Back in the 50’s, not too long after Albert Hoffman discovered the mind-bending, consciousness-expanding properties of LSD, scientists starting conducting experiments into the therapeutic potential of the drug. It became a popular area of research, and by the mid-60’s had spawned six international conferences, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers¹.
Meanwhile, the first sparks of the acid revolution had been lit, spearheaded by passionate acolytes such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, who believed that the drug held the key to shifting our global consciousness, to create a more peaceful, loving human species. It’d be tough to find a loftier, more noble objective.
Then it all went to shit. Governments across the world became concerned about the widespread, casual use of such a potent substance, particularly one that caused its users to doubt and criticise the power structures within their society, often calling for a freer, less restricted world. LSD was promptly banned by governments, forcing chief manufacturer Sandoz to halt production in the mid-60s¹. The first era of psychedelic therapy was over.
Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence. Governments are once again becoming receptive to the therapeutic potential of “party” drugs such as acid, psilocybin, and MDMA, whose reputation has been tainted in part by the greedy fear-mongering of the popular press. Scientific studies are becoming increasingly common, some with astounding results. The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy—MDMA has been found to be twice as successful². Psilocybin—the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms—had an 80% success rate in breaking a smoking habit, compared to 35% for conventional treatments³. It’s also been shown to cure severe depression⁴.
“Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”—Robert Kennedy
Though the hardened conservative will undoubtedly raise his eyebrows in disbelief, the people who have spent their lives taking illegal drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms may be unsurprised at the results. It’s obvious that these drugs have incredible potential for our psychological health. The pristine empathy and compassion one feels in the midst of an MDMA experience tells you everything you need to know. How could such an emotionally positive experience not have therapeutic potential?
In my late teenage years, I found myself surrounded by friends in the comfortable living room of one of our parents, each of us high on ecstasy. Uninhibited conversation was flowing, and upon reaching the topic of our fathers (Freud’s spirit nestled in the corner, glowing with anticipation), for the first time in his life, one of my friends opened up about his difficult relationship with his dad. He expressed sheer, unalloyed pain at his dad’s early departure from the family, followed by the brutal indifference that he exhibited towards him in the years after. There were floods of tears, but no awkwardness from anybody—just pure compassion and sympathy. Afterwards, he seemed as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, finally able to talk about something that had created anguish for years. It remains the most beautiful moment I’ve ever had with my friends.
“What’s unique about MDMA is that it’s actually stimulating but decreases anxiety…it could help people feel calm and comfortable enough to explore painful things that are hard to talk about.”—Julie Holland
The bonding power of MDMA cannot be understated, even with people who you’re already close to. Everyone tends to emerge from a session with a feeling of heart-warming emotional closeness, and a fiercer sense of loyalty towards this magnificent bunch of people with who we’ve spent the last eight hours. Time spent on MDMA can be flawlessly authentic, offering a state of mind that encourages you to delve into profoundly meaningful topics that you’re usually too wary to approach.
As a shy and cautious teenager, I’d often have trouble interacting with people who weren’t my friends—the gut-wrenching awkwardness was too much to bear, so I wouldn’t bother trying. MDMA helped to bring me out of my shell, and not just for the duration of the high, but extending far into the future. The rush of empathy one feels while on the drug, mixed with the feeling of immaculate love towards people around you, taught me not only to more easily identify the inherent good in other people, but to realise that I was worthy of their company and friendship. It accorded me the courage needed to speak and act without restraint, teaching myself—little-by-little—that I was more than capable of being a funny, interesting person, whose company people were eager to keep. By improving my emotional intelligence, MDMA has undoubtedly helped to shape my personality into something better.
Psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms also have a reputation for changing people profoundly. In Michael Pollan’s incredible book How To Change Your Mind—a treatise on the beneficial effects of psychedelics—he reveals that many people who take these kinds of drugs describe it as one of “the most meaningful experiences of their lives”. Psychedelics dampen our Default Mode Network, which is suspected to be the creator of our ego. As our sense of self dissipates, we can feel a profound sense of unity with the world around us, and our brains are temporarily permitted to make brand new connections, illustrated beautifully in this diagram from the book.
This is why creatives in Silicon Valley are spending their work-days microdosing—it unfetters their naturally restricted brains, allowing them to be more creative than ever before.
“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country…how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”—Bill Hicks
There’s a big difference between the occasional drug-taking experience, and using substances as a coping mechanism for the pain in your life. Highly-addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin are a completely different beast, and should be avoided at all costs. This kind of escapism rarely ends well — it’s usually much better to face your suffering head on, with as much courage as you can muster.
“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”—Steve Jobs
When it comes to MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin, it’s no wonder that people are willing to break the law in order to experience them. They can function as a form of self-therapy—a vehicle for fundamentally changing your brain, quicker and more effective than any other method. Since the discovery of LSD back in the 50’s, scientists have suspected its therapeutic benefits, kickstarting a field of research that has shown incredible results. But for the general public, stringent scientific experiments aren’t needed to tell them what they already know: MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin—when used for the right reasons— have the power to improve our lives. This is why millions of everyday people are willing to position themselves on the wrong side of the law. It’s not just about goofing around with your friends—laughing but also terrified at the clouds wiggling and shifting into new shapes—it’s about being equipped with the courage needed to leap over personal boundaries—a shift in consciousness that can teach you how to be a better person, with opportunities to encounter the world from fresher, more fluid perspectives. These drug can equip us with the potential to break out of our tired, restrictive moulds. Scientists have known this for years, as have regular, law-breaking users.
It isn’t a question of whether these drugs have therapeutic benefits, but a question of when our governments will be able to get past their antiquated views and embrace them as valuable weapons in our medical arsenal. Great progress has been made with marijuana. In time, and as more scientific evidence emerges, perhaps the same will happen with MDMA and psychedelics.
Some words of caution MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are still illegal in many countries, and as such, their production lacks quality control. Drug testing kits are essential to test their purity, and obvious discretion required if you’re willing to take the necessary risks to acquire the drugs themselves. This article is by no means an advocation to do so. It’s also worth noting that these drugs aren’t for everyone, particularly for those with serious mental illnesses.
The pursuit of happiness might be considered the biggest scam in modern history—an endeavour undertaken by millions of people worldwide, straining and toiling to get as much happiness as possible before their inevitable demise.
The idea was first made popular by 17th century philosopher John Locke, gained further fashion after being added to the Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson, and since then, has been considered a worthy quest for people all over the globe. It makes intuitive sense—what could be more desirable than living a life of happiness, and as such, why not make it our primary goal?
If there’s a halo-wearing God watching, he must surely be stifling a laugh at the farcical irony of the situation, fully aware that happiness cannot be obtained by aiming for it—a phenomenon known as the paradox of hedonism. If he had a shred of his famed benevolence, he might poke his furry face through a gap in the sky and warn us of our ignorance, followed by a simple explanation of how we can live a happy, contented life—by seeking meaning, not happiness.
The pursuit of happiness is often sought through typical avenues such as high-paying jobs—bank account stuffed to the brim with crisp, hard-won notes— careers of admirable status, fawned over by the insufferable sycophants of the world, or wiry Instagram-model girlfriends who have the “perfect” figures, but personalities akin to a group of confused, one-footed pigeons. Such ambitions are tragically misguided. If we want to live a fulfilling life, brimming with long-lasting contentment, the pursuit of meaning is the adventure that’ll get us there. In the words of concentration camp survivor and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl—“happiness cannot be pursued, it must ensue”—and it proceeds from a devoted, impassioned pursuit of what we find personally meaningful.
What is it that you consider to have intrinsic value, not for its high-esteem within society, or prized for its rarity, but because it occupies a little corner of your heart—a treasure without the glitter of gold or diamonds, but priceless nonetheless? This is where your happiness lies, and its discovery might be the most important task of your life.
Once we hurl the erroneous pursuit of happiness into the trash where it belongs, we can strap on our boots and get started on the more commendable pursuit of meaning. But how do we discover what’s subjectively meaningful to us, to be commissioned in perpetual glory as our North Star—a luminous, unmistakable heading that can determine our life’s direction?
Below is an extensive list of suggestions that serves as a instructional guide, each with their own merits.
Figure out your core values
Our core values typically define our true character—the person who we want to be, as opposed to the person who society wants us to be. When we’re living in accordance with our values, we feel a peaceful, blissful sense of authenticity, able to navigate the world wholeheartedly, with fervent confidence and commitment. In contrast, going against our values feels inherently wrong, as though our soul is in a state of revolt, being coerced into an action that we have no desire to take. It’s how a benevolent charity-worker might feel when being forced to shut the doors of a soup kitchen, with a queue of hungry people still wanting to eat. Everything about the action feels fallacious.
When it comes to your own values, maybe making people laugh is what you love the most, basking in the glow of squinted eyes and rumbling chortles. Perhaps compassion is your forte, and you find yourself flooded with surges of motivation in the face of unnecessary suffering. Maybe it’s relentless kindness—even towards the most spiteful, cantankerous of characters—that fuels your behaviour.
