Posted in Life & Happiness

Shoot For The Moon

A common saying goes:

“Shoot for the moon: even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars”.

The saying was coined by author Normal Vincent Peale, who was a minister famous for his books and work on the power of positive thinking. He was also widely criticised by many psychologists and mental health experts, who noted that his style of positive psychology was not founded in evidence and realism, but in naive optimism.

The saying sounds lovely at first, because it seems to be a beautiful metaphor for trying your best at everything. It says that whatever happens, you will land on another beautiful opportunity and good things will happen.

But of course, life does not work that way. As important as it is to make an effort to try and take action, you will not always be positively rewarded for it.

As it is with everything, science can help us break down the flaws with the philosophy of this saying.

Firstly, the Moon is 384,400km away from Earth. It took brilliant scientists and mathematicians with a significant amount of NASA budget 6 years on the Apollo program to put astronauts on the Moon.

Dreams are certainly achievable, but we cannot ignore that sometimes we have to pour in much time, resources and energy to achieve them. When we look upon someone’s success, it is important to consider how much effort they may have put in. Furthermore, it is paramount that we be realistic with our goals and dreams, in that we need to be patient and accept that it could take a series of failures, sacrifices and heartbreak for us to land on the Moon.

Secondly, space is unimaginably massive. If you shoot for the moon and you miss, there is a very high chance that you will float along the lonely, vast emptiness of space for the rest of eternity in a vacuum before you hit anything else (realistically, you will die of suffocation, thirst, starvation or being frozen first). The nearest star to us is the Sun, 150 million kilometres away. The second closest star – Proxima Centauri – is about 4.24 light years away. This means that even if you travelled at the speed of light, it would take 4.24 years, covering a distance of 40 trillion kilometres.

This fact teaches us that we have to be prepared for the fact that when we chase our dreams, there is a chance of things catastrophically failing. That is just life.

Lastly, even if by some miracle you survived the journey and landed among the stars, it would not be what we expect. As romantic as it sounds to land and live on a star like the Little Prince, in reality, stars look much like the Sun – a gigantic, glowing ball of fire. You will be incinerated even before you land on it.

And there is our final lesson from this saying: even if you achieve your goals, the end result may be completely different to what you expected. You may not even be happy with the outcome. So avoid pinning all of your hopes and happiness on achieving a single dream. Make sure to diversify your goals and identity.

As factually wrong as the saying may be, we can still learn valuable lessons from it, albeit completely the opposite message. But perhaps this is the more important truth in life: sometimes, we fail to achieve our dreams.

That said, we must continue to try for our goals and dreams, just with realistic expectations of how life can go. Had NASA given up after the tragic fiery accident of Apollo 1, we may have never been able to experience the glorious moment of humanity setting foot on another celestial body.

Shoot for the moon, but maybe have a backup plan. And if you fail, don’t lose heart and give up, but instead try again and try new, different things constantly.

Posted in Life & Happiness, Special Long Essays

Serenity Prayer

In the early 20th century, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr wrote a prayer preaching about how one should approach hardship. The most well-known version of the prayer goes:

“God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
And wisdom to know the difference.”

Regardless of whether one is religious or not, this prayer is very helpful as it highlights and beautifully summarises the philosophy of fighting for change and also radical acceptance. It has since been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous for their twelve-step recovery program and is often quoted in self-help and well-being texts and courses.

When we are faced with hardship or a stressful situation, our brain may easily default to fighting against it. We may go into denial, find something to blame, judge the situation, or simply lash out with anger and frustration. We may even choose to give up completely and flee from the situation, sometimes withdrawing into ourselves to protect our fragile egos.

But these are all destructive behaviours secondary to our primal fight-or-flight response that end up wasting our time and energy. It is driven by adrenaline, base emotions and instincts, meaning that it is crude, unrefined and can be harmful to our long-term mental health.

