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Motivation, mindfulness and meditation

Motivation, mindfulness and meditation

Note: As of this writing, over a hundred million Americans are under stay-at-home orders due to a pandemic of COVID-19, a disease caused by a novel coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2. Unemployment claims are through the roof as non-essential businesses have been told to close, and some businesses that were allowed to stay open are starting to close as the customer base stays home.

For a lot of people, it’s a really hard time to get motivated to do anything. A lot of people haven’t been working their day jobs for the past month. People who work day jobs outside the house are doing their best to stay away from people they work with and for. And some people who work day jobs out of the house — many medical professionals and first responders, for example — are living on the opposite side of the house from the rest of their families.

People who can work from home are trying to balance work with homeschooling their kids, or simply keep their not-yet-school-aged children busy and themselves sane.

Extroverts who need groups of people to recharge are surrounded by only their families. Introverts who need to be alone to recharge have their families around all the time.

In other words, life is not what people have become accustomed to.

When most of what you know disappears, how do you get motivated to do even the day-to-day stuff, never mind extend yourself to reach new goals and try new things?

It starts with finding some peace of mind. Which starts with mindfulness. Which starts with (stop me if you’ve heard this one before) meditation.

Thich Nhat Hanh, in The Miracle of Mindfulness, wrote something that finally connected to me: “Do the dishes to do the dishes.”

Feel the water on your hands, smell the soap, feel the dishes return to their clean state. If you’re thinking about sharing dessert with your friends and family while you’re washing the dishes, what are you going to be thinking about when it’s time to share dessert?

Be where you are, do what you are doing. So simple, but not easy.

When we were writing about finding more empathy for other people, meditation came up.

When we were writing about bringing more happiness into your life, meditation came up.

When we were writing about finding your creativity, meditation came up.

Focus, confidence, patience … meditation keeps rearing its head.

A study recently found that meditation kills motivation, but I think there are a couple of design flaws with the study.

Subjects were either given a guided meditation, or told to sit and let their minds wander. Then, they were given busywork. The people given the meditation were really unmotivated to do the work.

The two biggest problems I see here are:

(1) The tasks were consecutive. Chances are, if you have a meditation practice, the thing you do immediately following your meditation is generally not some focus-based busywork task — more than likely, you’re going to bed, or making coffee, or brushing your teeth.

(2) The assigned tasks were someone else’s tasks. If you’re already not motivated by anything other than the paycheck to do the work your job assigns you, nothing else is going to help you get motivated to do it — especially when the thing you’re testing is something that generally relaxes you.

But what about when the task is something you’re trying to get up to do? What if it’s a new exercise regimen? Doing more cooking at home? Writing a book? Designing summer programming for your children?

Meditation can absolutely help you.

But a meditation practice needs to be a practice. Do it every day. Start small. Give yourself some grace to let it take time for your practice to solidify. Let yourself have bad days.

When you meditate day after day — even just five minutes at a time — that quiet that you invite in becomes accessible. You can summon it when you want to be focused, or creative, or happy, or motivated.

And right now, when so many of us are out of sorts, accessing quiet within us is really important.

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A gratitude for today, and this moment

A gratitude for today, and this moment

There’s a catch-all prayer in Judaism for gratitude. I’ll use my own transliteration here (that is, I’m going to write the Hebrew words using English letters in a rough pronunciation), but the prayer is called the shehechiyanu. The full prayer roughly translates to, “Blessed are you, Lord our God, who has granted us life, sustained us and enabled us to reach this day.” It goes like this:

Baruch atah adonai, eloheinu melech ha’olam, shehechiyanu v’kiyamanu v’higiyanu lazman hazeh (hear it here).

It’s said a lot. The beginning of every holiday. When friends gather for the first time. When family gathers for the first time in a while. The first time you perform a commandment in the new year (such as giving to charity or going to synagogue). The first time eating a particular food in the new year.

It’s an eleven-word gratitude practice you can utilize any time you need one. Twenty words if you want to use the English translation I gave.

In case you want to go deeper:

• My Jewish Learning points out the shehechiyanu is a reminder to stay present.

• The Trust Center for Early Education at Temple Ohabei Shalom points out that the shehechiyanu is a good marker for observing otherwise overlooked events in our children’s lives; birthdays, sure, but also physical growth, science projects and recitals.

• Two rabbis at a Texas synagogue give a sermon on shehechiyanu, including the importance of being alive in regard to prayer.

• Rabbi Yirmiyohu Kaganoff takes a deep dive on when the oral tradition tells us to recite shehechiyanu — and when not to. Note: Bracha means “prayer” (some translate it as “blessing,” but the context is “a blessing over a meal,” not “the post-op nurse was a blessing”).

• Here’s more deep discussion from Rabbi Avi Zakutinsky.

Incidentally, the way rabbis Kaganoff and Zakutinsky discuss the question of when to say shehechiyanu — with reference to various texts, many of them conflicting — is how Jews discuss matters of faith throughout history. It can be very interesting. One example is the argument several rabbis have in regards to when you can say evening prayers. Some say they should be said after sundown but before midnight. Others say evening prayers can be said after midnight but not after first light. Still others argue that the prayers may be said at any time before someone goes to bed, even if it is before sundown or after first light.

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Focus: What it is, and how to ditch distractions

Focus: What it is, and how to ditch distractions

Do you ever sit down to pay your electric bill and four hours later you’re down a YouTube rabbit hole?

How about opening your phone to send your mother a text and an hour and a half later you find yourself in an argument in Facebook comments?

Sit down at work to check your email before your morning meeting and all of a sudden your coworker is asking if you want to go to lunch?

You might just be lacking some focus.

So, what is focus? How does it manifest in our brains? How about distractions? How can we avoid them? I mean, without hiring Jocko to follow you around and smack you in the head every time you get off track.

You probably don’t need that kind of pressure in your life.

Focus is really about attention, and more specifically, attention with intention.

Your brain pays attention to a lot of stuff most of the time. You’re probably not consciously aware of it. If you’re reading this, and maybe listening to a podcast or watching a movie while the kids play in the other room, trying not to spill your drink, wondering how that bag of chips you were going to eat five of is empty of all of a sudden, and daydreaming about the next time you can get 20 minutes of peace and quiet. And all the while, your brain is watching out for snakes and tigers and missiles, just in case.

There are several brain chemicals tied to focus: acetylcholine, dopamine and norepinephrine.

Acetylcholine (ACh) is an important neurochemical in the brain for paying attention, learning and memory. Although there are relatively few ACh cells in the brain compared to some of the other major neurotransmitter systems, ACh cells – which arise from collections of nuclei in your evolutionarily older brainstem and midbrain – extend out to nearly every region of the brain.

