Browsing the archives for the emotions tag.
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10 Ways to Increase Happiness: The CliffsNotes Version

Techniques

laughter

There’s an excellent (if overenthusiastically titled) article on Inc.com called “10 Surprisingly Counterintuitive Ways to Be Incredibly Happy.” It lists 10 research-based insights into cultivating long-term happiness.

Here’s a summary of the approaches they recommend, which can also serve as a refresher to re-read once or twice over the next couple of days to a week after you read the original article (assuming you decide to read the original article), if you’d like a way to help ensure the ideas to stick.

  1. Allow feelings of happiness and disappointment to mix
  2. Keep happy friends close (or move near happy friends, or find happy friends nearby)
  3. Learn something new, even if it’s stressful
  4. Consider counseling, which the article describes as producing as much happiness as 32 times the money it costs
  5. Don’t be overeager to seize happiness
  6. Say “no” to almost everything and use “don’t” to stop yourself from unwanted behaviors*
  7. Be comfortable and realistic in recognizing your strengths and weaknesses
  8. Plan for the worst, both to create peace in the moment from knowing you’ve taken dangers into account and to be able to handle trouble more easily and effectively
  9. Give up things you love for short periods in order to appreciate and enjoy them more
  10. Picture realistic accomplishments instead of fantasizing**

*Item #6 strikes me as two separate points: the first is about not overcommitting yourself, which is huge and one of my own personal biggest stumbling blocks; the second is about how to talk to yourself about not doing something, e.g., not saying “I should work out” or “I have to work out” or “I can’t miss my workout,” but rather “I don’t miss workouts.”

**Item #10, for my money, was the least clearly presented, although in general I think the article is great. On this one, the key thing seems to be not giving up on visualizing wonderful things happening, but rather visualizing specific things it’s in your power to accomplish in the way that they might actually happen. For instance, fantasizing about becoming a basketball star may tend to sap your energy and undermine your success; picturing yourself making multiple baskets at an upcoming game and then practicing hard to make that more likely may well do the opposite.

Photo by Shindz

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3 Keys to Living Effectively: Attention, Calmness, and Understanding

Strategies and goals

A number of my posts in coming weeks will make mention of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I was fortunate enough to hear him speak recently in Middlebury, Vermont, and since then I’ve been listening to some of his recorded public talks, which are freely available along with a lot more interesting material at dalailama.com. Thinking about some of the things the Dalai Lama has said, I found myself faced with a question about my own life: I know a lot about how to act in my own best interests, yet some of the time I act as though I only understood short-term pleasures and not long-term happiness. Why is that?

Based on bits gleaned from psychology, neurology, and meditative practice, I came up with three things I need in order to ensure I act in the best way possible–to encourage my own success while simultaneously letting go of stress, overcoming fear, enjoying what I’m doing, and staying in touch with my highest goals and aspirations. It’s a tall order, and the three things aren’t easy. On the bright side, though, they are simple.

1. Attention
A good habit is a treasure, because it takes no special effort to follow. When I show up to Taekwondo several times a week and get a good, long workout, it’s not because I’m thinking about or planning exercise: it’s because I’m used to going to Taekwondo. In the same way, bad habits are serious trouble. In order to break a bad habit, or even to overcome it on a one-time basis, we usually need to be able to direct attention to what we’re thinking, feeling, and doing. We could also talk about attention as having to do with self-awareness or mindfulness.

For example, I might be tempted to sleep in some morning and risk being late for an appointment. It’s difficult to battle this intention if I’m just thinking about how it would feel to stay in bed versus how it would feel to get up, and especially if I have a habit of sleeping past my alarm. However, if I consciously think about things like

  • “If I get up now, I can be on time–and if I don’t, I risk being late”
  • “Staying in bed is pleasurable, but I like showing up on time to things too”
  • “I’ll have to get up sooner or later, and it probably won’t be any easier in 15 minutes than it is now”

… and other things in the same vein, then I’m able to make a decision rather than just succumbing to my gut feelings.

