Post image for Out of Sight is Not Out of Mind

For a brief time in 2011, I had a place for everything. I discarded more than half of my possessions, with the idea of owning nothing that didn’t have its own hook, spot or shelf. Once everything had a home, I could put everything away in five minutes, and wake up to a clear space and a clear mind.

It took about a month to do — and about six months to undo. When I wrote about my success, I gave it the ambitious title “Everything in its Place, Finally and Forever.” Things eventually reverted to tolerable clutter. It never got back to a clothes-on-the-floor level of messy, but there are objects on the dining room table that are never used for dining, and books living on surfaces other than my bookshelves.

I have never forgotten the uncanny peace that comes from a home devoid of chaos. It’s a completely different home-life experience, free of a certain kind of tension that you only notice when it’s gone. Every item sitting out is an unresolved issue, both in the real world and in the mind. They give your day-to-day life a sense of perpetual unresolvedness, like you’re always in the middle of renovating or switching to new software at work.

I’ve been meaning to do it again for four years now, but it’s an enormous job, and the benefits seem to wear off too quickly. Unless you’re born organized, decluttering is a fight against gravity and entropy, and maybe some other inalienable laws of the cosmos.

The problem was my method. I thought tidying was just a matter of making things look nicer. While I was going closet-to-closet, purging and re-stacking, a tiny Japanese woman was developing a science around the idea of “everything in its place”. Now she’s got a million-selling book and a three-month waiting list for her services.

Her name is Marie Kondo, and she says our conventional notions of tidying set us up for relapse. When we’re children we’re told to tidy our rooms, which we know means “get everything off the floor and out of sight”, and we generally don’t develop the concept of “tidy” any more deeply than that.

Marie says tidying up is something that should done in one single, thorough effort, and it should last a lifetime, because it’s as much a rearrangement your philosophy as of your home. Our homes — and consequently, our lives — get messy because we have fearful and unhealthy relationships with our possessions. Where you keep your things is important, but it’s less important than which things you keep, how you feel about them, and why you have kept them.  Read More

Post image for Life is Easier When You Take the Stairs

Last week CTV News did a segment with a Canadian doctor named Mike Evans, who started a Twitter campaign to encourage people to take the stairs, park farther away, sit less, and walk more.

There’s nothing groundbreaking about this advice. Telling people to “be more active” is about as new to us as the automobile. But the way he put it — “make your day harder” — is different from the usual message, because it hints that there is something about difficulty itself that should attract us.

What he didn’t quite say is that making your day harder in these ways won’t just make your life better, but easier. We all know it’s “better” to eat quinoa salad than hamburgers, and to take the stairs instead of the elevator, but that doesn’t necessarily convince us to change. “Better”, in the exercise-and-whole-grains sense, has always been on offer, but this better life often seems harder than the one we already have, and the last thing we want is to make life harder.

I think what most of us really want is an easier life, not necessarily a more wholesome one. We want less trouble and more enjoyment, probably more so than we want achievement and virtue. But what we often overlook is that embracing difficulty in certain places nets us a lot more ease than our usual “easy” ways. Putting in three hours a week at the gym is easier than being out of shape 24 hours a day. Studying is easier than sitting in an exam room not having studied. Doing a good job at work is easier than wondering when they’ll finally fire you.

I’m used to thinking of ease and difficulty as a pretty straightforward dichotomy: we want more of one and less of the other. And maybe in a sense that’s true, but they are often found in the same place and come together as a package. A small amount of difficulty often serves as the gatekeeper to a large amount of ease. Read More

Post image for You Are Free, Like it or Not

One evening I went with my family to a Thai restaurant for dinner. They seated us near the back, not far from the kitchen doors.

A very bubbly waitress brought us our menus, filled our waters and told us to let her know if we needed anything, or had any questions about anything at all.

When she came back, we ordered. “Perfect!” she said with a huge smile, taking our menus. She went off to the kitchen. As soon as she was through the doors, her voice changed. She was chatting with the staff and we could hear every word.

“Oh my God, I was so sick this morning! I couldn’t stop puking. My boyfriend had to hold my hair back for me.” She went on about the trip to bar, the shooters, the cab ride, the stupid friends who didn’t show up. Lots of details and swear words.

