The purpose of this blog is to pursue happiness together. My aim is to share my thoughts, thoughts which i have accumulated through the experience of highs and lows in my own life, and thoughts from famous philosophers, thinkers, and humanity at large. My hope is that we can begin a dialogue, and that through discussion of what happiness is, and how we find it, that we can learn to be happy together and to help make the world a better place.

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Hello all! Thanks for reading my blog. I began this page as a passion project and creative outlet because I believe that happiness is the ultimate goal. My hope is that people will read this and through my words develop a better understanding of what happiness is, and how it can be created - making a better world for all.

Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Suffering: Inevitable but not Crippling



I am currently reading The Book of Joy which is coauthored by the Dalai Lama, Bishop Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams, an American author and editor. I have found this book incredibly insightful and wanted to write about what I have learned from reading conversations and ideas from two of the worlds premier thought leaders. I had intended to write this post after completing the book but I am currently only about 1/3 finished and have already come up with a tremendous amount of thoughts I wanted to share. If I waited until I finished the entire book it might be entirely too long to fit into a single blog post. That, plus the fact that I am struggling with other ideas and I thought that turning back to this book would provide a wealth of content to spark meaningful discussion. So here we go.

Through this point in the book, I have made the following conclusions and observations: suffering is inevitable but how we react or respond to that suffering will determine our happiness; suffering comes from selfishness or unrealistic expectations; and that happiness is found through deep, meaningful connections with and concern or empathy for others.


I want to start with the first point, that suffering is a part of life. The first of the four noble truths of Buddhism states this very fact. This may sound grim but when we consider it more closely, we realize it may not be as gloomy as it seems. Firstly, the recognition that suffering is part of life should make it less concerning when we face it. As the stoics say, that which is out of our control should not be a worry for us, and that which is within our control is something we have the power to fix. On the note of what we can fix, both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop agree that most suffering is created in our own minds. The Dalai Lama recalled the teachings of the Buddha, saying “He taught that when you experience some tragic situation, think about it. If there’s no way to overcome the tragedy, then there is no use worrying too much,” which echoes Seneca the Stoic, who several hundred years later and several thousand miles away said “we suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

On the notion that suffering is an inevitability of life, both the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Tutu believe that the very existence of suffering enhances true happiness and depth of our relationships. Remember the Danish concept of hygge, where comfort cannot exist without discomfort. Without suffering, the highest form of happiness, what in this book is called “eudemonic happiness”, cannot exist. The primary author of the book, Douglas Abrams says this of eudemonic happiness “[it]is characterized by self-understanding, meaning, growth, and acceptance, including life’s inevitable suffering, sadness, and grief.” Without the bad, the truest and best form of happiness isn’t possible. Desmond Tutu said that “It is the hard times, the painful times, the sadness and the grief that knit us more closely together.”

Certain parts of suffering are inevitable, we can’t do anything about them. But if we use them and contemplate them correctly, we can use them to deepen our happiness and connection with others. As for the other forms of suffering, the self-imposed, we have the ability to change our thoughts that create such suffering.  The Dalai Lama says: “Stress and anxiety often come from too much expectation and too much ambition, then when we don’t fulfill that expectation or achieve that ambition, we experience frustration.” I am sure without thinking too hard that we can all think of a situation or fifty where we have caused ourselves extreme anxiety or frustration out of our expectations. I can think of a few examples: having a job interview for a position you think you’re perfect for. You have the interview, you think it went great, you start to fantasize about how great your life will be once you get the job and then the email comes. It begins: “Dear Matt, thank you for your application, unfortunately…” Who hasn’t been there? I know in my case such a rejection could and often did send me into a depression where I would feel worthless, like a disappointment and a failure, and I would become hopeless. This was all because I had too much expectations, I told myself I couldn’t be happy now but that if I got that job, then I could be happy. Then I get rejected and my happiness was gone, because I had tied it into my expectations. 


Another example, just this past week. I have worked hard in my training, I am going to kick this competitions ass and win the strongman meet, I have worked harder and am better than everyone. I’m not happy now but when I win, which I will, then I can be happy. What happened? I didn’t win. Disappointment, sorrow. I ultimately recognized the silver lining and put things in perspective, but there was a moment where I was down because I had expected to win and convinced myself that if I won, then I could be happy. Not being able to meet our expectations makes us unhappy. This is a type of suffering that we can avoid by changing our expectations.

Much of what we have come to expect out of life, that ends up causing us pain, is the world we live on. There is too much focus on sensual gratification, hedonic pleasure, over compassion, understanding, and compassion, in other words: eudemonic happiness. “The problem is that our world and our education remain focused exclusively on external, materialistic values. We are not concerned enough with our inner values. Those who grow up with this kind of education live a materialistic life and eventually the whole society becomes materialistic,” says the Dalai Lama. The primary message that consumer culture sends us is that our self-worth comes from our job title and our salary, that happiness is about earning money and acquiring happiness through things that can be bought and sold. Instead, we need to focus on building relationships, on compassion, and connection with humanity.

By shifting our focus away from ourselves, and from hedonic pleasure, or the expectations of society, and instead focusing on others, we can find happiness. The Dalai Lama says in the book that “too much self-centered thinking is the source of suffering. A compassionate concern for others’ well-being is the source of happiness.” Recall from my previous post on Brene Brown and the Dalai Lama, that in order to build relationships with others, we must be courageous, vulnerable, and develop trust with one another. Human beings developed as interdependent, social creatures. Individually we are weak, but together we are strong. And in order to be strong together we need to trust one-another, and we need to be concerned and compassionate towards one another.  The Dalai Lama says: “genuine friendship is entirely based on trust, if you really feel a sense of concern for the well-being of others, then trust will come. That’s the basis of friendship. We are social animals. We need friends. I think, from the time of our birth till our death, friends are very important.” Interestingly enough, the happiest people seem to be those who are less self-centered. The highest form of happiness, by many accounts, appears to be compassion and acts of kindness for others.

I recall The Alchemist, by Paulo Coehlo, discussing the soul of the world. The soul of the world is the sum total of all of us encompassed into one entity. That soul is enriched through the happiness of each and every one of us. So in order to reach the highest form of happiness, it depends on each and every one of us. So long as others suffer, we are falling short. To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, everyone wants to be happy, and our happiness depends on the happiness of humanity as a whole, so in order to attain happiness, we need to be concerned about each and every living being of the world.

I look forward to future posts summarizing the remainder of The Book of Joy, I can’t wait to read over it again and share these thoughts here. It is a great book and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Sports as a Teacher of Life's Lessons



The team. One of my favorite parts of sports has always been the sense of camaraderie


Many of life’s most valuable lessons are learned through sports. We are taught social skills like teamwork, and sportsmanship; we learn the value of hard work, dedication, and patience; we learn how to win with grace and lose with dignity; we come to understand the feeling of heartbreaking disappointment, and joyous triumph; we make bonds and memories that last a life time with people whose names we may come to forget, but whose presence will never be gone. 