Identifying the core values that motivate you are an effective way to discover personal meaning. One way to achieve this is to browse through James Clear’s list of core values, select five that have resonating appeal for you, and then consider what actions you might be able to take for each value. For example, if you have a burning aspiration for fairness, you might want to consider a career as a slick-haired, hotshot lawyer, or perhaps march for the awareness of an intolerable social injustice. If wisdom is your thing, you might nip down to the local library and borrow a copy of Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, to absorb the emperor’s extensive stockpile of smarts. If it’s friendship, make a concerted, ongoing effort to socialise with your buddies, old and new. Write all of this down, so that you can refer back to it if you’re ever feeling aimless. If you’d prefer a more guided approach to discovering your values, you might consider taking this free values assessment.
“Tell me what you pay attention to and I will tell you who you are.”—José Ortega y Gasset
Contemplating the traits of your personal heroes can also help to identify your values. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has recently been thrust into the limelight after the terrorist incident in Christchurch, and though she was already well-known for her progressive, wonderfully liberal stance, her composed handling of the tragedy has won the hearts of people around the world. What we admire in others, we also admire in ourselves. The traits of our heroes provide strong clues as to our own values, whether it’s the authenticity and kindness of Jacinda Ardern, the humor and optimism of Winston Churchill, or the creativity and determination of Albert Einstein. When we live by our values, we channel the spirits of our personal heroes.
Guiding values can also make our lives easier, offering straightforward answers to the relentless and difficult decisions that befall us, endowing us with the strength we need to battle through adversity. Ambiguity vanishes with a strong sense of personal meaning—we know what’s important, and we know what do. Through meaning we find courage.
Living in accordance with your core values is one of the most effective ways to have an honest, meaningful, and happy life.
“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” — Friedrich Nietzsche
Experiment as much as possible
The old adage you don’t know what you don’t know tells us that we need to experiment in order to find meaningful pursuits. You’ll never know that you’re a veritable speed demon capable of smashing Nürburgring lap records until you strap on your helmet, climb into the racing seat, and slam your foot on the throttle. Curious experimentation is a snow-covered sherpa that leads you to momentous places. With willingness comes discovery, and the capacity to unearth life-changing interests, altering your course in drastic and thrilling new directions.
Roman Krznaric—author of How To Find Fulfilling Work—believes that experimentation is one of the most effective ways for us to find meaningful employment. Theory only gets us so far—all of the books or conversations in the world can’t tell us what it’s actually like to work in a particular role. We need to get our hands dirty, going so far as taking a sabbatical and trying to get some unpaid work in our desired roles. This is obviously impossible for careers that require specialised training (such as nursing), for which conversation and research are the only real methods. But for many jobs and hobbies, experience is the best educator, offering tangible and extensive real-world understanding.
“Man cannot discover new oceans unless he has the courage to lose sight of the shore.” —Andre Gide
Fresh experiences help to broaden our view of the world, uncovering exciting new aspects for us to explore. Birthday coming up? Ask for an experience instead of a product. Not only will you get to do something strange and unfamiliar, but your personal well-being will be kept safe from the corruption of excessive materialism. An evening spent in front of a pottery wheel—softly humming Unchained Melody while your teacher observes your archaic technique—can be infinitely more valuable than the latest electronic contraption that repeatedly steals your attention.
“Do you want to know who you are? Don’t ask. Act! Action will delineate and define you.”—Thomas Jefferson
Books can also be potent primers for new interests—piquing our curiosity by offering the perspectives of fresh and compelling minds, opening up entirely new avenues for us to explore. This is something that makes Medium such a wealth of information—we’re able to experience the world through the stories of ordinary, everyday people, each with their own captivating tales to tell.
“The two most important days in your life are the day you are born, and the day you find out why.” — Mark Twain
Kids are the masters of existence—they know what they want, and they pursue it emphatically, not stopping to worry about whether it’s the right thing. The immeasurably wise Greek philosopher Heraclitus observed that “time is a game played beautifully by children”, whose unerring mindfulness and focused attention on the present could put even the mighty Buddha to shame.
“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky
If you enjoyed something as a kid, chances are you’ll enjoy it as an adult. Our motivations are warped by maturity—we start to ask ourselves why we’re painting a goofy-looking giraffe in luminous acrylic shades of orange and cream, as if there must be some underlying reason for it. This absurd argument can be extended to our entire lives: why do anything? Painting a necky mammal can be just as rewarding and pleasurable as a night in a 5-star luxury hotel. It doesn’t have to have to be sold for hoards of cash, or posted on Instagram for surges of feel-good chemicals. We can just paint for the sake of painting, for nothing more than the process itself. Age can introduce an unnecessary focus on the end result, with fantasies of status and glory fogging our brains, masking what’s truly valuable—doing something that you love, just because you love it.
As children, there was no need to dredge up reasons for doing something—we did it purely because it resonated with us, holding our attention for an extended period of time until we were ready to move onto another glorious mini-adventure. Our expertise was never a concern; the perplexing limbs of our physically-deranged giraffe never bothered us. We just loved painting, because it was meaningful to us.
Figure out what energises you
On Monday morning of every work week, a million defeated groans are released into the earth’s atmosphere, with the prospect of another day at work. Motivation can be an incredibly tough thing to muster, particularly for things that you don’t enjoy. Money has limited impetus, with the remainder of a work day spent fighting an internal battle to procrastinate, whether it’s flicking through the tripe on your Facebook feed, the vainglorious bullshit on Instagram, or the endless but often insipid entertainment on Reddit.
When you find something that naturally energises you—an activity that repeatedly draws you back into its clutches—procrastination becomes much less of a problem. Though it may be bursting with difficulty, accompanied by an uncomfortable skepticism about our own ability, we still harbour an unusual, pulling urge to keep at it, because for whatever mysterious reason, we’ve found something that is meaningful to us; something that charges our souls with driving energy. It might be a natural fascination with taking apart greasy old car engines, meticulously cleaning the parts and then putting them back together again. Perhaps you find yourself girding your proverbial loins before starting a thousand-page book on advanced economics, excited at the prospect of becoming a stock-market genius, but nervous about the bewildering mathematics. Whatever your nuanced jam, it belongs to you and you alone, and it energises your spirit through meaning.
“A great fire burns within me, but no one stops to warm themselves at it, and passers-by only see a wisp of smoke”—Vincent Van Gogh
Figure out your motivators
There’s two types of motivation—extrinsic, and intrinsic. Extrinsic motivation is when you’re driven by an external factor, such as money or social status. Though this type of motivation can be strong for some people (money can be an intense driver), it isn’t something that we really want to do. The behaviour can be provoked with a juicy dangling carrot, but when the carrot is removed, the behaviour stops. Intrinsic motivation—on the other hand—is doing something for its own sake, because it’s personally meaningful to you. These activities are naturally vitalising, forging an innate desire to complete them. You’re much more likely to return to intrinsically motivating tasks.
Much of what we do contains a mixture of both intrinsic, and extrinsic motivations. Writing down your honest reasons for undergoing an activity can help to determine their motivational makeup, in order to determine whether they’re genuinely meaningful to you. These are my reasons for writing:
I want people to benefit from my ideas, so that they can live better lives (intrinsic)
I enjoy writing in an entertaining, descriptive way (intrinsic)
I want to improve my writing skills, in order to become a freelance writer (intrinsic)
The positive feedback that I get from other people makes me feel good about myself (extrinsic)
If most of your reasons for doing something are extrinsic, and unless you’re happy coasting through the process without any real passion for it, or without the desire to become a true master, you might want to focus your efforts elsewhere. It’s possible for an extrinsically motivating task to turn into something intrinsic, and for this reason remains valuable for broadening your range of hobbies, but if the majority of your reasons remain extrinsic after a decent period of time, you should consider moving onto something that makes your heart sing. Extrinsically motivating tasks are somebody else’s obsession, not yours.
“To overcome the anxieties and depressions of contemporary life, individuals must become independent of the social environment to the degree that they no longer respond exclusively in terms of its rewards and punishments. To achieve such autonomy, a person has to learn to provide rewards to herself. She has to develop the ability to find enjoyment and purpose regardless of external circumstances.” — Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi
You may have a burning desire to be a glorified rockstar, assaulting the strings of your electric guitar while a thousand starry-eyed fans sing along to your lyrics. But are you willing to spend endless hours alone, strumming away at your instrument, until your brain is frazzled and fingers red raw? Are you willing to endure the drudgery of long-distance travel, arse squashed into the padding-shy seat of a minivan, driving towards another tiring, late-night gig? Are you willing to undergo the pain, frustration and risk required to become a master of your art?
Often, we’re more in love with the idea of something than the actual reality. Successful people may seem like fortunately gifted individuals who have sailed to the top of their profession with ease, but their path has been paved with grit, determination, and a ton of hard work. They’re successful because they find such a depth of meaning to their craft that they’re willing to suffer for it; to display the tenacity needed to struggle through the difficult times, when it’s much easier to just give up.
“Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work.” —Stephen King
“Everyone has talent. What’s rare is the courage to follow it to the dark places where it leads.” —Erica Jong
When we find something truly meaningful, the negative aspects become endurable. We’re fully aware that our chosen pursuit carries just as much tedium and pain as anything else, but it’s valuable to us nonetheless, and we’ll tolerate it over and over, because we’ve found something that puts a dazzling glint in our eye; something for which we’ll happily rise from our soft, warm beds in the morning, to spend the day toiling and cursing in order to become masters of our craft.
“Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but — I hope — into a better shape.” —Charles Dickens, Great Expectations
What would you do if money were no object?
These are the immortal words of philosophical entertainer Alan Watts, who helped to popularise Eastern philosophy in the West. Money is the ultimate extrinsic motivator, and though we need it to survive, we certainly don’t need to spend our lives glued to our office desk for exhausting 12-hour shifts. Research shows that once we have enough money to do the things we want, greater quantities do little to improve our emotional well-being. So why do persist with the ludicrous and stressful rat-race—elbowing and biting our way to the front of pack—when there’s solid and extensive scientific evidence to suggest that we only need to earn just enough in order to be content? With this mindset in place, we can begin our search for an intrinsically, fulfilling career, as opposed to a career driven by the bewitching glitter of gold. A better question to ask yourself would be what would you do if money were less important?
Though it’s a foolish, utopian notion to assume that everyone can have their dream job, it’s perfectly realistic and achievable to aim for jobs that are good enough; for a career that motivates us intrinsically for the most part, yielding an appropriate wage for our life’s desires. There’ll always be aspects that we dislike — searching for the “perfect” job is folly, a consequence of unrealistic and unachievable expectations. But a career that motivates and challenges us, while still being a bit shit from time to time? That’s a worthy goal.
“It is impossible to escape the impression that people commonly use false standards of measurement — that they seek power, success and wealth for themselves and admire them in others, and that they underestimate what is of true value in life.” — Sigmund Freud, Civilization and Its Discontents
What do you lose yourself in?
Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi is credited with discovering the fascinating concept of flow—the sensation of losing yourself in an activity, productivity maximised, and all sense of time lost. When we’re in this state, we think of nothing else but the task at hand—it’s pure, unadulterated focus, often referred to as being in the zone, and considered by Csikszentmihalyi to be the “optimal experience” that one can have. Moments of flow have the potential to give birth to our greatest work. Some artists become so immersed in flow that they disregard basic needs such as water, food and sleep.
Have you ever found yourself in a state of pristine concentration, so immersed in the activity that all else ceased to exist; chatter of your internal monologue temporarily repressed, and equipped with a razor-sharp sense of awareness? This is the experience of flow— an intrinsically motivating, meaningful enterprise where you should probably be devoting your time.
What would you do if you couldn’t fail?
Fear of failure can prevent us from participating in difficult, meaningful activities, paralysing us until the opportunity passes, and we’re made comfortably safe again. Failure can be characterised by feelings of intense embarrassment, frustration, regret, powerlessness, and most importantly, a strong sense of shame, leaving us feeling bad about who we are. These are vigorous motivators against doing what we find to be personally meaningful. Using your imagination to expel the prospect of failure can help to make valuable pursuits seem more encouraging, with less reluctance to participate.
“Only those who dare to fail greatly can ever achieve greatly.” —Robert F. Kennedy
The fact of the matter is, you’re going to fail repeatedly, especially for something difficult and worthwhile. What’s the worst that could happen? It’s better to fail, than to have never tried. Those who regularly fail are the most courageous among us. Imagining failure as a non-entity can offer the heroism needed to identify and undergo meaningful endeavours.
“I’ve missed more than 9000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times, I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”—Michael Jordan
What would you do if you only had six months to live?
Death can feel like a faraway, dreamlike concept, best kept locked in the dark corners of our minds where it can be ignored, until the day that it bursts into view, fierce and unrelenting. At this point, the wasted hours of our lives come into sharp focus, and we might start questioning what we want to do for the final stretch of our life. Are you happy to keep on doing your 9-to-5—commuting to the office for another six months of depressing drudgery—or would you prefer to stay at home with a captivating novel? Perhaps you’d like to spend the time reconnecting with long-forgotten family or friends, the company of whom lit up your life in days gone by, but tragically fell by the wayside? Maybe it’s finally time to fill the spare room with an expansive train set, with multi-platformed stations, chubby conductors, and freshly-painted townspeople?
When time becomes more limited, it also becomes more precious, and we’re left wondering how we really want to spend it. If you only have six months to live, what are the most personally meaningful things that you’ve do?
“I’m the one that’s got to die when it’s time for me to die, so let me live my life the way I want to.” —Jimi Hendrix, Axis: Bold as Love
A sense of comfortable gratification washes over us when we’re exercising our natural talents. The activity can feel instinctive, almost second-nature, and we’re encouraged to push harder to advance our skill. Most of us want to achieve mastery over the world—a Nietzschean will to power—so our natural talents can be particularly enticing, boosting our treasured sense of autonomy and self-confidence.
“The person born with a talent they are meant to use will find their greatest happiness in using it. ”—Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
There isn’t much point in struggling through something for which you have little natural skill, because there’s a good chance you’ll give up anyway. Only those with iron grit who are backed by a strong extrinsic motivator can muster the determination to become masters at such things. Most people get frustrated, give up, and move onto something more befitting of their abilities. There’s nothing wrong with this—why waste your time on something that doesn’t suit your particular type of intelligence? Our natural talents, and the innate desire to exercise them, can be valuable sources of personal meaning.
“Hide not your talents, they for use were made,
What’s a sundial in the shade?”
Listen to what others say about you
Your friends, family and colleagues probably know a great deal about you—perhaps more than you’d like. The words that you choose and the tone used to deliver them; the body language that you adopt; your unique way of solving problems—all these things construct a unique personality that the people close to you can readily identify, making them a valuable source of information about yourself.
That comment from your overly-enthusiastic colleague about your instinctive eye for design is a hint at your natural talents, as is the constructive criticism from your boss about your poor lack of planning. The raised eyebrows of your friends as you perform a self-composed guitar solo is strong evidence of your burgeoning musical skill, to be sustained if you have the appetite for it.
Other people provide constant clues of our natural talents, which can be registered if we‘re mindfully attentive. There’ll likely be sycophants and phonies along the way who’ll distort your self-estimations, but these are usually spotted easily—insincerity exudes the most pungent of smells. Generally, listening to what others say about you can yield valuable clues to your meaningful pursuits.
Talk to people
The unique preferences of every person who you interact with makes them a goldmine of information. A career in air traffic control may have never been a consideration, until being regaled with tales of the tarmac tower by your wife’s spirited, distant relative. The casual kitchen chat you had with your co-worker about the revived therapeutic studies of psilocybin could ignite a passion for learning about magic mushrooms. The lives of other people can be fascinating and remarkably educational, if you ask the right questions. Most people love talking about themselves, and they’ll spill their soul if you exhibit a genuine curiosity about them. Even more so if you ply them with red wine.
Our mobile phones are destroying these lovely little moments that we have with people, by offering a temporary reprieve from the inevitable awkwardness that arises during conversation. A second or two of silence, and our phone becomes more appealing than a freshly baked, crack-like Krispy Kreme. Taking our phone out in the middle of a chat is a death knell to the conversation—an announcement that we can’t handle a little bit of discomfort, so we’re reverting to our phones instead, where there’s no chance of social awkwardness, but also little chance of discovering something meaningful through honest, open conversation.
Consider something civil
It doesn’t just have to be about ourselves—deeply fulfilling meaning can be found through helping other people. Altruistic behaviour bathes us in a warm and contented glow, reinforcing our psychological need to relate, and encouraging us to repeat our act. Benevolent prosocial behaviour can provide us with long-lasting, joyful satisfaction.
“For it is in the giving that we receive”—Saint Francis of Assisi
A study from Florida State University found that the “giver” in a relationship had a greater sense of purpose in their life. Our subjective existence instills us with selfishness, but when we shift our focus to other people and act selflessly, without any thought of reciprocation, we often feel wonderful. It’s a win-win situation, creating positive vibes for both parties.
There’s a ton of ways to be prosocial: charity work; helping an old lady cross the street; unexpectedly cleaning the apartment for your partner; making the effort to talk to your often-ignored office cleaners, and much more. These little acts of kindness can provide you with a deep and valuable sense of meaning.
What social injustice bothers you?
Social injustice can stir up intense, morally-driven feelings of unfairness, followed by a powerful motivation to set things straight. Are you bothered by the fact that the American justice system is skewed towards punishing young black men? Consider doing something about it—raise awareness for the injustice through social media; integrate yourself into the Black Lives Matter movement, or learn about the intricacies of filmmaking so that you make your own documentary about the corruption and greed that fuels the American prison system.
