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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What Really Matters in Life?

  Seneca once said: “It is not that we have a short space of time, but that we waste much of it. Life is long enough, and it has been given ...

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Thursday, April 29, 2021

A Meditation on Compassion from the Dalai Lama


 


The following is an excerpt I took from "The Art of Happiness." It is a meditation on compassion taught by the Dalai Lama. The intent being to feel for another and establish a genuine bond with another soul in anguish. Through building compassion with others we create a more peaceful and joyous world. 

 “In generating compassion, you start by recognizing that you do not want suffering and that you have a right to have happiness. This can be verified or validated by your own experience. You then recognize that other people, just like yourself, also do not want to suffer and that they have a right to have happiness. So this becomes the basis of your beginning to generate compassion.

“Begin by visualizing a person who is acutely suffering, someone who is in pain or is in a very unfortunate situation. For the first three minutes of the meditation, reflect on that individual’s suffering in a more analytic way—think about their intense suffering and the unfortunate state of that person’s existence. After thinking about that person’s suffering for a few minutes, next, try to relate that to yourself, thinking, ‘that individual has the same capacity for experiencing pain, joy, happiness, and suffering that I do.’ Then, try to allow your natural response to arise—a natural feeling of compassion towards that person. Try to arrive at a conclusion: thinking how strongly you wish for that person to be free from that suffering. And resolve that you will help that person to be relieved from their suffering. Finally, place your mind single-pointedly on that kind of conclusion or resolution, and for the last few minutes of the meditation try to simply generate your mind in a compassionate or loving state.”


Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Early to Bed, Early to Rise: the good and the bad


 


The great American inventor and statesman, Benjamin Franklin, once said: “early to bed and early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise.” This statement serves as a guiding principle espoused by all sorts of people from self-help gurus, celebrities, entrepreneurs, millionaires and more. I am not here to tell you that the wake-up-early crowd is wrong, in fact there are many benefits which this post will discuss in detail. The one caveat to beating the sun up in the morning is that if you are going to wake-up at 5 am, you had better be going to sleep plenty early the night before, because the risk of insufficient sleep will have significant adverse effects and will quickly outweigh any progress one may glean through the act of waking early. This post will discuss the benefits of waking up early as well as caution against sacrificing sleep in the name of other pursuits. 

I have discussed the need for adequate sleep in my post here. I will again address the importance of sufficient sleep and caution against inadequate amounts later in this post. To begin with I want to talk about the wake-up early craze. A number of well-known figures have earned a reputation for their early rise out of bed. Among them are Apple CEO Tim Cook, motivational speaker, author and former SEAL trainer Jocko Willink, and a man who needs no introduction: Dwayne Johnson aka the Rock. Tim Cook wakes up around 3:45 to workout and get a start on his work day managing one of the world’s most successful companies. Jocko Willink has started the #0430 craze on the internet – 04:30 being the time he usually begins his grueling morning workouts before going on to do still more workouts, deliver motivational speeches, and train some of the worlds most sophisticated soldiers. Dwayne Johnson wakes up before the sun, so he can ensure that he gets in his morning workout and some time for meditation and reflection before his responsibilities of being a business owner and arguably Hollywood’s most sought after actor get in his way.   

By this time most days Jocko Willink has normally burned more calories
than most of us will consume all day. 

Based on the above we see a few traits in common between these three examples. Each of them is extremely busy. Their early wake up time is to ensure that they have time to do something important for themselves before their responsibilities pull them in other directions. If they were to wake up at 8am they would jump out of bed and immediately be required to give their time to others and it is very likely that their personal needs would be neglected. This is one of the key benefits of waking up early. It guarantees that you have an hour or two to do something important for you. Everyone has 24 hours in a day, but it is how we choose to use those 24 hours that sets us apart. 

Each of these three men also has the fact that they wake up early and include one common theme as part of their routine: they exercise. I have discussed the importance of exercise and its role in physical health and mental well-being many times. When we are busy and stressed, our physical health is one of the first things to go. If we are pressed for time we sacrifice the gym time so we can catch up at work. If we are stressed, we make poor eating choices. Cook, Willink, and Johnson are all extremely busy but they understand the importance of exercise on their overall wellbeing, thus they wake up early to make sure that whatever happens later that day, their physical needs are being met. 

It isn’t just exercise that we can enjoy when we wake up early. Think how stressed out you are when you wake up with barely enough time to get dressed and grab a breakfast to go on your way to work. Or in the case of remote work like many of us have done for the past year – you wake up 5 minutes before your zoom call, quickly fix your hair and throw on a dress shirt for that first zoom call while you still have your pajama bottoms on. From there on the next 8-10 hours, if not more are spent on our work, taking care of kids, being pulled in every which way. This leaves us utterly exhausted at the end of the day and whatever we might have done for ourselves that morning gets pushed to tomorrow and the cycle repeats. 

How much better would your morning be if you woke up just 60 minutes earlier, and instead of jumping straight on that budgeting call, you spent 15 minutes stretching your body to care for that aching back, then you spend 10 minutes meditating – preparing yourself for the day to come so that you can better handle the inevitable stress that is the work day, and then you take a few moments to prepare a healthy breakfast, making you more alert and energized throughout. These are just a couple examples of the benefits of waking up early. Whatever it is that you view as important, the best time to do it is usually the morning before anything else gets in the way. 

Those are some of the advantages to waking up early. Now, lets talk about some of the negative effects. The most obvious and significant adverse effect is the loss of sleep quality. I have written in the above linked post about the need for adequate sleep. The American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) recommends that anyone over the age of 18 years gets between 7-9 hours of sleep or more as needed. Additionally, population-based studies indicate that nearly 30% of American adults report sleeping an average of 6 or fewer hours per night (1), thus indicating that we have an epidemic of sleep deprivation on our hands. This is a bit of an assumption on my part, but I would imagine that similar if not more severe incidences of sleep deprivation would be seen in most developed nations, particularly those that seem to champion the employee who neglects every ounce of health and personal time all in the name of putting in 80 hours of work at the office to help boost stock shares and earn more money. This is extremely dangerous and unhealthy. Insufficient sleep leads to the derailment of body systems, leading to increased incidences of cardiovascular morbidity, increased chances of diabetes mellitus, obesity, derailment of cognitive functions, vehicular accidents, and increased accidents at workplaces, as well as depression and anxiety (2). 

Limit exposure to blue light to fall asleep faster and sleep better

With these adverse effects of sleep deprivation, there is a clear argument that if one is going to get out of bed at 5:30am to kick their day’s ass, then they had better be going to sleep no later than 10:30pm at the absolute latest to ensure they get their 7 hours. This is one of the most commonly omitted caveats to the host of motivational speakers who seem to think that simply waking up early will automatically make us a successful happy person. The issue isn’t in waking up early but in getting too little sleep. Most of us stay up too late and do the wrong things before bed such that it is either impossible to rouse ourselves from sleep in the morning or that if we do somehow muster the willpower to rise before the sun, we will soon experience a decline in our health. I would like to write a future post discussing healthy evening routines later, but for starters, two of the simplest things we can do now to make waking up early easier are: set a scheduled bed time that will ensure you get the necessary amount of sleep; and cut out blue light at least one hour before bed. Blue light is found in all of the screens that we use all day long and it disrupts our circadian rhythm: our body’s ability to regulate the sleep cycle. A helpful tip for getting to bed earlier and having higher quality sleep, thus allowing you to rise from bed earlier, is to cut out blue light. If you are like me, the idea of not watching tv or reading a book on my kindle for bed sounds ludicrous. That would be one option but if you simply cannot live without, I would suggest getting blue light filtering glasses or getting an app that will filter out blue light on your device. This may not give you the ability to bounce out of bed and whistle show tunes as you stroll around the house at 5 am but it will at least make it a little easier. 

