Life as a clap-addict, and how to beat it

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My name is Rob, and I’m a clap-addict.

In the hours following a new blog post, I check my Medium notifications at least 10 times an hour. I’m woefully desperate for my articles to be liked and appreciated by others, and fully aware that it’s an unhealthy behaviour. And yet, like a wretched crack-smoker, those hits of dopamine yank me back to the bewitching little green circle.

I’m relatively new to blogging, only recently mustering up the courage to start publishing my thoughts. Putting yourself out there is unnerving, especially when you’re not entirely confident in your own abilities. Though my surety has certainly grown in recent months, I’m still at the point where approval of my writing is crucial, and so I check my stats obsessively.

Views, reads and claps are obviously an important indicator for success, but like much else in the world, a felicitous balance must be struck. The occasional check is great to understand whether my articles are resonating with people, but looking at them 10 times an hour in a desperate craving for validation is obviously futile. It’s wasted time that could be spent writing valuable content.

I’m also aware that as a social animal, approval-seeking is infused into my brain. It’s one of the reasons why Facebook, Instagram, and other social networks became so popular. We love being loved, and the neurochemicals that flood our brain when being validated can make slaves of us.

“It is a new step towards independence, once a man dares to express opinions that bring disgrace on him if he entertains them; then even his friends and acquaintances begin to grow anxious. The man of talent must pass through this fire, too; afterwards he is much more his own person.” —Nietzsche

Claps on Medium are a small measure of my success as a writer, and given my determination to succeed in this endeavour, my willpower is almost non-existent when it comes to checking them.

There’s also procrastination to content with, that diabolical arch-enemy of productivity. Putting your thoughts into words in a way that’s helpful, compelling and amusing can be challenging to an anxiety-inducing degree, and Medium stats are always peeking around the corner at you, beckoning with a seductive stare. Each concession to temptation strengthens the procrastination habit, making it harder to resist next time.

This article is an inducement to stop this clap-checking madness, and if you suffer from these frustrating behaviours, the following might help.

Set boundaries

Checking your stats a couple of times a day is enough to gauge your progress on Medium. You can figure out which stories are succeeding and failing, and hopefully have a slightly better understanding of why. You’ll still receive those enticing little dopamine squirts, just much less frequently than usual. Once in the morning and once in the evening is a good balance.

Consider your reasons for writing

“Don’t worry about getting credit, do the work anyway.” —Richie Norton

One of the main reasons I write is make sense of the absolute chaos inside my own head, which hopefully, when solidified in print, helps other people as much as it helps me. This is a motivation worth remembering and adhering to; a motivation that actually has value, as opposed to worthless, addictive stat-checking.

Figuring out your own core motivations, and reminding yourself why they’re so important, can move your unhealthy desires for approval into the background. They’re suddenly overshadowed by something much more personally meaningful, and with a bit of luck, will start to fade into obscurity.

Recognise your discomfort, and work through it

“My mother always told me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I procrastinate. I said, ‘Just wait.'” —Judy Tenuta

“I love deadlines. I love the whooshing noise they make as they go by.” — Douglas Adams, The Salmon of Doubt

Writing can be tough, but it’s even tougher to stay with it. 50% of my writing time is spent with my fingers hovering above the keyboard, staring blankly while I frantically try to figure out what I want to say. These moments are the most difficult, and as a feeling of stupidity washes over me, my craving for approval suddenly hits me like a ton of bricks.

Being mindful enough to catch myself in the act is the first challenge. The next is having the courage to actually continue writing. Meditation can help with being mindful, and bravery is cultivated by just getting the fuck on with it, and realising that it isn’t half as frightening as you assumed.

Tons more tips on defeating procrastination can be found here.

Strive to be a great writer

“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” —Ernest Hemingway

Assuming that you’re writing because you actually want to be a writer, why the hell are you wasting so much time checking your stats? Every minute lost is a minute in which you could be writing something insightful, and honing your skills as a master wordsmith. Striving for excellence is not only admirable, it can put a motivational rocket up your arse. Try your very best to be the best.

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The little green circle doesn’t have to be so alluring. Writing great content is all that really matters, and with a little knowledge, courage, and perseverance, we can ruthlessly destroy our doleful clap-addictions.

Why kids are the masters of existence

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“Time is a game played beautifully by children.” – Heraclitus

Life has a tendency to grind us down over the years. Slowly, relentlessly, our limited stay on earth becomes ever more serious, carving deep-set, knitted lines between our once-smooth brows. Our muscles take on a steady tenseness, only able to be softened by the skilled hands of a Thai masseuse. The near-constant anxiety that racks our exhausted brains zaps the dazzle from our once vibrant hair.

