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

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 History & Literature

The Egg

Short story written by Andy Weir

You were on your way home when you died.
It was a car accident. Nothing particularly remarkable, but fatal nonetheless. You left behind a wife and two children. It was a painless death. The EMTs tried their best to save you, but to no avail. Your body was so utterly shattered you were better off, trust me.

And that’s when you met me.

“What… what happened?” You asked. “Where am I?”
“You died,” I said, matter-of-factly. No point in mincing words.
“There was a… a truck and it was skidding…”
“Yup,” I said.
“I… I died?”
“Yup. But don’t feel bad about it. Everyone dies,” I said.

You looked around. There was nothingness. Just you and me. “What is this place?” You asked. “Is this the afterlife?”
“More or less,” I said.
“Are you god?” You asked.
“Yup,” I replied. “I’m God.”
“My kids… my wife,” you said.
“What about them?”
“Will they be all right?”
“That’s what I like to see,” I said. “You just died and your main concern is for your family. That’s good stuff right there.”

You looked at me with fascination. To you, I didn’t look like God. I just looked like some man. Or possibly a woman. Some vague authority figure, maybe. More of a grammar school teacher than the almighty.
“Don’t worry,” I said. “They’ll be fine. Your kids will remember you as perfect in every way. They didn’t have time to grow contempt for you. Your wife will cry on the outside, but will be secretly relieved. To be fair, your marriage was falling apart. If it’s any consolation, she’ll feel very guilty for feeling relieved.”

“Oh,” you said. “So what happens now? Do I go to heaven or hell or something?”
“Neither,” I said. “You’ll be reincarnated.”
“Ah,” you said. “So the Hindus were right,”
“All religions are right in their own way,” I said. “Walk with me.”

You followed along as we strode through the void. “Where are we going?”
“Nowhere in particular,” I said. “It’s just nice to walk while we talk.”
“So what’s the point, then?” You asked. “When I get reborn, I’ll just be a blank slate, right? A baby. So all my experiences and everything I did in this life won’t matter.”
“Not so!” I said. “You have within you all the knowledge and experiences of all your past lives. You just don’t remember them right now.”

I stopped walking and took you by the shoulders. “Your soul is more magnificent, beautiful, and gigantic than you can possibly imagine. A human mind can only contain a tiny fraction of what you are. It’s like sticking your finger in a glass of water to see if it’s hot or cold. You put a tiny part of yourself into the vessel, and when you bring it back out, you’ve gained all the experiences it had.
“You’ve been in a human for the last 48 years, so you haven’t stretched out yet and felt the rest of your immense consciousness. If we hung out here for long enough, you’d start remembering everything. But there’s no point to doing that between each life.”

“How many times have I been reincarnated, then?”
“Oh lots. Lots and lots. And in to lots of different lives.” I said. “This time around, you’ll be a Chinese peasant girl in 540 AD.”
“Wait, what?” You stammered. “You’re sending me back in time?”
“Well, I guess technically. Time, as you know it, only exists in your universe. Things are different where I come from.”
“Where you come from?” You said.
“Oh sure,” I explained “I come from somewhere. Somewhere else. And there are others like me. I know you’ll want to know what it’s like there, but honestly you wouldn’t understand.”

“Oh,” you said, a little let down. “But wait. If I get reincarnated to other places in time, I could have interacted with myself at some point.”
“Sure. Happens all the time. And with both lives only aware of their own lifespan you don’t even know it’s happening.”
“So what’s the point of it all?”

“Seriously?” I asked. “Seriously? You’re asking me for the meaning of life? Isn’t that a little stereotypical?”
“Well it’s a reasonable question,” you persisted.
I looked you in the eye. “The meaning of life, the reason I made this whole universe, is for you to mature.”
“You mean mankind? You want us to mature?”
“No, just you. I made this whole universe for you. With each new life you grow and mature and become a larger and greater intellect.”
“Just me? What about everyone else?”
“There is no one else,” I said. “In this universe, there’s just you and me.”

