Good Mood Fundamentals

>> Tuesday

I POSED MYSELF the question: "Of all the things I know that are practical and really help improve my mood and make me more effective in the world, what principles are the most solid and effective? If I could only apply three main principles, which ones would I apply? Which ones are the most reliable?" Here's what I came up with:

1. Purpose Focus
Constantly bring your attention back to your purpose. At any given time, be clear what your purpose is for the task you are engaged in. Know what you are aiming at. As much as possible, make your purposes something you want rather than something you feel you should do. And focus your attention on what you want rather than what you don't want. Spend time thinking and planning about your purpose. And spend a lot of time working toward that purpose.

2. Anti-Negativity
Aggressively criticize your negative thoughts. Don't try to be positive; try to be accurate. It is easier to do this on paper than in your head for many reasons. Use the 22 virus definitions from the antivirus for your mind to give you an idea of how to criticize your thoughts. But you don't really need anything other than the will to criticize your own negativity. Find mistakes in your pessimistic thoughts. Dig into your negative assumptions and find the errors. This can and will make a huge difference in your mood over time.

3. Self-Coaching
Talk to yourself in a way that creates motivation and a strong determination to take intelligent action. Deliberately take over your stream of thought. Use mottos and slogans. Practice thinking things; use repetition to make the new thoughts familiar and comfortable and natural. Talk to yourself in a way that creates or intensifies your motivation.

You'll see these three principles woven throughout the pages of Whenever I find something that really works, it almost always involves one of these elements. There are other things that help, of course, but I've found it extremely useful to have chopped it down into the most simple and basic elements, and these are the ones I've found to be the most reliably helpful, applied in an almost unlimited number of ways.

If you already know the principles and apply them, then use to boost your conviction and motivation to keep on doing what you already know works. If you know the material but don't apply it, then let this site motivate you to get to work. And if you come across something new here, that's great too. But whatever you do in your life, keep to the basics — the simple, the practical, and the effective. Here's why.


How to Reduce Suffering and Feel Good More Often

>> Friday

BUDDHISM EMPHASIZES non-attachment as a "way of liberation." Non-attachment is a way to rid your life of unnecessary unhappiness. It's a way to become happier. And it works. But how?

To see how it works, let's first look at how attachment creates moments of unhappiness that are completely unnecessary. The main source of the unhappiness is the ideas we hold. Human beings get attached to ideas — ideas about who they are, what's the best way to live, ideas about what other people should be like, and so on — and our attachment to those ideas causes most of our day-to-day suffering.

I know it seems like the circumstances and reality cause your suffering, and it seems that other people really should act differently, and if they did we wouldn't suffer as much. But it is our ideas about reality that causes the suffering, not the reality itself.

When you change your ideas about something, it changes the way you feel about it.

Of course, I'm not talking about physical pain. If someone hits you, it is the punch that causes the pain. But suffering or unhappiness can be caused by your own thoughts about the person who hit you long after the pain from the punch has gone away. So the method I am about to explain may not be very effective for handling physical pain. But it does work with unhappiness and anxiety. And it works very, very well.

Buddhism has been around for a long time, but that doesn't make it worth anything. A lot of stuff that's been handed down for thousands of years is worthless nonsense. Just because something is ancient doesn't make it automatically good or bad.

But once in awhile some ancient knowledge turns out to be right on the mark, and this is one of those. If you could become non-attached to the ideas in your head, you'd be blissfully happy just sitting there doing nothing more than breathing. No kidding.

Of course that's not easy, and that's why not many of us have been able to do it. But the better you are at unattaching yourself from an idea, the happier and less stressed you will be. Gains in this area make a big difference.

Those people spending years meditating in Zen monasteries for ten hours a day are doing what? They're learning to catch themselves attaching to an idea and they are learning to detach. That's it. That's all they're doing. Do it enough and you're enlightened.