It wasn’t always like this. As kids, we had a propensity for joy. We were able to just live in the moment. Young kids have no concept of past or future – they seem to understand, intuitively, that the only tangible thing that exists is now. You’ll never find a young child wracked in anguish about yesterday’s mishap at play school. Nor will you find them frantically worrying about the upcoming visit from their distant, straw-eating, hillbilly cousins.

Kids don’t have any responsibilities, of course, and while this is certainly a factor in their carefree attitude, it’s far from the whole story. Children just seem to have an unwavering commitment to their lives – they never hold back. When a young girl builds a sandcastle, she builds the absolute shit out of it. When she straps on her wellingtons and jumps in a freshly formed puddle, she jumps as high as her legs will allow. When she gets upset, she cries her heart out. There’s simply no time to worry when you’re so busy living.

Why are kids able to become so effortlessly engaged, and how can we imitate the joyous little bastards?

Curious, mindful sensing

“Children see magic because they look for it.”― Christopher Moore

An uncountable number of mothers across the globe have, at one point, dashed across a room to prevent their child from putting something disgusting in their mouth. Kids love to use their senses to explore the world. What does that mud-ridden, juicy worm taste like? How does this delicate, floral-covered vase feel when I run my fingers over it? What will happen if I squeeze this ginger cat’s tail?

As we become familiar with the sight, texture and taste of the world around us, it somehow becomes less special. We stop paying attention to the stunning, sun-kissed majesty of our city. Our minds are elsewhere while we wolf down salt-covered, freshly roasted potatoes. The small, thoughtful, love-filled gestures from our partner begin to go unnoticed. We start to take everything for granted.

Young kids find magic and novelty in the world because they pay attention. Their Magellan-like exploration of their surroundings aren’t accompanied by an endlessly buzzing smartphone that yanks on their attention. They aren’t conjuring plans for their next activity while delicately picking a ruby-red geranium in the local park. They do one thing at a time, and they do it wholeheartedly. Kids are the embodiment of mindfulness. They stare so intently that it can make you blush, absorbing every single blemish on your face, and giggling afterward.

“The soul is healed by being with children.” ― Fyodor Dostoevsky

The fact that everything is new and shiny to a kid does make things more exciting, but we can recapture a little of this magic by being more mindful and curious about the world around us.

Instead of just glancing at something, really look at it. Consider its shape, texture and colour. If it isn’t a human who’ll get offended, touch it. Contemplate how it feels against your nerve-packed fingertips. Notice the sound waves that are hurtling and ricocheting their way through the world, which by chance, happen to reach your meticulously evolved ears. Though you may experience the same thing every day, you’re probably still missing a great deal of delightful detail.

Our world has profound depth and boundless beauty, and we just happen to have the right equipment to experience it. Kids know how to use this equipment properly – they’re the masters of their senses. As we grow older, we live more inside our own heads – an existence of imagination, projection and worry, with no concrete reality. The antidote is simply, and wholeheartedly, to pay attention to the world once more. Put your fucking phone away and spend some time absorbing your exquisite, improbable planet.

“How is it possible that a being with such sensitive jewels as the eyes, such enchanted musical instruments as the ears, and such a fabulous arabesque of nerves as the brain can experience itself as anything less than a god? And, when you consider that this incalculably subtle organism is inseparable from the still more marvellous patterns of its environment—from the minutest electrical designs to the whole company of the galaxies—how is it conceivable that this incarnation of all eternity can be bored with being?” —Alan Watts

Even something that you don’t want to do can become intriguing if you pay attention, from a position of open-minded curiosity. Like a caterpillar in its cocoon, curiosity has a way of transforming the mundane into something beautiful and extraordinary. By withholding our judgment and becoming a little more inquisitive about the daily activities of our lives – scrubbing the dishes, making the bed, brushing our teeth, etc. – they become a little more pleasing. Curious attention turns us into participants, rather than spectators, in our own lives. Kids do this naturally, and this is one of the reasons why they’re so joyful.

Pledge yourself fully to each and every moment, as a child does. If you’re sad, be sad. If you’re irritated, be irritated. Kids don’t try to escape their emotions the way that adults do; they seem to understand that soon enough, whatever is bothering them will be over. Our emotional life is a never-ending rollercoaster ride of peaks and troughs – the highs can’t exist without the lows.

“Look at children. Of course they may quarrel, but generally speaking they do not harbor ill feelings as much or as long as adults do. Most adults have the advantage of education over children, but what is the use of an education if they show a big smile while hiding negative feelings deep inside? Children don’t usually act in such a manner. If they feel angry with someone, they express it, and then it is finished. They can still play with that person the following day.”― The Dahai Lama

Be content with what you have

“Be content with what you have;
rejoice in the way things are.
When you realize there is nothing lacking,
the whole world belongs to you.” — Lao Tzu

As we mature from teenagers to adults, responsibility bears down on us like a truck with a sleeping driver. Suddenly, we’re no longer able to freeload from our parents, and the obligations that we’re burdened with make life much more serious. Kids don’t have to worry about where their next meal is coming from, or the security of their job after a recent company takeover. Their basic needs are fulfilled, often thanklessly, without question.

