Monday, July 30, 2012

A simple way to be happier... and save the world in the process

The title of this post is bold and unbelievable, I agree. Luckily, it's also true, and as such would be a shame not to share. So buckle in. This is going to take a few minutes.

Why we suck at being happy

What's the one thing that everyone wants? To be happy. Even if you "just" want to be famous, you'd probably rather not be famous and depressed. So why are we so bad at it?

One common misconception (perhaps the most common) is that what we're missing is having the right stuff. The right job, the right house, the right car, the right spouse. If you honestly believe that you'd be (permanently) happier by winning the lottery, or sadder by losing an arm, then you simply haven't been keeping up with the research. That's forgivable and easy to fix: read it, digest it, and come back.

But picking the wrong targets is only half the story. The other half is far more interesting: it's about what our life is like while we're clamoring for all of those things. See, I think the biggest thing standing between us and happiness is... all those other pesky emotions. Anxiety. Anger. Irritation. I think we have them all wrong.

Your emotions are yours (and yours alone)

Say you're walking rapidly through the mall, on the way to buy your new gadget or shoes. Then some jerk steps out in front of you and starts walking slowly, seriously dampening your mojo. Irritation is the obvious result, and it's clearly that guy's fault. If only there weren't such thoughtless people in the world...

Or say you get dragged to the dreaded opera. And while you're there, you can't help but think how boring this whole thing is. Life would be better if you just didn't have to be here right now.

But an opera can't be boring. Some people actually like it, so boring-ness can't be a property of the opera, in the way that brightness is a property of the sun. Boredom is a property of you. It's merely a description of how you're not yet skilled in dealing with reality as it is. Don't wear it as a badge.

I'm very fond of the way David describes things in his blog ( linked above:
Annoyance is never anything but a dysfunctional relationship between you and what you experience.
A dysfunctional relationship between you, and what you experience. It’s never anyone else’s fault, and it’s never the best emotion. If you understand just this one sentence, there's hope. You're halfway to getting it.

Now, mind you, you don't have to know yet how to overcome it. We'll get there soon. You don't even need to really believe that people who get in your way aren't jerks, or that people who slurp coffee aren't doing it just to annoy you. Maybe some of them are. You just need to accept that the emotions themselves are yours and yours alone.

If it sounds scary to you to think that you have complete responsibility for all your emotions at all times, consider the alternative. If other people had buttons they could press that actually changed your emotions? Now THAT would be scary.

And if you think that brain chemistry alone is to blame, remember two things. First, our brains are malleable, and change in response to our actions and attitudes. And second, research shows that people who believe they have free will make better choices.

So take pride in owning your emotions, and remember, even if you were dealt crappy cards, there’s always time to change.

Question the motives of your negative emotions

Consider this bumper sticker:

It's popular, and I think, wildly misguided. At first, it sounds morally righteous. If you can see that our world needs help, surely the correct emotion is violent, resentful anger?

Or maybe you can be passionate without being resentful or vindictive. Outrage looks for someone to blame, something to destroy. If you remove those blinders, you get passion. Passion sees more possibilities. It's productive. It looks for the best solution going forward, regardless of “who started it.” It's certainly not apathetic, which is the usual explanation of why we need outrage.

When reason and emotion pair up, good things happen. Otherwise, what you have is raised blood pressure with very little else to show for it. Except a rad bumper sticker. Outrage is getting your panties in a bunch because it feels righteous.

I think the band The Offspring said it best:

The more you suffer, 
The more it shows you really care. 
Right? Yeah yeah yeah!

We may be addicted to negative emotions like outrage and irritation because they give us that little kick of dopamine from being right, and that feels good. So ask yourself: are you more interested in being right, or doing something about it?

There's a reason we're said to wallow in self pity. Indulging in negative emotions feels good in the same way eating a box of chocolates does: for a short while, and not for the right reasons. A great deal of the fun for me in my journey has been identifying why I'm still attached to various negative thoughts or feelings (blame, vengefulness, cynicism, annoyance, outrage, ...) so that I can better escape their siren calls in the future.