I can’t really answer the question of where I stand on the wake-up early vs sleep in debate. That is because it simply depends on too many variables that vary from person to person. I will say that I personally feel my best, happiest, and most productive when I wake up early, after a night of sufficient quality sleep, and do my morning stretches, meditating, and reading before diving into my day. The key here is AFTER a night of good sleep. Without sufficient sleep I would do more harm than good and I have become quite attuned to assessing my body’s level of recovery and whether or not I have had sufficient sleep. I think that most people would see dramatic increases in their overall sense of well-being and happiness if they could wake up not necessarily early, but earlier at least, such that they could do something that enriches their own lives. This could be working out, meditating, working on a passion project like a website, small personal business, or studying a new language. Whatever the reason, the whole reason for waking up early is to ensure that you have time to tend to things that will bring you happiness. Simply setting the alarm at 5am with no real goal or plan in mind will do you absolutely no good. 

Even the most strong-minded and dedicated
among us will quickly crash if 
adequate sleep is not had

Maybe you are someone lucky enough to not be pulled in a million directions, and your schedule allows you to attend to all business, family, and personal needs without waking up extraordinarily early. For that kind of lucky soul there simply may be no reason to wake early. For the rest of us though, yes I think there are advantages to waking up early, provided that we have the ability to get adequate sleep. Just as effective would likely be the person who stayed up late and slept in late. Either way, I am of the opinion that waking early after a night of restful sleep to focus on things that will bring value and joy to your life is a strong step in the right direction towards happy living. 


Sources: 

1. Chattu et al. Insufficient Sleep Syndrome: is it time to classify it as a major noncommunicable disease. Sleep Science 2018, March-April. 

2. Chattu et al. The Global Problem of Insufficient Sleep and It's Serious Public Health Implications. Healthcare-Basel, March 2019/ 

Monday, April 26, 2021

Sometimes You Must Step Backwards Before You Can Move Forward


 


Have you ever felt completely overwhelmed by the world? Sometimes it feels like there is simply too much of everything happening. There is too much war, hate, anger and bad news on the television; social media feeds are filled with unrealistic -ideals of perfect humans with perfect bodies leading dreamy fantasies of endless money, travel, and happiness (even when we know this to be superficial it can still cause bad thoughts); responsibilities continue to pile up at work; overdue bills come flying in like Harry Potter’s acceptance letter for Hogwarts (please understand this reference); and it seems like there simply isn’t enough time to deal with everything. I recently felt this way and as such have decided to suspend my personal social media accounts (blog media still up and active – exhibit A right here) for an indefinite amount of time. I will discuss my reasons in greater detail as a subject of this post but in short, I simply wanted to narrow my focus beyond the entire world and instead focus on myself, my values, my character, my work, and the things directly within my sphere of control. Chances of me having a relapse and re-downloading the apps on my phone and reactivating my account are high, but hopefully this time can help me break the addiction to news, media, and more that many of us struggle with today. 

First of all, if any concerned reader comes across this, I am fine, I just felt the need to step back and refocus my energy and attention, no cause for alarm. Part of my reason for doing this is that I am an extremely empathetic person, so when I watch the news I find it difficult to emotionally detach myself from anyone and everyone. I can break down in tears of joy watching Chris Norton walk 7 Yards on his wedding day (watch the documentary “7 Yards” it is awesome) or watching a young child display greater compassion than most adults could and start a fund raiser to care for the needy in their area. I can also break down in sad tears watching yet another mass shooting or reading that a hospital fire killed 82 patients. It is tough being an empath, someone who feels deeply, but I wouldn’t change it. In fact, it may be one of my favorite qualities in myself if I could be bold enough to say that I actually do have any. What I, and other empaths need to watch out for is allowing ourselves to have a deep and often negative reaction to anything and everything that goes wrong (my assumption is that if you my blog about happiness is that you are either an empath yourself and/or one of my close family or friends). If you allow yourself to have a deep and troubled reaction EVERY time something happens, you are in for a tough life my friend because that kind of shit happens all the time. 

The good news is that there is something that can be done about it. First, as with any problem, recognize that there is a problem, otherwise you will never set out to change anything if you can’t identify what behavior you are trying to improve. For me, that problem was recognizing the adverse effect that overstimulation or over-connectedness, for lack of better words, were having on my mental health. Step two is addressing the problem. If you feel similarly, begin with taking a good look at your thought processes. In an example such as this, the Stoics are a great source of wisdom to turn to, as they so often are. Remember that perhaps the most important stoic virtue is the power to recognize that which is in your power and that which is not, and to recognize that you can do nothing about that which is beyond your power. As Epictetus says: “The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control. Where then do I look for good and evil? Not to uncontrollable externals, but within myself to the choices that are my own.” 

So, if you find yourself disturbed by something in the news, first ask yourself: is there anything I can do about this? If the answer is yes: then do something. If the answer is no, then you need to let it go, at least to an extent. I am not suggesting you turn yourself into a cold-hearted narcissist who only cares about themselves, but I am suggesting you learn not to take things personally (those who know me will laugh because I take EVERYTHING personally – but I am working on it and I still think it is good advice). There is an important distinction to make because in today’s world there actually is much that we can do. Social media and the internet, the same tools that constantly bombard us tragic news the world over, are the same tools that give us a greater capacity to help. Go-fund me, global charities, internet donations and more, mean that we can now lend a helping hand to a person in need half the world away, all without ever having to get off the couch. No, you won’t be able to give to every charity, or help with every disaster, but if something particularly moves you then by all means give. Such compassion is the most important quality we have as humans and is what links all souls across the planet into one. As Edmund Burke said: “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”

While you may be able to assist those in need, no amount of charitable giving, prayer, thought, reflection, concern, or stress is going to stop things from happening. This is here you have to have the ability to tune things out and recognize that most of what happens in the universe is and always will be outside of our ability to control. Another helpful thought on the matter comes to us from the stoics which is the notion that things that occur are neither or good, they simply are, and only our opinions of them shape them as good or bad. Epictetus said that “it isn’t events that disturb people. Only their judgements about them,” while his partner in stoicism, Marcus Aurelius, added: “When you are distressed by an external thing, it’s not the thing itself that troubles you, but only your judgment of it. And you can wipe this out at a moment’s notice.” 

It is easier for us to change or control our opinions of certain things than others. For example, rush hour traffic is something we all hate which, allegedly anyway, arises from purely natural circumstances of lots of people getting in their car and driving on the same road at the same time. Nobody likes traffic but instead of letting our blood pressure shoot up high enough to pump fuel into a jet, we can remind ourselves that this is a purely neutral and natural event and that the anger we feel does nothing except harm ourselves. On the other hand, natural disasters that kill thousands of people are truly devastating. This is harder to wrap our heads around but there is nothing that can be done about such things. We are ultimately just a bunch of people existing for but a brief speck of time on a rock hurling through space at thousands of miles per hour, and natural phenomenon will occur, some of which will result in loss of life. If you are able to do anything to assist in recovery, by all means do it. Our compassion and empathy is what allows us to endure, maintaining our interconnectedness. Even stoics like Marcus Aurelius knew this, remarking: “For in a sense, all things are mutually woven together and therefore have an affinity for each other—for one thing follows after another according to their tension of movement, their sympathetic stirrings, and the unity of all substance.”  But, recognize that no amount of sorrow can reverse what happened nor can it prevent the next tragedy. Instead of wasting energy lamenting what happened, recognize that this sort of thing happens, and get busy doing what you can, if anything to help. Siting in sorrow and wallowing in misery will do nothing. 

I mention all of what I just described as a reminder to myself of the type of thought patterns that are going to be serve me well moving forward and they will serve you well if you ever find yourself overwhelmed in a tsunami of information and stimulation. I believe that reflecting on the need to recognize what is within our own control and what is beyond will lead to greater happiness and less feelings of helplessness. Likewise remembering that events are neither good nor bad, that they simply are, will allow us to feel happy and be less in despair. 