As adults, we’re always going to feel the squeezing pressure of earning a living, but we can minimise that pressure by learning to be content with what we have. How happier will an extra few thousand dollars a year really make us? Is it worth consistently working until the small hours of the night, and depriving yourself of sleep to get it? Most of us intuitively know the correct answer to this question, and yet we do it nonetheless.

“Many people lose the small joys in the hope for the big happiness.” —Pearl S. Buck

While playing with a toy, young kids aren’t putting plans in place to get a bigger, better toy. They’re too busy living and experiencing what’s in front of them. Ambition is just a foolish concept pursued by grown-ups. Why strive for more when you can’t appreciate what you already have?

“He who is not contented with what he has, would not be contented with what he would like to have.” —Socrates

Perpetual, irrational seeking of more and more stuff is also resulting in the dreadful consequence of a smothered and poisoned planet, which has reached a crucial tipping point. Materialism has even shown to cause a decrease in personal well-being. We assume that more stuff means more happiness, but it’s a tragic mistake that might end up killing millions of people.

By learning to be content with what we have, our greedy desires for more will lessen. We won’t need a promotion in order to buy that enticing, V8 sports car. Our financial responsibility, and the pressure that comes with it, are reduced to something much easier to handle. Like kids, we can begin to fully appreciate and become involved with what’s in front of us.

Psychology has shown that keeping a daily gratitude diary is a great way to become more content with your life, because it forces you to focus on what’s good, rather than what’s lacking.

Treat life as a game

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“[The world is] an arabesque of such stunning rhythm and a plot so intriguing that we are drawn by its web into a state of involvement where we forget that it is a game. We become fascinated to the point where the cheering and the booing are transformed into intense love and hate, or delight and terror, ecstatic orgasm or screaming meemies. All made out of on-and-off or black-and-white, pulsed, stuttered, diagrammed mosaiced, syncopated, shaded, jolted, tangoed, and lilted through all possible measures and dimensions. It is simultaneously the purest nonsense and the utmost artistry.” — Alan Watts

Unless you’re religious, you’d probably agree with the fact that life has no ultimate meaning. As such, it’s our challenging and enduring task to imbue it with meaning that’s wholly personal to us. We decide what makes life meaningful, and while this absolute freedom can swing between being crippling and liberating, it’s an undeniable and staggeringly beautiful fact.

Life doesn’t have to be so serious. Hindus believe that life is a game, born out of creative play by a divine god. Games are supposed to be enjoyed, not played to be won and conquered, like an empire-builder with stunted self-confidence. A game is played for the enjoyment one experiences while playing; there’s no end goal in sight – it’s the playing that counts. One doesn’t dance in order to reach the end of the song, we dance because we enjoy the process. The end game is a fool’s game.

For children, their whole existence can be described as a game, and their unremitting investment in playing through the good and bad parts of it are what makes them masterful participants.

Our existence is only serious because we assume it to be. By treating life as a game, it becomes more nonchalantly light-hearted, and our petty little worries are destroyed by a fresher, brighter perspective.

Do what you love

If a child is drawn towards something, they’ll use whatever means necessary to get it. There’s no need for them to rationalise why their heart is set on certain toys, activities or people, they just want them and enjoy them. Not much changes with the approach of adulthood – certain things just happen to intrigue us, which is why settling into a personally appealing career is so critical to our happiness. Kids don’t usually do things that they don’t want to do – why the hell would they? They’re motivated intrinsically, solely by what interests them.

Of course, gaining and maintaining employment isn’t quite as simple. It’s doubtful that we’ll work jobs that we love all the time. This seems to be an increasingly common assumption that should be expelled for the sake of our mental health – a utopia-like job, perfectly suited to you, is highly unlikely to exist. Even if it did, it’d be almost impossible to find. Instead, we should focus our efforts on finding employment that is good enough; on a role that fulfils us for the most part, but will probably still irritate us at times.

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We all lost something on the way to becoming adults, stolen by an education that equipped us for survival, but robbed us of our enthusiasm. Though the responsibilities of life will forever be a burden, they don’t have to drag us to dark and depressing depths. As difficult as it can be to recognise, our existence contains much that we should be grateful for.

Anxiety doesn’t have to be the most familiar emotion in our arsenal. Our passion for life can be rekindled by imitating the kids, those masters of existence, for which time is a game played beautifully.

