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Post image for The Healthy Emotion We Don’t Get Enough Of

With winter approaching, I’m brainstorming ways to help myself, my friends and family, and my readers to stay sane.

Darker, shorter, colder days are already harder on our mental health, but this time they’ll be combined with the isolating effect of pandemic lockdown. So we’re looking at a new challenge level.

I’m not yet sure what my full Winter Sanity Program will entail, but it definitely involves lots of walks.

Going for a walk is an age-old salve for many ills: isolation, disappointment, drowsiness, worry, heartbreak, writer’s block, general stagnation, and boredom. The activity of walking benefits the mind and body in ways we’re still discovering, due to its all-star ingredient list of fresh air, exercise, change of scenery, contact with nature, and contemplation time.

A recent study has identified another beneficial ingredient of walking: the emotion of awe.

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Post image for Make the Power Move

In serious chess games, every move is written down. That way, every choice made by either player can be analyzed, by anyone, even centuries later.

The notation itself is very concise. Bh4. Nxd5. The Bishop moves here. The Knight captures the pawn there. A whole game can be reduced to a paragraph the size of a newspaper classified ad.

In chess books, analysts will sometimes annotate certain moves with praise or criticism. To indicate an exceptionally good move, they add an exclamation mark. Nxg6!

To a chess nerd, the “!” is very exciting. It means the move wasn’t just good, but that it gained more for its player than seemed available at that moment.

The exclamation mark signals a hint of genius — a moment in which a player sees through the position’s usual pitfalls and predictable struggles, and puts them behind him with the single push of a pawn. Boom! With a sudden punch out of nowhere, the game has changed.

On many occasions, I’ve witnessed people do things in real life that seemed clever and unexpected enough to deserve a “!” -– simple, right-to-the-bone power moves that cut through the struggles and stalemates one might have expected.

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Post image for The Inner Superpower That Makes Us Human

Our family had a cat named Princess, who at some point developed a fear of the front lawn. She would never quite walk across it. Instead she would creep up to its edge, wide-eyed and serious, then dart across.

My dad guessed she had once been in the wrong place when the sprinkler came on. Like most cats, Princess found it excruciating to be touched by any amount of water, unless it was her idea. A single raindrop would send her fleeing for cover, yet she would also wait at the bathroom door for you to emerge from your shower, then push past you to investigate the leftover puddles.

A cat’s non-negotiable stance towards involuntarily touching water illuminates what might be the most important difference between humans and other animals: we can overcome our own reactivity. We can learn what our impulses are, reflect on whether they’re helpful, and practice not always acting on them.

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Post image for You Can Get There From Here

Kindergarten was only a half-day, so I spent a lot of that year at a babysitter’s house. She had two children, both older than me. One day, the son had a big white cast covered in signatures, and explained that he had broken his arm.

At the time I thought having a broken arm meant it had been broken off, like a tree branch. Casts held the arm in place while it grew back together.

I asked how much it hurt.

“A lot.

“Did you cry?”

“Well, yeah.”

“Does it hurt now?”

“No, it’s just itchy.”

“When did it stop hurting?”

“I don’t remember.”

The sequence of events implied by his account blew my little mind. This guy fell off a jungle gym, looked around, and discovered his broken-off arm lying on the ground next to him. Then an ambulance came, and a team of doctors stuck it back on and encased it in plaster. It must have been a day of the purest pain and sadness, yet at some apparently forgettable moment, the horror went away, and now he’s joking around and it’s a normal day again.

I was then, and am still, fascinated by the way in which two incompatible experiences are still connected by time. You could be sad and despairing on a Monday morning, and be laughing that afternoon. In a matter of hours, the awfulness – real as it was – has somehow evaporated and been replaced by an entirely different experience.

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Post image for The Myth of Grit and Determination

Ordering takeout is an act of community support, the pleasure-seeking part of my brain has been telling me.

Every time I deny the impulse to order pizza, this brain-region argues, a local restaurant comes closer to insolvency.

The other day I was chatting with a few friends, and it turned out each of us had gained a non-negligible number of pounds over the past four months.  

“It’s happening to a lot of people,” one friend said. “They’re calling it the ‘Covid Nineteen.’”