When we are unhappy with a situation, we will often have the power to change things for the better, even if we don’t see it at the time. We could address a problem directly by communicating our concerns with a colleague or asking for a promotion. We could change how we are behaving, such as trying a more assertive rather than aggressive tone, or using the tit-for-tat approach so that we are not too hostile or too much of a doormat. We could re-prioritise our life so that we have a better work-life balance, such as taking more leave so that we can destress and reset. We could alter our environment by leading a change in culture or moving jobs or cities (although geographic solutions are never a great answer). We could also change how we respond to our environment, such as learning self-soothing or grounding exercises to calm our unsettled headspace and feelings.

We often forget that we have the power to change things for the better because we get so caught up in stress and chaos, or because we don’t trust or believe in ourselves enough. This is why the first step of the Serenity Prayer is to stop and think about how we can improve the situation by changing what we can. Because some things such as love, happiness, our identities, our self-worth and our well-being are all worth fighting for.

Then again, there are some things we just can’t change, no matter how hard we fight. The beauty of the Serenity Prayer is that it acknowledges reality for what it is: we can’t always get what we want and we can’t win every battle. That’s just life. So instead of throwing ourselves against a brick wall – causing suffering and feeling powerless – we can choose to accept our situation. This is the concept of radical acceptance.

Radical acceptance is not the same as giving up. It is a non-judgemental view of the world, accepting that bad things happen sometimes without any specific reason. Instead of entering a spiral of anger, frustration or despair, we can choose to be mindful of our emotions, let ourselves feel them, but also recognise that they are not permanent and this moment – no matter how hard it feels now – will pass. It is an active choice to accept our situation rather than waste mental and emotional energy. You may not approve of the situation, but you accept that you cannot change it, so you must change your perspective and state of mind instead.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)

A good example of how the Serenity Prayer can help in daily life is when you are stuck in traffic. You could choose to rage at the car in front of you for their bad driving, rage at the city council for poor planning, or rage at the world for your misfortune, but this does literally nothing to help your situation. Instead, you can recognise that this is frustrating, then let that feeling pass so you can think of how to better use your time and energy. You can call in to let your boss know that you will be late. You can think of alternative routes that might help you shave some time. You can make a note to remind your future self to leave earlier or use a different route next time.

But if you can’t shorten the time that you are in traffic, then you can accept the situation for what it is. Now, you can use your mental energy doing and thinking about things you enjoy, rather than letting yourself be consumed by your emotions. You can listen to a podcast you had been meaning to listen to for a while. You can do some breathing exercises and meditate. You can start planning that pet project you were thinking about for some time. You’ll still be late to wherever you were going, but at least you’ll feel more settled and productive rather than having built-up anger and anxiety, ruining the rest of your fine day.

The simplicity of the Serenity Prayer means that it is applicable in almost all aspects of your life. For example, if you feel that you are unhappy with your relationship with your partner, friend or family, then you can do the same thing.

  • Explore your feelings and why you may be feeling them.
  • Ask yourself what negative, probably untrue stories you are telling yourself.
  • If you identify a specific problem, try to solve it using different strategies, such as talking to them, reaching out first or changing your own behaviours.
  • If it is an issue of self-esteem, read about how to improve your own mental health through positive psychology.
  • If you have exhausted all of the tactics and efforts to improve the situation to no avail, then either consider a drastic change such as investing less emotional energy into that relationship, or radically accept the situation.

It could be that you are asking too much of your partner – to be your best friend, lover, father, househusband and support person – and you have to accept that one person cannot fill every role perfectly. It could be that your friendship with a friend is of a fun nature, not a supportive nature. It could be that you and your mother will never truly be friends or understand each other fully, but it does not change that you love and care for each other. Change what you can; accept what you cannot.

Over time, practising the Serenity Prayer in your approach to daily problems will train you to be more mindful of your feelings, analyse situations rationally and help you to be level-headed and calm in critical situations because you will think less reactively and emotionally. Whether you are religious or not, the Serenity Prayer is a simple yet powerful tool in improving the quality of your life and well-being.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Decade Review

A year is the amount of time the Earth takes to rotate around the Sun once. But strictly speaking, this does not have a large impact on our lives or our progress and growth as a person. The concept of a year is largely a construct of our minds to keep track of time; we could just as easily count time in 100-day increments or 3 years, given that most of our lives are not based on agriculture anymore. However, keeping track of time in years is useful because it gives us a reference frame, letting us compare our lives to a set point in the past, or to set goals for a set point in the future.

