These are the questions Wendy Suzuki asked herself when she woke up at 40 and realized something was missing.
What sets Suzuki apart is that she’s an award-winning Professor of Neural Science and Psychology at NYU. She studies how our brains retain long-term memories and how exercise affects our cognitive abilities. And she chronicles how she put that expertise to use in her recently released book Healthy Brain, Healthy Life: A Personal Program to Activate Your Brain and Do Everything Better.
Suzuki had a hunch that her academic success also contained the roots of her unhappiness. She hypothesized that she’d traded good health, friendships, and outside interests to achieve it. With this realization came the conscious decision to apply her award-winning skills to herself. And there’s a lot we can learn from her results.
It All Started with an Exercise Class
To start, Suzuki put health and wellness at the top of her list. She knew she needed to move more. What she didn’t expect was that the exercise she chose, a class called IntenSati, would change the course of her life and career.
IntenSati pairs “positive-life philosophy with a hard-core fitness regime.” Participants shout out specific empowerment phrases as they exercise. Though Suzuki found it strange at first, she also found it fun. And over time, as she saw how her body was changing, she began to see how her mind was, as well.
As a neuroscientist, she couldn’t help but wonder if the combination of exercise and positive affirmations was having an impact on her brain. That’s what led her to become a certified IntenSati instructor.
Soon she was teaching IntenSati in one of her neuroscience classes at NYU, so that she could study its impact on her students’ cognitive skills. The results were incredible and served as a positive feedback loop for her personal and professional goals. That’s when her research focus began to shift. It’s also when her life began to change.
But I’m not a Neuroscientist . . .
When Suzuki saw how her actions were helping her get fitter, were connecting her to more people, and were impacting her teaching and research in positive ways, she extended her experiments to include exercises in creativity and meditation.
It wasn’t long before she began to see the connections between all three of these areas – exercise, creativity, and meditation – and her passion for neuroscience. It also wasn’t long before she began to understand the implications of the results of her wake-up call.
And that’s where we come in. While we may not be neuroscientists, there are definitely lessons for us in Suzuki’s story. Here are the six I believe each of us can apply as we engage in the process of change.
Claim your happiness. Suzuki had a decision to make. She could recognize how unhappy she was and live with it or she could take action to change her life. To take action, she realized she’d first have to give herself permission to be happy. She’d then have to claim that happiness by taking responsibility for herself and by seeing herself as fully capable of gaining the life she wanted to live.
Run experiments. Suzuki realized that her skills in experimental design could be a game changer. Once she made the commitment to change, she decided to set up a series of experiments in her life. The first was exercise. She made a plan and then studied the impact of it. This approach helped her see it as a learning process, one that encouraged her to adapt and adjust along the way.
Expect setbacks. Along the way, Suzuki slipped in her diet and exercise plan. Because she saw these slips as a natural part of the experiment, she didn’t let them trip her up. Instead, she asked herself what was going on. Was she too tired to work out? Was she bored instead of hungry? She recognized that setbacks were an opportunity to learn. When they happened, she sought out more support, not less.
Insert hacks. Suzuki knew all about perfection. It’s what helped her achieve her career goals, but it was also what prevented her from doing anything else. To counteract her tendency to do everything perfectly, she developed workarounds, quick exercises and approaches she could tap into when her schedule got tight or when she needed to change things up.
Draw on your expertise. Suzuki’s passion for neuroscience is her sweet sport. It’s an expertise she has that she drew on as she changed. It helped reinforce and even amplify the changes she was making. It’s something we can do, as well.
Trust yourself. As Suzuki grew more in touch with herself physically, emotionally, and mentally, she gained a deeper understanding of what she enjoyed doing and the kinds of people she enjoyed being around. Over time, she made sure to incorporate more of both into her life. As a result, she became happier and she let go of what no longer served her personally or professionally.
What’s one simple happiness experiment you can run in your life?