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.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Mistake

Generally speaking, we live our lives trying to avoid making a mistake. Perhaps it is because we were brought up to do everything as perfectly as possible. Perhaps it is because we fear the consequences. Perhaps it is because we refuse to accept that we are imperfect beings.

Regardless of the reason, we have a constant nagging voice in the back of our minds asking us: “Are you sure you want to do this? What if it’s all a big mistake?”.

This mentality affects our work, our financial decisions, our sense of adventure and even our relationships. Sometimes, we even go as far as not taking any action in fear of screwing it up. The fear of mistakes makes us take less risks and leaps of faith, hindering our ability to live a full life.

But to quote a great captain, Jean-Luc Picard:

“It is possible to commit no mistakes and still lose. That is not a weakness. That is life.”

Life is full of mistakes. No matter how hard we try to minimise risk, life will always find a way to trip you up. Because we are not a time-travelling supercomputer that can see and predict every variable, it is impossible to make no mistakes. Ergo, it is okay to make mistakes, because to err is to human.

In fact, mistakes are not always bad.

A “mistake” such as the singer’s voice cracking on a live performance may make it a more special performance, because it is a sign the singer poured all of their emotion and energy into the song, rather than playing it safe to avoid a mistake.

Columbus discovered the Caribbean because he mistakenly thought that he could reach Asia by sailing due west of Spain.

Everyone has a story of getting lost while travelling and stumbling onto an unforgettable experience that they could not have possibly planned for.

Sometimes, we will look back on our life and realise that what we thought was a mistake back then turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because each and every mistake we made led us to where we are now.

Lastly, we are all the products of billions of years of mistakes. Evolution is fundamentally based on the concept that genetic mistakes during cell division (mutations) allow for diversity of traits. Without mistakes, we wouldn’t even be here.

Of course, some mistakes carry irreversible, dire consequences, such as drinking and driving, or falling asleep while a nuclear reactor fails (Three Mile Island accident). But outside of these, most mistakes in life are something that you can learn something and move on from.

So don’t beat yourself up if you make a mistake.

It’s okay to make mistakes.

We are only human.

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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.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

How To Draw A Line

If you need to draw a straight line without the help of a ruler, try the following method. Instead of looking at the tip of your pen, look at the point you are trying to draw a line to and move the pen in one swift motion towards it. You will find that the line is much straighter than when you are consciously focussing on where your pen is.

This is similar to how when you are walking down a staircase, the more you think about the steps you are taking, the more likely you are that you will trip and fall. Your brain is very proficient at automating physical activities, so that you can use “muscle memory” instead of wasting precious mental energy.

This also means that ironically, thinking and worrying about doing something right can result in more failures. Sometimes, it is better to just be aware of the direction you want to head in and go with the flow, rather than overthink, micromanage and ruin things.

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Posted in Science & Nature

Constellation

To our ancestors, the night sky was not only useful for navigation and telling the seasons, but also for entertainment. Using the mind’s eye, they connected the dots to form a skeleton of a picture – a constellation.

Constellations became the basis of numerous tales and legends. The ancient Greeks told stories of mighty hunters fleeing from scorpions, of fair maidens chased by satyrs, and of noble animals who helped a hero in their quest. In the Far East, they tell a story of lovers who are punished by being placed on separate stars, only being allowed to meet once a year. Similar stories based on constellations can be found in almost every culture around the world.

Constellations are fascinating as they just look like a collection of bright dots to us, but in reality, they represent a spread of stars throughout the cosmos, unimaginably far from us and each other. Even though the stars may appear to be right next to each other, one star may be thousands or millions of light-years further from us than the other.

This is because a constellation is a two-dimensional picture representing three-dimensional space, meaning that depth is ignored. Because of the great distance, entire worlds appear to be simple points, while the vast emptiness of space flatten out to short gaps.

Mythologies and stories based on constellations teach us many pearls of wisdom, but perhaps this is the most valuable lesson the constellations have to teach us. When we look at something from a distance, we lose the fine details. Even the awe-inspiring beauty and size of the cosmos can be reduced down to a simple line drawing in the sky.

