Admiration is a Poisonous Crack-Sprinkled Doughnut

Doughnuts
Are you a sucker for admiration? Photo by Anna Sullivan on Unsplash

My local Aldi, despite being a regular old budget supermarket nestled amongst the modern apartment blocks of West End, Brisbane, is a hotbed of exhibitionism. It isn’t uncommon to witness a female wrapped so tightly in clothing, with flesh spilling over so generously, that it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect the bananas to start peeling themselves. Hoards of beady-eyed men are tracking her, their attempts to be surreptitious hopelessly botched, with every look repeatedly captured, collected, and deposited as self-esteem — a reserve most precious, and frequently in danger of being exhausted. One of the primary oglers is a perfectly-clipped gentleman in a Hugo Boss suit, who appears embarrassed to be shopping at such an establishment, but compensates for it by twirling his BMW keys around his fingers as he steals longing glances at the girl’s shapely buttocks. His perversion is disrupted by repeated doubts about his own intelligence, which assault him like the thundering cannons of an 18th-century French revolutionary force, day-in and day-out, never in danger of being defeated by an expensive German sports car. In the freezer department, a chap with an alarming fake tan and arms like over-inflated balloons is reaching for some hash browns, after apparently having spent the last two hours taking a nap nestled among the satsumas. As he locks eyes with the girl and reveals his gleaming veneers, she returns the compliment with a coy smile, and they slowing gravitate towards each other — two like-minded souls, finding lust in unexpected places.

Within this collection of marginally-altered apes that we call humanity, the need to impress appears loud, mighty, and determined, like Hulk Hogan in the 80s. For those whose self-esteem is teetering on empty, admiration can taste like a doughnut sprinkled with crack, containing nothing nutritious, and forming a nasty, skin-scratching addiction. Repeated consumption may result in years of punishing gym time, body ravaged in the quest for the perfect physique; endless twilight hours at the office, striving frantically for a brag-worthy job; or decades worth of social media posts, cooking up grams of claps on a rusty spoon, sucking them into a syringe, and spiking a collapsing vein. Admiration is a rotten, subpar source of confidence, yet one that we reach for time and time again, with desperate hope of being permanently raised from the depths.

My own fierce desire to measure up comes in the form of being intelligent, something I’ve never been fully convinced of. As a kid my dad would matter-of-factly tell me that I was smart, but without any common sense, pointing to my academic success and embarrassing ineptitude at anything practical. Having grown into the maturity of adulthood, and having had the time and wisdom to understand him more thoroughly, I suspect that much of this can be attributed to psychological projection: pointing out other people’s insufficiencies in order to suppress his own. While on holiday with the old rascal a couple of months back, as we were checking into a hotel, he somehow managed to walk completely the wrong way, and when he finally found us, the embarrassment from his foolish moment created a spew of self-righteous rage at having been left behind, directed primarily at my darling mother, who has more patience than all the saints in Heaven. Though he probably knew it was his fault rather than ours, he’d rather appear smart and angry, than stupid and humble. Such is the power of insecurity to warp our behaviours into something toxic. Every nagging doubt can create a collection of pretentious behaviours which, rather than alleviating the concern, pump it full of protein until it’s a bloated, gesticulating mess, impossible to ignore, and glaringly obvious to the rest of the world. All the lipstick in the world can’t hide the fact that there’s a pig underneath.

Nurture can’t be blamed entirely for our insecurities. Doubt may be born from a selection of naive comments, but its basis in reality gives it strength to endure. Sometimes I marvel at the retarded things that I do — for example, earlier in the week I missed my appointment to become an Australian citizen, because I misjudged the dates. I was able to easily reschedule, but the stinging embarrassment that I felt as I relayed the mistake to my friends and colleagues could only be numbed with bouts of humour, and pretending not to care about the fact that I’d been hopelessly inept — a languid smokescreen that disappears all-too-quickly. Attempting to quash our insecurities with approval is like trying to fight a Balrog with a rusty coat hanger.

Long-lasting confidence and self-esteem can be gained not from the admiration of the whimsical crowd, but from standing upright to the bounteous personal challenges that appear, lion-hearted. As a frightened, skinny 20 year-old kid I went to Ibiza to try my hand at DJ’ing, returning with a head full of confidence after spending a debauched summer spinning vinyl in the Balearic sunshine. Every drunken cheer from the swarming crowd, every hand grasping at the neon green lasers, and every smile from my cocaine-ravaged Spanish boss was proof of my capability — a challenge initially terrifying, but triumphed over spectacularly, with a burning sensation in the groin area to prove it. 15 years later, mustering the courage to hit the publish button on Medium yielded similar results. Who knows what challenges lay in the future, and the treasured confidence they’ll bestow? The social approval that tends to accompany an action is nowhere near as valuable as the personal achievement one feels when trying something difficult, and succeeding. Self-esteem obtained from the masses seems precarious, liable to dissipate at any moment. Hard-won achievement, on the other hand, is often entirely within our control, proving to be a reliable, tenacious source of confidence. The exhibitionists of Aldi are putting their money on a three-legged horse, when they could be entering the race themselves. They might crash spectacularly, faces in the dirt and moonish buttocks akimbo, or they might go for broke, straining every muscle in their bodies, and coming away with the win of their lives.