A great read on how to avoid negative behavior and thought patterns
For me it isn’t just the need to reset in terms of empathy and feeling too much feelings about too many events. It is also that I am a perfectionist, something I alluded to in a recent post. Part of the problem for me, like many perfectionists is in comparison to others. I once quoted the Dalai Lama who said: Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare.” The problem with those of us who struggle with self-esteem is that we never believe we are good enough and part of this is always finding someone who does X better, or has more of Y. One doesn’t have to look far on social media to find someone with a better physique, more money (anyone with a green number in their bank account in my case), more excitement, more friends, or simply more happiness. First, recognize that what most people to present to social media is just a fa├žade, emphasizing only what they want you to see, and often overstating if not outright lying about that. Second, yes there are some people who actually do have more of X,Y, or Z than you. But why should this cause us any distress? We should be happy for the happiness and success of others, so long as they have not committed any transgressions in the realization of their happiness. 


That being said, I would say that if something causes you distress, stop doing that shit (to quote Gary John Bishop). If you are struggling with negative thought patterns, or are feeling diminished ability to feel happiness, and social media is the trigger, then by all means cut that shit out. I know for me that a permanent hiatus from social media is not likely, in many ways it brings me great amounts of joy, but in the short term I need to work on reinforcing positive thought patterns and the best way to do that is by taking a step back. Remember that happiness is a choice, not a reaction. If it were a reaction, it would be next to impossible to ever be truly happy in the face of what happens. Remember that we cannot control most of what will happen and only our opinions of things make them truly bad. If you feel like you are losing sight of this, take a moment to consider what lies within your power to be done about it. It is of vital importance to keep a positive outlook and a strong resolve if we are to choose happiness in this life. 


Saturday, April 24, 2021

What is Success?



 Last night I read one of the most powerful quotes I have ever come across: “What is Success? It is going to bed each night with your soul at peace.” It comes from Paulo Coelho’s book “Manuscript found in Accra” and is spoken by a wise figure known as the Copt as he addresses a crowd of frightened people the evening before their inevitable doom the following day during the siege of Jerusalem. I like this because it seems to answer one of life’s greatest questions. We are taught that the point of life is to be successful. But nobody can say exactly what success is. The pervasive notion of success seems to be that it is in monetary wealth, fame, or power. How many people have that but seem miserable or hollow on the inside? What does it take to reach that notion of success? Often it takes the very sacrifice of our soul. Surely that cannot be true success. I find that Coelho’s answer, that success is what allows your soul to be at peace, must be true success. 

The beautiful thing about this definition of success is that it may look different for every unique soul. With this definition it is entirely possible that for some people success is great amounts of material wealth. I wouldn’t know but it is probably pretty damn peaceful to fall asleep in your private jet on your way to your chalet in the Swiss Alps after spending the day jet skiing off the coast of the Maldives. But remember that in Coelho’s description the success is what allows the soul to be at rest, which means that it must reconcile with its past, and if that financial wealth defines one’s success, they must come to terms with the price paid to obtain it. At some point in the pursuit of wealth there often comes a time where the means are no longer worth it. Can that wealth be obtained without harming others, can it be had without sacrificing values, can it be had without sacrificing relationships? If so, by all means, pursue it. If that is what puts your soul at rest that is what success and by this definition happiness mean to you. 

I have written several posts based on the lives of famous figures who lay out their own advice on how to find success. Arnold Schwarzenegger gave his 6 rules for success that helped him follow his dreams. For him that success and happiness were in becoming a body building champion and then a famous actor, both of which he did before going on to becoming governor of California, something that even he probably would have never dreamed of. In my post on Steve Jobs he talks about chasing your dreams, pursuing your passions and the joy of creating. That was happiness for him: innovating, creating, and developing. For the Dalai Lama happiness is in compassion, feeling a connection to others, and in meditation. For Marcus Aurelius and the Stoics, success was in mastering their own mind and controlling their wants and desires. For Brene Brown success is in the ability to be courageous, be bold and vulnerable, and in helping others. For Viktor Frankl it was finding meaning in his suffering and making sure he lived to share his work on psychology. 


The reason I bring up all of those names is because while we can use their words, their lives, and their examples as a roadmap, they cannot find happiness or success for us. They can only help us. I go back to the opening quote by Coelho because while others have dedicated books and speeches to what it is to be happy, and I will gladly continue reading and hearing what they have to say, Coelho sums it up so simply. From now on I may use that short phrase as the answer to what happiness is. In its brevity it encourages greater thought. Something we should all ask ourselves is what will make me able to go to bed every night with my soul at peace? No two answers will be identical, and I would imagine that for most of us, our precise answers may change over time. As a young adult putting your soul at rest may be finding a perfect role in your dream career or falling in love. Later it may become knowing your kids are taken care of, are healthy, and happy. As an old person it may be going to bed knowing that should you not wake the next day, that you lived your life to the fullest, made lots of meaningful relationships and ultimately left a positive ripple on the world you leave behind. Those are just some thoughts that come to my mind. 

Whomever you are I would hope that upon reading this post you will consider Coelho’s quote and ask yourselves what it is that would allow your soul to be at peace. If something requires you to live in such a way that your soul is in conflict, or unable to rest, I would say that you are spending your time the wrong way and urge you to search your soul, connect, and start living in a way that allows it to rest. If we all take the time to look after ourselves and nurture our souls we will make the whole world a better place, for it is enriched through the growth of every individual, and if even a single soul is in conflict then the soul of the world cannot be truly at peace. 



Friday, April 23, 2021

Stop Striving for Perfection



 Voltaire once said that “perfect is the enemy of good.” I would amend that to say that perfection is the enemy of good enough. This probably goes against everything you have been taught by your parents, your teachers, your coaches, your bosses, your partner, motivational speakers, the media, and society at large. Rarely in today’s world are we taught that anything less than perfection is acceptable. If you are someone who has been taught and truly knows that good enough is exactly that, good enough, then congratulations, you are free from one of the most destructive mental constructs of modern culture. From a very early age we are led astray from self-esteem, the acceptance of the fact that we are perfectly imperfect and beautiful just the way we are, and instead are convinced that we are only as good as our accomplishments. Consumer culture as a whole thrives on this mindset. It will tell us: no, you are not beautiful, you are fat and out of shape. It offers an escape however: if you buy this makeup you may look beautiful, if you buy this pill you will suddenly become thin and THEN you will be perfect. Our culture tells us that we must earn more, do better. Your worth as a human is directly ascertainable by looking at your net worth. We are kept in a constant state of shame and dread, believing that if and when we are perfect, then can we be proud, worthy of being seen and loved. Until such time as we achieve perfection in EVERYTHING we perceive ourselves as embarrassments and we ought to feel no pride. This post is about the inherent flaws of perfectionism, why we turn to it, and how we overcome it. I will urge you to do away with perfectionism and accept not just good enough, but even less than, for everyone is worthy of love and appreciation regardless of ANYTHING they may ever become or accomplish. 

Many of us use perfectionism because we believe becoming perfect makes us worthy. We falsely arrive at the conclusion that if we are perfect then there is no room for criticism, for what could possibly criticized about perfection. We use perfectionism as a means of escaping our fear of becoming vulnerable. What is there to fear about being vulnerable if it would only reveal our perfection? Nothing. The problem of course is that perfection doesn’t exist. Because it doesn’t exist it becomes a sysyphean task – something that is impossible to obtain which we will toil endlessly towards. Because it is impossible yet we pour so much physical, mental, and emotional energy into it, we ultimately lead ourselves to even greater suffering, pain, and shame. 

