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The Only Dependable Source of Happiness

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I once wrote about a peculiar practice I do to help me become a less judgmental person. Whenever I’m out in public and I catch myself judging a stranger—for such offenses as poor sidewalk-sharing, or imprecise parking—I resolve instead to temporarily become their secret ally.

Unbeknownst to the other person, I’ve gone from silently resenting them to silently watching out for them. For the short time we’re in the same vicinity, I’m prepared to leap into action should they need any sort of help. If they appeared to need directions, I’d offer. If their grocery bags were to tear, I’d help collect the rolling fruit.

I’ve almost never had to actually spring into action, aside from helping people reach things in grocery stores, but that’s not the main purpose. Essentially I’m training myself to view others with goodwill, rather than judgment.

And it works. My helping reflex is stronger and my judging reflex is weaker. Becoming a secret ally also makes me feel happier right in that moment.

Part of what’s so empowering about this practice is that it’s totally portable and self-contained. It doesn’t matter what happens, or what the other person does. Simply assuming the role of a helpful person, in any situation, helps me become a more naturally helpful person, and also creates an immediate sense of well-being. It’s like I’m making goodness out of nothing. It almost feels like cheating, like some kind of alchemical secret.

Summer is waning now, so I’m soaking up as much warmth as I can, taking a long walk down to the Forks every evening I’m free. Lots of others are out too at that time, so I do my little practice as I go, trying to maintain a sense of quiet goodwill towards my fellow citizens the whole way there.

Occasionally I’ll listen to a few passages from an inspirational audiobook as I set out, to help create a benevolent mindset. Recently I threw on Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations, from wherever it was paused in the middle, and the old philosopher king turned out to be the perfect tutor for this particular skill.

Essentially, he spent his whole life doing more sophisticated versions of what I was trying to do. I had been practicing one virtue, helpfulness, in certain situations, and over time this benefited me immensely. Aurelius described practicing a whole list of virtues—namely courage, prudence, temperance, and fairness—every day, in all situations.

His repeated advice is to always be honing your capacity for these qualities, whenever you do anything, not so that you’ll be recognized as a great or saintly person, but because the embodiment of these qualities is the only reliable source of happiness. Every other source of happiness, such as acclaim, wealth, health, or access to pleasure, can be lost or taken from you, and even when you do have them, you live in fear of losing them.

Why not, then, invest all your efforts in cultivating the best and most durable source of happiness—a strong, unshakable character—given that it naturally aligns with the best of your goals and intentions anyway?

He believed in concerning yourself with this project alone, and finding your contentment in it, because nowhere else could contentment be dependably found. Everything else you need to do—working, raising a family, solving problems, having friends—will be accomplished by practicing these qualities.

The great truth my “secret ally” practice hinted at, and which Stoics like Marcus Aurelius understood through and through, is that there’s a certain kind of happiness you can create by practicing being a certain way in the world. And the work that you do on that level—unlike everything else in life—is impervious to circumstances.

Aurelius described this process of cultivating your character as carrying within you an invincible fountain of contentment. At this point, mine is barely a sprinkler. But it will only grow, and will remain flowing no matter what happens to my life situation.

Our intuitive happiness-seeking strategy is to try to steer external conditions such that they somewhat reliably produce happiness for us, if we’re lucky. Accumulate and protect a certain amount of wealth. Worry about what people think of you. Avoid pain. Don’t think about death. Strategize about how you will keep all this going.

I’m not sure how many of us are ready to renounce all that worldly strategizing. Few of us grew up knowing any other way. But in the mean time, we can start building that invincible fountain beneath it all.

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Image by Rob Coates

{ 81 Comments }

Linda August 27, 2019 at 9:17 pm

This resonates. I’ve been struggling with being judgmental of a relative and have been trying to let go of my frustrations with their behavior. This is an approach that I can actively work on rather than trying to talk myself into feeling different. Thanks again for another insightful post.

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Karen Cook August 28, 2019 at 4:24 am
David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:05 am

Great :) I explain that practice in more detail in this post:

https://www.raptitude.com/2014/09/how-to-be-a-good-stranger/

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Sandra August 27, 2019 at 11:57 pm

What a great idea! Becoming a secret ally and changing our internal mindset!

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Charles August 28, 2019 at 2:33 am

Commiting (not so) random acts of kindness.

This can be particularly effective when driving. I know people who view driving, a very dangerous activity, as a competitive game. There are many actions one can take unilaterally, that create safer conditions…and make you feel good (happy).

Seems simple, doesn’t it? Sometimes our (human) ‘hard wiring’ makes it a challenge…one worth taking on.

