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Concrete and plastic

There is virtually no end to man’s ingenuity. In the past 100 years, science and technology has taken us far into space, has brought every place in the world so close that almost everywhere can be reached within 24 hours or so, has fashioned communications tools that allow ideas to spread almost at the speed of light.

Concrete and plastic are two such inventions that have, literally, changed the world, have transformed our experience of the world.

The first concrete high-rise building was constructed in Cincinnati, Ohio in 1904, before perhaps the most recognisable concrete structure, the Hoover Dam, was built in the mid-1930s.

Between the 1930s and 1960s, the development of synthetic plastics — among them polystyrene, polyethylene, polyester, and the trade name Nylon — overhauled virtually everything about the world we live in.

This blog not about the environmental effects of these constructs. (For that, see “Concrete: The Most Destructive Material on Earth” (Guardian)”,  and “We Made Plastic. We Depend On It. Now We’re Drowning In It.” (National Geographic))

This blog is about the barrier they present to human groundedness.

Being grounded is, I suggest, a core ingredient in human happiness.

From the benefits of plant-based food to green exercise (defined as exercising in natural environment) to James Lovelock’s controversial / compelling Gaia hypothesis to the simple merits of just going barefoot on bare ground, a connection with the ground beneath us is, I firmly believe, fundamental to restoring calm, finding peace of mind and ultimately living a happy life.

For so many of us, particularly in the increasingly urbanised, commuter-belt world of western civilisation, a connection with the ground beneath us is less common and more precious than it’s ever been.

A quick walk in a city park at lunchtime is much better than nothing, but it’s no comparison to three hours in the wilderness at the weekend.

Our time outdoors, our stolen evenings on the beach at sunset, our weekend trip to a precariously underfunded national park — often we treat all this as a luxury, a nice moment after the essential parts of our days and weeks are taken care of.

But what if we choose instead to look at these moments not as occasional luxuries but as some of the most essential moments in our lives, and all the other day to day responsibilities can slot in around them?

Time spent outdoors, away from the concrete and plastic and exposed to the ground beneath our feet, is a small investment we can cash in for the rest of our lives.


Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.

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Mostly, you’re on your own

Whether it’s in our local communities, our bonds with family and friends or our social network (online and offline), as humans we are wired for connection.

As a species we developed from tribes and villages. At a deep emotional level, we need to feel connected to others.

Mostly, though, we’re on our own.

If we sit back and wait to be saved, it’s very likely we won’t be saved. (There’s an old African proverb that goes, “When you pray, move your feet.” Seeking salvation without action is futile.)

If we offload responsibility for our own welfare onto others — the Government, or our employer, or our spouse — we are very likely to end up bitter and disappointed.

Assuming personal responsibility, irrespective of where we find ourselves today, what age we are, what our present situation is, is essential for us to experience anything of a life well lived (one of freedom, energy, purpose, fulfilment, contribution or happiness).

Two things I noticed this week about how mostly we’re on our own, and the path we should take once we believe fully in that circumstance:

This paragraph, from an article by multiple Pulitzer Prize winning writer Thomas L. Friedman from 2013, on the state of play in retirement pensions (often termed 401ks in the United States):

If you are self-motivated, wow, this world is tailored for you. The boundaries are all gone. But if you’re not self-motivated, this world will be a challenge because the walls, ceilings and floors that protected people are also disappearing. That is what I mean when I say “it is a 401(k) world.” Government will do less for you. Companies will do less for you. Unions can do less for you. There will be fewer limits, but also fewer guarantees. Your specific contribution will define your specific benefits much more. Just showing up will not cut it.

And this video, Don’t Worry, No One Cares, from The School of Life YouTube channel:

We grow up and we’re inducted into a horrific reality. We exist in a world of astonishing indifference to almost everything we are, think, say or do.

 

The stark realisation that mostly, you’re on your own, brings us to a crossroads.

At that crossroads, there are at least three avenues open to us.

  1. Do what we have been doing, and retain hope
  2. Do nothing, and risk a drift into nihilism, depression and bitterness
  3. Take action, and assume a tiny bit of control and influence over what might happen next

(Remember, action is anything that moves you forward. Life is a game of inches with a playing time of decades.)


Would you like to receive my thoughts via email? As part of the Life Well Lived Project, I send out a bulletin of the stuff I’ve thought about, read, watched, enjoyed, experienced or pondered every weekend, and one longer essay (usually on the first Friday of every month). I also try to write regular shorter blogs (such as this one) on weekdays. You can sign up to receive them here.

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The Happiness Bulletin, #82: Flowing like water, being like water, sitting by water

This post was originally sent to the “Happiness Bulletin” email subscribers. Sign up here to receive that short email on life, living and happiness every Saturday morning.

Welcome to Saturday, and thank you for opening this week’s email

This week’s email is mostly about water.

Why?

Because water is cleansing, and life-giving. Because scientists say we are more than 60% water, and our most vital organs, our heart and our brain, are more than 70% water. Because water offers the opportunity for play and the threat of danger. Because water is the most mysterious of substances (see Neil DeGrasse Tyson bullet below).

  • A short poem by John O’Donohue
    John O’Donohue was 52 when he died suddenly in 2008. He wrote best-selling books of philosophy and spiritual development, including Anam Cara. [In the Irish language, “anam cara” means “soul friend”.]
    “Fluent” is a tiny poem about life.
    I would love to live
    Like a river flows,
    Carried by the surprise
    Of its own unfolding.
  • The philosophy of actor and martial artist master Bruce Lee, who was just 32 when he died in 1973.
    “Running water never goes stale, so you gotta just keep on flowing … Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put it in a bottle, it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot. Water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
  • Kavanagh’s advice for happiness
    I spoke to a friend this week who said he’d met one of Ireland’s best loved poets by chance last year. He asked him, “What’s it all about? Give me one piece of advice”. The poet quickly replied with a short story about Patrick Kavanagh, the great Irish poet who died in 1967. Kavanagh spoke about not caring as the key to happiness.
    Kavanagh on “the matter of human contentment”,
    Something that I might say is the very heart of the matter of human contentment or as near as we can get. This is the secret of learning how not to care. Not caring is really a sense of values and feeling of confidence. A man who cares is not the master. And one can observe this in the matter of simple singing in the rain or in a pub. The fellows who around Christmas sing in pubs are not just chaps enjoying themselves. Enjoying themselves has nothing to do with it. They are expressing themselves. This is their art, their reason for existence. And they are usually very humble and ashamed of their own selves, for they always assume the part of some singing star or other. No wonder I squirm. I do not blame them; few people have the courage to be themselves. And when they do appear themselves it is all put on with spadefuls of bravado. It took me many years to learn or relearn not to care. The heart of a song singing it, or a poem writing it, is not caring.
    I bring up Kavanagh here because of the presence of water in his poetry, perhaps most memorably in “Lines Written on a Seat on the Grand Canal, Dublin”

    O commemorate me where there is water,
    Canal water, preferably, so stilly
    Greeny at the heart of summer. Brother
    Commemorate me thus beautifully
    Where by a lock niagarously roars
    The falls for those who sit in the tremendous silence
    Of mid-July. No one will speak in prose
    Who finds his way to these Parnassian islands.
    A swan goes by head low with many apologies,
    Fantastic light looks through the eyes of bridges –
    And look! a barge comes bringing from Athy
    And other far-flung towns mythologies.
    O commemorate me with no hero-courageous
    Tomb – just a canal-bank seat for the passer-by.

Thanks for reading.

I wish you a great weekend and week, and I’ll see you back here next Saturday.