Nicotine helps boost acetylcholine, but most nicotine delivery systems are not only highly addictive, they’re carcinogenic. Prescription drugs aimed at neurodegenerative diseases like Alzheimer’s — stuff like donepezil and galantamine — can help keep acetylcholine in the brain longer.

We’ve discussed dopamine a few times lately. That’s the system that cocaine and meth hit. It’s the same system that keeps us going back to Facebook and Instagram looking for more likes. But it’s also your dopamine system that rewards you for keeping focus in a situation in which you prioritize based on your experience.

Norepinephrine (noardrenaline) is a neurotransmitter found in the brain which has very similar in structure to the hormone epinephrine (adrenaline). It is a chemical involves in wakefulness, memory, alertness and generally readying the brain, and therefore the body, for action when it is being challenged or threatened.

Norepinephrine brings you back to focus when something novel enters your attention sphere, whether it’s a new song or a friend of a friend.

Our biggest problem with focus isn’t deciding what’s relevant to our focus. We generally know what we should be paying attention to. It’s about shutting out distractions — knowing what’s irrelevant to your desired task before you go too far afield.

You can actually practice if you know you’re going to get bombarded with the same irrelevant task over and over. In one study, people were shown photos of famous actors with a name written across the actor’s face, and asked to identify the actor pictured. Only half the time, the name written across the face was the name of the actor in the photo, so the goal was to ignore the distraction of the text while focusing on the image.

As you can imagine, people were slower identifying the image when the wrong name was printed across the photo. But the brain can adapt. If an incorrect name was placed over the same actor’s face 75% of the time, people learned to ignore the words for that actor’s face.

For example, if a photo of Tom Hanks came up eight times, and twice the name “Hanks” was printed across it but the other times a name like Clooney or Damon or Cruise was printed across it, people just started focusing on Hanks’ face.

Researchers could tell that not only be the speed of correct responses, but also by running a functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) screen during the task, to see which parts of the brain were active.


Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Meditation can help. Yep, that’s right. It helps with confidence, it helps with patience, it helps with happiness, and it helps with focus.

Last month, when writing about patience, we mentioned the default mode network. This is the part of your brain that won’t shut up sometimes. You might be sitting there quietly, but if your brain is spinning, it’s your default mode network.

There’s another network that works antagonistically to the default mode network — that is, it’s at work when the default mode network is not. It’s called the central executive network. If the default mode network is the annoying chatterbox of the brain, the central executive network is the part of the brain that slams the door, puts on noise-canceling headphones and gets to work.

And guess what? Mindfulness, a type of meditation practice, helps replenish the central executive system.

Belle Beth Cooper cites Daniel Kahneman’s work in discussing two brain systems that appear to be the default mode network and central executive system, before they were named. She offers up some of the things she does to make sure she maintains focus to write on a daily deadline: Getting out in nature, doing things you enjoy, and (wait for it) meditation.

Jory MacKay identifies two types of focus: Top-down, or voluntary focus, and bottom-up, or stimulus-driven focus.

Top-down focus is the type you want: to sit there and write a blog post or pay the bills or read a book. Bottom-up focus is a fight-or-flight response. If you hear a loud noise, your focus switches to that to see if it’s something you need to run from or prepare for.

You can, of course, cut down on those distractions by doing things like reducing the number of audible and visual alerts you have on your devices. MacKay also offers some tips that include chewing gum (ooh, I’m going to try that!), taking breaks and … practicing mindfulness.

Alina Vrable — who recommends, of course, meditation and reducing distractions — introduces the Pomodoro method, which suggests taking a five minute break after every 25 minutes of focus work, with a longer break (20-30 minutes) after every four working periods.

And with all these recommendations for meditation, Susan Taylor offers up the science of how meditation helps us focus.


More tips for beating back distraction

There are really two types of distraction: internal and external. External distractions are things like your cell phone dinging. Internal distractions are things like wandering thoughts.

Here are some more tips for wiping out both internal and external distractions, followed by the links from whence they came — all with more tips.

• Get enough sleep
• Make your to-do list manageable
• Turn off your phone
• Stop chasing perfection
• Find significance from those who matter to you, not from the world at large
• Incorporate movement and fun into your day
• Set yourself time limits for tasks
• Make some of your tasks difficult — you won’t be bored and you’ll need to focus to accomplish them

Links:
Minimizing Distractions: 10 Ways to Take Control of Your Day
9 Ever-Present Distractions That Keep Us From Fully Living
Take charge of distractions
7 Proven Strategies for Overcoming Distractions
Five ways science can improve your focus

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Confidence: What it is, how to get it

Confidence: What it is, how to get it

We’re going to make sure this post is different, at least in part, from last week’s post on impostor syndrome. Impostor syndrome isn’t only about confidence, after all, and, let’s face it, we all know someone who might suffer from maybe a little too much confidence.

Hold my beer.

Dating back to around the year 1400, the word confidence began only meaning trust in others, and over the next 150 years or so, came to include belief in oneself.

The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that deals with metacognition. In Creativity, Elkhonon Goldberg provides some information about this.

First off, the prefrontal cortex developed late in evolution — in fact, he says, it might be the piece of the brain that helped separate Homo sapiens from earlier hominids. It takes a long time to mature, often until we’re in our early- to mid-30s.

We used to think (until fairly recently, actually), that the prefrontal cortex didn’t do much. In fact, frontal lobotomies, which were common until the 1960s, basically severed the prefrontal cortex’s connection to the rest of the brain.

If you think of all the bits of information you know or remember as Lego blocks, writes Goldberg, it is the job of the prefrontal cortex to arrange, sort, disarrange, and reassemble the blocks. That’s what metacognition is.

Andrew Luttrell, et al., did a review of literature surrounding metacognitive confidence. What they found was that people often confused confidence in their memories, choices and judgments with effort and ease.

In other words, people would say they were confident if the cognitive task they were given — such as remembering a list or making a decision — was easy or didn’t take much effort. If it was difficult, they reported lower confidence, even if the task was within their expertise.

Some scientists point to a combination of systems when it comes to confidence-eroding self-criticism:

The “drive” system, which works on dopamine (you might remember this is the happiness chemical that gets triggered when we get more likes on Facebook, for example). Linked to self-esteem, when everything’s good with this system, we go out chasing resources, education, mates, and whatever else. When we’re not getting our dopamine hit, we’re stagnating (or worse, beating ourselves up).

Threat-protection. Our fight-flight system basically tells us to shut down and slink off when we’re criticizing ourselves or taking it from someone else.

Mammalian care-giving system: This runs on oxytocin and our internal opiate system (again, refer back to this post for a review of our happiness chemicals). This is sort of the system you want driving you in times of criticism, whether from without or within — it can kind of give you a hug and get you headed back on with your day.