Thanks David.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:07 am

It’s probably especially helpful while driving precisely because it’s such a dangerous activity. And I think we’re also less kind to each other when our faces are hidden (as the internet has demonstrated).

I love it when I let someone in in front of me, and they give a little thank you wave, and then I see them let someone else in.

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Julie August 28, 2019 at 3:04 pm

I also look at a driver when they do something that inconveniences me. Because it’s easier to be angry at a car than a person.

So I take a look and almost always think of what that person is going through to land them here, doing that, in front of me.

It really helps humanize humanity and take rage off the road.

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Sean September 2, 2019 at 10:27 pm

Same here! As soon as I see that visual reminder that there’s a human driving the car, my indignation usually vanishes. The exception is when they’re doing something particularly reckless or aggressive… But at least then I’m angry at a person for good reason, I suppose, rather than angry at the world for not being the way I want.

Anne August 28, 2019 at 2:35 am

Magnificent. Truly a great article ! It’s funny, I started doing a practice similar to this one, just about a month ago, but it is less noble than this one. Every person I crossed : in the street, at work, wherever, I decided to find one wonderful thing to say (to myself) about him or her. Instead of the usual mental criticisms, “Wow, she’s really rude… he shouldn’t be smoking that cigarette… she should lose a few pounds”, I would say to myself “Wow, she must be really challenged… he must be trying to quit smoking… she must have already lost a lot and is on the road to success.” Less glorious, I admit. The idea of becoming someone’s champion is much better, I will start today !

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:10 am

One way to look at these kinds of practices is that they take advantage of an easily-overlooked fact: good qualities, the qualities we all wish there was more of in the world, can be trained. We don’t need to set aside time or buy special equipment to do this training. It’s always available to us in every moment, and no change in circumstances can change that.

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Bodhi August 28, 2019 at 3:02 am

This article explains why I read David’s blog.

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Neill Kramer August 28, 2019 at 4:39 am

Excellent advice. I recently opened up a boutique hotel in Bali and have been practicing hospitality with my guests and it has improved my attitude toward life. If I get a difficult customer I ask myself how I can make that person happy. And then try and make it happen

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Lois August 28, 2019 at 4:05 am

When I catch myself judging others, and it embarrasses me to realize how often that is, I remind myself why I judge others. The reason I have figured out is, I judge others so that I can feel superior to them. It’s not about them and the shortcomings I imagine they have, its all about me feeling better about myself. If our self-esteem is somewhat lacking, then we are always on the lookout, be is subconsciously, for some way to think better of ourselves.
This is where gossip stems from as well, the insatiable need to be better than others.

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Elisa Winter August 28, 2019 at 6:10 am

Absolutely, Lois. When I catch myself and I am embarrassed for myself, I quite literally picture a plain wooden ladder. The hierarchy ladder. The value ladder. The judging ladder. Then decide I don’t want it. It’s all in a flash, but it works for me. The Secret Ally process seems entirely more positive, though, right?

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:19 am

There are definitely subsurface motives to a lot of our interactions. I know in my case I often make moral judgments in response to frustration. When someone is making it difficult to pass them on the sidewalk, I make reflexive judgments of their character. But I think it’s more so that I can make the argument in my head that I shouldn’t have to endure the inconvenience before me — of going around, of awkwardly saying excuse me, and so on. I only have to because of the inferior character of this person! Why can’t they be thoughtful like me! Then I revel in the sense of superiority of course but I don’t think that’s my main motivation. I wrote about that effect here: https://www.raptitude.com/2010/09/do-you-make-a-moral-issue-out-of-being-inconvenienced/

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Karen Cook August 28, 2019 at 4:23 am

Thank you for this article & also the comments from others. I have been using a lot of energy recently feeling sorry for myself as it seemed as if an awful lot of things were going badly in my life. This article has reminded me that I could use that energy in a much more positive & productive way to help myself & others.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:42 am

That’s one thing that’s so great about these stoic virtue practices — no matter what is happening in life, we can use what’s happening to practice qualities that improve our lives and the world. I’ve found that when I’m really struggling, I’m not especially inclined to kindness and goodwill, but that’s also when it feels the most empowering, when I do remember to practice it. Because it’s a kind of power that’s always there no matter how powerless you feel.

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Jatinder Yakhmi August 28, 2019 at 4:33 am

As they say, happiness is a state of mind. And true happiness leads to contentment. But invariably, most humans seeking happiness invest their efforts in attaining more wealth and higher and higher positions in society, and when these two things are amply in the bag, they seek leadership over fellow beings within the family or in their circle of friends, just to cater to their bloated ego, and proving to everyone around them how infallible they are in taking decisions at different levels. And they derive happiness from imposing their will on others. But this happiness is an illusion because soon another guy comes along, who has as much wealth, social status and clout and perhaps even more of these material values, and often times several other leadership qualities than our earlier HAPPY guy had, who now undergoes a phase of unhappiness, despite having all those things which earlier used to give him happiness. So, this brand of happiness is short-lived.