Before I go, if you were forwarded this email and would like to get it in your inbox every Saturday morning, you can sign up for free on my website here.

Finally, if you’re online, please say hello. I’m @shanebreslin on Twitter (where I’m most active). I’m also occasionally on Instagram here, and Facebook here.

Shane

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Fear, technology and politics, and what the hell we might do about it

Fear is, of course, one of the most basic of human instincts, but the way it has been engineered by technology and politics for the powerful and the greedy threatens humanity itself.

At a primal level fear is a basic requirement for survival: the need to sustain ourselves through food, shelter, defence systems and reproduction. Anything that endangers these basic needs creates fear, and that fear creates responses in all of us (fight, flight, freeze etc.)

In 2019 in the western world, though, for the vast majority of us our basic needs are not only met but oversupplied.

This doesn’t mean that fear is removed, however. We are fundamentally hardwired to feel fear, because fear (or the responses which fear creates in us) protects and sustains us. Our brain being hardwired for fear as the most basic survival mechanism, it creates fear in us from the environments we routinely surround ourselves in now, which are completely unrecognisable not only from a hundred thousand years ago, but completely unrecognisable even from 5 or 10 years back. In the past 100,000 years, while the environments we have created around us have been totally transformed, how much have humans really changed physiologically? Not much at all, it seems.

The maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government are a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both

The fear that we feel, an instinctive species reaction deep in the amygdala of our brains, and moving from there to some form of conscious thought in our neocortex, is at once so old—as old as life gets—and at the same time so new to the 21st century.

So what most creates fear in us now, in the today of 2019?

Both individually and collectively, it is generated as much as anything by the way the world is.

Or to put that more accurately, by the way the world is presented to us, through the Internet-connected devices that—from nowhere, over the course of a dozen years or so—have suddenly become so central to the way we do everything.

We open up Facebook or Instagram or Twitter or whatever else we’re into [a global digital report published in January this year found that on average we have 8.9 social media accounts per person], and we do so, all of us, for more than two hours a day [same report: two hours and 16 minutes per day of social media use by every person, globally].

And what are we seeing in those 136 minutes we spend on social media every day?

We are exposed, for the most part, to whatever is presented to us by the algorithm that knows us deeper than anyone in the world, even ourselves.

As Richard Seymour, the author of a new book about social media called The Twittering Machine, described it in a recent interview with Ken Early on the Second Captains podcast, for hours every day we are both writing and being written: we are writing in that we are publishing our own status updates, videos, stories and shares; and we are being written in that everything we see (and in the future, perhaps, everything we think and everything we do), is being dictated to us and for us by millions upon millions of lines of written code, carefully constructed to learn how we might respond to any given piece of content, and present us with choices based on that mass analysis.

So the algorithms know us better than we could ever hope to know ourselves. In a world increasingly influenced by social media—where Facebook, through its own platform and its multi-billion-dollar takeovers of Instagram, WhatsApp and other tools, is held to be accountable for everything from the 2016 US election result to the Brexit vote to mass ethnic cleansing in Myanmar —the algorithm is the most powerful of all constructs, and the people who create it are the all-seeing, all-powerful Greek Gods of the 21st century.

Fear, technology and politics: All human emotions -- except, of course, fear itself -- are distilled into the Facebook Like button

The full list of main human emotions — except, of course, fear itself — are distilled into a set of emojis within the Facebook Like button

And because the algorithms are designed to measure our responses, whether that’s a response of joy or one of anger, we are shown things that are more likely to generate some response.

This is why any scan of a typical Facebook news feed is as likely to show a cute cuddly cat video, “hilarious” meme or inspirational 40-second clip, alongside the big news stories of the day reduced to preferably sensationalist short clips and video and sound bites that stir emotional reaction but allow no room for any nuance or depth.

Before I get completely lost in the weeds here, you can be forgiven for asking: what has all this got to do with our happiness?

In short, I think, almost everything.

I’ve often quoted Kevin Barry, the Irish writer, who has said, “The Internet is an infinitude: it contains the best and worst of everything.”

The problem as I see it now, however, is that while it still contains the best and the worst of everything, we see or are shown little of the everything in the middle. We see no grey areas, only black and white. We see no detailed discussion over complex issues, only sensational bluster that appeals to the extremes at the far either end of the spectrum.

We see the feel-the-fear worst of everything most of the time, and the feelgood best of everything occasionally, and so many of us cannot help to judge our own mundane everyday existences as tedious at best, and unbearable and unlivable at worst.

While the opportunities created by technology are beautiful and must be maintained, developed and explored, the development of the algorithms for pure profit by capitalising on complex human emotion threatens everything that’s good.

Social media was built on the base human need for connection with other humans, but it has for the most part succeeded in eroding our attention spans, robbing us of the ability to think at length about any particular subject, and moved us around like pawns in a global game where the short-term winners are a handful of billionaire capitalists and the long-term losers are everyone, the entire population of the world, who if things continue on the current path will be stripped of their ability to be, think or act in a way that’s required for basic human self-awareness, self-expression and self-actualisation.

Real World Wall-E

In many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

The more we become locked into our phones, the less we will see of the real world, and in many ways we’re so close to becoming the people of Wall-E , chronically obese, carted around on self-driving seats with screens in our faces and junk food in our mouth.

What we have in front of us is, on the face of it, an incredible, unprecedented set of opportunities, among them:

  1. the possibility that we can reach people all over the world, virtually instantaneously, and virtually for free, provided we have a message that resonates;
  2. the ability to navigate roads we’ve never travelled on with up-to-the-second information about destination, time required and traffic or obstacles ahead;
  3. the never-before-seen chance to build personal and professional lives that are not tied to the 20-mile radius from your front door, and which can find friendships, audiences and customers all over the world, in real time.

On the other side of that opportunity, though, there is the overwhelm that comes from this new technological norm, which has been specifically designed—using devices and mechanisms that have long been in place in casinos and online gaming rooms—to addict us to always-on phone connectivity and the instant hit of the like notification.

All this has been buzzing in my brain for a couple of years, and among the defence mechanisms I’ve tried to implement include daily disconnection from the almost incessant buzz of technology (my phone is now unwelcome upstairs, and I know when I bring it there I’m on a path to a depressive dip that needs corrective action to avoid) and tangible groundedness to the earth and physical environment that surrounds me. My general success rate has been two steps forward, one step back, but even that has allowed me to see the potential damage all of this can do to my brain, and from there my entire life.

This week I experienced one of the big steps back that occasionally come my way. Over the past week I became glued to the TV screens from the Houses of Parliament in London to watch the maneuvrings in Boris Johnson’s UK government, a potentially deadly combination of individuals characterised by callousness or cluelessness or both.

I couldn’t get away from it.

I watched as Caroline Lucas of the Green Party called out the despicable Jacob Rees-Mogg for lounging full-length across the front benches and treating historic parliamentary debate with utter contempt.

I watched as Tanmanjeet Singh Dhesi of the Labour Party delivered a passionate speech in which he asked Johnson to apologise for labelling Muslim women as letterboxes, accusing the prime minister of inciting a spike in hate crime.

I watched as Jess Phillips stood, visibly seething with anger, to say that she does not trust a single word that comes out of Johnson’s mouth [and apologised to the Speaker if such a condemnation might be seen as “unparliamentary”].

I watched as balanced Conservatives like Dominic Grieve and Antoinette Sandbach outlined their reasons for voting against their own Government.

