Meaningful Moodraiser

>> Tuesday

When something happens and you have a negative reaction, it is because of what you think the event means.

If someone gives you a dirty look, you might feel sad because you think it means they don’t like you any more. But what you think it means is only one possibility. The meaning of the event occurred to you automatically, and it's not necessarily the best thing you could come up with if you really thought about it.

What else could it mean?

That's the key question. Ask yourself, and keep asking, "What else could it mean?" Think of some alternatives and often it will change the way you feel.

When you are upset and you want to feel less upset, this is a great question to ask yourself. Ellen Langer, the researcher and author of Mindfulness, says a key to mindfulness is to question old mindsets. You have thought in certain ways for a long time and it has produced a kind of mindlessness.

To question those ways of thinking opens you up to new possibilities. The question, “What else could it mean?” can help.

When someone is diagnosed with a malignant tumor, says Langer, some people immediately sink into depression because they have the mindset that cancer is powerful and they are helpless to stop it.

But that mindset is not the only possible way to think about cancer, it is certainly not the best one, and it isn’t the most accurate one, either.

Ask yourself often, especially when something happens you think is bad, “Is that the only way to see it?”

Try to come up with different possible ways you could view the same situation.

Really it’s a dumb question. No matter how you’re looking at the situation, it is never the only possible point of view. Probably a better question would be, “What other way could I look at this?”

Or notice what you think the event means, and ask yourself what else it could mean.

Sit down with paper and pen and spend an hour coming up with different points of view you could take on the same event. That’ll shake you out of your automatic, upsetting opinion.

Now look at your list. What do you think is the most sensible point of view? Which one would help you handle the situation the best? Which one would your best friend think is the best point of view?

You can use this question with smaller events too, and you can do it on the fly. If someone treats you with less respect than usual, and you feel a little bothered by it, ask yourself what you think it means.

For example, "I think it means she is mad at me for some reason."

Now ask yourself what else it could mean. For example, "Maybe she is tired. Maybe she drank too much coffee today. Maybe she is jealous because I look so good today. Maybe she is pregnant and has morning sickness."

It only takes a minute or so to come up with some alternative meanings. And when you do, it will change the way you feel about it. You won't feel as bothered. It is a simple method that takes very little effort, but it has a real impact on your mood.

Read more: Feel Bad Less Often

Adam Khan is the author of Antivirus For Your Mind: How to Strengthen Your Persistence and Determination and Feel Good More Often and co-author with Klassy Evans of Viewfinder: How to Change the Way You Look at Things.

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Self-Reliance, Translated

>> Friday

In case you haven't read it yet, we've published a Ralph Waldo Emerson's essay, Self-Reliance, translated into modern English. I've been studying Emerson's essay for years. I consider it one of the most significant pieces of writing ever published.

I once typed the original essay word for word and printed it out as a booklet for myself because I couldn't find a version of the book that stood alone — it was always in a collection of essays. I wanted only the Self-Reliance.

While I was at it, I looked up all the words I didn't know, and made footnotes of definitions for each word on each page (and there were a lot of them). After Al Gore invented the internet, I was able to put it online, which you can read here. And of course, all the footnotes of definitions are now hyperlinks.

Then I recorded the essay for myself and listened to it over and over while driving. And I tried to apply it to my life.

Then, to understand it even better, I went over it line by line, trying to write what Emerson wrote in my own words. That rewrite project is what I just published as a (very small) book. I don't think I'm a better writer than Emerson. I love his writing. Some of his sentences were so well-said, I included them in my translation just because I couldn't bear to leave them out. My motivation for translating it came from an experience I had with Cliff Notes.

I had always considered Cliff Notes as a kind of cheating. If you didn't want to read the real book, you could read a condensed version that tells you everything you need to know to pass a test. Then one day I saw the movie Henry V (the one with Kenneth Branagh). I really liked the movie but I only understood about half of what they were saying. They were speaking English, but three things were hindering my understanding:

1. English was spoken differently back then. They commonly used words we are now unfamiliar with.

2. Shakespeare was a poet, so he often inverted sentences and used unusual phrases in order to make things sound poetic.

3. They were speaking with an English accent.

Emerson's essay is difficult for a modern English speaker today for the first two reasons. Emerson used words that, although I could find them in a dictionary, I had never heard anyone say. And he was a poet, so some of his phrases were meant to be savored rather than read only for their direct meaning.

Just by chance, I was browsing in a used bookstore one day, and I came across a Cliff Notes on Henry V. I was curious what it might say, so I read it and found it a revelation. It explained terms and phrases I didn't know. I remember, for example, the phrase, "throwing down a gage." The Cliff Notes explained this. It is an archaic term that means throwing gloves at the feet of someone, which in those days meant you were challenging the person to a duel. I could have watched Henry V fifty times and never figured that out. But after I learned it, I understood better what was going on when I watched the movie again.

That's what I hope happens after people read my translation. I hope they go back and enjoy Emerson's original and eloquent essay, and understand it better, and really appreciate his creative, powerful prose.

Last year, the Domino Project came out with a beautiful hardcover edition of Self-Reliance. You can find it on Amazon here. Amazon's description of their book gives you a sense of why Emerson's essay is so important to read. It says:

With quotes from the likes of Henry Ford and Helen Keller to modern-day thought leaders like Jesse Dylan, Steve Pressfield, and Milton Glaser, we're reminded of the relevance of Emerson’s powerful words today. Emerson’s words are timeless. Persuasive and convincing, he challenges readers to define their own sense of accomplishment and asks them to measure themselves against their own standards, not those of society.

This famous orator has utter faith in individualism and doesn’t invoke beyond what is humanly possible; he just believes deeply that each of us is capable of greatness. He asks us to define that greatness for ourselves and to be true to ourselves.

At times harsh, at times comforting, Emerson’s words guide the reader to challenge their own beliefs and sense of self.  

On the back cover of the Domino version, it says, "Every page of this manifesto will cut you to the bone, inspire you and expose the seduction of blind obedience for what it is: a trap." If you don't own a copy of Self-Reliance already, I recommend the Domino version (and my translation as well to help you understand this important essay).

Get the Domino version here: Self-Reliance.
Get my translation here: Self-Reliance, Translated.

I'll leave you with a quote from Jesse Dylan:

I reread Self-Reliance a few times a year. It's always on my bedside table and I've done it for many years. Emerson's clear and true words ring like a bell. It keeps me on track. It's hard to follow your path or even to know what it is. There are constant distractions. This essay is a guide for how to realize your vision for your life. 

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