Then what should bring dependable happiness, that can be sustained? My advice and strategy is to make others happy to derive your own happy moments. And these ‘others’ should be those who did not even expect that you will do anything for them because it was not your job, by the rule-book, to make them happy! And true happiness would come to you when it is clear to you and the beneficiary of your help that you had no axe to grind. The obvious question that comes to mind then is how should the conditions be created that you can extend a helping hand (many a time in a hidden manner), without having studied the need of the recipient for such a help. This needs a clear strategy based on the discussion that follows.

Observe the people around you who are in distress. Initially they may not feel comfortable in disclosing to you their vexing problem, which they are not able to handle. But by observing them from a distance first, and without being judgmental, you may arrive at a point when the person confides in you the conditions and parameters which are a source of his/her pain and distress. It could be failure in business/career, rancor in the family, or stressful conditions at work, etc. Quite often you will realize that average working class people are suffering not because of lack of financial resources, but more from a lack of compatibility in official or personal relationships. Once they confide in you, they start depending on you more and more as a shoulder to lean on. Mind you, if you have no personal gains to make by solving the vexing issues, your sense of involvement in the distressed person will grow to the extent that you can help find a workable solution. And you can do it better than the person going through the suffering because you can play cool and weigh the pros and cons better, looking at the situation form a third person’s point of view. Once a solution arrives, the sufferer would derive an immense of relief, and a great sense of true happiness. Don’t look for any returns at this stage. Just move to the next case.

The tougher the problem to be solved, the higher lies your happiness at the end of the tunnel. The idea is to do the hand-holding of the sufferer, give him/her confidence that a solution can be found, despite the odds, and working for it together. But never look for any material gains from it for yourself, if you wish to get a dependable long-time happiness, which cannot be bought with money, or power.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:46 am

Well said Jatinder. The practice you describe is a little more involved than the sorts of moment-to-moment virtue practice I’m referring to, but it takes advantage of the same power — regardless of what is happening, the ability to create good is always with you, and the world needs more of it.

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Tim August 28, 2019 at 5:02 am

Awesome article. Thanks!

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Kate Reynolds August 28, 2019 at 5:15 am

One of my favourites from you, what a great way to think about life

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Taryn August 28, 2019 at 6:54 am

“Why not, then, invest all your efforts in cultivating the best and most durable source of happiness—a strong, unshakable character…” I am sitting at my desk, at work, reading that sentence and it is exactly what I have been thinking about lately. There is so much we can’t control but we can continue to overcome our own egos and pride. I think that will lead to more personal happiness. We can work on ourselves to encourage connection and openness with others.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:50 am

I definitely recommend taking a listen to The Meditations. He really establishes the mindset to recognize this power in ourselves and carry it everywhere. Without some support it easy to forget this.

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Brian August 28, 2019 at 7:09 am

I will forward this to many friends. I will print a copy for myself. In a related vein, I try to put positivity out in the world by greeting people that to many of us are invisible e.g. housekeeping staff that I pass by in the hospital corridor (they’re always surprised!), greeting the security guards by name and asking how their day is going, using clerk’s names in stores if they have a name tag (their eyes usually light up and they smile!), or thanking people genuinely e.g. instead of “Thanks” saying “Thank you for your help” or “Thanks, I appreciate your assistance.” Sprinkling a little joy and cheer through the day. Of course I can’t do that without choosing to be mindful, hence my appreciation of this blog, David.

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Randy Hendrix August 28, 2019 at 10:30 am

Hi Brian…I do the same thing! I believe it’s important to let people know they matter. You might enjoy a YouTube episode highlight, “Chicago Med, No Longer Invisible”.

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Brian August 28, 2019 at 8:44 pm

I wouldn’t use the word “enjoy” but I am profoundly moved. I will never miss an opportunity to greet and recognize the “unknowns” we depend on for everything we do.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:53 am

Having spent so much of my life averse to unnecessary interactions, almost every time I do choose to speak up (even to say hi) it seems like such a positive thing. If our biggest fear is that we don’t matter, just having your existence acknowledged can kind of make your day.

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Brian August 30, 2019 at 12:51 pm

In Landmark Education they use the term “granting being.” In recognizing and connecting with another person in a meaningful sincere way, showing interest, empathy and respect, smiling, establishing eye contact and responding appropriately, we affirm their being. The bonus is that it works on us as well!