The Nocebo Effect—The Deadly Opposite of Placebo

Freckles man
Photo by Christopher Burns on Unsplash

Humans are a suggestible bunch. We’re constantly influenced by external factors, be it advertising, social conformity, or anything else in our environment. There’s also internal factors that affect us, and one that is utterly terrifying, like a demon lurking in our minds, waiting for its chance to strike a malevolent blow. When we’re in a regular state of stress, it’s hard to defend against. This heinous phenomenon is known as the nocebo effect.

Some historical cases explain it best. In the 70’s, a man was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer and given just two months to live. The pronouncement appeared true, and he passed away. After slicing the unfortunate chap open, however, they discovered that his tumour had not grown, and concluded that it was not the cause of his death. They speculated that it may have been the expectation of his impending death that actually killed him.

In another example, a despondent gentleman decided that existence was no longer worth it, and downed a bottle of pills. Almost immediately afterwards he rediscovered a ton of reasons to live, and dashed to the nearest hospital, collapsing when arriving at reception due to hyperventilation and low blood pressure. It was quickly discovered that the morose man was currently in the midst of a drug trial, in which unknown to him, he’d been assigned placebos. Turns out that he’d consumed a whole bottle of sugar pills, and his mind had manifested his pearly-gate-approaching symptoms. After being told the good news, he promptly recovered.

If you’re a hayfever sufferer, you might consider artificial flowers to be a safe bet. But a hundred years ago, doctors found that hayfever symptoms can be brought on by exposure to fake roses. This only worked if the person didn’t know that they were made of plastic.

In the present, modern technology is causing similar problems for people. Sufferers of Electromagnetic hypersensitivity believe that the plethora of electronic devices surrounding them make them sick. As with the other examples, these people actually manifest symptoms when exposed to what they conclude to be areas with strong electromagnetic fields. They don’t do so well in double-blind experiments though, being completely unable to identify when an intense field is present. Wind Turbine Syndrome, common in Canada, is another example of a disease created purely from suggestion.

This hideous yet fascinating quirk of the mind is called the nocebo effect—the nefarious twin brother of the much more agreeable placebo effect. Both of these are proof that our beliefs and expectations can have a direct cause on our wellbeing. The American Cancer Society claims that the placebo effect is responsible for up to a third of symptom relief for sick people. That’s a staggering amount. With this in mind, how much suffering might we be causing ourselves as a result of its malevolent twin, the nocebo effect? If we expect to have a miserable day at work, are we authoring our own fate? Are we making ourselves unwell?

Chilling as the nocebo effect is, the power of its counterpart cannot be understated. The placebo effect has the capacity to cure cancer, heal ulcers, and even persuade assumed-to-be-dead hair follicles to sprout from the heads of bald men. It’s a small part of our incredible and unfathomable ability to self-repair, which if we play our cards right, can be used to our advantage.

This extraordinary self-restoration skill only works when you’re relaxed; the moments when your parasympathetic nervous system is in play. Stressed people don’t self-heal, they self-harm. You need a healthy mind to mend your ills, and there’s a number of ways that it can be achieved.

Most importantly: meditate. It’s probably the most essential habit that you can develop for yourself, besides regular exercise. It’ll drastically reduce your stress levels; you’ll learn to distance yourself from your emotions, instead of being swept away by them; it enhances your self-esteem and acceptance, improves your memory, your focus, your energy. The list goes on.

Strong relationships are often developed and maintained by calmer people; the lonely among us suffer much more stress. Spending time with your treasured friends is essential to keep the relationship alive, and usually, a hell of a lot of fun.

Self-compassion is a powerful psychological habit for the healthy-minded among us. Just as caring, nurturing doctors and nurses have shown to accelerate the recovery of their patients, we too can cultivate a similar attitude towards ourselves, and reduce our stress levels.

Finally, do anything and everything that feels honest and enjoyable to you. Slowly make your life into something that you want, not the life that society attempts to coerce you into. Over time, the modest improvements that you make will bring your self-repair mechanisms into play more often, reducing the odious nocebo effect, and increasing the regenerating placebo effect.

Why Slowing Down Can Make You Feel More Alive

Snail closeup
Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash

If a friend asks you to describe them using a single word, responding with “slow” might be suggesting that they’ve been cursed with an extra chromosome, and could result in a darkened eye and inflated lip. The word is synonymous with idiocy and dimwittedness—slow people might be considered unproductive; a waste of space. Slowing down seems like madness. Crooners such as Lionel Richie, who claim to spend their Sunday mornings at an easy and slow pace, would be laughed at by high-flying stock brokers who live at heart-straining supersonic speeds. The latter are getting things done, outracing the competition and positioning themselves at the top of every conceivable hierarchy. Their capitalist world is there for the taking—to win you have to be swift and ruthless. It’s a frenzied, ceaseless arms race — you’d better keep up, otherwise you’ll be savagely gunned down by the competition.

