Enjoy what’s on your plate…

Plenty of bother at work this week; and I mean plenty… At one point on Friday afternoon I kinda wondered if it was a really well organised prank. People problems, building problems, legal problems, a bereavement – and a taxi outside waiting to take me for another meeting while I was supposed to instantly sort them.

But my new mantra got me through with at least half a smile:

Enjoy what’s on your plate

Once again I’ve turned to Chris Croft for inspiration here – if you look at things the right way they’re all potentially enjoyable…

Here’s what Chris has to say:

This month’s tip is taken from The Inner Game of Tennis by Tim Gallwey which is a great little book, and only 50% about tennis. The bit that I really liked went as follows:

There are three reasons why you might play tennis (or do anything else in life)

Competition: to beat other people. But Tim Gallwey says that this is pointless because there will always be someone better than you so it’s a futile objective. Unless you pick weak opponents so you beat them, but what’s the point of that. So being competitive, trying to prove yourself by being better than other people, is not the right path to go down.

I completely agree with Chris and Tim on this – even in my sporting heyday I often couldn’t see the point. So what’s next?

Mastery: to master the game (or to master selling or management or traffic planning or heart surgery or physiotherapy or growing pumpkins or whatever it is that you do). Again, TG says this is futile – you’ll never master it. Ask anyone who plays golf! Though I did once meet Eddie Lockjaw Davis, one of the best jazz saxophonists in the world, and talk to him, and he said he’d mastered the sax and was bored with it. He’d taken up snooker at the age of 80 to give himself a challenge! So even if you did master it you’d be bored, but anyway, you won’t, (even Federer misses some shots) so forget that!

Mastery has always trapped me more than competition – secretly wanting to be really good (and maybe even wanting other people to see I was really good) at things. But as Chris has written very persuasively in his Big Book of Happiness the more you seek mastery the less you get back from it; it’s the law of diminishing marginal returns.

So what’s left? Just the good stuff:

Enjoyment: to get pleasure from the good shots, even if there aren’t very many! Who cares if you’re not the best, or that you aren’t perfect; every now and then you do a great shot, and that makes it all worthwhile. I must say that as I got better at squash (and I was quite good once!) I found it less and less enjoyable, because I took most shots for granted, I was just irritated by the really hard ones that I couldn’t quite get, on those key points in the game against really tough opponents. Gone were the fun knock-abouts with friends where we just took delight in hitting the ball.

To play for enjoyment means that your self-worth doesn’t come from being really good, or from being better than other people. Playing is not about self-worth at all. Your self worth should be totally independent of how good you are at tennis – or anything else. You can be rubbish at tennis and still be a good person.

And this was the sentence that helped me the most:

So the question is, could you get enjoyment from selling or managing or nursing or refusing planning permission or whatever your job involves?

I think this is the key to enjoying what’s on your plate; stop resenting it, or trying to master it and start enjoying it – even when you’re not very good at it.

As Chris says:

Many people’s plan is to just survive and get through the working days, to earn enough money to live, and then to get happiness from their time outside work – but of course, ideally we would get happiness from both parts of our lives. And happiness at work comes from having both a sense of achievement AND enjoying the process.

So I’m working on savouring my daily plateful of Brussels sprouts; and maybe even starting to like the taste!

Cardiac Coherence

I’d forgotten all about cardiac coherence having first read (and written) about it in 2010. But finding it again is a wonderful thing…

As I put it to someone at work: what’s not to like about about a regular feeling of ‘lightness, warmth and expansion in your chest?’

Even better when it becomes something you sometimes default to; as I found listening to Happy Tracks on a busy bus into work this week.

Here’s what it is and how you do it from David Servan-Schreiber’s wonderful ‘Healing without Freud or Prozac’:

Enjoy.

: )

Randomness

I was talking this week about ‘chucking some random numbers’ at my career; which I think some people listening thought might be bit reckless.

But in fact what I have in mind is well grounded in computer science.

A pseudorandomly generated bitmap – Wikipedia

Going back and listening again to ‘Algorithms to live by’ out walking the dog today, I was reminded that there are excellent design, creativity and evolutionary reasons to ‘chuck in’ a bit of randomness…

After all, life is all about optimisation.