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Rocky August 28, 2019 at 7:57 am

I try to view most of what I do in working, family, and social life, as just being of service to others. The same happiness your talking about tends to rise out of this attitude. Additionally, if you’re doing it right, the material side of things will take care of itself !
Thanks for you service David….

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:53 am

Thank you Rocky!

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Michele Kendzie August 28, 2019 at 8:00 am

Again, you are saying things I feel but have not been able to express in so many eloquent words. Thank you!

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:54 am

Thank you, but Marcus Aurelius did it first, and much better! Check out his writings.

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Linda Landine August 28, 2019 at 8:59 am

Thank-you for a thought provoking article. I am going to do this, it is easy to be judgemental without any justifiable reason behind the judgement.
I practice not judging/reacting when I encounter “cranky” people, becoming a “secret ally” will take this one step further.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:55 am

Great, I hope you enjoy it. The secret ally practice isn’t just powerful for the reasons I mentioned, but it’s fun. It makes it interesting to walk anywhere, shop, do errands, etc

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Tonya August 28, 2019 at 9:17 am

This is something that literally right now takes all my brain power. I let too many external circumstances affect how I’m feeling, or relying on outcomes to either make me happy, or more often than not, not happy. Work in progress!

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:56 am

Luckily, progress can be made with these small efforts, made habitually. And it feels good the whole way :)

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Francis Hicks August 28, 2019 at 9:18 am

You are back to having a wonderful conversation. Good work. Thanks.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 10:56 am
Sharon Hanna August 28, 2019 at 9:48 am

Nice. I just put ‘Meditations’ on hold at the library and will give it a go. A lovely man from Quebec, years ago, used the expression: “wash his feet in your mind”. I liked that too. Thanks for this post. Judgment is so inherent in our hard-wiring?? “Why Buddhism is True” kind of points to this but I wonder why, for example, I have judgments about someone who is obese – as there really isn’t any reason for it. Why do you suppose many of us are so judgmental??

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 11:01 am

I think there are many layers to our judging.

There’s the instinctual, evolutionary layer of “othering” people who are different, as a crude way to keep yourself in safe and predictable environments.

There’s the social/class layer, where we’ve learned to distinguish ourselves from other classes by clothing, posture, speech, choices in food/entertainment and so on.

There’s also weird personal habits, where we judge others in order to be able to think of ourselves in a certain way (e.g. if you’re worried about being seen as crass you might judge someone else for being worse)

I also think we judge people’s character as a reaction to being inconvenienced. We make the argument that if only the other driver was quicker to respond to the turning arrow, you would have had a chance to make the light. Nobody talks about that but it’s definitely been a big part of my life.

And then regardless of the original reason, often we do things simply because we’ve always done them. We might judge people in ways our parents did, simply because we learned to do that, and every time we do it, it becomes better practiced.

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Financially Fit Mom August 28, 2019 at 10:21 am

This is wonderful David. I often catch myself being Lil Miss Judgy and it’s not the kind of person I want to be. Unfortunately, the judgement occurs before I even realize it’s there and it’s my reactive thinking to try and stop it that makes me realize it’s already occurred. I can see this practice beginning the same as reacting to my judgy thoughts, but with some consistency to make it habit, I see it becoming nature proactive approach to be prepared to stop and help someone should the opportunity present itself. Not just more compassion, but a little more awareness to the world and people around me if you will.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 11:04 am

Judgments happen extremely quickly, for sure. My practice started with using my judgy habit as a trigger to subsequently practice helpfulness. But now I do that practice, and other ones, proactively. When I go for a walk I try to carry an intention to be mild and compassionate and appreciative amidst all the other people.

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Margaret Rode August 28, 2019 at 12:06 pm

David, this is so amazing, and I don’t feel as alone in this practice — or in my fascination with the Stoics — after reading this. I read very few online writers religiously…there’s just so much to absorb. But I stop what I’m doing when one of your emails comes through, and it always changes the course of my day.
Thanks for being out there.

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 1:21 pm

Aw thanks Margaret :)

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Lindsay August 28, 2019 at 12:07 pm

thanks, David, this post was terrific. I have a practice similar to your secret ally one – when I observe someone doing something I kinda want to disapprove of or judge (other people’s driving habits provide one evergreen example), I try to think up as many reasons as I can that would account for why they’re doing that, and make it seem reasonable, or good. For instance, someone driving ‘aggressively’ in traffic might have someone in labor in the car, or be driving to the hospital to see their injured kid, or be driving to the airport in some of romantic drama. Not that these are good reasons to endanger others! And probably they are usually not true! But imagining them helps counteract the attribution bias that makes it easy for most of us to assign bad motives/character to others, and then get mad about it.

