Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘happiness’

23 OCTOBER, 2013

Happy Birthday, Brain Pickings: 7 Things I Learned in 7 Years of Reading, Writing, and Living

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Reflections on how to keep the center solid as you continue to evolve.

UPDATE: The fine folks of Holstee have turned these seven learnings into a gorgeous letterpress poster inspired by mid-century children’s book illustration.

On October 23, 2006, I sent a short email to a few friends at work — one of the four jobs I held while paying my way through college — with the subject line “brain pickings,” announcing my intention to start a weekly digest featuring five stimulating things to learn about each week, from a breakthrough in neuroscience to a timeless piece of poetry. “It should take no more than 4 minutes (hopefully much less) to read,” I promised. This was the inception of Brain Pickings. At the time, I neither planned nor anticipated that this tiny experiment would one day be included in the Library of Congress digital archive of “materials of historical importance” and the few friends would become millions of monthly readers all over the world, ranging from the Dutch high school student who wrote to me this morning to my 77-year-old grandmother in Bulgaria to the person in Wisconsin who mailed me strudel last week. (Thank you!) Above all, I had no idea that in the seven years to follow, this labor of love would become my greatest joy and most profound source of personal growth, my life and my living, my sense of purpose, my center. (For the curious, more on the origin story here.)

Illustration by Maurice Sendak from 'I'll Be You and You Be Me' by Ruth Krauss, 1954. Click image for more.

Looking back today on the thousands of hours I’ve spent researching and writing Brain Pickings and the countless collective hours of readership it has germinated — a smile-inducing failure on the four-minute promise — I choke up with gratitude for the privilege of this journey, for its endless rewards of heart, mind and spirit, and for all the choices along the way that made it possible. I’m often asked to offer advice to young people who are just beginning their own voyages of self-discovery, or those reorienting their calling at any stage of life, and though I feel utterly unqualified to give “advice” in that omniscient, universally wise sense the word implies, here are seven things I’ve learned in seven years of making those choices, of integrating “work” and life in such inextricable fusion, and in chronicling this journey of heart, mind and spirit — a journey that took, for whatever blessed and humbling reason, so many others along for the ride. I share these here not because they apply to every life and offer some sort of blueprint to existence, but in the hope that they might benefit your own journey in some small way, bring you closer to your own center, or even simply invite you to reflect on your own sense of purpose.

Illustration from 'Inside the Rainbow: Russian Children's Literature 1920-35.' Click image for more.

  1. Allow yourself the uncomfortable luxury of changing your mind. Cultivate that capacity for “negative capability.” We live in a culture where one of the greatest social disgraces is not having an opinion, so we often form our “opinions” based on superficial impressions or the borrowed ideas of others, without investing the time and thought that cultivating true conviction necessitates. We then go around asserting these donned opinions and clinging to them as anchors to our own reality. It’s enormously disorienting to simply say, “I don’t know.” But it’s infinitely more rewarding to understand than to be right — even if that means changing your mind about a topic, an ideology, or, above all, yourself.
  2. Do nothing for prestige or status or money or approval alone. As Paul Graham observed, “prestige is like a powerful magnet that warps even your beliefs about what you enjoy. It causes you to work not on what you like, but what you’d like to like.” Those extrinsic motivators are fine and can feel life-affirming in the moment, but they ultimately don’t make it thrilling to get up in the morning and gratifying to go to sleep at night — and, in fact, they can often distract and detract from the things that do offer those deeper rewards.
  3. Be generous. Be generous with your time and your resources and with giving credit and, especially, with your words. It’s so much easier to be a critic than a celebrator. Always remember there is a human being on the other end of every exchange and behind every cultural artifact being critiqued. To understand and be understood, those are among life’s greatest gifts, and every interaction is an opportunity to exchange them.
  4. Build pockets of stillness into your life. Meditate. Go for walks. Ride your bike going nowhere in particular. There is a creative purpose to daydreaming, even to boredom. The best ideas come to us when we stop actively trying to coax the muse into manifesting and let the fragments of experience float around our unconscious mind in order to click into new combinations. Without this essential stage of unconscious processing, the entire flow of the creative process is broken.

    Most importantly, sleep. Besides being the greatest creative aphrodisiac, sleep also affects our every waking moment, dictates our social rhythm, and even mediates our negative moods. Be as religious and disciplined about your sleep as you are about your work. We tend to wear our ability to get by on little sleep as some sort of badge of honor that validates our work ethic. But what it really is is a profound failure of self-respect and of priorities. What could possibly be more important than your health and your sanity, from which all else springs?