Millions of people are rushing through their lives in this way, charging relentlessly, blind to all detail aside from their chosen goal, which must be achieved at all costs. The irony is, if the objective is reached and all targets are hit, the odyssey that they’ve undertaken is mostly a hazy, nondescript blur. Their eyes have been so hopelessly blinkered that they’ve missed every detail of the journey, the part that actually counts. We can’t escape the present moment; the future is just a useful planning concept, it doesn’t technically exist. Permanently scanning the horizon ensures that we miss every gorgeous, proximate detail.

“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

Time is finite, and there’s moments when we’re forced to get shit done quickly. But consistent hysteric dashing seems to crush time into something even smaller. We’re like headless chickens, rushing back and forth with feathers flying, and effectively shortening our lives in the process. “More haste less speed” is an overtaxed cliche, but it’s fabulously succinct. Paradoxical and counterintuitive as it may seem, we’re more happy and productive if we slow down.

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” 

Lao Tzu

An entire crusade called the Slow Movement has developed as a consequence of fast-paced living, created as part of an Italian activist’s protests against the opening of a nutritionless McDonalds in central Rome, a city brimming with mouth-watering restaurants that wouldn’t be such if their talented chefs cut every conceivable culinary corner in the name of profit. Journalist Carl Honore, famed for his 2004 book In Praise of Slow, describes the movement as follows:

“It is a cultural revolution against the notion that faster is always better. The Slow philosophy is not about doing everything at a snail’s pace. It’s about seeking to do everything at the right speed. Savouring the hours and minutes rather than just counting them. Doing everything as well as possible, instead of as fast as possible. It’s about quality over quantity in everything from work to food to parenting.” 

Carl Honore

Savouring is the key word here—the ability to luxuriate in the moment, to actually experience it, instead of rushing past as though possessed by a speed demon. The Slow Movement advocates a more mellow pace to areas of life such as food, parenting, travel, and sex, its followers happy to expound the benefits of moving at a leisurely pace. Instead of watching TV while eating, they attend to the taste of what’s being chewed. Rather than whizzing around on their precious two-week holiday, attempting to cram in every possible thing to see, they adopt a more agreeable pace instead. With savouring comes joy.

Alain De Botton and his insightful School of Life believe that time can be experienced more slowly when seeking novelty, and that new encounters can be found all around us, in our everyday lives, not just within the cultural hotpots of far-flung, mysterious continents. The streets that you amble along every single day are filled with marvels, you just need to learn how to appreciate them. Time can be stretched further by simply slowing down, and opening your eyes to the dazzling and delicate detail all around you.

“These days even instant gratification takes too long” 

Carrie Fisher

Speed and frantic productivity can be an excuse to shield ourselves from internal psychological issues—there’s no time to battle with inner demons when we’re so damn busy. We gratuitously overload ourselves in order to avoid uncomfortable yet significant thoughts, which when attended to properly have the capacity to generate a great deal of long-awaited relief. Slowing down improves our mental health.

Heed the acolytes of the Slow Movement, pause from time to time, take a deep breath, and notice the world around you. There’s much joy to be had through slowness.

The Badass Power of the Psychological Immune System

Sparkler water
The psychological immune system gives us hope in desperate situations. Photo by Kristopher Roller on Unsplash

Last week, the CEO of my company came to my desk and asked for a chat. I’ve been working at the organisation for over seven years, almost since its inception — part of the furniture, you might say. I’ve always had a good relationship with the man who was leading me silently into a meeting room, each step more ominous than the last.

“It’s not good news I’m afraid” he said, after closing the door.

“Redundancy?”

“Yes.”

My heart sped up a little, then slowed to its normal pace. As he explained the reasoning behind the loss of my job, I felt the oddest sense of serenity, like a wizened old Buddhist atop a rugged Tibetan mountain. I quietly marvelled at my sense of calm — why wasn’t I climbing the walls in anxiety? Chewing my nails down to tender pink nubs? I’m relatively calm by nature, but redundancy is a big deal, especially for a job that you’ve held for almost a decade, and I didn’t feel concerned in the slightest. I still don’t.

Daniel Gilbert is an American social psychologist, and his work on affective forecasting — our ability to predict our future emotional state — can offer some insight into my odd sense of serenity. For many, the loss of a job might be viewed as catastrophic, loaded with mental anguish and stinging embarrassment, followed by hours of consolation amid the duvet. But Gilbert and his colleagues uncovered an important truth about our ability to predict our future emotional state: we’re terrible at it¹. We constantly misjudge. Events that we think are life changing end up being brushed off with ease. Gilbert dubbed this wonderful resilience of ours a “psychological immune system,”which protects us from major negative events, so that we can continue to function without descending into unbounded, gloomy dismay.

The psychological immune system works as a kind of salesman, who convinces you to buy into your new, altered reality. The negative aspects of your previous situation become highlighted: the tedious day-to-day tasks; the absent sense of making a difference; the insufferable penis in charge of accounts. Such afflictions are brought into sharp focus, and your freedom from them is sweeter than a packet of jelly babies. Similarly, positive aspects of your new situation begin to emerge in your mind: the excitement of fresh challenges; the prospect of a better wage; the opportunity to make new friends. The psychological immune system transforms the situation from a depressing failure into a glorious opportunity, and it does this by making us believe that our new situation is better, and our old situation worse, creating a silver lining so thick as to be impenetrable.

