Posted in Life & Happiness

How To Read A Book

Books are one of the greatest inventions in human history and is considered a “complete” invention, in that it cannot really be improved on any further. Books provide us with knowledge, stories, advice and wonder. The Laurentian Library in Florence, designed by Michelangelo, symbolises this by having a dark entrance lead in to a bright, Pantheon-like library to suggest that books are the key to enlightenment.

Why do we read? Non-fiction books are normally clear in their purpose: they provide objective (for the most part) knowledge in various fields, ranging from history to science. But what about fiction? How can reading fiction enrich our lives, when it is the product of imagination?

When we are in school, we are taught how to critically read fiction. We scrutinise a piece of literature so that we can decipher the motives of the characters, understand symbolism and uncover the hidden social criticism that the author may have intended to portray. We learn to analyse a book, rather than to enjoy it.

But this is not the intention of the author. Unlike non-fiction books that attempt to provide answers, most fiction books don’t try to hide some truth or a deep, meaningful answer. Instead, they are meant to be a journey

A journey is different from a quest in that there is no specific goal or a mission. All you have to do is wander around, take in the sights, feel emotions that arise in response and expand your inner horizons through reflection. You may even learn something new, whether it is a historical fact, an observation about people, or more about yourself. The point is, there is no “right way” to read fiction; you can enjoy it however you want, without any expectation or judgement.

A writer does not hope for their book to teach one answer to every reader. Everyone has different world views, past experiences and values, so they react to a given situation in variable ways. You could recommend a book that you love to a friend, but they may experience the book in a completely different way. They may not even enjoy it. But that is okay, because the purpose of fiction is not so that it can be enjoyed in one, formulaic way. It is meant to teach us how different we all are.

A good work of fiction tells the story of how an individual or a group of people navigate through a specific scenario or life in general. We get to peer into their thoughts and emotions, while wondering how we would act if we were in their shoes. It teaches us empathy by showing us that people think and act differently to us. We can learn from the characters’ developments how we can tackle our own life problems or worries. It provides a safe environment for us to explore our inner psyche, our insecurities and traumas.

Lastly, remember that just because you travelled to a place once, it does not mean that you know the place. You might have only looked at the key sights and missed how the locals live, or maybe you were not even aware that a certain area existed. Much like this, what you take away from reading a book can be quite variable. The more you immerse yourself, connect with the characters and reflect on the book, the more it will add to your life. You might also find that the second time you read the book, your experience is very different because you have matured or have new problems to deal with.

Now, think of a book that you loved reading. What made the experience so enjoyable? What thoughts or feelings did the book inspire? How did it add to your life?

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Disconnect

One of the greatest types of non-physical pain is the feeling of being disconnected. This may be due to being physically separated from someone, such as when a friend moves overseas or when a loved one passes away, or emotionally distanced, such as when when someone stops talking to you for some reason or a partner acts uninterested in you.

As social animals, we have a strong desire to feel connected to others. In fact, it is one of the greatest sources of happiness for us. Connection gives us a safe space for us to express ourselves and feel accepted for who we are. It gives us room for emotional growth as we not only share our inner thoughts and feelings with another person, but also teaches us empathy as the other person tells us more about themselves. Lastly, it gives us a sense of belonging and feeling wanted and needed. Therefore, becoming disconnected from someone can feel as hurtful as if a part of you has been cut away.

The pain of disconnection can be so powerful that it is a common cause of affairs (particularly emotional affairs) in relationships. As a relationship matures and we grow older, people may prioritise other aspects of their life more, become stressed by work or grapple with their insecurities and anxieties. This may result in people becoming more withdrawn as they sink into themselves, becoming more distanced from their loved ones. If the reason for this is not communicated, the partner may easily think that the cause of disconnection is because they are no longer wanted or loved, and they may look for intimacy and closeness elsewhere.

So how do we remedy the pain of disconnection? The obvious answer is connection.

Firstly, we can restore the connection with the person we have been disconnected from. This may include more frequent calls and video chats with a friend who lives overseas, or communicating honestly with a partner to tell them that we are hurting and to explore why the disconnection happened in the first place. Without communication, we resort to assumptions based on our fears and insecurities, which can cause even more damage.

Secondly, we can seek different kinds of connections (but not having an affair). For example, developing deeper connections with other people such as friends, old and new, or finding people to enjoy a hobby or passion with together. The reason for feeling disconnected may be a temporary stress for the other person not involving you, so giving them space while distracting yourself is not a bad idea.

Lastly, if there is true disconnection because of a falling out where even communication cannot repair it, then we must accept the disconnection as a loss, grieve it, process it and move on. People come and go in life and unfortunately, we must accept that even relationships are impermanent.

The reason why disconnection causes so much suffering is because connection lets us be so much more than just ourselves, creating the magical equation of 1 + 1 = 3.

In other words, the feeling of disconnection teaches us to value and be grateful for the connections that we have in life and to encourage us to make more effort to maintain and foster those connections.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Best Friend

Whether we’d admit it or not, we all have someone in our lives that we consider a best friend. A best friend is someone who you enjoy spending time with, trust with your deepest secrets and talk openly and honestly with when something is troubling you.

For some, this may be a childhood friend with whom they had endured the hardships of life together. For others, it may be their parents, sibling or significant other. In some cases, a person who was a stranger to you less than a year ago may quickly develop in to your most valuable friend. Many of us will even have multiple “best friends” who we can call upon in times of need, or if we just need to rant over a drink.

These friendships do not happen without effort. Sure, it requires basic chemistry and connection. But to build a great friendship, it requires both parties to invest time, care and empathy. Loyalty is built on acts of kindness. You need to actively listen to delve deeper into the emotions and thoughts that drive your friend’s worries. We improve each other over time by calling out bad behaviours, while offering endless support and love when the other person feels worthless or unattractive. We take for granted the sheer amount of emotional energy invested in cultivating a true friendship.

When we forget this fact, we become terrible friends. We can be selfish, becoming angry with our friend that they aren’t giving us the support that we need. If this ever happens, consider the fact that your friend is also human and that they might be in exactly the same position as you. To parody John F. Kennedy:

“Ask not what your friend can do for you – ask what you can do for your friend”.

There is also one other friendship we must discuss – the friendship between you and yourself. This sounds strange, but you should be your own best friend. You are the person that has truly lived your life with you. You know of all the dramas, thoughts and feelings you have experienced. Yet when we are in a time of need, we neglect to support ourselves as a friend. Instead of support and love, we criticise ourselves, neglect ourselves and drive ourselves to stress and fatigue.

Be generous with your kindness to yourself and don’t forget to treat yourself. If you are having a bad day, take a break so that you can be there for yourself. Watch a movie, go for a walk, introspect and have a deep and meaningful chat with yourself. If you feel like a failure, remind yourself that you are being stupid and remind yourself of how amazing you are.

No matter how many great friends we have, we cannot truly be happy if we treat ourselves like an enemy.

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Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Emotional Intelligence

Out of all the traits and skills we value, admire and teach to our children, one of the most neglected seems to be that of emotional intelligence. Most people are not even aware what emotional intelligence really means.

Emotional intelligence can be summarised as the ability to recognise, analyse and control the emotions of yourself and others around you. It begins with recognising the presence of an emotion, either through mindfulness or empathy. Once the emotion has been identified, analyse that emotion: where it came from, what effect it is having on the current situation and what the subtext may be. Lastly, use this information to prevent yourself from overreacting, or to understand why someone may be reacting so defensively or aggressively and how to defuse the situation.

Harnessing the power of emotions is a very useful skill. We like to think of ourselves as highly advanced, intelligent beings, but we are still ruled by basic instincts and emotions embedded deep in our brains. Emotional intelligence works to give us more control over our behaviour and unlocking the power to live a happier life. More importantly, it lets us improve the lives of those around us as we are less likely to do or say hurtful things, while being a more kind, supportive human being.

Let us take an example. You are frustrated at your partner because she has not texted back for over a day. Using emotional intelligence, you recognise that you are feeling angry, but also disappointment and rejection. Further analysis shows that these stem from a subconscious expectation that if she cared about you, she would have texted you. The real reason that you are angry at your partner stems from your insecurities, possibly even past trust or abandonment issues. You also remember that she has been very stressed with a project recently, so she may not be in the mood to talk. The end result is that instead of sending passive-aggressive signals at your partner and creating a rift in your relationship, you bring some chocolate ice cream to cheer your partner up.