Social injustice can light a fire in our soul, and though often accompanied by feelings of anger and distress, there’s also a formidable sense of meaning. What could be more meaningful than helping to battle an immoral discrimination, in order to make the world a kinder, fairer place?
“As my sufferings mounted I soon realized that there were two ways in which I could respond to my situation — either to react with bitterness or seek to transform the suffering into a creative force. I decided to follow the latter course.”—Martin Luther King Jr.
The pursuit of happiness is a fool’s game—a critically-acclaimed tale of tragedy penned by the world’s finest author, woven with threads of gloomy irony, with the pursuit itself being the saboteur of our happiness. Thankfully, there’s a laudable alternative—the pursuit of meaning. Our lives are but a tiny flicker of flame, lost in the darkness of untold millennia, until we discover the fuel that intensifies the blaze, unapologetically radiating our little corner of the world with dazzling luminosity.
Only through meaning can our light shine at its fullest, bestowing us with lasting, joyful happiness.
“Life has no meaning. Each of us has meaning and we bring it to life. It is a waste to be asking the question when you are the answer”—Joseph Campbell
One of our most feared, anxiety-inducing thoughts is the possibility of failure; the idea that despite trying our very best — minds and bodies exerted to their fullest degree — the end result is a depressing, tearsome defeat; inadequately botched, like a stratosphere-aspiring lead balloon that crashes spectacularly into the sodden earth. Failure can be followed by a gut-wrenching, dizzying sensation in which you probably feel like the world’s biggest idiot, which you’ll promptly re-affirm with a vindictive internal monologue, adding further degradation to an already humiliating situation.
Scary as it is, failure is an inevitable aspect of a well-lived life; the consequence of consistent, courageous participation, as opposed to a trembling, fearful negation of the world. To live is to fail — the trick is learning how to deal with the looming possibility of failure in a constructive, positive way. Whipping yourself with merciless, negative self-judgments doesn’t work, instead causing higher levels of stress, lower levels of self-esteem, and at its worst, depression. Even if your negative self-talk is based in truth (maybe you really are shit at sports), it does nothing to improve your chances of success.
On the other hand, positive, compassionate encouragement has proven to be an effective way to stave off failure. A study on competitive performance in the UK found improved task performance when practising positive self-talk, recording an increase in effort, greater arousal, and more positive emotion while performing the task. Even the simple trick of telling yourself that you’re doing great, or you can do better next time can give you a greater chance of success. In this insightful study, self-talk is broken down into two distinct types.
This kind of self-talk focuses on the process. Positive examples include:
I’m a great writer, and this article is shaping up nicely.
I’m enjoying the challenge of reading this philosophy book.
To finish this marathon, I just need to keep putting one foot in the front of the other.
Compare these with examples of negative self-talk-process:
I’m writing terribly — this article is boring, derivative, and trivial.
I’m way too stupid to understand this philosophy book I’m reading.
I’m too exhausted to continue running in this marathon.
Imagine how another person would react if you had the gall to talk to them this way? Their motivation would likely be destroyed; all sense of energy vanquished in the face of such severe and unnecessary criticism. So why do we do it to ourselves? Cruel chastisement helps nobody. Encouragement is the fuel we need to keep moving forward.
This kind of self-talk focuses on the outcome or end result. Some optimistic examples would be:
This article is going to be informative, helpful, and entertaining.
When I finish this laborious philosophy book, I’ll be the wisest owl of them all.
I’ll feel an awesome sense of achievement when I cross the finishing line of this gruelling race.
Forging these positive and successful outcomes in our minds helps to curate valuable, motivational emotions, with negativity left by the wayside, giving us the confidence to drive forward. We feel a renewed sense of vitality, and armour-wielding courage.
Contrast this with examples of negative self-talk-outcome:
This article will be shallow, useless, and laughable.
This philosophy book is so difficult that I doubt I’d have learned anything by the time I finish it.
If we’re 100% committed to our actions and eager to perform well, positive self-talk has shown to be an effective way to achieve our goals. Incorporating the habit into our daily routine can be challenging — one of the toughest things about revising your negative inner monologue is catching yourself in the act. Our minds are supersonic autobahns that host thousands of rapid thoughts — it can be hard to recognise and catch a negative thought before another comes speeding along to replace it. The wonderful process of mindfulness can help with this, enforcing speed limits on our frantic, ravaged neural pathways, and gifting us with an increased awareness of our own minds. Mindfulness meditation requires no equipment or setup, just a basic understanding of its premise, and a lot of patience.
Another proven, effective way to combat negative self-talk is cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT), with techniques that encourage you to challenge your own dreary, harmful narratives, replacing them with positive, healthier alternatives. CBT is considered one of the most effective methods for reducing anxiety, helping us to curtail the potent worry and negative self-talk that tends to accompany challenging tasks.
With consistent practice of optimistic self-talk, failure becomes much less intimidating, replaced with a self-fulling prophecy of positive confidence. We can weave toxic, damaging narratives for ourselves that outline our immutable stupidity and incompetence, or compose energy-boosting stories of our unequivocal talents, obvious capability, and unmistakable worth. With persistent, practised positive self-talk, we can become the authors of our own glorious fates.
Language is a wonderful thing. It allows us to categorise, simplify and describe our complex and confusing universe, applying words to objects and actions that might otherwise remain as unusual blobs of shifting shape and colour, forever unlabelled and elusive. Language brings order, creating a beautiful, intricate structure that we use to create common understanding within our species, paving the way for mastery of our environment.
Language is magnificent, but there’s a downside to this wonderful ability. Language is so deeply embedded in our nature, and used so liberally, that we often forget that its primary function is to describe our world. We confuse the descriptive word that comes out of our mouth with the thing itself, as though the word is more real than the thing we’re describing. A cow isn’t the word cow; it’s the burly, black and white thing with the nipple-clad, pink undercarriage standing in front of you. The word cow is just a label that we use to identify something, not the thing itself.
The confusion between expression and reality was illustrated wonderfully by Belgian artist Rene Magritte, who painted a pipe with the words “this is not a pipe,” cleverly reminding the viewer that the image of the pipe is not an actual pipe, just as the word cow isn’t an actual cow, but simply a useful noise that you’ve made with your mouth.
Rene Magritte — The Treachery of Images
Another great example is from semantics scholar Alfred Korzybski, who remarked that “the map is not the territory,” highlighting the common confusion between models of reality (the map) with reality itself (the territory). The map is purely a representation of the landscape, just as the word cow is a representation of an enormous, methane-oozing animal that likes nothing more than to spend its day grazing and mooing.
Confusing the label/representation with the actual thing that is being described can have the regrettable consequence of diminishing our appreciation of it, by reducing it down to nothing but a mere abstraction. The sound that we make when we say cow can never be as wonderfully intricate as the actual thing that we’re identifying, and while language is effective at categorising our world, it can have the unfortunate side-effect of removing all sense of depth and curiosity from our observed object. In reality, a cow is a natural marvel that can weigh over 1300kg, has 360-degree panoramic vision, and can smell something from over 6 miles away. The word cow is just a useful abstraction—great for simplification, but with the downside of blinding us to the marvellous minutia of the actual animal itself. As we simplify, so we depreciate.
“Sentences are only an approximation, a net one flings over some sea pearl which may vanish.”—Virginia Woolf
One might say that the glass that I’m currently drinking out of is just a glass, but in reality it’s an invention with an almost 4000-year history, originating in the heat of India, advancing towards Europe to the mighty Roman Empire, and eventuating as a handy drinking receptacle used by billions of people worldwide. It’s much more than just a glass. By reducing something down to a single word, and then confusing the word with the actual thing itself, we’re compelled to forget its rich history and delightful features, and so take it for granted.
Language is not reality. When we realise this, we’re brought closer to reality, being forced to recognise that the sounds that we utter are a mere abstraction, with the real world right before our eyes. Words create an impressive and convincing illusion, in which we come to identify everything in the real world as nothing but a selection of muttered letters—short, compartmentalised, and boring.
“To see the truth you need to step out of the word jungle”—Bharath Gollapudi, Quora
Sam Mendes’ masterpiece American Beauty reminds us of our world’s dazzling intricacy by encouraging us to look closer—an invitation to expand on an all-too-brief, short assessment of a thing, to better understand its hidden beauty.
“It was one of those days when it’s a minute away from snowing and there’s this electricity in the air, you can almost hear it. Right? And this bag was just dancing with me. Like a little kid begging me to play with it. For fifteen minutes. That’s the day I realized that there was this entire life behind things, and this incredibly benevolent force that wanted me to know there was no reason to be afraid, ever. Video’s a poor excuse, I know. But it helps me remember… I need to remember… Sometimes there’s so much beauty in the world, I feel like I can’t take it, and my heart is just going to cave in.”—Ricky Fitts, American Beauty
There’s an entire life behind things—endless, fascinating detail, which we have better access to if we remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. Even something as seemingly banal as a plastic bag, dancing in the wind, can be heart-wrenchingly beautiful. We just have to look closer.