This weekend was a rollercoaster of emotion and feeling. I had the privilege in participating in a Strongman competition with several of my good friends. For those of you who don’t know, Strongman is a competition where the main objective is to either lift the heaviest weight possible, lift a heavy weight as many times as possible, or to move a heavy object from point A to point B as quickly as possible. It is absolutely grueling, and I love it, the feeling of accomplishment I get when I can lift something I previously thought impossible brings me great joy. We trained for several months for this event and last Saturday was the culmination. I have mentioned several times now that exercise is something that enriches my life, and brings me a sense of happiness, as I know it does for many others. I want to talk today about my thoughts, feelings, and emotions from this past weekend. 

When we talk about exercise, we so often think of it in terms of vanity, with only surface level appreciation. We fail to remember or appreciate the beauty of moving, enjoying the gift of being alive and having a healthy functioning body in which to enjoy the world. We often lose sight of this blessing, thus taking it for granted without stopping often enough to be grateful for our health. This reminder was sadly driven home on Saturday, as a fellow competitor, a man named Shannon Willits passed away after collapsing during one of the events. I don’t know the official cause of death but he seemed to suffer a heart-attack. Why exactly he passed isn’t important, the important part is that a man lost his life on what was supposed to be a day of fellowship and friendly competition amongst family and friends. I did not know Shannon, but I knew of him, having seen him at several previous meets. He was a mountain of a man, and a hell of a competitor. More importantly, he seemed to always be smiling and based on the outpouring of love and kindness I have seen following his passing, I can clearly see that he was kind and loved by many. I hope that there is some comfort in the fact that he died doing something he loved, but there is no doubt that he was taken too soon and that the world is made darker by his sudden absence though brighter for having had him on this earth to begin with. I like to think that he died doing what he loved and that he would have wanted to competition to continue, which is exactly what we did. The event organizer called us together for a moment of silence and prayer. It was a moment where everyone, regardless of faith, background etc. came together in a moment of solidarity as a group of loving humans, where we joined in thought and energy to feel compassion for one of our fellows. We wouldn’t know until later that he had passed. Everything about this post and what happened at the contest pales in comparison to the lesson we all learned to remember to be grateful for the blessing of life, and to tell those close to us how much they mean, we never know which moment is our last. 

I knew I would write about this event no matter how it went. I thought I could discuss the role that exercise and sport play in many of our lives. I had two scripts written in my head: script 1, where I write about how great and happy I felt to recognize all of my hard work come to fruition, where I talked about the joy of victory not over one’s opponents but over one’s self; and script 2, where I write about a disappointing performance wherein I would have to remind myself that victory isn’t everything, and that one has to perseverance and choose to remain joyful and optimistic, even in the face of disappointment. To be completely honest, I was full of confidence and had no real expectation that I would need to write my concession speech, as it were, never doubting for a second that things might not go the way I planned. 

At some point during this event 
I felt my arm give out for good

It turns out, I am not writing either script, though it unfortunately more closely resembles script number 2. I did not win. But neither am I disappointed. I worked my ass off with my training in the gym and did everything right with my recovery and nutrition for weeks on end. On the day of the performance I met or exceeded my own expectations on 3 of the 5 events, ultimately just missing out on a top 3 finish and a trip to nationals by only 1 spot, with a 4th place finish. But I am not upset. I got beat fair and square by 3 athletes, one of whom was a friend and training partner, all of whom went in there and performed amazingly, earning their spots on the podium. 

I’ll admit, I wanted to win, badly. But deep down, despite my confidence, I had told myself that should I not finish as well as I wanted, I would do so graciously, and I would accept my finish so long as I went out and performed my best which is exactly what I did. Furthermore, I knew I was pushing through an immense amount of discomfort throughout, but not until 2 days after the contest did I realize I was competing with a torn biceps muscle, limiting my arm to only 50% strength. I say this not as an excuse for where I finished but more of out of pride in myself, if I may be so bold to say so, that I was able to finish the event and to compete at a respectable level despite the injury. This is one of the things that I have always enjoyed about sports, pushing oneself further than we previously believed ourselves capable of. I have not felt that sense of pride in competition within myself for quite some time. 


The world often works in mysterious ways, and while I can’t make any sense of Shannon’s passing and probably never will, I do believe that finishing the contest the way I did may have been the best thing for me. I think at this particular point in my life that not getting what I wanted was something I needed to experience. There were more important lessons I needed to learn that meant more than the joy of winning. I needed to be reminded that sometime, even when you do everything in your power, things still don’t go your way, and that that is totally fine. It’s just the way of things, we don’t always get we want and we don’t even always get what we deserve, but life goes on. It was important that I be reminded to be happy in the here and now, and not delay satisfaction or gratification for some abstract future which may never be realized. I needed to be reminded to take a moment to be grateful for the things I have in my life and be shown that there is more to life than winning trophies and glory, that quality time and simple joys with our loved ones mean more. I was reminded of all this on Saturday and I am grateful and happy for it. 

I also needed to be reminded that in many cases, it isn’t the destination that matters, but the journey. We don’t always know where or what the destination will entail, what it will look like, or even if we will actually get there. If we don’t enjoy the journey, the parts we are so often wanting to fast forward so that we can get to the happy ending, we may miss the whole thing. I didn’t get the result I wanted after the weekend but as I sit here and write this I realize that I am happy. I am proud of myself for my discipline and hard work. I am thankful for the opportunity to share a good time with friends and to make new friends in the process. I am impressed by my ability to persevere. Lastly, I am grateful, because I was reminded that there are more important things than recognizing our ambition or achieving our goals. 




 



Monday, March 29, 2021

Thomas Jefferson and Happiness


Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson was one the brightest and most prominent of the founding fathers of the United States. He wrote the declaration of independence, identifying that all humans have certain unalienable rights in life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. He served as a diplomat to France, one of the most important diplomatic seats, vice-president and eventually 3rd President of the United States. He was a staunch protector of individual liberties and freedoms. I believe that he would be deeply concerned to see what that small country he helped found in the 1770’s, that nation which was intended to be the shining light and example of all that is good in a free and just democracy, has become. He was wary of the power of big banks, concerned at the possibility for harm should a government accumulate too much power over it’s people.

Without going too much into politics, it ought to suffice it to say that Thomas Jefferson was a champion of individual freedoms and rights, an accomplished individual, and someone whose general example of success and happiness we can emulate as we pursue happiness on our own terms. Luckily for us, Thomas Jefferson was kind enough to write out his 10 rules for living, the path of which we may consider in our own lives. Of course, happiness means something different to all of us, which means that along with our different circumstances, our pursuit of happiness will take on it’s own unique form. However, we are blessed with the luxury of others who have found happiness and success and given the opportunity to learning from their example.

Thomas Jefferson’s 10 rules for life:

1.      1. Never put off till tomorrow what you can do today. This may be the antidote to all procrastination right here. I have thought about this many a time as I contemplate the consequences for putting off what is often a very menial and simple task. Why wait to tomorrow to clean my room when I have time right now. How much less anxiety do you think you would feel if instead of letting small things accumulate into a major obstacle, we dealt with them now. Often, we realize that the chore was simple to resolve and we find ourselves greatly relieved at having finished it. Don’t delay, act today.

2.      2.  Never trouble another for what you can do yourself. This is a major lesson in responsibility and in self-sufficiency. Ever seen someone throw a piece of trash on the ground even though a trash can is only 10 feet away. Either they just don’t care about the environment or they believe someone else will likely pick it up. Maybe you can be the person to pick it up, or better yet, maybe that person will realize that they can do it themselves and it will be very little trouble. If everyone takes on a certain responsibility for their community, their fellow humans, and the entire planet, what a better world we would have.