2. Calmness
Buddhist teaching warns about the danger of attachment, of strong emotion. Speaking honestly, I’m not entirely sure how this applies to strong positive emotions like love or delight, though I could make some guesses. What I am sure of is that getting wrapped up in my own emotions and doing nothing about it leaves me in a position where it’s hard to change or do the things that are best for me. Being able to step back from our emotions and out of a frame of mind dominated by thoughts like “I really, really want that” or “I’m afraid!” or “I feel embarrassed” puts us in a place of calmness from which we can think about our long-term interest and our well-being–not to mention other people’s long-term interest and well being. Not having that calmness keeps us confused and short-sighted, bogged down in an obscuring cloud of emotional debris.

This site offers a wide range of tools for working with emotions, even very strong ones, including idea repair, understanding mental schemas, and much else. If I want calmness, there’s usually some way for me to achieve it.

3. Understanding
I started out thinking of this item as “knowledge,” but I realized that it includes not just understanding how my mind works, having good organizational strategies, and knowing how to keep myself healthy, but also ideas of what’s truly important, what leads to real happiness, what the value of a good relationship is, and what kinds of goals are worth pursuing. Having attention and calmness is not nearly as useful when I don’t have the understanding to use that attention and calmness by making and acting on good decisions.

That’s it: attention, calmness, and understanding. If I can remember to look for those three things, my theory goes, I’ll be on top of the world. I’ll report back and let you know how it’s been working for me. I’d be very interested if you care to do the same, whether in comments or privately through the contact form.

Photo by Hani Amir

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What Our Garage Sale Taught Me About Decluttering My Mind

States of mind

This past weekend, my family had our long-delayed garage sale. It’s been two and a half years since I went through practically everything I owned and sorted it all into “keep” and “don’t keep”: the trick in the time since has been finding and setting aside enough time to organize, price, advertise, set out, and sell those items. In that couple of years, too, I’ve found that there are a number of additional objects I had that I could do without, and so along with everything else there needed to be another round of decluttering.

However, we did it all, and we survived. While I hope to not have to do another sale for a number of years, I feel like I’ve learned some useful lessons about running one successfully, and I’ll be putting that information in a separate post. This post, however, is about the emotional side of garage sales, because for many of us, getting rid of our old stuff is even a bigger emotional task than it is a physical and organizational one.

In the course of this sale, I’ve had to face a few truths about myself, my stuff, and my relationships, and it all continues to be challenging and sometimes even painful. Here’s what I think I’ve learned:

1. I’m not going to get what I paid for it: that money is gone
It’s nice to imagine when I buy something useful and well-made that I’m not really saying goodbye to my money: I’m just letting it go away for a little while. Eventually, when I no longer need the thing, I can just sell it and recoup much of my expense, right?

You probably aren’t falling for that and know as well as I do that the minute we take off the plastic wrap, whatever it is we bought no longer equals money: all it’s worth is its use to us plus sometimes a greatly-reduced resale value. Yet many of us find ourselves saying (or thinking) “But I paid ___ for that!” It’s hard to let go of the idea that things are worth what we paid for them, but at least in monetary terms, they hardly ever are. Maybe if you’ve recently bought a used Kindle Fire or something, you can get away with recouping what you paid for it, but that kind of thing is the exception, not the rule.

The hardest things for me to get used to losing value on, surprisingly, weren’t even mine: they were my son’s old toys. I would look at something and think “I remember when he was absolutely dying to own that,” and how we (or a relative at a birthday, say) had paid $50 or whatever it was for the item that was now sitting in our driveway on a sheet with a little sticker on it saying “$3.” It’s a hard lesson to learn, this evaporation of value, but it’s worth knowing–especially if it helps guide us into buying less stuff we don’t really need or won’t be able to use well.

2. The money I make won’t justify the time and effort, and that’s OK
One of the things I’ve been avoiding energetically is analyzing what my income per hour has been on this garage sale project. I’m not really making money in a meaningful way from doing this. What I’ve reminded myself, over and over (and it has helped), is that my payoff is in organization, space, peace of mind, and closure. All those objects in my life that have been hanging question marks (What do I do with this? Is it worth anything? How do I get rid of it? Do I really need it after all?) are being resolved into completed episodes of my life. Even if we hadn’t made a cent, all of the work was still necessary to get our lives back in order.

