s world full of constant change, complexity and ambiguity, inner wellbeing is the only basis for flourishing sustainably. It is the only strategy that provides you with the ability to feel complete, joyful and empowered, unrelated to how you perform or what the external world is bringing to you.
The conundrum of inner wellbeing
Why is this feeling of joy and centeredness so fleeing to most of us when – in reality – that is what we are constantly seeking? Let’s look at a couple of misconceptions about inner wellbeing that stand in the way of actually achieving it.
Misconception 1: we separate inner and outer life
By default, we believe life is happening to us, and external experiences – both the good and bad – are the reason for the way we feel.
Our perception is that stress is something happening to us when we’re overloaded, or we become angry when we are not treated right. Yet, these feelings do not come from the outside world. While the stimuli are external, the feelings themselves are self-constructed.
Life – or at least our experience of it – is always necessarily an internal happening. Events themselves are neutral – it is our emotional response, whether fear, guilt, joy, anger or excitement – that gives any color to an event. It is the sensation it creates in our body that defines our wellbeing…or lack of it. And to a remarkable degree, it is entirely in our power to determine our emotional response to external events; situations might trigger feelings that wash over us, but we can learn to master them. The sensations of both pain and pleasure are ultimately self-generated.
However, the illusion that life happens to us and not within us is so pervasive that it takes a number of forms that are worth looking at.
We confuse inner joy with temporary pleasure
Pleasure is the temporary gratifying feeling we get when engaging in external activities that makes us feel good: i.e., the consumption of things like food, drugs, sex and entertainment. While enjoyable in the moment, pleasure obtained from outside sources is ephemeral and is wholly dependent on the experience; the pleasure ends when the experience ends. Pursuing such momentary pleasures can feel like chasing one’s own tail.
Joy, on the other hand, is generated from within. And because we generate it ourselves, it offers the promise of a sustainable, almost limitless well of transformative potential. So the shift from running after pleasure to cultivating joy is a crucial one. That which we seek in the outside world, can ultimately only be found inside ourselves.
We believe inner wellbeing is an end-result of outer success
“When I achieve ______, I’ll feel great inside, I’ll be fulfilled”, we think. We are taught to believe that happiness happens when certain goals are reached: graduation, getting that great job, finding that partner, starting that business, etc… . Consequently, we search for inner wellbeing through external success. Yet, like the consumption of pleasurable things, we find – time after time – that the joy we expect to find in hitting these goals is short-lived.
We focus on incremental improvements, not transformational ones
When we believe wellbeing is a state obtained after ridding ourselves of suffering and unpleasant feelings, we naturally focus on reducing these symptoms.
There is a gigantic market built up around this belief; there is a constant stream of books, classes, workshops and programmes offering the secrets to finding inner peace and joy in a few, simple steps. Experts will expound – often with the support of scientific studies – how journaling, daily affirmations, a focus on positive thinking, mindfulness techniques or and specific exercises will increase your happiness, sometimes by a particular percentage.
While these approaches may provide feel-good moments, they offer at best an incremental unwinding of symptoms only. These exercises, these tools, are also a form of externality. The route to transformation lies in the root of our consciousness: our mind. To be able to manufacture, sustainably, a state of joy and centeredness, we need to rewire the brain and re-engineer ourselves.
I’ll repeat: the route is the root (of our mind). To sustainable be able to tap into a feeling of joy and centeredness, we have to re-engineer ourselves and rewire the brain for joy so it can be expressed as a bodily sensation of inner wellbeing.
Misconception 2: inner wellbeing comes automatically
The other major misconception we have is that inner wellness is just something that happens naturally.
Make no mistake: creating inner wellbeing is a choice. A high-impact choice.
Like physical fitness, wellbeing has to be cultivated. Just as your body requires regular exercise and upkeep to maintain the results (at least after a certain age, I can testify!), inner wellbeing must also be cultivated. I wrote that it is a choice; it is also a commitment. We have to take it seriously and prioritize it in order for it to happen. Re-programming your brain does not happen accidentally.
We have what we seek
The good news is that which we are pursuing so franticly…we already have. We all carry joy, vitality and completeness inside us (yes, even when we feel broken). The inner wellbeing is merely dormant, just waiting to be harnessed, cultivated and maintained.