The practise of taking stock of the year that has been is great because we are naturally blind to change when it happens slowly. We are very bad at noticing gradual changes, so we will often be surprised that our hair looks longer or our body looks better than the past when we look at an old photo. Therefore, reviewing an entire year worth of moments and change will show you exactly how much we have experienced and grown. There will be many relationships and connections you’ve deepened, adventures you had forgotten about and much personal growth that seem so much healthier and more mature compared to your past self.

If that is the case for reviewing a year, then how about reviewing an entire decade? The close of a decade is a rare moment and ten years is a surprisingly long period of time when you really think about it. Some people reading this may be so young that they do not even know exactly what they were like or what happened ten years ago.

Look back on your past decade: how was it? Walk down memory lane in your head, through your journals and photo albums, reviewing and reflecting on how your life played out the past ten years.

  • What were some of the best and worst moments of each year?
  • What were the memorable moments and photos and stories?
  • What big events happened?
  • Where did you travel to?
  • What new skills or passions did you pick up on the way?
  • What new people came into your life and where are they now?
  • How have you grown in the past ten years?
  • What goals and dreams have you achieved in that time?
  • Most importantly: how happy are you now, and what things have contributed to your happiness/unhappiness?

You will be surprised to find the amount of content ten years can contain and how remarkable the amount of change is possible in ten years. It makes you wonder what the next decade has in store for you; what exciting journeys and meetings, what joys and sorrows, what growth and improvements await you?

Posted in Life & Happiness

Friendship

We have very little choice about who we have as family. But friends are a different story: we choose who we want to spend time with and call our friends. The beauty of friendship is that it is an active choice. By calling someone our friend, we are telling them that we appreciate their presence in our lives, that we enjoy spending time with them, that we care about their well-being and wish them good fortunes in the future.

That said – as emphasised above – friendship is a choice. We can’t choose our family, but we can choose our friends. If a friendship becomes toxic, burdensome and a major source of stress more than what you gain from it, you have the power to leave the friendship (or vice versa).

We know from psychological studies that one of the most common starts to friendship is the propinquity effect, where we are more likely to like and befriend people who we are regularly exposed to and in close proximity to. This explains why when we are young, our friend group seems to be based around people from school, university and work.

But as we grow older, we learn that proximity and history alone is not enough to maintain friendship. In adulthood, we constantly face pressures such as work demands, romantic relationships and various life stressors. We have so little free time to invest in those around us, so why would we want to use up time to maintain relationships that do not add anything to our lives, let alone those who take from us or bring us down?

Like with any other kind of relationship, friendships should be evaluated and re-evaluated over time. Life is too short to spend time on those who do not earn or deserve our trust, loyalty and love. Life is also too short to take for granted the amazing people around us and to not celebrate the beautiful relationships that build us up and support us in times of need.

When we find that a friendship is becoming toxic, leaving us with a bitter taste in our mouth at the end of each encounter and making us wonder if they add anything to our lives, then we should seriously consider addressing it with communication or distancing our hearts from them.

Similarly, when we find friends who share our values, with whom we can share emotional insights and vulnerable insecurities with just as easily as sharing silly and fun times, or ask for help when we need it and from whom we can learn from and give back to in a meaningful way, then we must acknowledge how rare and precious those connections are.

These are the connections we should be investing our precious little personal time towards, because they are the friendships that amount to something greater, where the sum is greater than the parts, where 1 + 1 = 3.

Posted in Life & Happiness

The Story You Tell Yourself

It is the human condition to be our own worst enemies. Yes, life can get hard and it will throw various obstacles and challenges at us, creating all kinds of stress and distress. However, much of our anguish will come from the stories we tell ourselves.