3. Bringing out old things brings out old thoughts
It was hard for me, during the sale, to relive some of my parenting from years gone by. I certainly don’t consider myself a world-class parent now, and currently I’m much, much better at parenting than I was years ago. Once again my son’s old toys gave me the most trouble: I remembered times when I’d been a just plain crummy dad. He used to have trouble sleeping starting when he was around 3, and I’d get angry when an hour after his bedtime he’d wander out into the living room. What I really wish I could do is go back in time and force some sense into my then-self, help myself realize that a kid who has trouble falling asleep probably needs some additional attention, affection, or comfort, and that a little patience would probably see the problem through much more handily and with much better impact for my kid than anger would. Other people might have to face reminding themselves of people they loved who had died, or relationships that went sour, or projects that disappointed. It’s hard stuff, sometimes, but it’s certainly a good thing to work through those old pains when we can and feel we’ve made our peace with them.

4. Giving things to people who can use them is kinda beautiful
One of my biggest challenges is my books: I have hundreds of books I no longer need that must have cost me at a thousand or two thousand dollars or more  over the years, and I have been really attached to the idea of getting some money for them. When I asked about selling or giving away used books on Facebook, though, a number of friends came back with a series of terrific ideas (which I’ll detail in a separate post): schools in my area that could use them, hospitals, homeless shelters, bookmobiles … I realize that far better than making a little bit of money from my unneeded things, I can actually get them to people who want or need them. The eight bags of clothes in the back of my car that are on their way to Goodwill or the boxes and boxes of books I can donate so that suddenly there will be all these great new things to read just where people need them … that’s almost magical, you know? I like the idea of charity, but don’t get to do nearly as much of it as I’d like. Here, suddenly, is a beautiful opportunity to give from a position of real (but non-monetary) wealth. What a huge improvement over boxes of books taking up space and never getting read!

I know that for many of you out there, garage sales aren’t this grueling. This is the first one I’ve had in years, and future sales probably won’t involve all the same memories and clutter. My point, though, isn’t that garage sales are always hard–it’s that decluttering our homes and lives goes with the difficult process of decluttering parts of our minds, and that if we’re having trouble with one of those things, it may help to turn our attention to the other.

It just takes a bit of courage. And time. And maybe a garage.

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How Writing Can Help Cure Depression

Techniques

An excellent article on MedicineNet.com interviews medical professionals and therapists about using writing to cure depression. Creative writing might very well have positive effects on depression, but the kind of writing the article discusses, and the kind I recommend for working on almost any emotional or motivational issue, is journaling.

Before I go much further than this, I’ll add this disclaimer: of course not all emotional concerns can be addressed through writing and self-help. This is one tool for helping address depression, but it’s not meant to be a cure-all, something that does everything for everyone.

What can a journal accomplish for a depressed person? There appear to be a whole range of benefits:

  • Dr. Michael Rank calls journaling the “most effective and cheapest” form of self-help.
  • A journal can be used with an understanding of idea repair to help fix broken ideas. This is one of the most powerful contributions of cognitive psychology: a tool we can use to change our own thoughts and feelings from damaging to constructive.
  • A journal can create a feedback loop, which can help a person break an old habit, start a new one, or make progress with motivation in general.
  • Dr. James Pennebaker, a psychology professor at the University of Austin, reportedly has found that “writing about upsetting personal experiences for just 20 minutes at a time, over three or four days, can result in a significant drop in blood pressure and a healthier immune system.”
  • Therapist Catherine Carlo credits journaling with giving journal writers “a better sense of where they’ve been, where they are, and where they’re going,” according to the article.

In the article, Rank points out that people can feel resistance to starting a journal. This is an understandable feeling, but reversing any habit or emotional condition requires something either internal or external going in a new and not entirely comfortable direction. However, my experience writing about even very disturbing issues in my own life is that it rapidly becomes not only comfortable but actively a relief.