Dr. Brene Brown describes why we turn to perfectionism and what it actually is and how it affects us. We believe that perfection is a striving for excellence, nothing wrong with trying to do better right? It isn’t a striving for excellence. What perfectionism actually is, “is the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgement and shame.” We cannot run from those feelings forever. They exist in every single one of us. We will tell ourselves that perfectionism is self-improvement – who could deny anyone who simply wants to better themselves? But perfectionism isn’t about being better, it is about being perfect, and that is impossible. Brene Brown says “At its core it is about earning approval. “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.”’ This is a critical issue that codependents are known to make, and many perfectionists are codependent as they seek to have their perfectionism adored by others rather than believing in their inherent self-esteem. Ultimately perfectionism only leads to more shame. Because it is a destination one will never reach, we then fall deeper into the hole believing we missed the mark because of some personal flaw, lack of effort, or simply lack of worth. 

On a personal note, perfectionism may be the greatest internal battle of my existence. Somehow, at a very early age I allowed myself to be convinced that I was pretty good at a lot of things, but I would be better as a human if I could be perfect. I was not bad overall, but I wasn’t quite deserving of full love and appreciation, or of being seen by the world. Thus, I dedicated my life to being perfect – failing constantly. If I got a 93 on an exam, I didn’t celebrate the 93%, I looked at the 7% and wondered where I had gone wrong. If I came in second in a race, I didn’t take off my shoes and congratulate myself for doing my best time yet or finishing ahead of nearly the entire field, but instead chided myself for failing to be perfect, for not gritting it out just a bit harder and beating the first-place finisher. It wasn’t a good way to be. Perfectionism kept me postponing my happiness for a future state when I would be worthy and living in a constant state of shame and lack of esteem. Perfectionism kept me from trying new things in the first place. It kept me from trying out for quiz bowl because I was worried I didn’t have the intelligence to compete with the “smart kids.” It kept me from trying out for basketball a second time after the shame of being cut the first time and having to walk home in tears while all my friends stayed behind for practice. Even now perfectionism pervades my very existence: I must be the strongest at every contest, my blog must be perfect. My therapist and I spend great amounts of time working through this which has led me to the very work that inspired this post.

Luckily, I have been practicing and learning more about how to overcome the struggles with perfectionism and I will share some of that info with you here. In her book “Daring Greatly”, Brene Brown describes the issues with perfectionism as a (unsuccessful) way of avoiding shame. She also offers a way to escape the trap of perfectionism. The way out is through genuine self-compassion, during which Dr. Brown mentions the work of Dr. Kristen Neff. Dr. Neff lays out 3 different ways to practice greater self-compassion. The first is to be truly kind to yourself. That is much easier said than done. Recall one of my very first posts describing the work of being on your own side, during which we discussed the book On My Own Side by Dr. Aziz Gazipura. Dr. Gazipura reminds that our fears are actually there to protect us, though they have an interesting way of doing it. Our fears perceive a future state of shame and will hold us back with negative self-talk to prevent us from doing something that might cause embarrassment or shame. In order to get past this, we must do exactly that which is the title of Brene Brown’s book, we must dare greatly. Acknowledge our fears but dare greatly and be brave enough to be authentic. 

The Sistine Chapel inside of the Vatican. 
Many would call it a perfect piece of art.
What about Michaelangelo, who created it? 
He likely thought it wasn't quite perfect, but he did it anyway and it is revered by many

 To get past perfectionism we must practice self-esteem, recognize that we are not our achievements but that we are simply ourselves, and that is good enough. Embrace our common humanity, recognize that every human carries wants and desires as well as fears and shame and that we all want to be seen as worthy and deserving of love. Recognize the truth that perfection is a myth, it exists nowhere. As Dr. Gretchen Rubin says: A twenty-minute walk that I do is better than the four-mile run that I don’t do. The imperfect book that gets published is better than the perfect book that never leaves my computer.” Where would we be if Mozart was too much of a perfectionist to release his symphonies, if Michaelangelo was too much of a perfectionist to agree to paint the Vatican’s chapel.  Don’t let perfection be the enemy of good enough. Realize that perfection isn’t real and instead acknowledge that you, and everyone you know are simply human beings trying to navigate this journey of live as best as you know how, and that none of us really know what we are doing. To end with a quote from one of my favorites, the Dalai Lama: ““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.” Stop trying to be perfect. You are setting yourself up for nothing but stress and anxiety. 


Tuesday, April 20, 2021

True Happiness lies in Charity, Compassion, and Kindness


 


One of the most pleasing discoveries I have had since starting my blog on happiness is recognizing the level of agreement that people of different backgrounds seem to have when it comes to happiness. It doesn’t matter if we are talking about the Confucians in China who lived 4 thousand years ago, Stoics in Ancient Greece twenty-five hundred years ago, Renaissance thinkers in Europe in the 1500’s or Harvard psychologists who are still alive and well today; beliefs around and notions of happiness maintain commonalities that cross geographical and temporal boundaries. People throughout history from all over the world, regardless of their circumstances or education have repeatedly iterated and collectively agree that happiness is the aim of life, that it is not a selfish pursuit but a worthy one, and that it can be found in certain ways. It is on that latter notion, the way (or one of the ways) that we can find happiness, which I want to discuss today. 

In my research and readings of late it has become apparent to me that the ideas of charity and compassion are emphasized in a multitude of religions, cultures, and philosophies – perhaps being the most commonly shared value in humanity. Religious texts and psychological documents are rich with evidence suggesting that charity and kindness not only bring happiness and alleviate the suffering of the receiver, but also that they are essential values to bring about joy and meaning to the life of the giver. 


There are estimated to be over 4,300 religions existing in the world today. It would take me a lifetime to go through the important scriptures and texts of each to support my claims. Instead I have chosen to focus on some of the more popular religions and those with which I am most familiar, those being: Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, and Judaism. Every one of these religions places the utmost importance on kindness to others and charity. In the Christian Bible, psalm 112:5 says: “good will come to those who are generous and lend freely, who conduct their affairs with justice,” while Proverbs 11:25 adds: “A generous person will prosper; whoever refreshes others will be refreshed.” The Quran, the word of Allah (God) for the people of Islam we read that: “There is reward for kindness to every living thing.” Allah said unto his prophet Mohamemd: “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured.” The Talmud, the Jewish holy scripture says that “Tzedakah (charity) is equal to all other commandments combined.” One of the central components of Hindu belief is the concept of karma: which is that all good and bad actions will be answered. Charity is done not for reward but rather to create goodness and create a world and existence free of suffering. His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, believed by Buddhists to be now the 14th reincarnation of Buddha, the central holy figure of their religion. He says that the essence of life is to practice compassion and that “Compassion can be roughly defined in terms of a state of mind that is nonviolent, nonharming, and nonaggressive. It is a mental attitude based on the wish for others to be free of their suffering and is associated with a sense of commitment, responsibility, and respect towards the other.” He adds “if you can, serve other people, other sentient beings. If not, at least refrain from harming them. I think that is the whole basis of my philosophy.”

It isn’t just major world religions that emphasis kindness, compassion, and charity but Atheists as well. Atheism of course isn’t a religion as it is literally the absence of religion, but it it were it would be the 3rd largest religion in the world today. Richard Dawkins in his renowned argument against the existence of a deity argues that kindness and compassion are core human values and that we practice them not because a man in the sky or an old book tells us too but because the very nature of our survival depends on mutual support, trust, compassion, and cohesion amongst us. This belief derived from theories of Charles Darwin, who lived most of his life as an atheist and was criticized by the church for his beliefs in evolution rather than divine creation. Darwin himself postulated that there was an “instinct of sympathy” in humanity and that was critical to our survival. The instinct of sympathy inspired us to help others not only because we are able to empathize their pain but because acting on sympathy or helping others is what makes us strong. Again, in terms of raw strength, power, speed, etc., humans are not impressive and the only reason we have been able to evolve and survive as long as we have is because we have developed the ability to help one another and work together. Dr. Linda Wilson (I have no idea what her religious beliefs are but I will lump her in with the atheists at least in terms of her approach to altruism and compassion) theorized that compassion is part of our basic survival instinct -  a stark contrast to early theorists who believe that our nature tends towards hostility and aggression. 