A similar theme can be found in Alejandro Iñárritu’s impressive film Birdman. During one scene, the protagonist actor Thomson Riggan rages at villainous critic Tabitha Dickinson, accusing her of mistaking words and labels for the reality that they represent:
“Let’s read your fuckin’ review. ‘Callow.’ Callow is a label. It’s just… ‘Lackluster.’ That’s just a label. Margin… marginalia. Are you kidding me? Sounds like you need penicillin to clear that up. That’s a label too. These are all just labels. You just label everything. That’s so fuckin’ lazy… You just… You’re a lazy fucker. You’re a lazy… [picks up a flower] You know what this is? You even know what that is? You don’t, You know why? Because you can’t see this thing if you don’t have to label it. You mistake all those little noises in your head for true knowledge.”—Riggan Thomson, Birdman
For Riggan, the critic who promises to “kill his play” is a fraud, failing to look past her abrupt descriptions to a deeper truth that she is too lazy and complacent to see. As a writer, Dickinson is so immersed in the world of language that she’s unable to separate words from reality, choosing to pigeonhole Riggan and his play before she’s even witnessed it. This is just one small, subtle element of a major theme of the movie—the confusion of fantasy and reality. Though Riggan frequently delves into fantasy himself, undergoing impossible feats such as moving objects with his mind, he’s aware of the beguiling potential of words, even keeping a sign at his dressing room desk that says “A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing”.
If we want to increase our world’s worth before our eyes, we must remind ourselves that the word is not the thing. This is not to say that we should spend our days wandering from object to object, mouth agape at everything we encounter. We need semantic brevity in order to get shit done. But if we pause from time to time and examine our world a little more closely, our blessed sense of appreciation will be heightened, and we’ll slowly become more grateful for this spectacular, fascinating world that we’re living in.
It can be tough trying to live a good life. Most of us want an existence that favours our own happiness and contentment, but struggle to achieve them, repeatedly falling off the proverbial wagon into gluttony, lethargy, burnout, or any other calamitous outcome. We can be way too hard on ourselves, pursuing idealistic lives that are wonderful in theory, but unrealistic in practice, with every failure followed by the harshest of self-criticism, and then dismal self-loathing. Voltaire famously said that “the best is the enemy of the good,” summing up perfectly what we should be aiming for—not perfection, but good.
This is the idea of living with balance—not an idealistic dream in which you exercise six times a week, eat only the healthiest of foods, and spend every spare minute learning, but a life in which you exercise just enough, eat healthy foods just enough, and spend just enough time expanding your brain. A balanced life is achievable because it acknowledges your weakness for couch-lounging, fatty foods and trashy entertainment, while recognising that you’re also making the effort to accomplish healthy goals. It’s the patient, sympathetic teacher that you had at school, as opposed to the cane-wielding psychopath who would happily tear shreds off you for the slightest indiscretion.
History is peppered with stories and philosophical concepts on the importance of living with balance. Greek mythology tells the tale of Icarus, a prisoner on the island of Crete whose father fashioned a pair of feathered wings in order to make their escape. He offered his son a stark warning: “don’t be complacent and fly too low, as you’ll drown in the sea. Also don’t get too cocky and fly too high, as the sun will melt your wings.” This is clear advice to maintain a balance between the two—the course in which both extremities are avoided, and survival is ensured. Icarus ignored his father, melted his wings in the heat of the sun, and drowned.
Greek philosophy offers us the golden mean, advising to navigate the desirable middle between the extremes of excess and deficiency. Socrates himself taught us that a man should know “how to choose the mean and avoid the extremes on either side, as far as possible.” Buddhism has a similar concept—the middle way (samatā)—which states that nirvana can be achieved by walking the line between sensual indulgence and withdrawn asceticism—neither too much pleasure, or too little. There’s examples from Islam too, with theologian al-Ghazali believing that “what is wanted is a balance between extravagance and miserliness through moderation, with the goal of distance between both extremes.” Even the Temple of Apollo was inscribed with “nothing in excess.”
A balanced life is vital for happiness, so how does this translate for modern folk? There’s a few key areas things to consider.
Unless you’re training for an ultra-marathon, you probably don’t need to run fifty miles a week. A common reason that people fail to maintain exercise habits is because they set the bar too high, filled with excited motivation during planning, but succumbing to crippling laziness when the time arrives. Starting small is a great way to build long-lasting habits—a short run a couple of times a week, with gradual increases of distance.
Exercise needs to be balanced with relaxation. Our muscles repair themselves when we’re resting, allowing us to recover for another session. Too much exercise will result in exhausted burn-out, and too much rest in negligent, wheezing infirmity. Exercise and rest go hand in hand, and we must find the right balance if we want to maintain excellent physical health.
All you really need to do is make yourself a healthy eating plan that consists of actual food instead of pre-processed garbage, and allow yourself a few delicious treat meals to satiate your natural cravings. You’ll undoubtedly fall off the wagon, but provided you’re sticking to it for the most part, you’ll have a good balance between healthy and unhealthy food, without having to become a mini-Hitler and goose-step your way to failure.
When it comes to entertainment, we’re spoiled as toddlers at Christmas. Netflix offers us an immense selection of movies and shows across an eclectic range of genres, wrapped up in a user interface that is ridiculously easy to use. These days, we rarely have to wait from week-to-week to watch a TV season, instead slithering into our well-worn sagging spot on the sofa, and consuming the whole lot in the course of the day, only rising to grab food from our poorly underpaid Uber Eats driver.
Our phones are also brimming with entertainment—Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, Candy Crush, Angry Birds, WhatsApp, Twitter—most of them designed to trigger our dopamine response, and keep us hooked.
There’s nothing wrong with a little entertainment, but when we spend large portions of our day mindlessly scrolling through Facebook, or sit for hours staring at trashy, mindless TV shows—glistening trails of drool running down our chins—we’re sacrificing precious time on activities that allow us to grow as humans: reading, writing, cooking, spending time with friends, meditation, hiking, painting, designing, or any other creative activity that requires patience and effort.
It’s vital that we become more conscious of how much time we spend entertaining ourselves with mindless junk, in order to create space for activities that make us more compelling, complex, and fufilled humans.
Solid personal relationships are a key component of a happy life, with the potential to proffer us with extra years, fight off stress, and improve our immune system. Lonely people are more prone to depression, pain, fatigue, and tend to have higher blood pressure in later life.
We need good relationships if we want to be healthy, but it’s crucial that we carve out regular chunks of time for ourselves, so that we maintain a sense of freedom. Being in a stifling relationship—in which your partner or friend is so reliant on you that they’d crumble into dust on your departure—can have the unfortunate effect of making us feel like a superior parent, rather than an equal. Time spent with friends must be balanced with time spent for ourselves—there’s nothing wrong with rejecting a social invite if you’d rather stay at home and finish off the bewitching book that you’ve been reading.
Unless you truly love your work, or are temporarily under pressure to get something done, every additional hour spent at the office is wasted time that could be spent on activities that actually make your heart sing. You probably don’t need to work until 7pm every night in the hope that your boss with lavish you with additional riches, because believe it or not, more money can actually damage your good character.
A good work/life balance will help to keep your stress levels in check, while furnishing you with the time needed to pursue habits that are good for your wellbeing, not just your wallet.
A good life is achievable, we just need to construct and maintain a careful harmony between the various aspects of our lives—a juggling act that requires practice, and regular assessment. Living with balance is allowing yourself to indulge in unhealthy pleasures, comfortable in the knowledge that you’re regularly doing the right thing, and so staving off shame-inducing guilt. Instead of a rigid strictness—highly tense and susceptible to breakage—living with balance makes us softer, more agreeable, and more likely to achieve the goals that we set for ourselves, giving us the breathing room that we need to be healthier, happier humans.
Many people in Western society seem to harbour the impression that their lives are somehow lacking; that their current position in the world, their numerous, shiny possessions, the relationships that they maintain, and the emotions that they feel, aren’t entirely up to scratch, as though what they’re experiencing is just a lacklustre pre-show—a taster before the main event. Though our days may be peppered with stimulating challenge, favourable encounters, and a great deal of comfort, there’s still something missing. Surely this can’t be it?
We carry within us an insatiable desire for more—a destroyer of contentment; a hankerer of stuff, status and success, that we assume will assassinate our demons, or at least muffle them for a little while, as though the fulfilment of our wants can somehow repair our yearning souls.
Where does this voraciousness come from? There’s a few culprits, each with their own part to play.
“There is more in you of good than you know, child of the kindly West. Some courage and some wisdom, blended in measure. If more of us valued food and cheer and song above hoarded gold, it would be a merrier world.” —J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit
One of the most depressing misconceptions in Western society is the idea that accumulating stuff makes us happy. Observe the terrifying fracas of a US shopping mall on Black Friday; hoards of consumers dashing for cut-price products, more than willing to thrust their elbows at anyone who gets in their way. Consider the tacky line of super-bright Lamborghinis that might appear outside a Monte Carlo casino – their gold-dripped owners assuming that admiring looks from the public will help to camouflage their deficits of character. Contemplate the ever-expanding wardrobe of the average person, every square inch of space being used, and yet nothing to wear.