Let’s talk about getting more confident, then. While it’s possible to increase confidence using artificial intelligence and brain imaging, let’s look how we can do that with less machinery.

Suparna Malhotra offers up a chemical combination we’ll recognize from our happiness studies: dopamine, oxytocin, seratonin and endorphins. Remember we don’t have to wait for these things; we can boost them with things like achieving small milestones (dopamine), connecting to our friends and family (oxytocin), keeping up our gut health (seratonin) and rigorous exercise (endorphins).

Positive thinking and mastery are a couple of things we can do to boost confidence. Positive thinking is something we can train via any number of ways, including, for example, meditation. Mastery? That’s just practice — our work, our hobbies, or anything else we just want to get good at.

Diane DiResta specifically addresses public speaking, but you can use her breathing technique to boost confidence across realms:

The secret is to exhale longer than you inhale. For example, inhale to the count of 4 and then exhale to the count of 8. Do this several times until you feel a calming effect. If you don’t have good breath support, then take in fewer breaths. Strategic breathing is the key. Slow down the breath. If this appears challenging, try exhaling through a straw.

One study found that a financial reward will help with confidence.

If you’re looking to be a leader, you might take a look at the people around you: surround yourself with people who lift you up and tell the haters to get lost.


There’s a whole U.S. coaching institute based around confidence. But you don’t have to hire a coach to take advantage of it. They have a research library with links, reports and book recommendations (some of which you can get from your own local library, should you not wish to buy them).

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Getting in your head

Getting in your head

Toward the end of his appearance on Duncan Trussell’s podcast, Dr. Drew notes that he needs to spend more time in his head.

It got me thinking about silence.

Meditation has been an on-again, off-again habit for me (it’s on-again right now; if you’re curious, I use the Oak app (for iPhone).

One of my favorite things to do is to visit my friends at Remedy Float and climb in a float tank. Also called “sensory deprivation chambers,” these are light-less, soundless rooms about 4 feet across, 8 feet long and 7 feet high with 13 inches of water heated to 94 degrees (roughly skin temperature) and 1,000 pounds or so of Epsom salts, so you’re definitely going to float, no matter who you are.

It’s 60-90 minutes of about as quiet as you can get.

That’s just a starting point, apparently. Much longer in silence than that, you might actually start growing new neurons.

Crazy, right? New brain cells for being quiet for a couple of hours! Some people think that means silence might be a viable treatment for Alzheimer’s and other neuro-degenerative diseases.

In a study testing music in both musicians and non-musicians, rate of breathing, heart rate and blood pressure all went down when there was a pause in the music. Musicians more easily synced their breathing to the rhythm of the music, but otherwise, pauses in the music — the silent parts, in other words — were the bits that people were calmer during.

It’s not just for calm, though. During silence, we work things out. A couple of Australian scientists discovered that our brains are actually more active when not dealing with stimulus than when they are. The space between the stimuli is when we figure out what the stimuli mean.

We’re just starting, over the past couple of years, to understand the groupings of which neurons handle which stimuli.

Working things out during periods without stimulus, by the way, is the same reason we need to dream: we process what happened during the day and learn from it.


Silence can be so hard to come by that over the past decade, Finland has made solitude a central piece of its marketing to attract tourists.

Now, not everyone meditates in silence, but meditation can, in fact, quiet our brains. We discussed the benefits of meditation as it relates to increasing both happiness and patience.

We also know that meditation can make for better sleep, can help with self-relational feelings like personal empowerment and staying in love and help improve learning.

Silence leads to better focus. And there are a host of other benefits.


One of those benefits I want to discuss specifically is creativity. We’re going to have a series on creativity later this year, probably as fall approaches. Creativity isn’t just about art, or writing, or comedy or podcasting. It’s also about scientific innovation. Creativity allows us to see where we can combine fields or jump a gap.

Peter Gasca puts it simply:

If we are always focused on information input, it becomes even more difficult to force your brain to produce any output.

In other words, if you have to process noise (sounds, words, music, etc.) coming in, it’s hard for your brain to create some output.

If you’ve ever heard the term “content zombie,” you know what I mean. These are people who read a lot, listen to a lot of podcasts, squeeze in some audiobooks, take online courses, watch videos, and then … they can just spit back what they read or heard or watched but never put any of the knowledge or wisdom they absorb into practice.

There’s just so much input, they can’t seem to create any output.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a ton of great content out there. We’re producing a ton more every day. It’s easier than ever to publish content, in text, audio, video or even a combination of those.

Thomas Oppong notes that collaboration can be important for creatives (where would a lot of musicians be without Quincy Jones as a collaborator?), but, at the same time, it’s solitude that allows is to get into flow (we’ve written about flow before, and there will be much more coming on it in the coming months), and, he notes, Einstein and Newton, among others, worked almost entirely alone.

Oppong also offers an important reminder: you can choose solitude. While you may be forced into collaborative situations at work, there are plenty of ways to get some silence in your day. Get in early, he writes, or find time before your family wakes up or after they go to sleep. Turn off your phone. Get away from anything that can give you notifications.


Let me offer up three action items, if you’re looking for a place to start.

1. Download and start with a meditation app. You can use Oak (my app of choice), Calm, Headspace, Omvana or any of the dozens of other apps available. Just pick one and do 10 minutes, every day for a week. If you find trouble finding the time and space in your house, grab some headphones and lock yourself in the bathroom for 10 minutes (not kidding).

2. Ditch your phone. Even for five minutes. Just turn it off, tuck it under your pillow, and go sit on the deck or the porch or the balcony or, again, the toilet. Just shush and don’t scroll through anything.

3. Block stuff out. I’m not saying get in float tank for an hour (though I’m definitely not not recommending that), but get yourself a nice sleep mask and some ear plugs (total under $25, if you didn’t click on them). Wear them for five to ten minutes, and don’t be scared of what runs through your mind.

Now, go do something awesome.

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Patience, success, confidence and happiness: What’s up in your brain and how to improve

Patience, success, confidence and happiness: What’s up in your brain and how to improve

I’ve been a dad for a touch over six months now. I stay at home with the baby during the day, and then work (from home) in the evening.

If nothing else, I’m learning patience.

Which of course got me thinking about patience.

A lot of the studies in patience are about delayed gratification. Maybe the most famous experiment in delayed gratification started in the 1960s when a Stanford professor bought a bunch of marshmallows. He sat down with children (most of them four or five years old) one at a time, placed a marshmallow in front of them, and told them that if the marshmallow was still there when he came back, they could have a second marshmallow as a reward; if the child ate the marshmallow, he or she just got the one.

They then followed those kids for a couple of decades and found that those who were patient enough to get the second marshmallow went farther in life.