We often think that we feel emotions as a reaction to a stimulus or a change in our environment. This makes us feel powerless and as if we are slaves to our emotions. In reality though, our emotions are usually reactions to our thoughts.

For example, when a relative or someone close to us dies, we feel sad. This may seem like an automatic response, but we first process the information with our rational mind and tell ourselves the story that we will miss them, or that we will never see them again. Our sadness is a reaction to the thought process rather than a direct result of the event.

In this case, the emotional reaction is highly appropriate. The problem is that it is extremely common for us to tell ourselves the wrong story.

A good example would be insecurities. If you ever notice yourself feeling inexplicably anxious, sad or angry, ask yourself the question: what am I telling myself?

You may find that the reason that you are angry every time your colleague talks to you is because you are telling yourself that they are lazy. You may be frustrated whenever a friend doesn’t reply back to your messages because you think they are avoiding you. You may feel sad whenever you look in the mirror because you tell yourself that you are not physically attractive enough. You may be telling yourself that your partner does not love you whenever they go quiet and withdrawn suddenly.

The importance of understanding this concept is that it lets you be more in control of your emotions and lets you diagnose the problems affecting your mental health. Once you know what story is causing the emotion, you can examine the story. When we run the story through a rational filter, we may find that our reaction was completely irrational.

The “lazy” co-worker may be going through a rough time making it difficult for them to work efficiently. Your friend may be busy at work, hence not able to reply. You may be objectively attractive and in good physical health, but your poor self-confidence may be creating a false story. It could be that withdrawing themselves is your partner’s normal coping mechanism when they are dealing with their own problem and it may have nothing to do with you.

This is also useful in a relationship setting, as you can ask your partner how your actions make them feel and what they are telling themselves in that situation to better break down what the true issue is. This lets you both resolve the issue in a more constructive, peaceful manner.

The bottom line is, to improve our mental health, we must examine and alter the stories we tell ourselves. If you tell yourself the worst stories, it will become reality. So ask yourself: what kind of stories am I telling myself and how is it affecting my life? You may be surprised to see how different life can be when you get your stories straight.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Yesterday’s Tomorrow

In life, procrastination feels almost like a base human impulse. It is so easy to put off tasks until tomorrow.
But what is today but yesterday’s tomorrow?

It is difficult to find motivation to do tasks that we find boring, hard or unimportant. But delaying it by a day does nothing to fix that issue. The best approach is to sort out easy tasks early so that they do not accumulate until you feel pressured by the sheer amount of tasks.

A useful rule of thumb is: if something will take you less than 5 minutes to do, do it now.
This might include wiping down the kitchen bench, throwing the garbage out, making your bed, tidying a small pile of mess, replying to an email or writing a bullet journal entry.

By clearing these small tasks as they arise, you have more free time to spend on things you are passionate about or find important.

Doing small tasks also gives you a sense of empowerment and can motivate you to do slightly harder or more complex things, such as vacuuming the house, making an appointment or sorting paperwork. Once the ball is rolling, it is far easier to be productive.

In a similar vein, setting up routines such as setting aside an hour or two on the weekend as “life admin” time, or having a to do list in your journal help form healthy habits to fight against procrastination.

At the end of the day, procrastination is like taking a loan out from your future free time, with interest added. It will simply rob you of quality time you can spend on your passions and loved ones.

So think to yourself “What is a simple task I need to do that I can sort out right now?” and just do it. You will find that you had the motivation to be productive and efficient all along.

Original video, worth watching if you don’t feel motivated: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZXsQAXx_ao0
Posted in Life & Happiness

Elephant Riding

Psychologist Jonathan Haidt described the relationship between our rational and emotional minds as that of a person riding an elephant. The rational person can guide the elephant using reins, but if the elephant really wants to go a certain way, it will easily overpower the rider. Fighting against the elephant risks it throwing you off or going on a destructive rampage.

This analogy is helpful in making us understand that emotions are natural and powerful. Fighting against emotions (particularly strong, negative emotions) can be pointless and harmful. The best thing is to let yourself feel the emotion, so that it can resolve rather than build up.

