I don’t write much about my daughter — I’d like to protect her online privacy until she’s old enough to make her own decisions about that kind of thing. However I’m making something of an exception in this post because I want to write about parenting emotions. I’ve had a breakthrough in the last year or so that I’d like to share with my readers (and get feedback as well from other parents).
Month: June 2011
In an earlier post, Force Multipliers In Life, I wrote about how some behaviors and habits can make us more effective in every life area. The post focused on increasing biological and organizational energy, including:
- Consuming Less Poison (and better fuel)
- Getting Really Fucking Organized (GRFO)
- Ninja Training (customized exercise and meditation habits)
I also mentioned a fourth area — an attitudinal adjustment that can increase our effectiveness and happiness.
What Makes Us Do What We Do? Are We Free?
Everything we do, whether we understand it or not, is an attempt to alter the chemistry of our brains. Of course we have real world “motivations” — we want to create things, help people, have sex, eat well, make the world a better place, accumulate power, get rich, or whatever. Some of these motivations appear to be selfish, others altruistic. Ultimately, though, all behavior is selfish. We do things because our brain chemistry compels us to do them. This is the psychedelic realization.
People that have this realization don’t stop engaging with the world — they may in fact engage even more — but they do realize that all motivation comes from within. We do things because we’re programmed to do them. Some of this programming is low level/subconscious (instinct, reflexes, addictions, compulsions, habits) and some of it is more complex/conscious (conscience, values, reason, etc.). While we never completely control (or even understand) our own behavior, we still have the option of reprogramming ourselves. If you approach the question of free will as a spectrum (as opposed to “we have it or we don’t”), then metaprogramming is a range of techniques that most expands our freedom. In other words, we’re most free when we take responsibility for our own programming.
Quality of Consciousness
In one sense, all we have in life is our moment-to-moment experience of the world (including our experience of our own mind, as thoughts and memories). Quality of consciousness is how we feel, and our state of awareness, at any given moment. How lucid are we? How happy? What’s our emotional state? Confused? Determined? Angry? Excited? Hopeless? There is no shortage of ways to describe subjective consciousness. What can we know about quality of consciousness? A couple points stand out to me:
- Quality of consciousness is extremely important, on both an individual and societal level
- Quality of consciousness is very difficult to control directly
If we can positively influence our quality of consciousness, we have a huge force multiplier on our hands. Morale, happiness, confidence — whatever you want to call it — a feel-good boost immediately carries over into every aspect of our lives.
Limits to “Snap Out Of It” Consciousness Changes
Sometimes we feel bad, and there’s very little we can do about it. A few weeks ago I was lying in bed and I began to feel a deep sense of unease. This feeling worsened to a state of dread, approaching horror. Why did I feel so bad? It occurred to me that if I felt this way all the time, I wouldn’t want to go on living. I couldn’t imagine having the mental fortitude to tolerate such a negative, painful state of consciousness for a long amount of time.
Ten minutes later I was puking up a fruit salad rainbow into the toilet bowl. Turns out I had that 4-hour stomach bug that was going around.
As I lay on the cool bathroom floor, enjoying that oh-so-blissful feeling that is I’m-no-longer-about-to-throw up, it was clear to me that sometimes we have no option but to roll with what life deals us. Our quality of consciousness sometimes isn’t even within our indirect control. There was no way I could have “decided” to feel better until that particular illness had taken its course.
We should keep this in mind when we (or those we love) go through difficult times, experiencing anxiety, depression, or other negative states of consciousness. There are things that we can do to improve our state of mind, but none of them will work instantaneously. Usually, we can’t just “snap out of it.”
Why Deciding To Be Happy Doesn’t Work
If we try to force a positive mental state, we’re more likely to induce unease and anxiety than happiness. Forced cheeriness isn’t the same as happiness — it’s more likely to be obnoxious and drive people away. This article discusses how pursuing happiness directly can actually make us feel worse.
The best we can do is approach happiness indirectly. Researchers that have looked into the nuts and bolts of what creates happiness (Stefan Sagmeister presents a good overview) have discovered that many aspects of self and life that are commonly associated with happiness don’t actually matter (including income level, attractiveness, and superior health). What does matter is friendships, marriage, and being part of a regular community or group (could be church, or any type of weekly group activity).
We can also take an empirical approach to happiness, noticing what makes us happy and what makes us miserable (and doing more of the former and less of the latter). I keep lists of both categories. I actually look at them too — to remind me never to go down a particular road again. The “Don’t Do” list includes items such as “Never shop at Safeway at night” and “Never work remotely with a slow internet connection” and “Don’t answer client emails after 6 pm” and “Avoid large crowds of sports fans.” On the positive side are writing, music production, and eating dinner with friends and/or family. It’s not rocket science, but I still find I need constant reminders to do more of the fun stuff and less of the not-fun stuff.
So … better/more social connections and choosing activities that we enjoy — these are external approaches that improve our quality of consciousness. But are there internal actions we can take that reliably and consistently raise our consciousness level, increase our effectiveness, and make us happier?
The Emotional/Attitudinal Force Multiplier
I strongly believe that if we choose to live life with an open heart, this will consistently and significantly boost our quality of consciousness.