Then she came through the doors again, her waitress face back on, and took orders from a few more tables. She went back into the kitchen again. More profane banter. When she brought out our food, she had a wide, wholesome smile, and it was really hard not to laugh.

I didn’t know it at the time, but Jean-Paul Sartre had written about a similar scenario to illustrate a human tendency he called bad faith. His waiter at a cafe seemed to be completely under the spell of his role as a server. He moved too quickly, too snappily. He spoke about the daily specials with an enthusiasm that no food could warrant in real life. His gestures were so ridiculously waiterly that he seemed to have lost track of the fact that he was a free-choosing person, as if there was nothing to him besides his current role.

Sartre believed that we have much more freedom than we tend to acknowledge. We habitually deny it to protect ourselves from the horror of accepting full responsibility for our lives. In every instant, we are free to behave however we like, but we often act as though circumstances have reduced our options down to one or two ways to move forward.  Read More

happy cup

The phrase “Don’t get emotional” implies that we normally aren’t.

Most of our news headlines can be interpreted as emotional responses gone overboard, becoming crime, scandal, corruption, greed, and bad policy.

The fact that these reactions are newsworthy seems to reinforce the idea that emotions are sporadic and exceptional, little whirlwinds that appear around significant events, making the odd day or week wonderful or awful.

But if you pay attention to your emotions as you read these headlines, it becomes obvious that even in our most mundane moments — reading the paper on a Monday morning — we are always feeling some way or another. Even a casual glance at a newspaper will begin to stir up familiar feelings like fear, amazement, disgust, admiration or annoyance. We’re never really in “neutral.”

We’re living through emotional reactions all day long, even to events as tiny as hearing a text message arrive, or noticing a fly in the room. Our emotions aren’t always overwhelming us, but they are always affecting us, coloring our perceptions and opinions about ourselves and our world.

This is the “fish in water” effect at work — because we are immersed in our emotions’ effects every moment of our lives, we tend to talk about them only when they’re exceptionally strong.

Even when it’s not obvious, though, emotions are the force behind almost everything we do. They’re the only reason our experiences matter at all. If every event triggered the same emotion, it wouldn’t matter to us whether we got out of bed or not, whether we were sick or healthy, or whether we thrived or starved. All of our values and morals, all of the meaning we perceive in life, stem from our knowledge that there are some very different ways a person can feel.  Read More

Post image for Making Things Clear

Yesterday I finally released my new meditation guide, via email, to the early-bird crowd. Feedback has been awesome again. Thank you everyone — I’m so glad you’re enjoying it.

So today, Making Things Clear: A Brief Guide For People Who Think Meditation is Hard is available to everybody else. Some of you have been waiting for this guide and already know what it’s about. If so, you can get it here.

For those who don’t know, Making Things Clear is a non-denominational, no-experience-necessary guide to meditation. It spells everything out in simple terms, with no spiritual pretensions. It’s meant for those who are new to meditation, or who aren’t but still resist doing it on a regular basis.

I’ve been singing the praises of meditation since I started this blog, and I know some of you do it regularly. I believe it’s one of the most versatile, universally beneficial activities human beings have discovered so far. Even our science community has gotten over its skepticism about meditation’s benefits. Read More

food

Here in the so-called First World, we give up a lot because of an exaggerated fear of a particular feeling.

It’s usually pretty subtle, but I see this fear made explicit whenever Mr Money Mustache or other early-retirement advocates get national news coverage. The comment sections of these major publications are always vile, and I don’t recommend you read them, but if you do you will notice a trend. Even when Pete explains the shockingly simple math that proves early retirement is possible for people of average incomes, commenters insist they would prefer to leave their lifestyle costs unchanged than retire twenty years earlier but “live a life of deprivation”.

This unexamined fear of deprivation has a huge effect on our lives. Consumers go into debt because they’re afraid of going without something they’re used to. We eat too much because we’re afraid of being disappointed by small portions. We continue bad habits for years because the thought of disallowing ourselves to do something we enjoy feels oppressive. “We deserve it!” we tell ourselves. Or at least advertisers tell us to tell ourselves that.

The strange thing is that usually it’s not even real deprivation. These are all choices. The big purchase, the extra calories, and the indulgent habit are always available to you to take or leave.

