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May 2015

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


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

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