 

 

The hero – the ultimate weapon against suffering

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“Most people get a fair amount of fun out of their lives, but on balance life is suffering, and only the very young or the very foolish imagine otherwise.” —George Orwell

If every experience, thought and emotion of a person were to be compiled into an extensive catalogue of their life, a large portion of it would probably be tagged with the word suffering. It’s an indelibly human experience – frequent, painful, and inescapable. Our brows are often knitted in frustration, mouths curled into a grimace, and muscles uncomfortably tense, as if preparing for an attack.

Your narcissistic, impish boss might be the source of your suffering, as his eyes slowly narrow into contemptuous slits during conversation. Perhaps you’re hopelessly fastened to a blob-like lifestyle, in which fried potato comfortably and regularly defeats fibrous vegetables. Maybe you’re slowly and reluctantly realising that you married the wrong person.

Unless you want to renounce your life and introduce your neck to a homemade noose, suffering is here to stay. And if it can’t be expelled, we’d better learn how to handle it.

As it turns out, suffering itself isn’t the problem, but our judgment of it. We suffer, and then we suffer some more because we can’t help but bitch and whine about it, exacerbating the original problem. This preposterous, habitual reaction to suffering is attributed to much of the world’s emotional pain – a form of insidious, repetitive self-harm. It’s like accidentally cutting yourself in the kitchen and then intentionally wedging the knife into the wound afterwards. A witness to this behaviour would swiftly sit you down for a chat about the demons inhabiting your soul.

There’s two fundamental roles that can be assumed in relation to suffering – two standpoints that we can assume. The first is the victim.

The victim

The victim is a doleful character for which life just isn’t fair. Nobody deserves the pain that they experience – them least of all. A disproportionate share of misery has wound a path to them; all signposts for anguish point in their direction. If they picked winning lottery numbers, they’d probably put their ticket through the wash.

Life as a victim is tragically debilitating – every ounce of energy is wasted on complaint, with feeble weakness as the result. Exertion is taxing and undesirable. It’s much easier to complain about something than it is to actually change it. The voice of a victim has an unmistakable whiney quality, as though all traces of bassy substance has been filtered out, resulting in a spiritless, barely noticeable, irritating noise.

If faith in the almighty is their thing, they might be left wondering why they’re being so woefully punished. Even Jesus himself couldn’t have been the recipient of such devlish torment. Perhaps a visit to the local church will do the trick.

The victim’s lengthy role has instilled them with an unshakeable hostility towards life, which has treated them appallingly and must be responded to in a similar fashion. They’re as hostile as rabid hounds, and as bitter as raw coffee beans.

“He who fears he shall suffer, already suffers what he fears.” — Michel de Montaigne, The Complete Essays

If being a victim sounds horrible to you, then you might consider strapping on your armour, unsheathing your glistening sword, and assuming the role of a much more agreeable character: the hero.

The hero

The hero suffers the same amount as the victim, but chooses a much more advantageous stance. They understand that pain is inevitable, to be faced head-on with jutted chest, wide-set feet, and hands on hips. Suffering is still unsavoury and arduous, yet tolerated with admirable courage and hulk-like strength.

Fortitude is a chief characteristic of the hero, forged from years of leaning into suffering. Unlike the victim, for which suffering is cruel and undeserved, the hero understands that pain is a great teacher; an alchemist for an enlightened soul.

“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.” —Kahlil Gibran

“Do you not see how necessary a world of pains and troubles is to school an intelligence and make it a soul?”— John Keats

The hero wouldn’t be caught dead casting aspersions on life, like pitiful martyrs. They know that suffering has the potential to mould them into something better, something durable, superbly tenacious, and with a shadow that darkens entire neighbourhoods.

“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

Like the hero of Dante’s Inferno, they recognise that the way out of hell lies at its centre – only by fully experiencing pain can we escape it. Complaining only strengthens the potency of suffering. Life is a rip-roaring adventure, bursting with colourful jubilation and dreary sorrow, with all of it valuable.

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Life is suffering, but the intensity and duration is defined by the stance that we choose to take. We can be helpless victims, whining our way through life with shrivelled voices, suffused with crippling anxiety. Or we can be courageous heroes, standing Hercules-like against our pain, with every laceration amplifying the robustness of our character.

The choice is yours.

“The fact is that we’ve all been hurt, and we’re all wounded, but not all of us are mean. Why not? Because some people realize that their history of suffering can be a hero’s saga rather than a victim’s whine” —Martha Beck

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I don’t like you – want to come to my party?

daniel-pascoa-253357-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

There’s certain people in this world who I just don’t like very much. My antipathy could be a consequence of their incessant, dronesome tales of work and how badly it affects their victim-like lives. It might be a result of a boastful tale of stealing somebody else’s boyfriend, in which they found no wrong. They could be overly aggressive and confrontational, which scrapes the meeker aspects of my personality. It might be all of these things and more.