I also like to practice intentional perspective shifting – trying to imagine how a situation looks (visually, literally) to someone else in it, as a way of opening up to thinking about how a situation might feel or be perceived by another person. (Note: this is not a good exercise while driving, though! When operating a vehicle it’s best to keep your mind on your own visual perspective!)

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 1:27 pm

Ah that’s interesting! I will try the perspective exercise.

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Mark August 28, 2019 at 12:59 pm

This is an interesting experiment to try. Thanks for sharing it. I am going to try it with other drivers, a daily source of frustration. Maybe other drivers are going slow because they don’t have insurance, or a D.L., and are trying not to draw attention to themselves? Maybe they’re dealing with psychological trauma and are so preoccupied, they are forgetting to use turn signals, or use the right lane? Maybe some people just follow too closely as a matter of habit?

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 1:32 pm

In my experience, it’s not necessary to think up possible justifications for the behavior you witness, and in fact that could keep you concerned with the realm of judgment. There may be other benefits to doing that practice, but I find it much more empowering to go straight to the intention to help. The stoics talk a lot about not being surprised that people misbehave, and not needing to figure it out, instead attending to your own character.

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Ren August 28, 2019 at 1:46 pm

I started doing something similar a couple of years ago. When I find myself being judgemental of someone out in the world, I look for good qualities, any good qualities I can see, and focus on them. It feels so much better than being secretly critical.

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Fajardo August 28, 2019 at 2:38 pm

This is not the first time that you give an articulate answer to problems I can hardly put into words.

My sincere thanks.

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Cecilia August 28, 2019 at 2:52 pm

Hi David,
I thought I should let you know that I have been reading your blog for many years now – almost since the beginning, I think. I read no other blogs, and I find myself frequently wondering how you’re getting along and thinking about what you have written. I am also in the middle of a transition from a job in an asset manager (ex-lawyer) to a job in helping people communicate better on all sorts of levels – in public, dispute resolution etc. It’s scary, but I think about your change from a surveyor to what you do now, and you inspire me to believe that it is possible. So, just a friendly note to say thank you and to let you know I’m really interested in how you’re developing and changing – your life is becoming the real story here.
All the best,
Cecilia

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 5:37 pm

It is possible! It’s strange to think about how entrenched we feel in our roles when we’re in the middle of them, and then a decade later we can be in a role we didn’t know was possible for us. It’s hard to picture ourselves on the other side of a big change, but that’s part of the fun of it… fear gives us such a clear picture of the future, but it’s a false one. You have to just go through the steps and watch the scenery change. Best of luck with the transition :)

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Cecilia September 6, 2019 at 8:03 am

Many thanks David! I’ll let you know where I am in a year’s time – hopefully, I will have finished my novel and be running my communications business – that’s what I’m working towards anyway!!! First vocal experimentation workshop on 23 September, and two more in the offing for October, so it’s starting to happen… You really are an inspiration for me, and it’s not just a turn of phrase.

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Wendy Mackowski August 28, 2019 at 3:26 pm

Thank you David! Every single time I read one of your posts I have an uncontrollable urge to share it with everyone. Yes everyone! You have a way of instantly making me a better person and a motivation to be a better writer. Thank you

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David Cain August 28, 2019 at 5:39 pm

I think that’s a very healthy urge! Thanks for sharing this site Wendy.

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Inkling August 29, 2019 at 2:41 am

Thanks for the article David. I love the meditations of Marcus Aurelius. Living my life like this tough has not been successful for me. When I am alone my chosen philosophy makes me feel very happy but when I mix with others I get trampled and run down. I’m in my sixties now and I feel worn thin all over. Perhaps if you are lucky enough to live in a prosperous place where people have education and culture the parameters change in your favour. Marcus Aurelius was born into wealth and splendour, had the best private tutors and his life escalated to more power and more splendour. Most of us now have never had power nor splendour and stand very little chance of getting any. It’s what modern humans understand best. People are highly impressed by the likes of Marcus Aurelius but their eyes never fall and linger on the poor and lost.

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 10:16 am

That’s uh, very cynical. I’m sorry, I don’t believe power and splendor accounts for all the happiness in this world.

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William Tucker August 29, 2019 at 6:25 am

WOW, best Meditations connected info ever, yes ever!
Only wish me pea brain found your site & the original article 5 years ago.
This is genius world changing world peace bringing one simple first step of the entire journey.
SO, SO, SO FANTASTICALLY SPECTACULARLY INSPIRATIONAL!!!
JUST, WOWED ME FOREVER!
THANKS!!!

