Wednesday, August 1, 2018

Happiness Series: 11 - Happiness Exercise 1: Grattitude Journal

What Are You Grateful For?

Imagine, if you can, that everything you weren’t grateful for today, was gone tomorrow.

Imagine if you forgot to say you were grateful for clean water, tomorrow all your tap water and stored beverages would be tainted with sewerage.

Imagine if you forgot to say you were grateful for your partner, tomorrow you would be single.

Imagine if you forgot to say you were grateful to live in a free, fair country, you would end up somewhere war-torn and desperate.

When you really start to think about all the things you could lose, you realize how much you have to be grateful for. Maybe you live in a shitty house, but its better than being homeless. Maybe you hate catching the bus, but its better than walking. Maybe you hate HECS debt, but its better than having no education.

I am sure if you were going to lose EVERYTHING you didn’t say you were grateful for today, you would dedicate the entire day to being grateful to every little thing. Water, air, food, family, friends, roads, even taxes.

As you know, we tend to compare our lives to media and other people. We see the thing they have, that we don’t. So we forget about the things we have. We can’t see how lucky we are.

This Exercise Aims To Address That

Studies repeatedly show gratitude makes us happier. Maybe it seems petty or stupid to you, but the point remains. Grateful people are happier than you, and will continue to be. Swallow your pride and get on the gratitude train already, you’ll be grateful you did.

You Will Need:

1. A pen
2. A fancy notebook you love touching and writing in
3. 10 minutes you set aside every morning or evening

On the first page, write YOUR NAME’S GRATITUDE JOURNAL

Start on the next page by dating the top of the page and writing 3-5 things you are grateful for today.

Every day, write the date at the top, and write 3-5 more things. For as long as possible, try not to double up. You might also like to score your mood out of ten at the bottom of every page.

As an experiment, swear to keep your journal every day for at least two months. If you have a crappy day, you’re miserable, or you’re feeling like you have nothing good in your life, go through your gratitude journal and read all the entries.

At the end of two months, assess how you feel. Do you feel better? Did your mood score average go up? Are you more aware of the things around you that are good now? Are you less jealous of other people?

For me, having a gratitude journal has added nothing but positivity to my life. I tend to do it first thing in the morning, so I start the day with something positive.  It only take a few minutes, tops.

You don’t have to use a journal. There are also a lot of fantastic gratitude apps. Zest is my favorite, but I am sure if you search in the app store, you will find plenty to try out.

Its most important that it be easy and accessible, not aesthetically pleasing. The easier and more accessible it is, the more likely you are to do it.

Moving Forward

This is the first of six exercises designed to help you improve your overall happiness. I hope you will try them all and I hope you will have the same sort of results I did. I’m not suggesting anything I haven’t done, or don’t do, which hasn’t helped me. So I know they work… at least they work for me.

Jake, In Summary:

To be 100% honest, I haven’t been keeping my gratitude journal as regularly as I used to. Someone very close to me died, and I was so broken-hearted, I couldn’t face any sort of positivity. I started to think I would never be positive again. A lot of my good habits fell by they wayside, and this was one of them.

However now my heart is mending and its time for me to pick up the gratitude journal once more. So today also starts the first day of my enforced habit forming two months of gratitude journaling. So if you like, you and I can start together.

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

Happiness Series: 10 - To Be Happy: Acknowledge Your Value

The Value Society Awards Us

In an earlier post, I talked about the importance of not hating yourself.

Today, I want to talk about the importance of acknowledging your value.

We live in a society that likes to act like some people are more valuable than others. This is a largely capitalist agenda, as in most cases, those who are productive and make a lot of money are seen as more important than those who are poor and unproductive.

Imagine the trolley problem, but there are only two two people on the tracks. One is a homeless man with no education, poor health and no home or job. The other is a well paid doctor with a big house and a family.

Deep down, most of us are conditioned to believe it is better to let the homeless man die. The doctor saves lives. He has a family. We have been taught it would be worse somehow if he dies. That society will be worse off, because the doctor was contributing more.

We are taught to put someone’s value to society over their value as individuals. However ‘value’ tends to be warped by consumerism. When we are shown what people hold value—by media—we are largely seeing people and lifestyles that encourage, even insist, we spend money and produce beyond our means.

Depending on your cultural background, the expectations you feel you have to live up to will vary. However there are likely to be some general crossovers.

For example, you are expected to be educated. You are expected to have achieved top grades and come from a good school. How often do you look at your old grades and feel ashamed? How often do you wish you had gone to a better university or college? That is proof of those expectations pressure on you.

If you are a woman, you are expected to have good make up game, but you will also be criticized for this, you are expected to dress well, be fit, to have a husband by a certain age, to be good at cooking, cleaning and to have an appropriate job, that you like. If you have children, you are expected to keep them clean, pretty, well behaved and have a house that people can drop by and visit any time.

Failure in any of these areas likely causes you anxiety, or draws criticism.

Men are expected to have good jobs, a good car, to be fit, to have a girlfriend or wife, to possess a range of skills, such as car maintenance, strength and primitive skills, like making fires, BBQing and building. Men are also expected to be knowledgeable on a range of things, to the point where I frequently see men lying to appear knowledgeable (pro tip, this is obvious to everyone) or even becoming panicked when a women knows more than them on a subject.

On top of these, there is also a lot of consumer based pressures we all feel, carefully designed and targeted at us by advertising. The need to have big TVs, new computers, fancy couches, well dressed pets and so on. Whatever product you feel will make you more impressive and less embarrassed to be yourself.

If you do not, or can not, meet these standards that society says deem you ‘worthy’, you will probably feel like shit. This might be, among other things, because you are poor, overweight, queer, old, physically or mentally unwell, working a shit job, homeless, uneducated, single, childless, unemployed, a loner, or even just have bad dress sense.

You feel like shit, because you know if it was you on the tracks, most people would choose to save the doctor instead of you. You know people see you as less, because that is how society has been conditioned to think.

The Inherent Value Of A Person

Are you friends with someone who is poor, overweight, queer, old, physically or mentally unwell, working a shit job, homeless, uneducated, single, childless, unemployed, a loner, or has bad dress sense?

Does that impact their value to you as a person? If you said yes, you might be a bit of an asshole. And by asshole, I mean bigot. You also might to revisit the term ‘friend’.

Anyway, I am sure most of you say no, that those things don’t impact how much you love your friends. Why would it? You aren’t friends with people because they are rich or thin, etc. You are friends with them because you like them, because they bring you joy, because you care about them.

I believe, we as a society, need to realize that people have inherent value regardless of what they contribute. That all people have equal value. This is very clear in the bible, God loves everyone equally, saints and sinners alike. However it is rarely practiced by Christians. However once we accept the inherent value of everyone, the idea that the life of the doctor who cured cancer is equal to that of a dying, disabled child in a third world country, the world opens up in a new way.

Suddenly the answer of what to do with refugees is clear. We treat them as we would honored guests. Same goes for any minority or marginalized group. This ideology doesn’t forgive criminals—though it does improve the justice system. People who hurt other people, should be removed from society, to keep everyone safe. But when all people are seen as equal, and holding equal value, the need to protect everyone is greater.

And once you accept this idea that all people are equally valuable, regardless of their accomplishments, you can step out from under the yolk of expectation. YOU are equally valuable to everyone else. No more, no less. You, exactly as you are, without changing anything, are equal to the people you most idolize… and most despise.

Maybe this ideology isn’t for everyone.

Maybe you agree with the need for ‘ranking’ people, from best to worst. If so, you are going to spend the rest of your life fighting to improve your score, and you will never be enough. Have fun with that.

The Value Of The People You Love

You probably have a lot of reasons for loving the people around you. I hope most of those reasons aren’t based on what they contribute to society. It might help you get your head around the concept if you wrote a list of all the things you love about your friends. Be specific. Here is an example list I wrote about several of my friends, all mashed together (for anonymity).

- Poop and fart jokes, so childish but always makes me smile.
- Hilariously hyperbolic love of cheese.
- Wants to support others at all costs.
- Gets teary when they read a sad animal story.
- Says they don’t like tomatoes, but eats a lot of tomatoes.
- Takes funny pictures of squirrels.
- Loves their pet SO much.
- Loves my dogs, treats them like little people.
- Does a cute frown when thinking hard.
- Always so happy to see me, makes me feel so loved.
- Such a complicated coffee order!
- Always sits in the lotus position.
- Loves bright colors.
- Can’t understand what they’re talking about, but they’re so intensely passionate about whatever it is.

These are random things I love about my friends. Things about them that make me smile. Things that I look on fondly, even if society deems them weird or useless.

If you write a few big long lists, of all the little, pointless things you love about people, you start to see what is really valuable. And that it is none of those things society claims it is. I never liked someone for their car. I never liked someone for their tight abs. I never liked someone because of the brand of makeup they were wearing.

I might be interested in those things because my friend is, but I had to like that friend first. And I probably like them because they love cats, or listened to me when I needed them. Until then, I couldn’t give a shit what car they brought.

