Friend, Human

Gifts

Both giving and receiving gifts are paradoxical activities. On the surface, they’re signs of generosity and gratitude. However, forced-gift-giving events (birthdays, Christmas exchanges, house warmings) can be troublesome.

When you’re the giver, you have the time pressure of buying something before the event combined with showing that you give a damn.  That adds a lot of unwanted pressure to your life and a chance to miscommunicate.

When you’re receiving the gifts, you don’t want to inflict that same pressure on your friends. Many of us have so much crap in our house already that adding more things just means more targets for a KonMari sparks-no-joy cleansing down the road. Invitations for birthday parties occasionally state “no presents except your presence” as a way to remove that pressure.

But sometimes. Sometimes, you receive a gift, and it’s so thoughtful, or above and beyond what you were expecting, that it warms your heart. And sometimes, you find the perfect gift, and the look of joy once the present is opened is immensely satisfying. Both are enough to make up for all the gift cards and useless tchotchkes cluttering your space.

Here’s to giving and receiving more of those joy-creating gifts.

Human

Joy is not all ponies and rainbows

The last two posts make it sound like choosing happiness is easy – just a matter of programming ourselves to always do so. Let’s be realistic, and not buy completely into the hype.

First of all, many people are playing life on “hard mode,” as they fight chemical dependencies, depression, or other neurological illnesses. Those require more than a personal choice. They require professional treatment, sustainable management, and the joyful support of friends. The choice is often to recognize and accept those requirements, and to take action.

Secondly, while we can reprogram our lizard brains with some success, it’s not a panacea for all emotional reactions. We get annoyed, we anger, we feel helpless, we worry, we mourn. That’s as it should be.

Finally, it’s hard. We’re not only fighting evolution, we’re fighting our own learned habits. We are constantly tempted to enjoy the short-term “joy” of recreational complaining, of vengeance, of being the victim, of blaming others. (The Internet is built on those instant dopamine hits.) It’s the easy path with a quick reward, but one that sets us on a programmed path for long-term unhappiness.

Optimism is not the opposite of realism. We can expect the best while preparing for the worst. We can seek joy in hard work. We can look for happiness in the face of suffering.

Finding joy can be hard. If it were easy, it wouldn’t be worth it.

Human, Marketer

Using consistency to choose happiness

In my last post’s story, the always-happy friend is concerned about self-consistency. That’s not surprising, because consistency is a great tool to persuade our brains to behave the way we want to behave.

Psychologists will tell you that, as humans, we want to be (and to be seen as) consistent with our self-image. We want to follow through on our commitments. We want to live up to statements we made. We don’t like wrestling with the cognitive dissonance of behaving inconsistently. Our “lizard brain” takes over the decision-making process.

This leaves us open to manipulation (for good or ill) if someone can get us to express the behavior they want us to emulate. For example, clipboard carrying researchers who asked “Do you consider yourself a helpful person?” before inviting people to participate in a survey saw their volunteer rates shoot up from 29% to 77.3%, as detailed by Robert Cialdini in his book Pre-Suasion, among many other examples of influencing people.

But it also gives us a tool for self-programming. For instance, many weight loss approaches have been shown to work because they create habits through self-consistency. You stood up and told your Weight Watchers group what you were going to do this week… how can you go back on that now? Rather than just counting calories, you promised to avoid carbs or sweets or dairy… and are you the kind of person who goes back on promises? Your desire for consistency can convince you, at that moment of truth, to think I’m not a person who buys a candy bar in the checkout line as that belief becomes part of your identity.

So, as extreme as the “if I were any happier, I’d be twins” guy may have been in his response, he does provide a model for all of us. Wouldn’t we all like to say, in that moment of truth:

I’m not the kind of person who stops being happy when bad things happen to me.

I’m not the kind of person who gets angry at others and looks for someone to blame when my plans are disrupted.

I’m not the kind of person who lets problems take away my joy for more time than it takes to experience those natural negative emotions.

It’s up to you to decide how you want to program your brain. But if you don’t make a  conscious effort to decide, your programming will be decided for you by your unfiltered life experiences.

