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Post image for Thank You

One day back in 2009, I was overcome by gratitude and published a short, gushing post thanking various strangers, teachers, family members and cats for what they had done for me.

I also thanked my small but growing audience for coming here. Raptitude was just over a month old and already it felt quite amazing that there were people I didn’t know who wanted to hear what I had to say.

This blog will be seven years old next month, and I can’t believe I’ve let so much time go by without directly thanking you for reading and sharing Raptitude. I try to tone down the sentimentality on this blog, but I honestly can’t tell you how much it means to me that you come here to read my long-winded reflections about self-defeating habits, existential absurdity, imaginary time travel and human frailty.

I’ve watched the audience grow from a size that could sit around a boardroom table to one that could fill a couple of Greyhounds, then a large high school, then a large concert hall. Today, the subscribers alone couldn’t fit into even the largest NHL arena, and it’s all because so many of you have told your friends about this little corner of the internet. Thank you so much for doing that.  Read More

bike shadow

A few weeks ago, a neighbor I had not yet met knocked on my door to tell me that her storage locker in the basement had been broken into, and so had mine.

I went down there. The locker door was hanging open, and my bike was gone. They hadn’t cut the lock, but had instead crowbarred the hardware entirely off the plywood door, which building management had attached with four of the tiniest screws I’d ever seen.

My initial feeling was the rush of violation and dirtiness that everyone feels when they see the mess left by a thief. They touched my stuff, and now some of it is at their place.

But I ran out of indignation pretty quickly. The normal victim feelings gave way to a feeling of, “Wow, I’m really glad I’m me.”

I can afford a new bike. I’ve never felt a desire to steal from people. Aren’t I lucky that I don’t know what it’s like to enter a building illegally, and rifle through someone else’s belongings, hoping to find something I can sell for fifty bucks? I would rather lose all my possessions than be that guy. I’m also glad to know that the locker was so insecure before I put anything irreplaceable in there. Read More

Post image for The Great Myth About Getting in Shape (and Every Other Goal)

I wasn’t going to write about this topic this week but it could be somewhat urgent for some of you. Mid-January is a critical time for the fate of many annual goals, and I’m sure a lot of people are already making a particular mistake that kept me stumbling for years. In fact, I’m convinced most failed goals fail for this exact reason.

This time next week, 2016 will be 5% finished. So if you’ve got goals this year, you should be around one-twentieth done by then.

If your goal is to be a regular gym-goer, for example, then you’ll want to have two full weeks of gym-going under your belt. If it’s already a grind, then you’re probably not going to make it.

There’s an interesting paradox when it comes to fitness in America. There is a tremendous demand for this thing called fitness, and yet only a fairly slim minority end up actually making it a part of their lives. Visiting aliens would be confounded that we appear to worship this particular quality yet don’t usually embody it.

It’s not a matter of not knowing what to do. In the internet age, anyone can find, for free and in only a few minutes, dependable step-by-step instructions on how to get to whatever kind of fitness that’s humanly possible: marathon runner, bodybuilder, yoga adept, martial artist, or anything else. The same is true for all kinds of other goals: making more money, starting a website, learning French or piano or calligraphy.

What do you really have to do to get into shape? Join a gym, find a well-regarded program online, and do what the program says. We know what we have to do, and we want the rewards of doing it, so why don’t we just do it?

Often we begin well enough, but the different aspects of our lives have a way of competing with each other, and a month later we’re barely holding it together, and two months later we barely remember that we tried.

The typical refrain, from both the achievers and the non-achievers of a particular goal, is “You have to want it badly enough.”

We hear this message all the time. If you’re within a decade or so of my age you probably spent much of your schooling in classrooms whose walls were plastered with a certain kind of inspirational poster, often featuring cute animals or Einstein, and preaching about persistence and dedication. These might look familiar:  Read More

tree through roof

Raptitude’s birthday is March 15th 2009, but it was conceived in the last days of 2008. My job was extremely slow and I was aching for both a new hobby and new career, and ultimately I found both.

The central idea at the time was to do self-improvement experiments, and I did, but those later became secondary to my essays about the human experience.

I have a strange relationship to my experiments. They are many readers’ favorite part of this site but they’ve never been mine. I’ve done 21 over the last seven years, and about half the time they founder to one degree or another—I attempt to do some new habit for 30 days, get sick of it and throw up my hands or limp to the end. I do always learn something however—about my habits, my motivations, my values—that helps me find a more sensible place in my life for the activity in question.