When you have these lists written for your friends, you 1) start to appreciate and love them more, because you are actively noticing what you love about them, but 2) you realize conscious or subconscious, they have a list like this for you too.

And even if you know NO ONE and have no friends of family, you still have these traits. All the things that make up you, the quirks, the hobbies, the fears and loves and unique bizarreness, has inherent value.

You have value.

You are enough.

Exactly as you are now.

Moving Forward

Next week we start exercises! I’ve already mentioned exercises a few times and made some small suggestions, but over the coming weeks, the exercises are going to be focused, detailed and have a handy template to help you get started.

I really hope the past 10 weeks have given you a lot of insight into how your mind works and how our perceptions and beliefs affect our happiness. I hope they will give you a level of perspective that makes the exercises more productive and helpful to you.

I hope you are starting to re-assess your life and your values and already finding new sources of happiness, even if it was as simple as changing your mind.

Jake, In Summary:

As someone who is very driven by goals, its very easy for me to accept the value in others, and very hard for me to accept that I am enough, right now, as I am.

I am lucky to have a lot of supportive people in my life, who tell me what they admire about me. Which has, many times, saved me when I might have been lost to the sheer hopelessness of my chronic illness.

For a very long time I have believed there was no chance I would improve, that my life would be a slow decent, becoming more and more dependent until my illness killed me. As such, I have long been under the societal pressure that I was useless, a waste of resources, and the world (and my family) would be better off without me.

This is a daily reality for chronically ill people, be their illness mental or physical. It is an idea society reinforces every day. It is the voice that drives so many to end their lives: ‘You are not enough.’

Choosing to believe in the inherent value of people is like immunization. Your belief shelters others. It forms a wall of protection for people who otherwise might loose hope.

Some days it is easier for me to accept my own value than others, but I never doubt YOUR value. And that’s what lets us be strong for each other.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Happiness Series: 9 - To Be Happy: Organise Your Priorities

How Do We Define Priorities?

Our priorities are what we identify as important and how we spend our time. Sometimes, we have a very clear idea of what is important to us, but it isn’t reflected in our actions. We give time to things we say are unimportant, while putting aside the things we claim matter to use.

So it is important to consider both: thoughts and actions. The things we SAY are important, and the things we actually give our time to. If these two elements are in conflict, it is difficult to be truly happy.

If we say our children matter most to us, but we never have any time for them, how could we be happy? We are wasting our time on things that don’t matter to us, and we are missing time with that which is most precious.

Maybe we say our education matters to us right now, but all our time is going to netflix. I’m sure for some of you, just reading that gave you a sense of guilt and anxiety. We can’t feel guilty and anxious about how we are using our time, and still be happy.

What Role Do Priorities Play In Our Lives?

Priorities influence our conscious and unconscious choices. Our priorities, or the priorities we pretend to have, help define us as people. They are are part of our identity. They also influence how we spend our time, so you can see that our priorities are vitally important.

They decide how we spend our time, how we make choices and influence our identity. And yet, generally they aren’t something we give a lot of thought to. Rather, they are just there. Unquestioned and assumed.

In fact, for many of us, our priorities only come up when we are in direct conflict with someone else. Conflicts between spouses about money are often conflicts of priorities. One person prioritizes financial security, saving or even just communication before spending, and the other felt that spending the money was a more valuable use of resources.

So regardless how how much attention you pay to your priorities, they are impacting almost every part of your life, every day.

Identify Your Current Priorities:

The truth is, your current priorities are probably not what you want them to be. If you say your health is important to you, but work takes priority over exercise and cooking healthy meals, health is not really at the top of your list.

Same goes with a lot of people on my friend’s list and writing. A lot of them want writing to be a priority, they claim it is, but they never actually take any steps to put it ahead of other things in their life. Their spouses, children and friends are always first, and writing never happens.

Maybe you claim your priority is paying off debt, but you still can’t walk past a book or video game sale. This is generally because, in the moment, we believe the purchase will make us happier than our formerly stated goal of paying off debt. In the long term though, we will probably wish we had stuck to paying off our credit cards.

So if we want to take control of our own identity, the choices we make and how we spend our time, its a good idea to start by identifying what our priorities really are.

The best way to to that is by tracking how you spend your time. Then label each activity with the priority it represents. Cleaning might be homemaking, cooking might be health, but it could also be ‘children’, exercise might be ‘weight loss’ or ‘health’ or even something like ‘meditation’.

Be aware of mis-attributing things, because you want to feel better about them. Don’t call cooking health, if you are eating terrible food. Don’t call browsing websites ‘relaxation’ if it doesn’t relax you, its really just avoidance behavior that makes you feel guilty.

If you can’t be honest with yourself about where your priorities really are, you can’t fix them. Its very hard to get first aid and treat an injury if you refuse to admit you have a gaping wound.

If all your priorities were in order, and being attended to properly, this exercise couldn’t help you. You want to find some problems, because that means you have room to improve the situation.

What Priorities Will Make You Happy?

What priorities will make YOU happy, depends on you, what you want from your life and what sort of person you want to be. However some things are more likely to make you happy than others. Family and friends, for example, had been shown to make the biggest impact on our overall happiness, so moving them higher on your priority list may improve your life. Particularly if you focus on good quality, meaningful time together, rather than just cleaning up after your kids and calling that a ‘family’ priority.

Here is a list, in no particular order, of the things you might consider when writing your list of priorities:

- Family and socialization
- Finances and safety
- Health
- Diet and home life
- Career
- Education and personal development
- Spirituality
- Community and charity
- Hobbies
- Reputation
- Events, concerts, exhibitions
- Sports
- Holidays

What Do You Want Your Priorities To Be?

Okay, so you know what your priorities are, and there are some areas in your life that need work. The next thing you ask yourself, is what order do you want your priorities to be in?

Write a list, rank things in importance, be realistic. Your writing is never going to be more important than your family or paying the bills. However when you have a list that outlines what you want your priorities to be in life, make those your priorities. When choosing what to do with your time, use the list. When you are trying to focus on something and something else interrupts, refer to your list. Put the most important thing first. Tell your kids or husband to wait, so solve their own problems. Tell your boss he’ll have to talk to you during work hours, or even turn your phone off.

Life your life, tending to your priorities in the order they matter to you.

Learn to say no and ignore the things that don’t matter to you. They don’t matter. Its time to make room for the things that do.

Moving Forward:

Now we have our priorities organized, next week we are going to acknowledge our own value. This is harder for some than others, but it is integral to being happy. Or, at least, happier.

So I hope you’ll tune in next week, ready to love the shit out of the best person you know: you.

Jake, In Summary:

I think most people who know me, know my priorities. I think occasionally people passing me on the street know my priorities. They are not something I am shy about sharing with the world.

Two things most important to me are my writing, and my pets and close family. Other things high on my priority list are finding solutions to my health issues, supporting and interacting with my friends, my relationship with God, my finances, my hobbies and furthering my education.

Despite being single, romance doesn’t really make an entry on my priority list. Nor does travel, sport or attending concerts. Though I am very partial to gardening events and shows.

I think my priorities are going to be changing soon, and it is a good time for me to sit down and think about the person I want to be in this next stage of my life. I’m looking forward to weeks 11 to 16, when we do all the exercise parts of this series—though they’ll probably be too personal to share here!

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Happiness Series: 8 - To Be Happy: Stop Hating Yourself

Why Do We Dislike Ourselves?

Your dislike for yourself is likely directly proportionate to how much you feel you are the person you want to be.

If you think you are kind, generous, loyal and spendthrift, but in reality you haven’t gone out of your way to do anything kind since you threw a surprise party for someone a year ago, you never buy someone lunch without asking them to pay you back, you gossiped about your best friend yesterday and you spent half your paycheck on a new jacket that doesn’t actually fit very well, then you probably aren’t too fond of yourself.

Again, this comes down to cognitive dissonance. To maintain a positive self identity, you have to lie to yourself about the traits you have. And even though you are steadfast in your belief of the lie, your brain still knows the truth and it causes constant, low level cognitive dissonance.

To relieve it, you either have to admit you aren’t any of those good things you think you are, or actually start embodying the traits you claim to be.

The other reason we find ourselves rather dislikeable, is because we haven’t achieved the things we want to have achieved. Or we have achieved them, and they aren’t as great as we hoped. This come back to comparisons. Either comparisons of what we thought we would have achieved by now, or comparisons between the fantasy and reality of our goals.

Maybe you thought having kids would make you happy, but the reality is much harder and messier than you thought it would be, so you feel like a failure.

Maybe you thought you’d be published by now, but you just have a stack of rejection letters.

Maybe you tell everyone work is great and you love it, but it actually sucks and you hate getting up in the morning. Problem is, if you admit it or not, you hate that you’re lying. No one wants to be a liar. But sometimes we feel like we have to lie, or risk everyone we know thinking we’re a failure.

Most people feel this way, and most people end up disliking themselves because of it.

Have A Vision For Who You Want To Be
What sort of person do you want to be?