Materialism is baked into our capitalist economy, driven by the nonsensical belief that every purchase carries a little bit of happiness with it, but in reality, leaves us both financially and spiritually emptier. Excessive materialism has shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. The things that are being rapaciously sold to us—our irises continually flashing with the bright reflections of persuasive adverts—are making us miserable. A study undertaken by the American Psychological Association found that materialistic values are driven by insecurity, with sufferers buying more stuff in an attempt to assuage their harrowing self-doubts.
“Our economy is based on spending billions to persuade people that happiness is buying things, and then insisting that the only way to have a viable economy is to make things for people to buy so they’ll have jobs and get enough money to buy things.” —Philip Slater
“When morality comes up against profit, it is seldom that profit loses.” ― Shirley Chisholm
“The point is, there is no feasible excuse for what we are, for what we have made of ourselves. We have chosen to put profits before people, money before morality, dividends before decency, fanaticism before fairness, and our own trivial comforts before the unspeakable agonies of others” — Iain M. Banks, Complicity
In his book The High Price of Materialism, Tim Kasser explains that those hell-bent on obtaining possessions tend to experience fewer positive emotions every day. On the flip-side, those who report high levels of life satisfaction are liable to entertain fewer materialistic values, and have better relationships. We’re much more materially affluent than our grandparents, but are slightly unhappier, with a higher risk of depression and social pathology. Materialism not only fails to increase our subjective well-being, it causes us damage. Every happiness-promising advert that flashes before you is tainted with a sickening irony.
“For what does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world, and loses his own soul?”—Mark 8:36
As social animals, status is naturally important to us. We’re anxious to stand out from the crowd—to tower over our peers so that we may win their respect, and so their love. We abhor the condescending glare that we might receive when paying for a train ticket with mountains of small change, as though our temporary financial hardship is something disgusting, to be placed at a far away distance so that it cannot infect the more fortunate among us.
Much of our craving for status is created from our inherent desire to be loved, fuelled by the assumption that we’ll be treated with benevolent respect if we’re able to show off our expansive seven-bedroom mansion, our platinum gray Armani suit, or our Instagram model girlfriend, lovely to look at, but with the conversational skills of a hyperactive parakeet. Status is compensation for inadequacy—the idea that we’re not good enough, and so must surround ourselves with luxurious wealth, creating a facade that might trick our audience into thinking that we’ve really got it together.
“By faithfully working eight hours a day you may eventually get to be boss and work twelve hours a day.” ― Robert Frost
Status cannot inoculate us against feelings of distress, or fix the nagging doubts that we have about ourselves. All the money in the world cannot make us happier, and in fact, excessively wealthy people suffer from higher rates of depression. Psychologist and author Leon Seltzer has treated various millionaire patients, stating the following:
“Having worked professionally with several multimillionaire malcontents, I can say that what they really craved were those things intrinsic to happiness laid out at the beginning of this post [supportive relationships and self-acceptance]. The transient highs that accompanied their wealth accumulation were never much more than a hormonal rush anyway. And even though in the eyes of the world they were enormously successful, continuing frustrations and insecurities gave testimony to the fact that the blast of ‘feel good’ chemicals their success yielded was all too easily exhausted.” — Leon Seltzer
“Are you not ashamed of caring so much for the making of money and for fame and prestige, when you neither think nor care about wisdom and truth and the improvement of your soul?” ― Socrates
Self-help gurus tell us that CEOs read a book a week, and that we can do the same when purchasing their cut-price course, eventually eclipsing the achievements of our colleagues and accelerating away from them towards career dominance, a position where our perpetual emptiness might finally be filled. It’s bullshit, of course. Status and wealth may produce admiring glances, but they cannot create what we really need—the love and compassion of our fellow humans, and patient, sympathetic self-acceptance.
“The plain fact is that the planet does not need more successful people. But it does desperately need more peacemakers, healers, restorers, storytellers, and lovers of every kind. It needs people who live well in their places. It needs people of moral courage willing to join the fight to make the world habitable and humane. And these qualities have little to do with success as we have defined it.” —David W. Orr, Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World
Rejection of sadness
Sadness, and its accompanying, so-called negative emotions, has a tendency to be rejected by Western society, as though there’s no place for it in our lives. We’re taught that happiness is our natural birthright, and sadness a disorder to be cured. Naturally, during our darker, melancholic moments, we suspect that there’s something wrong with us, and that the situation is somehow unnatural. We’re not supposed to be this way!
Sadness—along with the other six basic emotions—is a permanent part of our biology. This inevitable, painful emotion will appear countless times over the course of our lives, often at the most inopportune of moments, challenging us to a battle in which we have little desire to partake. Instead, what we usually do is attempt to numb the sadness in some way, whether through alcohol, drugs, shopping sprees, or any other vice that offers nothing but a band-aid with weak adhesive. Our unreasonable desire to expel sadness from our lives helps to feed an addiction to positivity, a compulsion doomed to failure. We simply cannot change our nature.
“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or very foolish imagine otherwise.”—George Orwell
Now that the some of the culprits of our perpetual yearning have been unearthed, what can we do to battle them? How can we learn to become content with what we have? You might consider trying the following.
Gratitude is like kryptonite to our greed for more; a neutralising element that drains its destructive power. The field of positive psychology has shown that a gratitude diary can increase feelings of contentment, because it forces you to focus on what’s good in your life, rather than what’s lacking. By paying attention to the things that we love, we stumble upon the realisation that our lives contain much joy, and our thirst for more is temporarily diminished.
“You own twice as much rug if you’re twice as aware of the rug.”—Allen Ginsberg
Mindfulness meditation is an exercise sent from the gods, offering benefits such as reducing stress, controlling anxiety, and much more. Though it certainly requires practice and patience to become an expert, the process itself is simple, and requires no equipment.
Meditation helps to fight our desire for more by forcing us to slow down and appreciate what’s in front of us, as opposed to frantic, anxious thinking which tries to soothe itself with destructive behaviours such as gluttonous shopping. Our new-found calm carries an enhanced sense of self-awareness, allowing us to catch ourselves in the act of pernicious thinking, whereby we stop for a moment, realise that we’re about to engage in a toxic act, and decide to do something healthier instead.
Self-acceptance and self-compassion
Self-acceptance is allowing, accepting and welcoming all parts of yourself, whether good or bad. It’s about accepting your shadow—the dark, grisly side of your nature that you’d rather keep locked away in a dusty cupboard. There’s not a person on earth who doesn’t have flaws, the trick is learning to accept them. Unconditional self-acceptance allows us to live full and honest lives, embracing each and every aspect of our personality.
“You are imperfect, permanently and inevitably flawed. And you are beautiful.” — Amy Bloom
As we become more self-accepting, we also become more content, which weakens our incessant yearning for more. By reminding ourselves that we’re worthy of love (from ourselves most of all), we’re instilling our lives with genuine, clear-cut value.
“You accept that, as a fallible human being, you are less than perfect. You will often perform well, but you will also err at times… You always and unconditionally accept yourself without judgment”—Grieger
This practice can be accompanied by self-compassion—being kind, gentle, and supportive to yourself at all times, even when you make the most horrifying of mistakes. Self-compassion allows you to distinguish between making a bad decision, and being a bad person. Gaffes are being made everywhere all the time, and a typical reaction is to attack ourselves for the indiscretion, creating destructive feelings of shame and unworthiness. Treating ourselves with sympathetic kindness is the favourable alternative.
“Self-compassion involves treating yourself with the same kindness, concern, and support you’d show to a good friend. When faced with difficult life struggles, or confronting personal mistakes, failures, and inadequacies, self-compassion responds with kindness rather than harsh self-judgment, recognizing that imperfection is part of the shared human experience.” —Neff & Dahm
Friends make us feel loved, creating a sense of belonging and a deep-seated satisfaction, vanquishing our desire for more. Voracious shopping sprees or glistening palaces are no longer needed to make us feel better about ourselves—our friends do a much better job. Side-splitting laughter, or serious, soul-touching conversation, is no substitute for an oak-panelled corner office in a Manhattan high-rise.
“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.” —Helen Keller
All of the money, material goods, and status in the world cannot quench our incessant desire for more. Often, it backfires and our craving is strengthened, leaving us in a worse state than before. Our insatiable desire for more can be allayed through consistent gratitude, regular meditation, self-acceptance and self-compassion, and strong relationships. Eventually, we’ll come to realise that we don’t need a million dollars or a house full of expensive gadgets in order to feel content. Eventually we’ll realise that we have just what we need—we have enough.
“Two men graduated from the same high school. One of them went to college and graduate school and became a professor, making a professor’s salary. The other went out and became a billionaire in the business world.
At a reunion, the two got together, and the billionaire was boasting about all the things he had accomplished and was able to buy with his billions. The professor said, “I have something that you will never have.”
The billionaire said, “How can that be? I can buy anything with the money I have. What do you have that I will never have?”