You stared blankly at me. “But all the people on earth…”
“All you. Different incarnations of you.”
“Wait. I’m everyone!?”
“Now you’re getting it,” I said, with a congratulatory slap on the back.
“I’m every human being who ever lived?”
“Or who will ever live, yes.”
“I’m Abraham Lincoln?”
“And you’re John Wilkes Booth, too,” I added.
“I’m Hitler?” You said, appalled.
“And you’re the millions he killed.”
“I’m Jesus?”
“And you’re everyone who followed him.”

You fell silent.
“Every time you victimized someone,” I said, “you were victimizing yourself. Every act of kindness you’ve done, you’ve done to yourself. Every happy and sad moment ever experienced by any human was, or will be, experienced by you.”

You thought for a long time.
“Why?” You asked me. “Why do all this?”
“Because someday, you will become like me. Because that’s what you are. You’re one of my kind. You’re my child.”
“Whoa,” you said, incredulous. “You mean I’m a god?”
“No. Not yet. You’re a fetus. You’re still growing. Once you’ve lived every human life throughout all time, you will have grown enough to be born.”

“So the whole universe,” you said, “it’s just…”
“An egg.” I answered. “Now it’s time for you to move on to your next life.”

And I sent you on your way.

Posted in Life & Happiness

New Experiences

A theory on how the brain processes and remembers time is that it counts time by the number of experiences. For example, if you attend a party and meet many new people and have an exciting, fun time, then your brain will remember that day as feeling longer and with much more detail. In contrast, a normal, boring work day may not even register as a memory, because there is nothing new to remember.

This sounds obvious, but the theory has relevant implications.
Look back on your past week and try to remember what you did. Do you remember the weather three days ago, what you talked about with your friend over coffee five days ago, or what song was playing while you were doing paperwork?

It is not uncommon for our brain to go into autopilot and forget menial, daily routines. In other words, the more standardised and automated your daily life is, your brain will remember those times as “less time”. Ergo, the life you look back on is shorter than what it could have been if you stop having new experiences. Is that not such a waste?

Compare this to when you travel or start a new relationship. You are exposed to so many new stimuli and experiences that your brain light ups and frantically records every detail (the heightened emotions play a role also). This is why we can remember the scent of our partner, the conversations we had with a stranger we met in a French bookshop, and what movie was playing in the background when you had your first kiss. These are moments that you can remember in better detail than you can remember entire years.

The bottom line is that a boring life a short life. A way to make the most of the short time we have in life would be to continue having new experiences as we grow old. Travel the world, meet new people, try things you normally wouldn’t, fall in love and push your horizons.

Otherwise, you may end up on your deathbed looking back on your life, regretting that your highlight reel is much shorter than you expected.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Work-Life Balance

An important part of most of our lives as an adult is work.
We need money to pay for food and housing, but also to fulfil our wants and realising our dreams, such as indulging in gourmet foods and beautiful clothes, going on trips, funding a hobby or buying a nice house.
Careers can be an important source of personal pride and sense of purpose, challenging us and stimulating our growth.
Workplaces are also a valuable source of social interaction, as we meet people we might not have met in other settings.

But as important as work is, it is perhaps overemphasised in our society.
Money is great, but above a certain line, there is a diminishing return on how much happiness it brings, because it promotes greed rather than contentness.
Our pride in our job may lead to us making it too large a part of our identity, resulting in a crisis when we feel we are not good at our jobs or cannot keep working anymore.
Our colleagues and superiors may be the greatest source of stress and annoyance, leading to burnout at work.

Overall, work can be a source of great stress and misery in our lives.

Most importantly, life is a zero-sum game. If we devote time to work, it takes away time from other aspects of our life. We often overlook the “little things“, such as spending time with our loved ones, enjoying hobbies and interests, and taking care of our health.

But things such as relationships and health are what we do need to devote time to, as they can be irreparably damaged without proper care and maintenance.

So if you don’t have time for these “little things”, ask yourself what you are making time for. Is what you get out of your job really worth it all? Is it worth the stress and sacrificing the “little things” for?

Sometimes, it is necessary to work hard and make sacrifices to earn enough for survival or to achieve a certain goals. But more often than not, we are failing to be content and losing what we already have in the pursuit of something bigger (and out of reach).