3.       3. Never spend money before you have it. This would have been helpful advice in my mid-twenties when I was racking up tens of thousands of dollars in consumer debt. Money problems are among the most common stressor in the world and much of it is about debt. We buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have and end up having to work stressful jobs for the duration of our lives while we try to pay back what we borrowed. This makes sense coming from Thomas Jefferson, a man notoriously skeptical of banking institutions. I know a lot of us would be happier if we heeded this advice.

4.       4. Never buy what you don’t want because it is cheap. How many of us have been sparked into an impulse purchase simply because it was listed at discount. Retailers are notorious for marking things as 50% off for example, while not actually changing the price. They know that the mere suggestion that it is a bargain will entice more buyers. We need to be able to restrain ourselves against these impulses and exhibit some self-control, this will allow for more clarity and level-headed decision making.

5.       5. Pride costs us more than hunger, hurt, and cold. True. I bet we can all think of multiple examples in our life where we let pride get in the way of good, rational decision making. Learn to swallow your pride and stop comparing yourself to others, or concerning yourself with their opinions.

6.       6. We never repent of having eaten too little. Moderation in everything.

7.       7. Nothing is troublesome that we do willingly. If it bothers you, why do it. Life is too short to be miserable and unhappy. If you troubled by what you do than why do it?

8.       8. How much pain have cost us the evils that never happened. This reminds me of a stoic quote that reminds us that the evil we perceive is often much worse than the evil that occurs. How much suffering have we caused in anxiety and fear of something that might happen, and then it never comes to fruition. Or if it does happen we realize that our fears were greatly exaggerated. Learn to control your anxieties and realize we suffer more in our mind than in reality. Things are rarely as bad as they seem.

9.       9. Always take things by their smooth handle. Ok, honestly not sure what this means. Perhaps it is a bygone expression from the 1700s that isn’t translate or maybe I am just a dunce. What I THINK it means is that there is a good way and a bad way to do things. The easy way is to grab things by their handle, don’t make things harder than they have to be?

10.   10. When angry, count ten before you speak; if very angry, a hundred. How often have we flown off the handle with anger and made a situation much worse. Have you ever hurt somebodies feelings by saying something mean in the heat of the moment, or acted in a way that caused you regret later. Emotions heat up and tempers flare. We need to recognize when our emotions get the best of us, and take the time to collect our thoughts and respond calmly and rationally.

Much like Arnold Schwarzenegger’s 6 rules of success I posted a few weeks ago, Thomas Jefferson’s list is not guaranteed to help you find success or happiness. It did work for him and it MAY work for you. You have to decide what happiness means to you and what you want out of life and find your own way. That being said, we are in a special position to use the lives of others as our inspiration if not our roadmaps in pursuit of happiness.

 

Friday, March 26, 2021

Posture and Happiness


 

How many of us resemble this throughout most of our day?

Today I want to talk about posture and happiness. It is no stretch to say that the way we carry or hold ourselves has a profound impact on our mental, physical, emotional, and social health This was a subject I have encountered several times both as a research assistant at the Biodynamics and Human Performance Center at my University, as well as during a workplace wellness seminar a colleague/friend and I gave at a local office and I wanted to share it here with you all today. I want you to stop and think about how you are reading this right now. My guess is that you are slouched down in a chair with your neck and head rolled forward and pointing down, so you can read your laptop, cellphone or whatever device you happen to be reading with at this exact moment. Am I right? Its ok, I am in the exact same position too as I write this, and I ought to know better. 

From a matter of physical health everything about sitting the way I just described, which is close to how most of us spend nearly every waking hour, is wrong. The human body did not evolve for a sedentary lifestyle. It evolved to function most properly standing erect with the shoulders pulled back, chin and head held high, hips neutral, and spine erect. Yet very few of us actually spend time in this position. Modern life has the average individual spending 8-10 hours per day sitting at a desk, followed by let’s say another 30 minutes in the car or on the bus both to and from work, so that’s an hour; then we get home to watch between 1-3 hours of television in precisely the same position. That’s nearly 15 hours a day spent in poor posture. It has gotten to the point where simply existing in proper neutral posture position has become painful for many, because the very act of stretching ourselves into such a foreign position has become challenging due to the changes in posture associated with our chronic bad posture. 

Common poor posture (left) vs correct/neutral posture (right)

This plays an extremely negative role in our health, and as such our overall wellbeing and happiness (you knew I’d bring it around to happiness at some point). Low back pain is a common ailment associated with chronically bad posture and is the leading cause of missed work in the United States according to the CDC. Low back pain isn’t the only issue, migraines have been reported amongst 10-20% of the entire adult population and, while not always, are often caused by chronic back and shoulder tightness. Anyone who has had a migraine, or a chronic low back pain can tell you that it is pretty damned hard to be happy and cheerful when dealing with that sort of pain. 

The truth is that modern lifestyles are not in accordance with the way our bodies were created in nature and as such there are consequences. The average individual simply does not move enough, and we spend too much time in poor, unhealthy positions that negatively affect our physical and mental health. 

It isn’t just at the physical level that posture can have a negative impact, it happens at the social and emotional level as well. When I first started learning about posture and wellness years ago, I came across a Ted Talk and the associated research of Harvard Social Psychologist, Dr. Amy Cuddy (that’s 2 Harvard Social Psychologists now in the past 7 days, Cuddy and Dan Gilbert). Dr. Cuddy’s research was groundbreaking because they demonstrated interesting findings about posture and how it affects our self-perception, self-esteem, and how others perceive us as well (read the original here) Dr. Cuddy noted that there are certain postures that seem to be universally associated with pride, winning, success, power, dominance and control. Cuddy called these positions, high power positions (which interestingly enough are the textbook image of what “good” posture is).  Most of those postures involve good, erect, open posture that displays confidence and almost appear to be innately ingrained in our psychology,  as even people who are born blind adopt this stance when they are feeling confident and proud despite never having actually seen it. (I have included some examples in the image.) The opposite were low power positions that demonstrated fear, weakness, shame, and hiding and were marked by closed positions, rounding the body so as to protect the organs and whatnot from a perceived threat. 

Examples of high-power poses (top) vs low-power poses (bottom)

These positions were positions not created but observed by Dr. Cuddy and her team who sought to better understand what was going on. They created a series of different tests that sought to explain the mental, psychological, and physiological differences associated with high power and low power positions. Among the variables considered were: hormonal differences (testosterone and cortisol) in the same individual following several minutes (short duration) each of high power and low power positions; subjective self-perception following high power and low power positions (e.g. whether they felt confident or not); and a social analysis from a blinded “judge” who would pick a hypothetical ideal candidate for a job with nothing to go off except for a headshot – where the headshots used followed either a period of high power or low power posing. 

The results were fascinating and controversial. On the first observation, Cuddy and her team noted higher cortisol (stress hormone) in low power poses vs higher testosterone (confidence, power) in the high-power poses. This particular bit of research was the source of criticism as several ensuing studies hoping to build on Cuddy’s original research failed to replicate similar results. Being the good scientist that I am, I will say that more research is needed here. But, what the following studies did confirm was: individuals reported feeling happier and more confident in themselves following high power poses vs low power poses AND the blind selectors who were supposed to pick the so called “ideal job candidate” selected the individual who had done power poses, without knowing this of course, nearly 80% of the time, stating that those individuals seemed confident, capable, and more likely to get the job done. 