Whatever the gripes, being in such a person’s company is hard work – conversation is shallow and awkward, emotions are forced, and I suspect that both of us want to be as far away from each other as possible.

So if you’re planning a social gathering, and that person happens to float within the social circles of people who you do want to attend, should you grit your teeth and invite them?

I’m hardly a high-flying socialite, but this question has still plagued me on multiple occasions. My distaste of the person and my selfishness makes it hard to extend an invite, while the kinder aspects of my nature yearns to do the right and gracious thing. 

Being fake is rarely good, and spending time with someone we dislike requires it unless we want to end up sneering at each other from across the table. Becoming an object of hate doesn’t do much for the self-esteem, so the alternative is shitty small talk, in which our phones develop an unprecedented allure. As much as we desperately want to make some kind of connection, if only to expel the wrenching tension, neither of us can say anything that interests the other. Our hobbies, TV habits, music preferences, senses of humour and morals are completely misaligned. It’s like a teenager trying to have a conversation with an old person – they may as well be from different planets. The person in question probably doesn’t even want an invite.

“I don’t hate you.. I just don’t like that you exist” — Gena Showalter, Seduce the Darkness

It also feels like a waste of time, which I could be spending in the company of people who I enjoy. The gravity of those folk is strongest for us – we’re gladly drawn into their comfortable, socially-pleasing orbit, as opposed to being propelled away by unpleasant and jarring conversation. We only get one chance at this life – why the hell should we fritter it away with people who irritate us? Friendship circles are born from similarities – the objected person is unlikely to fit in, so it seems a waste of their time too. Your friends might also be wondering why you invited such an abrasive person, with your hard-won reputation taking a hit in the process.

On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, as I know how awful it feels. I’ve spent some hours on a dark and lonely lunch-time bench, head down, wondering why I was such a despicable loser who not even a mother could love. Being left out can seem an insult to your personality – the very thing that defines you. Inflicting this kind of hurt onto somebody is painful in itself.

Kindness is a wonderful thing, and putting the person’s needs before your own is a genuinely nice thing to do, even though every aspect of your soul revolts against it. The simple decency of inviting the person might help them to make new friends – finer gifts are difficult to find. The favour might even be returned, giving you the chance to meet new people and form beneficial, lasting relationships. Stone-cold exclusivity, while infinitely more comfortable, doesn’t yield such benefits.

As people, we can be awfully judgmental. The aversion that we feel towards certain humans is a direct result of our judgments about them, and though they may be shared by others, and based on solid reality, they still darken our lives. Once a dislike judgment has been made about someone, the good becomes imperceptible, even when on display. Unless (and even if) the person is a psychopathic mass-murderer, they still have some undeniably good aspects to their character. We have to force ourselves to see them, and by doing so, we’re demonstrating admirable compassion, with an increased appreciation for the person as a result. Judging sabotages friendships; it’s the arch-enemy of much-needed human connection. While advocating complete non-judgment would be foolish (we need it to prevent ourselves from being harmed), a lessened approach is infinitely  more humane and loveable.

“When we dislike someone, or feel threatened by someone, the natural tendency is to focus on something we dislike about the person, something that irritates us. Unfortunately, when we do this–instead of seeing the deeper beauty of the person and giving them energy–we take energy away and actually do them harm. All they know is that they suddenly feel less beautiful and less confident, and it is because we sapped their energy.” — James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy

Sticking with the same old people can also become dreadfully boring. That objectible person who you’re so averse to include might be refreshingly stimulating, if you abandoned your judgments and gave them a chance. Difficult to do, but an undeniably worthy pursuit.

The next time that you’re drawing up a guest list and you find yourself in this sticky situation, tap into your compassion and try to see the good in people. Ruthless and relentless judging is valuable for nobody. By keeping an open mind, and practising non-judgment, you’re opening yourself up to greater emotional connection with the world, even those who you’ve already lumped into the dislike group. With luck and a little effort, you might form a lasting friendship.

Laughing at your flaws will make you happier

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With each passing year my boobies get a little bit bigger, which isn’t great because I’m a man.

That right there is self-deprecating humour, and as a Brit, it’s baked into my very core. Brits and Australians are masters of self-deprecation – spend time with the peoples of either country and you’ll quickly become accustomed to laughing at yourself, whether it’s poking fun at your wobbly midriff, the blinding shiny bald patch where your hair used to be, or your frequent and complete lack of intelligence.

