Feel Good More Often, Section Two

Section Two: How to Feel Better When You Feel Fine
(if you would like to read part one first, click here)

1. Turn thinking into an art.

Today I went for a jog. I went along the lake, the same way I usually go, and I noticed I was looking at it with this perspective: “I’ve seen this same scenery hundreds of times.” But then I thought about the fact that some day this won’t be here any more or I won’t be here any more. Some day this moment, these times, these days will be gone. And I’ll probably look back fondly on these times and wish I could see this scenery again, and this age again, and in these times again. But I won’t be able to. This time will pass and I’ll never be able to go back except in my memory.

I changed my perspective, and it changed the way I felt. I didn’t have to go out of my way to do this. I was already running. I was already thinking. I didn’t have to stop doing what I was doing. I just changed the way I was thinking a little bit, and it changed the quality of my experience for the better.

“I’ve already seen this scenery hundreds of times” is one perspective — one of many possible perspectives, and not the most life-giving by any means. “Some day I’ll look back on this fondly,” is another perspective, and one with more value. It has more value in the sense that it helps me be here and savor this moment. It makes me feel better.

There are several aspects to a perspective: You can make mental pictures, you can say things to yourself, you can imagine hearing something, you can imagine smelling or tasting or feeling something. And within each of these sense modes, there are further aspects to notice: When you say something to yourself, do you say it softly or yell at yourself or what? Where does it seem your voice is coming from? Behind you? In front of you? Inside you? When you make mental pictures, are they moving or still, in color or black and white, clear or fuzzy? There’s a lot to work with. And that’s why thinking is can be an art.

When I thought about looking back on the scenery fondly, I remembered doing that before — thinking back to some moment in my childhood or even a few years ago, and feeling a longing for being there and experiencing it again. And then I said to myself, gently, “And some day you’ll think of this moment right now in the same way.” The end result was somehow I had generated a feeling of longing for what I was experiencing at that moment, and it was a beautiful experience.

By playing with my thinking, by exploring the possibilities of this “medium,” I had transformed a ho-hum, routine experience into something beautiful.

Your thoughts affect your body. Your thoughts strongly affect how you feel. They can change the blood flow in your brain. They can change hormone levels. Admiral Byrd, the Antarctic explorer I mentioned in Section One, when he was lying in his sleeping bag in darkness and cold, had only his mind. Since he felt like hell at the time, his natural course of thinking was negative. He was having trouble eating because he felt so sick, which was dangerous because of the cold weather. “I lay in the bag,” he wrote of the experience later, “thinking of warm, tropical places; doing this seemed to make me feel warmer.”

He used his mind deliberately. He didn’t let it think whatever it tended to think. He directed his mind. And so can you.

He spent over a month at the edge of death with nothing to distract him: no TV (it hadn’t been invented yet), no radio. He couldn’t even read because his eyes hurt so much. He just lay there feeling bad. His mind became his enemy. “The dark side of a man’s mind,” he wrote, “seems to be a sort of antenna to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions.”

But when things were the worst and he might have lost his mind, he exerted his will upon his own thinking. “I was able to fill my mind with the fine and comforting things of the world that had seemed irretrievably lost,” he wrote, “I surrounded myself with my family and my friends; I projected myself into the sunlight, into the midst of green, growing things. I thought of all the things I would do when I got home...”

It wasn’t easy. His mind kept pulling him into despair. He wrote, “Concentration was difficult, and only by the utmost persistence could I bring myself out of it. But ultimately the disorder left my mind; and, when I blew out the candles and the lantern, I was living in the world of the imagination — a simple, uncomplicated world made up of people who wished each other well, who were peaceful and easy-going and kindly.”

He was pitted against one of the greatest challenges ever facing a human mind, and he overcame it. Probably none of us will be up against so desperate a situation. But we can learn from those who have gone that far. Discipline your mind. Take control of it by deciding to. And create beauty.

Just when Admiral Byrd started to recover, he had another accident and another big dose of carbon monoxide. He was so sick he couldn’t eat or even hardly move. His head was in unbearable pain. “Curled up in the bunk, I mumbled like a monk fingering his beads. When my voice stopped, the silence crowded in.” He set up routines for himself, but that wasn’t enough. He also needed “the will and desire to endure these hardships.” But how did he muster these? He gives the answer in his book Alone: “By taking control of my thought.”