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Victoria Yazlle August 29, 2019 at 6:29 am

I came to you through James Clear (I was very amazed at his book especially when he talks about changing our identity to change our habits). And in your reflections and exercises I find very mobilizing triggers! Thank you! I’ll put into practice. (Forgive my English. I write from Argentina)

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 10:17 am

James is great. The identity part is my favorite aspect of his approach to habits too.

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Jane Terry August 29, 2019 at 7:35 am

David, this is so helpful, thank you! When judgmental thoughts pop into my mind, I usually try to turn the judgment back to myself, looking to see if this person’s behavior is one that I want to emulate or avoid. It takes the focus off the other person, but I think your suggestion is more useful and, as you mention, will help me to *be* a kinder, more helpful person. I really appreciate your posts!

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 10:18 am

Yes, what’s most helpful about it for me is that it lets the judgment go completely, rather than tries to resolve it somehow, and switches instead to cultivating something good in myself.

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Lucy Trend August 29, 2019 at 9:36 am

Thanks David, great timing for me too! Yet again I had a snappy comment with a runner who was inconsiderate on the canal path whilst I was cycling home last night. Maybe next time I’ll stop and say hello, how are you? Having a nice run? If I catch myself in time…..Thank you :-)

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 10:20 am

Don’t worry about expressing the goodwill in time. You can just intend it even after they’re on their way.

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Chris Bullock August 29, 2019 at 11:35 am

Love this simple and profound article… these kind of mindshifts are so powerful in their simplicity and effectiveness.

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Steve Pike August 29, 2019 at 11:44 am

Yet another inspiring piece of writing – your posts to my inbox are the only emails not from close friends that I actually set proper time aside to read with space!

This one resonates a lot at the moment, the climate crisis and politics here in the UK has me with a very negative lens and that feeds this judgemental side a bit. It also (probably) made this thought more apparent to me as I read you post, and it’s one I struggle with a bit from time to time… I wonder if you have some wisdom on it?

This happens a lot in London – Imagine you’re walking on the pavement alone and see someone walking toward you in the middle of it – you move to the side but not so far as to squash yourself to the wall or risk going in the road, they make no effort to adjust their path, so you’re forced to move further or bump arms/bags with them.

I generally move, and the judgement that the other person is rude or whatever comes instantly. They pass so there isn’t really secret-ally time, and maybe this would help; but I think to myself – well it’s fine, just move, no problem; then the other side says – yes but why should it always be me moving for those people? Why let them have positive reinforcement of their crappy behaviour and submit to their inconsiderateness, why be the submissive one in a world seemingly more full of dominant and aggressive people? I haven’t yet figured out how to get out of this loop of judgement and frustration other than by knowing it doesn’t serve me, and I certainly don’t want to add to the population of aggressive people, so it is better to just move, but I’d love to find a trick like the secret-ally to help with that particular spin cycle… any thoughts?

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 4:26 pm

…Why let them have positive reinforcement of their crappy behaviour and submit to their inconsiderateness, why be the submissive one in a world seemingly more full of dominant and aggressive people?

I’ve had this thought many times. A couple of thoughts:

-There will always be people like this regardless of how you react, so it makes sense to have a strategy that doesn’t require you to get angry or suffer over it. It’s such a small thing in the grand scheme, and if you’re reactive or indignant about it, you’re turning what is literally a fraction-of-a-second bump into several minutes of unpleasant stewing, and that is a bad deal for you regardless of what the other party experiences. So it’s worth being graciously non-reactive in those situations. This can take practice. Meditation. Practicing magnanimity. “Pick your battles” in other words.

-In cases where it really seems like the right thing is to say something, with the aim to actually modify this person’s future behavior, then say something. But it only makes sense if that something comes from the intention to change their future behavior, rather than a discharge of your own frustration. Sometimes an audible but not-angry “Excuse me??” might give them pause, maybe not. Getting angry and confrontational will almost certainly just make them feel more justified.

-I think we can fall into the trap of believing that our annoyance or indignation about the rudeness of others somehow protects the world from the proliferation of that rudeness. I talk about his in the original secret ally post. The idea that getting angry at something bad is necessarily a strike for good is an erroneous one, and the better thing for the world is practice being a better presence in the world ourselves.

So let yourself off the hook from any sense that you have a duty to be angry at rudeness. If you’re confident you can modify future behavior by saying something, do it. But I think what would need to be said would be more from a place of kindness than from indignation if it were to be successful. People seldom agree with people who are mad at them. Does that make sense?

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Steve Pike August 30, 2019 at 5:20 pm

It absolutely does make sense, and I know that you are right – as you say though, it does take practice. It also helps just to have expressed it and to have it looked at – so thank you.