Dr. Cuddy and Wonderwoman showing an example
of good posture in a high-power pose

I found this fascinating. I wasn’t surprised to find that individuals felt better after holding high power poses, but the fact that the high-power posers would be chosen more than the low power posers as confident and capable, despite no knowledge of which pose had been held, was incredible. The fact that we perceive ourselves more confidently following high-power positions speaks volumes about the role of good posture in our happiness and well-being. The key to happiness is in knowing, loving, and accepting yourself, and this comes much easier when you feel good about yourself. Plus, I think on some level, we all care about what others think of ourselves despite knowing that this can be unhealthy, and that it will likely cause anxiety at some point. But it is natural, we evolved to respond to such things because it gave us greater chances of survival. It seems we are still drawn to those who seem able to protect us and be strong leaders. I don’t want to say that being perceived well by others will make you happy, in fact in can make you an asshole, but I think being respected by your fellows and by yourself is an important step into realizing happiness. 




Thursday, March 25, 2021

Why Things aren't as Bad as They Seem


Dr. Dan Gilbert delivering his "Surprising Science of Happiness" talk

Yesterday I came across an interesting Ted Talk by Dan Gilbert, a Social Psychologist at Harvard University. The talk was entitled “the Surprising Science of Happiness”. I wanted to write today about what I learned in that talk and to tie it in with a number of thoughts that I have encountered over the years of reading Stoicism. 

Dr. Gilbert began with a discussion about the human brain and how it gives us an ability possessed by no other species on earth. Over the last several hundred thousand years, the human brain has grown immensely, building new structures with new functions in the process. The focus as it relates to Dr. Gilbert’s teachings was on the frontal lobe, specifically the prefrontal cortex. Dr. Gilbert described the prefrontal cortex as a simulator, allowing humans, to predict or think about the future. This originally developed as an evolutionary trait aimed at improving odds of survival, giving humans the ability to reflect on cause and effect, on consequences both good and bad for their actions. 

While this tool was valuable as we navigated a world full of predators and danger, it is in many ways a major factor in both our anxiety and happiness today. One of the things we admire so much about dogs and other pets, is that they always seem happy and able to enjoy the moment. Part of this is that their brains lack the ability to clearly formulate a vision of the future, and as such they are concerned more with the present, the here and now rather than any possible future.

 Dr Gilbert calls the human ability to imagine the future prospection. So much of human worry comes from this ability to think prospectively because we imagine a later time where such and such may come to pass. Dr. Gilbert says that “later” isn’t real, its just a figment of the human imagination. Through his research he has come to recognize that we often predict future states of mental wellbeing and happiness incorrectly. Things that we expect to bring us pleasure often do not bring the amount of pleasure we hope they do. For example, a budding businessman may want to make a million dollars. They think once they have that million dollars, then they will be happy. What typically happens to those who get that far is they realize it isn’t enough. They aren’t as happy as they thought. So, then they decide they want 5 million dollars. Guess what, once they have that it still isn’t enough, so they are trapped in the negative state of always wanting more and never being content. 

A similar effect is observed when we contemplate future states of suffering. As with predictions of future states of happiness, we tend to overestimate the severity of negative circumstances, realizing that once they come to pass, our anxieties and fears were overblown. It reminds me of a quote from Seneca the Stoic who said: “we suffer more often in our imagination than in reality,” and I couldn’t agree more. Have you ever caught yourself dreading an event, maybe it was a presentation in front of your board that you were terrified about? You imagine standing there and stammering like an idiot while they all stare at you confusedly before telling you to pack your desk and leave. Instead, you deliver a great speech with very few if any issues and they applaud your work, congratulate you and ask you to apply for a promotion that has just opened up. Or even if it does go poorly, is it not something you can endure? 


What we fear rarely comes to pass in the way we imagine, and even if it does, we are more resilient as a species than we give ourselves credit for. Dr. Gilbert has actually conducted studies where he asks respondents to state how happy they would be if they won the lottery and to state how unhappy they would be if they had an accident and became a paraplegic. To generalize it, the results were, unsurprisingly, that they would be exceptionally happy to win the lottery and exceptionally unhappy to said and predicted the same. Interestingly enough, Dr. Gilbert has actually interviewed large numbers of each group and discovered that one year following their life changing event, winning the lottery or becoming a paraplegic, that the two groups were almost identical in perceived happiness to one another. Surprising no? I think that this is the result of two things. One: our misguided prospection and two: our underestimation of our own mental resilience. To me it echoes a message from Epictetus: “train my mind to adapt to any circumstance… this way, if circumstance takes you off script…you wont be desperate for a new prompting.” As is in line with much of Stoicism, Epictetus is reminding us to recognize that certain things are out of our control, and rather than seeking to control things, we ought to seek the power to adapt and deal with. 

Human beings are actually remarkable at adapting. If we remember Darwinian Evolution, we recall that survival depended on a species’ ability to adapt and overcome. While our prefrontal cortex may be often wrong, we are remarkably adept at adapting to new circumstances. This is true of our ability to be happy. Dr. Gilbert describes two forms of happiness: hedonic happiness and synthetic happiness. Hedonic happiness is a response, a reaction to external events like receiving a gift, achieving something. Synthetic happiness is a more calm and reserved happiness and one that is manufactured in the brain independent of external events. Synthetic happiness arises from the body’s innate desire to be happy, which may surprise us given the prevalence of anxiety and depression, but happiness actually is natural and healthy too for that matter, we have just been de-conditioned from recognizing it. This is a fact that the modern world system takes advantage of, convincing us that we need to buy more, spend more, achieve more in order to be happy. As Dr Gilbert says: a mall full of Buddhist monks is no good. The invisible hand, so to speak, requires legions of unhappy people convinced that they need more stuff to be happy. Dr. Gilbert’s demonstration that lottery winners are no happier than paraplegics is a perfect example of why that mentality of hedonic pleasure is false. 

Synthetic happiness is the opposite. Dr. Gilbert looks at it scientifically, but the same phenomenon has been discussed by Buddhists, Stoics – whom though they lived thousands of years ago were no different than us in terms of brain evolution, and many others, who think about the concept at a more spiritual or emotional level. Interestingly enough, choices and options for the future play a role in our anxiety about the future. I know a cause of anxiety in my life has always been what am I going to be when I grow up. I am blessed with the opportunity to do almost anything I want, but the idea that any choice I make could be wrong drives me nuts (yes I am 32 and still figuring out what I want to be when I grow up, I’ll let you know when I figure it out.) Dr. Gilbert conducted experiments wherein subjects were given a choice of which of their photographs they developed they would give up. Those who were given no choice were actually much happier about the situation than those who were given a choice, felling anxious about whether they were making the right choice., There was nothing wrong in either scenario in the present, but they were stressed about a future state of regret. 


