Many who have watched me on “MasterChef” or listened to me speak or follow me on social media often wonder what’s my secret to life. Unfortunately, like any other human being (except for maybe the Dalai Lama), I have no key to life. I don’t know what the hell is going on half the time, and the other half, I spend wondering how I’m going to make it through the hour, day, week, or year.
In spite of never having 100% control over my life (which, if you are reading this and have been affected by Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO in some way, chances are you know exactly what I mean), I’ve been doing my best to control what I can. That is, I’ve been on a steady (albeit slow) path towards healthier living for almost two years now, and here are twelve tips I’ve picked up along the way. I must insert a caveat first: I am not going to pretend I have it all together and follow all twelve rules 100% of the time. But I do try to follow them to the best of my ability given the particular circumstance at any given moment. I’m no sage when it comes to enlightenment—even though we know what we should do, we often don’t do it—but these are twelve things I’ve been giving more thought to ever since: (1) being healthy got trendy, (2) I realized I wasn’t getting any younger, and (3) I became more proactive at keeping my Neuromyelitis Optica/NMO in remission.
12 Tips for a Healthier, Happier Life
1. Drink more water. Cook at home. But enjoy the process of drinking and eating.
Water has no sugar and zero calories. It helps make you feel full just a tad bit more so you eat a tad bit less. It hydrates your skin, which is key to looking youthful.
Cooking your own meals allows you to be more aware of how the food got on your plate and what you’re putting in your body. Sure, sometimes the food you make doesn’t taste nearly as good as that ravioli in browned butter sage sauce from your favorite Italian eatery, but the reason why is because restaurant kitchens put a ton of butter and salt in their dishes. If you want more control over the stuff you put in your mouth, cook your own food. It also gives you a newfound, much needed appreciation for animal and plant life. No, that pork chop and green beans you’re eating didn’t come from a styrofoam tray and plastic bag.
My philosophy in life, however, is everything in moderation. This means you should totally enjoy that buttery chocolate-filled croissant with your morning latte—or a big ol’ bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch if that’s more your thing—and not feel guilty about it. If you want a meat lover’s pizza delivered to your house, do it. If you have a hankering for a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, get it. Everything in moderation, and don’t forget to do #8 while indulging yourself.
2. Get enough sleep.
Sleep is the time when our body replenishes itself. The brain purges daily stresses and the cells regenerate. We humans function best when we get seven to eight hours of sleep a night.
I used to pull all-nighters in college during final exams and, afterwards, in celebration of finishing the semester. But now I value sleep much more than deadlines and drinks. This is not to say I throw schedules to the wind—I’ve just learned to prioritize: checking off tasks and getting a good night’s sleep are more important than a Netflix binge (that’s what the flu and Rituxan are for).
3. Make time for friends.
In the year following MasterChef, because I was traveling a lot for publicity, writing my cookbook, and finishing my graduate degree, I rarely saw my friends. It took a toll on me emotionally and mentally, and I didn’t realize until the year passed that I was incredibly unhappy. Most of the world treated me a certain way based on what they’d seen on TV, and I missed those around me who knew me before my MasterChef fame and still treated me like the same ol’ Christine that I am.
Now I make it a priority to visit with friends over lunch, dinner, drinks, or just a date at the mall or park. The time you spend with your friends doesn’t even have to be all-consuming. I like to multi-task and have a friend take me to run errands, help me cook, or organize my desk; that way, I’m productive and still spending time with my friend. Being busy is no longer an excuse to let friendships fall by the wayside.
4. Stay physically active: get some form of exercise regularly.
I admit it: I don’t particularly enjoy working out. I hate running or pretty much anything that makes me sweat profusely and gasp for air. But I know keeping my body moving is good for me, so I forced myself to make exercise a habit. The first step is always the hardest, and once I made yoga and high-intensity interval training (HIIT) part of my routine, it became much easier.
It helps to find an exercise or sport you actually like and do it with a partner. The chances of you continuing with a regimen for the long term is directly correlated to your enjoyment of it. I know I don’t enjoy running, so I’m not going to set myself up for failure by telling myself I’m going to run twice a week. I’ve always liked yoga, so I budgeted for a membership to a nearby yoga studio.