It’s only twelve for me, but the process is still unfolding.

Takeout isn’t the sole culprit, of course. It’s hard to remain as active these days. Fewer grocery sorties means less fresh produce in the diet. Also, general anxiety and uncertainty have a way of sending us wandering to the fridge, or worse.

I reached my enough-is-enough moment when I was notified that I’ve earned a free pizza from accumulating enough loyalty points. My plan is to halt the Covid Nineteen while it’s still a Covid Twelve, and give every bit of it back to nature.

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Post image for Don’t Try, Intend

At some point in my house’s 112-year history, someone installed thick, white, nine-inch high baseboards that mostly act as highly visible shelves for dirt.

Whenever I try to clean these baseboards, I quickly get annoyed and discouraged. There are seemingly miles of them, running in and out of closets, behind furniture, and underneath power cords and dangling spider plants.

Unlike sweeping, vacuuming, or dishwashing, there’s no stable posture from which to clean baseboards. It’s always an act of ongoing contortion. Each obstacle interrupts the flow of what is already an awkward task.

The other day, however, I cleaned my office, including its baseboards, with none of the usual struggle. The difference was that this time I cleaned them without the entering the psychological state of trying to clean them. I skipped the whole idea of trying.

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Post image for One Way to Stay Centered in a Divided World

The eventful month of June 2020 seemed like the right time to add a new daily exercise to my mental health regimen: read an opinion piece that makes me uncomfortable.

I had noticed that in my online surfing, I was hunting for opinions with certain specific qualities. I would scan past headlines that struck me as too fawning, too reactive, too woke, or too conservative, until I found one that looked like it was “worth my time,” or “had something to say.”

It soon became clear that I was looking for the most palatable opinions, which of course are my own opinions.

Ideally, I would find my views expressed by a professional columnist with a kind of cutting wit I would like to have. When I found a piece that met these narrow standards, I would read, enjoy, and share it, then repeat the process.

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Post image for How to Feel Better When You Don’t Know What’s Wrong

Where I live, “How are you?” has traditionally been more of a greeting than a question. You’re supposed to say something like, “Good! You?” and then talk about whatever you were going to talk about.

In the last three months, it seems to have become a question again. People genuinely want to know how friends and neighbors are doing, so there’s often an added inflection to indicate that they are indeed asking: “So… how are you?”

This seems healthy. It also seems healthy that “I don’t know” has become a perfectly acceptable and relatable answer.

Like many people I’ve spoken to this spring, I don’t know how I’m doing, only that some things feel off. I’m not particularly anxious or worried, but getting ordinary things done has become inexplicably difficult.

I hope you’re doing okay in your corner of civilization. But in case you’re not, I want to share something that has helped me move through the murk, even though I don’t know what the murk is exactly.

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Post image for How to Get Rich in the Kindness Economy

My friend said that wearing a mask added an unexpected challenge to her grocery shopping experience: nobody can see you smile.

She had always depended on a polite smile to smooth over shopping-cart traffic jams and accidental incursions of personal space, and now this versatile social tool was unavailable.

I discovered a similar problem on my first silent retreat. I had a habit of saying “Oh, sorry!” whenever I thought I might be in someone’s way, but we’d all taken a vow of silence, so I couldn’t. I felt like a wrecking ball.

In the end, my friend determined that it didn’t really matter, because people can somehow sense your attitude towards them, even without obvious visual cues like smiling. All that’s ever needed is genuine goodwill, even if it isn’t coming out of your face.

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Post image for Focus on the Inputs

When quarantine started, I imagined my day would remain more or less the same before 5pm, because I already worked from home.

To the logical part of my brain, this was a simple algebra equation. My nine-to-five life stays constant, and my social life and errand-running would be replaced by their awkward and sometimes challenging COVID-era versions.

Two months later, the after-work stuff is running smoothly. My social life is fulfilling enough, on a rich diet of phone calls, one-on-one walks, and Zoom gatherings. I’ve become far more efficient at grocery shopping. (Why did I go so often before?)

Achieving an ordinary workday, on the other hand, has become uncannily difficult. Whatever I’m trying to do – write a blog post, return an email, tackle a website bug – it feels like I’m moving through mental molasses.  

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