I think this reinforces the idea that one of the best ways to be happy is precisely what the stoics preach, which is to recognize that certain things lie outside of your control, and therefore aren’t worth stressing about. Instead of wishing or hoping they don’t come to pass, instead wish for the resolve and strength to endure. Happiness comes from being grateful for what you have in the present, not craving what you don’t have for the future. Our brain is truly remarkable about being able to make us happy, if we can learn to be in the present and be grateful. Happiness is not a new vacation home in the future, and we don’t need to worry about what injury or illness might befall us in the future. If we can be right here in the now, we can be happy. To close with another quote from Seneca: “It’s ruinous for the soul to be anxious about the future and miserable in advance of misery, engulfed by anxiety that the things it desires might remain its own until the very end. For such a soul will never be at rest— by longing for things to come it will lose the ability to enjoy present things.”


You can watch Dr. Gilbert's entire talk here: https://www.ted.com/talks/dan_gilbert_the_surprising_science_of_happiness?language=en


Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Gun Problems are Robbing Americans of the Right of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness


 


Tralona Bartkowiak. Suzanne Fountain. Teri Leiker. Kevin Mahoney. Lynn Murray. Rikki Olds. Neven Stanisic. Denny Stong. Eric Talley. Jody Waters. Those are the names of the people who lost their lives Monday, March 22 in Boulder, Colorado, USA. 

It hasn’t even been a week and here we are again, discussing yet another mass shooting in the United States. I wish we could talk about dogs, exercise, philosophy, or another fun subject like we have in the past, but just as I did last week, I feel a sense of moral obligation to discuss this tragedy. We cannot have a positive and meaningful conversation about the pursuit and realization of happiness without touching on the polar opposites, fear, tragedy, despair, and grief. It breaks my heart because yesterday 10 people went out to buy groceries and never came home to their loved ones. Maybe they were picking up ingredients for a special occasion, maybe they just wanted to grab a six-pack of beer after a tough day at work, or maybe they were there to buy flowers as I way of saying I love you, or maybe they were just greeting customers at work. Whatever their reason, they didn’t come home and they never will because some disgusting excuse of a human being decided to take their lives. 

I don’t know the shooters name and I don’t care to. I don’t know his motive and I don’t care to, because whatever it is it doesn’t excuse what he did. What I do know is that he purchased his firearm just six days prior to the shooting. A firearm that just days prior would have been illegal, were in not for the prohibition being repealed by Colorado lawmakers, a decision that was lauded by the National Rifle Association and other pro-gun groups. When the firearm was purchased, the shooter was able to drive home with his new tool of destruction the very same day he went in to buy it. There is absolutely zero holding period on a gun purchase in Colorado, just as there isn’t in Georgia, where the suspect in the recent shooting bought and received his weapon just hours before he went on his deadly shooting spree. That’s right, in both Colorado and Georgia, the two states where the recent mass shootings took place, you can acquire a high-powered weapon more easily and more quickly than you can apply for a voting registration, right here in “the freest country on earth.”

America has a gun problem, plain and simple. We call ourselves the greatest country in the world, the best at everything. Well here’s one statistic where we are first, though “best” certainly isn’t a word I would use: The United States has the highest number of gun deaths than any other developed nation, and before anybody argues that it’s because we have a large population that same damning statistic is still true when we adjust for population. This simply isn’t a problem that other developed nations. In 1996, after the Port Arthur massacre left 35 dead, Australia passed sweeping gun reform laws and haven’t had a mass shooting since. This doesn’t happen in the UK, it doesn’t happen in Germany, it doesn’t happen anywhere but here where we have some misguided notion that our antiquated rights to bear arms and form a militia supersedes the supposed unalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness of others. 

The right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness has been cast aside
in favor of the right to bare arms. 


The second amendment to the United States Constitution, for those who don’t know, states “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.” Since then it has become one of the most heavily contested, misunderstood, and devastating amendments in the entire constitution. To understand the 2nd amendment, one must understand the context from which it came. The year is 1788, and the new nation of the United States of America has just won its independence from Great Britain in a bloody conflict called the American Revolution. The weapons of choice from the time are muskets, bayonets, and the occasional cannon. I am no constitutional scholar and I am not a lawyer, but I highly doubt that what the founding fathers meant was: every citizen, no matter their mental state, has the right to purchase guns not just for home defense but for the purpose of taking massive amounts of life in as little time as possible, and that this right is more important than any other citizens rights to live. I just used the phrase above, literally in the Declaration of independence, Thomas Jefferson referred to the rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness as unalienable rights of all men endowed upon the by God himself. Does not this gross misunderstanding and abuse of the second amendment not infringe on the unalienable rights? What about Suzanne Fountain’s right to life. What about Denny Strong’s right to the pursuit of happiness. Both are over now, along with many others because lawmakers decided that the shooters right to own a high-powered weapon was more important, with no attempt to understand who he was as a person or what his intention might be. 

I challenge anybody to create an effective argument that the prevalence of weapons in our society isn’t directly correlated to our gun control, or lack thereof. As mentioned before this does not happen anywhere else. We are the only place where mass shootings occur with such frequency and we are the only country with such lenient gun ownership laws. Do accidents happen, of course they do. The March 2019 mass shooting in Christchurch New Zealand was a tragedy of immense proportions. But in New Zealand it was a tragedy, and not a weekly occurrence like it is in the United States. Can bad people always find a way to do damage? Yes, bad people intent on causing destruction will always find a way. In China in 2010, there was a mass stabbing event where 25 people were stabbed to death. You know what would have been a lot worse, if those perpetrators had access to an M4 high rate of fire weapon such as they could get in the United States. 

I’ve heard the mental health argument before and yes, of course mental health matters, but the issue isn’t just mental health, the issue is mental health, lax gun control laws, and much more. The fact that both the perpetrators of the recent mass shootings purchased their weapons in such a brief period without any thorough vetting is a black spot on the soul of a nation that regularly allows such things to happen. Had there been better screening that might not have happened. As a country we absolutely need more resources towards mental health issues not just as it relates to violence but in general. I wish that these two men had someone to talk to about their issues before being driven to do what they did but that isn’t an acceptable excuse. Stricter gun laws could have prevented this, plain and simple. 

Whenever such a thing happens, one of the most common responses from those who support the prevalence of firearms throughout every facet of society is: now is the time for unity, not politics. Pardon my French but shut the fuck up (a bit off brand for me but this a difficult subject and I am tired of seeing it persist), if now isn’t the time when is? We always say now isn’t the time, we lower our flag to half mast, we stick our head in the sand and preach unity instead of confronting the problem. Then a week goes by and the same shit happens again. Now is the time for having this discussion because until we realize that the system is broken, and until we do something to fix it, it is going to happen. Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. In this country we deal with every mass shooting the same way – by doing nothing, and it continues to happen. This has got to change. 

As an aside, yes I have heard the “criminals don’t follow laws so gun laws won’t change anything” argument. No, they don’t, but enacting stricter gun laws and putting restrictions on manufacturers and dealers should be able to deliver some sort of tangible result. Furthermore, how many instances of gun violence are committed by people whom up until the commission of their crime were law abiding citizens? The issue isn’t the illegal guns, the issue is the legal guns and the lack of any restraint from the law or from manufacturers, understandable since the NRA owns our nation’s policy makers. And as far as the “good guy with a gun” idea, where the armed bystander becomes a hero, you are actually more likely to be killed by your own gun than you are to prevent the happening of a crime. 