I think there are three components to the emotional or attitudinal stance of open-heartedness, including:
Unfortunately, there are many misconceptions about what each of these mental practices involves. These misconceptions create resistance that prevents us from taking advantage of the emotional bounty that comes with a shift towards open-heartedness.
Resistance Towards Forgiveness
Forgiveness simply means that you accept whoever has wronged you (or whoever you think has wronged you) as a flawed human being, and let your rage towards them slowly and naturally dissolve.
Forgiveness does not mean:
- being a doormat
- not taking appropriate steps to protect yourself in the future
- dropping legal charges
- not seeking justice
- getting back together/reconciling
- forgetting what happened
Forgiveness does mean that you stop pouring energy into rage, and that you let go of your mental construct of being a victim. It takes time, and usually the choice to forgive needs to be made multiple times. If we don’t make this choice, then rage, the desire for vengeance, and a feeling of powerless victimhood can steal years (or decades) of our lives.
If we do manage to forgive, we free up an enormous amount of energy to heal and reconstruct from whatever injury has been done. Instead of an “eye for an eye,” go get yourself a bionic eye. Living well is the best revenge.
Resistance Towards Gratitude
The primary resistance to gratitude comes from a lack of a satisfying answer to the question “Who should I be grateful to?”
Not all of us believe in a deity. Personally I fall somewhere along the atheist/agnostic spectrum. But this doesn’t stop me from experiencing the feeling of gratitude. I’m thankful for my family, my friends, my health, my work, and plenty of other things.
Basically, gratitude is looking at your life and realizing how lucky you are. No matter how bad you have it, it only takes a little imagination to imagine a much worse fate.
Is this so obvious that I shouldn’t even be writing about it? I wouldn’t, except for the fact that there are so many miserable fucks out there driving fancy cars, in perfect health, with money in the bank, feeling sorry for themselves because some girl didn’t call them back. Or because it’s raining. Or because they didn’t get a bonus at work. Or whatever! Get over it — be grateful for the bounty in your life.
Resistance Towards Compassion
As it turns out, when you live life as a human being, you’re always fucking somebody over. There’s no way around it.
Even if you’re a do-gooder vegan who has donated a kidney to charity and has a negative carbon footprint, you’re still taking up space on the damn planet. You’re preventing wildlife from thriving in the space you inhabit. You’re consuming resources while others go hungry. Valuable field mouse habitat was destroyed to grow the quinoa in your dumpster-dived energy bar.
I ride my bike to reduce time in the car, and I buy humanely-treated animal products whenever possible. Still, I’m a first-world car-driving meat-eater. I’m part of the problem, and I know it. Underpaid Chinese laborers made this nice laptop I’m typing on. The Ecuadoran field worker who picked the banana I just ate was probably paid even less.
Most of us think we’re good people, but at the same time we know some of the things we do result in cruelty to animals, destroying the environment, or encouraging unfair labor practices. One way to deal with this cognitive dissonance is to close our hearts a little to the suffering of others (both people and animals).
The problem with this approach is that it deadens us. If we turn off our empathy (because it hurts too much, or because it disturbs our image of ourselves), then we feel less alive.
We resist compassion because compassion is messy. Compassion for other creatures forces us to look at our complex relationships with other people, animals, and the environment. Those relationships are full of unfairness, and sometimes cruelty.
Still, it’s better to stay open-hearted, acknowledge that we’re imperfect, and do our best to muddle through life doing more good and less harm. We don’t have to behave perfectly or heroically — we just have to keep our hearts open and see what actions that leads to.
The other option is closing our hearts and pretending other people and animals are either subhuman or incapable of feeling emotion. This leads to animal cruelty, worker exploitation, systemized oppression, slavery, and even genocide.
Estimated 1.25-1.5 Force Multiplication Effect
I’m not sure how to quantify how much of a force multiplication effect being open-hearted provides. Just from my own experience, I would estimate at least a 25% boost to happiness and effectiveness when I practice a combination of forgiveness, gratitude, and compassion on a regular basis. Maybe even 50% at times.
Practicing open-heartedness feels like removing roadblocks to my own energy, motivation, and love of life.
I’m not always able to manage it. Sometimes I get angry at somebody, or fixated on something, and I need to pull out the big guns to manipulate my mental state. I’ll talk about manipulating submodalities in a later post.
Becoming massively successful in your field is never as easy as just doing x, y, and z. There are no fail-safe formulas for success. Luck, timing, connections, and things outside of our control play a big role.
1) A good part of luck, timing, and connections actually aren’t outside of our control. They’re just outside of our comfort zone.
2) If we notice that all the top players in our field are doing x, y, and z, and we’re not doing those things, we may be excluding ourselves from top-tier success by choice.
A force multiplier is something that increases effectiveness. The term has military origins — factors like high morale, advanced technology, or brilliant tactics could all be considered force multipliers. The Mongols used horse archery, silk underclothes (to prevent infection from piercing wounds), and a fearsome reputation as force multipliers.
Applied to life in general, what kind of factors function as force multipliers? What areas of life, if improved or optimized, make us more effective in every other life area?