Seeing the prevalence of compassion and kindness as critical and core human values brings me great comfort and joy. It comforts me because it reinforces the idea that being kind to others is the ultimate way to create joy and happiness in the world. If so many people from different times and places would share this common belief, how could we be so wrong. Don’t just take the word of renowned scientists or religious figures, try being more charitable and kind in your own life. If you have done this before do you remember how great it felt? It doesn’t just alleviate pain and suffering in others, it enriches your own life as well to a point where it could even be argued that charity is a selfish act. I see no downside to a world where everyone is committed to helping one another, to easing the burden that we all carry on this journey of life, and to putting more happiness into the world. What we give to others we receive ten-fold in the enrichment of our beings and our soul. It doesn’t matter if you do it because your way to heaven depends on it, if charity is your only way to attain karma, or simply because your survival depends on being nice to others. What matters is that you when you do good, you help others and yourself. 




PS. 

There are many ways that one can practice charity and compassion. It can be in financial donations, giving ones time to charitable organizations, doing a random act of kindness, or even just a smile or a hug to a loved one or maybe even a complete stranger. Remember the words of Edmund Burke: “nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could only do a little.”


Monday, April 19, 2021

Happiness Isn't Over There, It is Right Here and Right Now


 


Happiness isn’t over there, or in a few days it is right here, right now. Have you ever felt a general sense of discontent and longing, but been sure that whatever was missing in your life was just one plane ride away or just a few weeks down the line? I think at points in our lives that all of us will feel that way. This relates to what Dr. Dan Gilbert discussed, the theory of perception – our ability to perceive a future state. Human’s do this to a higher level than any other species, and it is largely responsible for a broad sense of unhappiness. By constantly envisioning a future state of happiness we fail to appreciate the present. As Dr. Gilbert discussed in his Ted Talk, humans tend to overestimate their future states of happiness arising from a certain event. So many of us thing that if we win the lottery, then we will be happy, or when we get to live here then we will be happy, or when we fall in love then we will be happy. Those aren’t bad things to wish for per se but often times those things fail to make us as happy as we expected, and in many cases, they never happen at all. What then? This post is about learning to feel happy in the moment. 

I have been guilty of the aforementioned thought patterns many times in my life. There have been moments when I recognized extreme unhappiness in myself and would say: if only I could move to Sydney Australia. I would surf every day, see the sun, take weekend trips in the outback, and then I would be happy. Or I would contemplate my career and think: I don’t make enough money, or I don’t have enough respect from society for what I do. When I get THIS job and make a lot more money and people actually see what I do, then I can be happy. So I would get busy making plans, update my resume and search for exciting jobs, or look up apartment listings on the other side the world and plot my relocation to happytown. 

It is a good thing I didn’t wait to become happy until I ended up in a new setting because you know what? I never did make that move, I still live here in the same town I did five years ago. I am probably the happiest I have been in that time and while certain external circumstances have changed, it wasn’t that something needed to happen to me, or that I needed to be somewhere else or do something else. What needed to happen was that I needed to change. I needed to look deep within myself, get in touch with my fears, take stock of and appreciate what I had in the moment, and to come to know myself. If I had simply gotten on a plane and left do you know what I would have found? After a few weeks maybe of the new stimulation that comes from a new setting, I would still be that sad and lonely person I was back here in the United States. Or worse, I would have probably been even lonelier, finding myself separated from my family and friends, whose love and support I sometimes took for granted. Happiness wasn’t over there waiting for me, it was inside of me, I just needed to find it and create it by recognizing that the here and now is what we should be grateful for, not some abstract possibility of an alternate life across the ocean or in the future. 

It’s a similar experience to what we feel around a vacation. Instead of making a life that brings us joy and meaning every day, we endure long work hours, unrewarding labor, and general misery all in exchange for a nicer house to cry ourselves to sleep in and for those occasional few weeks a year when we can go on vacation. As the date of our week off approaches our anticipation builds. Yes, we have some miserable meetings on our calendars and it’s going to suck having to finish that report early but it will all be worth it, vacation is just around the corner and that week we will be happy. The vacation comes and for the first two days it is bliss, but we find ourselves stressed out trying to make sure we cram as much fun as possible into that short time. This is our week to be happy remember, don’t let this moment slip. By the fourth day dread slips in as we realize we only have two more nights and then back to the grind again. Sound like a familiar experience? I have done this before. I pick out an exotic location with my friends and plan an epic time, which overall turns out to be fun but isn’t quite the life altering moment we thought it would be. A cloud of morose hangs over and before long we return home. 

It isn’t that our normal day to day is really that bad, it is just our perception. Even if your job isn’t the most rewarding thing, take stock of yourself and all for which you can be grateful. I guarantee there is something you can look at each and every day that will add meaning, value, and happiness into your existence. Happiness doesn’t have to be those three week-long trips to the beach or mountains, if you are unhappy right here and right now you will be just as unhappy sipping cocktails on the beach though you may be temporarily able to forget about it. Rather than dream of a world where everything is perfect: we have the fit body we always wanted, no debt, fame, 2 vacation homes and more; how about we synthesize happiness right here and now. Most of those circumstances lie largely outside of our control or may ultimately be not worth the sacrifice to achieve. What is in our control and our grasp is our ability to appreciate the present. This is the moment we have been given, let us enjoy it. 

I understand that there are circumstances where change may be necessary. Maybe you find yourself in an unsafe neighborhood where your very security is threatened – of course you should seek to move and find a safer place if you are able. Maybe at work you are being asked to do something that goes against your moral and ethical beliefs or even the law. Of course you should look for another job that doesn’t compromise your freedom and integrity. There are plenty of exceptions to my advice in this post, but in general terms we are able to create lasting happiness for ourselves in our gratitude for the present moments. I will quote two of my favorite thinkers in closing. "By longing for things to come it (our soul) will lose the ability to enjoy present things,” - Seneca the Stoic. "What day is it," asked Winnie the Pooh. "It's today," squeaked Piglet. "My favorite day," said Pooh Don’t long for a better future. Celebrate the present instead. Make today your favorite day. 


Sunday, April 18, 2021

Ramadan and the Islamic Virtues of Kindness and Humility



 Tuesday April 13 was the first day of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan. Ramadan is a celebration and a time for mindfulness from the Muslim faithful, in recognition of the prophet Mohammed’s revelation from the angel Gabriel, who gave to Mohammad the word of God (Allah) which Mohammed then gave to the people through the holy scripture, the Quran. Ramadan is marked by fasting from sunrise to sunset, so that the Muslim people will take time to ignore worldly pleasures and sensations, instead reflecting on the word of their prophet and committing their minds and bodies to living in accordance with the wishes of Allah. 

Islam is perhaps the most misunderstood religion on the planet today. This post seeks to shed light on the true message of Islam, a message of kindness, peace, and gratitude. Too often we see mankind using some misguided sense of divine purpose to commit atrocities upon the world in the name of religion. Islam has seen its fair share of abuse and misappropriation, but when we consider the truest form: the lessons of the Quran and the teachings of Mohammed, we realize that Islam is a beautiful religion aimed to create harmony and foster peace and love throughout the world. This post will highlight the true beauty, love, and happiness which Islam was meant to bring. 

One cannot fully understand Islam without understanding the world from whence it came. Islam originated from what is today Saudi Arabia. At the time, Arabia, as it was then called, was inhabited and ruled by various factions or tribes called Quraysh. Life was harsh in this desolate land and the Quraysh had adapted a toughness necessary to thrive in such an environment. Among the core values of the Quraysh was the concept of Muruwah, which meant: “meant courage, patience, endurance; it consisted of a dedicated determination to avenge any wrong done to the group, to protect its weaker members, and defy its enemies.(1)” Muruwah was about pride, strength and often consisted of haughty displays of wealth and power. Karen Armstrong, one of Mohammed’s modern day biographers said: “Mohammed believed that the Quraysh had jettisoned the best and retained only the worst aspects of Muruwah: the recklessness, arrogance, and egotism that were morally destructive and could bring the city to ruin (1)” It is in this setting, a setting of warring egotistical tribes who would fight to the death over perceived insults, prey on the weak, and gloat with pride, that Islam would arise. 

