NOTES from Thinking for happiness
Thanks for attending the workshop, it was a pleasure learning with you. I hope you took value from the experience and can apply what you learnt into your everyday life. I also hope that you can share this information with people that you love and care for.
Now on to the notes...
Here's the first fundamental lesson in relation to the human condition:
We have adapted of millions of years to survive and reproduce, not to be happy, healthy and long lived. But it is possible to be all of this, simply by using our big brains!
The mismatch theory
Over thousands of years we adapt to the environment we live in, thanks to natural and sexual selection. But when our environment changes we are left we adaptations that aren't always suitable.
But if we're aware of these mismatches we can manipulate our environment to achieve health and happiness.
- Make a list of things that make you happy
- Make a list of things you do everyday
- Compare the two lists and adjust accordingly!
Healthy, wholesome routes to happiness:
Dark chocolate, sauna, physical activity, watching the sun set, time in nature, cold shower, meditation, music, smiling, animals, caring for others, hugging, laughing, dancing and I'm sure there's more!
The Triune Brain
Paul MacLean suggested that there are three layers to our brain and scientists don't know exactly how they interact with each other. But in essence, the old the brain the stronger it's influence on our behaviour. Here's a quick summary:
- The oldest - the reptilian complex or brain stem is instinctual, focused on survival and unconscious regulation of bodily functions.
- The second oldest - the limbic system is emotional/ feeling brain or mammalian brain, home of our reward centres.
- The youngest - the neocortex is the logical/ rational/ thinking brain for planning and deciding.
Our primal instincts don't always serve us in our modern world, to be happy we must become more conscious. Then we can choose how we behave and how we react to our environment. If we are unconscious our primal instincts will dominate, which often gets us into trouble.
To manage our inner chimpanzee I recommend reading the Chimp Paradox:
For example, our primal brain enjoys comfort, security and mouth pleasure! Three things that are likely to make us eat too much and live a sedentary lifestyle. The same can be true when it comes to our happiness, we search for happiness in the wrong places. Here is a glimpse into our subconscious minds!
The happy - sad formula
The capitalist model and happiness work in opposition. Our parenting, schooling and societal conditioning doesn't prioritise happiness. When I was in India and Africa, I met plenty of happy people who had next to nothing.
That said, we have so many opportunities in the developed world. We can now choose to live a life prioritising health and happiness. It's simply a case of bucking the trend and demonstrating to our peers that health and happiness comes above wealth and possessions!
Why do we suffer?
We spend too long living in the past and in the future instead of being present. Anxiety and depression belong in the future and past respectively. If we live in the present we are always taken care of. Only when our mind run away with themselves do we get into trouble.
As a result of our tendency to not be present, it is important to train our brain. The training comes in the form of mindfulness and meditation. Here's a quick guide:
The small things
When we are mindful we can notice all the small beauties that life offers to us everyday. The world is an incredibly beautiful place, but only if we pay attention. A bird's song, a cloud formation, or holding a door open for someone, can create instant happiness.
In Buddhism there's a parable where the Buddha speaks of filling up a jug of happiness, drip by drip everyday. Happiness can be cultivated by small daily actions. This is impossible to do when we are in a state of fight or flight, created by chronic stress and a lack of stress management tools.
Fighting reality is folly. As soon as I accept reality, I can begin to change. But if I spend all my energy, frustrated with my current reality, change will be a struggle. Surrender to life and see your challenge as an opportunity to grown and learn. Every cloud has a silver lining, right?
Living without purpose is no way to live. Victor Frankl discovered this when he was in Auschwitz and there's a lot to learn from this fantastic man.
Whilst I was travelling I had a lot of time to worry about my life. But I learnt that I didn't need to know the exact course of action to take. I just needed to head in the right direction. As I said it's easier to sail a ship from the sea than the shore.
There is a deep connection between our brain and our gut. Scientists do not yet fully understand it but we intuitively understand when something feels right or wrong. It's important to listen to these feelings but it is also important to understand that our instincts evolved in a world we no longer live in.