People are always asking where I am with a particular experiment, so for the last post of 2015 I’m going to update you on all of them, right from the start, even the disasters. I hope you enjoy it, and maybe consider doing an experiment of your own this coming year. Read More

Post image for Camp Calm

The end of the year has a certain weary energy. All months have their own feel, and December’s is an exotic combination between the bustle and congestion of the holiday season, and the blank check of a whole new year lying just past it.

Somehow we’re only two weeks from the ball-drop, and it’s time to start thinking about what you want this next year—your 35th, your 19th, your 68th, whatever it is—to be like.

I’m generally skeptical of New Year’s Resolutions, not because the New Year is a bad time to improve ourselves, but because a once-uttered promise to ourselves doesn’t really change how we live. We need new, well-defined behaviors, applied consistently for at least three or four weeks, to give us a dependable chance at lasting changes.

In other words, it’s regimens, not resolutions, that create those dramatic improvements we dream about every December.  Read More

kitchen window

If you could somehow go back and review your life, the way athletes study game film, you’d notice a particular trait shared by all the moments in which you felt content.

Everyone knows the type of moment where everything is fine and nothing is missing. Often there’s nothing especially noteworthy happening. Standing on the porch as the rain turns from drizzle to downpour. Folding laundry on a sunlit bed. Making a sandwich in a hostel kitchen.

When you’re experiencing contentment like that, sensory details seem significant and beautiful. At a concert, you might be absorbed by the violet light and the bass notes in your chest. In the hostel kitchen, it’s the sun in the frosted window pane and the voices of the Dutch couple in the next room. For all their ordinariness, these scenes seem complete and feel satisfying.

In these moments—in all of our best moments—time is gone. It’s just not important, or even perceptible.

And I don’t think it’s just a matter of losing track of time. It’s just not included. Time is something we add to the present, an idea we map onto our actual direct experience of the world.

We had to invent time, at some point. Clearly we evolved from animals that had no concept of past or future. Life, to them, consisted only of what was happening. Gradually, they began to benefit from impulses that took advantage of the fact that conditions change—fattening up as the weather gets cooler, hunting more when the moon is bright. But they didn’t impose any math onto their experience. They certainly didn’t see a given sunrise-to-sunset experience as numbered rectangle on a grid.    Read More

solo musician

Lots of people ask me about getting over shyness, so I’ll tell you what I know. I’ll never be a center-of-attention type, but over the past decade I’ve gone from being too timid to even order food over the phone, to feeling like I’m the more assured one most of the time when I meet someone new. I believe this kind of transformation is possible for just about anyone.

Being shy and being an introvert are often conflated, so we should clarify the difference. An introvert is someone who is stimulated by the inner world of thoughts and feelings more than they are by external events. I am an introvert, and you probably are too—this blog has always been focused on that inner side of life.

Shyness is a self-reinforcing nervousness around people, especially people you don’t know. I don’t believe anybody actually likes being shy. Being reserved is one thing—I’ll always be a happily reserved person—but shyness is not a pleasant quality to bear. It’s a form of chronic pain.

Most people experience it to some extent, maybe only in certain situations. But for some people it is a pervasive, self-defining feeling. These examples from an older post may sound familiar:  Read More

Post image for Mindfulness is the Opposite of Neediness

Whenever someone tries to convince you that eating breakfast prevents weight gain or that cold weather makes you sick , just send them one of Tyler Vigen’s charts. He graphs strange similarities between seemingly irrelevant statistics, demonstrating that you can find apparent links between all kinds of unrelated events.

Per capita cheese consumption appears to mirror the number accidental deaths due to being tangled in bedsheets. The number of pool drownings rises and falls with the number of films Nicholas Cage has appeared in that year. Tyler has written a book on this phenomenon, called Spurious Correlations.

Still, we can’t help but notice patterns in life, and they aren’t necessarily coincidence. I don’t have any data to back this up, but I’m convinced meditation makes your phone battery last longer.

I’ve tracked this relationship informally over a few years, and I believe there’s a causal effect. Whenever I get away from meditation practice, my phone needs charging earlier in the day. During the summer, I got inconsistent with my practice, and my phone’s battery died really fast. Now that I’m back to two brief sessions a day, I don’t have to charge it until bedtime.

The explanation is pretty simple, but it hints at something more profound going on. A simple usage-tracking app would surely confirm that the more consistently I meditate, the less time I spend dicking with my phone throughout the day.

There are other behavior changes I’m sure are related. I’m eating less junk food, I make fewer dumb purchases, I get out of bed with less fuss, I’m more attracted to work.