I wish I could stand here and deliver a solution, but I don’t have one. I am hoping that the least I can do is call my fellow citizens to action and that we can somehow persuade a change to take place. I don’t have the answers but the first step in fixing a problem is admitting there is a problem. In 2019 – the last year with “normal data” since 2020 was altered every facet of live including but not limited to gun violence, we had 417 mass shootings in the United States, that’s more than 1 per day. Tell me that isn’t a problem. I look forward to the day where every one of my posts can be about sunshine and roses and puppies, but when I continue to see other people’s lives ruined it sickens me. These people aren’t just statistics, they are human beings, and it pains me to know they no longer have the chance to lead happy lives and that their loved ones grieve their loss and experience a loss of happiness. Enough is enough. We need to make a change. 

One of the most horrifyingly true statements ever made was: “The Death of one man is a tragedy, the death of one is merely a statistic.” 

Josef Stalin said this and while he was a man who knew a lot about death, this statement is chillingly accurate. When we read about 10 dead its easy to dismiss it as just a number in the ever-growing number of gun fatalities. But those people weren’t just numbers. They were peoples sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, friends and more. They had goals, they had passions, they had a favorite dessert, or a favorite joke. When we examine the lives of these people whom we otherwise regard as statistics, it puts a face and a life into perspective that can’t be ignored. NPR has published a story of the lives of March 22nd’s victims. I urge you to read about these poor innocent people and tell me you aren’t moved by their story. If you can read this without tearing up, or without believing we need to make a change then shame on you. I will admit that I myself am a gun owner, but if I had to submit myself to more stringent screenings, or some manner of safely managing gun control, I would happily comply knowing I was honoring a system put in place to protect others. 


Tuesday, March 23, 2021

The Science of Happiness


The happiness hormones. Apologies to GABA,
I couldn't find an image that included you.

Today’s post is a more scientific approach to happiness where we are going to look at several neurotransmitters and hormones that have been known to play a role in happiness. The five that I am going to discuss are: dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, GABA, and endorphins. Entire books can be and have been written about each of these molecules so there is no need for me to bore you all into tears by writing my dissertation on the happiness hormones. I will give you references to books and studies where you can further your own understanding and education on the matter, but for purposes of this blog I will simply cover at the most superficial level, what these hormones are, how they affect our happiness, what we can do to increase their presence, and where and why we should exercise caution. Happiness means different things to different people, but at some level we all experience happiness based on our levels of and relationships between these molecules.

Dopamine is associated with risk and addictive behaviors
like gambling addiction

Let’s begin with dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that acts as a precursor to norepinephrine (adrenaline). If we think about it in terms of its relationship to adrenaline, a lot of us can recall a time when we did something epic or thrilling, like sky-diving, winning the lottery, winning a sporting event etc. People experiencing this rush of awesomeness will say, correctly, that they are loving the adrenaline rush. Their heart rate and blood pressure go up and sympathetic nervous system, the system that governs our innate flight or fight response to danger is on full alert. This feeling is caused by a massive rush of dopamine. Dopamine creates a feeling of excitement and enters our brain via the mesolimbic dopamine pathway, which is simply called “the reward pathway” for short. Dopamine serves as exactly that, it is a rewarding feeling to us based on some accomplishment. It also factors heavily in memory. Our brain will remember what it did to create that feeling and will urge us to repeat it. Dopamine is closely associated with motivation. Low levels of dopamine have been observed in depressed individuals who report little motivation to do anything or little excitement out of life, even things they previously found enjoyable. A healthy presence of dopamine is necessary to feel normal and happy and we can keep levels high by engaging in activities that bring us joy. However, we must be extremely careful against the overcorrection against low dopamine which can push us to addiction. The role of dopamine in our reward pathways can lead some to addictive drugs, the consumption of which creates a temporary dopamine rush, but ultimately leads to a withdraw that can only be satisfied with yet more drugs. The same is true of other addictive and dangerous behavior such as sex, and gambling, where one can become addicted to the feeling – specifically the dopamine rush. As with most things in life, moderation is key, as a low level of dopamine can create a sense of withdraw and general un-enjoyment of life, while the opposite can lead to destructive behavior.


Let’s talk next about serotonin. Serotonin is a neurotransmitter that plays roles in a number of bodily and neural functions including but not limited to: sleep regulation, mood, appetite, cognition, and memory. Higher levels of serotonin are associated with better moods and greater capabilities of dealing with rejection. Among the most common anti-anxiety/anti-depressant drug families are Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRI’s). SSRI’s increase the presence of serotonin in an individuals brain leading to better mood, and less stress, thus enabling better coping with certain problems. Low levels of serotonin, like other neurotransmitters and hormones is associated with mood disoreders, anxiety and depression. High levels of serotonin are not necessarily a bad thing but they are capable of reaching depletion. Just as addictive drugs influence dopamine so too do they have an impact on serotonin. A cocaine high creates euphoria in part by causing the body to expend all of its serotonin at once, causing immense feelings of joy and excitement for a brief period. However, once the drug is processed through the body, the individual experiences withdrawals, a feeling that anyone who has experimented with cocaine, alcohol, ecstasy and other drugs has felt before and knows as the low. During the low, where serotonin is depleted, people experience depression, lower moods, and even memory impairment until such time as their body is able to replenish its serotonin supplies.

Oxytocin is associated with physical touch
and builds a sense of trust and love

Oxytocin is one that we have discussed recently in my post on pets. Oxytocin is a hormone that is known amicably as the love hormone. Oxytocin levels rise when we come into physical contact with another, and which according to the research done in my post on pets, can be increased by physical contact across species boundaries. Oxytocin is exceptionally high in mothers during child birth and is part of the reason why the mother in particular has such a strong affinity of love and protection over the child. Oxytocin even helps the mother lactate in order to feed her offspring. Oxytocin promotes feelings of affection, love, trust, and comfort internally and between those who are touching. The lack of oxytocin in young infants, those who may not be held or hugged as often as needed for example, is associated with increased risk of mental and psychological disorders later in life. Humans evolved as social creatures, something that has profound impact on our lives. One of the consequences of withdrawal from normal society is the decreased presence of oxytocin compared to those who live normal social lives. This is just part of the reason why solitary confinement, a complete removal from society, has such profound effects on prisoners and is why many deem it to be the cruelest punishment imaginable.

Endorphins create a sense of euphoria and block pain
enabling us to engage in long-duration activity

Endorphins are yet another hormone that we have previously discussed, specifically in my several posts that have talked about exercise and physical activity. Endorphins are closely associated with dopamine as they both create a sense of euphoria, however endorphins are specifically released during exercise and are intended to act as a pain-killer of sorts, allowing us to continue our activity, while dopamine acts as an incentive to produce a reward. Lack of endorphins does not necessarily correlate to depression as we have very low levels when we aren’t engaged in repetitive types of physical activity, but the increase of endorphins has been associated with temporarily increased moods. Endorphins are what is responsible for what many describe as “runner’s high” where after they have been running for some time, they reach a point at which they no longer feel pain and feel as if they could carry on indefinitely, a feeling that persists well after they have ceased activity. 