So, patient people are more successful. But I’m more interested in the causes of patience and how we get more of it, as opposed to what the ability to wait 15 minutes before eating a marshmallow when you’re four years old means.

You remember our series on happiness a couple of months ago? In the first part of that series, we went over the chemicals in our brains associated with happiness. One was seratonin.

Christopher Bergland describes seratonin this way:

Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it. For the sake of practical application I call it “The Confidence Molecule.” Ultimately the link between higher serotonin and a lack of rejection sensitivity allows people to put themselves in situations that will bolster self-esteem, increase feelings of worthiness and create a sense of belonging.

It turns out that seratonin also regulates patience and impulsivity.

This particular study is on rats (we’ll discuss a related human study, too). The usual method for measuring impulse reactions versus patient reactions goes something like this: A rat is presented with two levers. One lever releases one pellet immediately. The other releases four pellets, but after a delay.

In other words, the rat is presented with two potential rewards, but if the rat is willing to wait, the reward will be larger.

Now, if you administer to one group a selective seratonin re-uptake inhibitor (SSRI) — something like Zoloft or Lexapro, for example — you find that this group is more likely to wait for the larger reward.

In case it’s not entirely clear what an SSRI does, here’s a rudimentary description of what happens in a person taking, for example, sertraline (Zoloft) for anxiety: When the brain releases seratonin in a non-anxious person, you get a “normal” response, such as the confidence Bergland writes about.

In the brain of an anxious person, some of that seratonin gets re-absorbed (in an action called “re-uptake”), causing anxiety (or lack of confidence, as it were).

An SSRI blocks the re-uptake (that’d be the “inhibitor” part), so a person who would be seratonin-deficient gets a normal amount.

Presumably, rats in both the control group and the group getting the SSRI come in with a roughly equivalent baseline seratonin response (that is, they all have a normal “confidence” response to a seratonin release, without some subset facing the challenge of an anxiety-inducing re-uptake). Some seratonin is going to be lost to re-uptake, and both groups of rats would have the same amount of re-uptake occurring if it weren’t for the SSRI.

When you administer the SSRI, less seratonin than normal would be re-absorbed.

It turns out that significantly more rats in the group getting the SSRI are willing to wait for the four pellets than those not receiving the drug.

In other words, the rats with more seratonin running around in their brains are more patient. We see a similar thing in mice — when seratonin production is stimulated, mice are willing to wait longer for a bigger reward (as long as they actually believe the reward will be forthcoming).

Now, you probably couldn’t get a review board to approve a double-blind study like this with humans (that is, one in which the person wouldn’t know whether they were being administered a drug), but we do have technology — functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) — that allows us to see things like seratonin release in the brain.

Here’s that related human study I mentioned.

This time, a bunch of people were offered either $100 tomorrow or $120 at the end of the month. Some people didn’t want to wait for the extra cash, and, if I explained the rat experiment well, you probably guessed that the fMRI results showed that people who elected to wait showed more seratonin was present.

The good news is, patience is trainable. Or, at least, we can un-train impatience, according to Dean Griffiths. Griffiths writes that there are two parts of the brain — the anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — that take prominent roles in patience. Both are part of the default mode network, which is still a new enough concept in neuroscience that it’s not super-well defined.

Basically, if you’re focusing on something, the default mode network is pretty quiet, but if you’re not, well, watch out. It’s that bundle of brain parts that spins and whirs and generally won’t shut up when you’ve got nothing else to do. If you live with depression or anxiety, chances are you have a very active default mode network.

Meditation appears to do a pretty good job shutting it down.

In part three of our series on happiness, we discussed meditation as a training method for bringing about joy and training confidence, creativity and more. As Chade-Meng Tan writes in Joy on Demand, “One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion” (p. 33).

More seratonin makes us happier. More seratonin makes us more patient. Patience yields success. Success presumably makes us happy. Meditation makes us happier and more patient.

I’m not saying maybe we should meditate more, but if you’re wondering, I use Oak (only available for iPhone at this writing).

There are plenty of reasons to to be patient, pushing off gratification. Consider the subprime mortgage crisis in the U.S. in the first decade of the 2000s. Many people who could have qualified for “normal” mortgages instead opted for what were called “2/28” mortgages — loans with far lower than prime interest rates for the first two years that then cranked up high for the rest of the term of the loan. People figured, oh, we’ll refinance before the end of those first two years, and then they didn’t and wound up upside down.

Some people chalk this up to poor impulse control, the same thing that keeps us going back for seconds at the dessert table.

And if that all seems a little too personal, maybe sometimes we just need a little perspective.

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From your ears to your brain: What are you listening to?

From your ears to your brain: What are you listening to?

I’ve always been a big reader. In kindergarten, while everybody else was in reading group learning what sound “a” makes, I was in the library reading books. Book-books, things that might be considered for middle schoolers today.

I plowed my way through 80 or so Hardy Boys books by the time I was in fourth grade.

I don’t mean to brag, just to give you a frame of reference for this post.

I have a fairly retentive memory. If I write something down, by hand, I probably don’t need to look at it again. I can write a grocery list at home, forget to look at it until I get ready to check out and find that maybe I missed one of 20 items.

Again, not to brag. That kind of steel-trap memory is as much a liability as it is a boon: I can remember grocery lists and account numbers (I used to remember a lot of phone numbers but I rarely dial by number anymore), but I also remember every insult from elementary school and man, can I hold a grudge.

Reading is a primary activity for me. I sit down to do it, and I don’t do anything else while I’m reading, except maybe listen to classical music. I used to walk and read, but the older I’ve gotten, the slower my reflexes are and, frankly, the less I care about things outside the book, so I’m more likely to walk into someone. Or something. Like a building. Or a car.

But listening is a secondary activity. I listen to audiobooks while running or cleaning or cooking. I listen to podcasts while working or working out or doing mundane things that require my body and hands. From listening to the best joe rogan podcasts of all time, for example, educational podcasts, or career-related podcasts, this is something that can be put on in the background but can still be enjoyed while doing other tasks.

I may listen to music while I’m in the car, as long as the vehicle’s audio system works fully, as I know this can be an issue for a lot of cars. If you suffer from this kind of issue, you may benefit from having a look at some of the speaker systems on somewhere like joinfuse, who present some of the best options available on the market.

Sometimes I’ll go back and listen to something a second time as a primary activity, if, for example, I want to take notes (see, for example, my notes on Bert Kreischer’s conversation with Bobby Kelly or Mike Baker on Joe Rogan’s podcast), but by and large, I can listen and absorb the important stuff.

People spend more than half their waking hours reading, listening and watching:

In an average week, the typical American spends approximately 38 hours watching television shows and movies, 8 hours reading books, magazines, and newspapers, and 18 hours listening to recorded music and radio.