The part of our brain responsible for decision making is the pre-frontal cortex, which works as an experience simulator¹, running through various scenarios and determining whether they’re agreeable or disagreeable. When it simulates an extreme experience such as the death of your spouse, the cyclonic destruction of your house, or the loss of your job, it usually concludes that you’re going to suffer miserably, for a long time — a term known as “impact bias.” But if these undesirable outcomes hit, your psychological immune system kicks into gear, and rather than going with your pre-frontal cortex’s woeful simulation, it narrates an entirely different story infused with confidence and hope, which you’re happy to accept because it relinquishes the anguish. Why choose to believe the grim story from your pre-frontal cortex, when you can believe the comforting story of your psychological immune system?

In our scientific age, the idea of choosing which story to believe might seem fanciful and wishy-washy, as though we’d rather exist in a cotton-candy fairytale land filled with joy, than live in the hard-edged, gritty real world. It’s like choosing the blue pill, instead of the red pill. Objective truth, however, is a tricky thing to pin down, especially regarding subjective emotion.

Let’s say I have a suspicion that my girlfriend no longer loves me, which makes me sad. While the thought itself can be objectively scrutinized for its truth (maybe she does love me), the emotion that came from the thought cannot be denied — the sadness has been experienced, therefore it exists, and is true. So why not believe the emotionally-positive, hopeful story of your psychological immune system, instead of the woeful prediction of your pre-frontal cortex? The emotions from both stories are still subjectively experienced, making them true. Rejecting your psychological immune system’s story just seems like unnecessary suffering. What are our emotional lives, after all, than the stories that we tell ourselves? Acceptance Commitment Therapy — a relatively new treatment effective at reducing anxiety² — even has a concept called “cognitive fusion” to explain the harm that we do ourselves by buying into our negative stories, counteracted with what they call “defusion” techniques.

“We suffer more often in imagination than in reality.”

Seneca

In my case, the psychological immune system seems only partly responsible for my blasé attitude towards the loss of my job. I’ve wanted a career change for a while, making a switch of company inevitable. This knowledge, combined with the anticipation of a redundancy payout, might have been enough to explain my calm demeanour. But the comfort and confidence that I feel going into the future is undoubtedly a result of my psychological immune system, convincing me that everything is going to be alright, like a best friend, nestled inside my own head. It’s telling me that a chapter of my life is over, and is about to be replaced with something more exciting and fulfilling.

I’m choosing to believe it.

References

  1. Daniel Gilbert, The Surprising Science of Happiness
  2. Mostafa Heydari, Saideh Masafi, Mehdi Jafari, Seyed Hassan Saadat, and Shima Shahyad, Effectiveness of Acceptance and Commitment Therapy on Anxiety and Depression of Razi Psychiatric Center Staff

Why Our Willpower Sucks

Pug looking at pie
Photo by Ameer Basheer on Unsplash

When it comes to non-habitual behaviours, most of us are terrible at sticking to our guns. Science has revealed routines that are proven to make us happier (exercise, meditation, a healthy diet, etc.), and yet we repeatedly fail to put these into practice, despite fully comprehending the long-term benefits. Why do we screw up so much?

There’s a few reasons, and most of them aren’t our fault.

As with every other living thing on Earth, we’re the products of evolution. Over the course of 4 billion years, our two main concerns were surviving, and procreating. These have been of vital importance for billions of years, and our brains have evolved to respond fiercely to them. Nowadays, when we see a pretty girl with a muffin, it’s a wonder we don’t trample her to death.

The pre-frontal cortex is the part of our brain that regulates behaviour, developing during the later stages of our evolution. Our brains are less a single, coherent unit, and more a collection of tacked on improvements, which explains why we often feel so conflicted. The ancient, primal parts of our brains want to eat and fuck everything in sight, and the modern parts attempt to remind us that those things aren’t always our best options. We have two minds, pitted against each other in battle, with psychological distress as the consequence. Moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt created a fitting metaphor for this, in his book The Happiness Hypothesis:

“The image I came up with for myself, as I marvelled at my weakness, was that I was a rider on the back of an elephant. I’m holding the reins in my hands, and by pulling one way or the other I can tell the elephant to turn, to stop, or to go. I can direct things, but only when the elephant doesn’t have desires of his own. When the elephant really wants to do something, I’m no match for him.” 

Jonathan Haidt

The elephant is very much in control. We shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves after failing to resist a glistening cream-filled doughnut.

In addition to battling against a burly, be-trunked mammal, we’re also up against the brain’s tendency to form habits. Repeating an action and having it ingrained into your mind as a habit is a wonderfully useful technique, until it happens for an undesirable action, such as consuming a fistful of Lindt balls. Every time our willpower fails and we do something harmful to our long-term health, that destructive habit becomes a little stronger. This is probably the biggest cause of failure for us. Even when we do have a moment of strength and hold fast against our habituated primal desires, we’re using a precious reserve of willpower which depletes over the course of the day. The cookie that we defy in the morning takes on an especially delicious glow by afternoon.

The internet and social media are also to blame. We live in an age of instant gratification — social media apps are designed to hack our reward system, turning us into twitching addicts who crave our quick-fix daily memes. We want a million delightful things at once, and we don’t want to put any effort into them. As a result, resisting what’s harmful is becoming much more difficult.

It’s not all doom and gloom, we just need to learn how to build better habits. This is one of the most important skills you can develop; Leo Babauta offers immensely helpful advice on in his blog Zen Habits. He suggests starting extremely small, and working your way up. You won’t develop a running habit if you tell yourself you’re going to run 10km every day. Neither will you be able to completely stop eating sugary treats. This is setting yourself up to fail. You need to give yourself a lot of leeway to begin with, and make slow, incremental improvements. Remember that the elephant is in control most of the time.

Another suggestion is to only focus on a single habit at a time. Figure out what it is that bothers you the most — the one thing that you’d love to start doing — and put all of your effort into that sole habit. You won’t be able to change ten things at a time; you’ll flounder and then feel terrible afterwards because you’ve failed again. Once your new habit is embedded, move onto the next. This is a process that might take years—prepare yourself for a lot of hard work. Realise that you’ll still mess up from time to time, and all that is required is to pick up where you left off.

Lastly, celebrating your success is key. Instead of focusing on what you’ve failed at, look to what you’ve achieved. Illuminate your accomplishments; remind yourself that you’re triumphing over something that you’ve flopped at for years. This will give you the motivation you need to continue.

By slowly building good habits, we can all gain a little more mastery over our elephants.

The One Reason to Complain

Angry cat
Image from Pixabay

Complaining is mostly a toxic behaviour. Many of us can bear witness to the gloominess that washes over us when we’re in the company of a serial whiner—we’d tear down walls to escape the situation. Every self-righteous word seems to vanquish a little bit of your soul. Suggesting a fix for the thing being complained about is futile, because that isn’t the desired outcome. Incessant whiners just want to whine, making the mustering of our own empathy nigh on impossible. People of this kind are often infected with deep-seated bitterness—their lives don’t match their expectations, and instead of having the courage to fix what’s bothering them, they relinquish the responsibility and complain instead. It’s much easier, after all.Th

There’s lots of reasons that people complain, with most them being counterproductive to our mental health. For many of us, the hardest one to resist is physical pain. Hurting is horrible, and it comes with a tendency to vocalise the experience, whether it be groaning, grunting, or divulging to our partner in monotonous detail about every unpleasant sensation. Emotional pain is just as extreme, and carries similar effects. Others may grumble for its bonding power—many a friendship has been forged in the fires of Mount Gloom; our judging and whining is met with nodding heads, and we become a little bit closer. We simply can’t believe that so and so would do such an awful thing, and by stating this fact, we’re elevating ourselves above them, dismissing the possibility that we’d ever act in such an animalistic way. Nothing is more self-congratulatory than a high horse. We’re recruiting an army of like-minded whiners—together we can set this crooked world straight!

Being spoiled is another major factor. A hungover barista forgot to put chocolate sprinkles on our cappuccino, and we can’t find the words to express how much of an idiot he is. He has one job to do. Later on our flight is delayed by an hour, and it’s literally the worst thing to happen to anyone, ever. Never mind the fact that air travel is one of the greatest of human inventions, and we’re incredibly fortunate to have it. This type of spoiled demeanour is often paired with a lack of control, fuelled by our desire to direct everything so that it works out exactly as we want it to. The instant our expectations aren’t met, a complaint flies from our lips.

Uncomfortable silences can also act as complaint enticers. If you’re with friends and an extended spell of silence falls over the group, it’s common for someone to whine or gossip about something in order to extinguish the awkwardness, particularly for older people, who tend to mop up complaints like leftover gravy. Whining feels good—it’s infinitely preferable to the tension of silence. Every complaint strengthens the neural pathways dedicated to complaining, making the road more likely to be travelled. Before you know it, you could be a serial whiner.

So should complaining be avoided at all costs? Not entirely. We all experience strong negative feelings from time to time, and bottling them up isn’t a good strategy. You may be depressed about your tedious career, and need to talk about it with your partner. If we’re to retain our sanity, we absolutely must talk about such things. Our position the most important consideration— are we playing the role of the victim? The poor helpless individual who can’t get ahead in life no matter what we do? Or are we venting our frustrations in order to make things clearer to ourselves, and our partners? Are we having a conversation which leads us down the path to a solution? If you’re complaining about something and you have no desire to improve it (or it’s outside of your control), your whining will probably make you feel worse in the long run. The next time it pops into your head, you’ll be more likely to complain about it again, because you’ve trained yourself to do so. 

The next time you catch yourself opening your mouth to complain about something, you might want to consider your position. Do you actually want to fix what you’re whining about? Or are you just assuming the role of a whimpering victim? The difference is crucial.

“See if you can catch yourself complaining, in either speech or thought, about a situation you find yourself in, what other people do or say, your surroundings, your life situation, even the weather. To complain is always nonacceptance of what is. It invariably carries an unconscious negative charge. When you complain, you make yourself into a victim. When you speak out, you are in your power. So change the situation by taking action or by speaking out if necessary or possible; leave the situation or accept it. All else is madness.” 

Eckhart Tolle

The Miracle of Finding Beauty in the Mundane

Colourful wheeley bins
Finding beauty in the mundane makes you appreciate life more. Photo by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash

Beauty is typically reserved for the exceptional—the chiselled, masculine jawline of a testosterone-fuelled male; the gorgeously undulating curves of a heavenly, chestnut-haired female; the lustrous, delicate interior of St.Peter’s Basilica, sparkling vivid gold and blue, or a formidable, soaring snow-capped mountain range, spanning the distant horizon. Such things harness the power to take our breath away, and their proclamation as beautiful seems both natural, and right. We may even be tempted to label such things as “perfect,” relegating all else to the sorry state of “imperfect,” and forgoing the need to commit any of our precious attention towards them.

But beauty, far from being confined to the extraordinary, can be found in the most unexpected of places, in the most unexpected forms. It’s the fumbling awkwardness of two teenagers trying to interact; the overly-macho construction worker paying for his workmate’s lunch, without the need to nudge him and call him “bro.” It’s the long, drawn-out purr of the single mother at the end of her day, as she stretches out on her threadbare chaise-lounge to rest. Beauty is all around us, and if we have any interest in appreciating it, we’ll require an attitude of open receptivity, willing to receive that which would usually be met with an upturned nose. Finding beauty in the mundane obliges us to forgo our misguided judgments. Nothing destroys beauty more efficiently than a negative preconceived notion, as illustrated vividly in cinematic masterpiece American Beauty, when Ricky Fitts swells with emotion while describing his favourite homemade movie: a plastic bag swirling in the wind.

“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
Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley), American Beauty

Trash, by its very definition, is the last thing you would consider to be beautiful. But Fitts is anything but conventional. His slow, deliberate receptiveness equips him with incredible clarity of perception, bringing into focus a world of breathtaking beauty, hidden from those whose default approach is judgment. Our penchant for rapid assessment allows us to navigate life quickly and efficiently, but the trade-off is a decreased appreciation of the sublime. The faster we go, the harder it is to perceive the majesty of our astonishing, improbable existence. Our scope for beauty is reduced to the grand and spectacular—the “perfect” landscape, the “perfect” architecture, or the “perfect” face. The result is a tragically diminished sense of awe. The emblem of American Beauty is the red rose—society’s typical symbol of perfect beauty, but instead consistently used throughout the movie’s most contrived and ugly of moments, and absent during scenes of flawless, graceful honesty. The rose teaches us that there’s much more than superficial appearance would suggest, and that we must look closer to appreciate underlying beauty.

“There is room for beauty in every facet of existence” 

Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

During the Dutch 17th-century period known as the Golden Age, Jan Vermeer and Pieter de Hooch were also trying to teach us how to find incredible beauty in the mundane, by focusing on simple, everyday life for their exquisite paintings, such as women plucking ducks, pouring milk, or exchanging money with servants. Such commonplace activities might be considered dull by most, to be carried out as quickly as possible. But for Vermeer and de Hooch, trivial, everyday life held a fascinating allure that produced worthy subjects for their art. They realised that if we’re able to reject our preconceived notions, and offer our prolonged attention, an abundance of beauty can be found in the lives of ordinary, everyday people, elevating their chores into something almost sacred. The simple act of a kitchen maid pouring milk is as exquisite and important as the most traditionally grandiose of objects, to be equally revered.

The Milkmaid, Johannes Vermeer. Image from Wikipedia

Our world is delightfully complex—a twisting, warping smorgasbord of vivid colour, sound, texture, taste, and scent, each with seemingly infinite detail for us to experience. As we blitz through our lives like winged bats cast from the flaming pits of hell, flush with desperate ambition, a single, jutted branch can offer us the moment’s peace that we need to hang for a second, take the deepest of breaths, and open up our senses to the wondrous marvels around us. We can recognise the peculiar, humorous amble of the common domestic pigeon, bobbing its green and purple neck along the edge of a train platform; we can listen to the softly shimmering rustle of a towering oak tree, as it sways in a northerly breeze; we can pay attention to the unique texture of a limestone cliff face, as we delicately run our fingers over it; we can extinguish the glow of every screen and focus on the taste of the scrumptious, crispy roast potatoes that we’ve lovingly prepared for ourselves, or we can close our eyes as we breathe in the deliciously subtle, honey-like scent of a Balsam Poplar tree. Each and every experience is brimming with hidden beauty, waiting to be discovered with the use of our wonderful, fortuitous senses. One only has to witness a person suddenly gifted with a previously missing aspect of their senses, to realise how incredibly lucky we are to possess humanity’s full range. Every sense is a gift worthy of the gods, and using them to the fullest is the most fitting display of gratitude we can demonstrate. There’s always more detail to be discerned in the world around us, and we happen to harness five extraordinary ways to reveal it, each one providing a wholly unique, seductive experience.