I have a tip for you. The easiest way to gain control of your mind is by asking questions. You can’t stop yourself from thinking any more than you can stop yourself from breathing. But you can control your breathing, can’t you? And you can control your thinking. You can direct your mind onto new lines of thought by asking yourself a question. Make it a good one and keep asking it.

I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you start thinking you’ll never be able to accomplish some goal you really want. It starts looking hopeless. Your mind is spinning down into a negative spiral and you want to gain control. Ask yourself a question and keep asking it.

There are many possibilities. How about, “What small thing can I do right now, today, that will bring me even a tiny bit closer to my goal?” That’s a good question. If you have no answers, keep thinking. And remember, the best way to think is on paper. Keep asking that question of yourself even if you have to ask it for a week solid before you come up with a good answer, keep your mind on it. You’ll eventually be able to come up with an answer.

You can see how important it is to ask a good question. A bad question will just make things worse. For example, you could also ask, “Why do I always fail at everything I try?” Do you see what a lousy question that is? Do you see how that question also directs your mind — straight down?

Ask yourself a good question and keep asking. That’s the easiest way to control your mind.

That's just one way to experiment with your thoughts. Your mind is like the ultimate canvas to a painter, and when you start treating your own thoughts like an art form, you can add a lot of good feeling to your life.

2. Moderate your desires.

We own more things that we ever did before. A king of an empire only a thousand years ago was poor compared to a modern Westerner. You and I have access to things completely incomparable to a king’s. And we hardly ever think of it that way. Microwave ovens, TVs, phones, medical care, paved roads, hot showers, flushing toilets — it goes on and on. And for the most part, we get accustomed to it and take our wealth for granted, never realizing how lucky we are. People in the West have become progressively wealthier through the years. And it keeps increasing. The average U.S. citizen in 1953 had access to 153 electronic appliances. Twenty years later, a U.S. citizen had about 400. The median size of a new home built in the U.S. in 1949 was 1100 square feet. By 1993 it had grown to 2060 square feet. A person in the U.S., on average, owns twice as many cars now as people did in 1950.

But owning things costs time.

Americans spend forty percent less time with their children now than they did in 1960. And even though there are more households now with the husband and wife both working, each American employee spends, on average, 163 more hours per year on the job than a person did in 1969.

One of the things both Gandhi and Buddha borrowed from Hinduism is this fundamental truth: Your desires make you unhappy. Of course, you can’t get rid of desires altogether (well, you can, but you’d probably have to have most of your brain removed), but you can alter your relationship to your own desires. Gandhi is a good example of this. He was a lawyer and had the fine things a lawyer had: Nice clothes, a nice place to live for his family, etc. But he gave it all up. He had something more important to do.

Seems like a big sacrifice, doesn’t it? And I’m sure in a way it was. But when you realize your level of happiness — the actual amount of satisfaction you get from your everyday existence — doesn’t have much to do with how many of your desires you satisfy, then moderating your desires is more like a privilege than a sacrifice. It simplifies your life and you can actually become happier.

There is a kind of constant grasping for what you don’t have that can produce unhappiness, even if you actually succeed in getting much of what you grasp for. It is that needy, grasping state of mind that is itself unhappiness.

I have a simple, practical series of questions I ask myself, and it always brings back perspective. It’s my Greedbuster:

1) Am I hungry?
2) Am I having difficulty getting enough oxygen?
3) Am I shivering from cold or passing out from heat?

In a way, these are stupid questions. Almost everyone almost every time will be able to answer no to all three. But it changes what you’re comparing your present situation to, and that can put your situation in perspective and make you feel better.

When you don’t appreciate what you have, you’re missing out on some good feelings. Here’s a way to produce it: Compare your situation to something worse. Your mind makes comparisons a lot, usually automatically and usually without being aware you’re doing it, and usually the comparison is between where you are now and something better. That either makes you feel motivated or depressed. If it makes you motivated, don’t change a thing. If it makes you sad or dissatisfied, change the comparison. There’s no reason you have to always compare your situation, your looks, your financial status or anything else of yours to something better. It’s just as valid, and it feels better (and so is better for your health, your relationships, your thinking ability and your competence) to compare your present status to something worse: Either someone else who’s worse off than you, or to a time in your past when you were worse off, or whatever.