There are several approaches to journaling that can be useful. Carlo recommends journaling in a group. “Just having that unspoken support and encouragement gives [journal writers] courage to write about their feelings” even if the journals aren’t shared, the article quotes her as saying. Carlo also suggests envisioning yourself in a medieval castle while writing, in order to get some distance and perspective.

Recording journal entries with a tape recorder, computer, or smartphone is a viable alternative to written journaling for anyone who doesn’t like to write.

Sharing a journal with someone else can invite help and understanding. On the other hand, some journal writers may prefer to never share what they write in order to create a feeling of complete privacy about the process. When I write about something especially sensitive in my life, I go beyond even that by writing the journal entry and then immediately deleting it. I still reap all the benefits of writing the entry, even though there’s no outward trace left over when I’m done.

People who like to draw, even if only stick figures are involved, can substitute drawings for writing some of the time. While these drawings aren’t usually as clearly-communicated as words, they can sometimes be more expressive and exploratory.

Journaling can also be used to understand how we might not be using time well by logging everything we do (even down to stopping to pick up the phone or take a bathroom break), to provide insight into why we’re acting the way we are (see my article on “How To Improve Willpower Through Writing Things Down: Decision Logging“), or to create a record we can use to go back and understand parts of our lives better, after the fact.

It doesn’t have to be difficult to start journaling. If you can get yourself to sit down at a computer and open a word processor or to pick up a pen and a notebook, you can just write, with no pressure about how much or how often you’ll write, nor what you’ll write about. Journaling gives us each the choice of how to approach difficulties in our lives … and often, even the tools to overcome them.

Photo by paperbackwriter

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How to Not to Get Into an Argument

Handling negative emotions

If you ask people what their favorite thing about the winter holidays is, one of the most popular responses is “family.” But if you google (for instance) “worst thing about Christmas,” one of the most common complaints–right up there with overcommercialization and the stress of having too much to do–is also “family.” Holidays sometimes throw us into difficult, uncomfortable, or undesired situations, and they sometimes provide a perfect setting for everyone to regress and get in arguments.

But arguments and other clashes with family and non-family alike are mostly avoidable Taking a few pages from Dr. Marshall Rosenberg’s time-tested and surprisingly practical system called Non-Violent Communication (as described in his book Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life), here’s a nutshell version of a way to stop arguments before they start.

Only one grown-up needed
You might very reasonably have the concern that no communication method will help if the other person is acting like a nincompoop. If so, you may be relieved to know that non-violent communication can help solve problems regardless of how emotionally mature the other person is acting. Anger, fear, irrational accusations, complaining, and depression are all perfectly OK for the other person to present, as long as you can swing being the grown-up in the conversation.

Listening with compassion
Heading off arguments begins by listening a different way. It’s easy and natural to listen to what people say to us–especially when they’re talking about us–and to think of their words as being about ourselves. If someone says “Why do you always try to run everything?” or “Didn’t you even stop to think how he would feel about that?” or “I can’t believe you made me another stupid sweater!”, the obvious thing to do would be to think of what those things mean to us and respond with something like “If you ever got off your butt and helped, I wouldn’t have to run everything!” or “Don’t my feelings count too?” or “I slave over this gift of love for thirty hours, and this is how you repay me?” If you respond this way, unfortunately, you are then in an argument.

My mother used to always say “It takes two to fight.” Skipping right over my smarmy childhood comebacks, I’d like to point out the usefulness of this statement: one person can shout, threaten, insult, or complain, but if the other person responds compassionately, then there is still no argument. In an argument, two or more parties go back and forth, each saying things that add fuel to the fire. If either person takes another approach, the argument eventually gutters out.

Here’s how to listen compassionately: accept whatever the other person says–even if it’s unkind, unfair, or untrue–as an offer of information.

What you’re trying to find out–the information you’re trying to glean–is these two things:
1) What emotion is the other person feeling? (Be careful what you consider an “emotion”: this list can be useful to sort true emotions out from false).
2) What essential thing does the other person need? This doesn’t mean what they want or are asking for, necessarily, but rather what deep-seated need is being brought up.

When you think you may have figured out the answers to those those two questions in conversations, try to say them back to the people you’re talking to so that they understand they’ve been heard. If you need more information in a particular conversation, ask questions to get that information.