While none of these studies addresses podcasts, which fall somewhere between talk radio and audiobooks (I guess?), we know a few things.

Audiobooks are more engaging than films or TV, for example.

Listening is a shortcut to assimilating our brains to our surroundings:

Listening, which meanings giving attention to sound, “tunes our brain to the patterns of our environment faster than any other sense, and paying attention to the nonvisual parts of our world feeds into everything from our intellectual sharpness to our dance skills. … The richness of life doesn’t lie in the loudness and the beat, but in the timbres and the variations that you can discern if you simply pay attention.”

Arielle Pardes says listening isn’t like reading at all – thanks, primarily, to the attention required to read something, while listening is a secondary activity. Daniel Willingham, who actually studies such things, says, actually, they’re more or less the same.

Here are three audiobooks I’m enjoying right now, and why I’m listening instead of reading:

Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace. OK, I’ll admit this is the lazy move. Have you tried reading this thing? Better have young eyes, lots of coffee, and a boatload of patience. I’ve started and stopped a bunch on the 1,000-plus-page piece of work, and 63 hours of audio seems like a deal for a $6.95 credit bought on special.

This is the sort of book that people eat, and it takes a long time. Jason Segal (who played Wallace in a movie) told Marc Maron that when he went to buy a copy for his research, the young lady behind the counter said, “Ugh, Infinite Jest. Every guy I’ve ever slept with has an unread copy on his bookshelf.”

Don’t worry, honey. I didn’t sleep with her. And technically my copy, which was purchased used and handed down after that, is not unread. Probably. It seems to have passed through many hands to have not been read.

Digging Up Mother by Doug Stanhope. Comedian Stanhope’s memoir – centered around not quite “assisting” in his mother’s suicide (she was terminally ill and under hospice care; you can watch his comedy bit on it here) – includes a cast of characters including his partner, Bingo, some of his friends, and some of the people from the book.

They have side conversations (obviously not available in the print version), and I’m sure the print version is sadly corrupted by at least some editing (Stanhope yells, “fake name!” on the audio in each place the lawyers made him change someone’s name.

Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins. Goggins worked with Alex Skolnick to write his memoir – a memoir of a rough childhood that included brutal beatings from Dad, running away with Mom and living in a $7/month apartment in a mostly white town; life as a very overweight exterminator; and losing 100 pounds in a few months to be accepted into the military. He went on to become an ultra-runner and a world-record holder in pull-ups.

Skolnick narrates the audiobook and stops after each section to have a conversation with Goggins, so the audiobook is really part podcast as well.


Let’s talk about some podcasts, as well. I’ll just assume you’re listening to Better Humanhood and JKWD. You are, aren’t you?

Here are some things I’m filling my earholes with.

Tim Ferriss and Joe Rogan are probably getting bigger audiences than CNN at this point, so I won’t say much about their shows. Here are four others you should consider.

Big Questions with Cal Fussman. Fussman traveled the world with no money and then spent 25 years as a freelance writer with an exclusive contract at Esquire, so you’ll be forgiven if, like me, you hadn’t heard of him before Ferriss had him on. Fussman is a consummate storyteller who has breakfast with Larry King every day the two of them are in the same city.

He gave my daughter several minutes of an episode when she was just a couple weeks old, and one of his sponsors, Sportiqe sent along a blanket and a lovely letter.

Five more suggested episodes:

Mick Ebeling, of Not Impossible Labs
Joe de Sena (Spartan Races) and Lil Misty Diaz (obstacle race athlete with spina bifida)
Melanie Whelan of SoulCycle
Radha Agrawal of Daybreaker
Scooter Braun

Timesuck with Dan Cummins. You might know comedian Cummins from his bit Here Come the Spoons. He’s created his own little world with characters from an evil Russian wrestling coach to a three-legged hound to a dark mistress and an overlord. He does a weekly deep dive on some topic of interest to him, often a conspiracy or serial killer, but sometimes something more uplifting.

He sprinkles in fake facts and ads and has a super-engaged following. Most episodes include regular segments related to the topic, such as a timeline and “idiots of the internet,” his response to ridiculous comments on YouTube videos and Reddit threads and the like.

The podcast website isn’t permalink friendly, so I’ll drop the YouTube versions here for some favorite episodes.

Five suggested episodes:

Casey Anthony: Free and Guilty?
Ed Kemper: The Co-Ed Killer
The Pinkerton Detective Agency
The DB Cooper Hijack Mystery
Mikhail “The Werewolf Popkov: Russia’s Most Notorious Serial Killer

Duncan Trussell Family Hour. Trussell is an absurdist comedian who is a seeker. He’s survived testicular cancer (with one testicle removed). He lost his mother to cancer. His father died recently, and he and his wife welcomed their first child as well. He’s a believer in peace, meditation, psychedelics, and bringers of light, from Jesus to Ram Dass.

His episodes are often surprising – from spiritual discussions with creators of comedy shows to funny conversations with spiritual advisers to discussions about the practice of both light and dark magick/alchemy through the centuries.

It’s hard to pick where to start, but here are five suggested episodes (and don’t let any weird ads get to you – his humor often isn’t mine and some come off just odd; you can always just skip through to the episode). These episodes all happen to be male interview subjects, but yes, he regularly has women on the show.

Steven Kotler
Zach Leary
Daniele Bolelli
Raghu Markus
Shane Mauss

Astonishing Legends. It’s been fun following Forrest Burgess and Scott Philbrook as they took this show from a hobby to a career. They run the definitive show for the world’s real-life mysteries, along with some urban legends. I learned about shadow people and black-eyed kids from the show, but they’ve done in-depth series on things like the Mothman, the Betz Sphere and the Black Monk of Pontefract.

They have a team of volunteer researchers and they have fans send in segues to read the shows back in from ads. They have a release schedule that, after four years of listening, I still haven’t wrapped my head around; they take a week off every three or four weeks or so. When they do a series, they never know how many episodes it will be, because sometimes people come out of the woodwork for interviews or with new information after the first episode comes out.

Five suggested episodes:

• The Sallie House: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• The Devil and Anneliese Michel – Exorcism on Trial: Part 1 Part 2 | Part 3
• Oak Island Money Pit: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• The Betz Sphere: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4
• Skinwalker Ranch: Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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Happiness, joy and contentment: What makes us happy?

Happiness, joy and contentment: What makes us happy?

“Animals are born exploiters,” writes Steven Pinker in Enlightenment Now. “They live off the hard-won energy stored in the body of plants and other animals by eating them” (p. 19).

Pankaj Mishra, in Age of Anger, points out it’s not just animals who are exploiters; people do it, too. And it’s not just the strong people — weak people try to mimic the strong.

