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.
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 empathyas 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 This may result in people becoming more withdrawn as they sink into themselves, becoming more distanced from their loved ones.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.
One way of achieving happiness is through compassion – the wish that other people will be happy and free from suffering. Empathy is a powerful tool and when others are happy, we tend to feel happy as well (but not always). But in modern society, people are so busy with their own lives and stresses that they do not have the luxury of caring for the well-being of others. The result of this is our compassion drying up, crippling our ability to be happy. Here is a simple meditation that helps train your compassion.
The first step of this meditation is simple: think of someone you know that is suffering and wish them good fortune. It could be a friend who has gone through a break-up or a family member who is ill. Wish that they will find the right one eventually or that they will get better soon. An important point is that you should be sincere with this, ergo it is easier to do it for people you care about. Over time, you will find that it is easier and easier to wish for someone to not suffer and it will slowly become almost a “habit”.
Once you feel yourself becoming comfortable with this, try it out on strangers on the street. If you see someone, think to yourself “I wish that person will have a good day”. It could be that you wish that person will have a loving family to go home to, or even a little thing such as someone complimenting them. Much like training an unused muscle, it will be difficult at first but you will slowly see your compassion grow and strengthen, as you genuinely wish the better for others. Perhaps you will even find yourself doing little things to brighten someone else’s day, such as giving a compliment, listening to someone’s problems or giving a small but thoughtful gift.
The ultimate step of this meditation is being compassionate towards someone you truly dislike. If you are able to wish good fortune on your worst enemy and sincerely hope that they would be happy, you would truly be a compassionate person. Like any skill, it takes much training and effort to train yourself to be this compassionate. But even if you cannot reach this level, every single step towards becoming a more compassionate person will make you feel just a little bit happier.
Is it better to have a skeleton inside the body, or on the surface?
In the case of insects, the skeleton is on the surface and takes the form of a shell that protects them from external damage. The flesh is protected by this shell and becomes soft until it becomes fluid-form. Therefore, when something sharp penetrates the armour, it causes critical, irreversible damage.
I have met many people who wear an intellectual shell made from remarkable knowledge and intellect, protecting themselves from attacks made by people with different ideas. They appeared much more robust than normal people. They would laugh at everything else, saying “I don’t care”. But when a different opinion would penetrate the hard exterior of their mind, the blow to their ego was indescribable.
I have also met people who would be hurt by even the smallest, insignificant confrontations or dissonance. However, they were sensitive because their minds were open and they learnt something from whatever attack they received.
(from The Encyclopaedia of Relative and Absolute Knowledge by Bernard Werber)
Werber spoke of the “skeleton” of the body and mind, but human beings have one other thing that needs a sturdy skeleton – the heart. Many people protect their heart from being broken with hard armour. They do not open up themselves easily and always give an image of strength and stability. But there is no such thing as a life without pain. People who put a skeleton on the outside of their heart tend to be those who have been hurt badly before and trying to protect themselves from being hurt again. This may be effective to some degree, but if you close off your heart, you cannot heal your wounds and you also shut off the happiness of connection. If they suffer pain greater than their armour can withstand, their heart is shattered and they fall into a pit of despair, unable to recover.
On the contrary, some people open up easily to others, exposing themselves to frequent pains from social interactions. These people are sensitive to pain and heartbreak. Hence, the world considers them frail and weak. But as these people have a strong skeleton inside their hearts, they can recover from any wound and they become stronger like well-developed muscle. They grow through pain and their heart – like a warrior who has fought countless battles – becomes strong and resilient against the pains of the world.
We mustn’t avoid suffering and pain and instead try to overcome it. Through this we learn how to bounce back and through experience, we develop ourselves. Suffering is hard, but it is a catalyst that helps us grow into a strong, resilient person.
