Nine Evidence-Based Guidelines for a ‘Good Life’

Gary M. Bakker

For over two millennia, people have been offering or imposing lists of “rules for living,” whether they be the Ten Commandments; lists of seven, twelve, or fifty Golden Rules; Essential Rules for Living or for Living “Your Best Life” or for a “Happy and Fulfilled Life”; or, very recently, Jordan Peterson’s best-selling book 12 Rules for Life.

Mostly these lists have been simply made up based on the preoccupations, political positions, or even financial interests of the lists’ authors. Rather than give us some advice or guidelines that the social sciences have shown will get many of us through life more happily, these lists tell us whether the author is politically left-leaning or right-leaning; attitudinally more individualistic (capitalist) or communitarian (socialist); or philosophically fairly cynical about human nature (the “original sin” attitude), neutral on it (“tabula rasa”), or deeply Pollyanna-esque (“noble savage”). Some are quite prescriptive (full of “oughts”) and some more descriptive (about what is). And some are just trying to sell you a book, a course of therapy, or a weekend away at an ashram.

But instead of listing guidelines that merely seem profound (Daniel Dennett has called these “deepities”), that make some intuitive sense to us, or that derive from a bias but are cloaked in confabulated logic, what if instead we drew purely from what works, from what has been found to result in the greatest happiness and survival benefits to both the individual and to society? This would inject some objective criteria for inclusion on the list. This would be both a utilitarian and an empirical approach to what has been to date largely a rule-free rule-listing exercise.

There has been an immense amount of research on what is good for us and what makes us happy—what “works” for people in their lives—and this inevitably incorporates what is good for our community. This is because as highly social animals, most of us derive much of our happiness, and most of our ability to survive and to reproduce, from being embedded in human networks—within society.

Subsequent rules or guidelines will therefore be in the form of ways to lead a happy and long life while being a connected and cooperative member of the community. They will be both self-help maxims and social rules, moral “commandments,” or clauses in our “social contract.”

I am a clinical psychologist. I have spent over forty years helping people become happier, live better, and be healthier in their community. My guide in this endeavor—and my preoccupation for all those years—has been what the evidence shows us works. I have been a pedantic empiricist.

In my 1970s-era training, I was introduced to numerous models of human psychological functioning and the treatments and therapies deriving from each. I could have opted for those approaches that suited my temperament best, made most intuitive sense to me, or happened to be the orientation of my lecturers at the time. Rather than take such an intellectually arrogant or arbitrary course, I decided to be guided by the objective evidence: What actually works in practice in the real world?

I have been interested in two measures: treatment efficacy and treatment effectiveness. Treatment efficacy is indicated by the results of randomized controlled trials (RCTs). They tell us whether, for example, exposure and response prevention can help a person to get on top of their obsessive compulsive disorder better than another treatment will or better than a placebo treatment will. When we know whether a specific treatment has some real efficacy, then we can find out whether it will work in the real world—its effectiveness. A super drug is not effective if everyone stops taking it on day two due to its horrific side effects.

Regarding efficacy, I have conscientiously kept up with the literature reporting RCT results with a lot of therapies. Most of the ones that really work are cognitive-behavior therapies (CBTs). Regarding treatment effectiveness, there is some literature on field trials. But I have also effectively undertaken thousands of single-case, admittedly largely subjective-measurement, A-B type experimental design, clinical trials with thousands of clients. (They are “clients” because the people I see are not “ill.” They are not even “mentally ill” but instead have “clinical psychological problems.” But this issue deserves its own article.)

All this time I have attentively noted who has come back after being prescribed three or four specific “homeworks” (everyone I have seen has had between-session homework to do) reporting that “this helped me,” “that one was too hard,” “that made no sense to me,” “I tried doing that but nothing changed,” “I’ll keep doing that with the kids because it’s working,” and so on.

Condensing all the research and filtering it through decades of clinical trial and error, I have assembled nine helpful, implementable “guidelines for living.” But there are two caveats: (1) All this applies only to people living in the first world. Culture and economic conditions can easily override any of this advice. And (2) I recognize that my forty-year study sample has been biased. I have worked only with a subset of the population that have decided, usually in discussion with their doctor, that their quality of life can benefit from a clinical psychologist’s input. Then again, this may be a reasonable sampling, as I often reassure my more reluctant clientele that, over time, “I have seen half the people in this town.”

I list nine guidelines rather than a neat twelve, traditional ten, or “magic number” seven because assembling them has not been arbitrary, not determined by my whim so as to appeal through the list’s form, as a pretty painting is intended to do. Instead, the list has been discovered through observation—my own and that of the world’s clinical psychologists. It is intended to appeal through its content.