Again, I'm not saying it's bad if you feel these things now. I do, too. But it's important to take the next step. The key is to realize that for nearly every situation which involves a nasty emotion plus some result, you can get the same (and often better) result without the nasty emotion. Fewer people (including you) have to get hurt.

Once you're willing to trade in negativity for productivity, you're ready to proceed to the real core of the issue. So far I haven't told you how to resolve any of this. Now I'll show you.

You are not your X ( X) for all you non-geeks, that reads "for all X"

Has it ever occurred to you that you are not your body? You have a body, but even when you don't experience that body -- like in a dream, where you can take on any form -- there's something there that still unquestionably feels like you, and it sure ain't made of body parts.

You are not your emotions, either. You experience emotions. You are not your thoughts. You experience thoughts. If you are experiencing some thing, then it stands to reason that you are not that thing.

Continuing this line of reasoning, you may wonder: what, then, are you? Well, if you can be said to be anything at all, perhaps it is the awareness that is experiencing all of these things -- body, emotions, thoughts, perceptions. This is more than just a philosophical stunt. The practical implications of this fact are more profound and wide-ranging than you can imagine, once it sinks in.

At every moment of your life, you have a choice to make: you can choose to identify with this awareness that you are, or you can choose to identify with the things it is aware of -- thoughts, emotions, perceptions, etc.

To illustrate the difference, consider two ways of experiencing anger:

1. You feel angry. You have become angry, and now there's a strong sense that something must be done about it. You either need to vent it (bad), or else suppress it (bad). Your judgement is impaired. Anger has its claws in you, and feels as if it's a part of you.

2. Recognizing that you cannot be angry (you cannot be any emotion -- see above), you instead simply notice that you are experiencing the emotion "anger." If you need to act, you will. Otherwise, you can let it drift on by like a cloud in the sky. You know, right then and there, that it will pass. This prevents you from doing anything stupid, and from being deeply affected by the anger.

If you've ever felt that you did something because you were angry, it's likely you were experiencing the first mode -- identifying with the anger. In the other option, we maintain the continuous recognition that anger is just a signal to us, and that deep down our pristine, lucid awareness is unsullied and still has control. In this way we cannot be hurt or bullied by anger or other strong emotions. This is identifying with our own awareness.

The key is to remember that you -- the real you -- in some fundamental sense cannot be touched or modified. Awareness cannot be harmed in any way. Like fireworks and the sky, emotions may be stunningly bright but cannot modify our fundamental fabric.

Again, this is not some metaphysical ploy. It has real world implications. Lots of them.

The ability to witness thoughts and emotions without getting caught up in them is the fundamental skill behind extremely successful techniques for managing or curing pain, stress, depression, anxiety, panic, addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder, overeating, ... you name it.

Learning to see yourself as you truly are, and not as the things you're thinking and feeling right now, is not an easy process. But nothing has a bigger payoff.

Remembering to do it

Okay, that sounds nice, but I still haven't told you how. Truth is, coming to this realization while you're in the grip of a strong emotion is rather difficult. Smarter would be to first train it in easier settings. Let's look at an example.
You look at yourself in the mirror. Identifying with your body, you generate a thought about how you wish you were more shapely. Identifying with that thought, it generates a whole train of further thoughts about your body image, resulting in a feeling of worthlessness. Finally, you identify with this feeling, and your day is ruined.
There were many opportunities in this scenario to recall that you are not your body, thoughts, or emotions, and halt the downward spiral. The sooner in the process you do it, the easier it is, and the fewer the negative consequences downstream. The hard part is remembering. The only way to do that reliably is to practice.

You have thousands of opportunities a day to practice. Pretty much any time a thought pops into your head, and you're not explicitly aware that it has, it leads to another thought, and then another. We normally call this "mind wandering," and as we now know, a wandering mind is an unhappy mind.

To get a sense of what it feels like to become explicitly aware of thoughts, think back to an episode where you've been reading, only to find that at some point your eyes are scanning the page but your mind is elsewhere. At that crucial moment, there's a sudden realization that "oops, I meant to be reading, but I'm thinking." You sort of "wake up." That's a brief flicker of awareness.