We’re faced with this kind of choice — “Do I let myself have it or not?” — all the time. Particularly when we’re in the midst of some kind of self-improvement effort, we often feel like we’re stuck between a familiar rock and hard place: do the unhealthy thing and feel guilty, or do the healthy thing and feel deprived. You can get the salad instead of the fries, but then you have to watch people eating their fries while you eat your sad little salad.

These kinds of lifestyle choices are about a lot more than simply weighing the respective costs and benefits of excess calories and culinary envy. Going the self-deprivation route feels like we’re renouncing pleasure and comfort as parts of our lives. Such a life of constraint seems awful, so we often choose what looks like freedom. And if freedom is deep-fried, then so be it.  Read More

lucky charms

When I was a kid in the 1980s, I learned from my television that Lucky Charms contained seven essential nutrients and was part of a complete breakfast. At the end of the commercial it would show this complete breakfast: a modest bowl of sugary cereal in the middle of a spread of traditional foods, including a plate of toast with jam, a glass of orange juice, a glass of milk and a plate of fruit.

I don’t think I ever had a “complete breakfast” as defined by General Mills, but that image is what appeared in my mind whenever somebody said, as everyone did, that breakfast was the most important meal of the day. I was never tempted to doubt that maxim, because I loved food so much that I couldn’t imagine somebody voluntarily going to school or work without eating something.

When I did my liquid food experiment last year, the response taught me something that seems obvious in hindsight. I learned how stubbornly people will defend their beliefs about food even when they cannot tell you why they believe those things. I found that the more certainty people expressed about their food beliefs, the less able they were to provide evidence supporting those beliefs when asked. Claims of certainty make me skeptical.

Where did the “three meals a day” axiom come from? It probably has more to do with what time daily mass was held in the Middle Ages than anything related to nutrition.  But tell someone you’re not eating lunch today, and they might prepare an intervention.

“If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, you shouldn’t be eating it!” is a more recent favorite. But it has some strange implications: well-read people can tolerate obscure ingredients that would harm others, and the illiterate shouldn’t be eating anything at all.

I am gradually coming to the conclusion that most of our popular notions about eating are nothing more than unexamined folklore — all culture and no science, bolstered selectively by food marketers wherever it suits them.  Read More

Post image for Freedom Comes From How You Live

Dan Harris, best known as the host of ABC’s Nightline, began his path to happiness by having an on-air panic attack.

He was reading the national news, live, when he lost the ability to speak coherently. For 35 awful seconds, he stumbled through a segment about statin drugs for cholesterol, saying related words but making no sense. With several stories still unread, he bailed out: “…that’s all for news right now, back to Robin and Charlie.”

The incident forced him to face his mounting stress problem. He explored the many forms of self-help, and during his stint as ABC’s faith reporter (even though he was a skeptic and an atheist) he found something that worked for him: meditation. Over the next few years he used it to transform his relationship to stress and his work, and still meditates daily.

But his go-getting type-A colleagues gave him a hard time for his “weird” habit, and he had trouble explaining to them what it did for him. To say it simply reduces stress was really selling it short; it does much more for a person than that. But to describe the benefits more specifically — that it allowed him to see the world the way it really is, or to see the mechanics of his bad habits, or to inquire into the nature of the self — hardly makes it sound attractive, and fails to convey its value anyway.

Eventually he came up with a stock response: “I do it because it makes me 10% happier,” although he admits this was both an understatement and an oversimplification.

Although I think his catchphrase makes meditation sound much less useful than it really is, I understand the problem he was trying to address. Meditation is still a hard sell in the Western world. It’s so unusual to us that it’s hard to make it appeal to materialistic Western sensibilities. But we all understand the value of a life with less anxiety and more happiness.

Meditation isn’t specifically about happiness, but more happiness is a likely side effect. One thing it does do, in my experience, is expand one’s freedom in a particular way, and this freedom can be used to pursue happiness and ease with much less trouble. I’ll show you what I mean.  Read More

Post image for How to Make Bad Days Okay

We human beings suffer from a persistent illusion that creates a huge amount of needless stress: we see today as much bigger and more significant than other days.

It seems like we should. Today is the only day we’re able to actually do anything, and the only day we can experience the consequences of what we’ve already done. In that sense, today is pivotal: what you have to do today is clearly much more relevant to your life than what you had to do on the same date ten years ago. This seems like common sense.