All those moments were captured and uploaded as short clips to the various social media platforms, although as their reach expanded, their power was somehow diluted and diminished, because it was presented alongside the bluster and propaganda of Johnson speaking to camera and on script from the comfort of his office, in a video that will probably have been subjected to paid promotion by people with an agenda, and thus displayed to far more people via careful targeting based on people’s personal data and typical behaviours, than the organic reach of the earlier explosive moments.

When we are presented with two opposite viewpoints like these, two viewpoints that are passionately at the furthest end of the political spectrum, and when each viewpoint taken on its own sounds like it might be plausible, the normal human response is to be confused.

That confusion—the confusion of hearing all sides and understanding none, the confusion of being assaulted on all sides by noise every few minutes of every day, the confusion of being unable to take a step back and away from the storm that is engulfing almost every one of us—is something that triggers the fear deep in our brains, and from there to a rising sense of anxiety, panic, anger or shame deep in our chests.

And authoritarians, dictators and plutocrats crest the wave of that confusion, shame and fear to deliver themselves to power, where they say one thing and do another to their own ends.

I realised with a sinking feeling that the only thing really in my power to do was to switch off, and that switching off was so insufficient.

I realised that there must be a way to be balanced about all the political shenanigans of our time, a way to engage in meaningful discussion about issues that matter without reducing ourselves to snap judgments based on short sound bites that appeal to our basest fears and anxieties, all propelled our way by sophisticated code written by some of the world’s brightest minds at the behest of some of the greediest.

But while disconnecting is insufficient, it is what we must do. We must disconnect from the noise for long enough for us to look around and breathe and rediscover our sense of perspective and wonder.

And then, when we reconnect, because reconnect we must, we must strive to read and watch and communicate intentionally.

We must try to have honesty and integrity in our macro ethos and in our micro conversations.

We must try to embrace compassion and kindness and understanding, because for all our manifold flaws, people up close are mostly good people.

We must try.

The price is too big if we don’t.


Shane Breslin is a writer, coach, speaker and podcaster based in Ireland. He has spoken at a TEDx conference in Dublin and runs the Life Well Lived Project, whose mission is to provide support, guidance and inspiration to help people overcome their own challenges, embrace their once-in-history uniqueness and live a life of vitality, fulfilment and happiness. The Life Well Lived Project includes includes regular writing and a podcast series. You can sign up for free to receive regular email updates from Shane here.

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Embracing desire, letting go of expectation: A Stoic philosophy via Tim Ferriss, tennis and inner demons

I took up tennis this year. Joined the local club, showed up to a few social nights. Eventually, became sufficiently comfortable on court to put my name forward for a couple of entry-level leagues.

Me and tennis go way back, but it was a distant relationship.

For years I had wanted to play.

I’ve got vivid memories of childhood summers spent in front of the television, listening to John McEnroe’s verbal explosions, smiling at Henri Laconte’s brand of on-court crowd entertainment, watching — no, studying — Stefan Edberg’s serve-volley technique.

And falling a little bit in love with Gabriela Sabatini and Steffi Graf. 

My games were football: Gaelic and soccer. Team sports. I played no individual sport competitively, but to it I brought an individual’s mindset, an outsider’s sentiment.

So even in the team sports I found a way to the individual position: goalkeeper. The place where I would mark nobody, where nobody would mark me, where for long stretches of every game I would be alone with my thoughts. And the thoughts could become fears, and the fears could become demons.

Every match the gauntlet was thrown down: me vs my demons. I projected bravado, as much as I could. I hollered and roared and swore, so much that parents of young children half-jokingly admonished me for the sounds and the fury to which I’d just exposed their kids. Half-joking, but at least half-serious too. But through it all, the demons were there. Perched on my shoulder, their words pecking incessantly at my ear-drum.

When victory came, I celebrated it with relief. Relief that I had not screwed up, or that the screw-ups had not been costly.

When defeat came, I marked it with self-recrimination. Was there something I could have done differently? A step quicker in this direction or that? A different warm-up routine that might have allowed my body to get down to that low ball to my right? Finding the courage to say the right word at the right moment in the dressing room? I routinely blamed myself for everything that went badly, gave credit elsewhere when it went well.

Either relief or blame. No real joy, never any real joy.

After 20 years of the team environment of football, I was ready for something just for me. To test myself and my mind in something new, where I could let nobody down — at least, nobody but me.

The options: tennis, or golf, or mixed martial arts. 

Golf: a bit too much time and a bit too much expense. 

Mixed martial arts: Soon, perhaps. I can’t imagine going through life without exposing myself to martial arts. (An introductory Brazilian jiu jitsu class takes place far from me. I’ve marked it down for the near future. But I see BJJ and MMA as more for my mind than for competition, at least for now.)

So tennis it was.

I left aside the sense of class politics at play: within the past two weeks, one person has said to me, “I know a few people, put them in tennis gear and they wouldn’t say hello to you.”

The idle talk brings stoicism to mind. Stoicism has been speaking to me lately, and maybe it’s the ethos and philosophy I’ve been preparing for my whole life. With idle talk, I can listen to it, or I can ignore it.

Stoicism tells me ignore it.

Stoicism tells me that the thoughts and the words and the actions of other people are not important to me.

Stoicism says that the only important things are what I think and what I do.

Control the controllables.

There’s an air of Stoicism about Andre Agassi, the great former champion. His autobiography, Open, was quickly acclaimed as the best sporting autobiography ever written after it was published almost a decade ago, but I’ve only got to it this month. Wimbledon on the television, rackets out for club night, Agassi on the bedside locker: it’s been wall-to-wall tennis these past two weeks.

One of the heroes of Agassi’s book is his long-time coach and mentor, Gil Reyes, who educated him about what it means to be human, the afflictions of expectations and turmoil and possibilities and despair of being alive in the world.

We need, said Reyes, to see ourselves as part engineer, part mathematician, part artist, part mystic. We need to grind the cogs, we need to crunch the numbers, we need to channel our innate creativity and we need to embrace some higher power, whether it comes from God or Gaia or the universe or some place else.

And with all that, we need to find a way to be comfortable with all the contradictions that being part engineer, part mathematician, part artist and part mystic brings. Because life without contradictions and struggle and tension is impossible. 

The Stoics, Seneca and Marcus Aurelius and fellas like that, would approve, I think.

There’s an equation for happiness that has been doing the rounds on various Internet memes and discussion forums in recent years. I’m not sure of its provenance — it could well derive from ancient wisdom, Stoicism or otherwise — but it goes like this:

Happiness = Reality – Expectations

The equation appeals to the part mathematician in me. The attempt to try to find balance on either side of the equals sign is a noble one, even if it’s rarely possible.

Looking closely at the equation, it suggests the biggest challenge to happiness is expectation. That it is our expectations of reality, not reality itself, that make us unhappy.

One obvious option, then, is to lower our expectations. Critics of Stoicism might suggest that low expectations is a hallmark.

Tim Ferriss, a modern day Stoic, has a riff about the perception of the philosophy. “Stoicism? Well that sounds boring,” he says. “It might conjure an image of a cow standing in the rain. It’s not sad, it’s not particularly happy, it’s just an impassive creature taking whatever life sends its way.”

But that perception is not reality. Stoicism has been used as a tool and a guiding principle by some of the greatest minds in the history of humanity, from Roman emperors to American founding fathers to sporting greats, both in performance and in coaching.

In the Happiness = Reality – Expectations equation, becoming an impassive creature taking whatever life sends our way is a surefire way to lower our expectations to zero.