When you are continuously aware of your own awareness, the feeling is that of "being present" or "being in the moment." With practice, thoughts and memories can even stop being obstacles to being in the moment. With enough skill, you can even get the benefits of mind wandering without the drawbacks.

How to get started

Mind wandering with awareness is a somewhat advanced practice. Usually we end up falling into the stream of thoughts and forgetting to maintain our awareness. If you want something simpler, look into meditation classes or books.

The entire purpose of meditation is to give you a sandbox in which to practice recognizing and disengaging from stray thoughts and feelings. By itself this can make you relaxed and calm, but its real benefits are in how it transforms your everyday experience.

You may think meditation is too boring, or time consuming, or hippie-ish, but the alternative -- to live life half asleep, and in the grip of whatever thoughts and emotions feel like tossing you around -- sounds even less attractive. If you can't be bothered to spend 10 or 20 minutes a day working on the most important (and in some sense only) thing affecting your emotional wellbeing -- your mind -- then expect results to match.

And contrary to popular belief, meditation is not about quieting the mind, although that can be a nice (if eventual) byproduct. You're not "doing it wrong" or "bad at it" if you're flooded by thoughts when you try. That's like saying exercise isn't for you because you can't run as fast or lift as much as you think you should. That would suggest it is for you.

Every time you explicitly engage your awareness is once more than you would have otherwise, and the significance of that should not be underestimated. As long as you're trying to do that, you're doing it exactly right.

And if you're wondering "do I have to meditate to get these benefits?," the answer is... maybe not exactly. Perhaps you could do something a whole lot like meditation (repeatedly engaging your nonjudgmental awareness) and not call it "meditation" if that word bothers you. Sort of like you don't have to "exercise" to be healthy. You could instead... play sports.

BTW, when my own MindPing app is completed, maybe it will be useful as a gentler introduction.

...and save the world in the process

Now we reveal my true purpose (muahahaha).

What's wrong with the world today? You might say that people are too violent, or selfish, or celebrity obsessed, or materialistic, or consumeristic, or ... whatever specific problem you have decided to focus on.

What's the right way to fix things? Should we address each of the concerns above individually? If so, do we do it by telling people "hey, you're too consumeristic! Halt, heathen!"? Do we just impose our (your? my?) wills on them? Has that ever worked?

What if the easiest way to solve all (fine, most) of these problems at once is by getting people to care? And what if I told you that there's an efficient way to do that -- and that it's described above?

Think about it. Can you imagine anyone, after gaining more mental clarity and stability, becoming more interested in celebrity gossip? In buying shinier and fancier things? In stabbing kittens?

No. And the research backs this up. If you're wondering why, just think back to an experience where you felt truly present and in-the-moment. Which comes closer to describing it? Violent, or peaceful? Selfish, or selfless?

The truth is, selfishness and kindness are not simply competing tendencies of our minds, as some would have you believe. Unless you're a sociopath, chances are very good that as your awareness is honed, the parasitic emotions that cause selfishness and unhappiness will lose their grip. And that leaves a lot more time, energy, and interest in helping others. Y'know, driving this whole species forward and all.

To finish, let's return to the blog over at raptitude (emphasis mine).
It’s no secret that quality of life is all about how you come to terms with the present moment, and resentment is a woefully unskillful way to do that.
This applies to you and everyone else. Whenever you're tempted to peg people as lazy, stupid, or evil, remember this gentler and more truthful word, and how it applies to us all: unskillful. Same goes for you, when you want to blame your emotions on someone or something.

Now you know what the skill is to solve it all in one fell swoop. No more excuses. Go do it.


Some people seem to think this implies that when one is not identifying with emotions, it means they have blunted emotions. That would indeed make this unattractive. What actually happens is that we fight negative emotions less, and we desperately cling to positive emotions less. The emotion feels more direct, but the result is less sting in negative emotions and more simple joy in positive ones. 

No comments: