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Hope Addiction: Why and How Not to Camp Our Spawn Points

States of mind

I wrote a dictionary of subculture slang that was published back in 2006, and in the “online gamers” section, it includes definitions for two terms that together have a lot to do with a common way we lose productivity and focus.

spawn point: A game location where characters or monsters regularly emerge.

camp: (as a verb) To take a position where many enemies emerge and ambush them there.

Some players, in some games, like to take up the practice of “camping a spawn point.” You position yourself right near a place where new players are emerging into the game, or where computer-controlled antagonists (generally known as “monsters”) are being created, and you just nail those suckers one after the other as they come out. It’s annoying to the players (and probably annoying to the monsters too, although since they don’t talk much about their feelings, we’ll never know for sure), but players who are camping spawn points are really not playing the game: they’re reactively taking easy pot shots at whoever shows up. In gaming, this may not be a problem as long as everyone’s having fun. In life, it can become a serious impediment to happiness.

Camping the inbox
I don’t play online games, but I do use e-mail–a lot. While I’ve gotten much better at using e-mail responsibly over the last few years, I’ve certainly had periods in my history when I was visiting it every few minutes, with a miniature rise and crash of hope every time I checked and something good hadn’t shown up–which was most of the times I checked, of course, because you don’t generally get good news a hundred times a day.

We can do the same thing with any number of sources: snail mail boxes, voice mail, text messages on cell phones, bank accounts, Twitter, Facebook, online sales reports, Web site statistics, the news, forums–all places where we hope some good news may suddenly appear. A deposit came through, or sales have taken an upturn, or the person we most want to hear from has gotten in touch, or something has sold, or our investments have gone up, or a package has arrived … in one way or another, a bit of hope has been gratified.

Hope is generally thought to be a good thing, the one consolation prize left at the bottom of Pandora’s box, but it has its dark side too. Buddhist tradition knows about this, stating that the suffering in the world arises from attachment, where attachment means (this is my rough explanation) making your happiness depend on anything external to you. This would include the package you’re hoping will ship today, the reply from the person you want to date, or the acceptance letter for the story you sent out last month. It’s easy to fall into a habit of always looking for some new good thing to happen, and the results can be distraction, frustration, and repeated disappointment.

How not to camp
When we camp e-mail inboxes or other places where good things might emerge, we’re either focusing our attention on something we want (for instance, a response to an e-mail, application, or submission) or being driven by habit. In both cases, one of the easiest and most effective ways to stop obsessing about what might come to us is to get engaged with something that’s actually going on, to really dig into a project, connect with another person, or just get active.

So in practical terms, three especially good ways to stop camping are

  1. Taking the next immediate step on a project you care about, so that you become involved (and ideally achieve flow–see “Flow: What It Feels Like to Be Perfectly Motivated“).
  2. Doing something with other people: human interaction can be absorbing and rewarding when it goes well.
  3. Exercise. Taking a walk or doing more strenuous activities will offer all kinds of benefits even if you don’t count the fitness payoff (see “Nothing to Do With Weight Loss: 17 Ways Exercise Promotes Willpower and Motivation“).

To put it another way, the best way to stop camping is to energetically do something else constructive. Camping tends to happen when our attention is not engaged well–when boredom threatens or has overtaken us.

The difference in our experience can be dramatic. A day of camping can be exhausting even though not much might have gotten done. We feel distracted and often dissatisfied, and we have no reason to believe the next day won’t be more of the same. By contrast, a day spent focused on engaging work or with other people–or at the very least spent actively–will feel more satisfying and build optimism, confidence, and focus.

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If You Want to Be Happier, You Have to Care Less

States of mind

Think of the most serene, compassionate, happy-looking person in the world. What does that person look like? A movie star, someone who’s climbed to the top of the fame ladder? I’m guessing not. A powerful politician? Absolutely not. A toddler with adoring parents? Maybe, but check again in five minutes and the answer is probably no. A bride on her wedding day? Not so serene, usually. An incredibly successful entrepreneur? Smug, maybe: I’m not so sure about serene or compassionate.