Moderate your desires. Pay attention to your own greed and curb it by simply being aware of it and naming it greed and reminding yourself that the satisfaction of your desires isn't really where happiness comes from. You'll feel better.

3. Watch less TV, experience more flow.

People watch TV more than any other off-work pastime. Producers and advertisers want very much for this to continue, and they do everything in their power to tempt you away from other things. But studies have shown that the more TV you watch, the less enjoyable it becomes, and the worse you feel. So don’t watch very much.

In the rest of your free time, find things to do that produce “flow.” Find something that produces a sense of enjoyment, focus, and being lost in the activity. In flow, time flies. And the good feelings have a tendency to spill over into later times.

Common leisure activities people use to produce flow include: playing cards with friends or family, reading a good book, building things, cooking food, playing sports and games, playing a musical instrument, painting, writing, taking a class, etc.

Activities involving pleasant interactions with other people seem to be the most enjoyable for the most people. We are profoundly social creatures and staring at a TV screen is to some degree an isolation, even if someone is sitting right next to you.

A key element to producing flow is challenge. When there is a challenge that requires skill on your part, it focuses your attention and allows you to enter flow. TV requires no skill. Reading a fiction story is almost the same as watching TV accept that reading tends to produce flow and TV doesn’t. Why? Two reasons: Television is constantly interrupted by commercials, so you can’t really get lost in the story. And also, something we forget: reading is a skill. And you can only read as fast as your skill allows, so the better the story, the more you push your skill, which causes you to concentrate and enter flow.

Make your work into more of a flow activity too. Make sure your work is meaningful to you, focus your attention on it, keep your work as uninterrupted as you can, know what you’re trying to accomplish for the day or hour or task, push yourself to the upper level of your skill (but not much beyond that), and make sure you have a clear form of feedback so you know how well you are meeting the challenge. Try to turn as many of your daily tasks as you can into a flow experience. It feels good.

A pleasant side-effect is that playing or working at the upper end of your skill increases your skill, and that will also make you feel good.

The researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, in his book The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third Millennium, had this to say: “Television the world over seems to have the following effects on viewers: It makes them feel very relaxed, but also significantly less active, alert, mentally focused, satisfied, or creative compared with almost anything else they could be doing. At the same time, in every culture where TV is accessible, people watch it more than they pursue any other activity in their free time.”

Strangely enough, people who watch a great deal of TV enjoy it less than those who watch very little. And the longer you sit and watch, the worse your moods will get, at least according to the research.

Reading can produce flow, can be a break, and it can also teach you useful things if you read the right books. The requirement for a good book is not only that it’ll teach you something useful (I’m talking about nonfiction books here), but also that you want to read it.

I consider myself lucky. When I was in fifth grade, I had the privilege of being in a special class. Instead of normal English classes, my reading skill was high enough I got to skip that and instead all we did for the hour was read. Whatever we wanted. There was no teacher lecturing. There was no requirement other than we had to read something during that hour every day.

I fell in love with reading and it has never faded. It’s an unfortunate by-product of our schools to pretty much turn most people off of learning. We were forced to learn things we didn’t want to know when there were things we did want to know. So most people, when you say, “read nonfiction books” are not at all excited about that.

But it can be exciting. It can be a wonderful flow experience that can also change your thinking forever. It can teach you things you’ll never forget and that you’ll use for the rest of your life. I guess I don’t have to tell you this. I just realized you are now reading this nonfiction article and the people I need to lecture about this are somewhere else not reading nonfiction.

But the important thing is not to force yourself to read something you are not interested in. At least that’s important if you want to experience flow. Find something you’re interested in. Something you want to read. That’s where you start. Your own interest is most important. Trust me — if you are interested in it, there is a book on the subject.

Your skill level and the challenge must match or it stops being enjoyable. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, Louis L’Amour, the western fiction writer, wrote about a checker player in San Pedro he knew in real life. L’Amour was hanging out with a bunch of sailors hoping for a job on a boat.

The man took his checker game seriously, studied books on strategy, carefully deliberated over each move, and he was very good.

One day another fellow came along, a man with an amazing head for figures. He liked to play checkers and he was also very good, but he didn’t deliberate over his moves at all. He talked casually with other people while the serious player was thinking, and then as soon as he made a move, the newcomer would make his move, apparently without even thinking it over. And the newcomer won every time.