It isn’t just that the strong exploit the weak; the powerless themselves are prone to enviously imitate the powerful. But people who try to make more of themselves than others end up trying to dominate others, forcing them into positions of inferiority or deference. The lucky few on top remain insecure, exposed to the envy and malice of the also-rans. The latter use all means available to them to realize their unfulfilled cravings while making sure to veil them with a show of civility, even benevolence (p. 89).

But this is all a show. This “show of civility, even benevolence,” doesn’t make us happy.

We know that much of what makes us happy is anticipation of how we’ll feel about something. But what does make us happy?

In her book of the same name, Sonja Lyubomirsky debunks some myths of happiness.

Nearly all of us buy into … the myths of happiness — beliefs that certain adult achievements (marriage, kids, jobs, wealth) will make us forever happy and that certain adult failures or adversities (health problems, not having a life partner, having little money) will make us forever unhappy. This reductive understanding is culturally reinforced and continues to endure despite overwhelming evidence that our well-being does not operate according to such black-and-white principles (p. 1).

The things people tell us should make us happy? They don’t, necessarily. So again, what does make us happy?


Where have you been, where are you going?

“The pleasure of getting what you want is often fleeting,” Jonathan Haidt writes in The Happiness Hypothesis(pp. 82-3). The idea really is to make what you want a moving target.

Let’s start first with where you’ve been. Lyubomirsky notes that “people who have experienced some adversity … are ultimately happier (and less distressed, traumatized, stressed, or impaired) than those who have experienced no adversity at all. Having a history of enduring several devastating moments ‘toughens us up’ and makes us better prepared to manage later challenges and traumas” (p. 3).

In other words, if you’ve been through some things, you’re ultimately happier.

Now, I don’t know if that just means the bar for happiness is lower for people who have struggled than it is for people who haven’t, or if it’s the perspective that struggle brings, or something else. For example, if you grew up a constant victim of domestic violence, any day that you didn’t get beat up might be a happy day for you; that’s just a normal day for everyone else.

Let’s say the low-bar argument is correct. What implications does that have for us in the modern Western world?

Pinker points out that the default state of the world throughout history is poverty, but that things are getting better.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can to avoid becoming our food. As Adam Smith pointed out, what needs to be explained is wealth (p. 25).

“Here is a shocker,” he writes (emphasis his): “The world has made spectacular progress in every single measure of human well-being. Here is a second shocker: Almost no one knows about it” (p. 52).

Think you’re smart? Take the Gapminder test. The world’s probably in better shape than you think. We were surprised over at JKWD.

“We are happier, in general,” Pinker writes, “when we are healthy, comfortable, safe, provisioned, socially connected, sexual and loved” (p. 267).

So why do choose to spend our time battling it out on Facebook and Twitter? We’re addicted to the dopamine hit of likes and people agreeing with us.

Long before the advent of Twitter, Facebook, the Internet or even the personal computer, Rollo May wrote about happiness and our values in Man’s Search for Himself. More accurately, he wrote not about happiness, but one of its obverses: anxiety.

A shift in the values and goals of our society, he writes, is a central reason for anxiety (p. 28). Really, though, if you want to be happy, he writes, you have to live up to your own values.

On the deepest level, the question of which age we live in is irrelevant. The basic question is how the individual, in his own awareness of himself and the period he lives in, as able through his decisions to attain inner freedom and to live according to his own inner integrity” (p. 206).

Be true to yourself. Find a job that pays your bills and fits your values. Surround yourself with friends and family members who keep you safe but challenge you instead of allowing complacency. Simple to conceive of, but not easy to do. That’s a much higher bar for happiness than we used to have. Try new things, see how something else can make you feel happy, maybe the stress of your job or everyday life is getting to you, that type of stress can be damaging to the body and cause more problems for the future, some people in that position have turned to things like marijuana to help calm them and relax them to feel better or to get to sleep at night! Click here to read more about it and see what is out there, who knows it could be an alternative medicine for you.


Goals

“Set for yourself any goal you want,” Haidt writes. “Most of the pleasure will be had along the way, with every step that takes you closer. The final moment of success is often no more thrilling than the relief of taking off a heavy backpack and the end of a long hike” (p. 84).

This, again, goes back to our dopamine hits. “I hit a milestone! Yay! I hit another milestone! Yay! Oh, I reached my goal! Now what?”

James Victore addresses this in Feck Perfuction. He set himself a 15-year plan. When that 15-year period was up, he was far beyond his vision. Five years later, he was floundering, because he didn’t have any plan beyond his initial plan. It may be cliche to say it’s not the destination, it’s the journey, but we should remember that the “destination” is just a stop along the way: we’re not done when we get there.

And remember this about goals: The universe, as a functioning entity, doesn’t care about your goals. We used to think it did, and then science came along — the Galileos and Newtons of the world — and discovered that things work systematically and predictably, and your goals have nothing to do with it.

“People have goals, of course,” writes Pinker, “but projecting goals onto the workings of nature is an illusion. Things can happen without anyone taking into account their effects on human happiness” (p. 24).

This doesn’t mean the spiritual side of the universe isn’t on your side. It doesn’t rule out the law of attraction. It means that you have to work within nature’s physical rules to capitalize on its spiritual rewards.

It is important, however, to set your goals to be your goals, or checkpoints along the path won’t mean anything to you. As May put it, we’re really good at articulating what society says we should want, not what we actually want.


From happiness to contentment and joy

Chade-Meng Tan was an engineer at Google. True to the company’s early style, he had an unusually job title — “Jolly Good Fellow (which nobody can deny)” — and description: “Enlighten minds, open hearts, create world peace.”

He started a little smaller than the world, creating a course at Google called “Search Inside Yourself,” then wrote a book by that name.

In Joy on Demand, he makes the case for meditation as a training mechanism for creating joy and thereby compassion, kindness and creativity, regardless of outside circumstances.

“People have a remarkable ability to adapt to both good and bad fortune,” he writes, “and that we each have a relatively stable level of happiness that we eventually return to even after major positive or negative life events” (pp. 3-4).

Lyubomirsky echoes that sentiment. “Which events are life changing, and in what ways, is often not immediately knowable” (p. 5). Beyond that, she writes, “instead of being frightening or depressing, your crisis points can be opportunities for renewal, growth, or meaningful change” (p. 3).

The same way that you can train yourself physically — start with light weights, get heavier, and eventually you’re strong, Tan writes, you can train mentally (p. 5), and part of that ability to train is the ability to train yourself to access joy (p. 3).

He proposes meditation as the training mechanism. Obviously, this is not a new mechanism, and it is not new as a path to happiness, joy, compassion, creativity and more.

“One of the biggest surprise discoveries of my life is that self-confidence can be trained by putting my butt onto a meditation cushion,” he writes (p. 33).