I’m not asking what sort of person you think you are. But if you got to choose what sort of person you were, if you could go back and re-write both nature and nurture, if you were tabula rasa (a blank slate) what sort of person would you choose to be?

Its very hard to get somewhere, if you don’t know where you’re going. You could just get in the car and drive and maybe you would find somewhere awesome. Or maybe you would just drive around lost until you got frustrated and went home.

Its not all that different when it comes to personality and who we are. Sure, there are some elements of us that are set in stone. Even if I tried, I don’t think I will ever become a big sports fan. Or a big board game fan. Both of these things bore me.

However when it comes to my interactions with other people, I am in complete control of how I want to be perceived. I can choose to be confident or shy, I can choose to be friendly or reserved. I can choose to put the effort in and look presentable, or I can be a slob.

Attitudes and behavior are more habit than anything else, and habits can be changed with conscious effort. If you want to be more friendly, make yourself be friendlier. Learn to say hello to strangers and introduce yourself. Ask polite questions about people, learn to be a better conversationalist.

If you want to be more confident, take some lessons on acting or toastmasters and learn to use more confident body language. And when someone says something rude, stand up for yourself or other people.

I have a quote in my bujo, but I don’t know where it is from: ‘Be the person you want your soulmate to fall in love with.’

At the very least, have a vision of yourself that is someone YOU would love.

Commit To Kind Honesty

What if you committed to honesty, right now? What if when someone asked you a question you didn’t want to answer, you said: “I don’t want to answer that.” Instead of coming up with a lie?

What if instead of making an excuse for why you can’t go to an event, you tell the truth? You’re exhausted and there is no parking there?

What if instead of telling someone you’re not ready for a relationship, you told them you’re not interested in them? Because you’re just not attracted to them?

Telling the truth can be scary, because we’re afraid we’ll be judged or incite more conflict that we want to avoid. However the opposite is usually true. People trust you more, when they know you will be honest with them. And a painful truth is much healthier for everyone than a pretty lie.

Most importantly, it will make you feel better. You will like yourself more and you will feel more relaxed, more trusting and more content in your own skin.

Accept That Being A Good Person Takes Work

Sometimes, I think we excuse ourselves from certain behaviors because we believe its more effort for us than other people. We think its naturally easy for others to be kind and generous. They were born that way, we weren’t and it would take us five times as much effort as them for the same output.

I’m just not that kind of person, we say. It doesn’t come naturally to me.

I disagree. I think people who are kind and generous got into the habit younger. They were probably taught to be consistent as children or toddlers, so it is easier NOW, but it probably wasn’t when they were learning it. Likewise, it may take some effort for you to learn the habit now, but eventually it will become habit, then it will be effortless. Its just a matter of re-training your brain.

Maybe you think its not worth the effort, but unless you are terminally ill, you have years ahead of you. In ten years, what will you regret you didn’t start now? I’m guessing being a kind and generous person will be on the list (along with saving money, so get on that too).

Moving Forward

Next week, we’re going to talk about priorities and the role they play in happiness. I really hope you’re all still enjoying this series and finding it useful. Don’t be shy about dropping me a line to say you are!

Jake, A Summary

This post comes at a time when I am struggling to find gratitude in every day life. Things are not going my way and I have spent weeks both nauseous and with a frustrating, low grade flu that won’t go away. I’m working hard, and I don’t seem to be making any progress. I also don’t seem to have time for my friends or social commitments. It feels like I am running on a treadmill, wearing myself out, but not getting anywhere.

This is the time it is most important to be grateful. Without gratitude, I could forget all the good things I have going on and focus only on the negative and frustrating. Making the bad seem worse and the good seem insignificant.

When I am feeling least grateful is when I need to show the most gratitude, if only to keep myself afloat.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

Happiness Series: 7 - To Be Happy: Prioritise Interpersonal Relationships

Happiness and Interpersonal Relationships

Studies show the clearest indicator of your overall life satisfaction and happiness depends on the quality of your interpersonal relationships.

Humans are not solitary animals. That is why isolation, exile and solitary have always been used as a form of punishment. Depriving any social species physical interaction with others of the same species is cruel. Be they pets or people.

People with strong community ties, healthy social networks and a large, involved family who socialize often live longer and happier lives. In contrast, people who feel isolated, people without social connections and family, have a higher rate of depression and suffer much higher rates of certain illnesses. They die younger and report being less happy with their lives.

This is a growing problem with men in particular, who often aren’t taught proper social skills and are discouraged from emotional connection with anyone but their spouse. If their spouse (who should not be their sole source of emotional support to begin with) leaves or dies, they don’t know how to form new bonds, or strengthen existing ones, and become increasingly isolated.

What Are Interpersonal Relationships

Interpersonal relationships are the relationships between yourself and your friends, partner, family, co-workers, church, communities and neighbors. Some will be chosen by birth, location or your job, some will be your choice and maintained at your will.

Ideally, we want as many of our interpersonal relationships to be good as possible. We want them to be friendly and relaxed. They can’t all be equally important or take up equal amounts of time.

However the more positive and sincere your interactions are with others, the healthier and happier you will be.

Why Don’t We Prioritize Other People?

So given how important relationships with others are to our well-being, how come we, as a society don’t put more importance on them?

Traditionally, interpersonal relationships were developed and maintained in two particular institutions. The home and the church. Families tended to live close together—it wasn’t as easy to move to the other side of the state, or world—so people tended to settle in the same town as their parents and cousins. Big family dinners are traditional in many cultures and are still maintained by some minority groups.

The church was the other main source of social interactions. Every Sunday, AT LEAST, everyone in the community would come together and talk. Church was a source, not just of spiritual guidance, but news and gossip. Even now, many people in strong Church communities rarely choose to socialize outside their church groups. And many modern churches aren’t just about the service. They have numerous social events and outings.

However if you aren’t in a church, or your church isn’t as socially focused, that isn’t an option. And if your family is spread all over the country, or world, huge weekend family BBQs aren’t an option.

Which means these two traditional institutions for social interaction are gone. We’re expected to make bonds and develop relationships on our own, despite there not being any real traditions in place for how this is achieved. And with society placing all its focus on romantic relationships above social ones. So much so, that some people fear interacting with others, lest it be seen as a romantic overture. Or worse, people—men in particular—who are so hard-coded to look for romance, they can no longer recognize friendly overtures.

It can be very hard to go against the grain and prioritize non-romantic friendships and relationships in a society that doesn’t value them—even if they are important to everyone’s well being.

We, in general, also tend to fall into the trap of believing the societal norm. Even though we are lonely, we think socializing should come second to our job, perhaps our hunt for a romantic partner, or even time alone to ‘decompress’.

But after working, trying to get a date and decompressing at home, there is no time for our friends. But, we promise ourselves, we’ll make time for that next week.

What Hurts Interpersonal Relationships?

The most harmful thing we can do to our interpersonal relationships is ignore them and not give them any time. Time is the most valuable resource we have. No matter how rich or poor we are, we all have the same number of seconds in a day (though the rich have more choice in how they spend them), so giving time to family and friends is the best way to show them we love and appreciate them.

To that end, stop spending time—your most precious resource—on things and people who you don’t love and who aren’t valuable to you.

We have to put effort into remembering the thing that are important to other people. Their birthdays, celebrating their achievements, being there for them when we know they are facing hard times. Make a note, not just of people’s birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but the dates of their kids birthdays and the dates of their parents deaths. Tell them you are thinking of them. If one of your friends is being published, message them to congratulate them on publication day.

These small things mean a lot to the person you are doing it for.

On the other hand, forgetting birthdays and other major life events and not making time for people is very damaging. You forgetting makes them sad and I am sure that is the last thing you want. So put that extra effort in and you will be glad you did.

What If Its Hard For Me to Form Interpersonal Relationships?

I have been chronically ill—regularly house bound—since 2008. And, usually, do to financial concerns, I have been forced to live out of town, usually an hour or more from most of my friends.

I understand the many, often insurmountable obstacles, that come with making and seeing friends. Money, health, distance, etc. I have been blessed that I have not suffered social anxiety as well, however that can be a huge factor in socialization. I know a lot of my friends struggle with it.

And everyone struggles with making time around other commitments—work, kids and everything in between.

Thank god for the internet. Sometimes people like to tout the internet as the killer of interpersonal relationships—but those people have clearly never been to ill to leave the house. The internet is the only lifeline many of us have to other people. Most of us would probably prefer quality, face to face interactions. But that doesn’t mean online friendships are less valid.

I have been friends with people for over 15 years now, who I talk to almost every day online. My friend Annie and I have been skyping (Or using MSN, back in the day), almost every single day for sixteen years now. Half our lives.

However online relationships can be fleeting and end abruptly. If you want to connect with a community online, consistency is the key. Touch base regularly, ask questions, remember the answers. Support one and other. Praise one and other’s accomplishments.