An illustration: imagine something wonderful beyond your wildest dreams unexpectedly happening to you right this moment. You win the lotto, get the big promotion or meet you dream partner. You can immediately feel the rush of excitement and thrill inside – because these feelings are already inside you and are simply activated by your thoughts.
The only barrier between you and self-generated joy in your everyday life is that we have been deeply conditioned to rely on our external world to release that joy. The truth is, you need only your mind. The trained mind, the cultivated consciousness is not only the greatest path to inner wellbeing…it’s the only path. And when you understand how to harness this innate ability, positivity can be your regular companion, no matter what curveballs life throws you. You become an expression of joy instead of chasing it.
Rewrite your biology
To become what we seek, we have to know our own operating system, and we need to be able to rewrite our own programmes. We need to be able to hack our own biology. This is how we transform.
At the very core, inner wellbeing and the feeling of joy is rooted in our internal biochemistry and neural networks. Regulating our inner state, therefore, is not purely a mental exercise; it must also be reflected physically, in our body.
We all have an individual biochemistry, shaped by our life experiences. If your brain has been wired by a specific environment to sadness, anxiety or disconnectedness, your body chemistry will have adapted to meet those circumstances.
Often, this chemistry – and the corresponding triggers this chemistry creates – will remain, long after the environment has changed. It can take focused attention and hard work to become aware enough to adapt your chemistry to one that creates wellbeing rather than fear or anxiety or other responses laid down in an unhealthy context.
Whenever we have extended periods of feeling a certain way – for example, angry or pessimistic – we become habituated to that state, using external events (unconsciously, of course) to justify remaining in that state. In other words, we become trapped by old circumstances that have already come and gone. While the original circumstances cannot be changed, we can change the emotions around those past conditions. And by changing those…we change our emotional state, and thereby the quality of life. It’s that simple. And that significant
Mind-mastery – the fast-track to transformation
What does it mean to “hack our own biology”? How does one hack one’s brain? Simply by applying science and technology to influence the brain and body in order to optimize our state of inner wellbeing. With conscious effort and practice you can recode your software for centeredness and joy by re-programming your neuropathways.
The process is not complicated, but it requires tenacity and willpower. It is question of developing the right discipline and elevating oneself to this level has a price in terms of attention and work. That is why high-achievers, who already understand the impact (and ROI) of taking the right decisions instead of the easy decisions, are most primed to succeed at creating a state of inner wellbeing.
A fundamentally different quality of life
Is achieving a state of inner wellness work? Absolutely. However, if you’re aware enough that any of this resonates with you, you’re not going to be truly satisfied with anything less. You’re not going to be satisfied with anything less than your authentic self.
Inner wellbeing changes the quality of every single moment of your life, both personally and professionally. On some level, you’re already aware that the only thing stopping you for achieving more, from enjoying more, from being more…is you. Ultimately, the cost of not prioritizing inner wellbeing is significantly higher than the cost of doing it.
Inner wellbeing and social change
Yet fostering inner wellbeing is by no means a defensive strategy. While addressing the personal challenges changemakers face is worthy and important in its own right, increasing research into inner wellbeing illustrates just how much inner work can have outer impact in the wider world.
Before she came to me Helena had been busy trying to better the world, without first bettering herself. She had been exhausting herself, held down by being unable to operate from a place of renewable power. Maintaining a sustained base of inner wellbeing is the key to resilience and withstanding the significant challenges of birthing social change. It is the most powerful place from where creativity is unleashed and we get in touch with our fullest potential to multiply the impact of our vision.
Ironically, by becoming more authentic – not feeling the need to project an image of apparent strength – Helena discovered a strength she was previously unconnected to. With her deepened sense of inner security, she dared more and felt the need to control less, discovering new ways to include a greater number of people and organizations in potential solutions. In short, there is a clear connection between the inner well-being of changemakers and the way social change happens.
When you are able to meet life from a place of inner joy, when it is embedded in everything you do, both the quality and quantity of what you are able to achieve is heightened. Rather than feeling constantly drained, your inner wellbeing energizes, creates deeper relations, and enables you and your vision to grow sustainability. Dropping the need to force opens the way to flourish.
* Not her real name