But this common feeling overlooks a crucial fact that would save us a lot of suffering if we could only stay aware of it: other days are “today” too. In fact, it’s the only kind of day there is. Chances are, whatever was looming huge in your mind ten years ago today had no more absolute importance to your life as whatever is stressing you out this morning.

It doesn’t feel like it though, because it seems like the person you were back then — the person those problems belonged to — wasn’t quite you yet. You were still on your way to becoming who you are. You still had some bad habits you no longer have; you were still in a job or a relationship that was all wrong for you; you hadn’t yet discovered the joy of running every morning, reading before bed, eating mostly vegetables, or a lot of the other things that might seem essential to who you are now.

Of course, ten years from now it will feel the same way. You’ll be a different person, and your life as it is today will seem distant, and not particularly relevant.

Research shows that we consistently overrate the importance of today in the scope of our lives. In 2012, a group of psychologists published a study in which they asked more than 19,000 people about how they had changed over time, and how much they expected to change in the future. The subjects were asked about their preferences, habits, and values, and how those things had changed over the last ten years. They were also asked to estimate how much they expected to change over the next ten.

The researchers found that at all ages, people consistently underestimated how much they would change in the future. For example, 40-year-olds looking back at their 30s saw that they had changed quite radically in the intervening decade, while 30-year-olds predicted relatively little change in the decade ahead of them.

From the abstract of the study:

“People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.”

It turns out that at every age — or perhaps on every day — we feel like we have reached the end of history. Today always seems so enormous, so significant in a way other days never were. Everything before today’s problems, which we see as our real problems, was backstory, relevant only in how it informs what happens today.

The extra significance that seems unique to right now was there all along, in every experience you ever had. And today, this day on which you’re sitting here reading this article — along with all the worldly concerns currently weighing on you — is happening on a date that used to be tiny in your mind, just another square on the calendar, and will soon be tiny again.

It’s not that today isn’t significant, only that life’s other days are more or less equally significant, even if it doesn’t seem like it from where you stand now. Today you might look back on your high-school breakup, and all of the fretting and sobbing that came with it, as silly or even cute. But when you were there it was happening now, and it was excruciating.  Read More

cinema

Most of us were taught as children never to talk to strangers. At face value this is bad life advice — we can never know people we never talk to. But we know it’s only meant to arm children with a basic skepticism about unknown people, so that they’re less likely to accept a ride from that rare person who really is dangerous.

It’s a crude but effective policy, something like how Wal-Mart used to pay “greeters” to stand near the entrance and tape shut any bags you’re carrying; they wanted to prevent shoplifting, so they simply treated all their customers like thieves.

Unfortunately, the word “stranger” isn’t used only between teachers and schoolchildren, it’s our normal word for referring to the overwhelming proportion of the population whom we don’t know anything about. It implies that our default view of everyday passers-by should be at least a little bit suspicious. We need a bit of evidence that they are worthy of our respect — let alone our love or caring — before we give it. We assume no obligation to feel anything for them, or to care how their lives are going.

A minority of the time, I’ll be out in public and that air of indifference won’t be there. Instead, I’ll feel an indiscriminate warmth towards my fellow citizens. There is a certain appreciation, even love, for everyone I see, without any of them showing a similar appreciation for me. Often this happens just after seeing a poignant film, or receiving some good news, or having some other experience that has temporarily dissolved that sense of unknown people being irrelevant.

It’s almost a custom in our society, to dismiss by default the idea of actually caring for people we don’t know, at least before we’ve been given a reason. Our comedy is built on this casual disdain for the other guy. We share anecdotes about “idiots” we ran into earlier. Sartre says “Hell is other people” and we nod knowingly, fully misunderstanding what he meant.

With people we already know, we can easily forgive mistakes. Strangers, however, enter our lives already under suspicion. We disqualify entire human beings from the possibility of our respect or forgiveness the moment they fail to use a turn signal, or wear a baseball cap in the wrong kind of eating establishment.

To quote humorist Jack Handey: “A man doesn’t automatically get my respect. He has to get down in the dirt and beg for it.”

In our culture, the default is to treat strangers with indifference at best. It isn’t normal, for example, to spend a moment quietly wishing your fellow bus passengers a good day at work or school. When we find ourselves in a grocery store aisle with some other human beings, we’re more likely to be annoyed by them than we are to sympathize with them.  Read More


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