Working out with a partner or team boosts motivation. I don’t especially love HIIT, but I find myself working out harder and hating it less when I exercise with John. I’m competitive (in case you didn’t know), and working out with someone else makes me strive harder instead of lamenting about how miserable I am. Misery really does love company.
5. Do something to make yourself look good on the outside—it will make you feel good on the inside.
It could be a new haircut, learning a new makeup technique, buying a new dress that flatters your figure, whitening your teeth, getting a spray tan, painting your nails, grooming your eyebrows, donning a pair of killer heels. It doesn’t have to be eating right and working out, but those definitely help. The change could be either big or small, so long as you like it and it makes you feel good. Looking good boosts your confidence, and confidence goes a long way. Confidence is sexy. Confidence leads to believing in yourself, which influences other people’s perceptions of you and increases your chances of success. Trust me. Haven’t you seen my apple pie moment?
6. Be in the moment.
In other words, be mindful. Yes, it’s been sort of a cliché as of late–everyone’s telling us to be mindful, be aware, meditate–but there’s no denying all the research extolling these acts, so here me out.
I just finished reading Presentation Zen by Garr Reynolds as part of the preparation for my upcoming TEDx talk, and in it is a reference to the Zen belief that we shouldn’t dwell in the past nor worry about the future because neither exists–only the present exists. While it’s still next to impossible for me to carve out time for the sort of daily meditation that would have me close my eyes, think about waterfalls, focus on my breathing, and being aware of how my muscles and hairs feel, I am now of the mindset that meditation can happen all the time. It’s in the yoga I do when I make a conscious effort to breathe deeply. It’s in the silence as I take my first few bites of an extraordinary omakase. It’s in the repetitive motion of my hands when I slice onion. It’s in the relaxation I feel in a massage or shower.
Whether you’re exercising, talking to your family, reading a book, driving, skydiving, or tasting a new food for the first time, be in the moment. Start by simply being mindful of exactly where you are, what you’re doing, how you feel at that precise moment in time.
And please, by all means, if you are having a conversation with someone, do NOT check your phone every time it chimes with a text message or Facebook notification. That’s the first step to being in the moment.
Purge, purge, purge! My mom used to say to me, “A cluttered desk or room is a cluttered mind.” While John argues against a tidy desk, I’m happier and more energized when my environment is clean and neat.
I’m in the process of spring cleaning now, and because it can be a daunting chore, I’ve decided to break it down into smaller, much more manageable tasks. Two weeks ago, I cleaned out my wall of shoes, packing away pairs I haven’t worn in years into boxes destined for donation. This past weekend, I did the same with my clothes. This morning, I decluttered a single corner of our bedroom.
At this rate, spring cleaning 2015 may turn into spring cleaning 2016, but in small doses, it’s less intimidating. Decluttering and being organized are especially important if you’re visually impaired. A blind person’s worst nightmare is a desk with a gazillion papers strewn about or a kitchen counter with knives and spices everywhere.
A good rule of thumb when trying to decide if you should keep something or not is to ask yourself, does this item give me pleasure? Be ruthless with your purging. Sentimental things aside, if you haven’t touched or used or worn something in two years, most likely, you won’t miss it.
8. Express gratitude freely and frequently.
I’m grateful that the expression of gratitude has always come easily for me. (See what I did there?) When I was laid up in the hospital from my worst NMO attack ever, when I was paralyzed from the neck down, I wasn’t angry. Instead, I was so thankful for the nurses that changed my sheets, cleaned my bedpan, bathed me, and combed my hair. Even when I was in pain, as soon as the nurse pushed morphine into my vein, the first thing I said when the warm blanket washed over me was, “Thank you for helping me feel better.” Well, maybe not as coherent as that, but it was definitely some form of verbal gratitude. I think I might’ve told the nurse she was the most wonderful person in the world.
Life is not about entitlement. Yes, working hard may reap rewards, but it’s not a guarantee. Bad things still happen to good people. I’ve suffered through some serious stuff like death of a parent at a young age, diagnosis of a chronic disease, and vision loss, but instead of becoming enraged or bitter, all of it has made me more grateful for the little things and for the people in my life.