And if we find a way to do that, since reality is unlikely to be zero, then we can take pleasure and enjoyment in the smallest good things that come our way — “I didn’t get a speeding fine! Oh how wonderful!”, or “I am taking great pleasure in this raisin, bite by little bite”.

But the greatest minds in history would not approve of lowering expectations to zero.

Lowering our expectations to zero, while it might be theoretically laudable, is practically implausible.

By all means, we should not have expectations for outlandishness. Go into every competition expecting to come out number 1 against all-comers, and we’re almost certain to be so frequently disappointed that discontentment will become our norm.

So if (1) being happy with our lot is a legitimate aspiration (and I do believe that happiness — the true happiness of eudaimonia, not the transient material pleasure of hedonism — is the meaning and the point and the purpose of life) and if (2) lowering expectations to zero is implausible, or even impossible, what can we do?

It is, I think, to practise embracing desire while letting go of expectations. To have big ambitions and a clear, actionable plan to realise those ambitions, but to find a way to divest those ambitions of the expectation that they will become a reality. 

[An aside on ambition. Ambition can be two things: zero-sum or win-win. Zero-sum ambition, where your success depends on someone else’s failure, is not sustaining or sustainable. Win-win ambition is ambition with integrity, where your success is built upon someone else’s success before you, and where your success lays the foundations for the success of others to follow.]

The obligation to take action, the necessity to expect no particular outcome

We have one short and precious life. It’s obligatory for us on the one hand to aim big, taking action relentlessly so we do everything in our power to make those big ambitions a reality, and on the other to rid ourselves of expectations or entitlement to the outcome. 

We must lose ourselves in the daily minute process and the overall motivating purpose, and at the same time strip ourselves of the ego wrapped up in the twin impostors of triumph and disaster.

Desire is natural, and human, and resists the scalpel. Cut out the desire, and we cut out the life.

When we expect something, we are invariably left cold. We’re left cold when the thing we expect becomes a reality, because, after all, we expected it all along, so how can we take pleasure in something that was expected to happen? And we are colder if it doesn’t, because there is nothing to deadening as for things to turn out less than they were supposed to be.

When we desire something worthwhile, and when we can take action to bring ourselves to the place where it is achieved, but at every step of the way we take care to strip ourselves of ego-driven expectation, then we can truly, I think, become lost in the moment, driven by something meaningful, and fully completely at one with ourselves.

I desire a fast first serve, and I’ll work hard at getting it, but I’m not sure I have any expectation that it will ever become a reality.

And I suppose that’s a good thing. 

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Finding the Harmony Zone: Where Pleasure Taken and Value Offered Align

Shane Breslin

 

My grandmother—forever known as Nanny to her dozens of grandchildren, and who died in 2013 at the age of 93—had great wisdom, amassed from her 9+ decades of paying close attention to the world and everyone in it.

She used to say, when it came to relationships and finding someone suitable, or even finding The One:

There’s ne’er an aul’ shoe but there’s an aul’ sock to fit it.

In other words, no matter who we are, no matter what our unique sensibilities and skills and experiences and preferences, there is always someone who can become our perfect match.

And I think this fits in many other ways, not just relationships.

It starts with knowing ourselves.

Self-awareness, self-knowledge through self-exploration and self-experimentation, might seem like a whole lot of focus on “self”, but it’s a critical part of understanding our place in the world.

We are all heavily influenced by our environment. Traditionally we have been exposed to social norms and conformities at our family, local or provincial level, and breaking out of those norms and conformities always held some level of danger. Yes, someone who chose to remove the constraints of local norms could, over time and with some level of vision and charisma, go on to become a local leader, someone who sees new and better ways of doing things and may well be followed by others who recognise those benefits.

At least equally likely, however, was the risk of being ousted from the tribe or community. Such risks are now insignificant. The tribe or community offered a substantial part of our security and status and livelihood, and the risk of being removed from it was enough to keep us in check.

Being inside the camp looking out was always preferable than being outside the camp looking in.

These days, those cultural norms have mushroomed out of all recognition. Our community used to be limited to our own small cohort, but these days our community can become a global one via the viral effect of Internet connectivity and social media feeds. Those wider sensibilities can now impose a sort of “correctness” on us everywhere we go (I intentionally avoid using the phrase “political correctness”; that’s a whole other topic, and a loaded one at that).

What this imposed “correctness” does, however, is promote the preferences and needs of the group at the expense of the individual.

That is hugely problematic, because imposing the self—imposing multiple “selfs”—to the criteria of cultural norms, often on a national and increasingly on an international or even global scale, restricts us from the sort of self-reflection, self-exploration and self-experimentation that gives us our sense of self-awareness.

For me, investing in myself has brought all the most beneficial elements and moments of the past two years of this journey from two decades of feeling depression (two decades in which I presented a mask to the world to avoid judgment or recrimination), and discovering a sense of realness, integrity and happiness in my own skin.

I can absolutely say that while the periods of depression—the major depressive episodes, as they might be described in clinical language—have come and gone with something approaching reliable regularity, I am more comfortable in my own skin now than ever before.

It is an experience I heartily recommend for others, because even when the darkness comes these days, it is never accompanied with the same sense of hopelessness that was normal for me for many years.

When depression comes now, it is in a slightly different form. It is black and penetrating and it taints everything, from my opinion of myself to my thought processes to my energy and ability to focus to, most painfully, my relationship with my wife Lorraine, whose well of patience is deep but which I cannot expect to be bottomless; but there is one thing that is completely new in the depression I feel now, two years into this journey, to the depression I felt through my teens, 20s and 30s: when it comes upon me now, I am never hopeless.

I know I need to make some changes. I know that the changes will be hard, so hard that they feel almost impossible. I know that I will have to search hard, both externally and within, to find a map that might help me chart a way through making those changes.

I often feel like I can’t go on. I often feel like I can’t do the thing I need to do. I often struggle even to identify the thing I need to do.

But when I settle into it, when I feel the feeling and try to just keep moving (moving both figuratively and literally), I know that hope is constant.

I am confident rarely but hopeful almost always.

Doing the self-work required may well be seen as selfishness, but it’s a conscious selfishness. Perhaps “self-fulness” is a better way of describing it. Either way, “self-fulness”, or conscious selfishness, is usually a net positive contribution, because it unearths the skills and talents and passions that we can bring to the world, the skills and talents and passions that stack up to be our own individual and unique contribution.

One of the things that is most apparent to me from three decades of dealing with other people, through school and college and work and business and side-projects and conferences and events and coaching and conversations of all kinds, is just how very different we all are.

If we can accept the magnitude of our differences from one another, it follows then that we should be able to accept the very things that make us different, right?

Investing time in that self-exploration to create awareness for our differences is extraordinarily powerful and empowering.

When I look at a room full of clutter and papers and disorganisation, I see all the stress and baggage and hardship.

When Lorraine looks at it, she sees possibility and clarity and healing, like the sculptor who can visualise the finished work of art from a block of stone.

I can take comfort in a screen of colourful HTML code, which makes Lorraine run for cover.

It is worth investing in fully accepting these differences. Firstly to recognise the strengths and skills that add up to the unique version of us; secondly to identify the things that we would like to improve, things that we can improve, things that are worth improving; and finally, just to let the rest of our imperfections go.

That takes time and reflection and thought and effort and emotional labour.

But it can bring us to what I’ve started calling the Harmony Zone: the set of activities that we take pleasure in doing and which also bring value to others, so that we can pursue them for our own gain and for the gain of some corner of humanity.

There are three other zones in this framework.

The Hostage Zone, where our time, effort or activities might be bringing some value to someone but which are giving us no pleasure ourselves.