Basically, I’ve been much less impulsive. And that’s because regular meditation makes me more mindful throughout the day. Whenever you’re being mindful, the present moment doesn’t seem to need improvement.

This means there are fewer moments that I feel could be improved by pulling out my phone and checking my Twitter. So my phone stays in my pocket, I stay in the moment, and my battery stays green.  Read More

iceberg with bird

Human beings make a big deal about being normal. We’re probably the only species for which it’s normal to think you’re not normal.

Every society operates under thousands of unspoken rules, and when you break them people get nervous. There are acceptable and unacceptable ways to stand in line at the bank, order at restaurants, and answer the phone. There are appropriate and inappropriate birthday gifts, wedding toasts, and hugging styles.

Every type of social situation has its own subsection of laws and procedures. You can make everyone around you instantly uncomfortable just by facing the back wall while riding an elevator, or asking a fellow bus passenger if they want to hear a story.

Miraculously, most of us have learned most of these rules by the time we become adults, at least enough to fulfill our basic responsibilities without causing a scene. The moment kids are born, they begin to absorb clues about what’s okay and what’s not by continually watching and emulating.

We learn some of these rules in explicit mini-lessons from our parents and teachers, and occasionally friends, when they pull us aside and tell us, “We don’t talk about pee at the dinner table,” or “We don’t bring up sports betting around Eddie.”

We also learn the location of certain boundaries when we bump up against them, by remembering which acts triggered dirty looks, and which got laughs, or no reaction at all. Over time, we learn that we can avoid awkward and painful collisions with these boundaries by simply doing what other people are doing, and not doing what they’re not doing.

Stand where the other people are standing. When other people are quiet, be quiet. When they’re eating, eat. When they’re being somber, be somber. When they laugh, laugh (even if you don’t get the joke).

This survival tactic eventually becomes a part of our worldview. Humans are an easily frightened, highly social species, and we put together a sense of how things are supposed to be—of how we’re supposed to be—by what seems normal for the people around us. How do you know if you’re in good health for someone your age? For some places and times in history, failing health at age 48 is expected; in 21st-century USA, it means something’s gone wrong.  Read More

bubble

There’s a fable about lying that I always thought was really impressive. A member of a small rural community was found murdered. His wounds appeared to have been inflicted by a common grain sickle. Every farmer in town was therefore a suspect, but they all denied it, and there was no evidence to suggest one over the other.

The local magistrate gathered the farmers and had them lay their sickles in front of them. None of the tools showed any sign of blood, which was unsurprising—the killer would have rinsed it off immediately. But the magistrate had them wait in the sun until flies began to gather on one of the sickles, feeding on the invisible remnants of blood. Its owner turned pale and confessed to the crime.

I always thought this story was from the Bible, but it was actually a real case from 13th century China, documented in a handbook for coroners called The Washing Away of Wrongs.

This story always moved me because of how the judge’s method cut right through to the truth, even though the killer surely thought nothing could connect him to the crime once he had washed his weapon clean. Because lying works so well, people often believe it’s possible to keep the truth off-limits to others, or even destroy it completely. But there is no real “washing away of wrongs”—whatever is true remains true even if that truth is currently hidden, and there’s no way to be certain that it can never be discovered.

To me, there was always something amazing (and strangely terrifying) about that idea. Imagine a world where lies simply didn’t work. People could still do bad things, but not with the expectation that nobody would know. In a world like that, the only way to be seen as good is to be good.

It would be a vastly different world than the one we know. As it stands now, lying is extremely common. A University of Massachusetts study found that 60% of people can’t go ten minutes without lying. When shown video of their conversations after the study, the subjects couldn’t believe how easily they said things that weren’t true. Lies are so ubiquitous that we take for granted that businesses and politicians will deceive us to the fullest extent they can get away with.

“It’s so easy to lie,” Feldman [the UMass researcher] said. “We teach our children that honesty is the best policy, but we also tell them it’s polite to pretend they like a birthday gift they’ve been given. Kids get a very mixed message regarding the practical aspects of lying, and it has an impact on how they behave as adults.”

I remember how easily I lied as a kid. A friend of mine once claimed that his dad was seven feet tall, and I instantly responded by telling him my dad was eight feet tall. There was no deliberation about this, it just seemed like the natural thing to say. I also remember claiming I’d seen movies that I hadn’t seen, and liking toys I didn’t like, because I knew I could avoid some annoying teasing that way. This kind of posturing seemed really important, and everyone I knew did it, except those hapless kids who didn’t know how things really worked.  Read More

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