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woollyprimate September 4, 2019 at 10:46 am

I started doing something years ago to combat this tendency of people to not move over on the sidewalk. I stand still. I stop walking. They will go around me if I stop. If I am walking, they expect me to move over.

I have noticed it’s a hierarchy thing. Men expect women to move over, whites expect blacks to move over, prettier women expect plainer women to move over, etc.

At first, I would stop and rifle through my pockets or purse like I was checking for something. Now, I don’t care. I just stop. I’ll even make eye contact with them as they move out of my way.

I love it! It’s a sneaky way to combat sidewalk hierarchy.

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kid August 29, 2019 at 3:34 pm

So many enthusiasts, can I stir up a hornet’s nest a bit?
As cautious as I would be about it, I liked this other idea, about watching the world as if you were not there (never existed, were dead). Feels like lightness, feels like freedom.
But this proposal feels like too much. I just reserve to myself the right to call things crap, no compromise, no regrets. If the ‘non-existence’ approach leads me naturally to being more helpful and forgiving (or, knowing myself, makes it easier to ignore certain things), I am perfectly fine with that. But training myself into helpfulness, honing this inner positivity (as a source of happiness) throws me back to certain feelings about religion, and not the ones I’d miss. Crush your ego, experience great epiphany. Seems even more sinister as a voluntary auto-coercion.
But I might as well be reading too much into this approach or just haven’t reached the required level of development to appreciate it. So be it then :)

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 4:31 pm

I think the important thing to take note of here is that you always have a right do do either. You can react to snap judgments by indulging in them, or you can use them as a cue to practice qualities that make your life better and probably the world better too. It’s not about taking commands from a moral authority, it’s about choosing between options — self-justifying what are probably unhelpful and self-defeating habits, or strengthening internal qualities that free you from depending on uncontrollable circumstances for your contentment. It took me a long time to discover that there’s even a choice here, and it’s a much better choice as far as I’m concerned. It’s that simple really.

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kid August 29, 2019 at 5:45 pm

I am actually not a one for snap reactions. A bit in my head maybe, with some indulgence too, but certainly not something that will dictate my mood for the rest of the day or even next few minutes.
Funny that the previous commenter mentions London. I could almost be writing a comment like him myself. I do get annoyed and pissed off sometimes, especially by people repeatedly stamping on my heel and almost tearing my shoe off when I walk in a crowded tube corridor. I am annoyed for a while but this doesn’t last long. As you say such a small thing in the grand scheme. Plus makes no sense to waste your time on things you can’t improve anyway. Plus I remember that occassionally I am the perpertrator, and may not even realise that quickly enough when lost in thoughts. But exceptionally inconsiderate behaviour and no ‘sorry’ can send me spiralling down for a while. That could have a funny side too if I exaggerate the story into something like ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ video, but by the time I meet anyone to share it with, I’ve already forgotten it. Yeah, that’s probably one of the ways to deal with – turning your indignation into a joke.

What made me write the previous comment is this bit:
‘Simply assuming the role of a helpful person, in any situation, helps me become a more naturally helpful person, and also creates an immediate sense of well-being. It’s like I’m making goodness out of nothing. It almost feels like cheating, like some kind of alchemical secret’.
and this (slightly):
‘Aurelius described this process of cultivating your character as carrying within you an invincible fountain of contentment. At this point, mine is barely a sprinkler. But it will only grow, and will remain flowing no matter what happens to my life situation.’

It could be a matter of a particular sensitivity, as I do not negate the idea of ‘getting better at being human’ completely (why would I be reading your blog, considering I am not a troll…). But that would be too long a post, maybe on another occassion.

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David Cain August 29, 2019 at 9:41 pm

Still not quite sure what your objection is… Practicing powers like resilience, goodwill, or gratitude like this is (a) more beneficial to me in the long run (b) more interesting than another internal rant (c) benefits me independent of circumstances. If these are not good I don’t know what good is. The alternative is another unpleasant and disempowering run-through of judgy patterns in the mind. What’s the benefit exactly? Why do it except out of bad habit?

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Lance bonds August 30, 2019 at 12:25 pm

But if they don’t give me “the wave”….well that’s intolerable :-)

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David Cain August 30, 2019 at 3:31 pm

Hehe I struggle with that too… I love the wave but try not to get mad if they don’t wave. I think some people just don’t know about it

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kid August 30, 2019 at 2:33 pm

As said earlier I might be reading too much into this approach.
This is my little attempt to summarize where my discomfort comes from:
1) Certain sense of overzealousness (aka getting high on being virtuous)
2) Longing to create a bubble of alternative reality for yourself to avoid harshness of the reality that is there. I would be very surprised if you said that this is your objective, but nevertheless it does sound a bit as if it is.