The same principle applies to people.
When we judge a person, we reduce a complex life full of stories, experiences, thoughts, feelings and circumstances down to a single stereotype, letting us objectify, criticise, belittle and dismiss people easily.
When we comment on a historical event, we focus only on big events and try to simplify the narrative to a few cause-and-effect stories, while conveniently forgetting the individual lives affected or the broader context that led up to that point.
When something bad happens in the world, we try to find meaning or something to blame, instead of trying to understand the numerous variables that factor into the situation.

Constellations are beautiful, but they don’t tell the full picture. If we want to truly understand the world we live in and the people we share that world with, we have to learn to consider the details and look at things from different points of view.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Rule Of Life

“Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies: Goddamn it, you’ve got to be kind.
~ Kurt Vonnegut

Life is difficult and it can feel as if we have been thrown in the deep end sometimes. No one tells you word for word the correct way to interact with another human being, or how to balance your work and personal life, or what the meaning of life is. Because of this, social interactions are rife with awkwardness, misunderstandings and getting hurt.

But perhaps if we all followed Vonnegut’s rule, life would be just a little bit easier to navigate through.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Compliments

When we are little, we are showered with compliments. We marvel over and celebrate a child’s first steps, or when they score a goal, or when they gift us a squiggly drawing. At school, we receive stickers saying “Great job!” when we do our homework. At home, we receive words of encouragement, support and love from our family.

Why do we compliment children over even the smallest achievements? Compliments are one of the simplest, cheapest ways to positively reinforce good behaviour. When we hear a compliment, we feel that we have done something well. We feel a sense of pride and accomplishment, building up our self-confidence. Best of all, we feel good when we are complimented, because we feel accepted and noticed by someone else.

But as we grow older, we receive less and less compliments. Instead, we are constantly under the microscope, being critiqued on every aspect of what makes us us. Our work, partners, friends and family continue to push us to be even more “perfect”. Performance reviews tell us we are not efficient enough, our magazines and advertisements tell us we are not beautiful enough, our loved ones tell us we are not successful enough… No wonder we all have such fragile egos.

A good example of how little we are complimented is how we generally react when someone gives us a genuine compliment. Some people feel wary that the other person is using it as a opener because they want something from us. Many people react by rejecting the compliment, either in an attempt to be modest, or because they genuinely don’t believe that they are worthy of the compliment. Instead of thanking the other person and moving on with your day with a skip in our step, we put up our guard and beat ourselves down even more.

In a brutal world such as this, a compliment can go a long way to make someone’s day. A compliment can range in depth, from our friends pointing out a personality trait of ours that they respect and appreciate, to a stranger noticing and commenting on your choice of outfit. A kind word can be a candle in the way down darkness of stress, hardships and criticism that we face on a daily basis, making us feel valued.

Perhaps life would be just a little bit easier if we each complimented someone once a day. If you consider how many compliments you give to a pet dog in one petting session, a compliment a day to one person seems like nothing. By giving more compliments, the more you will notice that others will compliment you back, as they feel it is safe to do so. This is particularly true in toxic, masculine cultures where complimenting is seen as a sign of being soft, weak or deceptive.

So, where do we start? Just think of what kind of compliment would make your day better if you heard it.

Start simple with a small thing that you notice the other person has made an effort on, whether it is their hair, clothing or an accessory. We feel more appreciated when someone notices something we have done and can change, rather than something we are born with, like our physical appearance.

Then, you will start noticing and appreciating more positive things the person does, such as how they work, their small but significant achievements, products of their creativity and their demeanours.

Lastly, if it is someone we are close to and know well, it might be worth pointing out every now and then something we like about that person on a fundamental level. This includes their values, dreams, passions, convictions and character. Perhaps we respect their strong resolve and positive approach to life. Perhaps we appreciate the kindness they show to others. Perhaps we just love them for being themselves.

Think of the last time you were moved by someone’s compliment to you. Pay that kindness forward by making someone else’s day with a compliment of your own. You will feel happier just seeing another person smile when they hear your kind words.

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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

The Eisenhower Matrix

One of the hardest life skills to master in adult life is time management. We are constantly bombarded with tasks that demand to be completed urgently, atop our already massive piles of responsibilities. We are expected to juggle our career, relationships, health and happiness, without ever dropping the ball.

Technology has not helped this situation. Although we have tools that allow us to work more efficiently, such as word processors and the internet, they create even more work and there is a greater sense of urgency due to messages and emails being received instantly.

Sometimes, adult life just feels as if we are forever stumbling forward – barely clearing our urgent tasks in time for the next lot of tasks, while never being able to stop and consider what is truly important to us. So how can we balance that which is urgent with what is important?

Dwight D. Eisenhower once said:

“I have two kinds of problems: the urgent and the important. The urgent are not important, and the important are never urgent”. 

This inspired the time management tool called the Eisenhower Matrix, also known as an Eisenhower Box or the Eisenhower Method.
To use the Eisenhower method, we take all of our problems that we can conceivably fix (as there is no point worrying about issues beyond our control) and put them into one of the following four boxes:

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  1. If something is important and urgent, such as a fire in your kitchen or a loved one needs immediate help, then you should do it straight away.
  2. If something is not important but urgent, such as a work email that is not an emergency, or household chores or paying the bill, then you should delegate it. This does not necessarily mean to another person – you could delegate by making the process easier for future you by soaking the dishes, or automating your bill payments.
  3. If something is not important and not urgent, you should not even pay attention to it and just drop it. A good example would be checking social media for the tenth time or marathoning a TV show.
  4. If something is important but not urgent, such as catching up with your friends or following your hobbies and passions, then you need to set aside uninterruptible time for it. For example, you could set aside a “life admin” time once a week where you reach out to your friends to organise a catch up, or set a “deadline” for yourself, such as giving yourself a month to improve and achieve a certain goal in your hobby.

The Eisenhower Matrix visually highlights the issues in your life that you need to deal with right now, while also reminding you that you need to take action and make time for the important things in life. It allows you to be more efficient with your available time by prioritising tasks and showing you that the unimportant things can wait, or be eliminated.

It also shows us that even though urgency is a useful tool to drive us to complete tasks in time, it can easily control our lives and overwhelm us. Instead, we should be responsive by identifying the important tasks and process them in a calm and rational manner.

Lastly, remember that life is not about being the most efficient, productive being – that would make you a machine. The Eisenhower Matrix accounts for the things that are not considered “productive”, but still add to our life, such as the things we enjoy doing and the people we enjoy connecting with.

You deserve to be happy and the only person who can make that happen is you. So if something or someone makes you happy and gives your life meaning, while not hurting yourself or others, then by all means you should make time for it.

In the end, the pursuit of happiness is without a doubt a productive activity.

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Posted in Life & Happiness

Flipping Pancakes

There are life skills that are crucial to being a functional adult, such as doing taxes and time management. Then there are life skills that are not necessary, but can bring you great joy. Being able to flip a pancake without making a mess falls in the latter category. You could use an instrument such as a spatula or a plate to help, but it takes away much of the satisfaction. Here are some tips on how to flip a pancake successfully.

Firstly, the bottom side of the pancake needs to be cooked enough that it will maintain its shape during the flip. You can judge this by looking for bubbles rising to the top surface and checking that the top is not runny. 

Secondly, the pancake must not stick to the pan. Use plenty of oil to start with on a non-stick pan, then slide the pancake around in a circular motion to confirm that it will easily slide off the pan.

Thirdly, the flip must be a smooth, rounded motion so that the pancake flips just the right amount. Tilt the pan forward so the pancake sits near the rim, then flick your wrists upwards so that the pancake slides up the rim, making an arc in the air, flipping 180 degrees. With careful hand-eye coordination, catch the pancake in the middle of the pan just when the uncooked side is facing the ground.

But above all that, the most important factor is confidence

If you are not confident enough and don’t flick the pan enough, the pancake will not make a full 180 degree turn. It will quickly fall back into the pan on an angle, crumpling or folding it. If it wasn’t flipped high enough, you won’t have enough time to catch it properly and it may land on the edge, making a big mess. 

If you are overzealous and flick it too hard, the pancake will go flying off or it will turn too much, causing the same problem as above.

Much like so many other things in life, finding the balance and having just the right amount of confidence can bring you great joy in the form of a delicious pancake.

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