“I, myself, am made entirely of flaws, stitched together with good intentions.” — Augusten Burroughs

Poking fun at ourselves is an effective way to get people to like us. Nobody appreciates a high-and-mighty narcissist who never puts a foot wrong. Our flaws are what make us human, and putting them on display can be a way to communicate that there’s nothing wrong with being imperfect. Pointing out my stupidity to somebody with doubts about their own intelligence might help to put them at ease – the abject horror at being discovered as a bit dumb becomes slightly less terrifying, because it’s a trait shared by others. This is similar to the idea of imagining your psychotic boss wearing fancy pantaloons, as a way to make him appear foolish, rather than fearsome. Self-deprecation can remove the menace from the menacing.

A study from the University of Granada last year found that those who jokingly point out their own flaws have high scores in psychological well-being. Life can be tough – directing gibes at our oversized snout adds a silver lining to an otherwise painful fact. It may look like a rejected zucchini, but at least we can laugh about it. They also found a relationship between self-deprecating humour and personality traits such as kindness and honesty.

Ursula Beermann (University of California) and Willibald Ruch (University of Zurich) found that self-deprecating humour is linked with increased levels of optimism, and better moods. It literally has the power to make us happier.

Laughing at ourselves also reveals a loveable humility and self-confidence. Yes, we have some glaring deficiencies, but we also have the courage to not only display them, but shine a light on them. This willingness to show embarrassment can help to build trust with our fellow chimps. Bullies have nothing to work with if we’ve already pointed out our amusing flaws.

“I finally have the body I want. It’s easy, actually, you just have to want a really shitty body” — Louis C.K.

Must be about time for you to start slapping insults on yourself, right? Tread carefully, because self-deprecation can be destructive unless discharged under the right conditions.

Your gibes must be based in reality

Self-deprecation can only work if you’re being honest. Brad Pitt making light of his gruesome face just doesn’t work. The girls in his audience will be confused as fuck.

Stephen Hawking declaring himself a kung-fu champion does work, they’d probably high-five him if he wasn’t so delicate.

You need to find the joke funny

You must find your self-deprecating joke genuinely humourous. There’s little benefit to calling yourself fat if you’re saying it through bared teeth and clenched fists. This is just taking an axe to your own self-esteem. There’s a difference between lightly taking the piss out of yourself, and unhealthy self-hate.

Don’t target what you want to change, and can be changed

Like me, your favourite kind of self-deprecation might be about your weight, which you aren’t entirely happy with. We can lose excess weight through diet and exercise, so this type of self-poking is just illuminating our own laziness. It’s using self-deprecation as an excuse not to get off our arses and exercise – why make an effort if I can just learn to laugh at it instead? Control is the key factor here – if you’re taking the piss out of something that you can change (and want to change), you might consider diverting your efforts to the thing itself. It isn’t quite as simple as “I want to change this so I will,” some things are fucking tough, but the point still stands. This kind of self-deprecation is just taking the easy way out.

On the other hand, if you’re never going to embrace the #gym4life attitude and want to accept the eternal presence of your man-boobs, laughing at yourself will probably help you achieve that goal.

Be cautious of your environment

Egalitarian societies such as those in Scandinavia are a great place to be self-deprecating – arrogance is to be dispelled so that people are on a level playing field.

“The nail that sticks out gets hammered down” – Japanese proverb

In contrast, highly competitive countries with clear and approved hierarchies are a harmful place for self-deprecation, as it can be easily mistaken for under-confidence or low self-esteem, bestowing a competitive advantage.

Don’t do it if you’re marginalised

If you’re a black person living in an inherently racist society, it’s not a good idea to joke about your own colour, as you’re just communicating your acceptance of the status quo. Racism is (obviously) an awful thing – laughing at it reinforces the idea that it’s ok to be racist.

Hannah Gadsby – a gay, Australian female comedian – puts it perfectly:

“I have built a career out of self-deprecating humour, and I don’t want to do that anymore… when it comes from somebody who already exists in the margins… it’s not humility. It’s humiliation.” – Hannah Gadsby

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Laughing at ourselves can be a great way to take the sting out of life, with the potential to make us more loveable, and relatable. This can only be effective under the right conditions though – there’s a fine line between self-deprecation and self-hate. Walk the tightrope carefully, with a good deal of humour and honesty, and you can add a little light-hearted cheer to our often serious world.

Now, I’m off to the shops to get myself a bra.

Seeking meaning, not happiness, will make you happier

peter-lloyd-609343-unsplash.jpgPhoto by Peter Lloyd on Unsplash

One of the most stinging ironies of our species is the pursuit of happiness, an idea that is tragically self-defeating. Like the donkey being pushed forward by a glistening carrot that will forever elude him, pursuing happiness will position it just out of reach, but close enough for us to continue striving. It’s right there to be taken – so near and yet so far – if our grasping mitts were just a little longer.

