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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

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The Best 40 Percent of Happiness

States of mind

What do lottery jackpot winners and people who have been paralyzed in an accident have in common? Major life changes. These two groups were the focus of a 1978 study on happiness and how it’s affected by our situation in life, including our ups and downs. In years since then it has contributed to a lot of other studies, including Adaptation and the Set-Point Model of Subjective Well-Being: Does Happiness Change After Major Life Events? by Richard E. Lucas in 2007, which argues that our happiness has a level–different levels for different people–to which we naturally tend to return (even after things like winning the lottery or having a spinal cord injury).

Different researchers conclude slightly different levels for the importance of genetics, conditions, and attitude in happiness, but as a good example, in their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks, authors Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler give these percentages:

50% genetic,
40% attitude, and
10% situational

In other words, if your life goes amazingly well and you’re the luckiest person on the planet, you’ll probably be only about 10% happier than someone just like you who has the worst luck on the planet. However, if you cultivate habits of finding happiness in your situation regardless of whether or not things go your way, you can make a major difference in how happy you are.  This is probably why the Dalai Lama is such a happy-looking guy (just take a look at him! And that’s not just for the cameras: our faces begin to show our emotions in wrinkles as we get older–ever notice the difference in appearance between a happy 80-year-old’s face and a grim 80-year-old’s face?–and His Holiness the Dalai Lama has the face of a guy who has been doing a lot of smiling). Buddhist teachings promote letting go of desire, and as Ben Franklin once observed, “Blessed is he that expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.”

In tomorrow’s post, I’ll touch on some of the reasons happiness works the way it does, and what we can take away from that to become happier ourselves.

Lottery photo by jackace

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Fighting Anxiety with Hopelessness

Handling negative emotions

Pema Chödrön

Buddhism is a rich source of insights about emotions and emotional states. While I don’t know that we can fairly call the centuries-old Buddhist tradition of investigation into the human mind a strictly scientific approach, it really is a rigorous tradition that builds its conclusions on direct experience. So I offer today’s post, based in Buddhist teachings, as food for thought.

American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön, in her book When Things Fall Apart, offers an unusual route to living a happy life: embracing hopelessness. My initial reaction to this idea was extreme doubt, but hearing her point of view, I began to see the value of the idea.

To get a sense of what she means, let me give the example of my fear that everything will go to hell in a handbasket. Being interested in how things fit together–societies, supply networks, and so on–I often think about how easily something I’m used to having could be cut off. For instance, this past winter during a storm, we lost power at my house. This should not have been a big problem, especially since we have gas heat. Except that I found out that the gas heat system is dependent on electricity to run, so we had no heat or power. And the water is dependent on an electric pump, so we had no heat, power, or water. And our phone is through a VOIP service, so since we had no Internet due to having no power, we also had no phone. And of course with the refrigerator not working, I was concerned about most of our food going bad.

The power came back on after not too many hours, and my son and I had other places we could go if the outage went too long–and since it was winter, at worst I could put our perishable food outside. Still, it’s a little sobering to realize that one break in a cable can mean losing Internet, power, phone, heat, water, light, food, and more. And for years I’ve been a little bit concerned. What would happen if there were a really bad economic situation, or a plague, or a war, or something else that interrupted some of the ways that food, power, water, and other necessities get to us? How would I keep myself and the people who are important to me safe, sheltered, and fed?

Hopelessness doesn’t solve this concern, but interestingly, practicing it made things better. You can’t make anything completely safe, hopelessness says. Stop hoping that you can prevent every bad thing from happening if you just scramble hard enough. Bad things will eventually happen. Eventually, too, we’ll all die.