  5. When people tell you who they are, Maya Angelou famously advised, believe them. Just as importantly, however, when people try to tell you who you are, don’t believe them. You are the only custodian of your own integrity, and the assumptions made by those that misunderstand who you are and what you stand for reveal a great deal about them and absolutely nothing about you.
  6. Presence is far more intricate and rewarding an art than productivity. Ours is a culture that measures our worth as human beings by our efficiency, our earnings, our ability to perform this or that. The cult of productivity has its place, but worshipping at its altar daily robs us of the very capacity for joy and wonder that makes life worth living — for, as Annie Dillard memorably put it, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”
  7. “Expect anything worthwhile to take a long time.” This is borrowed from the wise and wonderful Debbie Millman, for it’s hard to better capture something so fundamental yet so impatiently overlooked in our culture of immediacy. The myth of the overnight success is just that — a myth — as well as a reminder that our present definition of success needs serious retuning. As I’ve reflected elsewhere, the flower doesn’t go from bud to blossom in one spritely burst and yet, as a culture, we’re disinterested in the tedium of the blossoming. But that’s where all the real magic unfolds in the making of one’s character and destiny.

One of Maurice Sendak's vintage posters celebrating the joy of reading. Click image for more.

Then, just for good measure, here are seven of my favorite pieces from the past seven years. (Yes, it is exactly like picking your favorite child — so take it with a grain of salt.)

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23 SEPTEMBER, 2013

What George Eliot Teaches Us about the Life-Cycle of Happiness and the Science of Why We’re Happier When We’re Older

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“One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy.”

Much like creativity is a skill rather than a gift and genius the product of work ethic rather than inspiration, happiness, too, is a practice rather than a state, one that necessitates both learning and constant maintenance. Long before the findings of modern psychology and cognitive science, beloved author George Eliot arrived at this insight one spring Sunday in 1844. Writing in a letter to her dear friend Sara Hennell, found in George Eliot’s Life, as Related in her Letters and Journals (public library; public domain), 25-year-old Eliot reflects on the life-cycle of happiness, defying the romantic myth of the idyllic childhood and insisting instead that our capacity for happiness swells with age:

One has to spend so many years in learning how to be happy. I am just beginning to make some progress in the science, and I hope to disprove Young’s theory that “as soon as we have found the key of life it opes the gates of death.” Every year strips us of at least one vain expectation, and teaches us to reckon some solid good in its stead. I never will believe that our youngest days are our happiest. What a miserable augury for the progress of the race and the destination of the individual if the more matured and enlightened state is the less happy one! Childhood is only the beautiful and happy time in contemplation and retrospect: to the child it is full of deep sorrows, the meaning of which is unknown. Witness colic and whooping-cough and dread of ghosts, to say nothing of hell and Satan, and an offended Deity in the sky, who was angry when I wanted too much plumcake. Then the sorrows of older persons, which children see but cannot understand, are worse than all. All this to prove that we are happier than when we were seven years old, and that we shall be happier when we are forty than we are now, which I call a comfortable doctrine, and one worth trying to believe!

As is often the case with history’s greatest luminaries, Eliot intuited something profound that has since been confirmed and quantified by modern science. In her book on optimism bias and the life-cycle of happiness, neuroscientist Tali Sharot shares some data consistent with Eliot’s sentiment. This is the pattern of a typical person’s happiness over the course of a lifetime — a pattern that persists even when controlled for variables like marital status, health, and cultural climate:

The data comes from behavioral economist Andrew Oswald’s research, which Sharot synthesizes:

Happiness and the ability to learn from bad news alter with age in reverse patterns. The latter follows an inverse U shape, while the former a more traditional U shape. The behavioral economist Andrew Oswald found that from about the time we are teenagers, our sense of happiness starts to decline, hitting rock bottom in our mid-40s (middle-age crisis, anyone?). Then our sense of happiness miraculously starts to go up again rapidly as we grow older. This finding contradicts the common assumption that people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s are less happy and satisfied than people in their 30s and 40s.

[…]

All in all, Oswald tested a half million people in 72 countries, in both developing and developed nations. He observed the same pattern across all parts of the globe and across sexes. From Switzerland to Ecuador, from Romania to Singapore, Slovakia, Israel, Spain, Australia, and China. Happiness diminishes as we transition from childhood to adulthood and then starts rising as we grow wrinkles and acquire gray hair. And it’s not only we humans who slump in the middle and feel sunnier toward the end. Just recently, Oswald and colleagues demonstrated that even chimpanzees and orangutans appear to experience a similar pattern of midlife malaise.