As it turns out, happiness is incidental. It cannot be obtained by striving, and by doing so you’re making an ass of yourself. This is known as the paradox of hedonism, the idea that seeking happiness/pleasure only serves to hinder it, and in fact, you’re more likely to be happier if you quit your foolish efforts.

An example from Wikipedia illustrates the concept perfectly:

“Suppose Paul likes to collect stamps. According to most models of behaviour, including not only utilitarianism, but most economic, psychological and social conceptions of behaviour, it is believed that Paul collects stamps because he gets pleasure from it. Stamp collecting is an avenue towards acquiring pleasure. However, if you tell Paul this, he will likely disagree. He does get pleasure from collecting stamps, but this is not the process that explains why he collects stamps. It is not as though he says, “I must collect stamps so I, Paul, can obtain pleasure”. Collecting stamps is not just a means toward pleasure. He simply likes collecting stamps, therefore acquiring pleasure indirectly.

This paradox is often spun around backwards, to illustrate that pleasure and happiness cannot be reverse-engineered. If for example you heard that collecting stamps was very pleasurable, and began a stamp collection as a means towards this happiness, it would inevitably be in vain. To achieve happiness, you must not seek happiness directly, you must strangely motivate yourself towards things unrelated to happiness, like the collection of stamps.” — Wikipedia, The Paradox of Hedonism

Social psychologist Daniel Gilbert discovered that we’re notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy – a term known as affective forecasting. Our ability to perform these projections is significant because it shapes our decisions, including those concerning our happiness. We’re like incompetent gamblers, hoping to hit the happiness jackpot, but ending up disappointed and in debt. We cannot attain this state of mind by aiming for it.

“Happiness is like a cat, if you try to coax it or call it, it will avoid you; it will never come. But if you pay no attention to it and go about your business, you’ll find it rubbing against your legs and jumping into your lap” — William Bennett

Some experts go even further to claim that chasing happiness can actually make you depressed. Brock Bastian – a social psychologist based in Melbourne – identified higher depression rates in countries that place a premium on happiness, a effect created by the damaging idea that negative emotion can be forever evaded. When such feelings occur, a person might feel that there’s something wrong with them. This is exacerbated by the nauseating look at me I’m always happy illusion of social media, in which everybody appears to be better off than you, but in reality are suffering just as much.

It’s critical to understand that happiness is not our birthright, despite the bleatings of Thomas Jefferson. Our emotional range is to be fully traversed – end to end. It’s an unbreakable scale in which sacrificing sadness would mean doing the same for happiness – their existence is only possible because of the contrast between them. There’s no happiness without sadness; no light without dark; no up without down.

“What if pleasure and displeasure were so tied together that whoever wanted to have as much as possible of one must also have as much as possible of the other — that whoever wanted to learn to ‘jubilate up to the heavens’ would also have to be prepared for ‘depression unto death?’ – Friedrich Nietzsche

“Sadness isn’t a disorder that needs to be cured.” — Alain De Botton

In addition to being naturally varied, our emotions are also fleeting. Happiness cannot be purchased and battened down to prevent its escape, but instead enters our emotional fray, hugs us for a little while, and then leaves without warning. Our emotional state is in a constant state of flux, and ironically, the sooner we realise that happiness cannot be coveted, the happier we’ll be.

“Most people think that happiness is something we attain, like a possession, and that once we have it, we get to keep it. But happiness is not a place we can live. It is a place we can visit” — Daniel Gilbert

We’re not the only one’s suffering – our planet is having a bad time too, being pushed to its limits in part by our greedy, rapacious materialism. Irony strikes once again – amassing mountains of stuff does nothing to increase our happiness or well-being. As we suffocate the world, we’re also suffocating ourselves.

So what should you focus on, if not happiness? How can we obtain happiness indirectly?

The answer lies in our estimation of what is meaningful; the parts of our lives that we personally deem to be valuable. For Paul, this was stamp collecting, a simple hobby in which he unearthed happiness; a hobby that others might find insufferably boring. We are the authors of our own fate, with a selection of tastes and values that are unique. Our personal sense of meaning will be different to someone else’s, and we’re blessed with the freedom to pursue our values. This is one of the most beautiful aspects of Liberalism – the idea that each of us is wonderfully unique, which should be recognised, celebrated, and encouraged.

In Emily Esfahani Smith’s book The Power of Meaning, she analysed hundreds of scientific studies on meaningfulness, concluding that the characteristic features of a meaningful life are connecting to something greater than yourself, rather than a misplaced notion of hunting happiness. What we consider to be worthy can make us happy.

“Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.” — Viktor Frankl

“Many persons have a wrong idea of what constitutes true happiness. It is not attained through self-gratification but through fidelity to a worthy purpose.”  — Helen Keller

In addition to offering happiness, research has shown that having purpose and meaning in life can enhance your mental and physical health, resiliency, self-esteem, and reduce the possibility of depression. Meaning is a solid, long-lasting base on which to build your life. Happiness, by contrast, vanishes quicker than a genie after a third wish.

“You don’t become happy by pursuing happiness. You become happy by living a life that means something” — Harold S. Kushner

“You use your highest strengths and talents to belong to and serve something you believe is larger than the self.” — Martin E. P. Seligman

What is it that you personally value; that you find meaningful? What is it that draws you in, not because you assume it’ll make you happy, but because you consider it to be worthwhile?

Figuring this out might be the most important thing you ever do.

Turn up the brightness in your life by silencing your judge

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The gavel – that little polished hardwood hammer that fits most snugly in the judge’s hand – is something that we all love to use. Each occurrence in our lives is judged to be good, bad, or neutral, with an unforgiving and decisive smash on the block.

Judging our experiences is natural behaviour that has allowed us to endure through the ages, from the tiniest, inconsequential sea-dwelling microbes, to the complex Earth-ruling creatures that we are today. Judgment proffered us with the motivation to get the fuck out of the way when a rhino was charging at us, or to tip-toe towards the cave of an attractive, hairy neighbour. Without this evaluating force we’d be aimless wanderers, with nothing to entice us; zombies without a cause.

Our tendency to assess is a crucial force in our lives, but we’ve become overly partial to it, and perhaps a bit cocky. Our dynamic, businesslike brains can rapidly evaluate our desire or aversion towards something, and yet, the conclusions that we make aren’t always in our best interests. Watching a cricket match for six hours might seem like a hell designed just for you, and that’ll be a permanent assessment unless you approach it with a more receptive, open attitude. There’s nothing wrong with giving something a chance – let’s not pretend that you’re a high-flying socialite with a calendar busier than a hoard of spring bees. Your judgments aren’t infallible, and you could be missing out on a great deal of joy.

Judgment colours your experience, creating distortion before its even begun. Declaring that something is bad is like tarnishing it with hideous black paint – the encounter is bound to be ruined. Judgment often creates a self fulfilling prophecy; a miserable destiny authored by yourself.

Nothing in this world is inherently good or bad, we just label them so. A monstrous category five hurricane that hurtles towards an innocent American town isn’t fundamentally evil, just as the rains that make a poor farmer’s crops grow cannot be considered fundamentally good. This is Mother Nature at work, exhibiting her ruthless indifference towards our species. But these are extreme examples – less drastic occurrences happen to us a thousand times a day, with each one painted as good, bad, or neutral.

“Nothing is either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” — Shakespeare, Hamlet

Our incessant verdicts can cause us a great deal of stress. Relinquishing our judgment of “bad” offers us an escape route to a more peaceful mind, one in which our experiences aren’t automatically corrupted by bad habits.

“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them.” – Epictetus

This is not to say that judgment can be permanently suspended, we still need it to survive. It’d be foolish to defer the assessment of an articulated lorry that is charging in our direction. Similarly, our sense of morality is pinged upon the ability to discern right from wrong; good and bad. Most of our deductions, however, are much more trivial, and their cessation can offer us serenity.

Non-judgment means you don’t have to make an evaluation of every experience, you can simply be aware. This state of mind can be delightfully tranquil, in which usually threatening events are stripped of their danger, encouraging us to pay close attention instead of turning our backs. We experience things just as they are, not how we’ve assumed them to be. Non-judgment is a way to see the world clearly, like getting a pair of spectacles after having blurred vision for years. Suddenly, a sharpened focus is attained, in which a thousand details that we’ve never noticed – that we were too judgmental to notice – are presented to us in dazzling fashion. Withholding our interminable judgments turns up the brightness in our lives.

“I never approve, or disapprove, of anything now. It is an absurd attitude to take towards life.” — Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

How do you practice non-judgment? Much of it is about being mindful, which can be improved through meditation – a habit with so many benefits as to seem like snake oil. It requires no equipment or skill, just a dogged determination, and patience.

If the thought of sitting still for prolonged periods makes you want to start uppercutting people, you might consider trying the following instead:

  1. Notice when you’re judging. Pay attention to what happens in your body and mind.
  2. Recognize your thoughts without denouncing them as bad or good. Suspend your judgment.

We’re never going to stop smashing the gavel entirely, and nor should we – it’s essential for our survival. But we can train ourselves to use it less frequently by practising non-judgment, and in the process, our minds can attain a serenity in which we’ll live our lives with less friction, and greater contentment.