But you can practice it without sitting down and crossing your legs. You can do it anytime during the day. And the best time to do it (the time when it will make the most difference to your happiness) is when you're experiencing some form of stress.

You can also do it when you meditate. As you begin repeating your mantra or paying attention to your breath, your mind will wander. Your mind will drift to another subject, and you won't want to come back to the "boring" task of thinking a mantra. This is why meditation is good practice in non-attachment, because to do something boring, you have to become unattached to the ideas about boredom, suffering, discomfort, entertainment, what's interesting, and so on.

When you're meditating and you get lost in a little imaginary conversation with someone, and then you realize you have stopped focusing on your mantra, you don't want to stop imagining this conversation right in the middle of it. You're attached to the conversation. But you pull your attention away from it (detach) and return to your mantra. Over and over again.

You do the same thing with your beliefs every day. You are attached — you cling with intensity — to the ideas you hold. And you don't want to let go of them. And so you hang on, and you suffer.

As a matter of fact, all you have to do is pay attention when you feel stress. At the moment of stress, there is a 99.9% chance you are clinging to an idea. Ask yourself, What idea am I clinging to?

Think about it. There is one. If you are stressed, there is an idea you are holding onto.

Then ask yourself, Is it worth the stress? Is it worth the stress to hang on to the idea? About 80% of the time, it won't be, and you can let the idea go. I don't mean try to forget the idea. I mean just don't cling to it. It's just an idea.

For example, I went for a hike today. I injured both my knees a few months ago, and I have been slowly rehabilitating them. I miss running hard. I miss that great feeling afterwards. So I'm in a hurry to heal up. The problem is, healing doesn't speed up just because I'm in a hurry.

So as I was hiking, I was pushing myself out of impatience, and it hurt. But I didn't want to go slow, so I kept pushing myself. Then it occurred to me I was feeling stress. I felt impatient and frustrated.

So I asked myself the question, What idea am I clinging to? The answer was obvious: I want to heal as soon as possible.

Next question: Is it worth the stress? In this case (as in most cases) no it wasn't. I doubt if it was helping me heal faster anyway. And it was not enjoyable. Here I was walking, more mobile than I've been in a long time, and I wasn't enjoying it. I was pushing myself.

So I said to myself, Okay, that's it. Even if this did heal me up a little faster, it's not worth it. I let it go. My frustration went away. And I slowed down.

I didn't have to slow down much before the pain in my knees went away, and I had an enjoyable hike after that. I'm sure it did me good, and now that I've become somewhat detached from my idea about hurrying my healing, it's easier to consider the possibility that pushing myself might actually slow my healing. I don't know if that's true, but I can see now it's quite possibly true, and it isn't an idea I had been able to consider when I was attached to the "heal fast" idea.

My suffering, my frustration, had been caused by an idea. I assumed it was caused by the objective conditions. I took for granted that my frustration was caused by the injury and the damper that injury put on my mobility. But my unhappiness was actually caused by my attachment to the idea that I must heal up faster than I was healing.

Here's a verse from the Dhammapada (a book of sayings usually attributed to Buddha):

The craving of a person who lives heedlessly
Grows like a maluva creeper.
He moves from beyond to beyond,
Like a monkey, in a forest, wishing for fruit.

Whomsoever in the world
This childish entangled craving overcomes,
His sorrows grow,
Like birana grass, well rained upon.

But whosoever in the world
Overcomes this childish craving, hard to get beyond,
From him, sorrows fall away,
Like drops of water from a lotus leaf.

This is poetry, and it is obviously Eastern, but it says something important: Greed makes people unhappy. Craving makes people unhappy. Greed and craving are simply the process of holding onto ideas. And clinging to ideas causes sorrow and unhappiness. You realize, of course, that you do this, right? All of us do it.

Once in awhile something happens to some people and they get a chance to realize this great truth. Some people get it when they are diagnosed with cancer. Or a parent dies.

