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Post image for A Simple Trick For Becoming A Calmer Person

In his one of his many excellent columns, Oliver Burkeman offers a counter-intuitive strategy for those who have trouble sleeping: tell yourself it’s not a big deal. You’ll fall asleep when you fall asleep.

The point is that telling ourselves we must get to sleep right away—and that grave problems will arise if we don’t—is probably the number one reason we can’t sleep. That doesn’t mean sleep isn’t important, or that sleep problems are never serious, only that the more vehemently we insist we must already be sleeping, the less sleep we will ultimately get.

This strategy acknowledges a subtle but important reality about the problem: we can’t directly control when we fall asleep. We really want that control, however, and we can make the problem much worse by grasping too stridently at it. And whether we do that is something we can control.

With practice, anyway.

We can make use of a similarly counter-intuitive approach for becoming generally calmer people in waking life.

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Post image for With Lifelong Struggles, Effort Isn’t What’s Missing

A friend told me a touching story about his high-school classmate—a story that I now believe happens, in some form, to almost everybody. It happened to me, and probably to you.

The classmate was known as a gifted athlete and a bad student, and acknowledged it himself. He played wide receiver on the football team, but he had a maddening habit of lining up on the wrong side, and cutting right when he was supposed to cut left. The coach kept him on the team because he was fast and played hard, and his route-running mistakes could be corrected.

But the mistakes continued, and the coach quickly surmised that something else was going on. He eventually had the student visit a psychologist, and it turned out he was inverting the pass patterns because he was dyslexic.

This explained his trouble in the classroom too. He wasn’t a bad student, he just had no idea he was experiencing schoolwork so differently than everyone else. Once he was assessed, he (and his teachers) could finally make sure he had the extra time he needed to do his assignments.

You can find countless similar stories of kids who were told for years that they weren’t paying attention or weren’t applying themselves, when they actually just needed glasses and couldn’t read the blackboard. What a world-shifting discovery that must be for each of those kids, as well as for their parents and teachers.

I now wonder if most of us are, in some respect, the kid who needs glasses but doesn’t know it. It’s a phenomenon common to so many life stories: struggling desperately with something because you’re unaware that you’re experiencing it differently than everyone around you.

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Post image for Why the Depth Year Was My Best Year

Towards the end of last year I proposed an idea that unexpectedly caught fire: what if, for a whole year, you stopped acquiring new things or taking on new pursuits. Instead, you return to abandoned projects, stalled hobbies, unread books and other neglected intentions, and go deeper with them than you ever have before.

The “Depth Year” was supposed to be hypothetical—a reflection on how our consumer reflexes tend to spread our aspirations too thin. Because it’s so easy to acquire new pursuits, we tend to begin what are actually enormous, lifelong projects (such as drawing, or language-learning) too often, and abandon them too easily.

This chronic lack of follow-through makes us feel bad, but worse than that, we never actually reach the level of fulfillment we believed we would when we first bought the guitar or the drawing pencils. Instead we end up on a kind of novelty treadmill—before things click, we’ve moved on to the exciting beginning stages of something new.

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Post image for How to Enjoy Life

I don’t know about you, but whenever I’m a guest at a holiday get-together, once dinner is over and we begin to appreciate the scale of the impending cleanup, I’m always relieved to be given a clear job to do: collect all the wine glasses, wipe down the table, corral the recyclables.

Even scrubbing a stubborn roasting pan is a welcome assignment, at least partly because it relieves you from the alternative, which is to sit there feeling unhelpful while your host does everything. But even aside from that, there’s a certain pleasure to be found in the doing of a task, if you’re not determined to hate it.

Yet in other contexts, similarly basic tasks can seem annoying and unpleasant. Sometimes, out of protest, I leave a stack of stray books on the bottom stair for three days, or a basket of laundered socks unfolded until my sock drawer runs low.

Why not take the same pleasure in those little jobs? It’s all context I suppose—if life’s menial tasks could somehow all be part of a dinner party cleanup effort, every day would be a chain of small pleasures.

The habit of taking even mild pleasure in such tasks would be life-changing, because most of what we do during a typical day isn’t done for enjoyment’s sake: laundry, exercise, office work, dishes, dusting. We do these things because they make life better in some less immediate sense; they’re rewarding, but not necessarily as you do them.

How we spend our days is how we spend our lives, as the adage goes, and that means the majority of our lives are spent doing not-especially-enjoyable maintenance work (cleaning, earning, fixing, organizing) in order to support  the especially-enjoyable stuff (leisure time, meals, get-togethers, creative endeavors and personal projects) we do with the remaining minority of our time.

We all want to enjoy life, and not just a fraction of it. But if you Google “How to enjoy life,” most of the images you’ll see are symbols of those exceptional, peak-enjoyment activities: hammocks, beaches, candlelit dinners, and scenic hikes.

Clearly the vision we have of enjoying life has nothing to do with the way we actually spend most of it: doing necessary but unremarkable things in front of desks, stoves, laundry baskets, sinks, and grocery store shelves. Sometimes this pile of necessary but unremarkable activities seems so great that there’s little time left for the enjoyment-and-relaxation type activities.  Read More

Post image for The Simple Joy of “No Phones Allowed”

A few nights ago I saw Jack White in concert. It was a wonderful night, and a big part of that was due to a new rule he has imposed on all his tour dates: no phones.

When you arrive, you have to put your phone into a neoprene pouch, supplied by a company called Yondr, which they lock and give back to you. If you want to use your phone during the show, you can go into the concourse and unlock it by touching it to one of several unlocking bases. The concert area itself remains screen-free.