Many of us go through life trying to impose our will on the world. Sometimes it works—we finally get the promotion that we’ve been battling for, after endless late nights and newly-sprouted silver hairs; our animalistic efforts towards a female are rewarded with a wild, no-holds-barred evening in a hotel room, or our headstrong child finally gives in to our relentless requests to scrub the dishes. Often, it doesn’t work. Our snarling, snake-like manager takes all the credit for himself; the girl in the bar with the magnificent breasts sneers at our lowly attempts at flirtation, and our little-bastard-of-a-son blocks us with the noise-cancelling headphones that we paid for.
Life is – as fiery Italian footballer Gennaro Gattuso so eloquently puts it – “sometimes maybe good, and sometimes maybe shit”. It’s the messiest thing we’ll encounter, an enormous, warping ball of the most twisted and wonderful nonsense we can hope to imagine, the taming of which is difficult for even the most skilled circus performer. The world will do what the hell it wants, regardless of our sweaty exertion.
Somewhere in the undulating, gorgeously-green slopes of Classical China, in an ancient time known as the Spring and Autumn period, an insightful, unknown character saw the world’s indifference with perfect clarity, and when combined with the idea that life is easier when you go with the flow, came up with the Taoist concept of wu wei.
Wu wei, when translated literally, means “without exertion”. It’s the idea that each of our actions should be performed spontaneously, based on the conditions of the moment. The staggering number of events that have led up to this moment in your life have created a set of conditions that are almost entirely outside of your control, and by acting in accordance with these inevitable conditions, you’re giving yourself the best chance of success, and not locking yourself into battle with an unbeatable world that, quite frankly, doesn’t give a shit about you.
“Life is a series of natural and spontaneous changes. Don’t resist them; that only creates sorrow. Let reality be reality. Let things flow naturally forward in whatever way they like.” —Lao Tzu
Wu wei can also often translated as non-action, which sounds like an advocation to be a lazy deadshit, but is actually the idea of being more effective when you’re not forcing a situation. We cannot hope to persistently control a world that is hell-bent on doing what it wants. Instead, we can take each situation as it comes, and act in accordance with the unique conditions of the circumstances. The alternative is a path to teeth-grinding frustration. The expectations that we bear, and the force that we use to impose them, are the source of much irritation and resentment.
Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget discovered that kids roughly under the age of seven have a tendency to believe that they can affect the outcome of a situation simply by thinking it, as though the very thought of pushing your little brother off a revolving see-saw would actually cause it to happen. He named this magical thinking, which as adults, is exactly what we’re doing when we have unrealistic expectations. It doesn’t make a shred of difference whether we expect something to happen or not. Going with the flow—wu wei style—is a much more favourable attitude.
“I do my thing and you do your thing.
I am not in this world to live up to your expectations,
And you are not in this world to live up to mine.
You are you, and I am I,
and if by chance we find each other, it’s beautiful.
If not, it can’t be helped.” —Fritz Perls, ‘Gestalt Therapy Verbatim,’ 1969
Wu wei is not a call for unbridled apathy, in which we float through the world like stoned spectres, drooling and desireless, but instead an invitation to let go of our expectations, taking each moment as it comes. It’s turning your boat around and paddling with the stream, rather than against it. So much energy is wasted in trying to mould the world into our desired shape, and while we do have some success, we’re often left frustrated. Though desire, ambition and action will remain as undeniable and important forces in our lives, we must accept that our plans will often be thwarted, and that instead of descending into despair, we might consider adapting to the developing situation in the spirit of wu wei, providing us with an effective and delightful buoyancy in which we no longer have to partake in fruitless battles against an unconquerable opponent.
“If you realize that all things change, there is nothing you will try to hold on to. If you are not afraid of dying, there is nothing you cannot achieve.” —Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching
The concept of wu wei is similar to the Buddhist concept of Upādāna, which can be referred to as attachment, clinging, or grasping. When we become attached to our expectations, in our desire to dominate and regulate our world, we suffer. For the orange-clad, baritone-omming buddhist, the cessation of attachment leads to Nirvana—a liberation of the soul, similar to the feeling one might expect when you finally become free of worries, after a lifetime of carrying them. Timone and Pumbaa were probably buddhists.
Similarities to wu wei can also be seen in the Greek philosophy of Stoicism, which teaches the futility of trying to control that which cannot be controlled, as if the statement isn’t already obvious enough, and yet still dismally overlooked by so many us. The stoics believed that you should live according to your values, while preparing yourself for repeated, inevitable disappointment, because most of the time, the world doesn’t play to our rules.
“It is not the man who has too little that is poor, but the one who hankers after more.” —Seneca, Letters from a Stoic
To be a practitioner of wu wei is to bestow yourself with additional energy, usually wasted on combative, headstrong styles of thinking. You’re no longer paddling against the stream, but using its natural energy to propel yourself forward, and in the process, enhancing your own vitality. Once the unnecessary need to fight has been expelled, you can move forward with increased finesse and competency, towards a brighter, less quarrelsome future.
The East has much to teach us, with Taoism a worthy forerunner. Wu wei, and it’s emphasis on going with the flow, must surely be one of the most liberating ideas to emerge from that mysterious continent, encompassing the ability to relieve a great deal of mental stress, and move forward with an accepting, permissible attitude, in which the hardships of life are efficiently dealt with.
Throw unacquainted humans into a close-knit social gathering, and observe the plentiful, awkward small talk. Though often uncomfortable, such events can be important to one’s social life, so we must trudge through them, in the hope that we’ll exit the building having skilfully skimmed the surface with our conversation, never diving too deep, committing social taboos, or generally upsetting people with overly-intimate topics.
Small talk has a reputation for being banal, and for good reason. Pointing out the fact that it’s raining seems as ridiculous as pointing out the fact that you have a head – you’re fully aware of both things, and don’t require an outsider to confirm them. But despite being obvious and often painfully dull, small talk has an important role to play, allowing us to leap over a number of social obstacles towards improved, meaningful interaction.
“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.” —Emily Post, Etiquette
Humans can be sensitive souls. We each have our boundaries and lists of potential upsets, which when breached, cause us to either gently back away to an alternative position in the room, or become angry at the infraction. Small talk is first and foremost a way to test the waters of an unfamiliar person, so that you may better understand their temperament. When finding yourself positioned closely to a person who you know little about, it’s much safer to point out the rain-soaked sky than to launch into a political tirade about your views on transgender pronouns. Until you know the person more intimately, heavier topics should probably be kept under wraps, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a cold, offended stare.
Though trivial, small talk still has great revelatory power. When talking with fellow humans, much of our soul is exposed through non-verbal communication, despite our fear of being vulnerable. A response to how was your weekend can unveil much about the person’s character – the length of their response might indicate their level of confidence; the tone in their voice an indication of friendliness; their slightly lowered head – as if protecting themselves from attack – a exposé of a regrettable history of bullying. As a species we’re excellent communicators, and though small talk might seem bland, it’s the ideal way to learn about a person with who you’re uninformed.
As more of a person’s character is uncovered, we have the insight needed to determine whether to broach more meaningful topics – the things that we actually want to talk about. Few of us have passion for banal small talk; as soon as we understand someone more intimately, our inclination is to talk about subjects that are meaningful; questions that latch onto our soul and don’t let go. Conversation is a great educator, and deep conversation creates lasting bonds with our fellow humans, forging precious friendships that paint our lives with vibrant colour. Such friendships begin with small talk.
“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.” —Aristotle
We cannot conceive of a new person fully without modest first steps; the necessary, cautious introduction to somebody’s soul. Great friendships have small beginnings – profundity is preceded by much insipid natter, whether it be about the city-darkening rainclouds, the football results from the weekend, or the latest remarkable idiocy from Donald. Shallow topics are an invaluable stepping stone to greater things.
“Thomas’s mistake, like most of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that.” —Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea
Small talk is also a way to communicate that you’re interested in somebody – idle chat that reveals a desire to understand the person a little better. This may be painless for an extrovert, but for those crippled with shyness, the process can be formidable. In light of the importance of friendship and meaningful connection, those of us naturally blessed with confidence should always make the effort with introverts, despite them often coming across as coldly closed-off. Underneath the restrained exterior is a lion wanting to roar.
Then there’s awkward silence to consider, a vacuum so dreaded that we’ll say anything to fill it, sometimes with amusing consequences.
We abhor silence around others because it seems to communicate the following: I’m not interested in what you have to say. When we’re thrust into a cramped situation with another human being, with nothing else to entertain us, not saying anything seems rude. We’re making a conscious choice to stay silent, and that decision can be interpreted as antipathy, or even animosity, towards the other person. Deep down we all want to be liked, and to be surrounded by caring friends. Small talk provides the initial steps towards this goal. Our hopeless, 21st-century addiction to mobile phones acts as a deadly poison to friendship-forming – it’s so much easier to assume the role of an unsociable screen-zombie, staring blankly at our devices instead of having the courage to ask about somebody’s day.