Keeping our digestive system healthy is important because the bacteria that live there effect our biochemistry. Eat plenty of organic vegetables and fermented foods to help support a healthy gut microbiome.
Prof Daniel Gilbert
Harvard's master of happiness has a lot of to say when it comes to happiness. While the ancient philosophies and religions know a thing or two about life, so does modern day research. He's very funny and here's the entertaining video all about marriage, money and children.
The summary of this video is that marriage, money and children can bring you happiness but it all depends on:
- How we treat our husband or wife
- How we spend our money
- How we raise our children
Cognitive biases and heuristics
As I mentioned previously our brains evolved to help us survive and reproduce in a world we no longer live in. As a result we often suffer because of faulty thinking skills. Here's a comprehensive list for you to mull over if you're interested:
The negativity bias
Life 10,000 years ago was tough and we were surrounded by threats and dangers. If we didn't pay attention to them we would die. Whereas if we missed a free lunch, nothing happened. As a result we are influenced more by negative news, emotions or experiences more than positive ones. Amid one thousand positive comments, just one negative comment is enough to make us upset, disappointed or angry!
The comparison effect
From a very young age we compare ourselves to our peers. When we don't stand up to their abilities, we experience negative emotions. School is a horrible place for our mental health because we are always being compared to people from different lives. Take these two kids:
Child A: Was born into a family of teachers, who nurtured him with love and care. He was encouraged to ask questions, read books and play sport. He was also born in September and is the oldest in his year group.
Child B: Was born into a broken family, dad was in prison and mum was forced to work two jobs. The child was neglected and malnourished and to top it off, he was born at the end of August!
This is not a level playing field and to put these two children into the same class is unfair. Child B will suffer from lack of self esteem and confidence because he will never be able to compete with child A. As a result he becomes apathetic and despondent. He begins to explore other avenues where he can succeed and you know the rest of this story.
We also care a lot about what other's think of us, which can cause misery and suffering. Click on the picture to below to read "Taming the Woolly Mammoth", one of my favourite blogs:
Here's an introduction to Status Anxiety by Alan de Botton and The School of Life:
And if you want to learn more, here's his book:
We evolved in small tribes and our ability to get on with everyone would increase our chances of survival. We no longer live in small tribes so we need to stop caring what strangers think of us. As Dr Seuss said:
We control our emotions
Try not to let others anger you and try to remember the following:
The Dalai Lama helped me to understand other people, by saying three simple sentences:
- I am a human being.
- I want to be happy and avoid suffering.
- All other human beings are the same.
As soon as we grasp this it's easier to understand why people do what they do. Understanding and forgiveness is a significant component of happiness.
The Present and the Future
Professor Daniel Kahneman taught me that most of us would rather choose £100 today, than wait 3 months to receive £150. His book Thinking, Fast and Slow isn't an easy read but it will teach you a lot about how we think.
The five regrets of the dying
- I wish I'd had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.
- I wish I hadn't worked so hard.
- I wish I'd had the courage to express my feelings.
- I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.
- I wish that I had let myself be happier.
The sunk cost fallacy
We often don't know when to give it up and call it a day. This is because when we have spent a significant amount of time, money or effort on something, it is hard to back away from it. But often it can be the best thing for our happiness.
A simple little example would be my fondness for biscuits. On occasion my will power is not strong enough to resist the temptation of biscuits, so I head out and buy a packet. I only want a few but you can't buy a few, so what happens? I buy the whole packet and eat them all because I've paid for them. I know that one or two biscuits are fine but a whole packet is certainly not fine! Instead of throwing the rest of the packet away or perhaps giving it away, I eat them all! Eating them all causes avoidable guilt and suffering!
Vulnerability and self enquiry
Whilst I was travelling I met a lot of people that I could be incredibly honest with. I guess there was no threat to my status by admitting my own vulnerability to relative strangers, 12,000 miles from home! I found that my insecurities faded away as soon as I started sharing my problems. Not an easy thing for a guy to do but very powerful.
Two people that really helped me understand myself are Brené Brown and Byron Katie. I would strongly recommend investigating them.
When in doubt remember:
This might help paint the picture for you:
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