What is the commonality of the following? New parents holding their newborn baby, a young couple in love staring into each other’s eyes, catching up with an old friend and a hug. The obvious answer is that they are moments of happiness. But the real answer that lies beyond that is that they are all about connection. Human beings are social creatures and we are hardwired to like connecting with others. In the primitive days, not being connected to your tribemates meant a lower chance of survival. Over the years, we have evolved to the point where human connection is one of the greatest joys we can experience. Many things people may associate with “joy” such as money, sex and winning result in a flood of dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is great, it gives us a rush and acts as a reward system, motivating us to do more of the behaviour as it will likely result in more food or mates. However, dopamine quickly wears off and you need another “hit” to replicate the effects. The happiness produced by connection is based on a different neurotransmitter called oxytocin, which is produced en masse in events like physical contact (e.g. hug) and during childbirth. Oxytocin acts different to dopamine in that it sets up a “circuit” that is associated with a memory. If you recall a memory – either consciously or when you meet a stimulus such as a certain smell that reminds you of it – the oxytocin circuit fires up and gives you a dose of happiness. Thus, oxytocin is sustainable, true happiness.
Of course, the corollary to this is that the greatest suffering we can experience is the feeling of disconnection. Breaking up with your other half, being rejected, a dear friend moving far away, the death of a loved one… These events make us feel as if a piece of heartstring snapped, leaving a scar that aches for a long while. In prison, one of the harshest punishments is solitary confinement, where the inmate has no contact with any other human being for a set time. A characteristic of borderline personality disorder is emotional instability and impulsive decisions. A major trigger for this is the feeling of abandonment or the fear of rejection. Borderline patients tend to misinterpret a person through black-and-white thinking, conclude they must hate them, feel rejected and may go on to harm themselves or even attempt suicide. There is also some anecdotal evidence saying that babies who are brought up in institutions without a parent figure to truly connect to are more likely to develop personality and mental disorders, with an increased risk of death in infancy. To not be connected to anyone is true suffering.
So if you are still on the pursuit of happiness, go out there and connect. Whether it be the excitement of getting to know a new person or the rekindling of an old friendship, connection is the ultimate happiness.
Perspective is everything. By changing your perspective, you may discover an innovative solution to a problem, or understand the actions of someone else. But more importantly, your perspectives have direct implications in your life and health.
For example, let us consider pain. Pain is a sensation – an electrical signal in response to a noxious stimuli that is causing damage to your body. It is a warning system that screams to the brain that something is wrong. To boil down the complex physiology of neurotransmission, essentially imagine the system as an electrical circuit. If something damages tissue, like a knife slicing through flesh or a clot blocking off oxygen supply to the heart, the pain “switch” is activated, a signal is sent to the brain, and it is interpreted and “felt” by the brain as pain. Because your brain needs to interpret the signal, pain is essentially subjective. If you are distracted or in a good mood, you will feel less pain compared to when you are distressed and focussing on it. The same stimuli can be handled completely different by every person, making pain extremely complicated and difficult to assess in a medical setting. Pain scales may be used to try objectify the level of pain, but this is still very crude.
One way or another, pain is technically all in your head. That is not to say that pain is not real – that would be an insult to sufferers of chronic pain. But your perspective, way of thinking and frame of mind can make a significant difference to the amount of suffering the pain causes. This is not just an overly-optimistic view of the world that everything can be fixed with optimism. There are real physiological systems in place to alleviate pain when you are happy. These chemicals are called endorphins– so named because they are so potent that they match the effect of morphine (endo(inside) + morphine). This natural painkiller is released in response to pain, but can also be stimulated by having fun and being happy. Laughter is literally medicine.
Not only that, but by being in a good mood, you become more resilient and “distracted from the pain”, allowing you to bear the pain more easily. A woman going through childbirth suffers quite possibly the most extreme level of pain a human being can experience, but the prospect of seeing their newborn child (and probably finally ending their pregnancy) and the loving support of their spouse, family and friends keep them pushing onwards. Even though the noxious stimuli of stretching is real, the brain can choose to downplay how much pain it thinks it should feel with these positive factors.