The Hobby Zone, where we get some pleasure but which adds little value or makes little contribution to the greater good.

And the Heartache Zone, where our activities give us little pleasure and likewise give little value to the world.

If we’re honest—and I admit that for this purpose most of my qualitative evidence comes from an experimental subset of one: me—it’s fair to say that too much of our time is spent outside the Harmony Zone.

But taking the time to identify the activities and pursuits that might bring us there, and letting go of as much of the rest as we conceivably can, could well lead us onto a pathway to a life of fulfilment, contribution and happiness.

The best bit?

My Harmony Zone will look so different to yours. In fact, there are things in my Heartache that could fit snugly into your Harmony, and vice-versa.

Knowing what they are: that’s up to us to find out.

Because there’s always an old sock to fit every old shoe.

This post first appeared as an essay for my monthly email newsletter subscribers. It’s free. You can sign up to receive a new essay (and other bits!) on the first Friday of every month here.

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Why Choosing to Disconnect Could Be Just What We Need for Deeper Connection

Shane Breslin

Words are important.

The old “sticks and stones might break my bones, but words can never hurt me” line never fully rang true for me. Because I know how powerful words can be.

Words, used with casual flippancy or malicious intent, can cause untold hurt. Words, used in the right way, can change the world for the better.

Words carefully placed and strung together with honesty of intent can evoke powerful emotion in the listener or reader. Emotion is a key factor in our unconscious mind, and some studies in the fields of neuroscience, behavioral science and biology suggest our unconscious mind is responsible for 95% of all our decisions, behaviours and patterns.

So words are important.

For the past two Januarys I’ve decided to select a focus word for the 12 months ahead.

Last year my focus word was AWARENESS.

I was going through a reawakening, a shift in who I am, of where I am in the world, of what I should be doing and who I should be doing it with.

And I felt that a focus on awareness would be valuable. It definitely proved valuable, in ways that are hard yet to quantify, and are not yet proving valuable in monetary or material ways, but I think are priceless at a deeper, more spiritual level.

For 2019 my focus word is CONNECTION.

CONNECTION to myself, to the person I am becoming, trusting that the path I am on is the right path and requiring me to disobey the urges I have to beat down the real me and continue to present a false veneer to the world.

At some level, this must be working. I met with a former work colleague recently, someone I always respected for his warm integrity and his sense of fairness and humanity. We had shared an office and many, many meetings for several months a few years back. When we met for coffee recently, he said to me, “It feels like this is the first time we’ve met.”

Such growth or expansion — I’m searching for the right word — is accompanied by a lot of pain and suffering. This trying to figure out where next without a map has been desperately painful for me, beset as it is by the incessant hum of self-loathing, the almost non-existent self-worth and almost ever-present self-doubt. It has also been desperately painful for those closest to me to witness all this and keep supporting me through it, while they and I struggle to understand or articulate exactly what is going on.

I am often stuck fast between the pain that finding my way inflicts on my loved ones in the moment, and the pain that recoiling from this path might inflict on them indefinitely. I greatly regret that this path requires that suffering, and I yearn for a Zen state of higher consciousness and calm, but I’m not there yet and I know it’s still some distance away. I choose the psychological pain of tackling the present moment head on instead of distracting myself from it, because I believe at some deep untouchable level that this is the only right choice.

To hear that from my friend and former colleague, that it felt like the first time we’ve met, that it felt like he was meeting someone new and different and maybe reborn, tells me that the pain of the journey is a worthwhile pain, and that further rebirths lie ahead if I can stick to the path.

So connection to myself, the true reality of myself, firstly. A case of putting my own oxygen mask on first.

CONNECTION also to others. A deeper connection to people who matter. Dr Zach Bush, one of the most phenomenal human beings on the planet, and someone for whom the future of the planet occupies a critical part of his thinking, told Rich Roll recently, “You and I are here together right now, and the odds of that are zero, so clearly we are here for a reason.”

“We are together right now, and the odds of that are zero.”

I think of that sentence a lot. When I allow it to — and my self-protecting lizard brain does its best to resist, and very often sabotages things entirely — that sentence enlightens and uplifts every moment I spend with another person.

So connection to others, too, and allowing the magic of those zero odds connections to change the world.

And CONNECTION to the planet. I spoke to Masami Sato of the B1G1 initiative for my podcast recently, and she told the story of how, in her 20s, she became so disillusioned by the world and the damage that all our countless small daily actions and transactions can inflict on it, that she retreated to rural Japan to try self-sustainability. After two years, however, she realised that it was an impossible dream, and that a better course of action is to participate in the world with the full intention of allowing those actions and transactions to impact in a positive way, rather than a mindless negative one.

Connection to the planet is hard when you’re scrabbling to put food on the table, and the green beans from Kenya and the avocados from Peru are on special offer in Lidl.

The interconnectivity of everything is mind-boggling. Being aware of that connection is a necessary first step, I think. At our home, we still don’t grow any of our own food or keep our own chickens, but I suspect it’s not far away. It feels necessary.

The Obstacles to Connection

All this superficial connection inundates real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

There are obstacles to CONNECTION, and perversely I think, some of the biggest obstacles are the incessant connectivity we all experience virtually every moment of every day.

I recently downloaded the Words With Friends app to play with Lorraine and a few friends. The relentlessness of the advertising is obscene. (And yes, I realise I can pay a few euros and switch off the ads … and I realise also how logical and necessary just paying for something is as a first step to quieting the relentless advertising. Increasingly, the world in which we live is an ad-supported model, where we get everything for free but at the psychologically catastrophic price of literally endless messages aimed at selling us stuff we would rarely seek out and definitely do not need.)

Social media, where connection is literally the engine and the fuel and the destination, is increasingly a massive factor in killing our ability to truly connect at a meaningful level.

Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and others are incredibly powerful tools, allowing us the capability to join communities and build meaningful friendships with people on the opposite side of the world who we could never hope to meet in the ordinary world that existed just a couple of decades ago.

And yet we have lost something vital too, with all this superficial connection inundating real connection, drowning it out so that we find ourselves with 900 Facebook friends and almost no-one to call when we feel like throwing ourselves off a bridge.

We have limitless opportunity for connection, but this is a knife that cuts both ways, and the assault on us from outside is also limitless, and our brains have become conditioned to restlessness, which impacts on everything from our sleep to our energy to our productivity.

Disconnecting could be the route to reconnecting again.

Disconnecting will be different for everyone, depending on how desperate the need and how deep the yearning for the meaningful connection that can follow.

It can be as simple as killing all our phone notifications, or removing the social media apps. (Instagram, for those who use it, can be a real challenge, given that it’s effectively locked to your phone. WhatsApp is similarly phone-centric but it is at least a closed environment. And the ugly reality that Facebook owns all of these, and everything you do there, suggests that we are seeing just the tip of an iceberg that could sink all our boats…)

It could require something more, such as intentionally giving ourselves at least 10 hours a day phone-free (eight hours of restorative sleep and an hour either side).

It could require one day every week without our phone, which might sound like hell on earth to some, depending on the depth of the addiction.

Or it could mean a spa treatment or a retreat or a pilgrimage. Getting away from it all used to be almost exclusively a physical thing, but with our digital lives and responsibilities pursuing us everywhere we go, the need is more psychological than it has ever been.

Whatever the triage and the treatment, there’s little doubt, I think, that choosing to disconnect can bring about the most meaningful connection we’ve had in ages.

Connection to ourselves, to each other and to the planet. Connection where all of us are better off.

Happy disconnecting!