Islam is marked by two important rituals of prayer (salat) and alms giving (zakat – pure offering). These two acts are among the most significant in all of Islam for the serve as reminders to humble oneself and act with kindness. The act of salat, which the devout perform 5 times daily, involves facing Mecca, the holy city of Islam, and touching one’s head to the ground as a form of surrender. This act would have been considered heinous by the Quraysh of pre-Islam days, but the whole act is about removing pride and ego. In fact, the very word Islam translates to surrender, with the whole purpose being to surrender oneself to a higher power and to act in accordance with the will of that higher power. The Quran says: “Every religion has its distinct characteristic, and the distinct characteristic of Islam is modesty (2)”

The zakat (offering) as well is about removing ego. Rather than prey upon and mock the weak, a good Muslim must behave like the prophet and comfort and care for the less fortunate as Allah cares for them. To quote the Quran in English: “What actions are most excellent? To gladden the heart of human beings, to feed the hungry, to help the afflicted, to lighten the sorrow of the sorrowful, and to remove the sufferings of the injured (2)” The intent is twofold. The receiving of the zakat alleviates the worldly suffering of the recipient, but perhaps more importantly it cleanses the soul and mind of the giver. In a world where worldly riches were thought to be the highest form of attainment, and to have wealth was to have everything, this is a remarkable turn of events. Now it is the giver, he who willingly parts with his or her wealth who is truly powerful. Without the ability to lose such pride, one cannot enter paradise: “He who has in his heart the weight of a mustard seed of pride shall not enter paradise(2)” Now the teachings of Mohammed are helping two fold as the poor suffer less and the well-off reckon with a more kind and harmonious way of living. “Kindness is a mark of faith, and whoever is not kind has no faith.”

Mohammed’s revelations from the angel Gabriel are important because they dramatically altered the trajectory of the Arabian world from one destined to suffer eternally amidst trivial squabbles, tribal conflicts, ego, suffering, and taking advantage of one’s neighbors. The fact that Mohammed was able to alter the course of history speaks volumes to the power of him as a prophet but also to the power of his message. The word of Allah offers a way to peace and salvation for the many and gives meaning in a sense to the suffering that is life. No longer is it the fiercest or most reckless warrior who is valued but instead: “The best among you is the one who doesn’t harm others with his tongue and hands (2)” In many ways, Islam eases suffering by removing focus on worldly pleasures and riches and instead teaching contentment with little, in offering salvation through God, his prophet, and in being grateful with little instead of wanting greatly. The Quran says: “Richness is not having many belongings, but richness is contentment of the soul,(2)” which echoes stoic virtues on not wanting what one does not have. 


Personally, I am grateful for the occasion of this year’s Ramadan for encouraging me to learn more about the holy month and the meanings of the Islamic religion. Islam has come under much fire here in the 21st century and not without reason as terrible things have been done by those claiming to act in the name of Mohammed and Allah. As is often the case however, these people seem to act more in their own selfish interest, misrepresenting the true meaning of the religion in order to advance their own greed or pride. A closer look at the true words of Mohammed reveals that these are very likely the type of individual Mohammed would have been trying to save 1,500 years ago and not true followers. Whether one is Muslim or not, there is much value to be had by practicing kindness to others and reminding ourselves that there are greater powers at work than we can comprehend and that we are mere specks of dust in the wide cosmos. Let us all act with kindness, humility, and gratitude. 


1. Armstrong, Karen Keishin. Muhammad (p. 7). HarperOne. 

2. Allah (God). The Quran (p. 13). Goodword Books. Kindle Edition.






Monday, April 12, 2021

Bite your Tongue and Hold your Horses: advice on not losing one's temper



 I want you to reflect and think back to a time where something happened that caused you to lose your temper. How did it feel in the act of losing your temper? How did you feel afterwards? If you lost your temper at another person, how did your relationship with that person change in the short-term and long-term. Most of us can probably come up with more than just a handful but for now let’s focus on one or two. Without going into great detail on the specific instances of losing my temper, I will share my answers to those afore asked questions. In the act of losing my temper I feel out of control. It feels like a massive dam of water has been opened up through a crack, and now that is open, I am powerless to stop the flow of anger, hatred, and malice flowing out of my mouth like a tidal wave. Afterwards I feel shame and sorrow. Shame because behaving that way doesn’t accurately represent who I am or who I want to be as a person. Sorrow because I have caused pain in another, through what in most cases is just a misunderstanding. Chances are that most of us have felt like this at many points in our life, where we wished we hadn’t lost our temper or lost control. This post is about how to gain control over ourselves and resist the temptation to explode into emotional outbursts and do something we might regret. 

What is it that makes us lose our temper? Maybe a person cuts us off in traffic, forcing us to slam our breaks and spill our morning cappuccino. F – that person right, what sort of inconsiderate self-absorbed jerk would do that right? Or maybe a friend makes a remark that really gets under our skin and makes us mad. Time to put this friendship on notice, let them know you don’t give 2 shits what they think and then show them the silent treatment for a few weeks. Sound like anything you’ve done before? No, just me? Maybe I need to step up the anger management a bit more. 

Let’s revisit those two scenarios, scenarios I threw out because my guess is we have probably had something similar happen to us. Let’s take the example of getting cut off in traffic. Anybody who does that must be a jerk right? Total dick move. Ask yourself this though, how many times have YOU cut someone off in traffic. My guess is you weren’t doing it to be a jerk right? No looking and saying you know what, that person looks too happy today, lets ruin their day. It was probably an accident, right? Of course, you wouldn’t intentionally do something like that. Guess what, the same probably applies to the person who cuts you off on any given day. Maybe they were visiting from out of town and are intimidated by the traffic and make a mistake in judgement, or maybe they just spent 24 hours working a double shift at the hospital and are doing their best to get home and rest before they go do it again tomorrow. Let’s be a little more understanding next time. Yes, it could be a close call but if it just takes a quick tap of the breaks, no foul. Everybody goes home. 

What about that thing your friend said to you. No good friend would ever talk to you like that right? Clearly this person is not worth being friends with and we should start distancing ourselves. OR, just maybe they said something meaning it as a joke because they knew you wouldn’t take anything they say that personally, trusting that you’d consider the source – that this is a close friend who cares about you. Maybe they had no idea that what they said bothers you because you internalize it and never speak about it because you’re too ashamed, even though this is a person who has your best interest at heart. Trust your instincts that made you friends with this person from the get go. If it did bother you, talk to them about it and I am sure they will apologize and have your back moving forward. Or, recognize that maybe you just need to stop being so sensitive and maybe get a little extra sleep, so you don’t bite people’s heads off. No need to go nuclear over something like that. As Marcus Aurelius says: “

Truth is, most of the things that make us lose our temper just aren’t worth it. Even in the case of truly bad things, rarely is the appropriate response to have an emotional outburst, scream, break things, and act insane. Sometimes our emotional response of anger makes things worse than they were before and can become difficult to amend. As Marcus Aurelius says: “How much more harmful are the consequences of anger and grief than the circumstances that aroused them in us!” Better to take a pause, allow the emotions to subside and think rationally before acting in any case. One of Thomas Jefferson’s 10 rules for life, which I have previously posted about, was "when angry count to 10 before you speak. If very angry, count 100.” Simple and classic advice. Jefferson was wise enough to recognize that whatever made us angry and want to have an outburst probably won’t have the same effect if we just stop and take a few deep breaths while counting to 10. Even if we still find ourselves angry after which time, hopefully we can at least work through our anger in a constructive and meaningful way rather than with an outburst. 