Sometimes though, online isn’t enough. Regardless of what your struggles are, its worth finding one or two local communities that you can become a regular part of. For me, it is Vision Writers and MCC church. Those are my communities, those are my social groups. I attend them both for the content of the group (writing and LGBT friendly faith) and the people I get to interact with.

It is worth making the time and saving the energy to connect with a community group a 1-4 times a month. Choose one that focuses on something you love—a hobby or cause—and find one with a positive, supportive culture and good, well-intentioned people.

Almost all of my close friends I met at groups like these. I wouldn’t give them up for the world.

How Can I Prioritize Interpersonal Relationships?

Some people are naturally very interested in the people around them. They remember birthdays and facts, they ask questions about people’s lives because they are interested and make them feel good because of their genuine love and fascination they feel toward their friends.

I am not one of those people.

Every year in January, I sit down with my new and old day planner and write in everyone’s birthdays. Because I would forget them all—even my own mother’s—if I didn’t. For those birthdays that are very important (like my mother) I put a reminder at least a week beforehand, so I remember to buy a gift.

On habitica, a daily habit tracking app, one of the daily items for me is ‘contact, compliment or improve someone’s day’. That way, at least once a day, I can use social media to reach out to someone and make them feel better. Hopefully. This also stops me from becoming a complete recluse.

Maybe you think you should just naturally be a good friend. Maybe you think its inauthentic to ‘plan’ to be nice to people like I do. I don’t think my friends mind though. I don’t say to them: ‘you were on my to do list for the day’. I hope they feel genuinely loved and appreciated, even though I might have needed a reminder to be nice.

After all, I chose to be nice to them, not one of the thousand other people I know. So hopefully they realize I love them and they are special to me. If you need a system in place to remind you to make time for people, implement it.

Making people feel loved and appreciated is more important than your ego. And if you are worried about the morality of planning to be nice, you are putting your ego first.

Another really useful tool, is to have a list of priorities in your life. I’ve talked about this in my time series, here ( Make a list of all the things in your life and be honest about where they rank… and where you want them to rank.

Then, when you are making decisions about what to do next, refer to your priority list. If you have made a vow to yourself you will spend more time with your kids and less on checking your emails at home, then next time your kids ask you to play while you are checking work emails, shut down the computer and GO PLAY WITH THEM.

Moving Forward

Next week we are going to look at another very important relationship. You relationship with the one person you are stuck with, from birth, right through to death. The one person you have to live with, every moment of every day.


Jake, In Summary

I am blessed to be surrounded by the most amazing people. This is, in part, because I don’t compromise on my values. I’m not afraid to lose someone, if I find their values are contrary to my own. In short, none of my friends are bigots or assholes, because I don’t choose to tolerate bigots and assholes.

There are so many people in the world. Seven billion of them. So I know there is always someone better—another awesome friend to be made—just around the corner. If you grew up in the same place, and still know the same people from primary school, this can be harder to believe, and giving up the friends you have a  bit scarier.

My health has made it impossible to be the sort of friend I wish I could be. Though as I get healthier, it is something I am working on. I’m trying to be the sort of friend I always wish I could be. And a big project for me, going forward, is becoming further entrenched in the communities I have chosen to be a part of. Church, writer’s groups, my friends and other communities, online and off.

When I was ill, I was always a bit ashamed to socialize with people. Too aware of my own limits. Now I am improving, but out as trans, being out in public can be a bit of a hassle. But if you have been wanting to meet me for coffee, now is the time to suggest it. Particularly if you are willing to meet me half way, at Chermside.

As much as possible, for the next year and beyond, I will be working on improving friendships and relationships and hopefully, that means seeing more of you.

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Happiness Series: 6 - To Be Happy: Learn Grattitude

We Tend To Remember Bad, More Than Good
Our brains are hardwired to remember bad things, rather than good things. It was much more important for primitive man to remember there was a bear living in a cave, than to remember there was also pretty flowers growing there.

Remembering negative experiences protects us from danger. And thus it is an evolutionary prerogative. Having the luxury to worry about being happy is a very modern concept. However as we don’t have to grow and kill all our own food, we have medicine and we have dealt with most of the dangers primitive man faced, we, as a species, have reached self actualization and happiness on the ‘to do’ list.

But what that means is, even if good and bad things happened to us in equal measure, we would still think more BAD things happened. Because those memories remain at the forefront and the better memories are quietly erased as irrelevant.

Choose To Remember Good Things

In order to really appreciate the true level of good in our lives, we have to make a conscious choice to do so. However since our brains don’t, and possibly, can’t do it on their own, we need to have some sort of system in place to help us.

If you are going to be happy, you have to appreciate the good things in our lives. And the easiest way to do that, is by showing gratitude.

I think gratitude is one of those things that some people roll their eyes at. It feels new age and a bit neon Christian. It makes us thinks of 20-something women in pastels with really popular instagrams. Well, that’s what it makes me think of.

However its actually a rather old, rather traditional, rather cultural ideal packaged up in a new wave of enthusiasm. Its the modern version of saying grace before meals, and prayers before bedtimes. It is something our grandparents and great grandparents were familiar with.

Most people will say it goes back to the bible, when Jesus gave thanks to God before meals. However it is much older than that. Many native tribes from all over the world gave thanks—usually to the spirits of the animals they killed—before eating. Gratitude, may be almost as old as language itself.

Gratitude Really Works

In my experience, and in the reported experiences of many women in their 20s with popular instagrams, gratitude works. This is also backed up by a few sociological studies, though I am not going to link to any of them here. There are lots of books you can read on happiness, if you want to know more about the science. Email me if you want recommendations.

Remember the important thing about showing gratitude is making you happy. Its about remembering all the good things and people that surround you every day, so you can really appreciate them.

In my experience, it takes a week or two of daily gratitude lists, before it really starts having a positive effect. At first I was making myself write three things I was grateful for each day, and trying not to repeat ones I had used before. I used an app on my phone called Zest for this. These days, I quickly open zest when I wake up in the morning and I usually write 8-10 things I am grateful for, not because I think I should, but because it feels so good to do it.

But What Should I Be Grateful For?

For the longest time, I had no idea how to be grateful. I didn’t know what to be grateful for. I was at a complete loss. I tried to be happy when good things happened, but they felt few and far between, which left me with few things to be grateful for on a day to day basis.

Then, one life changing day, a pastor at my church was talking about gratitude. Specifically, giving thanks to God. He said: “If everything you didn’t give thanks for today, would be gone forever tomorrow, what would you be grateful for?”

Suddenly, there were hundreds of things I was grateful for. Thousands. Suddenly, I could have spent all day doing nothing but reciting the things I am grateful for in an OCD panic that if I didn’t I would lose them forever.

Thankfully life doesn’t actually work like that, and even if you aren’t grateful for things, they tend to stick around. However it did teach me what to be grateful for. Everything I don’t want to lose.

Ways To Show Gratitude To Others

Say thank you. Literally tell people you are grateful for them. I used to feel silly telling people I really appreciated their efforts on my behalf. In fact, I think my pride stung when I had to do it. I felt like I should have been able to do everything alone.

However maybe you can do everything alone, that doesn’t mean you are. And as long as your gratitude is sincere and not over the top, most people will feel fantastic when you thank them.

Saying thank you doesn’t have to be a ten page letter. It doesn’t even have to be a one page letter. A few sentences are enough. You want to make someone happy, not take up an hour of their time.

‘Hey, I just wanted you to know I really appreciated you coming to bat for me yesterday. I’m so glad I have friends like you on my side. Let me know if I can ever return the favor. Jake.’

That’s all you need to say.

Ways To Track Gratitude For Yourself

Due to the popularity of gratitude in a whole range of circles, there are a lot of apps, specialized notebooks, and tools out there to help you track your gratitude. Just search gratitude tracker in the google play store on you phone and you will find a whole list to choose from.

If you prefer a more old-school approach, you could have a pretty notebook that you record 3-12 things you are grateful for every day. Some people like to write down good things that happen, along with things they are grateful for, and place them in a jar, so they can get them all out at the end of the year and read through them.

If you are religious, a daily prayer book would be a fantastic place to expand on your gratitude each day.

Where and how is up to you, there are literally thousands of options. Keep looking until you find one that suits your needs. You mind find you need an alarm on your phone to remind you every day, or maybe you want to leave your gratitude journal with your medication so you do both at the same time.

However I think if you commit to recording at least three things you are grateful for every single day for three weeks, you will start to notice a difference. Give it a try. What’s the worst that could happen?

Moving Forward

Next week, we are going to be looking at interpersonal relationships. Unsurprisingly, studies repeatedly show that interpersonal relationships have the single greatest impact on our happiness. People with good interpersonal relationships and a strong community live longer, are happier and are generally better off.

So next week I want to look at how to strengthen current interpersonal relationships and forge new ones. I want to look at the barriers many of us face when it comes to socialization and building relationships and I want to give you all some ideas for how to improve yours.

Jake, In Summary

I got into gratitude about 18 months ago and it really transformed my life. I have two main ways of tracking gratitude. First I use the app ‘Zest’ on my phone. Second, every day I write two pages in my prayer book, most of which is giving thanks for the things I have.