The effect was immediately noticeable upon entering the concert bowl. Aside from the time-travel-like strangeness of seeing a crowd devoid of blue screens, there was a palpable sense of engagement, as though—and it sounds so strange to say it—everyone came just so they could be there.

People were visibly enjoying the opening band, at least in part because that band no longer compete with the entire internet for the crowd’s attention. Even the crowd’s milling around and chatting between acts was so much more lively. People were either talking to their neighbors, or taking in the room. And everyone taking in the room was taking in the same room. It felt great.  Read More

Post image for It’s Okay to Feel Bad For No Reason

From my teens through my early thirties, I spent a lot of family dinners trying to pretend I felt okay.

It’s not that my family made me miserable, not at all. But throughout those years I just felt inexplicably bad some days, and I couldn’t duck out on plans with my family like I could with my friends, at least not without arousing concern.

This feeling was characterized by pit in the stomach, elevated self-consciousness, and a strong urge to go home and get away from people. Not exactly despair, but a version the sort of wounded feeling you might get after giving a bad speech, or getting reprimanded by your boss.

Looking back, I can’t believe how often I felt like that. Each time, all I knew is that I needed to either act normal, or provide an explanation for my low-spirited state (I stayed up late; I didn’t drink enough water today).  Read More

Post image for The Only True Story

In September, for the first time in nine years, I took a month off writing. I spent half of it traveling abroad, and the other half completely riveted by a particular story—a true story, one which I had always intended to get to but hadn’t made time for.

This kind of story isn’t consumed in the usual linear manner of fictional novels and shows. Instead, it’s a vast network of interconnecting characters and events, whose facts you establish in the same manner a detective reconstructs a crime.

At first you can see what happens only in haphazard, singular moments, as if you’re looking through keyholes at scenes without context. But as you peek in on the proceedings at different times, in different places, plotlines and personalities emerge, and those isolated scenes gradually connect in unexpected and poignant ways.

Also, I am in the story. And you are too.

Those of you who share my new hobby will have already guessed that the story I’m referring to is my family history. I’m aware of how dull that sounds.

It’s not, and I will do my best to prove that. But in the mean time you should know that it’s your family’s history too. That’s how genealogy works—there is really only one family history. One vast story. If you trace the action back far enough, all the characters and plotlines connect.  Read More

Post image for The Problem Is That We Are All Stupid

The question “What’s wrong with the world?!” is usually more of a statement of exasperation than a question. But it can be treated like a question, and it is a good question.

Clearly something is wrong, at least with the human world. Even if you don’t trust the news to tell you how the world really is, we all witness too much pettiness, unfairness, and dishonesty to say with a straight face that nothing’s wrong.

However, I’m not sure you could rewind us to a point in the last 10,000 years when we wouldn’t feel the same way. Our complaints today are about corrupt leaders, unfair systems, unscrupulous merchants, religious demagoguery, and everything else that has happened perpetually since we freed ourselves from picking berries all day.

In a recent article about the “What’s wrong” question, Masha Gessen got me thinking that the answer is quite straightforward: we’re all stupid. Contrary to popular belief, stupidity isn’t only present in some of us, it’s a universal human trait.

But that doesn’t mean we aren’t also smart—we simply exhibit both qualities. As intelligent as we are in certain ways, each of us is also very stupid in other certain ways, and the powers conferred by the intelligent, inventive part can increase the amount of damage the stupid part can cause.  Read More

Post image for Your Whole Life Is Borrowed Time

I can’t remember if this is a real movie plot, or if I just want it to be.

A man with a boring job is on his way to work when his attention is caught by some unexpected detail in his otherwise familiar routine—a peculiar insect, a pattern in the concrete, a cryptic slogan on a t-shirt.

This detail seems extremely significant to him, but he doesn’t know why.

The strange sight wakes him up from the autopilot-mode by which he has been living his life. He is suddenly aware, for the first time, how complex and interesting his local high street is, and he stops to take it in.

Around him pass hundreds of distinctly different people, each a unique individual, driven by some unseen personal motivation. Shops are filled with thousands of trinkets, tools, snacks, and books. Delivery trucks roll past, music plays from somewhere, buildings rise above him. The scene is miraculous to him.

As he surveys the street, he witnesses something surreal: another version of himself is walking away from him, towards his usual bus stop, evidently not having had this same moment of self-awareness. For reasons he is never told, at that moment his life had apparently split in two.

However, his double does not make it onto the bus: as he waits, an air conditioning unit falls from a window above, killing him instantly. In a very unexpected and unstorylike way, his life ends.

The man has no idea what has happened, and never receives an explanation. The authorities never identify the person beneath the air conditioner, and the man never tells anyone what he witnessed because nobody would ever believe it.

There is nothing to do but carry on with his life. But he is a changed man.  Read More

Post image for How To Let Go

The easiest advice to give—and the hardest to use—is “Let it go.”

Didn’t get the job? Let it go. Still thinking about your awkward speech last week? Let it go.

All the Paul McCartney tickets were bought up in seconds by scalper-bots? Let it go.

Life will go on, after all. Just put it out of your mind!

Of course we’d let go if we could. If we had the ability to simply drop worry, or anger, or a throbbing in the temples, we wouldn’t need to be told. And being told to let go tends to make the feeling even more stubborn.

Letting go is possible. But it’s done differently than we usually think.

We humans tend to overlook a very useful fact: every experience does go, at some point. Every sight, sound, taste, or feeling you’ve ever had is gone, except what’s happening right now as you look at this screen.

The pleasure of the last chocolate treat you ate… where is it now? The pain of the last time you singed your finger on the stovetop… where is it? Itchy mosquito bites, stress over past deadlines, uneasiness about where that wedding toast was going… gone.  Read More

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