In the book, Adrift: Seventy-six Days Lost at Sea, Steven Callahan wrote with great poignancy on this truth. Callahan was sailing across the Atlantic alone when his boat struck something and sank. He was set adrift on a rubber life raft for seventy-six days of difficult struggle.

In a calm moment between storms and shark attacks, he gets the chance to drink some water, which he rations very carefully because he doesn't have very much. In these moments of peace, he wrote,

"deprivation seems a strange sort of gift. I find food in a couple hours of fishing each day, and I seek shelter in a rubber tent. How unnecessarily complicated my past life seems. For the first time, I clearly see a vast difference between human needs and human wants. Before this voyage, I always had what I needed — food, shelter, clothing, and companionship — yet I was often dissatisfied when I didn't get everything I wanted, when people didn't meet my expectations, when a goal was thwarted, or when I couldn't acquire some material goody. My plight has given me a strange kind of wealth, the most important kind. I value each moment that is not spent in pain, desperation, hunger, thirst, or loneliness."

This is wisdom. And pretty much everyone knows it. But our biology drives us to pursue acquisition anyway.

When Thor Hyradal (author of Kon-Tiki: Across the Pacific in a Raft) was young, he went to live with nature on an island in the South Pacific, just him and his girlfriend. On the little boat that took them to a remote island, the captain of the boat told Hyradal about the islanders and their lust for material goodies: "It's all crazy, but they want it like everybody else. I detest our own civilization; that's why I'm here. Yet I spread it from island to island. They want it, once they have a taste of it…"

The captain seemed exasperated. "Why do they want sewing-machines and tricycles," he exclaimed, "or underclothing and canned salmon? They don't need any of it…The needs increase. The expenditure. Then they have to work although they hate it. To earn money they don't need."

The native peoples had lived a kind of life many of us yearn for. They lived in beautiful surroundings. They had an abundance of natural sources of food. They had to spend very little of their time "working" for a living. And as long as the temptations of civilization weren't available, they were happy.

But then they saw things they wanted. The wanting created their unhappiness.

avoid avoiding

I told all this once to a friend of mine, Richard, and he had a question: "When I ask the second question, Is it worth the stress? and the answer is no, then what? My mind will have nowhere to go."

That's a good question because when you discover yourself clinging to an idea and you know it's causing you stress, you won't want to cling to the idea any more. So far so good, but if you try to avoid thinking about something, that thought will come up more often than if you don't try to resist thinking about it. There are a lot of experiments showing this to be the case.

The more you try to suppress a thought, the more obsessional the thought becomes. Trying to avoid it makes it impossible to get away from.

So my answer to Richard was: "Get your mind interested in something else. Your mind is in some ways like a little kid. Have you ever seen what parents do when little Johnny wants to chew on the tablecloth?"

"Yes," he said, "They hand him a toy or do something that puts his attention on something else."

"Right. And if what they divert his attention to captures his interest, he forgets all about the tablecloth. We haven't changed much since we were kids. The same thing works now."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, instead of grabbing the tablecloth out of your mouth, so to speak, and having your mind throw a fit, hand it a toy: Tag a slogan onto the end of it."

"Like what?" asked Richard, now looking pensive, "Are some better for this than others?"

"Yes. Slogans that put your mind on a purpose are best. Stay on track, for example. Or a good question: What is my goal here? Or simply state your purpose and start getting to work on it"

In other words, do not try. Do not use force. Don't try to force the idea you've been clinging to out of your mind, or try to "let it go."

Force itself is a form of clinging, and just causes more stress.

One of the things you learn when you're meditating is that the mind concentrates best when you do not try. Researchers using biofeedback equipment to train people to lower their blood pressure find that the only people who can't do it are those who try really hard.

Your mind works best relaxed. So you repeat your mantra, and you will find your mind drifts. When you notice it, you gently bring your mind back to repeating the mantra.

If you use effort, your mind will wander even more. You cannot concentrate by using strong effort.

Now bring the ability you've learned in meditation to the situation that's causing you stress.