Although it may not be able to make your pain magically disappear, never underestimate the power of positivity, laughter and happiness. Perhaps that is why the emotion of happiness was evolved – to alleviate the misery and pains of living in this world. To survive.
Travelling is fun. But strangely, the etymology of the word travel is the Latin word tripalium, which means “torture instrument”. This is most likely because in the old days before airplanes and trains were invented, travelling was often long, arduous and painful. Travelling is probably the least terrifying form of torture. Let us explore the various methods of torture used throughout human history. There are many types of tortures, but they can be largely divided into physical and psychological torture. The main goal of torture is to induce maximum pain to extract information from, punish or to execute a person.
Physical torture is very simple: inflict as much pain as you can. For example, you can simply tie the person to a chair and beat them senselessly, or apply pressure to a wound to cause intense pain. A useful tip for beating someone is to place a phonebook on their stomach or hand and hitting the book, which transfers pains while not leaving a bruise or any marks. A simple way to cause extreme pain is the use of fingers. Finger tips are extremely sensitive and contain many nerve endings, meaning sticking needles under the nail bed or ripping the fingernails off causes extreme pain. Like this, medical knowledge has often been used to develop new ways to torture people. For instance, heating the sole of the feet with fire causes severe pain, electricity used in the right amount can keep the person alive while causing pain and seizures, and if you lie a person flat and on a slight decline (so the head is lower than the body), put a cloth over their face and pour over it, you can induce a sensation of drowning (this is called waterboarding and is used by the CIA). Another simple, effective torture method is the joori-teulgi(주리 틀기) from Korea, where a person is tied to a chair with the feet bound, with two long sticks inserted between the thighs, crossed, then pulled down to streth the thighs apart. This causes extreme pain and suffering.
As mentioned above, torture can be used to kill a person too. The famous hanged, drawn and quartered torture was used in the Middle Ages to punish treasonists. The convict was drawn behind a horse for a while and then hanged until just before death, when they were disembowelled, beheaded and quartered. Another strange, complicated method of torture can be found in China, where slow slicing was used. Slow slicing involves tying a convict to a post and cutting slices of flesh off him until he dies. Executioners often had an art of slicing in such a way to prolong the suffering for as long as possible without killing the person. Another execution method found in both Western and Eastern history is dismemberment by horses, where the person’s four limbs and head are tied to individual horses (or cows), which are then made to run in different directions to violently rip the person up.
Animals were used in various forms of torture throughout history around the world. Tying the prisoner to an elephant’s feet to crush them to death, putting a rat on the person’s stomach then putting a pot over it and heating it with fire to make the rat burrow into the person’s guts, feeding them to lions or vicious dogs, coating them in honey and leaving them in the path of fire ants to make them get slowly eaten… Out of all of these, the most bizarre method is the goat torture used in ancient Rome. This torture involved tying the prisoner to a chair and securing their feet, which were coated with salt water. Next, goats were released around the prisoner. The goats would lick the sole of the feet to cause tickling, which over a prolonged period is interpreted as pain by the body. This eventually drives the person insane from pain.
Unlike physical torture, psychological torture induces shame and fear rather than pain. Threatening, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, rape and sexual torture, sensory deprivation, exploitation of phobias, loud noises (such as banging on a door constantly), blindfolding the person and rubbing a balloon on their cheeks, placing foreign objects or snakes in the anus or vagina, leaving them in a container full of insects… Psychological torture has just as much a variety as physical torture and can have longer lasting effects on the person. Furthermore, as it leaves no external marks, it is still frequently used in the modern day.
No matter what the method, inducing extreme pain to control people, extract information and cause suffering is an inhumane act that cannot be tolerated. If mankind had focussed their creativity and effort into more constructive and altruistic things rather than discovering various ways to cause pain, we would probably be living in a much better world.