If you’re not feeling happier yet, I don’t blame you–but when we think about it, giving up the idea that everything will ever be perfect or absolutely safe allows us to let go of a lot of unneeded anxiety. “Giving up hope is encouragement to stick with yourself,” says  Chödrön, “to make friends with yourself, to not run away from yourself, to return to the bare bones, no matter what’s going on … if we totally experience hopelessness, giving up all hope of alternatives to the present moment, we can have a joyful relationship with our lives, an honest, direct relationship, one that no longer ignores the reality of impermanence and death.”

Stress and anxiety are a result of struggling with fears and things we want to avoid. If we don’t struggle, if we accept that bad things will sometimes happen, then the stress and anxiety lessen or disappear, because all we have to deal with is the moment right in front of us, and the moment in front of us usually isn’t so bad. Think of your situation right now, for instance. You probably have things you need to do, things you’re worried about, things you can think of that might cause trouble. But if you focus on how things are with you, right in at this moment, you may find it surprisingly easy to feel that everything’s fine. You are probably not in any great amount of pain. You’re alive. You have the ability to think about things that make you happy. Things could be worse.

There’s a limit to all this, though, at least if you ask me. I see value–real, lasting value–in moving toward our goals, in making progress, in striving for things. Hopelessness is absolutely not about striving: it’s about letting go. There is even value in negative emotions: see my article The Benefits of Feeling Bad. But striving for things is living in the future, and by my reckoning, there are times to live in the future, times to live in the past, and times to live in the present. When we need to come back to center, to marshall ourselves, to let go of things long enough to get our bearings again, then hopelessness and living just in the present moment can be just what we need.

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Why Lousy Is a Great Place to Start

Handling negative emotions

I’m reading a book called Start Where You Are by Pema Chödrön, an American Buddhist nun, about meditation, coming to terms with suffering (our own and others’), and connecting to the world in a compassionate way. Much of the book is about meditative and partly spiritual practices that I won’t go into here, but there’s one particular section where she says something very striking that applies equally well to any process of self-improvement:

Start where you are. This is very important. [Meditation practice] is not about later, when you get it all together and you’re this person you really respect. You may be the most violent person in the world–that’s a fine place to start. That’s a very rich place to start–juicy, smelly. You might be the most depressed person in the world, the most addicted person in the world, the most jealous person in the world. You might think that there are no others on the planet who hate themselves as much as you do. All of that is a good place to start. Just where you are—that’s the place to start.

And later, she continues:

Suppose you are involved in a horrific relationship: every time you think of a particular person you get furious. That is very useful for tonglen [the practice the book describes]! Or perhaps you feel depressed. It was all you could do to get out of bed today. You’re so depressed that you want to stay in bed for the rest of your life; you have considered hiding under your bed. That is very useful for tonglen practice. The specific fixation should be real, just like that.

She goes on to describe how to harness these emotions in meditation, but the point I’d like to make is that they’re essential to any process of improving your life through changing the way you think. There are a few reasons for this. First, feelings like this that go unacknowledged tend to continue to torment us, because if we don’t take them in and really pay attention to how we’re experiencing them, we only have our habitual ways of responding to them, which won’t change anything (by definition, because habits are what we automatically do already). Second, if I’m going to improve my life, why should I wait for a time when I feel better? If I’m feeling bad now, then now is when improvement would be the most welcome, and there’s nothing preventing me from improving more when I feel better some other time too. And third, as Chödrön points out, strong negative emotions have a lot of juice. Someone who doesn’t feel excited (in a good or a bad way) about anything much at the moment doesn’t have a strong emotional incentive to change their lives. Someone who’s feeling something strong, whether it’s delight or love or anger or despair, has an immediate emotional reason to change things for the better.

Chödrön has specific recommendations for using negative emotions in meditation practice, and for anyone interested in Buddhist meditation, I strongly suggest the book for that purpose. For our intentions here, though, there are also specific ways we can harness negative emotions. In tomorrow’s post, I’ll talk about how to use pain and trouble to repair broken ideas.