 

(Main photo credit: Israel Palacio on Unsplash)

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Guru Singh and Rich Roll: What To Do When You’re So Depressed You Can’t Get Out Of Bed

(This blog first appeared on my weekly Happiness Bulletin email which lands in inboxes every Saturday morning. If you’d like to receive it each week, you can sign up here.)


Welcome to another bulletin.

I hope you’ve had a great week, and that you can plan some time for yourself this weekend.

In fact, I invite you to commit to it, and to say these words aloud.

I AM GOING TO TAKE SOME TIME FOR MYSELF.

This week’s bulletin is an important one for me.

I’ve been contemplating and thinking and pondering and worrying about everything I’ve been doing, everything I’ve been writing, everything I’ve been putting out there in the world on my regular emails, and on my website, and on social media.

This contemplation started in earnest with my last monthly newsletter at the start of this month, when one subscriber sent me a long and very critical reply to say that I had made overcoming depression sound easy, that it wasn’t easy and that I was victimising people who were going through and struggling to overcome it by making them feel even worse about what they were going through.

Let me say this.

I know first hand that everything about depression is extraordinarily difficult. I know what it’s like to be unable to get out of bed. I know what it’s like to face every day with apprehension and anxiety and self-loathing.

I know that there is no quick or overnight path to overcoming depression. I know that the continuation of that journey, to finding happiness, to recognising fully what happiness is, and to fully embrace happiness when the moment presents itself, is something that very many people do not know how to experience. This is a big part of my life’s work. Figuring out how to live a life well lived. For myself, and for anyone who likes to hear about it.

Guru Singh, a master spiritual teacher, author, and musician, was on the Rich Roll podcast this week, talking about depression. He speaks at length about breath, and how breathing deeply is an antidote to depression, and how do we breathe deeply? By jogging or hiking or walking briskly. As I listened to him, I thought to myself: But what about the people who find it impossible to take that step? Who find it impossible to lace up the runners? Who find it impossible to do the things they know they must do?

I was grateful, then, that the conversation immediately turned in that direction, to how difficult it can be for someone so deep in depression to take that first step when every impulse tells you to stay in bed.

Here’s what Guru Singh had to say about depression so deep

If you’re so depressed that just getting out of bed is a major operation or major undertaking, if that is the level of depression that any of you are experiencing, just start with your hands, and stretch them. Just start with your feet and stretch them. Because in your hands and in your feet are a tremendous number of nerve endings, and if you stretch the flesh and the tissue around nerve endings you get a significant impulse.

And they’ve measured it, it’s called a piezoelectric pulse, and that produces a reaction inside of you. And so if you just start stretching your hands, you don’t have to move your body, you can stay in bed, just start stretching your feet and toes, and then start massaging your hands together, one massaging the other, and then get down there and massage your feet before you put your socks on, there are little ways in which we can begin to improve the sensation so that you have the ability to get out of bed and to make … a breakfast? Or to do something that you haven’t done for days.

We have all had deep moments of depression, and some of us who are in really accelerated lifestyles have had the greatest moments of depression. None of us made it to where we are without experiencing the other side really deeply.

Rich Roll takes it a bit further and talks about what to do next

Ultimately you have to make some decisions for yourself, that you have to take some responsibility for. That no-one else is going to solve this for you. And that these decisions need to be followed by actions. And if the only action that you can take is to stretch your fingers, then that’s a great place to start.

But ultimately the idea being that you need to build on these things, and you need to create new neural pathways, and those are going to be formed through the activities, and through the foods that you eat, and through the thought patterns that you decide to engage with.

It’s a slow process. It’s not a quick fix or a life hack. But ultimately there’s a way through it. If you’re depressed, it’s okay. A lot of people are. Don’t beat yourself up for being depressed. Embrace where you are.

Guru Singh finishes with a little levity 🙂

I always say if you’re depressed you’re paying attention! Because there’s a lot to be depressed about.

Here’s a link to the video. As well as depression, they talk about gun control, anger, why teachers should be paid as much as doctors and so much more.

That’s all for this week, everyone.

Thank you for reading.
Shane

(If you have been forwarded this email and you’d like to sign up to receive it every Saturday, you can enter your details here.)

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I Gave Up Social Media For a Month. Here’s What I Learned

On March 1st, I made a spur of the moment decision in a fit of … what was it? Anger? Frustration? Clarity? I announced to my family, friends and anyone else who happened to be shown the message by the various algorithms at play that I would give up social media for a month.


Shane Breslin

By Shane Breslin


I had a big month ahead of me, I said, a month where deep productivity and headspace was required. I deleted the Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn apps from my phone.

(I don’t classify YouTube as social media so that stayed — The Nerdwriter and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver are just about my only recurring “television” appointments these days. Day-to-day I make my living by helping individuals, businesses and nonprofits navigate the confusion of the online world to achieve their goals, but I’ve always been confused by Snapchat, so that wasn’t there to delete.)

While the primary driver, as I told myself and my friends, was the need to find a new level of personal productivity and that the time-suck of social media was swallowing hours of my day when I didn’t have hours to waste, a motivating factor that was just as powerful was more subconscious: the feeling that social media in all its many guises, and for all its incredible, era-defining benefits, was causing some seriously negative tremors deep within my psyche.

Depression, social media and the happiness matrix

I’ve spoken and written at some length about dealing with regular bouts of fairly debilitating depression for more. That situation was ongoing for than 20 years, perhaps longer, before I took some firm steps to address it, but I had a feeling was that the combination of particular personality traits that made me susceptible to depression with the feverishness and 24/7 world of social media was not helping.

Over the past 18 months or so I’ve committed to a journey of self-exploration. One of the exercises I regularly take, and encourage others to take, is what I loosely call a “happiness matrix”: an A4 sheet of paper with four boxes each to represent everything that’s in my control, everything I’m choosing to do.

  • A: Is this pleasurable and good for my soul?
  • B: Is this not pleasurable but good for my soul?
  • C: Is this pleasurable but not good for my soul?
  • D: Is this not pleasurable and not good for my soul?

I’ve found that every choice I make about everything — what time I get up, how I spend the first two hours of my day, who I spend time with, where I live, what I put in my body, and everything else — fits snugly into one of those four categories.

My aim is simple: to do more things from A and B categories, and fewer from C and D.

When I asked myself the question about social media, the answer was a hard one, however. It didn’t fit snugly in any category. There were times when it was definitely in A. I’ve made some friendships that I hope and expect will last a lifetime, and those friendships would just not have been possible without Facebook (Facebook is, unsurprisingly, the primary influence among all the different platforms.)

Very occasionally it was B. Speaking on Twitter about my experiences with the service offered by the Samaritans was definitely not pleasurable, but I got something deeply valuable out of it, and hope that my messages gave some value and meaning to others.

But I couldn’t deny that on many occasions there was a hollowness about much of social media that saw much of my time there enter into categories C and D.

What sort of things?

On Instagram, I joined a pod. I thought I was joining some likeminded people who might support each other in helping to learn better the techniques of that particular platform. Instead it quickly became clear that several people in the group were obsessed. I hesitated to say demented, but that’s what it felt like. The “rules” were that everyone in the pod must commit to turning on notifications for everyone else’s Instagram posts, and then liking and commenting on them within minutes of each post being published. In this way, it might game the Instagram algorithm into thinking that these posts were gaining good traction early, and thus give it a better chance of appearing to more people and even making its way — O Holy Grail! — to the Discover tab. What happened there? Well, clearly, great treasures awaited. In the form, I guess, of higher reach, more followers, more hearts, more comments.