I am still working on showing gratitude to the people around me. I like to think I remember to say thank you to people, but unsolicited praise is still something I have to think about. It doesn’t come automatically. However when I do give unsolicited praise and gratitude, I find it greatly strengthens my relationships with people, making both me, and them, feel better.

The most profound difference for me, particularly since I started writing the two pages in my prayer book every day, has been a huge decrease in stress levels. The more I am grateful for what I have, the more time I take REMINDING myself of all the good things I have, the less stressed I am.

It becomes a constant stream of good news. And things that would have made me angry or stressed don’t anymore. Like when my dog pees on the veranda. Something that used to put me in a bad mood all day. Now I am glad to have him and make more time to play with him and pet him, because I am always being reminded how wonderful it is to have him with me.

As someone who is instinctively always planning for the worse, I think showing conscious gratitude has had the single greatest positive impact on my happiness. So I hope you will give it a try.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Happiness Series: 5 - You Are Unhappy Because You Aren't Doing What You Should

A lot of your unhappiness stems from the fact that, deep down, you know what you SHOULD do to fix your problems. You just don’t want to do it. Some of your reasons for not wanting to do it are valid, but that doesn’t change the fact that, despite all your complaining, you know the solution to your problems.

And that knowing, but pretending you don’t know, or it won’t work, is causing you cognitive dissonance.

You Can’t Really Lie To Yourself

I spoke in an earlier post about cognitive dissonance and how the brain can’t tolerate it, so when faced with proof that our beliefs are false, we are forced to come up with a new belief.

I gave them example of believing that good students do well at university, and believing that we are a good student.

But if we get a terrible grade, we have to change one of those beliefs. Either we have to say we are a bad student, or we have to change our belief that good students do well, instead believing the system is flawed and that the teacher showed favoritism or just doesn’t like us.

Lets say we went with the latter, but really it was the former. We didn’t study, we half-assed the assignment, doing it all the night before, and we haven’t been attending classes. But pride kept us from admitting that, and instead we are blaming the teacher for our low score.

Its easy to convince other people that you believe the teacher is corrupt. Its much more difficult to convince yourself. Even if you manage to make yourself really, truly believe it, you’ll always feel tension on this subject.

Because part of you knows its a lie. Part of you knows you didn’t work as hard as you should. Part of you knows, deep down, you are a bad student and your got the grade you deserved.

A Lie Is Clenching, A Truth Is Relaxing

There are several very popular self help books around that boil down to ‘tell the truth to yourself and everyone else and you will be happy’. I think this is at least partly true.

You never have to remember anything if you’re always honest. Being honest takes a lot less emotional energy.

Most people who know me—particularly in person—know I am a very honest person. I never hesitate to tell the truth. That’s not to say I go around offering it unsolicited and then pat myself on the back for being a jerk.

I am truthful for two reasons. Firstly, and most importantly, it is because when I was in my 20s, I decided to stop lying. I decided I wanted to be the sort of person who was always honest and if someone pressed me for information I didn’t want to give them, I would just say: ‘I don’t want to tell you’.

And my second reason is, because I am excellent at both spotting lies in other people, and in lying myself. I prefer to think of myself as a pathological story-teller, as apposed to a pathological liar. However as a small child I spent an ungodly amount of time convincing people of things that weren’t true.

Once, when I was four, my mother and I took a train. I was wandering up and down the carriage talking to people and my mother started to notice everyone in the carriage was looking for something. I had convinced a train carriage full of people that I had lost a live frog and they were all searching for it. Later in the same trip, she went to the bathroom on the station and came out to find the baggage handler searching the station for the same imaginary frog.

Even people who knew me well as a child, still came to my mother asking her if she was really keeping a pony on our small suburban block, or what we were going to do with the live emu chick I found and so on and so forth.

Being both extremely good at reading people, extremely good at coming up with narrative and (at the time) having an eidetic memory, made lying as easy for me as speaking. And, for the most part, it still is.

Furthermore, being able to read body language as well as I can, I always know when other people are lying. I almost never call people on it, unless it is going to inconvenience me in some very direct way. 

Being able to tell when people lie is not actually very nice. I saw a documentary last week where a man claimed he didn’t know who raped and murdered his daughter, but he had nothing to do with it. All lies. Now I am going to live with that for the rest of my life, knowing the case is closed and he is free. Knowing when people’s excuses not to see me, or compliments, are fake is annoying too.

But take it from an expert liar. Being 100% honest about everything is lighter. Its freeing. And its much more comfortable. The fears we have about people reacting badly to the truth are mostly unfounded.

However This Post Is About Self Truth

Being honest with yourself is one of the most relieving things you will ever do. Admitting the truth hurts. Sometimes when we are finally honest about things to ourselves, it comes with a lot of pain. You may cry or be angry or completely lose your shit about certain things. However remember you are only confessing things you already know and all those bad feelings are just bottled up inside you right now. Festering.

Once you let it out, you can begin the process of healing. Just like any abscess, it won’t heal right away. There may be weeks, even months, maybe years, of leaking pus and bad feelings. However you can’t heal until you lance that boil.

You can’t start taking the right steps to fixing a problem, if you won’t admit what the problem is.

You Probably Know What You SHOULD Do

The truth we so rarely admit is, we usually know what we SHOULD do to fix our problems, we just don’t want to. Maybe we don’t love our partner and we don’t see a future with them, but we don’t want to go through the trauma of a break up. So we keep trying to find other solutions. Even though we know its a problem we can’t fix with romantic dates and taking a dance class together. Worse, the person we’re dating may see all these things as a sign the relationship is going well. We know the only solution is to end the relationship, to let both people move on and find someone who feels a mutual passion. But still we make excuses. We delay. We try other things that we know won’t work.

Maybe you want to save up for something, but instead of putting X amount aside for two years, you think: “Two years is way too long, I’ll just do X and get the money I need in a lump sum.” But it never pans out. And two years pass, and because you never started putting money aside every week, you don’t have it. You still can’t buy that car or holiday. You’re still trying to find a ‘quick fix’ when you know, deep inside, the best and, realistically, ONLY way to get what you need is to save up a small amount every week for a few years. Its sensible, its reliable, and if you had started two years ago, you would have it by now.

Maybe you want a date, but you always cancel plans for events where you would be meeting new people.

Maybe you want a new job, but you haven’t even updated your resume or submitted it anywhere.

Maybe you want to write a novel, but you never actually do any writing in the three hours a week you set aside as writing time.

I don’t know what thing you aren’t doing that you know you should. However I know there is a thing. Probably several things. Maybe everything you have ever wanted in your life has been lost because you didn’t want to do the things you knew you had to.

That’s a painful thing to be honest to yourself about.

So Here Is A Little Exercise:

Think about one of the problems in your life that you are having. Now imagine someone else is having them. Someone who is different to you. In this case, the more different, the better. I would suggest thinking of someone you find it a little difficult to empathize with. Someone of another race and gender, perhaps. If you dislike Christians, imagine it is a fundamentalist. Maybe even write down their characteristics so this person is clear in your head.

The reason you are making them someone you wouldn’t like, is so you are as objective as possible. Imagine they have the same problem as you and have the same resources. Detach your emotions entirely from the problem and work out the most obvious, logical solution.

Work through these questions in order:

- What should someone else in your situation do? Be objective.
- What are all the reasons you don’t want to do that?
- What are the solutions to those excuses?

Moving Forward

The worst is over now. This was the last of the ‘reasons you are unhappy’ posts. You have learned about the basic biological function of all life to avoid pain and seek pleasure, you have accepted you would rather be right than happy, and that if you want to be both you have to change your beliefs, you have realized you can’t be unhappy unless you have something to compare your situation to and now you have confronted the fact that you are probably choosing to ignore the obvious solutions to your problems.

The hard parts are done and hopefully your life has improved vastly from these realizations alone.

Starting next week, we are going to look at how to actually be happier. Things you can do and change that will increase your sense of pleasure and purpose over time, according to science.

Jake, In Summary:

Taking responsibility can suck. Though, to be honest, I tend to go too far the other way, trying to take responsibility for problems that were well out of my control. Blame the weather on me and I will probably accept the guilt.

This is probably because 1) I am pretty narcissistic and 2) I have a hero complex that causes me and endless parade of problems. At the start of 2017 I made a lot of painful choices, cutting off some relationships that had become dangerously unhealthy. I had made friends who too many people who needed saving, who were only too happy to blame their problems on me. Some of those friendships recovered and are now fantastic, and some of those people are unlikely to become a part of my life again.

I saw one of them recently, and even though they showed the same needy ‘save me’ behaviors that drew me to them in the first place, I didn’t feel compelled to intervene. If that’s not personal growth, nothing is.

That said, I still love helping people who are willing to help themselves. Tell me you need me, and I am yours. I don’t think I will ever be able to cure that urge completely. However I am no longer going to let it tie me to people who don’t appreciate my help, and don’t want to take responsibility for their situation.

