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April 2015

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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