On Twitter, I found that my own stream, built haphazardly over eight years, was filled with the loud hum of incessant and irrelevant retweeting, incessant and self-serving tweets sent by various automated schedulers and incessant angry noise. (Twitter, for all its intrinsic and undeniable in-the-moment value, often feels like a million pissed off people shouting in a lift.) Added to that, every second or third notification was a new follow from a clearly fake bot. (The New York Times “The Follower Factory” exposé in January was clearly an influencing factor in my growing awareness of how shoddy so much of Twitter especially had become.)

Twitter is still the social network I love the most, but I fear, from a business perspective, that it will never work, and it may well be doomed to fail. One analyst suggested recently that it has dipped to sixth most popular social platform in the US (behind Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, Pinterest and Snapchat) in terms of time spent. This is despite the PR perfection of having a President who uses the service as his personal global loudspeaker.

Facebook: A 21st Century Pandora’s Box

And then there was Facebook.

The big daddy of them all.

The Pandora’s Box of the 21st century, unleashing its combination of hope and the seven deadly sins on the world every minute of every day.

There were already whispers about the growing Facebook data storm at the time I started my social media break. For anyone paying attention, Facebook’s access to and use of data has been well known for the longest time. Max Schrems, a bright Austrian lawyer and activist, has been taking legal actions against Facebook for years. The General Data Protection Regulation, the new EU law which could change the world as we know it when it comes into force in May, is prompted in large part by EU legislators who have been closely scrutinising the way Facebook has been amassing terabyte upon terabyte of personally identifiable data on billions of people around the world.

Still, the revelations when they came, through a Channel 4 News secret camera exposé to the offices of Cambridge Analytica and an admission by Facebook that 87 million accounts were mined by third parties with distinctly ulterior motives, were damning, and didn’t do much to dissuade me from my decision to give this whole thing a break.

So what happened when I decided to give up social media?

Firstly, it became clear that using social media had become a deep-rooted habit.

I might be reading a book or newspaper article, come across a paragraph I liked and before I knew it my phone would be in my hand in readiness for the pic to share.

Same thing with an early morning sunrise, a blossoming daffodil or a smoothie. I found myself composing the first words of the post or tweet in my head before waking up to the fact that no, I wasn’t allowing myself to do this for a while.

Such moments were both liberating and very fucking frightening for me.

It was good to be able to resist, but it was scary to think how deep a grip these services, powered as they are by multi-billion-euro, profit driven companies, had taken on my senses.

It struck me that this could actually be classified as a form of madness. This hour-by-hour, even minute-by-minute compulsion has set in with vast swathes of people in the space of just ten years.

The external and internal dangers of social media

Where do we go from here?

There are benefits. Massive benefits. If you have a message that would benefit the world, and it’s compelling enough, the world can hear about it

For all the benefits, though, there are massive dangers.

Those dangers are external:

  • trusting massive companies, all of whom are compelled to report continued growth in their quarterly profit announcements;
  • the erosion of personal privacy, and all the dangers, known and unknown, that go with that
  • the ease of one-to-one communication that sees Facebook cited in one in every three divorce cases (and those figures are from as long ago as 2015)

Those dangers are also internal, and this is the part that is, I think, the thing we most need to do something about.

I’m drawn to psychology — how people behave the way they do, and why — and I fear that the combination of social media with the smartphone is a perfect storm that arrived in around 2008, and in the decade that followed has had a lasting negative impact on human psychology that will not be fully understood for another generation or so.

Back to social

I’ve been easing my way back in.

Slowly, steadily, with a new understanding of the pros and the multitude of cons.

I unfollowed everyone on Twitter and started anew in a bid to bring only people who add value into my headspace.

I have made a decision to stop posting video content to my habits of happiness Facebook page and I don’t have any real desire to, for the time being at least.

I acknowledge that buried within the noise and restlessness and threat of social media there is still a massive opportunity for deep and meaningful human connection, connection that can positively impact on the world without any negative undertones.

I understand now, more fully, the benefits and both the external and more importantly the internal dangers of all social networks.

Throughout my self-exploration journey, I’ve committed to controlling the controllables.

My habits and use of social media is controllable.

The fact of social media is not.

This is the world.

Like the real world off the Internet, it offers the best and the worst of everything, and each of us can only do what we can.

Like to get more from Shane?

I send one short email on the theme of happiness, and a longer monthly email every first Friday. (Hint: This piece first appeared in the monthly email, so those subscribers received it before anyone else!)

You can sign up for the short weekly email here, or the longer monthly newsletter here.

(Photo credit: Tim Bennett on Unsplash)

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What I Talk About When I Talk About Happiness

Since I started out on an exploration of what really adds up to happiness, one thing has come up repeatedly in my mind: what is happiness? What is happiness, exactly? How do I define it? How can I experience it? How can I help others do the same?


Shane Breslin

By Shane Breslin


I expect that if I stood on a street with a clipboard and stopped 50 people and asked them, “What does ‘happiness’ mean to you?”, I might get 50 totally different answers.

So this is an attempt to add some definition to my view on happiness.

To paraphrase the great short story writer Raymond Carver, this piece is all about what I talk about when I talk about happiness.

It takes a series of common notions about happiness that I fully believe are complete misconceptions.

And I believe they are dangerous misconceptions.

Why?

Because if we find ourselves believing these, we will live in a way that is detrimental to all the things — our mental and physical health, our family, friends and wider community, our purpose in life, our passions — that add up to lasting happiness.

Myth 1. Happiness is an Endpoint

Reading Rob Moore’s (otherwise excellent!) book, Money: Know More, Make More, Give More recently, I came across this passage about happiness.

I feel there are many fallacies around the real meaning of life and money. Happiness is often claimed to be the purpose of life. There are many debates across the world about whether money makes you or buys you happiness, or that the ultimate fulfilment in life is to be happy. However, if we all reached eternal, perpetual happiness … nothing would get done and we would risk dying out as a species.

Happiness suggests contentment, and is defined as such in the dictionary, and fulfilment. Happiness suggests a final destination.

However, a final destination is the start of atrophy and a place for non-growth. If we all sat around a tree and held hands in eternal peace we would have no desire to grow as an individual or as a species.

We would have no desire to solve problems or challenges, because we would perceive that we don’t have any. We’d feel no need to learn, to struggle, or to push for change. We wouldn’t evolve personally or collectively.

Reading this, and hearing someone I respect tell me recently “I never want to be happy”, prompted this blog.

I don’t mind being ballsy about this. If you think about happiness like this, you’re getting it wrong.

Happiness is not something to be avoided because it might take away your drive.

Happiness is not something to be avoided because it’s an endpoint and what comes next except atrophy and stagnation?

Happiness is not something to be avoided. Period.

I posit that concentrating on happiness has exactly the opposite effect to stagnation and atrophy, because it fills your moments with gratitude, clarity, energy, motivation, purpose and positive impact.

Happiness is not something far off in the future.

Looking at happiness in this way — as something to chase, pursue, aim for — that is exactly a route to unhappiness. Because when you think of happiness like that, it stays perpetually out of reach. You will find yourself thinking of things (subconsciously or otherwise) that might make you happy, so you do things you don’t really want to do or buy things you don’t really want to own.

Happiness is now.

Happiness is not just now; it is also all the innumerable future nows in your life until it all ends.

Happiness is the birdsong outside my window at 5.38am this morning.

Happiness is the first light of the day.

Happiness is the unpredictability of a butterfly’s flight.

Happiness is being able to pay your car insurance in full because there was enough money in the bank to do so.