To prevent work from taking over your life, we must balance it by making time for various outlets.

An effective way to balance the stress and burnout from work is by having a creative outlet. Having a hobby such as playing an instrument, writing (e.g. creative writing, journaling, blogging), drawing or some other activity that challenges you to grow outside of work helps you to feel engaged and active. Life is so much more interesting with a passion, especially when work fails to provide it.

Improving physical health through exercise gives you more energy so you can do more with your free time than just lie down and watch TV after work.
Meditation gives us tools to be resilient against various forms of stress by teaching us to let go of things we cannot change and to be mindful of the good things in life.

The last important outlet is connection. Friends and family provide love, support and compassion when we are going through tough times. Even being able to co-miserate about a mild annoyance over a coffee with a colleague can make work more bearable. Sharing a laughter and enjoying moments of simple pleasure together with a loved one helps remind us of how important happiness and contentness is in life.

Achieving a healthy work-life balance is too deep of a topic to cover in one article, especially because it varies from person to person.
Nonetheless, it is worth asking yourself whether you are truly happy with the balance between work and your personal life, and how you may live a happier life by restoring said balance.

(Image source: Puuung http://www.grafolio.com/puuung1)
Posted in Life & Happiness

No Regrets

You will never regret being kind.
You will never regret having hope.
You will never regret prioritising happiness.
You will never regret being yourself.
You will never regret taking chances.

People think regret is born out of bad choices, but more often than not, regret is the result of not making a choice. Taking a chance may come with consequences, but that is a risk we have to take. Because if you’re too afraid of consequences or being hurt and refuse to take action on the important things, life will pass you by in the blink of an eye and you might miss it. On your deathbed, it won’t be the decisions you made that you regret, but the bites you didn’t take.

Happiness is an active process, not something that will come to you passively. So choose to be kind and choose to be hopeful. Choose to laugh and choose to love. Choose to be the person you want to be, living the life you want to live.

Posted in Life & Happiness

Identity Crisis

A common set of questions we get asked are: “What do you want to be when you grow up?”, “What do you do?” and “Can you tell me more about yourself?”. These questions are essentially asking how we identify ourselves and what kind of identity do we want in the future.

If you were asked “who are you?”, how would you reply? Many people would identify with their occupation, such as a doctor, musician, software developer or actor. Some people define themselves by their relationship, such as a mother of two. Another common source of identity is your accomplishments and success, such as celebrities, a popular author or world-class athlete.

But what happens when our identity is shaken? For example, what if you identify as an author who published an immensely popular, critically-acclaimed book, but you can’t write a book good enough to follow it up? What if you are the best swordsman in the realm and you lose your hand? What if you identify as a mother, but your children are now grown up and have left you in an empty nest?

The problem with hinging our identity on one thing is that it makes us vulnerable to having an identity crisis when that thing will inevitably change.

Life has a tendency to be unpredictable and can easily throw the rug from under our feet at any minute. If this happens and all of our proverbial eggs are in one basket, it leads to a devastating blow to our sense of self-worth. Focussing our identity around one factor of our life would be as silly as investing all of our money in a single stock.

To solve this issue, we should treat our identity like any other investment: diversify your identity.

You are not “just a(n)” anything, because you are so much more complicated and multi-faceted than that. You can be a lawyer who also makes pottery and is a loving wife. You can be a mother who is also an amateur pianist that cooks well and is passionate about photography. You can be a successful internet celebrity who also happens to be an avid member of a board game community and loves playing tennis with his flatmates in the weekends.

The trick here is to find different sources for your identity. Identify yourself not only with your job and success, but also with your relationships and passions. Be mindful that most things in life are transient, whether by choice or not. That way, when we are forced to give up a part of who we are, our identity will still hold its shape so that it can heal with time, to form an even more complex and interesting identity.

(Image source: https://thegorgonist.tumblr.com/image/169169068294)
Posted in Life & Happiness

Your Now Is Not Your Forever

One of the keys to happiness is living in the present: being mindful of what is happening now, instead of worrying about the future or regretting the past. That said, the present is not always happy. Sometimes, the now is excruciatingly painful, whether it be physically or emotionally. Ironically in those situations, it feels impossible to escape the present and it feels like the suffering will be endless.