Gratitude leads to a happier, longer life, so find at least one thing you can be grateful for every day. Gratitude is contagious, and our world could use a little more happiness nowadays, wouldn’t you say?
9. Travel more.
The biggest regret I have about college is not studying abroad. One of the first trips I took without my family was spring break of my junior year. Four friends and I went to New York City, and that was when I was bitten by the travel bug.
America is an awesome country. We have virtually every cuisine from around the world available within our nation. There are lots of things to see and do. San Francisco is different from New York is different from Denver. This is precisely why so many Americans choose not to travel outside the U.S.–Even some their own state–but it’s important to experience a culture other than our own. Traveling to another country pulls you out of your comfort zone, requires you to think differently, which consequently boosts your creativity–read this piece in The Atlantic.
I personally love traveling abroad because it’s a constant reminder that I’m just one little speck in this greater cosmos. It keeps me from being ethnocentric and egocentric. It teaches me compassion and the universality of humankind. It helps me see from others’ perspectives and forces me to understand, accept, and respect cultural differences.
But, like I said, the first step is always the hardest, so it’s okay to start small. Drive a couple of hours to a neighboring town. Take a longer road trip with a friend (remember #3?) down Route 66. Go up to Canada where they still speak English. Then maybe try Mexico or South America. My hope is that you, too, will get bitten by the travel bug and find yourself loving Tokyo, Turkey, or Tuscany.
One thing remains constant though: wherever you go, do as the locals do. Observe, ask (in their language as best as you can), and eat what they eat.
10. Stay mentally active. Keep learning. Try new things.
This kind of piggybacks on #9. It means you should still get out of your comfort zone and push yourself to try new things. As a writer, I’m all about experience. How else am I going to gather material for my next greatest American novel? In fact, one of the main reasons I tried out for MasterChef in the first place was not because I thought I would win or really wanted the title—it was because I figured I’d come back with some good experiences to write about. I figured I’d learn a thing or two about cooking. (Oh boy, did I learn so much more than that.)
Keep your mind fresh and active with puzzles, rowing, flower arranging, beekeeping, gardening, woodworking, speaking Mandarin, Krav Maga, cooking classes, etc. You’ll stay sharp and grow immensely. Learning is fulfilling.
Four years ago, I learned Braille. Two years ago, I earned a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. Last year, I learned rock climbing. And constantly, I’m learning new ingredients, cooking techniques, and recipes.
I never want to stop learning. In the words of the late, great Steve Jobs, “Stay hungry. Stay foolish.”
11. Say no, and don’t apologize.
I’d written an entry before about how it’s okay to say no sometimes. It’s still a learning process, but I get better at it over time. As a natural introvert, I need my own time to decompress. I need time to myself. This is how I recharge and remain happy and energized. This is how I best perform.
Even if you’re an extrovert, you shouldn’t feel obligated to say yes to everything. Something I now ask myself to gauge whether or not I should take on a project is, Will I be happy doing this?
It sounds oversimplified, but most of the time, it really does help me decide yes or no. The last thing I want to do is sabotage a project or a relationship by saying yes when I really meant no, and then being miserable from start to finish. Everyone tells me it’s so easy to tell what I’m feeling by the expression on my face, so I know I can’t hide my negative emotions. Better to be genuine and honest by saying no than saying yes and infecting everyone with my negativity.
12. Don’t beat yourself up if you break a rule or two…or all twelve.
And last but not least, if you can’t heed a single tip, don’t beat yourself up about it. I am a perfectionist, and so when things don’t go as planned, it’s hard for me not to obsess or feel guilty about it. It’s become a running joke with a few of my friends now: whenever I’m disappointed as a result of some decision I’d made, we shake our fists, look up to the sky, and shout with hyperbolic angst, “I live in regret!”
It’s still something I’m working on, but I’ve made progress over the years. Now I lament for a shorter amount of time. I still grieve my purportedly poor decisions, but soon thereafter, I say to myself, “What’s done is done” or “It is what it is,” meaning I can’t change the past so no use worrying about it.
So there they are,: twelve tips that have improved my life to some degree. Pick some out and try to incorporate them into your life. Or just try one. Or none at all if you’re not ready for it. I’m a firm believer that when it comes to positive change, you’ll be ready when you’re ready.