But joy and its side effects also link to something like kindness and compassion, things that are going to be even more important as we move forward into an ever-more crowded world.

Compassion and kindness arise from inner peace and joy. Compassion is both the fruition and the multiplier of joy — another one of those cycles of goodness. In other words: joy makes you a kinder, more compassionate person, and kindness and compassion bring you more joy” (pp. 20-21).

Interesting notes on happiness

A few other items of interest popped up in the happiness research that aren’t worth separate posts but are definitely worth noting.

“Although it may appear that some” crisis points in our life “will definitively and permanently change our lives for better or for worse, it is really our responses to them that govern their repercussions” (Lyubomirsky, p. 2). If you’re not sure what that looks like, listen to our JKWD episode on response versus reaction.

A reaction often looks like anger; a response often looks like problem solving.

I was side-swiped while driving by a teenager a couple of years ago. I was driving in the left lane of a one-way street, and she took a left from the right lane. She didn’t know she was on a one-way street, and was looking in front of her to see if she was OK to turn, not behind her. We pulled over. I had some scraped paint; she had a small dent on her bumper, which was metal, being an older SUV. Nobody was hurt.

She was visibly shaken, on the verge of tears. I could have reacted by yelling at her for not knowing the rules of the road, not understanding where she was, not being careful enough with the privilege of driving — and with it, not only would I have ruined her day, but her self-confidence while out driving. Already that had taken a major blow, but I could have shattered the rest of it. Remember when you were first trusted to drive on your own? There was a sense of freedom with that, and I could have made her emotionally dependent on someone else to drive her around.

Instead, I calmly got out, made sure she wasn’t hurt, had her take her insurance paperwork out of the glove compartment, walked with her over to my car, got my insurance stuff out. We took photos of each other’s paperwork and exchanged phone numbers (it wouldn’t matter if she’d given me a fake number; I had her insurance information).

I made sure she felt OK about driving the rest of the way to her destination, and we went our separate ways.

That’s the difference between reacting and responding, and making the right decision in that situation can turn a crisis point in your life into something that propels you toward happiness rather than something that sends you into a spiral.

***

In a paper called Happiness is a Stochastic Phenomenon (PDF), David Lykken and Auke Tellegen discover that where we come from — our parents, not our place of origin — is the biggest factor in our happiness. Half our happiness, they write, is associated with genetics. No other factors studied — socioeconomic status, education, income, religiosity, marital status, etc. — accounts for more than three percent of overall happiness.

Don’t let that give you any excuses for wallowing, however. Remember, as Tan shows, you can absolutely train yourself to overcome whatever you need to!

***

One more. In Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert addresses the language of ranking happiness.

The language-squishing hypothesis goes like this: We get the same exact feeling as someone else from an experience, yet describe it differently. For example, you describe your feeling of happiness when you have birthday cake as an “8” while I describe it as a “4” — you’re not necessarily objectively happier in rank order, we just describe the feeling differently (pp. 50-51).

Experience-stretching, on the other hand, is like this: We might mean the same thing when we say “8” and “4,” and I’vee had experiences that make birthday cake seem mundane, while birthday cake is at the top of your experience for happiness (pp. 54-55).

***

Hopefully, this series was at least somewhat instructive for you. Let us know if there’s an aspect of happiness you’d like to get deeper in on.

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Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer: What is happiness?

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer: What is happiness?

Everybody wants to be happier, right? Well, what, exactly, does that mean?

Merriam-Webster defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment,” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.”

Meh, that doesn’t get down to specifics.

How about the origin of the word? Maybe that’s more instructive? It’s not much better: “1520s, ‘good fortune,’ from happy + -ness. Meaning ‘pleasant and contented mental state’ is from 1590s.”

The etymology of happy gets a little more down to it:

late 14c., “lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune” + -y (2). Sense of “very glad” first recorded late 14c. Meaning “greatly pleased and content” is from 1520s.

So, specifically, happiness is the feeling of pleasure you get when you’re lucky.

Hmm.

That doesn’t seem as specific as the clear neural pathway we can see when empathy is engaged.

We do know there are happiness chemicals substances present in the body and brain when we’re happy.

Writing in Psychology Today, Christopher Bergland identifies seven:

  1. Endocannabinoids: “Endocannabinoids,” he writes, “are self-produced cannabis that work on the CB-1 and CB-2 receptors of the cannabinoid system.” This is why products such as chemo kush work the way they do with our body. “Anandamide (from the Sanskrit ‘Ananda’ meaning Bliss) is the most well known endocannabinoid.” Basically, we have a bunch of different receptors in our brains meant to receive different chemicals from cannabis (about 85 of them, actually. With some of them being found in many products by different providers like Caliper CBD and others), and we make some of those ourselves. Endocannabinoids are responsible for “runner’s high,” so I guess that feeling is accurately named.
  2. Dopamine: This is our reward system. Drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine hit our dopamine systems. It’s also what keeps us checking Facebook and Instagram for likes. Just. One. More. Hit.
  3. Oxytocin: This is our romantic bonding hormone. Skin-to-skin contact, cuddling and other forms of intimacy all increase oxytocin (apparently this may affect men and women differently; vasopressin might serve this purpose in men, Bergland writes).

    We can also increase oxytocin by doing things like drinking coffee and eating chocolate.

  4. Endorphin: “The name Endorphin translates into ‘self-produced morphine,'” Bergland writes. “Endorphins resemble opiates in their chemical structure and have analgesic properties. Endorphins are produced by the pituitary gland and the hypothalamus during strenuous physical exertion, sexual intercourse and orgasm.” So, while runner’s high is handled by our endocannabinoids, pushing through an intense workout hits the same chemicals as orgasm.
  5. GABA: GABA is your chill-happy molecule, Bergland writes. Yoga and meditation increase GABA, and benzos (like Valium and Xanax) work as anti-anxiety drugs and sedatives thanks to GABA.
  6. Serotonin: “Serotonin plays so many different roles in our bodies that it is really tough to tag it,” writes Bergland, who calls it the “confidence molecule.” Many anti-depressants are classed as SSRIs selective seratonin reuptake inhibitors these increase levels of seratonin in the brain, but you can increase it without drugs by doing confidence-boosting things like challenging yourself and doing things that give you a sense of purpose.
  7. Adrenaline (epinephrine): This is your overdrive molecule. “A surge of adrenaline makes you feel very alive,” writes Bergland. “It can be an antidote for boredom, malaise and stagnation. Taking risks, and doing scary things that force you out of your comfort zone is key to maximizing your human potential. However, people often act recklessly to get an adrenaline rush.”