“Crossing a bare common, in snow puddles, at twilight, under a clouded sky, without having in my thoughts any occurrence of special good fortune, I have enjoyed a perfect exhilaration. I am glad to the brink of fear. In the woods too, a man casts off his years, as the snake his slough… I become a transparent eye-ball. I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of god.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

Time spent in our own heads—those never-ending, anxious ruminations that do us little good—is time lost for appreciating the gorgeous beauty of our world; for finding beauty in the mundane. As our focus turns inward, our senses are dampened—their sharpness dulled to allow better concentration on our internal thoughts, at the expense of noticing the comical little idiosyncrasies of your father-in-law as he tells a war story; the glistening sheen of a canal, being warmed by the afternoon sun, or the polite and orderly queue of a string of Monday morning commuters as the train pulls into the station, begrudging their obligation to work, but retaining their civility nonetheless. Our outward attention is required to enjoy such little delights.

“Life is so fast and hectic and filled with distraction that you have to teach yourself to be still, and be quiet, and allow yourself to look for what I call beauty.”

 Alan Ball, American Beauty screenwriter

Mindful, extended observation is also made difficult by those pesky little gadgets that we’re so obsessed with, stealing away our precious attention with their incessant dinging, buzzing and vibrating. Though our dependence seems entrenched (they’re useful, after all), striking a good balance is critical for our increased appreciation of the tremendous planet on which we live. As we sit in a restaurant and wait for our lunch to be prepared, we can opt for mindful sensing—to look, listen, hear, and smell the world, at risk of seeming a little socially odd—or delve into the luminous comfort of our phones, probably on some form of social media, as bad for your soul as cigarettes are for your lungs.

Beauty is by no means confined to the exceptional. It’s waiting to be discovered in the most unexpected and delightful of places, deserved of our precious attention. There’s endless fascination hidden beneath the surface, waiting to be discovered, and as we open up our senses, it’s revealed to us in high-definition, in the most dazzling, impressive, and unpredictable of ways.

The Evolutionary Phenomenon That Makes Sport so Thrilling

Charlton vs Sunderland play off final goal

“Zoom in, and then tell me ‘it’s just a game’”

@CAFC_SF88

The above picture is the moment that Charlton Athletic—a English football team based in South-East London—scored the last-minute winning goal that would promote them to the higher Championship division, the culmination of a season’s efforts to climb the ranks of the country’s football leagues.

Observe the faces of each and every supporter in the photo, and you can understand the immense impact that sports can have on people’s lives—the sheer, unalloyed joy that comes bursting forth as their team secures a victory that will enhance their position. There’s nothing contrived about this photo, just a plethora of faces—fresh-faced, wrinkled, spectacled, moustached, male, and female—brought together by a team whose actions have rocketed them into the heights of a collective ecstasy. Non-sports fans might be surprised by the emotional intensity—how can something so seemingly trivial as sport create such unbridled fervor? Isn’t it just a game?

Tribalism is the phenomenon responsible for a sport fan’s extraordinary emotional reactions—the flawless rapture that they feel as their team smashes the clincher into the back of the net. In our evolutionary past, tribalism improved our chances of survival by consolidating us into groups, who we trusted, favoured, and depended on. Our tribe became an extension of ourselves, every loss and victory. When a fellow tribesman returned from a successful hunt with a delicious deer tied to the back of his horse, his achievement was our achievement, and was celebrated as such. Similarly, when Charlton’s Patrick Bauer poked the ball past the goal line in the last minute of the play-off final, even though he was the only person responsible for the act, every single Charlton fan in the stadium claimed the victory as their own, with a roar that echoed throughout the country. When we support a football team, we’re no longer a lonely, vulnerable person desperately trying to survive, but a soldier in a formidable army, protecting each other with fierce loyalty, and marching as one. When the club makes a questionable decision—the hiring of an unproven manager; the precarious signing of an expensive player, or a new unethical owner who cares little for the team’s future—the supporters sense the danger as if it were their own; a direct threat to themselves that must be staved off. The fact that the supporters have absolutely no sway over the club’s major decisions makes no difference. It’s our tribe, we’re fully invested, and it must be protected at all costs. The sense of belonging that comes with following a football club is felt in the very marrow of our bones, and we’ll never turn our back on them. After being a supporter of a team for a prolonged period, to change teams is tantamount to treason; the offender an untrustworthy turncoat. We love our tribe and we’ll support them through thick and thin, no matter how embarrassing the performances.

The intense devotion that tribalism can create has obvious downsides, evidenced by the rise of British football hooliganism, when unquestionable loyalty leads to extreme violence. Football fans are taught that it’s good and proper to hate a rival team, just because they’re a rival team—an idiotic obligation in which all sense of logic is thrown out the window. Rival supporters are transformed into dark and deadly enemies, their basic humanity forgotten, and their pummelling justified. Our tribe is the epitome of everything good and true, theirs all that is wrong and false. Clear parallels can be drawn with nationalism and religion, where unbridled tribalism has the potential to create profound hatred. Though tribalism makes sports endlessly thrilling, evoking fervent emotion in its most dramatic moments, diligent caution is required to prevent us from slipping into illogical idiocy, in which other people can become objects of hate, guilty of nothing more than belonging to a different tribe than ours. The competitive nature of sports can warp games into mock battles, and though this is part of what makes them so exciting, the boundary between friendly competition and violent battle can become difficult to distinguish, especially when being swept along by an impassioned, five-hundred strong mob that screams for the blood of the opposition. Conformism for the sake of conformism is foolishly irrational, and in the realm of football, can quickly lead to hateful violence.