I still miss those people. I regularly think of them, and hope they will find what they need so we can be friends again, in a healthy way. But I am proud of my growth and I an definitely happier without those toxic elements. The important thing is, I know I created those toxic elements, not them. We had to both go seeking, and both contribute, to those toxic behaviors. It never would have happened if I hadn’t been complicit.

It was painful to admit, it was painful to cut those people off, but it has been worth it. I hope it will be worth it for you too.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Happiness Series: 4 - You Are Unhappy Because of Comparisons

Comparisons Are Reality

Imagine there is a terrible natural disaster. Your house and possessions are destroyed but everyone in your street is killed except for you and your family. Freak luck kept you all alive and you stagger out the other side with minor injuries, surrounded by death, but somehow, miraculously, okay.

Now imagine a different scenario. Another freak disaster and again your house and possessions are all destroyed. You and your family still escape unharmed. This time you have no minor injuries at all, you are perfectly fine, but none of your neighbors houses are damaged.

Objectively, which scenario is better? The latter, of course. In both cases, you lose everything you own, but in the latter, you have no injuries. In the former, you have mild injuries and all your neighbors are dead.

However in the first scenario, you would be grateful. At least you survived. At least all your family survived. You might have nothing else, but at least you have each other. At least you only have minor injuries.

Comparatively, if you were in the second situation, you would be devastated. You lost everything. All of your possessions, your house, where you live. Its all gone. Why you? Why were you singled out for this freakish disaster?

Comparison is our only frame of reference.

We have no innate understanding of normal. We are born as a blank slate and ‘learn’ what is normal as we experience the world. Our ‘normal’ living conditions now are far superior to even those of royalty hundreds years ago.

Indoor plumbing, technological and medical advances, ready access to food, clean water and hygiene and revolutionized human living conditions. However all of these things are very new to humanity. For millions of years we lived in conditions that we would now consider squalid and filthy.

And if you are reading this, either on a computer or phone, you are likely in the very top percentage of humans as organized by material wealth.

Someone living in Australia on a disability pension usually falls below the poverty line. The costs of rent, food and utilities are far beyond what most people on a disability pension can afford. And yet, the pension alone, puts them in the top richest 5% globally. The most impoverished people in one country, can still be some of the wealthiest, globally.

Who Do You Compare Yourself To?

You probably don’t compare yourself to a child who just died if dysentery in a third world country. Or the desperate parents who tried to save them while earning just a few cents a day, working in a hot, dangerous factory.

You probably compare yourself to the people around you, your friends and family, and the people you wish you were more like, celebrities and the characters on the TV shows, movies and books you love.

There’s nothing wrong with that. This isn’t about making you feel guilty because you’re not desperate and poor. I’m just trying to show how we, as humans, decide what is ‘normal’.

We don’t base ‘normal’ on our intellectual understanding or scientific polls and surveys. We based it on what we see.

Everything On TV Is A Lie

TV is not real. Even shows that seem very real at not real. We all love Grand Designs, but it paints a VERY rosy picture. The episodes are short and we see a pre-build plan, two, sometimes three days during the build, then one day when the build is mostly complete. However the time passed between filming episode one and the final episode can be 1-3 years. We don’t get to see the 38 hours of fighting, or the 26 hours crying or the blood pressure scores of the family throughout that period. We don’t get to hear about all the times they were close to separating and wanted to give up. And when they do mention the stress and heartache, its brushed off very quickly. A pat on the back and some very heartfelt British nodding.

But we have to be aware of all the lies shows tell, and most of them tell a thousand a minute. More even, if every image really is worth a thousand words. Things like the speed people recover from break ups. The ease of forming friendships. The ease of getting out of the house. The frequency that adults get to hang out with their friends. How good a quickly whipped up dinner looks. The ease of meeting romantic prospects. The speed attraction forms when you do.

I could go on for hours. TV lies about every aspect of reality, constantly. And it leaves us with a constant uneasy sense that we are not normal, because the people we see, the people on TV, are very different to us.

Remember the brain can’t tell the difference between TV and reality. We aren’t born with a sense of normal. We learn it. And if you learn it from TV, you can never, ever feel normal.

Social Media Is Warped Too

The problem is, of course, that social media is curated and, worse, it is a constant feed of noteworthy materials. My feed is full of good news, because I tend to unfollow people who post negative things. Which is generally fantastic, however I have well over 1000 facebook friends, so any given day there will usually be at least one big good news item, a birth, marriage or engagement, and probably, on average, 3-4 good new articles relating to signing publishing contracts or reaching major sales milestones.

Now, each individual person probably only accounts for one or two of those a year. And I probably account for one or two of those a year. However with an endless feed to scroll down with heaps of good news, it can seem like everyone has great things happening all the time.

Add to that the fact that people tend to cherry pick what they share to make their lives look good and interesting, and you have a recipe for very negative self comparison.

Even I don’t portray a very realistic view of my life on social media. I talk about my chronic health issues, yes, and I am quite direct about them. However I don’t whine and I don’t talk about them when I am at my worst.

The reason is, that when I am on social media it is for two reasons:
1. I want to entertain and improve other people’s day or
2. I want to connect with people. And if my social media was just a running bullet list of all the ways my life is shit, I would get to do neither of those things.

We Tend To Imagine The Best Of Them, With The Best Of Us

When we compare our lives to those of our peers and family, and we see the things they have that we don’t, we tend to imagine what it would be like if we had all the best parts of our life AND all the best parts of their life.

For example, I have a friend who has a really amazing marriage and her and her husband brought a lovely house. I also have a house, but hers is better. And I wish I had a relationship like hers.

Buuuuut, I don’t want her husband. I think he’s as boring as sand. Nice, but please don’t make me talk to him for more than five minutes, you know? His job is boring and he likes boring TV and he has the personality of beige.

Another friend of mine has adorable children (and a great marriage and a house). I would really love kids. But I know I tend to romanticize, and be jealous of, the idea of kids, without really appreciating how exhausting it is for her having a child with special needs.

And don’t even get me started on other authors and their careers. Paint me green.

Sometimes people tell me they are jealous of aspects of my life, which is frankly absurd, since high word counts aside, I am essentially a forever alone corpse with a diet of lettuce, potato and lean beef.

Yet when I imagine having the things other people have, I don’t imagine giving up the things I already have that they may want. I want double the amount of good things in my life.

What You Can Do About It

So, if you accept you compare yourself to your peers, and because of the warped filtering of both social media and our brains, this is making you miserable, what can you do about it?

People who volunteer their time are much happier than people who don’t. There is no data on if volunteering makes people happy, or if its just that happy people volunteer more. Initial evidence seems to suggest a bit of both.

However the act of helping our community, regardless of if we are helping people, animals or landcare, does seem to act to make us more aware and grateful of what we have.

If you feel particularly helpless and pathetic compared to your friends, you might want to try and volunteer with people, rather than animals or nature. Instead, look for recovering drug addicts, homeless people, people in respite care or disadvantaged children. Since the exposure to people who are worse off than you, will realign your idea of what is ‘normal’.

I think, however, the trick would be to find people you can help who have a different bracket of problems than yours. If you are an ex drug addict, you shouldn’t be helping ex drug addicts if you are trying to make yourself appreciate what you have more. If you are close to homelessness, don’t help people who are now homeless.

Focus on helping a group with very different experiences to yours, so that it is harder to make direct comparisons. You’re not going to feel better about your life if you are helping people who you could argue are better off. EG: when you were on drugs, you had no support, but this drug addict has a loving family who want them to get better.

Remind Yourself What Is Real

When you are feeling bad about what you do or don’t have in your life, make a conscious choice to remember what is real and what isn’t. If you don’t count the stuff on social media or TV, what do you actually know about the lives of your peers? It might be frighteningly little.

If you are going to compare yourself, compare yourself realistically. That means paying attention to the things you DO have, as well as the things you don’t.

Show gratitude for anything you would miss if you lost it forever. Imagine if you had to say you were grateful for everything, every day, to keep it? Now choose to live like that.

Moving Forward

Next week, we are going to talk about taking personal responsibility for our problems. I am sure some of you are already considering not showing up next week. But if that’s you, you just learned you have a problem taking responsibility for things and prefer to avoid thinking about it. So you probably need next week’s post more than anyone else.

Jake, In Summary:

I don’t really compare myself to my friends very often. I dredged up some examples earlier, but in reality, most of the comparisons I make are not between myself and my friends, or myself and what I see on TV. They are between myself and my daydreams. I have an idea of what I want my life to be like, and it is very vivid. So clear and exact, I feel like it is something I had that has been taken away from me. Like I am being held hostage from my real life in this sort of purgatory hell of chronic illness.

I spend a lot more time thinking about this reality I want, than I do actually doing the things that make me happy. That’s sometimes because the things that make me happy are too taxing for my crippled, rotting corpse of a body. But sometimes it just because I think ‘if I can’t have everything from my perfect life, what is the point?’