    I can tell you from getting a shot from an EpiPen once that’s artificial adrenaline, basically that it is indeed a crazy reaction when you get it artificially. I passed out for a few seconds, and then immediately broke out into hives all over my body. I got a shot from a cortico-steroid to bring that down, and I sat on the couch and probably put down 3,000 calories the rest of the day and managed to wake up having lost a couple of pounds. I’d avoid that as a weight-loss plan, though.

Some of these chemicals can even be gamified.

That, then, is a bit of an overview of how pleasure, which I guess is happiness, presents in the brain.

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may all seem different, but they generate similar patterns of neural activity, meaning they all lead to happiness #betterhumanhood Click To Tweet

Cocaine, kittens and curing cancer may seem different, but each of these “generates a roughly similar pattern of neural activity,” writes Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, so it makes that in some form, these all lead to happiness (p. 35).

Gilbert relates three distinct types of happiness: emotional, moral and judgmental (p. 33). But this brings us to the same issue we had when we were looking at definitions and word origins: it’s hard to pin down what each means.

In fact, unlike empathy, there isn’t an objective outward manifestation of happiness. We can see it in the brain with the release of certain chemicals, as we noted above, but what makes you happy might not be what makes me happy, and vice-versa I may enjoy my runner’s high; you might think I’m crazy for even seeking it out with a three-hour run. Meanwhile, you might love spending hours listening to mumble rap on Soundcloud and I just don’t get it.

If asked to define emotional happiness, Gilbert writes, “we would either point to the objects in the world that tend to bring it about, or we would mention other feelings that it is like. In fact, this is the only thing we can do when we are asked to define a subjective experience” (p. 34).

He goes on to write that some people would say “subjective studies are ‘irreducible,’ which is to say that nothing we point to, nothing we can compare them with, and nothing we can say about their neurological underpinnings can fully substitute for the experiments themselves” (p. 34).

Unlike empathy, then, we can’t systematize happiness.

This makes happiness a lot more work than empathy. There’s no truly objective outward measure (some people cry when they’re happy and appear to smile when they’re constipated), and nothing is guaranteed to make everybody happy (you think you have a thing or two in mind, but, as you’ll find out in future installments, you’re wrong).

Kelvin and I talked about this last month on JKWD, but one thing we are all interested in is control. Gilbert, again:

Human beings come into the world with a passion for control, they go out of the world the same way, and research suggests that if they lose their ability to control things at any point between their entrance and their exit, they become unhappy, helpless, hopeless and depressed (p. 22).

This is a little foreshadowing on part three, but control what you can, and you can be happy.

Next time, we’ll talk about when we find happiness, and the research will probably surprise you.

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The long game

The long game

I’m a fan of shortcuts (things we, at the moment, are calling “hacks”). Things like making hard-boiled eggs easy to peel.

I’m a fan of combining moving and brain work. Things like walking meetings and listening to audiobooks and podcasts while running (a recent favorite is Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins.

I love that some chores can be done while I do other things. For a two-hour job, laundry has such a short hands-on time that I can toss it in the washer, then go do 45 minutes’ worth of anything else, move it to the dryer and disappear for over an hour, and then it needs folding at some point. I can put five pounds of chicken breast in the slow cooker, spend hours doing everything else, and then I have dinner for two for a week.

I love processes that I can batch. Email a couple of times a day. Portioning a few days’ worth of salads into containers; same for oatmeal.

I think there are some diet and wealth schemes that can get you where you want to go quickly, even if I’m wary of their sustainability.

Discipline can be a good substitute for productivity. Skip the time-wasters, find a routine that includes good habits (meditation and exercise, for example). You’ll find if you take away choices, you get more done.

But not everything is meant to be done quickly.


Health, for instance, is a long game. You can do some things quickly, but then they need maintenance. Lower your blood sugar. Decrease your LDL (bad) cholesterol. Get your kidney health on track. Lower your inflammation. Gut health. Hydration.

Relationships, too. You can form a friendship or business partnership or client relationship in a heartbeat. It takes a lifetime to nurture and build each.

And for every time we’ve looked at a kid and said she’s six going on 25, it’s not true. It takes 18 years to raise an 18 year old. There are no shortcuts.

When I was in kindergarten, I skipped reading group and went to the library. I already knew my ABCs and wanted to read an actual book.

Throughout elementary school, I went to math class in the next grade up.

But it still took me 12 years to get to 12 years old.

And so with a three-week-old girl at home, there’s a giant learning curve. We’re trying to put some weight on her; she’s butcher-scale sized right now and we don’t have a scale that’s going to let us know if we’re getting a couple of ounces on her every three days or so; we just have to wait for doctor’s appointments.

We guess whether her cries are for food, diaper, cuddles or soothing. Her food/soothing cry is distinct; we can tell when she’s hungry because when we pick her up she’ll start looking for a nipple. I have the peck marks to prove it. [OK, not really.]

It’ll be great when she can tell us what she needs or wants, but that time is not coming tomorrow. I don’t want it to come tomorrow.


One thing I learned from comedian Louis CK is this: We’re not raising the child she is. We’re raising the adult she’s going to become. There’s going to be a lot of trial and error along the way. We’re going to do the best we can, realizing that we’re just making it up as we go along.

There will be opportunities for failures — for us as parents and for her — but make no mistake, they are opportunities. You don’t learn anything new when you get things right all the time.

Remember that thing about me being in advanced math throughout elementary school? I would go upstairs from my fifth-grade class to take math with the sixth graders. The teacher introduced to us pi, the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter. She briefly mentioned the mystery of the number and that people looked for repeating patterns in the decimal, and then offered it as a fraction, twenty-two sevenths (22/7), without noting that it was a fractional approximation.

Twenty-two divided by seven brings a repeating decimal very quickly, at six decimal places (3.142857142857142857…). I had done the work long-form on paper (no calculator) while in class and presented her with my calculations at the end of class.

“You might be the first person to ever find a pattern!” the teacher exclaimed. And then she looked at my work and frowned. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she said. “Twenty-two sevenths is only an approximation.”

That was a failure for her to learn from — explain approximations when they’re approximations — and it was a moment for me to recognize that (a) adults sometimes underestimate children and (b) fifth-graders aren’t actually generally smarter than their teachers. Those were good lessons for me: question everyone and everything, but find a little humility.

I’m not sure why I’m reminded of that, but I’m glad I am.


I’ve long joked with my wife — since long before we had a kid — that if we get a call from a kindergarten teacher that our kid called someone a fucking asshole, my first question would be if the person in question was being a fucking asshole, and if so, my kid wasn’t the problem.

I get the distinct feeling some of my choices as a parent are going to be a little on the unusual side. I’ve got some good role models and peers to lean on.

But the hardest thing for me to remember here is that, unlike using baking soda and a temperature shock to make peeling hard-boiled eggs quick, there is no shortcut. It’s a long game raising a decent human, and I’m in it for the long haul.

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