Lastly, I want to talk about Gamma-Aminobutyric Acid or GABA. GABA, rather than most of the above, is an inhibitory neurotransmitter rather than an excitatory. GABA has the effect of reducing sympathetic nervous system activity, our flight or fight response, and instead allows us to experience calm and think rationally. Because of its role as an inhibitory, anti-excitatory hormone, low leves of GABA are associated with anxiety, wherein individuals are unable to think rationally and everything seems a threat. Healthy levels of GABA enable us to problem solve and cope properly. An extreme excess of GABA would be similar to a heroin or opium high, where the individual would be desensitized to pain, and mentally distant, so inhibited as to barely be thinking at all.

I hope this post has been insightful. By now you may at least have a somewhat better understanding of how the body works, and what is occurring within your brain when you feel a certain way. The best way to maintain a healthy level of the above referenced hormones and neurotransmitters is by getting adequate sleep, healthy amounts of physical activity, and a nutritious diet. Excesses and insufficiencies of any of the above can cause severe mood changes, cognitive effects, or dangerous behavior. In the future I will elaborate in greater detail about thinking exercises, meditations, activities and more that can be done to help promote greater balance of these molecules.

Sources: 

Darius Dfarhud et al. Happiness and Health: Biological Factors, Systemic Review Article. Iranian Journal of Public Health. November 2014. 

Kringelbach and Berridge. The Neuroscience of Happiness and Pleasure. Soc Res NY. Summer 2010. 

Monday, March 22, 2021

A Year Worth of Gratitude


 

Birthdays are best celebrated with friends
Thats me far right. 

I want to offer a fair warning and tell you that today’s post is slightly selfish in nature, but seeing as it is MY blog I hope you won’t mind indulging me and letting me post about myself. As I write this, it is the eve of my birthday, my last day as a 31-year-old.  I will be posting this early (or not early, depending on when I wake) on my birthday morning. I have often said that one of the best ways to realize happiness is to reflect and consider all for which you have to be grateful. I typically do this in the form of a journal where I list a few things that made me happy, for which I am grateful. I have been blessed beyond measure this past year, and I hope you will allow me the opportunity to make today’s post a discussion of those things that happened during my past year for which I am most grateful and happy. 

In no particular order: 

Health. This applies equally to physical and mental health. In the past year we have seen over 2-million of our fellow humans lose their lives from Covid19 or related issues. The UN estimates that the number of deceased this year was about 4% higher than what would have normally been expected, a shocking and devastating blow to humanity. Even those contracted but did not lose their lives to the virus still dealt with and continue to deal with prolonged health concerns. I don’t bring up the fact that I was able to escape this with any sort of braggadocios or gloating mentality, but rather in a grateful light – seeing the health of so many be affected makes me that much more grateful that I was able to stay healthy during the past year. It isn’t just Covid, life can be dangerous, people get injured or struggle with other diseases and health concerns besides Covid, and it is never something that should be taken for granted. 

Mental health too is something for which I am grateful for as I reflect on the past, particularly because at this exact time last year, myself and the entire world were dealing with perhaps the highest level of uncertainty amongst a chaotic and confusing year. The lockdown across the world had just begun and many of us didn’t know what would happen, when or if things would go back to “normal”, or if we would ever be able to see our friends again. As such, mental health took a huge hit across the board, with record numbers of reported depression, anxiety and general mental health concerns being reported. I was part of that, dealing with some extremely dark moments, but with the help of my family, friends, and a good therapist – whose help I cannot speak highly enough of, have helped me get my mind back under control. I write this today in perhaps the greatest state of happiness that I have seen in my life, and remembering how far from this state I was last year, makes me all the more grateful. To those of you who struggled or still struggle, my heart goes out to you. I strongly encourage you to seek professional help, or at least find a friend or two with whom you can confide and share your feelings. If you lack such a person in your life, I will be that person, truly. I am not a professional but I am a decent learner and I hate to think that anybody anywhere would be experiencing in their head the things I have. You are not alone. 

Family time. Through either fate or some paternal instinct, my father reached out to me last year and invited me to come home and live with him and my mother for a few weeks until Corona blew over, so that I wouldn’t have to be alone. Well, a few weeks turned into a few months and I spent 6 whole months with my parents and Corona still hasn’t “blown over.” Nevertheless, I was able to spend more quality time with my parents than I have in years, and for someone who normally is lucky to see their parents 10-15 days a year, I feel grateful for having had the chance for so much extra time with my mother and father. They are in good health but they are getting older, and it becomes more apparent every day. That being said, none of us know how much time we have left together, and as such I cherish every moment. It was a joy to be able to spend that much time together, despite the predictable and inevitable argument from time to time, and I enjoyed getting to see how happy they both have become in their lives, and I am grateful to let them get to know me and the adult (I use that word cautiously) I have become. While my sister and I may not have spent 6 months together we have continued to be close as well. I feel lucky to call her one of my best friends and as a bonus, she is a social worker and as such I have a built in therapist that I can be seen by for free. Kidding, but she has been there for me during no less than 3 meltdowns this year, and all jokes aside, I am really grateful for her counsel. I am the older sibling, but it makes me happy to see the wise, confident, and mature woman she has become. 

Work. I feel like I often get on here and bash work, corporate culture, capitalism, careers and such. I don’t mean to be a curmudgeon, nor do I mean to express consistent negativity, I do see much stress associated with work, corporate culture and whatnot, but now is not the time for such a diatribe. Right now, I actually want to express extreme amounts of gratitude for my work and the job I have. I started my current job late in 2019, only 6 months before the pandemic began, and if I was in my previous role as a trainer at a gym, an industry that was hit exceptionally hard, I simply would not have been able to pay bills. So, on that note, I am grateful for the opportunity to work, and the ability to provide for myself. Again, this is something I know not everyone can say, but seeing such widespread unemployment reminds me to be grateful for the opportunity I have, and while my work may not light a fire in my soul, I should feel blessed for the security it affords me. 

My birthday was often during Spring Break
on this occasion we went with family friends to Disney World
The look on my face tells me I am anticipating my upcoming ride on the Tower of Terror

Ashley and Floyd. I know I introduced the blog world to Floyd, our bloodhound, just days ago, and I also know that in that same post I suddenly revealed the name of Ashley, who previously had been known mysteriously as “my girlfriend.” I certainly didn’t expect to fall in love last year. After my previous break-up I honestly thought I was done with love, that it just wasn’t for me. I was terrified of allowing myself to be vulnerable again, afraid that it would only leave me open to hurt and pain. I am grateful I met someone in Ashley who made me realize that there is love in the world, and that the two of us could share that together. She makes me feel comfortable being vulnerable, sees me for my authentic self, and believes in me, giving a level of support I never thought I could find in another. I won’t elaborate too deeply into what she means to me here, as we want to maintain some semblance of privacy in our lives, but I can’t talk about gratitude without talking about her.  Furthermore, she introduced me to Floyd, who’s love and companionship are a boost of support each and every day. 

Hobbies. Like many, I threw myself into my hobbies last year and am grateful for the progress I made in several. I have achieved near fluency in German, and am making strides in French, and I hope to soon be able to put my newfound language skills to the test, on native speakers when we get the chance to travel again. I have read many books, progressed my chess game, and generally been lucky to have many worthwhile pursuits with which to entertain myself. Additionally, I have renewed my love of athletic competition and am as we speak just days away from a Strongman competition, where I will be hoping to earn a spot at nationals. This is closely related to the physical health that I find myself lucky to have, but I am grateful to have rediscovered my love of training and competing. Something about pushing myself to be better than I previously thought possible really makes me excited. 