This may sound defeatist, because it feels as if we cannot ever control our emotions and we are slaves to it. However, as the analogy points out, our thoughts are the riders atop our elephants of emotions.

Thoughts and perception lead to emotions, as emotions are typically a reaction to an internal or external stimulus. For example, if someone is rude to us, then we feel angry. If we have doubts or insecurities about ourselves, we feel anxious and sad. If we perceive ourselves to be loved, then we feel happy.

And there we have the secret to controlling our emotions. We cannot choose what we feel, but we can choose what to think. By changing the way we think about or perceive something, we can directly influence how often or how intensely we feel certain emotions.

Take road rage as a common example. It is so easy and automatic to think that someone cut in front of us, or going too slow, or too distracted because they are terrible people or stupid. This thought and perception makes us enraged and frustrated, creating stress and sometimes even making us engage in risky behaviour such as tailgating or aggressively overtaking. But if we try to think of it from their perspective, they may be an inexperienced driver, in a rush or having a horrible day. At the very least, we can think of the times we have done the same thing to other people unintentionally. This change of perspective helps us suffer less from our emotional outbursts and overall reduces our stresses.

Take anxiety as another case, where if we stop and think rationally, many of our worries and doubts can be settled. The problem is that because we give less attention to our thoughts, our emotions take over and drag us down into a negative spiral. When that happens, our emotions override our thoughts and we powerless, feeling that we have no control over either our emotions or thoughts.

To counteract this, we need to have a paradigm shift where we know that we have the power to think freely. When we feel an emotion that we do not like, then we can approach it with mindfulness by recognising that we are feeling the emotion, then trying to diagnose the problem. To do this, ask yourself the following questions.

  • What am I thinking?
  • Why am I choosing to think this?
  • How does this thought make me feel?

The point of these questions is to figure out what thought is making you feel that way so you can fix the thought rather than the emotion. Even if you can’t, it puts you in the habit of forming a link between thought and emotion, leading to a healthier connection to your feelings and giving you back some control over them.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Approval Voting

Let’s say you have to organise a group dinner. With so many preferences, dietary restrictions and non-specifically fussy eaters, what is the best method to decide where to eat without starving to death while deciding?

The classic method relies on old-fashioned democracy, where people vote on their most desired place. However, the smaller the group size, the less reliable this method becomes as the results become more split. Furthermore, this method can make the minority unhappy as the majority choice may not even be the minority’s second or third choice. Lastly, it runs the risk of the wolf and sheep” problem, where two wolves vote to eat the sheep and the sheep has no say because it is the minority.

A much better method is the approval voting system. Here, all you have to ask is for everyone to vote on every place that they are okay with going to. For example, let us say that 6 people have to vote between three potential options: burgers, dumplings and fried chicken.

In the old system, it could have been that 2 people voted on each option, making the vote useless. Or, 3 people may have voted dumplings when the other 3 hate it (but voted 2 burgers, 1 chicken), meaning half the group is unhappy with the final result.

With the new system, 3 people are okay with burgers, 3 people are okay with dumplings and 5 people are okay with fried chicken. Fried chicken wins the vote and a much greater majority of the participants are okay with the result, because the vote reflects some of their preference, even if it wasn’t what they most wanted.

The approval voting system also has the strength of accounting for people who are indecisive and vote on everything, or nothing. Voting on all the options essentially cancels out the ratio, so it counts as a null vote. This means that people have less power to swing the votes one way or another.

All in all, it is a simple but powerful tool to help decision-making in a group setting, which can be painfully frustrating when you are just trying to have fun together and relax.



Posted in Life & Happiness

Avocado Pasta

Pasta with homemade sauce is one of the best meals to cook at home, because it is often easy, makes a large portion and tastes delicious despite its simple recipe. It is also easily adaptable, such as this avocado pasta recipe which is an alternative to pesto, if avocados are in season and cheap.