Photo by Pensiero

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Tools for Feeling Better, Part I

Handling negative emotions

I’ve mentioned in some recent articles that I’m doing my best to remember and make good use of whatever tools I have to make good choices. Some of the most useful tools of this kind are for getting past negative emotions: anger, depression, frustration, anxiety, avoidance, despair, and so on.

Here are five of the best tools I know of for handling bad states of mind. I’ll post another article or two in the near future with more.

Idea repair: Negative emotions that keep going even when no new bad things are happening are usually maintained by specific kinds of thoughts (as talked about, for instance, in Jenefer Robinson’s book Deeper Than Reason: Emotion and Its Role in Literature, Music, and Art). Idea repair, called “cognitive restructuring” in psychology circles, is the process of detecting flawed thoughts and reframing them so that they become constructive and stop causing pain.

Mindfulness: A key ingredient in sorting out negative emotions and one of the requirements for idea repair and other positive processes, mindfulness is simply being aware of what’s going on both around and inside us. We can’t be mindful all the time, but there are certainly situations in which we become more sane, happy, focused, and relaxed just by using this one idea.

Meditation: Although some people meditate for spiritual reasons, others do it just for the immediate personal payoff in serenity, self-awareness, and clarity. It’s not difficult to get started.

Understanding schemas: Mental schemas are flawed patterns of thinking and behavior that are usually learned when we are young but stick with us into adulthood, often causing trouble for us on a daily basis. There are a variety of them, including, for example, Abandonment, Mistrust, and Emotional deprivation. If we find any schemas in ourselves, we can learn to understand and overcome those schemas, clearing away a lot of emotional drag and clutter in the process.

Emotional antidotes: Buddhist inquiry into human emotion, which is a time-honored and conscientious tradition, has come up with some kinds of emotional experiences that can be used to reverse negative emotions. I explain something of how this works in my article “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions.”

For more tools, see the follow-up articles: Part II and Part III.

Photo by Michael Flick

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The difference between pleasure and happiness

States of mind

Among my current reading material is The Art of Happiness: A Handbook for Living, in which Howard Cutler interviews the Dalai Lama on the subject of human happiness and comes away with some profound information to pass along.

Although ... there is such a thing as TOO happy.

Although ... there is such a thing as TOO happy.

For anyone who may be tempted to stop reading now on the idea that happiness isn’t important to studying how we successfully motivate ourselves, stick with me for a moment or two! (Anyway, it’s a short post.) In the same way that a discontented workforce gets much less done than a contented group of workers, a discontented mind has a much harder time staying on task than a content mind. There’s much more to say about happiness and its powerful effect on self-motivation, but we’ll leave that for other posts.

So if we do want to pursue happiness, whether for its own sake or to support stronger motivation and willpower, it’s important that we distinguish between happiness and pleasure. This is the distinction that the Dalai Lama makes in the book I mention above, and it’s both a meaningful and a practical distinction.

Pleasure is by definition a short-term thing. We can get pleasure from enjoying an activity, enjoying someone’s company, from food, from sex, from success, or from a wide variety of other sources. Happiness, by contrast, is a lasting state that most often is achieved through positive, constructive actions. While it’s not impossible for someone to feel genuinely happy about doing something destructive or cruel, this is the exception instead of the rule, and anyway we’re not saying that making ourselves happy is a flawless approach to living a compassionate or ethical or commendable life. What we can say is that constructive decisions tend to lead to greater happiness, and destructive decisions tend to lead to decreased happiness.

In terms of helping immediate motivation, we can harness this connection whenever we’re concerned that we’re not acting in accordance with our goals and priorities–that is, when our motivation is failing–by asking ourselves “Will this contribute to my happiness?” There are many things we might point to that can bring pleasure but not happiness (though thankfully, there are also many that bring both). By asking ourselves this question, we can put these actions in perspective so that we see what we’re doing to ourselves over a bit of a longer period of time. Having that clear view of how our choices affect our lives can be invaluable, because our worst choices are made when our judgment is clouded.

Photo by Niffty..

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