Like any other kind of intelligence, emotional intelligence must be learned through education and practice. We cannot rein in our emotions if we have never thought about how our past affects us or what motivates or scares us. We cannot possibly understand why the other person is reacting a certain way, if we never trained the ability to see things from their perspective. We cannot help others process emotions such as depression and anxiety, if we cannot understand our own emotions.

We can teach ourselves to be more emotionally intelligent. Meditation and self-reflection allows us to catalogue and interpret your range of emotions. Reading books helps us understand that other people may have a different way of seeing the world. Having deep and meaningful conversations with your loved ones lets you clear up misunderstandings and better learn why people react a certain way in given situations.

We can then apply this knowledge to constantly hone our skills. It may sound exhausting, but every time you feel a strong emotion – whether it is negative or positive – try to analyse it with your rational mind. The more you practise, the more you will be in touch with your own emotions.

Emotional intelligence is an invaluable tool on the journey of life. With increasing levels of emotional intelligence, you quickly realise why things are the way they are. We are all scared little children in the playground, pulling someone’s hair because we cannot tell them that we love them, or punching someone in the face because we cannot withstand the inexplicable surges of insecurity and self-doubt.

Now look back on yourself: how have emotions affected your life and your relationships? What fights and sufferings could have been avoided had you stopped to interpret the emotions and simply talked things out?
The emotional side of you is an integral part of your identity. Why make it your worst enemy when it can be your best ally?

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Recipe For Happiness: Compassion

(This is a three part mini-series on happiness. See the full series here: https://jineralknowledge.com/tag/arkhappyrecipe/?order=asc)

Human beings are social creatures. It is extremely difficult to be happy when you are isolated and lonely. The most important lesson on happiness is that we are truly happiest when we connect with others.

Connection – physical, emotional or spiritual – is linked to the neurotransmitter oxytocin. It is released in large amounts when we feel loved, such as when a mother sees her newborn, when we hug or even when we feel nostalgia.

Happiness from connection is special in that it is sustainable. Happiness from excitement, such as through money, winning and sex, is mediated by dopamine and wears off very quickly. You need more and more “hits” of dopamine to feel the same again. Oxytocin, on the other hand, allows you to feel happy just from recalling memories of your connections.

So how can we use oxytocin to become happier? As mentioned above, it is released through human connection. The easiest way to do this is spending time with your loved ones – have a conversation, share a laugh, get to know each other on a deeper level.
But there is an even more effective way: compassion.

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Because of our social nature, we have an innate desire to help those in need and alleviate suffering. But in modern society, we are so busy and consumed by our own lives that this instinct becomes dulled.
The first step to compassion is empathy. Through empathy, we can recognise and understand another person’s emotion. To do this, you have to practise the ability of seeing things from another person’s point of view. Consider how their values and experiences may influence how they behave and what they are feeling currently.

However, empathy alone does not create happiness. Compassion is when you recognise that someone is suffering and feel the desire to help alleviate it. Even the thought of wanting to help has been shown to induce happiness. When we show kindness and it makes even an iota of difference to the person’s suffering – such as putting a smile on their face – our brain instantly gets drowned in a sea of oxytocin and we genuinely feel good.

But as mentioned above, our sense of compassion has been worn away by the stress of daily life. Here is an exercise that can help train your compassion level.

Firstly, think of someone close to you who is suffering and wish them good fortune. The more often you do this, the easier the thoughts will come to you naturally.

Next, try doing the same to strangers. When you see someone on the streets or sit next to them on a bus, think to yourself: “I wish they would have a good day”. Even if you do not know who they are, you can wish them good fortune. They may not telepathically hear your thoughts, but the important part is training your compassion “muscle”.

The last step is the hardest. Think of your worst enemy, then wish them good fortune too. It is extremely difficult to respond to someone we hate with love. This is called uncomplementary behaviour in psychology and we are hardwired to do the opposite. Yet, when we do show kindness in the face of cruelty and hate, it can turn the situation upside-down and both parties can feel safer and happier.

The more you train your level of compassion, the more you will find that your interactions with others will be changing. You might find yourself smiling to strangers more, treating them with more kindness and feeling that the world is not that horrible a place after all. Most importantly, you might be able to show self-compassion, the most difficult task of all. Don’t be so hard on yourself; forgive your own mistakes and learn to love the awesome person that you are.

Be generous with your kindness. Every person in the world wants to be happy and a simple act of kindness from your end may shine some light on their day, and through empathy, you can feel happier also.

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