When cooking pasta, remember to heavily salt the water (“as salty as the Adriatic Sea” as Italians might say) for extra flavourful pasta and to save 1-2 cups of pasta water for additional starchiness to the sauce.

Ingredients (serves 4):
2 avocados
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup basil
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1/3 cup olive oil
1 cup cherry tomatoes
100-150g bacon/pancetta/chicken (optional)
350-400g pasta (any, but recommend fusilli or penne)

  1. Cook pasta to preference (suggest 12-13 minutes in salted boiling water)
  2. Chop avocados into medium-sized chunks to make it easy to process
  3. Add avocados, peeled garlic, basil and lemon juice to the food processor
  4. Season with salt and pepper to taste
  5. Start blending all of the ingredients in the food processor and add olive oil in a slow stream (or intermittently and pulse)
  6. Blend until all ingredients have fully emulsified with no pools of oil
  7. Cut cherry tomatoes in half
  8. If using bacon or pancetta, pan fry until lightly crisp
  9. Tomatoes can be cooked in the bacon/pancetta oil if you prefer
  10. If using chicken, cut into strips or cubes, season with salt and pepper, then pan fry until fully cooked
  11. Combine pasta, avocado sauce, cherry tomatoes, meat and splash of pasta water (avoid making the mix too liquid)
  12. Garnish with basil leaves and serve
Posted in Life & Happiness

Silver Medal Effect

Imagine that you are an Olympic athlete. You have performed admirably and are stepping up to the podium to receive a medal for being one of the top three athletes at the game. Question: would you rather receive the silver or the bronze medal?

The logical answer would be that the silver medal is better, as second place is better than third. It is clear that the person who came second performed better and will also receive a more valuable prize. However, the opposite is true in reality.

In 1995, psychologists Victoria Medvec, Scott Madey and Thomas Gilovich studied video recordings and interviews of athletes from the Atlanta Summer Olympic Games. They studied facial expressions of medalists and noted a stark contrast between those who won gold, silver and bronze.

Obviously, the gold medalists were ecstatic and were not afraid to show this. By contrast, silver medalists rarely smiled immediately after their achievement, often showing flashes of sadness or contempt instead. They would usually smile on the podium as they received the medal, but compared to bronze and gold medalists, they were far more likely to show a fake smile rather than a Duchenne smile – a true, involuntary smile associated with happiness.
Interestingly, those who won bronze looked far happier than the silver medalists.

This effect has been reported through other observational studies, such as a 2006 study that looked at athletes in the 2004 Athens Olympic Games.
In fact, almost everyone will have had similar experiences where coming second place somehow feels worse than not doing well in a tournament at all. This is because of counterfactual thinking.

Counterfactuals are essentially “What if?” scenarios that we dream up in our heads. Being imaginative creatures, we are prone to thinking of what could have been, then proceed to have regrets or be disappointed by something that never even happened. The closer we get to our goals, the bigger the disappointment we have when we fail to achieve it.

We all fall victim to counterfactual thinking. We often wonder what would have happened had we taken action earlier, or did something slightly differently, then lament that the best case scenario did not happen. We compare our reality to a hypothetical situation and become frustrated.

Many studies have confirmed this in various settings, showing that objective achievement means nothing in the face of the subjective perception of the achievement. Even if you work hard and get an A- in an assignment, you could be sad and stressed that you did not get an A+.

A simple antidote to counterfactual thinking is turning it on its head. Instead of thinking that it is a shame that you didn’t achieve gold, be glad that you achieved such a high result. Instead of fretting that you did not get the best mark, imagine how bad it would had been if you had failed. Instead of lamenting that you had a bad day, be grateful that you did not have an ill fortune such as being hit by a bus or suffering a brain aneurysm rupture.

At the end of the day, the problem with counterfactual thinking is that it is based on our own imagination. We are creating stress in our own heads, actively choosing to be unhappy.

Because of our high expectations, we fail to enjoy the pleasures of life or appreciate the absolute value of our achievements. We forget that we don’t have to be the best or that we don’t have to win every game.

We forget to be content.