The serious one was obviously completely outmatched and he never showed up again at the seamen hangout. His skill level didn't match the challenge and playing checkers wasn't fun any more. For something to produce flow, the challenge has to be within your range of skill.

L’Amour liked poetry and on long lonely voyages at sea when he was standing lookout at the bow of the ship, he recited poetry to himself. That’s an example of self-generated flow. It is a challenge to remember poems. It made the time go faster and more enjoyably.

In an essay contest for the magazine Restaurants and Institutions, one waiter wrote in to say he gets “high” waiting tables. “There is a high,” he wrote, “when I have enough tables to keep me busy but not enough to bury me.” That’s a beautiful and intuitive description of flow. “I’m on fire,” he says, “I am totally involved, moving fast and making every move count...it can be great fun. When I’m busy, my jokes are funnier and my troubles are gone.”

April 24th through 30th, 1995, was the First Annual National TV-Turnoff Week. The point was to find out the degree to which TV is interfering with study, learning, reading and physical fitness, and how watching TV encourages aggressive behavior, creates driven little consumers, undermines family relationships, reinforces stereotyping, etc.

The idea of National TV-Turnoff Week is to see what else you can do for a week instead of TV. I thought that was a good idea, so I tried it. My son was 13 at the time. He loved his TV programs. If he had some spare time, he spent a lot of it watching TV. So I used it as a punishment. When he did something he wasn’t supposed to do, I took his TV away for a week.

I was amazed. He became more sociable. We talked more. He took up juggling and learned to do it. He didn’t like it as well, of course. He still wanted to watch his programs. But he was better off. He had more skills. He had better relationships. These are ultimately more important and more satisfying than finding out what’s happening on the latest favorite sitcom. It’s like sugar — very appealing but not good for you. A carrot is better than a piece of candy but it’s not as attractive.

But that doesn't mean it is impossible to resist TV. You can still eat vegetables even though sugar is available. And you can watch less TV and do more activities that produce flow, and if you did this, you would feel good more often.

4. Change your habits with frequent repetition.

You have an insight. You know it’ll change your life for the better. Three weeks later you realize you’ve forgotten all about it and nothing has changed. What went wrong? It’s not that the insight was worthless — it was a good one. It’s not that you’re weak or insincere about your desire to change. You have good intentions. It’s just that the opportunities to put that insight into practice were too far apart.

A habit is like a path through a meadow. When you want to form a new habit, it’s like going off from the middle of the path to a new corner of the meadow. The first time you do it, you’ve only tramped the grass down a little. If you came back three weeks later, that new path would have disappeared already.

You’re brain is like that. The more times you go over some behavior or thinking pattern, the stronger it makes that pathway in your brain. After awhile, it’s like a well-worn path — you can leave it alone for two months and when you come back, it’s still there.

So when you want to make an insight stick, when you want to form a new habit, when you want to make a change: Find some way to practice that habit every day until it’s a well-worn path. If the real-life opportunities to practice only occur every month, then practice in your head every day. Mental practice works almost as well as real-life practice.

Form new habits successfully and you will feel good more often.

5. Change a pattern of interaction with a person who seems to make you feel bad.

Sometimes when you interact with a particular person, you feel bad. Usually, there is something repetitive about the way the two of you interact. For example, maybe you do a particular kind of thing, and the other person always tries to make you feel guilty about it.

Think of something different to do, some different way to respond. If you usually argue, try just listening. If you are usually quiet, try being talkative. Try to make a change that you think might improve things. Or at least try something that will make things different.

Focus on one pattern, figure out how you will respond to it differently, and be consistent with that new change for awhile, allowing enough time for the old pattern to rearrange itself around the new change.

The way the two of you interact is making you feel bad. That’s not good. Feeling bad is bad for you health, bad for your mind, bad for your relationships, and no fun.

When you decide to try something different, you may feel awkward. That’s a good sign. It means you’re doing something you wouldn’t normally do, which is exactly what you’re after. Keep it up. The other person will have to find some way of dealing with it, and the way they find might be a new pattern that doesn’t make you feel as bad.

Concern yourself with changing something you do (rather than trying to get the other person to do something different).