Some things happen that have nothing to do with other people, those things aren’t worth stressing over because there is nothing that can be done. You can scream and beat your chest all day, but nature will take no notice. For those things that happen with other people, know that you can’t control other people, but you can work with them to prevent situations that may cause anger. Much of what causes us anger isn’t necessarily circumstance or events but rather our own perceptions. As the Dalai Lama says: “whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.” We can’t control what happens in the world and we cannot control what others may do or say to us, but we do control our response. Choose to remain unharmed and you shall be unharmed. Do not perceive yourself as a victim but rather take such things as they come and brush them off. As Marcus Aurelius said: “And why should we feel anger at the world? As if the world would notice!” Life is going to keep on whether you get angry or not. Best to stay positive and remain un-angered. 

For those events where we feel wronged by another person, remember the inherent connection we share with all our fellow humans. One of the tactics I have employed since first reading The Art of Happiness several years ago, was to do my best to always maintain compassionate attitudes towards others. This has the effect of finding it harder to react with anger or hatred to anything, instead just trying to understand that the source, that person, is human too just trying to do their best to navigate life. The Dalai Lama says: 

If you maintain a feeling of compassion, loving kindness, then something automatically opens your inner door. Through that, you can communicate much more easily with other people. And that feeling of warmth creates a kind of openness. You’ll find that all human beings are just like you, so you’ll be able to relate to them more easily.” If someone says something unkind, I recognize that there goes a person just like me, maybe they said what they said because they are insecure, or maybe they did what they did because they are scared. Don’t take it personally but try to recognize that there goes another human just like you. Forgive easy and don’t take things personally. Nothing is as bad as it seems and ultimately our decision to be angry hurts only us. To end with one more quote from the late great Emperor Marcus Aurelius: The nearer a man comes to a calm mind, the closer he is to strength.” 



Sunday, April 11, 2021

How Adversity Makes us Stronger


 


Winston Churchill once said “the pessimist sees difficulty in every opportunity. The optimist sees opportunity in every difficulty.” Suffering is an inevitable part of life. On this, we know that Hindus, Buddhists, Christians, Jews, Muslims and probably every religion would agree. Heck, any human being who has lived long enough to realize the disillusionment of a utopian universe, children sometimes even, can tell you that suffering is part of life. Philosophers, thinkers, leaders, and religious figures the world over through the history of recorded human history would argue that the most crucial task in human life is to create and experience happiness. I see two different ways, generally speaking, to find happiness. One way is to avoid suffering. This can be done through deep and meaningful connections with others, in finding a meaning and purpose for ones being, or through experiencing the joy and beauty of the world through art, nature, music, friendship, joy and more. The second way is to create happiness and meaning of life not through the avoidance of suffering but through suffering. It is on the second way to happiness that I wish to write about today. 

Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning that “in no way is suffering necessary to find meaning. I only insist that meaning is possible even in spite of suffering.” I believe that most of us would prefer to experience happiness in the first manner of which I wrote earlier, that is to avoid suffering all together. But we all know at this point in our lives that sometimes, often times really, through no fault of our own that suffering is inevitable. We don’t get to choose if we come down with a crippling disease, if our dearly beloved spouse is taken from us too soon, or if, such as in the case of Dr. Frankl, that we are born an ethnic and religious minority that will go on to suffer the worst form of human hatred and aggression in the history of humanity. These situations all foster suffering, but we must persist nonetheless. I will quote JRR Tolkien’s fictional character, the Wizard Gandalf, who spoke to his friend Frodo, whom was at the time lamenting the burden of his quest. Frodo says he wishes this hadn’t happened in his time, Gandalf replied: “so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” None of us can avoid suffering outright, and many of us sadly will deal with a great deal more of it than others. But all we can do is persist and carry on as best we are able, and the best way to do that is through the mind. This post will examine the type of mindsets that can create happiness and meaning through even the worst of times. 


 The ability to exist in a joyous, happy state without any worry of suffering may sound like the optimal type of existence but in reality, it is merely a fantasy. We know through our experience that suffering is a part of life. What if we could make a happy and joyous existence not merely in spite of suffering but through your suffering. Viktor Frankl said that man’s main concern was not the avoidance of pain but the search for meaning in his life. This was one of the basic tenants of logotherapy, a branch of psychotherapy created by Frankl himself. Frankl believed that to find meaning one could do so through work or creation (e.g. a vocation, a calling) by experiencing something (e.g. love, art, beauty), and lastly by our attitude towards suffering. We can use this inevitable suffering of life and use it to help us define our purpose. The endurance of suffering gives us a reason to be and can help us not just build character but discover strength and virtue within ourselves which we never knew we had. 


“What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for a worthwhile goal, a freely chosen task,” said Frankl. Thinking back to the Churchill quote with which I opened, we can begin to view inevitable suffering not as something to fear or avoid, for what good would such fears do towards something we can’t control, but something that we can meet head on with optimism and courage. Take the difficulty that life brings and use it to find meaning. Seneca the Stoic said: “the point is not to wish for these adversities, but for the virtue to make adversities bearable.” Fellow stoic, Marcus Aurelius said “the obstacle is the way.” Of course, we don’t wish for suffering but we train ourselves to build the character and the fortitude to meet them and to persevere regardless. Without such troubles, how will we really know just what kind of person we are. 

It is easy to preach kindness, compassion, and optimism when times are hard, but if we can roll with the tough punches that life throws at us and still find a way, then we come to realize just how meaningful our existence is. To quote Epictetus: “so, what should each of us say to every trial we face? This is what I’ve trained for, for this is my discipline.” Epictetus welcomed adversity in his life. Rather than haplessly fleeing or cowering, he met it head on. These are the moments that define us and let us find meaning. We do our best to live properly but until we are tested we never get to truly know the depths of our own determination and character. Frankl stated that: “if, on the other hand, one cannot change a situation that causes suffering, he can still choose his attitude.” Choose the attitude of an optimist or a stoic. If you look at life’s challenges not with fear but with eagerness, eagerness to develop character, or reveal your strength to yourself, you will make the most of your life and find meaning in so doing and finding meaning in one’s life may be the ultimate attainment of happiness. So whenever you find yourself stuck with what feels like an immense burden, or impossible suffering, don't wish for different times or lament your situation, this will get you nowhere. Recall the words of Gandalf, that all you have to do is decide what to do with the time that is given. Face your fears and your suffering head on, welcome them, and use them to create opportunity. The opportunity to strengthen yourself, and the opportunity to find meaning in this thing called life. 



Saturday, April 10, 2021

Epicureanism: a Review



 Today I want to talk about one of the most commonly misunderstood branches of philosophy, Epicureanism. Epicureanism takes its name from its founder, Epicurus, who lived in the 3rd Century BCE. Epicureanism is often, wrongly, considered as the antagonist to stoicism. Where stoicism teaches moderation and humility, epicureanism teaches hedonism and indulgence. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. The only way one could possible, make such an error would be to do the briefest of superficial observations of epicureanism and no more. This post aims to explain the true meaning of Epicurus’s teachings and to discuss not only the similarities to stoicism, but also why the epicurean philosophy is a respectable way to consider the universe. Keep in mind of course that Epicurus’s own life came just after the lives of Greece’s most influential philosophers: Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, whose moral influence clearly shaped the views of Epicurus. Ergo his philosophy is not a diametric opposition to stoicism but rather a relative sharing a common origin in the School of Athens. 