For some people, small talk seems the summit of their capability; a result of a lack of education, exploration, and daring in their lives. Progressing to meaningful topics is impossible if you aren’t aware of them. We need to read books from insightful authors; consume penetrating, thoughtful YouTube videos, and board sky-bound Airbuses towards remote and exotic destinations, if we want our conversation and personality to progress past mundanity. Rarely does Facebook, Instagram, or any other insipid social media platform offer us the content we need to become more intriguing.
“He was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict. And he was too moronic to be properly self-loathing–so it was my duty to loathe him instead.” —Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn
Most of us become guarded when encountering unfamiliar people, in order to protect ourselves from hurt. Their personality is obscure from the outset, and though there may be potential for a deep, meaningful relationship, until we know them better, we keep them at a safe distance. Small talk offers us the means to be necessarily vulnerable, at a slower, more agreeable pace. It’s the precursor to treasured human connection. So the next time you find yourself in close proximity with an unfamiliar person, commenting on the weather might be one of the most valuable things that you can do.
A couple of years ago, my girlfriend and I spent the morning touring the Louvre museum in the elegant city of Paris. The museum holds a vast collection of beautiful, illustrious pieces of art, and a portion of history so rich that one feels as though they’ve taken a ride with a loony whitewashed scientist in a DeLorean.
The museum’s most illustrious piece is Leonardo Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, for which the halls of the establishment are peppered with sign posts. As we sauntered ever closer to the famous painting, it became increasingly difficult to swing one’s arms in a casual fashion, and we found ourselves assuming a penguin-like waddle. We finally reached the section in which it was housed, packed to the rafters, to discover that we couldn’t see the painting because the view was almost entirely blocked out by arms and mobile phones.
It’s astonishing to think that the vast majority of the museum-goers standing in front of the Mona Lisa weren’t using their god-given eyeballs to look at it, but instead believed it more important to look at it through the lens of their smartphone’s camera, because heaven forbid they’d miss the opportunity to take a picture of a famous picture. Many of us have become so detached from our own senses, and so obsessed with modern technology, that we’re abandoning the opportunity to actuallyexperience the marvels that are in front of us. A smartphone camera is no substitute for a fortuitously-evolved pair of eyes, with capabilities to distinguish the tiniest, delightful details within a painting. Neither does it house a curious brain, the ponderous stirrings of which add fresh colour and satisfaction to an art-viewing experience. It just takes a crappy, distanced picture, which can be trounced by thousands of professional pictures on the internet, and is probably going to be glanced at a couple of times before never being looked at again. Meanwhile, the time that should have been spent examining the picture and appreciating its beauty has been lost.
In another section of the museum, we witnessed a middle-aged Asian lady frantically dashing across the hall, taking a picture of a painting before darting to the next one. She seemed genuinely stressed about this arduous task, as though missing a painting would result in her beheading upon reaching the museum’s exit. It was hilarious to witness, but really quite depressing. She was so desperate to capture her experiences that she failed to experience them. This is like visiting one of Paris’ mouth-watering restaurants, taking a picture of the menu and then leaving. All she seemed to want was a record of the moment; a far-cry from the magnificence of the real thing.
This behaviour isn’t limited to museums. The digital age finds us consistently immersed in a hypnotising world of bits and bytes, at the expense of just experiencing the exquisite world around us. Our phones cannot tell us what the local park smells like after a long-awaited rainfall, or convey the sweet crispness that permeates the air. They’ll fail to transmit to us the feeling that emerges when looking up at the magnificent dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a heavenly beam of light illuminating the exquisite carvings below. A digital recording of your child’s first steps, in which your eyes are fixed onto a small screen to make sure you’re getting the perfect shot, is a dismal travesty.
The only way to fully experience these things is to put our devices away and pay attention. It makes no difference how many pixels our cameras can capture, or how high the frame-rate of our video, when our attention is focused on recording the event instead of experiencing it; so anxious to freeze the moment in time that we’re relinquishing what’s valuable about it – the experience itself. This might be considered a kind of meta-existence, in which we’re stepping outside of the real world in order to capture and record information about it. This reality seems unbelievably perverse, and yet, so many of us exist in this way, unaware that we’ve become record-keeping spectators in our own lives.
Our only hope is to resist our unrelenting desire to capture our experiences, relinquish the absurd virtual likes that we’re addicted to, and look a little closer at the world around us. Our lives are enriched through mindful attention, and impoverished through obsessive record-keeping. Our blessed senses open up a world of marvels, which can only be properly appreciated by paying attention. How can one even consider prioritising a virtual Facebook like over the sensual delights of the Niagara Falls? Or witnessing an American bald eagle soaring above your head, instead of fumbling to open your camera app?
The Mona Lisa is ruined when viewed through a digital screen. If Da Vinci painted her in our time, one might argue that her half-smile is one of mocking condescension, in response to the knowledge that most of her audience are living a hollow, ghost-like meta-existence. You never know – if we put away our cursed phones, her smile might broaden into something wondrous to behold.
Those words can be heard from legions of employees across the globe, from colourless, drab offices, to arse-crack abundant construction sites. They’re often responded to with nodding, relieved heads, as though this week of miserable servitude has been more torturous than a spell at Auschwitz. Just one more day of the unassailable grind, and we’ll be blessed with meadow-prancing freedom.
It’s almost the weekend is another way of saying our lives are tough, and we need a break; a declaration that resonates for many people. Adult human life – with obligations to shelter, clothe and feed ourselves – can feel depressingly arduous, so the weekend becomes a highly anticipated hiatus in which we massage away the stresses of full-time employment. Weekends were invented for this reason, and help to keep us an acceptable amount of sane.
There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the respite of Saturday and Sunday, but the commonplace utterance of it’s almost the weekend, while seemingly innocuous, is a damaging attitude to take. Whenever we make this proclamation, or find ourselves on its receiving end, we’re openly stating that we’re displeased about the time we spend at work, and that we cannot wait for it to be over. While this may be true, it’s reinforcing the idea that employment is something to be avoided at all costs, further tarnishing our attitude towards a mandatory practice in which we’ll spend the majority of our time on Earth. The more we whine about something, the worse it becomes in our minds. It’s almost the weekend is just a sorrowful, victim-like whinge, which serves to strengthen the idea that employment is an abomination, and that we should all be able to live in the woods like daisy-wielding, unwashed hippies. Until the boffins of this world construct super-robots who can safely do our bidding, or unless you’ve decided to spend your life shamelessly sponging off the government, work isn’t going anywhere soon. The woeful sufferer who oozes it’s almost the weekend commands respect from nobody, themselves least of all. It’s a defensive, miserable attitude in which life just isn’t fair.
You might have a truly dreadful job, or work in a toxic environment with psychotic, scarlett-faced managers who would remedy you with a cane if they could. If you’re in fortunate enough circumstances, dusting off your CV is an obvious response to hating your work. It’s certainly easier to be a forlorn coward, continuing on with your sorrowful employment while meekly declaring that it’s almost the weekend, but this does nothing to better your situation.
If you have responsibilities that forbid you from finding superior employment, or are restricted to a tiny pool of jobs, then for the time being the situation is out of your control. Similarly to those with fewer restrictions, dismal utterances of it’s almost the weekend are doing nothing but reinforcing your role as a deplorable victim, whose sufferings are worsened by the role you’ve assumed.
It’s almost the weekend is a desire to escape from your life, to flee from an uncomfortable situation instead of valiantly confronting it. We can learn a great deal from pain and discomfort; taking flight the moment it appears is relinquishing an opportunity for personal growth, in which valuable lessons may be unearthed. Railing against wretched situations (such as abuse) is required in order to effect change, but most of the time it’s better to say yes to the happenings of our lives. Escapism is an outright rejection of the present moment, the eternally ongoing instant in which we all live. It’s almost the weekend is a futile attempt to break away from the inescapable now, into a future that only exists as an ethereal concept in our brains. While there’s nothing wrong with occasionally looking forward to something, consistent mental projections of the future, and how grand it would be when we finally have some relief from the difficulties of the present, is no existence at all. It’s wishing our lives away until we finally reach our expiration date, at which point we might wonder why the hell we didn’t actually live.
“Tomorrow and plans for tomorrow can have no significance at all unless you are in full contact with the reality of the present, since it is in the present and only in the present that you live. There is no other reality than present reality, so that, even if one were to live for endless ages, to live for the future would be to miss the point everlastingly.” —Alan Watts
In addition to dragging you downwards, it’s almost the weekend is dreadfully boring. You could be asking your colleagues about their weekend away with their family, or harmlessly teasing them about their obvious coffee addiction. Whining about the fact that it’s almost the weekend will earn you few friends, which are a commodity more valuable than gold.
Surviving can be tough; we all have to earn our keep. There’s a choice to make when it comes to our mandatory employment – bristle and complain about it with utterances of it’s almost the weekend, escaping into a future that doesn’t technically exist, or face your hardships head on with heroic courage and fortitude. Only the latter can bolster your chances of happiness and fulfilment.