The point, of course, is not being a miserable git, and making the most of the life I do have. Ideally, I want to be happy every moment I am around. I want to always find a way to maximize the happiness of every moment. And that is impossible if I am busy sulking about what I don’t have.

The exercises we are going to do in weeks 15 and 16 should address this. And they do work for me, for a few months, then I usually have to do them again to remind myself.

Until then, ask yourself who or what you are comparing your life to that is making you miserable. Is it even real?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Happiness Series: 3 - You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy

Self Destructive Behaviors

So last week we learned about our choices and how they are all determined by either seeking pleasure or avoiding pain. So why, sometimes, do we make choices that we know are going to cause us pain? Why are we sometime self destructive?

Maybe we pick a fight with our partner, or best friend—even though we know before we say those words, it will hurt them. Maybe we don’t file paperwork we know will cause huge problems if we ignore, even though its not very hard or time consuming. Maybe we even do really stupid stuff, like not getting up to let the dog out when he’s whining, then get angry when he shits on the floor.

The answer to all that is even more painful and difficult to accept than last week’s revelation. The reason is: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.

The Brain Optimized for Survival

I don’t know if you have heard of the game Dungeons and Dragons, but in it, there is a curse that convinces the player they have a super power or ability and the character must do everything in their power to make it seem like they do have the ability, however they are unaware they are doing it.

So maybe they believe their super power is being able to shoot fire out their fingers, but instead of shooting fire, they actually use matches to set things on fire. However they are delusional and believe they are shooting fire out of their hands, even when presented evidence that they actually just used matches.

We all have this curse in real life.

If we believe something, we will do ANYTHING IN OUR POWER to make it come true, all the while being completely oblivious to the fact we are doing it.

Your brain will actively choose to ignore anything that doesn’t conform to your world view. Don’t believe me? Have a look at this:

This video has us focus on something, ball passing, and you may think it is that that causes people to miss the gorilla. You think, if we weren’t counting ball passes, we would definitely notice the gorilla. Truth is, probably not.

There is anther experiment that I am sadly unable to find on youtube, where you have a video of a downtown street and skyline. You can see pedestrians and cars passing. It is not too busy and all looks rather sedate. You are asked to observe the video for three minutes and report anything strange.

90% of observers will not notice two of the buildings slowly fading until they are invisible. When I did this experiment with a psych class in university, no one did.


But Hang On, How Does Any Of This Help Survival?

Well, you might be thinking, that sounds counter productive to survival. Surely we should notice weird stuff? Not really. We’re already programed to notice the important things. If you feel a tickle on your arm, how often do you panic, thinking it is a spider? When you see food adverts, do you get hungry? When you see a sexy person, do you get turned on? You’re already programed to notice the things that keep you alive.

Thinking uses a lot of calories. In fact, the only reason we can think and use language is because we learned to cook. Cooking food makes more calories available to the body, which gave us the excess we needed to develop complex brains.

However the brain as not evolved to accept that people in western culture have an excess of calories. Which is good, because we are one asshole pushing a button away from world war three. We could all, within a few days, suddenly be living in third world conditions, so don’t rush to give up these brain survival tricks just yet.

Anyway, thinking = excess calorie usage. So the brain’s job is to minimize thinking as much as possible. The brain has a lot of tricks to streamline behaviors and decisions, including this like schema, which allow us to classify things by group. EG: if you get bitten by a dog, you’ll be afraid of all dogs not just the dog who bit you. Or, when you see a table, you know what it is. You don’t have to ask. Because you have a schema for what a table is.

Schema is also the root of racism—we develop a negative, untrue idea of a group and apply it to all members of that group. And sexism. And homophobia. It shows an inability, or unwillingness to spend energy on thinking. Its no surprise then, it is more prevalent in less intelligent people.

So why would we rather be right than happy? Because nothing in the brain wiring is targeted toward making us happy. Happiness is something we week, in order to make us do behaviors that lead to flourishing. But its an afterthought. Just like a sticker is not the goal when giving a child a sticker for getting math correct. The idea is they will learn math.

If we believe something, we can act on it quickly and without much thought. No calories are wasted making an informed decision. Should you flirt with that guy? No, you’re ugly. Its pointless. Decision was effortless. Brain pats itself on the back.

The Brain Avoids Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is what occurs when reality conflicts with what we know. Lets say you believe you are a great student, and you believe great students get excellent grades. Lets say you fail an assignment.

Suddenly, there is cognitive dissonance. You brain needs a way to justify what has happened. You have to change your belief. Either you are not a great student, or great students don’t get good grades, because…. The system is wrong, or your teacher doesn’t like you, or something else.

You can’t go on believing that great students get great grades and that you are a great student. Since the brain seeks pleasure and avoids pain, you will probably choose whatever excuse takes the most blame off you.

Either way, cognitive dissonance is HUGELY taxing on the brain. Changing a belief is hugely taxing on the brain. The brain does not want to change beliefs. The trickle on effect to making rapid decisions is expensive.

So to change your beliefs, you have no strong convictions to begin with, or have the cognitive ability to spare. Thus, your brain will always choose upholding your current beliefs, over switching to one that will make you happier.

Where Does Happiness Factor In?

So what does this mean for happiness?

Lets say you have a negative believe about people of the opposite gender. Maybe you believe all women cheat, or all men are abusive. No matter what you do, you will never meet any women who don’t cheat, or men who aren’t abusive. Why?

Because your subconscious is very good at reading non verbal cues. So when you meet one of the many billions of women who don’t cheat, or men who aren’t abusive, your brain simply blocks them out. It will not register them as single, attractive or available to you.

You will only seek out people who prove you RIGHT. Because being RIGHT IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN BEING HAPPY.

Well, fuck, right?

What if you believe your writing is shit and no one likes it?

What if you believe you’re terrible with money?

What if you believe no one is attracted to you because of your weight?

You will only show your work to people who don’t like you and don’t want to read it, so you can be right when thy don’t like it.

You’ll spend your money poorly and blow out your budget, so you can be right about how terrible you are with money.

You’ll always give off desperate, antisocial and insecure vibes, which are not attractive to anyone, regardless of how skinny they are.

How Can This Be Stopped?

Self awareness is a beautiful thing. However if we are not careful, even though we are self aware when it comes to brain function, we still let yourselves believe the excuses our brain comes up with.

We say: “Ugh, I look really fat. And all my diets have failed. Last week I starved myself and I have gained two pounds. There is no point in this. If I am going to put so much work in and get nothing in return, there’s no point in trying.”

And all that starts to sound reasonable. However its not really, its just your brain hoarding its thinking ability. (The brain is also pretty motivated not to waste calories on exercise.)

Whenever you tell yourself something negative, or self defeating, I want you to add these words at the end: ‘And I would rather be right than happy.’

“I look like shit today, and I would rather be right than happy.”

“He’s not interests in me, and I would rather be right than happy.”

“No one likes my company, and I would rather be right than happy.”

“I look fat in this, and I would rather be right than happy.”

You’re going to get exasperated with yourself when you start to see your own excuses and avoidance, and you’re going to ask yourself: “Okay, but what if I would rather be happy than right? What would I say then? What would I do then?”

Look For Evidence To Prove You Wrong

We’ve all seen those flat earthers and anti vaccers, right? They’ll scroll past hundreds of studies, thousands of results on google, dozens and dozens of experts, to cherry pick some unregulated authority, like a blog post made by someone who is as equally crazy as them, supporting what they say.

Same with climate change deniers. Or basically anyone ignoring reality to push some insane agenda.

We all hate those people (well, I do), and yet that is what we are doing. All of us, every day.

We choose some inane, untrue belief and ignore all the evidence to cling to whatever scraps of ‘proof’ we can dredge up. In week 12, I am going to give you a specific exercise to work on this. However use some common sense until then.

At the very least, whenever you identify a negative belief, write it down so you have plenty ready to work with in week 12.

Jake, In Summary:

Like everyone else, I have my own list of negative beliefs. Its a long list. And I am still working on changing those beliefs. Probably one of the bigger, more self destructive ones is:

‘I am not attracted to very many people, and when I do find someone I like, they never like me back.’

I have been SPECTACULAR at maintaining this belief. By and large, because I find people who are into me off-putting. And the moment someone isn’t interested, they have my attention. That I am aware of this belief system, and have been for a long time, has not changed my behaviors or my attractions.

Since it is a self fulfilling prophecy, its very hard to find any proof to the contrary. I’m sure if I was interested in someone, and they showed interest back, I would either lose interest, or just do something impressive to fuck it up.

But on the bright side, I am ALWAYS right about this particular belief.

Lucky me.

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Happiness Series: 2 - Seeking Pleasure, Avoiding Pain

The One Fundamental Truth

There is a fundamental truth about the behavior of living things—one simple element that controls every choice we make, from the very simple, to the very complex, and it is true for every life form from ants to geniuses.

It can be difficult to confront and accept, because I think on some level we all want to be more complicated. But we are not and this simple, overriding truth will affect everything you ever say, do or think, from birth until death.

