I just answered a huge batch of emails, and there’s a question that keeps getting asked:
“How did you learn all this [stuff you write about on the blog?] Did it come to you in one big epiphany, or a bunch of little ones? Was there a *big* one?”
I’ve been totally fascinated by the topic of human quality of life for twelve years now, and I’ve been writing about it for four. Throughout that stretch of time, I’ve had lots of little breakthroughs and each one left something to build on.
The biggest one of all happened last fall. The feeling of being me changed drastically, over only a couple of days. Life lost its normal mildly-threatening background hum. Today, in almost any given moment I actually feel prepared for the rest of my life. That used to be a rare feeling.
It happened to me when I was experimenting with the much-maligned Law of Attraction, which I am still agnostic towards, but I hit on something that was very out-of-character for me at the time.
I decided to expect everything to go well, for no reason at all.
And generally things did. Everything generally went very well for no discernible reason. Almost everything I did ended up being easier than I thought and more rewarding than I thought, once I decided not to bother thinking about things going badly.
That sums up the best advice I could give anyone: think a lot about what you want, and think only sparingly about what you don’t want.
My whole life I felt like I had some sort of duty to think about what I don’t want, as if it must be helpful in some way, or that somehow it’s healthiest to keep a “balanced” outlook by tempering positive expectations with negative ones.
For about four months I’ve refused to entertain thoughts about what I don’t want, as a rule. I wanted to see what would happen if I just ditched them all as soon as I noticed them.
Instead of everything falling apart, everything started coming together. I found myself doing things I’d been afraid to do for years. It started to feel good to wake up — throughout my whole adult life my first waking thought was almost always a worrisome one.
Normal moments became easy and beautiful. Tough moments tend to make me lucid and patient now. Almost all my remaining social anxiety disappeared. My aversions shrank, my attractions grew. The outside world at large became damn attractive to me, when it used to feel vaguely menacing most of the time.
After thirty years of taking negative thoughts seriously, I felt a little like the doomsayers must have after the recent Mayan non-apocalypse — my model of reality was wrong, and I’d be embarrassed to have wasted so much energy on it if I wasn’t so thrilled to finally get it right.
I can’t believe how prominent imaginary bad outcomes were in my life. Most of my life was spent picturing every kind of disaster, from embarassment to maiming, virtually of it habitual, draining and useless.
When I’m in a bad mood (which still happens and will always happen) then my negative impulses can get a hold of me again. But the odd funk is okay. Generally I’m only interested in thinking about what I want, if I’m thinking at all. There’s not much value in thinking about what you don’t want.
You will always be visited by some of both kinds of thoughts. I’m not saying negative thoughts shouldn’t be appearing in your mind. Having a thought is something that happens to us. It’s involuntary. But thinking about something is something we actively do. We just do it so habitually that we usually don’t consciously decide to go on thinking about something. But we can think about certain things on purpose, and by doing that we can interrupt our thinking about something we ought not to bother exploring.
Doing it takes some practice. It will be different for everyone, but I adapted quickly, because it was such a relief to realize I have no duty to think about what I don’t want, and nothing to gain from it anyway.
The Simplest Trick
Think of it as a simple habit: When you notice you’re thinking about what you don’t want again, take that moment as a chance to think about what you do want.
Thinking about what you do want is a matter of asking yourself what it would be like if things went the way you wanted. This isn’t hard, but you aren’t going to do it by accident. You’re probably pretty good at imagining what it would be like if your presentation went terribly, if your return to the gym turned into a public embarrassment, if you got laughed at when you asked for a raise. We get a lot less practice thinking about what we want. The Simplest Trick is a way to get that practice at the exact moment you need it most.
Angst is the red flad that tells you your attention is necessary here. Whenever you notice yourself feeling angst, it’s because you’re thinking about what you don’t want — you’re experiencing an imaginary moment where something painful or difficult is happening.
Thinking about what you want is fun. It’s always a relief to remember that you can, and that you can safely interrupt the angsty train of thought and never get back to it. In fact, it’s worth sitting for a few minutes every day, just to think about things you want. It feels good, and makes the world look good again. This is outstanding use of your time. The go-to book for that kind of visualization is called Creative Visualization by Shakti Gawain. It’s a bit dated by now and has new-agey tones, but you can do it your way.
Give up on the idea that thinking about what you don’t want serves a purpose. Negative thoughts are essentially useless except to suggest what rational, helpful actions you can take.
Few thoughts result in actions. Most are compulsive, empty busywork for the mind. Your head will be full of something most of your life, and there’s an unlimited variety of awful imaginary moments you can experience. Same goes for good imaginary moments. Do you think it makes more sense for most of your thoughts to be ones that give you knots in your solar plexus and an increased heart rate, or ones that make you feel calm and grateful?
There may be times when you feel like you really ought to be thinking about a particular thing you don’t want. Maybe some terrible injustice happened to you or someone close to you, and you feel like it’s wrong not to think about it. In those cases, when you notice you’re justifying your miserable thoughts, ask yourself what you’re actually going to do about this injustice. Chances are you’re not prepared to do anything. If you are, then do it, and in the mean time, explore in your mind some outcome you actually want.
The for no reason at all aspect is important, otherwise you’ll talk yourself out of it. This is a habit that turned out to be immensely rewarding in my life, but I had to just try it because I was curious. Reason never would have convinced me to do it.
That’s because to a pessimist, thinking about what you don’t want feels reasonable. You don’t even realize you’re doing it.
From watching the people around me, I’m convinced most people are pessimists. Just listen to what they talk about most.
There are no realists. Everyone thinks they’re being realistic. Nobody has an objective view of their thinking. Pessimistic thoughts feel realistic to a pessimist. Optimistic thoughts feel realistic to an optimist. If you think you’re a realist you’re probably a pessimist, because obviously you’ve found a reason to tone down expectations.
Expect things to go well. You don’t need a reason first.
If you’re worrying that this will make you one of those obnoxious Law of Attraction people, I’d advise you to stay out of that debate entirely. Don’t take a side. Doing what I’m suggesting here is not the same as waving a particular flag or adopting a particular set of beliefs.
Some of us grew up with science-teacher dads and can sometimes be persistently skeptical. We don’t want to believe that it makes sense to expect things to go well for no reason at all. Once you make a habit of it you’ll realize it’s beyond worthwhile, and forget you ever had reservations about it — but that’s what all the snake-oil salesmen say. (Not that anyone’s asking you to part with any money here.)
Do your expectations have the ability to transmute what happens to you, beyond your normal, physical sphere of control? I don’t know. They certainly seem to though. If you’re the skeptical type, don’t be tempted to presume it doesn’t.
You don’t know, and to admit that you don’t know is exhilarating. The most skeptical position is an agnostic one. Be skeptical of what your doubts tell you, too.
Set your reason aside for a bit. It may not always be helping you. Make a habit of consciously thinking about what you do want, as your normal response to noticing you’re thinking about what you don’t want.
Find the positive counterpart. It’s always there. Picture its details, the more physical the better. What you’re looking for is the unmistakable sense of how it would feel if it all went utterly, terribly right.