Being randomly jittered, thrown out of the frame and focused on a larger scale, provides a way to leave what might be locally good and get back to the pursuit of what might be globally optimal.

But there are (and should be) limits:

The cult classic 1971 novel The Dice Man by Luke Rhinehart (real name: George Cockcroft) provides a cautionary tale. Its narrator, a man who replaces decision-making with dice rolling, quickly ends up in situations that most of us would probably like to avoid.

I remember flirting with The Dice Man in the 1990s – and it’s a young man’s game… Later on in life there’s much more at stake.

But maybe it’s more about how, and how much:

If the Dice Man had only had a deeper grasp of computer science, he’d have had some guidance.

‘Algorithms’ says there are three golden rules; first, from ‘Hill Climbing‘:

Even if you’re in the habit of sometimes acting on bad ideas, you should always act on good ones.

Second from the ‘Metropolis Algorithm’:

Your likelihood of following a bad idea should be inversely proportional to how bad an idea it is.

And third from ‘Simulated Annealing‘:

You should front-load randomness, rapidly cooling out of a totally random state, using ever less and less randomness as time goes on, lingering longest as you approach freezing. Temper yourself—literally.

And that’s that the original Dice Man did too:

Cockcroft himself apparently turned, not unlike his protagonist, to “dicing” for a time in his life, living nomadically with his family on a Mediterranean sailboat, in a kind of Brownian slow motion.

At some point, however, his annealing schedule cooled off: he settled down comfortably into a local maximum, on a lake in upstate New York.

Sometimes you need to know when you’re in a good place:

Now in his eighties, he’s still contentedly there. “Once you got somewhere you were happy,” he told the Guardian, “you’d be stupid to shake it up any further.”

Writing

Here’s to Eric Barker, who more than once has put me on a better track. His weekly writings are well worth signing up for here in my humble opinion.

He’s given me a handy reminder that apart from anything else, there are good mental health reasons for writing stuff down:

We ruminate endlessly but that just makes things worse. When you’re merely thinking about your problems, you hop, skip and jump all over the place, never resolving one issue before moving on to the next. Writing forces us to put a structure around life. To make sense of it.

And it’s not just about venting:

The effects were not due to simple catharsis or the venting of pent-up emotions. In fact, the people who just blew off steam by venting their feelings without any thoughtful analysis tended to fare worse…Talking or writing about the source of our problems without self-reflection merely adds to our distress…

Writing is about codifying and coming to a deeper understanding…

The authors asked students to write about their thoughts and feelings about their lives. Those who showed more deep-level thinking along with constructive problem solving were less depressed later and had fewer health care visits. Those students who merely expressed their emotions and described their anxiety had more health care visits…

A large number of good scientific studies conclude that the mere expression of emotion is usually not beneficial on its own. Rather, people typically must learn to recognize and identify their emotional reactions to events.

In effect:

Once you understand something, once you can find a place for it in the story of your life, that’s when you can put it behind you and move on.

And, that’s just one of the many reasons it seems to me (and to science) that regular writing is so important…

Here’s where the some of the science comes from:

More than thirty years ago there was a guy named Jamie, his marriage was in the toilet, and he was utterly depressed. Despite having big problems, he didn’t go to a therapist. (Which is ironic because Jamie was a graduate student in psychology, of all things.)

Instead he started writing. A lot. He wrote about his marriage, his career, his childhood. He basically covered every serious issue in his life and how he felt about it. And then something happened… He felt better. A lot better. And he realized how much his wife meant to him. They resolved their issues. Then he had a thought:

“Maybe writing might help anyone feel better about their struggles in life.

And being a psychology grad student, he did a study to test the theory… And he was right. Since that first paper was published in 1986 hundreds of other studies have shown the power of expressive writing to help people. In the thirty-plus years since, many students on the University of Texas at Austin campus have come up to Professor James Pennebaker and said:

“You don’t remember me, but I was in your experiment a year ago. I just wanted to thank you. It changed my life.”

James Pennebaker is the Regents Centennial Professor of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. 

