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

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

Spirals

You see an attractive person.
You think about approaching them to talk with them.
You toy with the idea of asking them out for a coffee.
You worry that they will be offended by your forwardness.
You feel certain that they would never say yes because you are unattractive.
You become sad that you will never find love and will die alone.
As all of these thoughts race through your head, the person walks past you and carries on with their day, oblivious to your internal torment.

This is a classic example of a negative thought spiral. Our brains are experts of association. But unfortunately, they are also experts of worrying. Evolution has trained us to be prepared for all emergencies with a state-of-the-art fight-or-flight system, which unfortunately is more useful for fleeing from lions than the stresses of modern life.

Because of our anxieties and stress, a fleeting, negative intrusive thought can spark a chain of negative thoughts, spiralling infinitely tighter and tighter as we catastrophise and despair.

Fortunately, there are a variety of ways to rescue yourself from a negative thought spiral.

The first is to recognise that you are in a spiral. A person walking down a spiral road may think that they are walking down a straight road, because they cannot see the bigger picture. This is why it is important to be mindful of your mental state. How are you feeling? What is making you feel this way? How are these feelings affecting your thoughts?

Sometimes, the sheer process of recognising a spiral lets you snap out of it. You may notice obvious rational answers to your anxiety. Perhaps your partner is not texting back because they are busy at work, not because they died in a fiery car crash.

Failing this, we can try grounding exercises. This is a classic distraction technique where by focussing and anchoring yourself on the present, you can escape the spiral.
This may range from simple breathing exercises, to more detailed mindfulness exercises such as the five senses meditation.

Lastly, remember to be kind to yourself. Do not let the spiral be cruel to you. When the spiral tells you that you are worthless, correct them by telling yourself that you are worth it. Talk to yourself as you would to someone you love dearly. As important it is to have other people to rely on for compassion and love, it is so difficult to escape these spirals if we do not show ourselves compassion and love.

Contrary to what we have discussed, not all spirals are bad. To quote John Green:

“Spirals grow infinitely small the farther you follow them inward, but they also grow infinitely large the farther you follow them out.”

When you are mindful of your thoughts, you will notice the occasional positive thought spirals. For example, you may have a sudden thought that you might want to travel on your own. You might come up with a gift idea for a friend that you think they might appreciate, despite how cheesy it is. Sometimes, these thoughts become seeds that grow out into more elaborate ideas and plans.

These are the kinds of spirals you should listen to, as it is your subconscious prompting you to take action in your pursuit of happiness. As long as it does not harm you or others, you should follow these spirals outwards, as they may lead you to an infinitely wonderful place.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Awkward

When do we feel awkward? We feel awkward when we don’t know how to act in a certain social situation. For example, some people find it awkward interacting with new people at a party, while others find it awkward to be in the same room as an ex-partner. This is because we cannot predict how the other person will react to how we act, what we say and who we are. Almost everyone is socially awkward to some degree, because we are social animals who fear rejection from the group.

But like anything in life, we can overcome awkwardness. Let us look at two different situations we feel awkward in and how we might remedy this.

With strangers, we feel awkward because we do not know them well enough to predict their perception of and reaction to us. It is hard to tell if our joke would offend them in some way, or if they would judge us for a certain personality quirk. We worry that they will scoff or laugh at us, and that we will be social outcasts.

The solution is simple: don’t care. Don’t care about how a stranger judges you, when they barely know the intricate blend of life experience, personality traits, thoughts and feelings that make up who you are. The only opinion you should care about is what you think of yourself (and maybe of one or two people you trust most in the world to know you best). When you lose your sense of shame and take pride in who you are, you will feel more confident and less awkward.

What about someone you know well, but with whom you have gone through an awkward situation, such as a break-up or a fight? The awkwardness here stems from the fact that you do not know how that situation has changed your relationship. You no longer know if the same rules of engagement apply as before. Is it okay to hug them? Is it okay to talk about the past? What do they think of us now? All of these neurotic questions make us anxious, and to avoid them, we avoid the person altogether. But because the other person feels just as awkward, the relationship wilts away until it cannot be repaired.

Here, the solution is simple, but takes a lot of work: communication. It is impossible to know what the other person is thinking and vice versa. To clear up the awkwardness, we need to talk about our feelings and clear up misunderstandings. This does not necessarily have to be through a face-to-face talk with words. We can show this through our actions, by showing our willingness to rebuild the connection and that we still care about the other person. If either person did not care about the other person at all, then there is no awkwardness because there is a clear answer. Awkwardness is a sign that both sides wants to fix this situation, but they don’t know how.

Awkwardness is a form of anxiety that stems from our concerns of what others think of us. Remember: it’s not awkward unless we let it be awkward.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Weekend

Which do you enjoy more: Saturday or Sunday?

Most people working a standard Monday to Friday, 9-to-5 job will say that they prefer Saturdays. A common reason is that Saturdays begin after a fun or relaxing Friday night and a bit of a sleep in. Then, you can do whatever you want for the whole day, even if it means staying up late as you have another day to rest.

On the other hand, Sundays start with a relaxing morning, but followed by the stressful thought of having to return to work on the dreaded Monday.

Simply put, Saturday feels better than Sunday because we don’t have a Monday hanging over our heads. But why should this be the case?
Technically speaking, both Saturday and Sunday are days of rest. Sure, the night ends earlier on Sunday as we need to wake up early for work, but the rest of the day should be equally free and relaxing as a Saturday.

