How Small Steps Can Transform Your Wellbeing

Studies show that small acts of discomfort can push us towards growth and new opportunities

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A painting by Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (Russian, Mariupol 1842–1910 St. Petersburg) courtesy of The Met Collection
A painting by Arkhip Ivanovich Kuindzhi (Russian, Mariupol 1842–1910 St. Petersburg) courtesy of The Met Collection

Studies have long shown that growth often comes from times of pain. But sometimes, life becomes so comfortable that we’re never really forced to change. Those of us in that position should count ourselves lucky, especially after a year like the last when so many have suffered so much, physically, emotionally, and financially. Still, we should all be wary of relaxing too much into life and daily routines.

There are ways to nudge ourselves towards growth-inducing suffering without pushing ourselves over the edge and into real adversity. If you’re hoping to shift yourself into that sweet spot, where you feel just enough discomfort to inspire growth and new ways of thinking, consider a few of these techniques.

Practice something you’re not good at

At some point in our lives, all of us have been asked to practice something we were either not very good at or actively disliked, whether it was playing volleyball during P.E., drawing a portrait in art class, or being asked to study ballet, piano, or any other activity our parents thought would be good for us when we were young. And while we may have been told at the time that practice makes perfect, the truth is that it rarely does. Studies have shown that regular and repeated practice with a musical instrument, for example, may only increase our ability to perform by, at most, 21%. Practicing sports improves by even less. 

But for the purposes of growth, perfecting a new skill isn’t the goal. The goal is to take on a particularly tough mental challenge. Doing so has been shown to spark a level of activity in our brains that routine and less challenging tasks do not. And the longer you stick with it, the bigger the changes to the brain and the better the effect. In fact, the study shows that brain patterns in older adults who tackle a tough challenge mirror the same brain patterns as another group of people who are known to be in a constant state of growth — young adults!

Try something brand new

Starting an entirely new activity or project can bring the same benefits that tackling something challenging can bring, but it can also go a step beyond. Trying something new or putting yourself in an unfamiliar situation triggers a region of the brain that can only be activated by novelty. Studies have shown that encountering something new releases dopamine, that chemical messenger that can leave us feeling happy, more motivated and can even act as a reward to encourage us to continue certain behaviors. 

Unlike the idea of tackling an activity over the long haul, these studies suggest quick hits of something new to bring on the joy — it could be worth trying something as simple and easy as walking down a new street in your neighborhood or listening to a new type of music or foreign song. Put to the right use, these small efforts can become a powerful force for growth and change.

Plan to fail

Finally, you may want to try embracing more failure in life. A study out of Kellogg School of Management suggests that past failures may predict future success. The researchers looked at all the scientists who had applied — successfully and unsuccessfully — for grants from the National Institutes of Health between 1999 and 2005. Then they looked at how many of those scientists went on to publish a “hit” paper, meaning papers that were frequently cited in other works. In the end, the researchers that ended up with hit papers were more likely to have had their applications rejected by the NIH earlier in their careers.

This evidence is not enough to justify the idea that failure can breed growth and potential success, but it certainly reinforces the idea that trying something hard and sticking with it, no matter the result, may end up being just the right amount of discomfort to lead us to new growth and opportunities for change.

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