Don’t worry about guessing wrong about someone’s emotional state or needs: generally speaking, if you offer a kindly-meant attempt at understanding how someone feels, they will automatically correct you if you’re information’s wrong, giving you exactly what you need to defuse the argument.

Sometimes people will keep spouting negative comments or repeat the same point over and over in a conversation even when you make it clear you understand where they’re coming from and care about their needs. This generally means nothing more than that they have a backlog of anxious feelings about the topic at hand, and/or they don’t feel confident that they’ve been heard. Patiently continuing the process we’ve talked about should in most cases eventually allow these situations to wind down.

I’ll continue this topic in my next article with some examples.

Photo by Peter Gene

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Who’s Changing Your Mood? The Yawning Example

The human mind

What went into making up the mood you’re in right now, or the mood you were in this morning, or the mood you’ll be in ten days from now? The logical answer might seem to be that our moods are determined by what happens to us–that if someone spilled coffee on you and you got a flat tire, you’d be in a bad mood, but if you came home to find out someone had left a present on your doorstep, you’d be in a good mood.

This is often true–we often react emotionally to our circumstances–but it’s also not uncommon for us to focus our attention on and be driven by other things. If someone spills coffee on me and I get a flat tire but I’m thinking about how marvelous my girlfriend is the whole time, my troubles might roll off me like marbles rolling off a VW Beetle, and I might be in a terrific mood. So it’s not so much our direct circumstances that affect our moods as how we think about our circumstances.

Contagious behavior
And that would be the main point of this post, as it has been of some other posts I’ve written (like “Having a Bad Day? Here’s Why” and “How to Stop Having a Bad Day“), except that there’s another factor that changes moods, one that’s a little surprising. Malcolm Gladwell talks about it in his book The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He uses the example of the lowly yawn.

Yawning is a surprisingly powerful act. Just because you read the word “yawning” in the previous two sentences–and the two additional “yawns” in this sentence–a good number of you will probably yawn within the next few minutes. Even as I’m writing this, I’ve yawned twice. If you’re reading this in a public place, and you’ve just yawned, chances are that a good proportion of everyone who saw you yawn is now yawning too, and a good proportion of the people watching the people who watched you yawn are now yawning as well, and on and on, in an ever-widening, yawning circle.

Out of curiosity, did you yawn when you saw the picture at the beginning of this post?

How your friends’ friends’ friends feel
Yawning isn’t the only thing that spreads from person to person easily. Moods and attitudes like depression, excitement, anxiety, and optimism also spread through groups. If your friends are feeling a particular way, you’re somewhat likely to feel that way too. The same is true of the way your friends’ friends feel, and even of the way your friends’ friends’ friends feel (though after that, the effect drops off into statistical insignificance). This effect is discussed in my article “How Are Your Friends’ Habits Changing You?,” and it’s a main topic of Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler’s book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.

Influencing our own moods

So what help is it to know this? Well, if we’re aware of the influence other people’s moods and actions can have on our own moods, we can take active steps to do something about it. For instance, the yawning example above may have caused you to think about being tired, especially if it actually made you yawn. I apologize for this, but the point seemed important enough to be worth it. So knowing that you may be getting influenced to feel more tired, you can consciously redirect your thoughts to non-tired things. What’s something exciting you’ll be doing later today, or later this week, or this year? Do you like coffee? Who’s the most energetic person you know? Can you picture that person doing something typically energetic? If you have the time, you might even try watching an energetic video, or starting a conversation with someone who has a lot of energy and goodwill to share. Another useful alternative is using music: see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

In other words, visualizing appropriate situations and exposing ourselves to the kinds of moods we want to create can turn the subtle forces that influence our moods in our favor, especially when those same forces have already causes an effect we don’t like. Becoming aware of our moods and what’s influencing those moods can give us new power to feel the way we want to feel.

Photo by HilaryQuinn

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How to Have a Good Day: 6 More Ways to Make the Most of a Morning

Strategies and goals

In a previous article, “How to Have a Good Day: The Night Before,“ I talked about ways to help make a day go well through preparation. In my last article, “How to Have a Good Day: 4 Ways to Make the Most of a Morning,” I continued the discussion by talking about things that can be done in the morning to help improve the rest of the day. This third article offers more strategies to improve a day by handling the morning well.