When you have something you're clinging to and it's causing you stress, use your purpose as a kind of mantra. Keep gently bringing your mind back to your purpose. When you find it wanders, bring it back again. And again, and again. But each time without any force or effort.

It is a subtle skill, but you will learn it with practice. If you don't learn it fast enough, do not try to force yourself to learn it faster, because that'll take you further from it.

There is a phenomenon in chemistry called dilatancy. It occurs when certain kinds of fluids react to pressure. The more pressure you put on the liquid, the more it solidifies. In other words, you can easily stir it slowly, but when you try to stir it quickly, it becomes very difficult to stir at all.

Some things in life work like that. The harder you push, the less you gain. Here we have one of those. When you try not to think of something, you will think of it all the more. But when you don't worry about it and get involved in something else, your mind lets go of what it was thinking about easily.


The question always comes up: Won't the practice of non-attachment prevent you from accomplishing your goals? This is an important question. It is often pointed out by successful people that they were "driven" to succeed, that they had a burning desire, that the goal had become a necessity. They are obviously describing a solid attachment to an idea: I must succeed.

While someone can surely accomplish something with attachment, it is not necessary, and it's a rather stressful way of going about it. Listen to what Gandhi said about this. He was a man who knew something about accomplishment. He accomplished what no one thought was possible. He said,

"He who is ever brooding over the result, often loses nerve in the performance of duty. He becomes impatient and then gives vent to anger and begins to do unworthy things; he jumps from action to action, never remaining faithful to any. He who broods over results is like a man given to the objects of the senses; he is ever distracted, he says good-bye to all scruples, everything is right in his estimation and he therefore resorts to means fair and foul to attain his end."

Gandhi is saying that not only does a lack of clinging not hinder accomplishment, it actually makes you more effective! And less likely to do something you'll regret later.

Looking back at the example of my knee pain, my attachment to healing caused impatience and probably slowed down my rehabilitation efforts — thus making my efforts at healing less effective.

"Brooding over results" is a form of "clinging to the idea" (the idea that I need this to turn out well). And clinging like that causes unhappiness.

Worse still, the clinging doesn't even improve your chances of success. You can create a goal for no other reason than because having a game to play is more enjoyable than having no game, and you can pursue that goal, calmly and happily through delays and setbacks and failures.

And your calm, steadfast doggedness will help you make more progress toward your goal than intense feelings of frustration and defeatism when delays and setbacks and failures come your way.

So the answer to the question is: No, this method will not keep you from accomplishing your goals. In fact, it will make you more able to accomplish them.

Now let me summarize: When you feel stress, find out what idea you're clinging to and ask yourself if it's worth the stress. If it isn't, let the idea go. Do not force it out of your mind or try to not think about it. Instead, get your mind thinking about something else.

By becoming less stressed in this way you will be more effective in accomplishing your goals, and you will suffer less and feel good more often.


Make Mundane Tasks More Enjoyable

BOREDOM MIGHT seem like a minor problem, but it is fairly widespread and a significant source of problems. Boredom is a low, debilitating state somewhat similar to depression. And because it is negative and unpleasant, it is probably not good for health or relationships.

Common responses to boredom often cause people to do all manner of stupid, self-defeating, counterproductive things. Making boring tasks less boring is a worthy goal.

Most people in most situations don't have to be stuck feeling bored, even if they are doing things they find boring. There are quite a few things a person can try to make their tasks more enjoyable. This is my list of things I've found effective:

1. Make the task more challenging. Sometimes I can simply speed up, and it makes the task more challenging (and takes less time). You can't do this with all things, but it's great for the kind of physical tasks that don't require careful movements.

Moving more quickly is just one possible way of increasing the challenge. Doing a better job, or doing the task more efficiently (less wasted movement, more organized), or listening to a lecture on CD while working all of these can add a more challenging element to a dull task.

2. Use a comparison reframe. The human mind naturally and quite automatically compares our circumstances to something else usually something better. In other words, "This task is boring compared to going out to dinner with my spouse or watching a great movie." Which is true.