To Epicurus, happiness was the absence of pain, both mental and physical. This is where the common misconception arises. Some would believe that seeking of a relief from pain would lead one to drunken orgies, decadent banquets and such. While Epicurus was a great believer that one should enjoy the niceties that life offers, he constantly preached moderation and gratitude, rather than reckless hedonism. He even used the metaphor of a banquet to illustrate his point: “Treat life like a banquet: do not mourn what passes, do not take more than you need, and don’t yearn for what is to come, enjoy the present instead.” There is great wisdom in this approach. It echoes the ideas of stoicism, or rather precedes them, by acknowledging our helplessness to control external events. We have no control over the past, so why should we lament it. To keep with his metaphor of a banquet: the crab cakes have passed, instead enjoy the oysters that you now have. Don’t look forward to the chocolate cake that comes later, if you do that you’ll miss the opportunity to enjoy the oysters. And who can say that that cake will even come? What if the banquet hall catches on fire and the oysters are the last dish you get. Enjoy the present instead. 

With anything more than a cursory glance it becomes evident that Epicureanism really isn’t that far off from other religions or philosophies such as Stoicism which we have mentioned, but also Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam to name a few. There is an apparent lack in epicureanism to the acknowledgement of a deity, in the traditional sense anyway, though there is clear belief in a higher power. Epicurus was remarkably ahead of his time by theorizing that the world was comprised of invisible particles, which he called atoms, that formed the constitution of all matter both living and otherwise. He believed that the existence of the universe was simply a fortuitous confluence of science rather than the machination of a deity or deities, which made him many enemies from the traditional Greek theologians. 

What Epicureanism shares with Stoicism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam is an acknowledgement of a higher power to which we are all supplicant to. To rail against this higher power, whether it be god or simply fate, would be futile and would only introduce greater suffering. It is also about gratitude for whatever that higher power may provide. Epicureanism is about enjoying what you are given and thinking nothing of that which fate chooses not to give. “Nothing is enough for a man for whom enough is too little. Not what we have but what we enjoy constitutes our abundance.” Control what you want, and you will have everything that we want. 


It is easy to see how one could misinterpret Epicureanism: “choose what creates pleasure over pain, satisfaction over angst.” One might think that this suggests: have all the sex, drink all the wine, indulge, indulge, indulge. What it really means, particularly in the light of his broader work, is don’t want what you don’t have. Enjoy that which you do have. Put aside your cravings not just for food and indulgence, but also power, fame, recognition. If you have those, enjoy them. But how much energy is wasted craving for that and never enjoying of its fruit? Remember that in his philosophy, all life is just a random assortment of atoms beyond our power to understand the organization of which. To rave with anger and madness about what you don’t have would be foolish, who would listen? What good would it do? Enjoy what blessings life gives to you, but enjoy in moderation, and appreciate while it lasts. For nothing is guaranteed to last forever. “Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”


Friday, April 9, 2021

Train Your Mind for Happiness


 


Anybody who has ever trained for sports, fitness, or general health knows that it is a lengthy process that requires discipline and consistency. Despite all wishful thinking, results do not come over night. We may run for miles and miles every day or lift weights until we can barely lift a glass of water to our mouths and sometimes it feels like we are stuck in place. But over time, those who have been able to see committed start to notice results. That 5k time is suddenly 5 minutes shorter and we find ourselves no longer heaving with exhaustion after running up the stairs. In the gym that weight which was once impossible to move has now become our warm up and when we look at ourselves in the mirror we start to see a different person. Our bodies are highly adaptable and over time the training begins to illicit the desired results. 

The same is true with our mind. The brain is not a muscle, but it is every bit as malleable in the psychological sense. We have the remarkable ability to mentally adjust to new scenarios and can train ourselves to new thought patterns over time. Just as the body will respond and adapt to continued stimulation, so too will the brain adapt. As we have discussed before, happiness is a choice, not a reaction. By training our mind to intentionally become happiness, not as a result of external situations of which we have no control, but rather synthesizing it ourselves through positive thinking patterns habitually over time. 

It is easy to see suffering throughout the world. Many billions of people live in states of abject misery such that one wonders if their entire existence must be consumed by suffering. Dr. Howard Cutler saw this and asked the Dalai Lama if he thought that happiness was a reasonable goal for most of us, or if it was just a fantasy. The Dalai Lama replied “Yes, I believe that happiness can be achieved through training the mind.” As we recall from the example of Viktor Frankl in yesterday’s post, it is possible to maintain some sense of inner strength and happiness even in the face of such unimaginable suffering as the holocaust. 

With such an examples as Frankl’s one recognizes that external circumstances are ultimately not what lead to happiness and salvation. Recalling the research of Dr. Dan Gilbert we remember that over time both lottery winners and paraplegics exhibit similar levels of happiness. The type of suffering one endures may differ based on circumstance but suffering is inevitable and we can only experience it through the perspective of our own being. What we all have is the ability to strengthen our mind and practice the cultivation of mental discipline and happiness. As the Dr. Cutler said following his discussion with the Dalai Lama : “no matter what level of happiness we are endowed with by nature, there are steps we can take to work with the “mind factor,” to enhance our feelings of happiness.  This is because our moment-to-moment happiness is largely determined by our outlook.  In fact, whether we are feeling happy or unhappy at any given moment often has very little to do with our absolute conditions but, rather it is a function of how we perceive our situation, how satisfied we are with what we have.”

Taking this into account we recognize that each of us has the capacity to attain happiness regardless of our situation in life. This doesn’t happen immediately but rather takes a great deal of time, practice, and mental training. Just as your muscles wont develop from a day or even a week of rigorous training, nor will your brain suddenly be conditioned to this way of thinking. Over time, little by little, the change starts to happen, imperceptibly at first until months or even years later we realize a change. Think of the book Atomic Habits, even 1% change every day will yield dramatic results over time. Marcus Aurelius said: your mind will take the shape of what you frequently hold in thought, for the human spirit is colored by such impressions.” Several centuries before him, his predecessor Aristotle said “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit.” (there is some dispute as to whether or not Aristotle ever said this, either way, I like it) If the type of excellence you are searching for is happiness and a positive outlook on life, then the best way to attain that state is by constantly disciplining yourself and choosing to be happy each and every day. 

At this point we acknowledge that happiness is a choice, and a choice that must be turned into a habit over time by constantly making the right choice. But how exactly does one DO this? For the Dalai Lama and many, it begins with meditation. His Holiness begins every day with 3-4 hours of meditation, the primary purpose of which is to train his mind for compassion and kindness. He simply sits and thinks about being nice, about recognizing the wholeness of humanity, and about his connection to others. Through hours of these intentional thoughts he develops his mind into one of the most compassionate and welcoming forces in our world. I don’t expect any of us to be able to spend veritable hours at this practice, but some form of intentional meditation and thought, usually first thing in the morning, is a great way to train the mind for happiness. For the Dalai lama the whole way to cultivate happiness is to identify and cultivate positive mental states and to identify and eliminate negative mental states. Mental states would be selfishness, fear, cruelty, isolation, and anger. By meditating on kindness and happiness he cultivates positive states of love, togetherness, community, belonging, and comfort. “By bringing about a certain inner discipline, we can undergo a transformation of our attitude, our entire outlook and approach to living,” ~ His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. 

Our happiness has nothing to do with our surroundings. None of us chooses whether we are born into an urban slum, born with a disease, or born with a silver spoon in our mout so-to-speak. These things are beyond our control. And as the stoics always remind us, what is beyond our control is exactly that, and thus not worth worrying. What we do have control over are our mind and our choices. Happiness is a choice. And it is a choice that becomes a reality when we discipline our minds through intention to eliminate negative thoughts and cultivate positivity. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it happens. I cannot sit here and tell you that I am always happy, but I can tell you that I am much happier than I used to be. In my early 20s I realized that I was choosing to be unhappy due largely to external circumstances. I made the decision to strengthen my mind and choose happiness. It didn’t happen quickly, and it was difficult, it isn’t even finished, but progress is happening. If it can work for me, it can work for you. 

I will leave you a quote from the great Chinese philosopher, Lao Tzu: “watch your thoughts they become words Watch your words they become actions Watch your actions they become habits Watch your habits they become character Watch your character it becomes your destiny.” Control your destiny, choose good thoughts.