How about the Dalai Lama–or virtually any other highly accomplished Buddhist monk?

Serene? Check. Compassionate? Double check. Happy looking? Those lines didn’t come from years of yelling at the cat to get off the furniture, for damn sure. Check out the images that come up if we search Google for pictures of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama: except for a couple of expressions of attentive interest, it’s a complete smilefest. (Scroll down to the bottom to see the screen shot: I didn’t want to put the picture at the top and prime you to choose the answer I’d thought of.)

Does happiness work the same way for everyone?
But then again, what does that prove? This is the Dalai Lama, for the love of Pete. It’s his job to be serene and compassionate. That guy doesn’t have to argue on the phone with his wireless provider. That guy doesn’t have a neighbor who mows the lawn every Sunday morning at 6:15. That guy has never been jilted by someone he was pity-dating (to the best of my knowledge).

Although, OK, he did have his country stolen from him, is exposed to the profound suffering of millions daily, and is never allowed to have sex at all, ever. Still, his approach to happiness probably has to be a lot different than our approach to happiness, right?

Happiness in four bullet points
I was thinking about this just a short while ago, after a conversation with my wireless provider (I bet you thought that was a hypothetical example, huh?) in which I was informed that while yes, the equipment I just purchased from them does not work, and yes, it’s their fault and yes, I’ll have to exchange it, and yes, the whole reason I had to buy it in the first place is that their coverage at my home is unusably bad, that no, they would not give me a new one before they receive the old one: in the mean time I would just have to suffer without it.

There’s the key word: “suffer.” The central lesson Buddhism has for us about happiness (even for people who, like me, don’t consider themselves Buddhists) is contained in something called “The Four Noble Truths.” The millennia-old Four Noble Truths are surprisingly in tune with psychological research from the past couple of decades, and they go a little something like this:

  1. Suffering exists
  2. Suffering arises from attachment to desires
  3. Suffering ceases when attachment to desire ceases
  4. Freedom from suffering is possible by practicing the Eightfold Path

For the moment, let’s not worry about the Eightfold Path: that’s a discussion for another day, although the short version of it is what my girlfriend reminds me of (patiently) time and time again: the more that the things you do are in harmony with each other and with you, the happier you’ll be.

How to suffer: a practical example
The thing I want to latch onto here is the whole suffering and attachment deal. Let’s use the example of the wireless company: Why is it frustrating and annoying to me that they aren’t helping solve my problem now, when I want it solved–frustrating enough that I literally went directly from their store to the bakery across the way with the idea of possibly having a really unhealthy lunch revolving around pastry? (Note: I did get a handle on things after a minute or two and went on to have a lunch of roasted chicken, black beans, and salad.)

The reason it was annoying is that I cared. My self-talk was subtly but inescapably guiding me toward misery by dwelling on what the wireless company–OK, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s AT&T–“should” do, what I “deserved” to have, how “unfair” it was that the device I’d pay for didn’t work, and how I “needed” an immediate solution. Note the words in quotes: they’re all indicators (in this case) of broken ideas, our primary mechanism for making ourselves miserable and the focus of a number of highly successful cognitive therapies (see “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair“).

As long as I cared whether or not AT&T did what I wanted, I would be unhappy. The moment I ceased to care–became unattached from–that concern, it would no longer bother me.

How not to suffer
Again I’m not talking theoretically: I let that concern go, and I immediately felt better. Of course, the problem with bad habits–even when they’re very general habits like making ourselves unhappy when things don’t go our way–is that we’ve grown specialized neural connections to keep them going, so releasing that concern generally just means that I’ll stop worrying about it right at that moment, but that it will come back as soon as I’m reminded of the original problem at a time when I’m not concentrating on being unattached.