Every single choice we make is governed entirely by the desire to seek pleasure and avoid pain. There exists no other motive. Every choice, big or small, can be boiled down to either seeking pleasure, or avoiding pain.

However any choice that is difficult, has a complicated relationship with one or both of these things.

The Cupcake Dilemma

Lets take a cupcake for example.

Assume you have made a pact with yourself to get healthy and lose five kilograms. You want to feel better about your appearance, which relates to seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. The pain you are avoiding is the humiliation of feeling unfit, you are avoiding the perceived disapproval and disgust of others. The pleasure you are seeking is pride in your appearance, and a perceived increase in sexual attractiveness.

Its easy to want to lose weight.

Until there is a cupcake.

The cupcake present a dilemma. Sugary, salty, and fatty foods produce a rush of dopamine. Which makes us happy. We learn very quickly, within the first few days of life, when we are feeding on sweet breast milk, that food can make us happy.

So suddenly we are faced with a choice. Avoiding the cup cake now will give us more pleasure later on—when we lose weight. But it will give us pain now—we have to suffer through the agony of wanting something and exhibiting the self control not to take it with only the concept of later happiness to warm us.

It is unlikely, however, that the idea of later happiness will stay our hand. Rather, we know if we do eat the cupcake, we will experience much greater pain later on. Shame and anger at ourselves for ruining our diet, and more hard work to try and burn off the calories we ate.

Pleasure Or Pain

Why do we go to university? Most of us don’t enjoy exams and assignments, or studying for that matter. However we imagine we will experience a greater long term pleasure with a degree in our chosen field. We hope that getting a job we love will make us happy.

Why do we avoid looking at bills and let them pile up, even though we know it only makes things worse? Because we know when we open them and see how much we owe, it will make us stressed and we are avoiding that short term pain, even though it leads to greater long term pain.

Why do we go to the effort of throwing a party and buying nice gifts for our partners and friends? Their happiness will make us happy.

Why do we volunteer our time to charities? Giving back to the community makes us feel important, kind and generous. Which is a fantastic feeling.

There are some instances, where we might seek things that initially appear to be pain, but really they are a pleasure. BDSM is a good example, if you are simplifying this idea so much you think pain only refers to literal pain and pleasure only refers to literal pleasure, you have missed the point, please go back and start again.

For some people in some situations the pain IS the pleasure. BDSM is a very wholesome example. Particularly when I compare it to, say, creating drama and hurt for the attention. Someone who destroys their life and relationships may not seem to be getting any pleasure at all. However they are always getting something out of it. Attention can feel like validation. And the pleasure of that validation can be as addictive as heroin. Which is why both attention seekers and heroin addicts tend to throw away everything else good in their lives.

When you are in a lot of pain, like after a break up, you might also seek more pain as a form of catharsis. This is no different to throwing up when you feel nauseous, or lancing an abscess to relieve their pressure. Listening to sad songs and crying may SEEM like it is pain-seeking, but really it releases the pain and is actually a way of purging pain to return to equilibrium.

Every Moment Of Every Day

“What do you want for dinner tonight?” actually means “What would you enjoy? What would make you happy?” No one asks their kids or spouse: “What’s your least favorite, very healthy meal, lets have that.”

Furthermore, the reason we ask what people want to eat is also pleasure seeking. Cooking is often time consuming and difficult. If we cooked and no one ate it, or they complained about it, we would feel very bad. It would hurt. By asking what people want, we are maximizing the chance they will enjoy it and be satisfied, thus making the chef feel proud and satisfied.

When you choose what to wear on any given day, you are weighing up several factors that will maximize your happiness. Comfort, your own perceived confidence and appeal in that outfit, and the likelihood it will give you the desired social outcome. For example, maybe you feel comfortable in a onsie, sexy in your favorite jeans and your workplace expects formal dress. What you put on will then be dictated  by what you are doing, because if you show up at work in your favorite jeans instead of a tie and blazer, you might be fired, or reprimanded, which would make you very unhappy. Likewise, if you are staying home to play video games, wearing your work suit will just make you miserable. You’ll be uncomfortable and probably feel foolish. Same goes if you wear the onsie on a date. The comfort you feel wearing it will be heavily outweighed by the misery of your date walking out of the restaurant in disgust.

However if you existed in a reality where everyone always saw you in the perfect clothes for the occasion, you would probably wear the onsie everywhere. Comfort would become the persistent deciding factor, because all other pleasure and pain factors had been eliminated.

But What About Logic?

So. Maybe now you understand the concept. There is no choice, big or small, that doesn’t revolve around pleasure or pain. Which is fine, except most of us have ourselves convinced all our choices stem from logic, not emotion.

That is completely untrue. There is no such thing as a logical choice. All choices are pleasure maximizing/pain minimizing. Anyone who says they only make logical choices is just completely and dangerously oblivious to their own emotions and shouldn’t be trusted with anything, the same way you wouldn’t trust a toddler with a knife. They’re going to hurt themselves, you and everyone around them and make a bloody mess in the process.

Even when making choices for people in other places, we try and project pleasure and pain. If we are a kind person, we try and project what would make us happy in that situation. If we are not, we try and imagine how we can benefit, even if it will never affect us.

For example, lets say we get to vote on if women in a remote village of a foreign country get tampons and menstrual pads delivered for free, or for a minimal sum. If we project ourselves as those women, we would choose the sanitary items be delivered for free, since that would maximize happiness and minimize pain. If we can’t project ourselves into the roles of those women, we might imagine we are the ones providing the items, even though we are not. We would then chose the fee, because we imagine ourselves making a profit, thus maximizing our happiness.

Always remember this when listening to politicians be ‘logical’ about a situation. Logic is usually just a code word for a lack of empathy.

What Are You Seeking? What Are You Avoiding?

So, lets assume you now accept and understand the concept. You realize that every choice you have ever made in your life, and every choice anyone you have ever known has ever made in their life, as been on a basis of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain.

This is when things start to get ugly. Because what I want you to do now, is consider every choice you make for the next few weeks and be honest with yourself about what you are seeking and what you are avoiding.

This shouldn’t be something that brings you shame or discomfort. Everyone else is making the same choices as you for exactly the same reasons. You don’t want to make that phone call because you’re afraid you;ll get bad news, that someone will be rude to you, that the connection will be bad and you’ll have to repeat yourself, that you’ll say something stupid and regret it, that it will be out of office hours or you’ll be on hold for ages. There are lots of things to avoid on the phone.

But you might come up against some choices and reasons that make you say: “Hang on, why?”

Why are you eating cereal for breakfast? Well, the commercials for this cereal show healthy people and you have a positive association. There is even someone doing a triathlon on the box. But when you check the sugar, its 16mg in every 100mg. That’s 16% sugar. Not very healthy.

Why did you buy this foundation? Why do you even use foundation? Because you saw a magazine advert with a sad woman with bare, pocked skin on one side and a beautiful, smiling woman with foundation on the other. Society taught you to be ashamed to sell you a product.

Advertising relies almost entirely on this fundamental seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. First it makes you feel bad, then it offers you the solution to that. It is no different to me stabbing you, then offering you discount surgery to repair the stab wound. And we all accept it over and over, every day.

But its not just adverts is it? When you start to really look at what you are avoiding and what you are seeking, you’re going to see at lot of things you didn’t want to. A lot of things that suddenly seem stupid or selfish or unproductive.

Make Conscious Choices

From now on, when you have a decision to make, I want you to pause a moment, and ask yourself what pleasure am I seeking? What pain do I want to avoid? And make intelligent, educated decisions. Don’t just let the kind brain bang away without any self awareness.

Changing the quality of your decisions will have a huge impact on your life going forward. Just identifying the real reasons for decisions, without lying to yourself and saying it is the ‘logical’ choice, will make a huge difference in your life.

Moving Forward

Give yourself a week to ruminate on this post and begin self aware decision making, because next week we are going to tackle and even more uncomfortable truth: You Would Rather Be Right Than Happy.

If you are going to give up on this series, it will be next week. Because no one wants to hear it. However once you accept and believe it, everything can change for you overnight.

Jake, In Summary:

Sometimes, being able to consider the pleasure/pain benefits of a situation is the only thing that keeps me moving forward. It means even when I am too sick to enjoy anything, even when I am hurting and can’t imagine a reality where I am ever not in pain, I can keep making sensible choices. Choices that will reduce long term pain and increase long term pleasure.

I did, however, get a bit fixated on the long term. To the complete disregard of the short term. In fact, I reached the point where I was always choosing short term suffering for long term gain.

…And tomorrow never comes.

Always choosing tomorrow over today meant I was always making myself miserable. So lately, it has been my mission to sometimes choose short term pleasure.

Sometimes, when I have a choice, I stop and ask myself: “What would make me happiest right NOW?” To be honest, the answer is usually a surprise. I’ve been doing a lot more cooking, gardening and reading since I started asking myself this.

I think most of you would use the word ‘driven’ to describe me. But its not always a good thing. I’m not aiming for hedonistic, but I am aiming for happy. How about you?