1. Exercise your body and your brain every day.

Psychologists and psychiatrists want to be experts and use complex, exclusive, mysterious treatments for problems that only we can administer. This is part of the reason that if you are very sad for more than two weeks, a psychiatrist will likely tell you that you are mentally ill (they will diagnose it as a major depressive episode) and insist that you need treatment, often a pill.

But this assumption of complexity and desire for expertise has meant that deep, complex psychological theories and treatments were developed more than a century before empirical science confirmed that moderate, daily exercise is good for nearly everyone, not only physically but psychologically as well. It is a natural stress release and a side-effect-free antidepressant with a better success rate than Prozac!

If you don’t already have a clinical psychological problem (CPP), then it can help prevent one from starting. But you may need psychological support to use it if you have a CPP, because feeling down will make going for your daily walk very hard to do.

Brain exercise, meanwhile, works on your brain in exactly the same ways that physical exercise keeps your body healthy. It seems nearly anything can count here. The studies in support of brain work have used activities such as learning a language or learning to play an instrument. More important than what you choose is that you enjoy it. That way you will stick with it.

2. Count your blessings.

Brain circuits that get used get stronger. That’s what learning is. So, exercise your positive circuits. Start each day by deliberately anticipating something positive in the day. It could be anything: a nice lunch, a visitor, a break at work. It doesn’t matter what it is as long as it’s positive. It’s the deliberate mental doing that helps.

Then, later in the day, “count your blessings.” Deliberately acknowledge and appreciate a positive from the day—a success, a pleasure, even the absence of a negative. (I get clients to write them down in a journal.)

Just as you are more likely to continue with a physical exercise routine if it involves other people and if it has variation, you are also more likely to maintain a positive thinking habit if it varies and involves others. A “gratitude board” at work or gratitude letters you send to people—or even write and don’t send—are examples of this.

3. Try to see others’ points of view.

Unless you’re a psychopath—and very few such people would have read this far into this article—then you can derive almost as much joy or pain in others’ experiences as in your own. With all our “mirror neurons,” we could quite well be called “empathizing animals.”

So, once you yourself are comfortable enough in life, you can keep filling your happiness bucket by doing some nice things for others. It is no surprise that when the contentment reports of various groups in society are collected, it is those who spend a part of their week volunteering for charities and such who smile most at the end of the day. Perhaps these people are breaking out of the vicious cycle of self-pitying self-absorption that anxious, ill, or unhappy people are prone to. To focus on someone else regularly will make you feel better—especially if you are doing them some good with it—because you will share their happiness and their point of view.

Being shy or not wanting the fuss of others’ gratitude is no excuse. Be creative. For example, you can quietly pay for the next customer’s coffee at a café. Then walk away picturing how this will impact that person’s view of humanity.

4. People, not things, make you happy.

For most of us, our family and friendships bring happiness much more than riches do. The “happiness graph” levels off, and may even start to dip a little, after we achieve secure housing, health insurance, a fridge (not a second one in the garage), a reliable car (not a fast or luxurious one), and two weeks’ vacation a year (overseas is not necessary).

What you will hear from many of those in entertainment and the media is the assumption that we all want to be rich and famous. This is because that’s what they want from life. By self-selection, that minority of people who want fame and fortune end up on your TV telling you that this is what makes people happy. For most of us, this is a complete lie. Fame screws up most people’s lives much more than it makes them content. This applies even to those who crave it. And “rising above” (the wrong term in this context) middle-middle class has been shown to do little for us. (Unless we feel left behind due to a huge disparity of wealth in society. But another entire article would be needed to usefully touch on this issue.) The deep affection and respect of those close to you is infinitely more rewarding and uplifting than the shallow adoration of thousands.

Because we know that people, not things, make others happy too, if you want to be nice to someone, give them your time, your care, or a listening ear. Don’t just drop a present on their doorstep; write a note in their card, don’t just sign it. Better still, make the card and the present. This applies to your children too. They will remember the walk, the ball-play, or the reassuring review of their upsetting day at school much more than the pretty thing you bought for them on the way home.

5. Work to earn, to live. Don’t live for your work.

It is to society’s advantage—and therefore indirectly to yours—that some of us are highly career-focused. Social discussions often revolve at least in part around work and careers; it’s part of many people’s self-identity. For some people, spending at least half their waking hours at work is a good way to be happy. But for most of us, if we let our relationships wither because working Saturday mornings or extra evening overtime will get us that sports car or the twin bathroom sinks, then we are being fooled into society’s priorities and away from our own.

Affluent societies do rely upon a small percentage of us becoming seventy-hour-a-week workaholics, so that we all can benefit from the highly “successful” (that term needs qualification in this context) entrepreneurs, surgeons, computer whizzes, and plumbers that this obsession produces. But don’t be fooled into believing that if you become one of these people, you will be happy and your life will be a success. My working life has given me privileged knowledge of the many people who have achieved greatly in their career but almost always by sacrificing as greatly in other more important areas of life, such as in their relationships or their health.