  • Do one constructive thing early on. Accomplishing something worthwhile, even if it’s a small thing, tends to give a boost in self-confidence and optimism, especially if it’s a task that has been lingering or that has more impact that something its size normally would.
  • Keep an eye out for broken ideas. “Broken ideas” or “cognitive distortions” are patterns of thinking that do more harm than good; you can read about them here. By reminding ourselves to be aware of our own thoughts and being vigilant for broken ideas, we can head off emotional problems and distractions.
  • Be prepared to face trouble. Any day can potentially bring trouble: unexpected expenses, illness, things breaking, people not coming through, and so on. Since trouble can’t be eradicated from our lives, it helps to be of a mind to face it. When we’re distracted, unprepared, or in a bad mood, it’s often difficult to steel ourselves to tackle problems that arise, and instead we may tend to avoid, make bad compromises, give up, or struggle unnecessarily. Reminding ourselves to do our best to take problems in stride will help lower stress and increase our ability to fix issues that come up.
  • Meditate. It’s true, meditation takes time, and it’s not easy, at least at first. But meditation has proven itself valuable again and again in studies and human experience in terms of aiding focus, lowering stress, and increasing happiness–which makes it a very useful practice for first thing in the morning. For more on this, see my article “Strengthen Willpower Through Meditation.” Yoga can have similar benefits in the morning, and even beginners can benefit through use of tools like yoga DVDs.
  • Exercise early. Exercise ups metabolism, improves mood, and increases immediate physical well-being (even if you’re a little sore from the workout). It also starts the day off with a constructive accomplishment, which as we’ve already discussed, has its own good impacts.
  • Use music to your advantage. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys adding music to other activities rather than being distracted by it, you can take advantage of music’s ability to make a noticeable impact on mood and emotions. Memories and associations, rhythms, the act of singing along (if you’re inclined), and other aspects of music give it a direct line to the parts of our brains that regulate emotions. For more on this, see “How and Why Music Changes Mood.”

Photo by Roshnii

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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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Willpower: Available Right Now

States of mind

It’s easy to think of ourselves as trapped by emotions or ideas, but it’s interesting–and extremely useful, I would say–for us to remember that willpower comes down to making good choices, and that making good choices comes down to our state of mind, because at least in theory, we can get into an excellent state of mind with only a few moments notice.

Today’s post isn’t about the how of changing our emotional states, which is covered in many other articles on this site, such as “How Preparation Enables Stronger Willpower,” “How to Stop Having a Bad Day,” “Antidotes to bad moods and negative emotions,” and especially “All About Broken Ideas and Idea Repair.” Instead it’s about the what and the why: what does it mean to change our state of mind, and why is that important?

What makes up a state of mind?
State of mind has a number of components, including things like alertness that aren’t entirely under our immediate control. For instance, if I haven’t slept all night, I’m going to have noticeably less power over my ability to focus and think clearly.

But the key elements of our states of mind, attention and mood, are things we can influence. If our attention is set on the most beneficial subject available to us, and if we have brought our emotions into balance, then we’re generally in a calm, open state that allows us to make good choices.

For example, if I have the choice of washing the dishes or watching TV, and if I’ve resolved that it’s important to wash the dishes, then there are a lot of things that could affect my state of mind to make it hard to stick to my resolution. For instance, if I were depressed or angry, I might be having trouble caring about things like whether or not my dishes were done. If I were telling myself what I’d be “missing” if I didn’t watch TV or that I “should be able to have a break after the day I’ve had,” then I would be pointing my attention at things that would tend to prevent me from making good choices.

How we change our state of mind
Emotional states feel very difficult to shake sometimes, but in truth if our attention changes focus, our emotions can follow suit within just a minute or two. Changes of emotion aren’t immediate, though: a lot of our experience of emotions is physiological, and while our brain chemistry changes constantly, it takes a small amount of time for the chemicals to shift, as compared to our near-instantaneous changes of attention or thought, which involve sending electrical impulses through our brains.