The increase of happiness with age might have to do with the notion that attention, like a muscle, grows with training. Since happiness is so heavily anchored to our capacity for presence and so diminished by our mind-wandering, the ability to truly see when we look at the world — something that takes time, practice, and awareness that youth rarely affords — is central to our sense of well-being. But if happiness is a habit to be cultivated, so is its opposite: Lest we forget, 40-year-old Eliot reminds us in The Mill on the Floss that “one gets a bad habit of being unhappy.” Fortunately, Eliot did grow her own capacity for contentment with age.

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29 JULY, 2013

What the Psychology of Suicide Prevention Teaches Us About Controlling Our Everyday Worries

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Two surprisingly simple yet effective techniques for ameliorating anxiety.

“We must gain victory, not by assaulting the walls, but by accepting them,” wrote James Gordon Gilkey in his 1934 guide to how not to worry. “Don’t worry about popular opinion … Don’t worry about the past. Don’t worry about the future. … Don’t worry about anybody getting ahead of you,” F. Scott Fitzgerald advised his young daughter. And yet we do worry — we worry about money, we worry about whether our art is good enough, we worry that we’re all alone in the world, we worry about almost everything. For Kierkegaard, anxiety was the hallmark of the creative mind, but for most of us mere mortals, worries are more of a crippling than a crutch.

In Time Warped: Unlocking the Mysteries of Time Perception (public library) — which also gave us this fascinating explanation of why time slows down when we’re afraid, speeds up as we age, and gets warped when we’re on vacation — BBC’s Claudia Hammond explores the psychology of mitigating our worries:

Ad Kerkhof is a Dutch clinical psychologist who has worked in the field of suicide prevention for 30 years. He has observed that before attempting suicide people often experience a period of extreme rumination about the future. They sometimes reported that these obsessive thoughts had become so overwhelming that they felt death was the only way to escape. Kerkhof has developed techniques which help suicidal people to reduce this rumination and is now applying the same methods to people who worry on a more everyday basis. He has found that people worry about one topic more than any other — the future, often believing that the more hours they spend contemplating it, the more likely they are to find a solution to their problems. But this isn’t the case. His techniques come from cognitive behavioral therapy and may sound remarkably straightforward, but they are all backed up by trials.

'My Wheel of Worry' by Andrew Kuo, depicting his inner worries, arguments, counterarguments, and obsessions in the form of charts and graphs.

Click for details.

Hammond makes appreciative note of the fact that Kerkhof “does not make grand claims for his methods.” Rather, he offers the open disclaimer that his techniques won’t forever banish any and all worrying — but they do offer a promising way to cut down the time we spend worrying. Hammond offers a practical exercise based on the technique:

If you find yourself awake in the middle of night worrying, with thoughts whirling round repeatedly in your head, he has several strategies you can try. This is where imagery comes in useful again. Imagine there’s a box under your bed. This is your worry box. As soon as you spot thoughts that are worries, imagine taking those individual worries, putting them into the box and closing the lid. They are then to remain in the box under the bed until you decide to get them out again. If the worries recur, remind yourself that they are in the box and won’t be attended to until later on. An alternative is to choose a colour and then picture a cloud of that color. Put your worries into the cloud and let it swirl backwards and forwards above your head. Then watch it slowly float up and away, taking the worrying thoughts with it.

For those apt to dismiss this as Pollyanna psycho-blabber, Hammond points out that there is strong empirical evidence supporting Kerkhof’s theories and offers another of his techniques for those who find themselves too skeptical to try the abstract imagery exercise:

Set aside a time for worrying. Your worries relate to real and practical problems in your life, so you cannot rid yourself of them altogether, but you can learn to control when you think about them. Fyodor Dostoyevsky famously commanded his brother not to think of a white bear, and we know from the experiment on thought suppression which followed that, given that instruction, you can think of nothing but a white bear. … Likewise, telling people not to think of their worries isn’t going to work. Instead Kerkhof recommends the opposite. Set aside 15 minutes in the morning and 15 minutes in the evening to do nothing but worry about the future. Sit at a table, make a list of all your problems and then think about them. But as soon as the time is up you must stop worrying, and whenever those worries come back into your head remind yourself that you can’t contemplate them again until your next worry time. You have given yourself permission to postpone your worrying until the time of your choice. Remarkably, it can work. It puts you in control.

Time Warped is fantastic in its entirety. Pair it with Philippa Perry’s indispensable How to Stay Sane.

Donating = Loving

Bringing you (ad-free) Brain Pickings takes hundreds of hours each month. If you find any joy and stimulation here, please consider becoming a Supporting Member with a recurring monthly donation of your choosing, between a cup of tea and a good dinner:





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