Interaction of any kind requires both people to play the game. If you are playing checkers with someone and you get up and go for a swim, your checkers game is over, and whether the other person likes it or not, his checkers game is over unless he can find someone else to play with. Whatever you normally do to interact with the person who seems to make you feel bad is allowing them to continue what he is doing. Sit down with paper and pen and try to come up with some alternative responses. Try to squeeze ten ideas out of your brain. Then pick the best one and try it next time. If you get a different interaction, keep it up. This can help you feel good more often, or at least help you feel bad less often.

6. Practice not flinching.

You know the usual definition of flinch: When I take a swing at you, you close your eyes and jerk your head. Using the same idea and expanding it into psychological and social realms, we get this: To flinch means to pull back, shrink back, pull away or turn away in order to avoid discomfort or difficulty.

Most people have a strong desire to put their hands in front of their body when they stand before a group. When they succumb to that desire, that’s a flinch. Telling someone something she doesn’t want to hear, you’re flinching if you shift your body’s weight from one foot to the other, pick at your fingernails, cross your arms, put you hands in your pockets, look at the floor while you talk, say it jokingly, etc.

Flinching is an attempt to protect yourself. Just about everybody does it and there’s not a person alive who doesn’t want to do it sometimes, but when you give in to it, you make yourself weak.

Refusing to flinch makes you strong. When you look someone in the eyes and let your arms hang where they naturally hang and speak truthfully, you’re unnervingly powerful, not only in the perception of the person you’re talking to, but in your own perception. You will feel more powerful.

You don’t have to spend years getting good at this. You can do it the very next time you talk to someone. When you feel the urge to flinch (and it may be a very strong urge) make the decision right there to resist the urge.

It works in all areas of your life. When you want to be emotionally strong, refuse to flinch at emotions. When you want to be socially strong, refuse to flinch in social situations.

Wherever you flinch you will be weak. Wherever you refuse to flinch, you will be strong.

It’ll make it easier if you use algorithm number one from the first section: Steady your mind by calming your breath. Breathe deeply and relax the tense muscles in your body.

Honesty and integrity also make it easier to resist the temptation to flinch. Looking someone in the eye and feeling comfortable about it almost requires no guilty conscience.

And also, the other side is true too: It will help you become more honest when you don’t flinch.

You can see a graphic example of not flinching in the movie Tombstone, about Wyatt Earp. In one scene, Kurt Russel, who is playing Wyatt, is talking to a loudmouth, bully dealer. He tells the dealer, “You’re sitting in my chair.” They have an exchange of words and the whole time Wyatt never flinches. He was unarmed. The dealer had a gun, but before the exchange was over, Wyatt had disarmed the dealer and thrown him out of the saloon. It’s just a movie, but that scene portrayed the real man accurately. He disarmed many a man when he himself was without a gun.

He did it with courage. He didn’t flinch. It made him powerful. And it can do the same for you. Flinching feels bad. When you refuse to flinch, you can feel good more often.

7. Use what you get.

Everybody gets some good breaks and some bad breaks in their lives, and that’s true for you too. What counts is what you do with them.

Whatever happens to you, find a way to extract some advantage from it. Come up with some way you can turn it to your benefit. I don’t mean just come to accept it or live with it or tolerate it. But think of a way you can use it that will make you glad it happened.

This is as creative an act as painting or inventing. Ask the question relentlessly: “How can I turn this to my advantage?” Ask it for days. Ask it for weeks. Ask it until you get the answers you need.

Thomas Edison said his deafness was his greatest blessing because he missed out when people talked about negative circumstances he wasn’t interested in. Yes, being hard of hearing has disadvantages. But there are advantages. And he could have whined about the disadvantages, but instead, he put his attention on the advantages. He used his deafness to help him.

You may have heard of Stephen Hawkings. He is considered by some the greatest mind since Einstein. He’s got Lou Gehrig’s disease that slowly destroys nerve and muscle systems. He is now confined to a wheelchair, can’t talk, and can’t move much more than a finger. Yet this man has continued his work. His mind is unaffected. He can still think.

It’s unfortunate. It’s definitely tragic. But Hawkings has used his handicap. He cannot spend hours drinking brandy and conversing with friends. He can’t work out and keep himself in shape. He can’t go shopping or cook or do the dishes. Pretty much all he can do is think. And he has taken full advantage of that disadvantage. He has pushed his thoughts boldly where no one has gone before. He used what he got, and has turned it not only to his own advantage, but to the advantage of humankind.

Use what you get. It’s the only sane thing to do with it and it will make you feel good more often.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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