So let’s say I walk through the door upset, distracted, preoccupied with wanting to watch TV, and telling myself that doing the dishes is self-punishment. Under those conditions, the dishes probably won’t get done unless I have a strongly-ingrained habit or something changes. But if I have enough time and attention to spare, along with the awareness of what I really want, I can change my state of mind. First I let go of unhelpful thoughts like “I’m going to miss the new episode of my favorite show!” and “I shouldn’t have to do dishes after my long day at work.” Then I will want to bring my attention to any subject that’s helpful, like remembering what it was like getting up the other morning to a gleaming clean kitchen. I’ll also want to use whatever techniques I have available, like breathing exercises, meditation, or music, to help me calm down, focus, and cheer up.

Under these circumstances, it’s possible for a completely different state of mind to surface, one in which I’m happy to be doing the dishes because that’s the exact right thing for me to be doing at the moment. If other kinds of thoughts get in the way of my experiencing that mood, I would need to deal with those individually, for instance by using idea repair.

We’re not always successful (at least, I’m not) at getting into a positive state of mind, but the important takeaway here is realizing that a positive state of mind is nearly always available, however uncomfortable or unhappy or cussed we may feel. The trick is to get better and better at seeking it out.

Photo once again by Stuck in Customs

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Mental Schemas #13: Self-Sacrifice

Handling negative emotions

This is the thirteenth in a series of fourteen articles that draw on the field of schema therapy, an approach to addressing negative thinking patterns that was devised by Dr. Jeffrey Young. You can find an introduction to schemas and schema therapy, a list of schemas, and links to other schema articles on The Willpower Engine here.

The mantra that goes with the Self-Sacrifice schema is “I should take care of other people; they shouldn’t take care of me.” A person with this schema will tend to ignore their own needs, wants, and worries but pay plenty of attention to other people’s problems.

When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema starts paying attention to their own needs, they generally feel guilty. Their mental commentary is often full of “should statements” like “I shouldn’t need help with this” or “I shouldn’t be spending time on myself when someone else needs something.”

Self-Sacrifice schemas often arise in childhood when a parent is needy or unable to handle basic responsibilities. The child gets used to taking care of another person while suppressing their own needs and desires, and then has a lot of trouble getting out of the habit as they grow older. This often includes being in the habit of keeping emotions close, not sharing them so as to avoid anyone else being affected by those emotions.

As a result, says schema therapy originator Dr. Jeffrey Young, “almost all patients with Self-Sacrifice schemas have linked Emotional Deprivation schemas.”

On the bright side, a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema can do a lot of good in the world and experience increased self-esteem from their efforts. Yet the schema reflects a serious problem, an imbalance between taking care of themselves and taking care of others.

Dealing with a Self-Sacrifice Schema
Tackling a Self-Sacrifice schema, as is true with most problem habits, is first a matter of being aware when the problem is occurring, preferably in the moment (though it’s certainly better than nothing to at least reflect and recognize these situations afterward). When a person with a Self-Sacrifice schema notices that the schema is taking over–for instance, when they’ve been asked to volunteer for something and know it will cost them more sleep than they can afford to lose–the specific problem thoughts, usually close to invisible, can be brought out, examined, and reframed.

So in the example given, the person could realize the sleep problem but feel guilty about saying no. Examining her thoughts, she might realize that she is telling herself “I should do this even if I do lose sleep” and ask herself further “Should I do everything that other people ask me to do, no matter how hurtful or unhealthy it is to me?” Reviewing, reframing, and debating our own mental commentary helps us identify habits that make us behave in ways we wouldn’t choose to behave if we thought things through carefully.

Ultimately a person trying to give up a Self-Sacrifice schema will need to try risking embarrassment or guilt, whether that comes from refusing to do something for someone else, asserting their own needs, or receiving someone else’s help. If this is done with people who genuinely care, the results can help break down the idea that help isn’t deserved and doesn’t feel good, and over time this kind of cooperation and willingness to be helped can begin to feel as natural and good as helping others.

Photo of Rodin’s Les Bourgeois de Calais by Accidental Hedonist

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