Have you ever heard of the three-legged stool analogy? It was introduced in 1949 and was first used to describe how to build a strong retirement foundation. Since then, the concept has been used to create successful strategies in many areas of business, education, and personal growth.
The three-legged stool is often used to demonstrate a strategy for success.
The premise is that the seat of the stool represents a goal. The three legs represent the three key elements that are necessary to achieve that goal. And it just so happens that it is perfectly suited for demonstrating how you can live yourself well.
What does that mean “live yourself well”?
It means achieving happiness in all aspects of your life. It means listening to that voice inside your body, your head, and your heart.
It means connecting with who you are and finding your own definition of happiness and then creating a plan to get you there.
In order to do that, you have to have balance of body, mind, and spirit. Those are your three key elements for success—the three legs of your happiness goal.
The body is an amazing feat of engineering. That it is able to do all that it does is nothing short of miraculous. There is this magical part of the nervous system called the autonomic nervous system which, as the name implies, just works automatically without any conscious thought or command from us.
Despite how we treat it, or how we feel about it, our body just keeps doing its thing.
Our heart beats, our blood flows, our temperature is monitored and regulated, our defense system battles unseen threats, our food is converted and transported, waste is collected and removed, we breathe, we stand upright, we move, we process data—all without a single thought about what we are doing.
In order to function in this manner, the internal environment of our bodies must be kept stable. This is called homeostasis. Some examples of this are body temperature, blood pressure, sugar levels, and pH. Your body is always working in the background monitoring and correcting your internal processes.
This is really important because anything we consciously do has a great effect on the processes that are unconsciously maintained.
Therefore, the choices that we make regarding activity, diet, sleep, and products we use all have a profound effect on how much, how hard, and how efficiently our bodies have to work to maintain the ideal internal environment.
There is a lot of conflicting information out there about what is best for our bodies. Each person is different. And just as we all have our own unique characteristics on the outside, we also have our own unique characteristics on the inside. It is up to you to determine what works best for you—what makes you feel and perform at your best. And because it is up to you, it is a key element for the success of your happiness.
The mind is a collection of cognitive faculties including consciousness, perception, thoughts, judgement, feelings, desires, reasoning, language, and memory. It has three functions—think, feel, and desire. By design, our thoughts are egocentric. They are designed to keep us safe and to drive our decisions toward achieving our desires. But sometimes, the thought process is flawed. Thankfully, we have the ability to override our impulses.
Much of what goes on in our thoughts is subconscious. Sometimes a thought has been embedded by someone else’s experiences and not necessarily from our own. For instance, if a friend tells you a story about being attacked by a dog, your mind might file that information away and then the next time you see a dog, you automatically feel fearful.
And sometimes, the mind confuses one emotion for another. For example, both excitement and fear elicit the same bodily responses—adrenaline rushes, the heartbeat increases, our breathing quickens, our muscles get tense. We don’t stop and consciously think “Am I in danger or am I excited?” The mind automatically makes a decision based on prior experiences. If it is an experience that you have never encountered before, the mind will err on the side of caution and decide “I am in danger!” and act accordingly.
Lucky for us, we have the ability to observe our thoughts, question them, and influence them.
By becoming more aware of our thoughts, we can begin to understand who we are—where our thoughts and feelings came from, how they developed, and whether they still serve us.
We have the ability to debunk old thoughts and beliefs and create new ones. We can shrug off the mantle of what we’ve inherited and create a more authentic internal dialogue that is in alignment with our true selves. And this is why the mind is one of the key elements to our happiness.
Spirit, in this context, refers to the aspect of an organism that is the immaterial essence of its being. Within all of us there is this desire to belong, to be part of something greater than ourselves. This is born from our spirit.
It’s what connects all beings and elevates our thinking and behavior in an effort to become one thing—pure love.
As we grow and age, we begin to seek understanding of our place in the world and the meaning and purpose of life. It leads us to feel a level of restlessness that can only be quelled by asking the big questions, quieting our minds, and listening with our hearts.
Some individuals seek meaning from scripture and prayer. Others find answers through philosophical pundits and texts. Whether you enjoy communing with like-minded individuals in more traditional religions, look towards nature-based practices, or simply believe in the innate goodness of mankind and look within yourself for answers and guidance does not matter. What matters is that whatever your belief, it brings an inner peace and guides you to conduct yourself in manner that is kind and loving and for the highest good of all. Because it is such an important aspect of your well-being and the well-being of others, it is most certainly a key element to your happiness.
How are these three key elements—body, mind, and spirit—connected?
The easiest example begins with the Body. Let’s say you injure your knee. You can’t put much weight on it. As a result you don’t move around much, and you’ve completely stopped exercising. Everything you do requires more time and more effort.
This begins to have an impact on your emotional health and your psyche (the mind). You become irritable and frustrated. This causes you stress and sleeplessness. You have lost your inner peace.
Due to the noise in your head, you become snappish with your family and friends, and they begin to avoid you. The weakened connection to your support network makes you feel alone. You feel unloved and spiral away from your inner spark (your spirit) as well. You are far from achieving your goal of becoming the best you that you can be.
At some point, you must take control. You need a plan. In this case, the three legs of the stool might look something like this:
- Leg 1: Heal your body – see a doctor, do physical therapy, perhaps have surgery
- Leg 2: Heal your mind – do things you love that don’t involve physical activity, listen to music, read, play cards
- Leg 3: Heal your spirit – apologize to friends and family, light candles and take a warm bath, meditate, put lavender under your pillow to help you sleep
By formulating a plan and taking action in all three of your supporting “legs,” you’re back on track to your happiness goal in no time.
So today, take control and make a plan. You know what your goal is, but first, assess your three-legged stool. How is your body? How is your mind? How is your spirit? Is your stool strong? Is it weak? Is it leaning? Is it broken? Only you can answer these questions for yourself. You will have to do all of the work, but your friends, family, and I can give you the support you need. One step at a time; one day at a time. Three legs at a time. Live yourself well!