Fortunately, I then have the option of not caring again. It turns into a long-term battle: my habits kick in to make me act in ways that will cause me to be unhappy, then I exert conscious effort to free myself and become happy again … and round and round we go. Yet this cycle weakens the habit over time, because the more we think or act a certain way, the more robust our mental wiring for that approach becomes, while the more disruptive we are to a behavior, the more that behavior weakens. This is how habits are made and destroyed.

When next we talk about this …
There’s a lot more to talk about here, especially the idea that caring less is a good thing (which on a gut level has always given me trouble) and about when caring more is important (because there are times when caring is indispensable)–but I’ll leave those subjects for other posts, so that this one can remain a fairly readable length. I had wanted to cram more into this post, but with a little effort, I’ve stopped caring whether I do that or not.

Silo image by Timothy K Hamilton


Some Tips for Getting Rid of Things

Strategies and goals

I’m currently in the midst of a two-day “decluttering vacation,” taking time off from my regular work to go through my house, get rid of things I don’t need, and organize the things I have left. I used to live in a larger house with a fair amount of storage, and I also used to have a less realistic idea of what I might really, actually use some day, so even though I’ve been getting rid of some stuff in recent years, my current, smaller house, which doesn’t have much storage space, has some packed closets and corners that I’d really like to clear out. (See my article “Clearing Your Mind by Cashing In.”)

It seems to me that the hardest part of decluttering doesn’t have anything to do with time, space, or materials: it’s the decisions. You find a book you read and liked ten years ago, or a tool that you’d lost for two years, or a stack of letters from a friend, and you think “Should I get rid of this? Will somebody be insulted if I get rid of it? Where would it even go if I did get rid of it? What if I get rid of it and I need it? I paid a lot of money for this!” and so on.

Many of these questions are misleading, because they get us involved in a lot of drama over the objects that doesn’t help us figure out whether or not the object belongs in our lives.

Let’s first say that if we don’t have any use for something, it’s best to get rid of it, even if that takes time and effort. I had a large laptop battery that was tapped out, no longer usable–but I didn’t want to throw it away, because I knew some of its materials might be toxic and that it could be recycled. I walked all over downtown Montpelier, Vermont trying to find a suitable battery drop-off, then did some searching online, then finally took it to a recycling bin for batteries at a local Best Buy store (though I also could have taken it to the dump and put it in the right place there, it turns out). This was a pain in the neck, but it was less of a pain in the neck than holding onto that useless object for the rest of my life! And the feeling of accomplishment and relief, although small, made a truly positive impact on my day.

So for the moment disregarding the question of what is to be done with an object once we decide it needs to go, here’s a proposal for a question that can help decide whether or not it should go in the first place: “In what kind of realistic situation would I actually want to pull this out and do something with it?”

Keep in mind that we’re trying to picture a situation that would actually happen, in which we would know where this item was, be willing and able to find it and get it out, and experience happiness or relief at having it available. There has to be a plausible payoff to keeping the thing. If there is no payoff, no value to keeping it, then it’s probably worth letting go.

It can take some time to get past our gut-level panic reactions at tossing something we may have had for years or paid a bundle for, but the effect of successfully ditching objects we really don’t need is often one of relief and pride, not to mention better organization and increased closet space. While getting rid of stuff isn’t always the most useful thing to do with our time, when it does come time to face that task, it’s an opportunity for becoming happier and more free.

It also can be done–and often will be more rewarding when done–in small amounts every day or several times a week rather than in one big push. (See “How to Reduce Stress and Get More Done by Turning a Project into a Habit.”)

One last note: decluttering doesn’t apply to data in the same way it does to physical objects. Electronic information can be searched automatically and takes virtually no physical space, and the amount of storage we have for that information grows exponentially over time as technology improves. So spending a full day going through all the files on your computer and deleting the ones you don’t need is probably not a great use of time. This is not to say it’s never worth deleting or offloading things from your computer, only that organizing data doesn’t pay off in the same way organizing objects does.

Photo by sindesign

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