Pennebaker’s book is: “Opening Up by Writing It Down: How Expressive Writing Improves Health and Eases Emotional Pain”

Hard Work

I’ve not been enjoying work recently; but it could be worse…

Here are some stats on how the rest of the British workforce feels about the daily grind:

According to research by YouGov, 37% of working British adults say their job is not making a meaningful contribution to the world. Half (50%) say their job is meaningful, and 13% are unsure.

At least I get over this hurdle. Stuff I do, and make possible, does make a difference to thousands of people; and potentially to many many more. I tick this box.

Men (42%) are more likely to say their jobs are meaningless than women (32%).

In a week where we learned men are invariably better paid, why are men more gloomy? The hormones we have, the expectations society sets or the jobs we disproportionately do?

Whatever the causes, I’m on the right side of this one too.

Despite this, most people with ‘meaningless’ jobs say it’s unlikely they will change jobs in the next 12 months (53%, compared to 35% who say they might change jobs).

I’m in the 35% here. Never say never, I say…

I’ve moved sectors, countries and jobs plenty of times; so although the grass is usually no greener, it always pays to keep your feelers out – if only to feel you have options and skills people want.

The survey also asked if British workers find their jobs personally fulfilling, and a similar portion (33%) say they do not. 63% say their job is fulfilling, although only 18% say it is very fulfilling.

I scrape into the 63% here – my work is not very fulfilling, nor does it feel like the very best use of who I am and the skills I have; but hey you have to get over yourself a bit don’t you. As my son once famously said “it’s not all about you Dad.” Cheeky monkey.

As for explaining myself to others…

Many introductions at social occasions begin with a conversation about work, but only 49% of British workers say they’d be proud to tell someone about what they do when meeting for the first time. 8% say they’d even be embarrassed, 41% say neither.

…I usually start embarrassed but end up more proud. Education is the Lord’s work; even if academia can be a fractious and frustrating place.

Compared to many, I’ve not got that much to complain about. It helps to be reminded of that by the travails of others.

Showtime

A night to remember last evening, at surely the greatest musical of our times – ‘Hamilton’.

We’ve been humming it and singing it all day (as we have for the last two years). But apart from the lesser known Founding Father’s tale of the (once) almost unlimited possibilities of America (as his final words bill it “that great unfinished symphony…”) Hamilton’s other message is the transcendent importance of time.

Alexander Hamilton lives like he’s running out of it; the other main protagonist, Aaron Burr ‘waits and he waits’.

As for me, absolutely shattered at the end of last week, I returned to “The Big Book of Happiness: 87 Practical Ideas” for solace and some new impetus.

Good old Chris Croft reminds us the external world is fickle (As George Washington cautions twice in Hamilton, no one decides ‘who lives, who dies, who tells our story), so the only resources we really have are money and time.

Separately, another excellent post from Eric Barker slam dunks the idea that anyone can multi-task well. I’d persuaded myself I can. But no… Multi-tasking Barker highlights, is just a rather ineffective and inefficient ‘dopamine rush’.

So, balancing the choice between work, money and time, my conclusion is: I’m working too hard and somewhat ineffectively; disproportionately meeting the needs of others, and not my own.

My Easter epiphany is to realise time is my most precious resource – and I’ve been being pretty careless with it. Looking on the bright side, it’s good to clock it.

The magic of Hamilton helped.

Curiosity killed the Habit

This week I’ve been enjoying a fascinating insight from psychiatrist and addiction expert Judson Brewer on ‘reward based learning’ and rewiring habit loops.

The simple trick is to use curiosity; not attempt self-control. As he explains (below) the bit of the brain which exerts control is way less ancient, and way less powerful than the bit that imposes cravings. So a battle with smoking or snacking with willpower alone is likely to be a losing one.

The key according to Brewer is curiosity. If we can stop and curiously examine an urge; not instantly act on it or try to make it go away, we can ‘hack’ our ‘reward based learning’ system by enjoying the experience of learning.