 

 

 

Human

Owning happiness

There’s a (possibly apocryphal) story that a motivational speaker gave which has stuck with me over the years. It goes something like this:

“I have a friend who I think was the happiest guy in the world. When people asked him, ‘How are you?’ he would respond, ‘I’m great! Because I’m happy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. If I were any happier, there’d be two of me!’ It wasn’t an act, either – he was genuinely, authentically happy. He was always a ray of sunshine, and he brightened up everyone’s day.

“One day I got some terrible news. My friend had been in a car accident. Several bones were broken. He would probably be in the hospital for weeks recovering. Just a horrible, horrible event. So I went over to the hospital to see him. I said to him somberly, how are you doing? Without delay he said, ‘I’m great! Because I’m happy. I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. If I were any happier, there’d be two of me!’

“I couldn’t believe it, and he explained: My happiness is a choice. Bad things happen that we can’t control. I’ve chosen to be happy. It’s easy to choose that when things are going well. I choose to be happy even when they’re not.’ ”

Whether or not this extreme case of a story is true, it’s an admirable, aspirational philosophy. We may not all be able to follow it, but we can all remember it the next time choosing happiness is hard.

Athlete, Human, Husband, Marketer

Out of sync with the world

You’re ready to go. You’ve got this. You come out of the gates at full speed. Chaaaaaaarge…!

But wait – the world has different ideas today. What’s the old Yiddish saying? “Man plans; God laughs.” Maybe the emails and calls you’re waiting for don’t arrive. Decisions aren’t made, leaving your work in limbo. The injury is worse than you feared. The cost higher than budgeted. The time it takes longer than expected.

It’s frustrating when plans change from things out of your control. What we can control is our reaction… which initially often has no joy in it. But the joy is there… because in deciding how to react, we take control of our reality. A setback is a chance to reevaluate. The forced replanning is an opportunity to make plans more impervious to disruption. The delay is a moment to breathe. You’re out of sync for now, but you know what flow looks like, what Felix Felicis tastes like, what the effortless effort of wei wu wei feels like when you’re totally in the groove. But not now. Not today.

Fine. Sometimes the joy plays hide and seek, and you’re “it.” Unfair? Maybe. So what? Count to ten and go find it — ready or not, here you come.

Human

Day Two

As humans, we are pretty good at mourning endings and celebrating beginnings. In fact, books about change management often advise to do just that, to mark the transition from old to new, put the past squarely in the past, and chart out a new path forward.

But what happens on Day Two? Week Two? Month Two?

If we’re lucky, we still have momentum. OH YEAH I’M TOTALLY GONNA KICK SOME BUTT JUST YOU WATCH HERE WE GO. That’s right – I find a little self-psyche-up helps take on the self-psych-out. If we’re not lucky, the temptation to procrastinate rears its ugly head, and we have to fight through the desire for “do it later” instead of “do it now.”

Inevitably, we know that at some point in time, enthusiasm fades. (“Uhhh… what did I resolve to do again?”) Unformed habits become stillborn. Our brains resist extinction of the old ways and try to steer us back towards the comfortable, well-worn path we know and love. Bloggers like Steven Pressfield and Seth Godin often warn about this Resistance, this Lizard Brain, this reversion to the norm. It’s the enemy of progress. It’s a fake joy, designed to avoid discomfort now by killing a chance for future joy.

Let’s look to keep the joy going. Let’s define a new norm. Find that flow again. Refuse to let “Day Two” be “Day Minus One.”

Human

Fresh starts

The new year! The new decade! Moments like these are always an opportunity to take a step back, to count your joys, to look at what’s not going well, and to decide what to do about it.

Let me preempt your argument about whether the decade starts on Jan 1 2020 or 2021 by telling you I’ve arbitrarily decided the first decade runs from 1 BC to 9 AD, because I want to reconcile the endpoints of decades with being able to say the 80’s, the 90’s, the 20’s. But I’ll take it a step further. Why should these fresh-start moments come around only once a year? They can come on your birthday or an anniversary. On the start of the school year, or a new job. Or to celebrate finally cleaning off your desk. Or to mark an otherwise boring Wednesday in the dead of winter.

We control the frame of reference. We decide when it’s time to mark the scorecard, turn the page, step up to the next tee, or whatever wipe-the-slate-clean metaphor helps convince ourselves that we are the ones in charge here.

Whatever frame of reference you choose, I wish you a joyous start.