You most likely have heard that one of the rarest deathbed regrets is: “I should have spent more time at the office.” So, if you score a very well-paid job, don’t double your hours to become mega-rich. Drop your hours, because you can be quite comfortable while working a shorter week. Use the extra time to get healthy, be a more present parent, build your relationships, or even volunteer where you’re wanted.

6. Keep reminding yourself: It’s not all about me.

Because I am the center of my world, it is easy for me to lapse into assuming that I am the center of the world. This is understandable and perhaps even natural. But it is not true and definitely not helpful. It can make a person socially anxious, self-conscious, and can cause spiraling performance anxiety. At the extreme, it produces paranoia, grandiosity, or narcissism. Every now and then we need to correct this natural assumption and remind ourselves that there are seven billion of us. To nearly all those others, each of us is just another body in their visual field.

7. Just teach your kids how to cope.

Another natural but unhelpful tendency is to try to make our children happy—whatever that means. We want to protect them for as long as possible, to amuse them constantly, to uplift them with praise, and to “do” for them while we can so that they can be safe, pain-free, entertained, and avoid any negative emotion all day long. What could be more natural?

When this has been achieved, it has produced coddled, oversensitive, arrogant, selfish, entitled, low-initiative, low-persistence, low-resilience young adults. Rather than make our children happy, we owe it to them to teach them how to cope well in the world. Then they can make themselves happy. This does not mean concocting and imposing unnecessary challenges upon them. Don’t let them run into the road because a fright will “teach them” quickly to be cautious. This is dangerous and does not show them you care. We should take them to the edge of the road many times, explain safe road behavior, and then let them walk to school.

Be a coping model, not a mastery model. A mastery model says “Oh, the dentist? I don’t mind a bit of pain when it’s necessary. Don’t be a weakling. Off you go now.” A coping model, on the other hand, says “Yes, it’s scary, isn’t it? I try to think about what I’ll be doing when I get home. That helps. I’ll see you back here in ten minutes.”

8. Use your conscious reasoning to slowly make the changes you want. (The two and a half things that determine you and your whole life.)

In psyching up a client to make some changes in their life, I often describe the two and a half things that control everything about them. The first is their genes. A lot about a person’s health, physical capabilities, temperament, and much more is affected by their heredity. There is little we can do about this other than to work with the cards we are dealt.

The other big influence is one’s environment. We are a product of everything that happens to us—even in the womb. This part we can, henceforth, do something about if we use our insight and knowledge and make some resolutions about change.

Therefore, the further half mentioned is our conscious reasoning. This influence on our lives counts only as a half because it is a slow, difficult change factor. We can rarely just decide to be different and make it so. If you want to be a calmer person, a happier person, a more confident person, or even a nonsmoker, then you cannot do this instantly by simply deciding to do it.

But you can achieve this change over time, through your environmental influences. You can decide to put yourself through a program of change. You can consult a psychologist, mix with more people who are good for you, remove some stress from your life, and so on. You can deliberately and consciously alter your environment so that you become a different person over time—just as you can become a musician, get fitter, or become a better public speaker through practice and habit. This is the great advantage we humans have over the rest of the animal kingdom. We can anticipate results and change things now in our lives because they will produce permanent, deeper changes in us in the future.

9. When stressed, process your worries consciously.

When you are over-stressed, depressed, ill, in pain, or just tired, the worry filter you use automatically dozens of times a day breaks down, and you can feel even worse due to the things that you get upset about, which when feeling okay you can dismiss.

This filter sorts out four types of worries: (a) Ones that actually don’t matter enough to waste worry time and energy on, but this doesn’t stop you; (b) ones that are too unlikely to happen to justify your discomfort; (c) ones that you can’t do anything about anyway; and (d) worthwhile worry targets. Our automatic mental flow chart filters that identify these categories leave us either aware we need to “drop it and move on” (this can be easier said than done, and sometimes I will coach better “thought-stopping” to help) or with an injunction to “not just sit there but do something!”

When feeling fine, you may automatically apply this process fifty times a day. (Or at least forty-eight. No one is perfect.) When you’re down, you may run it properly only forty times, and ten times you’re off on a useless negative-thinking track. On those occasions, it helps to follow the helpful thinking trail consciously and deliberately, to reestablish the automatic reaction. Maybe the flow-charted questions need to be posted on your wall or written on a small card, permanently in your pocket. Do what works for you.

Of the hundreds of “homeworks” I have given to thousands of people, this one has received the most glowing praise on follow-up, amid vows to continue occasional conscious, deliberate “Worry Questions” processing forever.

GOOD LIVING.

Gary M. Bakker

Gary M. Bakker is a practicing clinical psychologist and clinical lecturer at the University of Tasmania, Australia, who has published in both clinical (Practical CBT) and skeptical (God: A Psychological Assessment) fields.