This – when I think back – is how I quit smoking nearly 18 years ago; actively exploring the craving made it manageable. I’d read ‘aversion’ doesn’t work. So I used to think of the famous Bisto gravy ads: and with a deep breath go ‘ahhh!’ remembering the ‘hit’, sensation and reward of a deep drag on a cigarette when I smelt one or the urge came upon me. Enjoying the urge made it pass.

Brewer’s is a very simple but clever idea – curiosity is its own reward; it could be habit-forming…

The Midlife Crisis

Of course we’re all ultimately barrelling towards the abyss; but there’s something about the middle of life that starts you thinking about it…

The ancients, the Stoics, the Buddhists; even the most whacko Californians all agree: at least half of the purpose of philosophy is to cope with our own mortality. And that need kicks-in big time around half-way through.

Elliot Jacques coined the phrase ‘midlife crisis’ in his 1965 paper Death And The Midlife Crisis. And MIT philosopher Kieran Setiya has had a proper go at really thinking about what it is and what to do about it, in this terrific podcast from the ever wonderful series Philosophy Bites.

The essence of his advice lies in giving up ‘telic’ living: the life focused on ‘projects’ and achievements. Defined by their completion: projects, achievements and ‘bucket lists’ are either constantly being consumed or are eluding you – increasing the feeling of time running out.

Instead the focus needs to be on ‘atelic’ living; enjoying ‘categories’ of activity and the process of doing them. It’s about enjoying philosophy, not ticking off the great philosophers; listening to classical music, not methodically completing the works of Beethoven; enjoying really looking at Art not consuming, categorising and collating it…

One approach endlessly pursues endpoints; of which and there is an infinite supply versus a finite amount of time. The other enjoys the time there is, in the doing of enjoyable things; not just the completing of them.

It’s a subtle thing; often the identical activities, but with a slightly different mental approach – enjoying the journey, not racing to complete as much as possible before the end.

Diced Relevant-Complexity

Having codified it three years ago, I amply proved the central premise of relevantcomplexity.com:

“But then, subtly and imperceptibly, sometimes even the things we once enjoyed the most, tail off into familiarity, boredom and ennui.”

I got bored of it.

Thanks goodness for Sonja Lyubomorsky… in the How of Happiness (which is also a website here) she sets out compelling evidence for two things which have really helped me this winter:

1) Hedonic Adaptation: pretty much anything which happens in your life – house move, significant gain or loss, any purchase from car to Concorde – you will have adapted to within three months; and then very importantly…

2) Happiness Set Point: you always return, inexorably, to your genetically determined default happiness setting; as proven by identical and non-identical twin studies. If you’re a miserable so and so, you likely always will be; if you’re a ray of sunlight, the same. Identical twins separated – with completely different life circumstances – have almost identical happiness levels. Non-identical twins living near identical lives, have widely divergent default happiness levels.

This sounds like a recipe for Stoicism (of which more anon). But the good news is you can better your Happiness Set Point – not by getting a better job, car or house… but by tricking yourself. The only way to beat your Happiness Set Point is to catch yourself out!

This explains (and links) my experience with Relevant Complexity and Csikszentmihalyi’s “Flow”. My Happiness Set Point is a comparatively gloomy one. I was (initially) enjoying Relevant Complexity because of the variety and novelty. Then Hedonic Adaptation kicked in, “flow” went away – and inexorably and inevitably like a Newton’s Cradle I returned to my default ‘same old same old’ Happiness Set Point and lost enthusiasm for Relevant Complexity.

But now I’m back! The secret? Dice…

As Sonja Lyubomirsky sets out, the key is to trick yourself. So now I have dice and lists. When I’m pottering in the kitchen: the dice decide whether I’ll listen to a podcast, an audio book, the news in Italian, classical music, 80s hits, footie or talk radio. And each time I get bored; simple – roll again.

Similarly in a morning instead of fighting the randomness of which bus arrives first (and it’s never the one I want) I’m just hopping on. Make some progress, watch the world go by and change where there are more options. Embracing – even imposing – randomness seems to brighten up both me and my day. And it has certainly got me back doing the Relevant Complexity thing again.

But I’m not kidding myself… I’ve got three months before I have to come up with something new; you can’t cheat Hedonic Adaptation and your Happiness Set Point for long!