But it is ALSO true that this task is really FUN compared to starving to death, running for your life in terror, or dying of some horrible disease.

Yes, you may be saying, that's certainly true, but...

And I say, "But nothing. It is true. And it is equally valid (and more justifiable) to compare your task to something much worse than to compare it with something better. And when you do, instantly the task is less irksome.

You can make a comparision reframe any time you wish, and it always works, never wears out, and (unfortunately) never lasts for long. But then again, a good meal doesn't last long either and that never stopped us from eating!

3. Make a game out of your task. Set up some kind of target. For example, let's say you're grocery shopping, which normally you find boring. This time, however, you make a game out of finding bargains. You try to get everything on your shopping list while at the same time trying to beat your record of saving money.

At the bottom of the receipt, let's say it says, "You saved $29.50." That's your best record so far. Your game is to try to beat that record. Automatically a task is less boring when it has become a game.

There is nothing inherently fascinating about running back and forth or putting a ball into a circular piece of metal. But add some rules and goals, and basketball can be very fun and not at all boring. Why? Because those rules and goals make it a game. Set some goals and boundaries for your task and see if you can make it into a game.

4. Have a strong purpose in life. With a clear, important purpose, everything in your life is less boring, including what most people consider boring chores.

When you feel you are going somewhere, and when you feel your goal is important, it casts a new and vibrant feel onto a lot more moments of your life.

You may already have an important mission but have forgotten it, or maybe you have just not thought about it in awhile. It is very common to get bogged down in (boring) details after pursuing a goal for awhile. The significance of the goal is lost in the day-to-day effort to accomplish the many steps that need to be accomplished, as well as all the other mundane but necessary tasks of maintenance and survival.

Fairly often, it is important to step back and remember what you're doing and WHY. Remember its importance. It makes a difference.

And if you don't feel you have an important purpose, finding one should now become your most important purpose, and you should pursue it with commitment. It will transform the quality of your life. No kidding.

5. Recognize your choice in the matter. Almost everything you do is actually optional. And yet almost everything you do FEELS like something you HAVE to do. And there is a huge difference emotionally between doing the exact same thing, but knowing you WANT to do it, versus feeling you HAVE to do it.

But you and the rest of our culture have done a very good job of convincing you of all the things you HAVE to have, do, or be. Yet almost none of them are really a MUST.

On the other hand, most of them are something you really would CHOOSE to do if you had to choose them over again. For example, I feel like I "have to" exercise. But I really don't. That one is pretty obvious. But I also feel like I have to own a car, so I have to maintain the car and pay the insurance, etc.

But I really don't HAVE TO have a car. I really don't. And neither do you.

However, I really WANT to have a car, and while I am thinking of it this way, the maintenance on the car doesn't seem quite so distasteful and I feel less grumbly about doing it.

This one is not a cure-all, but it helps, and it is the truth.

6. Meditate every day. Meditation is a mental-training exercise that has been associated with some religions, but the exercise itself is not religious and needs no religious associations to do it perfectly.

An enormous amount of research has been done on meditation and it is, without a doubt, one of the best things you can do for your health and sense of well-being.

But for our purposes here, it is something that can make your everyday boring tasks significantly less boring. For one thing, it calms the inner agitation, the inner feeling of impatience that is at the heart of the experience of boredom.

Another important side-effect of meditation is the simple contrast between meditation and normal everyday boring tasks. What is normally considered a boring task is much more interesting than the unbelievably boring task of sitting there with your eyes closed repeating a single word over and over. The contrast between the two is vivid. After meditating, even very boring tasks are not boring at all.

But you also get a kind of psychological training when you meditate the process trains you to find even this ultimate boring task endlessly fascinating and challenging. And that training spills over into the rest of your life.

THOSE ARE MY top five suggestions. I also suggest you choose the one that most appeals to you at the moment and really give it a good try.



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