What keeps us from enjoying Sunday is our dread and anxiety for the next day. Because we stress about tomorrow, we fail to enjoy today.

When we focus on the present rather than the future, we can truly enjoy the precious hours of rest amongst the business of our lives. Don’t count the hours till you return to work. Instead, just enjoy the fact that you are not working right now.

If you change your perspective, every day can be a weekend.

(Image sourcehttps://xkcd.com/1073/)

Posted in History & Literature

Witching Hour

European folklore state that supernatural and paranormal events, such as ghost sightings, tend to occur around the hour between 3am and 4am in the morning. It was believed that if you wake in the middle of the night around 3am, it was because you were visited by the devil. Women were even persecuted as witches if they were found outside during this ungodly hour.

There are many theories behind why the so-called Witching Hour became so infamous. Many involve religious notes, such as the fact that the Bible states that Jesus died at 3pm, therefore the inverse of the time is considered evil. Some say that the devil plays mockery to the Holy Trinity by using the number “3” as part of its acts of desecration. It is also a time when there are no prayers in the canonical hours, therefore evil spirits supposedly run rampant unchecked.

Scientifically speaking, when we wake in the middle of night then fall back asleep, we are more likely to enter a hypnagogic state – the state immediately before you fall asleep where your subconscious mind starts to take over. This can lead to sleep paralysis, which is commonly associated with horrific hallucinations, such as visions of monsters and ghouls. You may even experience a lucid dream, where you are aware within a dream, so you can have vivid memories of imaginary scenes. This may explain why people have such vivid memories of supernatural experiences.

3am is roughly the time of night when melatonin levels are highest, as it is normally when the body is in deep sleep. If you happen to be awake at this time, you may feel exhausted to the point of feeling delirious, as anyone who has done an all-nighter or a night shift could tell you.

From a historical point of view, before the advent of electric lights, it was common to go to bed early in the evening, wake in the night for an hour or two, then go back to sleep until the morning. This hour was used for prayers, writing down creative ideas, interpreting dreams, and of course, sex. Maybe this was also the hour when some people would be out and about for unlawful deeds, such as burglary. These sneaky burglars may have been misinterpreted as ghosts by anyone awake at the same time.

Whether you are superstitious or not, the Witching Hour is an interesting time as you know that everyone around you are asleep. There is no one to talk to. At this edge of tomorrow, you are left alone in tranquil darkness with your thoughts, feelings and worries.

Perhaps the things that go bump in the night during the Witching Hour are not eldritch horrors, but your own fears and anxieties rearing their ugly heads.

(Image source: http://explosm.net/comics/4086/)

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Anxiety

The human brain is one of the most sophisticated computers ever developed. It is so powerful that it can simulate all kinds of imaginative scenarios, allowing us to predict and plan for the future. Unfortunately for us, it is a double-edged sword that brings with it the curse of anxiety.

Anxiety is different to fear in that fear is a response to a specific present danger, such as a bear, whereas anxiety is usually a more vague concern for the future. Because our brain can imagine many unpleasant possible outcomes, we become fearful of what may come. This might be because of a past trauma, such as being afraid of abandonment, or because we do not know enough to safely predict what may happen, such as starting a new job.

Regardless of what the source may be, anxiety can be damaging as it prevents us from living life to the fullest. To protect ourselves from becoming overwhelmed by anxiety, we develop strategies to ease our anxiety from a very young age. A common example is an object that gives reassurance, such as a teddy bear or a security blanket. Unfortunately, these are less socially acceptable to carry as an adult.

In some ways, almost everything we do could be seen as an attempt to escape anxiety. We strive for stable jobs so that we don’t have to worry about financial problems in the future. We seek pleasure and happiness, through healthy means such as a passionate hobby or unhealthy like alcohol, to distract us from anxiety. We look for a partner who we can connect with emotionally – someone who can hold us and tell us everything will be alright, even when all hope seems lost.

Anxiety is unavoidable, but it can be managed. There are many effective methods.

First, there is distraction. Hobbies and interests let us enter flow state, where our worries melt away because we are so focussed on the present and enjoying the moment that we do not need to worry about the future. Music gives us similar relief, as it helps us calm our nerves and drowns out the neurotic voice in our heads.

Second, there is the physiological approach. Anxiety raises your heart rate and breathing rate. You can trick your brain in to being less anxious by slowing your heart rate and breathing down. This can be done effectively through breathing exercises, meditation or even a simple, relaxing bath.

Third, there is mindfulness. Train yourself in becoming more aware of why you are feeling anxious. Anxiety usually stems from a single source then spreads like wildfire into its general form. Finding the source will make it easier to take the next step.

Lastly and most importantly, there is reassurance. This may be external, such as the kind words from a friend or a motivational poster, or internal, where you remind yourself that you will be okay. Remind yourself of all of the horrible experiences you have already survived in your life. Remind yourself that regardless of how stressful it was at the time, you are still (hopefully) okay. Remind yourself that you are an amazing, resilient, capable person who will get through this.

However, be aware that up to one-fifth of people suffer from anxiety disorders – a group of psychological disorders that cause persistent, distressing anxiety and dysfunctional behaviours developed to try reduce that anxiety. These disorders, such as phobias, panic disorder and OCD, are much more complicated to treat. They often require professional help and even medicines to treat. Even so, the above psychological treatments are used in conjunction and certainly can’t do much harm.

Anxiety is one of the greatest barriers to happiness. So in the wise words of Meher Baba: “Don’t worry, be happy”.