Happiness is the smile on someone’s face.

Happiness is the rat-tat-tat of the unseen woodpecker.

Happiness is the glory of the setting sun.

Happiness is seven billion virtually endless lists of things for seven billion unique people on the planet.

What’s on your list?

Myth 2. Happiness = Pleasure

Pleasure is part of happiness, of course.

But happiness is much, much, much different than pleasure alone.

Happiness, to me, is about a life well lived.

Pleasure is at most a quarter of happiness. I suggest there are five parts of happiness.

Let me call them The Five P’s.

  • Pleasure
  • Purpose
  • Progress
  • Passion
  • Positive impact

Happiness is a Jenga stack, and The Five P’s are the core blocks. Take any of them out, and everything is likely to fall down.

You need pleasure, but you need more than pleasure.

You need purpose, because what is life without purpose?

You need progress, because humans are all about development and movement. We always have been, ever since our daily lives were about hunting and gathering.

You need passion, because passion makes your nerve endings come fully alive, and it is when everything is fully alive that magic happens. (By magic, I mean, literally, magic. Being able to do things that seem impossible, both before they happen and while reflecting on it afterwards. Nelson Mandela said, “Everything is impossible until it is done.” This is the magic, and passion creates the energy that creates the alchemy.)

And you need positive impact, because without community, without helping others (those close to us and those we’ll never meet), everything becomes much less meaningful.

You need all Five P’s.

So pleasure is fine. Give yourself permission to experience pleasure without guilt.

Just don’t forget the others.

Myth 3. Happiness Kills Motivation

This is a belief held by the people who say, “I never want to be happy”.

They say this as if it’s a badge of honour. As if happiness is something to avoid at all costs.

Why?

Because happiness kills motivation.

Because happiness is being fulfilled, and being fulfilled is something to avoid.

This is, of course, total rubbish.

Fulfilment suggests that we can ever stay still. We can’t. Not until the end.

And when that day comes, if you’re fortunate enough that it comes in a way that allows you to reflect, what will you reflect on? Will you be satisfied that you never allowed yourself to be happy?

No matter what anyone tells me, no part of me believes that’s true.

Myth 4. Happiness is Being In An Annoyingly Good Mood All the Time

This is something that has to be addressed. Since I started this project in late 2017, I’ve definitely found some people I’ve known for a long time looking at me a bit differently.

Maybe there’s something about me that they’re not sure of, something that they don’t trust.

My barber said to me on one chop-top visit, “I see you spreading the cheer. Good for you.”

Maybe it’s just me and my own habitual, self-defeating, almost hardwired limiting beliefs in action, but I sensed something unsaid there.

Something like, “Fair play to you for spreading the cheer, but that’s not for me. I’m in the real world. And the real world is sort of shit. And if you’re trying to spread good cheer to me, you can stop right now.”

Let’s face it, no-one likes a Pollyanna.

Pollyanna Definition - What Is Happiness?

Not even me.

I can be grumpy with the best of them. (But no-one likes a permanent grump either…)

Excessive cheeriness is not happiness.

Permanent cheeriness is impossible without putting on a phony front. As Rob Moore wrote in Money: Know More, Make More, Give More,

The more expectation of perennial happiness I had, the worse I felt, and the more I beat myself up about feeling unhappy. Then, I’d then put on this false persona of happy-clappy-happy-joy-joy-joy, only to then feel low and somewhat of a fraud for trying to put on a happy face in public.

So excessive cheeriness — happy-clappy-happy-joy-joy-joy — is very likely to be a mask hiding some deep inner turmoil.

All is not sweetness and light. All is sweetness and light and sourness and darkness too, and everything in between. And that’s the point.

Myth 5. Happiness is Just a Mood or Emotion, Like Any Other

So let’s take a look at emotions.

Here’s a list of emotions (from Wikipedia’s series on emotions, where else?!). 

Feel free to scroll and scan quickly.

  • Affection
  • Anger
  • Angst
  • Anguish
  • Annoyance
  • Anticipation
  • Anxiety
  • Apathy
  • Arousal
  • Awe
  • Boredom
  • Confidence
  • Contempt
  • Contentment
  • Courage
  • Curiosity
  • Depression
  • Desire
  • Despair
  • Disappointment
  • Disgust
  • Distrust
  • Ecstasy
  • Embarrassment
  • Empathy
  • Enthusiasm
  • Envy
  • Euphoria
  • Fear
  • Frustration
  • Gratitude
  • Grief
  • Guilt
  • Happiness
  • Hatred
  • Hope
  • Horror
  • Hostility
  • Humiliation
  • Interest
  • Jealousy
  • Joy
  • Loneliness
  • Love
  • Lust
  • Outrage
  • Panic
  • Passion
  • Pity
  • Pleasure
  • Pride
  • Rage
  • Regret
  • Rejection
  • Remorse
  • Resentment
  • Sadness
  • Saudade
  • Schadenfreude
  • Self-confidence
  • Shame
  • Shock
  • Shyness
  • Sorrow
  • Suffering
  • Surprise
  • Trust
  • Wonder
  • Worry

Looking through all of those, the one thing that jumps out to me is that almost all of them are fleeting.

There are exceptions. Unfortunately for the tens of millions, possibly hundreds of millions of people, all over the world who suffer depression, that is usually not fleeting. Feeling depressed, momentarily, can be an emotion and as such can be fleeting. But depression is way more than feeling depressed.

Likewise with suffering. Suffering is defined, I think, by deep pain that lasts over time. Feeling pain can be an emotion. Living in suffering is about much more than emotion.

So I would dispute the place of depression and suffering in that list of emotions, but for the most part, all the others come and go. Some will come and go in seconds, some in minutes, some, like grief, can last for weeks or months before they eventually regress to a fleeting emotion that can hit us at any time. (Saudade is a new one for me. I’d like to learn more about that!)

So if we think of happiness as an emotion and nothing else, then it will come and go like an emotion. We can feel happy, and an email can pop into your inbox, relaying something that’s gone wrong at work, and that feeling can disappear in an instant.

When I talk about happiness, I’m not talking about a happy feeling.

That is a part of it, of course. But only a part. (I prefer to call that feeling “joy”.) Happiness, to me, is way more than emotions that come and go fleetingly.

Happiness is about a state of mind, now and at every now in the future.

Myth 6. Happiness is the Opposite of Sadness, or Grief

If we’re talking moods, then yes, being in a happy mood is quite self-evidently not being in a sad mood.

But it is possible to experience great happiness and experience great sadness.

And let me tell you something.

It is not just possible, it is essential.

Being alive is all about different emotions and experiences.

Emotions are a central part of life, and have been for as long as humans have been roaming the planet. Emotions are an essential component of being human.

So are experiences. New and different experiences so that we can grow and progress. Repeated and habitual experiences so that we can gain mastery at the crafts to which we dedicate ourselves.

Living a life of emotions and experiences makes sadness and grief absolutely unavoidable.

So a happy life must be one which includes sadness. A happy life is one that knows sadness and grief.

In fact, I argue that sadness and even grief are essential to a happy life.

Why?

Because the only way to avoid sadness and grief is not to live.

Without knowing the feeling of happiness, we cannot know sadness.

Without knowing love, we cannot know grief. (And the greater the love, the greater the grief.)

We must be grateful for this. It is the paradox of humanity. To know one side is to know the other, and welcome both.

(Rudyard Kipling, I think, summed up this paradox of humanity well in his great poem “If”.)

What is happiness to you? Take this 30-second survey!

(Main Photo Credit: Irina Kostenich on Unsplash)