Happy Together. Lastly, and I may be forgetting a few things but I don’t want to drag this post out too long (it already appears to be my longest post to date), I am grateful for this blog. I have long been an avid reader and have enjoyed though not necessarily pursued writing. It has given me immense joy to wake up every day and spend an hour or two working on this blog. Even if nobody reads it, I enjoy the process of creating these words and crafting them into a story (the website design is a bit of a pain in the ass…). That being said, it seems like people actually are reading my blogs which makes me incredibly happy. To date my blog has been viewed in 19 different countries which excites me to no end. I don’t know if that many people are actually reading it or just clicking the link but either way, it has been immeasurably fun and enjoyable for me to begin this blog. I have no idea where it will go or what it will become, but I am very happy to be doing it, and I truly appreciate each and every one of you who may ever interact with it. Thank you all for being part of what has made this past year of my life perhaps the best one yet. Here’s to the next lap around the sun! 

That one time my friend Rob and I tried to eat an 11pound (5kg) pizza
on my birthday. we failed


Sunday, March 21, 2021

A Caution Against Letting Your Career and Work Define Your Happiness


 

As with all things, work must find a balance with the rest of your life,
not define it. 

Today I want to discuss the role that work plays in our lives. I have been thinking about this often over the last several months. Over the course of many of my recent posts you have probably heard me bring up work, typically in a less that favorable light. I have discussed how we have allowed our work to define us, and our career success or failures have come to deeply affect how we perceive ourselves. I have talked about how sometimes, in order to be successful at work we have made sacrifices that we may have been better off not making. An example would be, and I believe this is one I may have used before, that we sacrifice time at home with our family because we want to work on a project that we believe will make or break or career. Or another example might be that we have to make a tough decision and layoff a few hundred employees, a decision that will save the company money and make us look good, in the light of work anyway, but that puts several hundred families in a tremendously difficult situation. 

I don’t mean to say that all forms of work or bad, or that work is inherently bad, or that you are wrong for taking pride in what you do. I do believe that decisions that are made based on our perception of how it will help our finances or boost our career often require us to sacrifice or abandon our morals for a certain time or perhaps even permanently. This is a huge issue. Additionally, by now we are well aware of the dangers of putting our love, or our perception of selves, our identity, in any sort of externality which includes of course our career. As soon as we identify ourselves in this way, we run the risk of facing serious harm as this is an externality that can be easily changed or taken away. 

As I was browsing the internet last night, I came across a recent Atlantic article that a friend of mine had posted. The article was titled “Workism is Making Americans Miserable,” written by Derek Thompson and was published February 24, 2019 (you can read the full article here). It is a bit old but its relevance really resonated with me especially given my views on work lately. Workism, Thompson describes is “It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.” I think that Thompson is 100% accurate in recognizing this as a serious crisis and while his article focuses on Americans, given the scope of his research, but I think we can easily say that this is a worldwide crisis and is likely even more pronounced in certain cultures like China or Japan to make a few assumptions off the top of my head. 

It bothers me greatly that work, producing material and financial value has become the single greatest focus of our entire society. Thompson sited a Pew poll where 95% of surveyed teens said that having a “job or career they enjoy” was very important to them which was higher than both helping those in need (81%) and getting married (47%). While there is nothing wrong with enjoying your work, I think this poll goes to show just how important work has become to us. 

Though this is not inherently bad, it can lead to unhappiness down the road. One of the issues associated with workism in today’s world is the nature of most jobs. For the second half of the 20th century, most jobs were centered around production and building, jobs that produced tangible things for which one could feel a sense of accomplishment and pride. Starting with the tech boom of the 90s, more jobs turned to a white-collar nature and results are made in sales, excel sheets, formulas, programs, conversations and such, not in tangible results. This has created a more desperate craving of attention and has created a void where many are less satisfied though no less concerned about their work and careers. 

I think it is great if someone is able to discover their passion and turn that passion into something that yields them financial success, enabling them to provide shelter, food, and enjoy a certain quality of life. There is nothing wrong with that. But how many people can say they are lucky enough to do something they love for work. I myself left a job I truly loved, being a strength coach who helped people reach their health and fitness goals, largely because I needed a higher paying job to pay the bills I had accumulated over the years. I now work a job which I am grateful to have, but about which the nicest things I can about it are that it pays enough to cover my living expenses, and gives me ample free time to do things I love like write my blog. It pains me to think how many people spend the majority of their waking time doing an unrewarding job and being miserable simply because it is the only way they know how to provide for themselves and their family. 

Are you living to work, or working to live?
Remember your why.

The goal of work used to be to work for free time. Now work has become an end rather than a mean, where the reward of work is often more work. Ours is a society where foregoing sleep, vacation, family time, and our health for the sake of more hours in the office has become a badge of honor or a status simple in of itself. From the time we are children, we are taught that our purpose in life is to go to college and to get a good job, with the requisites for a job being good typically being dependent on the amount of money one gets from doing it. We are taught to forego our happiness until we reach a certain point in our career, believing that there is some milestone which once reached, then we can be happy and content, although the farther one gets the more that milestone tends to move further and further away, creating a false summit type scenario that any seasoned mountain climber would be familiar with. 

The reason I bring this up is because I believe that the more we fall into this trap of workism, the more unhappy we become. We are either one of the few people lucky enough to have a job we truly love, but one that ultimately consumes us, removing any previous sense of passion we may have had and leading us further and further from what is truly important: friends, family, time to reflect and be grateful; or, we work a job we don’t love, toiling for hours and hours simply to afford the right to exist with any manner of security on this planet. 

It pains me to see the world in such a state. I don’t know if I can truly offer any advice here. If I could, what I would suggest is remind ourselves that while we may not live in a society where we can get by without working at all, that there has to be a limit. There must be a point where we can be content and realize, this is enough. I won’t work those ten extra hours because what I am already doing is enough to provide my family with food and shelter, and I would rather now spend those 10 hours in the company of loved ones. On the matter of those who work unfulfilling jobs, I recognize that not everyone is lucky enough to have a job they love, but I believe that we as a society do need to come up with a solution, such that anyone who works for 40-50 hours a week ought to be able to provide a living through such, and not forced to tack on an additional 20-30 hours just to make ends meet. Even those who don’t work, and many are unable to despite their willingness, out to be cared for on some level. I know this opens up the door to laziness and those who would take advantage of the system. Be that as it may, as automation grows and the human population rises, we are fast approaching a scenario where there simply will not be enough jobs to go around, and so long as we are a society where only those who work are able to afford to live, we have a serious problem on our hands. 

Do not let work define you, and do not let it consume you

In conclusion, what I would like to leave you all with is a caution against letting your work consume you. You are not your job. Your success in work does not define your worth as a human. To those who are trapped in work they don’t enjoy, I dream of a world where we can all be able to provide a living without being required to devote the majority of our existence into something that makes us miserable. To those who are lucky enough to truly love what they do, congratulations. But remember why you are working. If it is a cause that helps others great. If not, that is fine to, as long as it does no harm. But don’t lose sight of what is truly important in life, our own well being and our connections with close friends and family. Do not let work become all consuming and do not let it define you. Keeping this in mind will help you maintain a sense of happiness throughout your life.