But to quote author John Green from his novel Turtles All The Way Down:

“Your now is not your forever.”

No matter how bleak the outcome may look, there will almost always be a glimmer of hope. Wounds heal with time, we can adapt to harsh environments and we can grow strong to overcome our challenges. Things can change for the better if given the chance and with effort, no matter how impossible it may seem at the time.

So the next time you feel helplessly stuck in the now, remind yourself that this too shall pass. It will not solve your immediate problems, but it may give you a touch of strength to help endure the hard times, even if it is one day at a time.

Posted in Psychology & Medicine

Maslow’s Hierarchy Of Needs

Abraham Maslow was a Jewish psychologist who tried to answer a question that plagues every person at some stage: what is the meaning of life? To answer this question, he published a paper called A Theory of Human Motivation, where he introduced the now well-known Hierarchy of Needs. The basic premise to Maslow’s theory is as follows.

We have different needs in life. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs categorises these needs, then places them in a pyramid-shaped model in order of priority. Maslow believed that some needs are more fundamental than others. For example, you can’t worry about being single if you are starving to death. Therefore, to be motivated to work on one category, you must first satiate your need for the category below that. Maslow organised the categories in the following order.

Starting from the bottom of the pyramid, we have physiological needs. This is self-explanatory, as you need to be biologically alive to even worry about the other needs. This includes food, water, warmth and rest.

The next level addresses safety. If you do not feel safe, then you would be too preoccupied by the sense of danger to consider higher needs. Therefore, you need physical shelter, resources and a general sense of security, whether it be personal safety, financial, health or emotional security.

Safety and physiological needs are considered “basic needs“. The next two are considered “psychological or spiritual needs“.

Social belonging refers to the human need for connection. Loneliness and disconnect can be crippling to the point that you cannot enjoy the other aspects of your life, even if you have your basic needs met. This includes romantic and intimate relationships, family and friends, and communities.

Once we fulfil our need for external connections, we can start looking within ourselves, addressing our need for self-esteem and self-respect. We cannot lead fulfilling lives if we doubt and are unkind to ourselves.

Lastly, we have the apex of the pyramid that Maslow thought all people should ultimately aspire to: self-actualisation. Essentially, this means being the best version of yourself that you can be, unlocking your full potential and making the most out of your life.

The interesting part to this last step is that you define what the best version of yourself is. Perhaps you wish to be a great parent or a teacher. Perhaps you want to be a high-achieving professional or to create something others can enjoy. Perhaps you wish to be content and happy.

The Hierarchy of Needs suggests that to even think about achieving self-actualisation, we must fulfil the more basic needs first. This means that in some cases, what gets in the way of our self-actualisation may not be us, but our environment. For example, child abuse and domestic violence greatly affect a person’s sense of safety and causes significant trauma. Being socially isolated or having low self-esteem are all barriers to letting you be you. So how do we escape this trap?

First, evaluate whether you truly don’t have the basic needs. We often misjudge what we actually need in life, choosing to focus on things that won’t bring us joy, such as gaining more material wealth than needed, or social attention. On retrospect, we may find that we already have everything we need to ascend to the next level.

Second, if something is in your control, take action to remove the obstacle. This might involve changing your perspective, modifying how you do things or communicating with another person why things are not working. If you are in a toxic relationship or a job that you loathe, you may have to leave them to let yourself progress. We have much greater power over our lives than we think, but our fears, doubts and social pressures convince us otherwise.

Third, remember that Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is not the one-truth. There have been countless studies showing that Maslow’s suggested order of priorities do not apply in the real world, with many people opting to prioritise higher needs above basic needs, such as willingly staying hungry in order to pursue creative outlets, or giving up a secure, stable life in the pursuit of love. It may be difficult, but we can sometimes transcend the challenges of our environment through determination.

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs has been controversial in the field of psychology ever since its publication, but it is a good reminder that to achieve a happy, fulfilling life, we need to take stock of what we truly need in life and balance them with each other.