You need some good techniques for dealing with unpleasant situations so they don’t swallow you, I wholeheartedly agree with that. Especially for when you might be taken completely off guard. But overall I like to see reality for what it is (such reality including terrible people even if underneath they are just wounded kids screaming for help). This would have to involve stepping back and questioning your pre-conceptions or at least trying to identify them (inclusive of learned desctructive reactions). And to complement that on practical side, making some effort to act in the way you believe is the best (wisest, most rational, achieving most good) even if not easy. And not expecting to feel great after that, you will be misunderstood million times anyway. If you feel ok that’s good enough.
But not 100% of time, not even as an ultimate goal, I don’t want to be a saint.

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David Cain August 30, 2019 at 3:49 pm

It sounds like you are reacting to the word “virtue,” perhaps because it is sometimes associated with moral judgments of others. Don’t get distracted by that. All I’m suggesting here is this: practice qualities you believe are wise, because being wise is a circumstance-independent source of happiness. That’s it. It is no more complex than that.

If seeing reality for what it is is your goal, then it certainly makes sense not to take your emotional reaction to a person as a reliable indicator of what kind of person they are. The reality is that people’s motivations are usually completely opaque to us, so the moral judgments we so reflexively make after witnessing their behavior assume a lot. Our moral intuitions did not evolve to help us accurately assess moral questions, they evolved to help us form coalitions with other human beings. We need to make use of our capacity for careful rationality to inspect our moral intuitions if we’re going to make accurate judgments of other people. (For more on this topic, read Jonathan Haidt’s work.)

But all of that is irrelevant. These practices have nothing whatsoever to do with attempting to make a correct judgment about other people. They are all about practicing useful traits in ourselves.

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Debbi August 31, 2019 at 3:31 pm

My mother always said that the best response to an unpleasant stranger is to assume they have something difficult going on in their lives or are just having a bad day and find something about them to compliment. It can be anything from “Your nails are beautiful” to “You have so many produce codes memorized, I don’t know how you do it.” Sometimes it actually makes the person act more pleasant but, if not, kindness is never wasted. In case you are wondering, my mother was not even a remotely self-effacing or milquetoast person – she could give it to someone with both barrels if she thought they were being cruel or unfair. She just really believed that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar and that kindness is never wasted. I find that, besides making someone else’s day better, meeting apathy or worse with kindness often improves my own day as well. While cultivating the virtues will make the world a better place, it also have the lovely side effect of making the world inside our own heads a nicer place as well.

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Jennifer McLean August 31, 2019 at 7:32 pm

Such a brilliant and insightful article, David. Thank you for being such a good writer. I also read your other article on how you came to your “secret Ally” idea. I was struck again how many people never know just how they would react in any supremely negative situation. I was both very lucky and very unlucky at the same moment in time, as a child. When I was eleven I was kidnapped with two of my best friends. Suffice it to say the man who kidnapped three little girls had some seriously nefarious plans, which he carried out. Of course, the unlucky part is the psychological damage from such an event in one’s life, but I cherish the lucky part with all my heart. I learned that day who I was as a human being. What a gift that was. Faced with the choice to get away or stay and save my friend, I chose to stay, knowing that this man would kill us. I sat down and let him tie me up again. I loved my best friend (who he was hurting) with all my heart and learned that I DID have it in me to do the right thing. Who knew? Well, now I do and it makes a huge difference in my life 35 years later. I was never a hero, all I did was stay. But most importantly, I loved fully. That made all the difference. I loved her with everything I was at that tender age, she was my best friend and just being with her so she wasn’t alone was the most important thing. We were very lucky, an old man was walking his dogs and the serial rapist heard him. The three of us didn’t hear anything but he ran. We learned later that the old man never walked his dogs that early but that day he said to the police that he had an overwhelming urge to walk those dogs before dinner, not after. Thank God for that. I’m a new subscriber. I look forward to your spectacular work.

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The Bludger September 1, 2019 at 6:54 am

You know an amazing article when you read it and you think about it everyday. This is one of those articles.

Namely that the succinct way stoic ideal is applied:
“Why not, then, invest all your efforts in cultivating the best and most durable source of happiness—a strong, unshakable character—given that it naturally aligns with the best of your goals and intentions anyway?”

Why not indeed!

Yet, this is what we do:
“I’m not sure how many of us are ready to renounce all that worldly strategizing.”

Ohh my, do you mean I am not the only strategising all the time?

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devo September 1, 2019 at 6:25 pm

nice one david. with this simple mindset you’ve created a real world exercise that is useful for people wishing to practice personal enhancement with a stoic life style, dialectical behavioral therapy (dbt) and mindfulness training. well done.

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