At their core, sports are just games, but our tribalistic nature imbues them with extraordinary passion, with the power to create joyful angels, or odious demons of us. A single kick can dispatch us into giddying euphoria, illustrated in each and every face in the photo above, or heart-wrenching despondency, dreams crushed into oblivion, until next season. It’s a rollercoaster ride of intense emotion, the highs non-existent without the lows; the sky-punching jubilance of victory nothing without the sharp sting of defeat. Tribalism is what makes sports so thrilling to experience, and as your club’s defender lurches forward and pokes the ball in the back of the net in the final minute of a game, sending your team soaring into the higher division, a temporary insanity takes over each and every supporter, flooded with fanatical, turbulent emotion. 

The team’s victory is your victory, and it feels indescribably fantastic.

Why Laughing with Friends Is so Important

Chimp laugh
Laughing with friends bonds us to them

The thought of being independent is appealing to many of us, to be able to act like the pristine lone wolf, roaming the rugged lands and fulfilling every need by itself. To survive autonomously is to be clothed in power, lacking the requisite of outside help. Such people are almost impossible to find within our species. We each have a stark dependency on others, whether it’s the food from our local supermarkets, the shelter of our apartment complexes, or our innate need for emotional closeness. The fields of evolution and psychology strengthen the idea of our social necessity, teaching us that in order to thrive in this world, we must get along with our fellow humans.

Of all the behavioural quirks that we exhibit as a species, there’s one that stands out as an accomplished bonder of people, an action that reduces our distance by wrenching us together in the most enjoyable way imaginable—humour. Laughter is a potent weapon in the battle for social acceptance; a razor-sharp cutlass, the nimble swishing of which makes ardent conquerors of us. It’s a universally adored behaviour with the power to turn strangers into friends, friends into lovers, and lovers into lifelong partners—the solid bedrock of many a successful relationship, and the foundational beginnings of new ones. A good sense of humour can transform our lives from a solitary and lonesome quest into a glorious fellowship—filled with playful nudges, digged ribs, and riotous laughter. With humour thrown into the mix, our dependence on each other is made not only palatable, but utterly delicious. It’s one of a small handful of things that makes life worth living.

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Audrey Hepburn

Some of our dearest memories are created from periods of turbulent, knee-slapping hilarity—that Sunday afternoon in a pub garden, the nip of the winter’s day fought off by the heat of amusement as your impish friends make joke after joke; an early evening spent lounging in bed with your partner, relentlessly teasing and chuckling until your cheeks hurt from smiling; the time after a festival when you used a traffic cone to mimic a cow, and the local creatures seemed convinced by your efforts to communicate. These moments are more valuable than all the sparkling diamonds of the world, and they come about by making a concerted effort to be funny.

Every attempt at humour is a gamble, with either a gain or a loss in social kudos; wide-grinned, beaming faces, in which a glorious victory has been won, or looks of hardened stone, eliciting bored apathy. A failed attempt at humour can be awfully embarrassing, and our aversion to loss can make cowards of us. But the gamble is worth it, because victory is nothing less than unbridled connection to our fellow humans; a shared sense of joyous camaraderie. Embarrassment is fleeting, but friendship is long-lasting. The only way to discover our particular kind of people is by having the courage to put ourselves out there. Jokes are friendship-detectors, which light up our future companions after every ridiculous quip that we dare to make. Who cares that our critics remain silent and stony-faced? We’ll probably never be friends with them anyway. When it comes to being humorous, the gamble is almost always worth it.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Attempts at humour can dwindle as we grow older and become more comfortable with ourselves, because we’re less inclined to impress others. This is a tragedy—when we stop laughing with our friends, our lives become dull, its colour desaturated until drab and dreary; an existence of humdrum seriousness, in which ambition positions itself front and center. We forget the absolute joy we felt in the throes of a tickle attack from our mother, or the time we hit our grandad square in the eye with a snowball, with him turning up later wearing a pretend medical patch. We swap our superhero outfits for business suits, and in the process, forget what’s really important—a tongue-in-cheek crack at your friend’s new tattoo; a return from holiday with every square-inch of your desk covered in tin-foil, or an uninterrupted, no-holds-barred re-telling of your brother’s insane party antics. The confidence that age brings is an undeniably good thing, but it can be accompanied by insidious complacency, in which we’re so self-assured that we no longer see the social importance of cracking a well-timed kitchen joke among colleagues, or putting a whoopee cushion underneath your grandmother’s worn-out armchair. These are the actions that make us truly loveable—every daring quip strengthens our bond with our audience, creating a wonderful sense of belonging. Laughter is the ultimate social adhesive.

“Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.” 

Sean O’Casey

When we’re laughing with friends, we momentarily love them. All cares fall away for the briefest of moments, as though we’ve been permitted temporary entry into a heavenly Nirvana, before stepping back into our anxiety-wracked bodies. There’s nothing quite as effective at bonding people than humour, and our efforts to make each other laugh can create formidable affinities, reinforced with every new joke. Our dependency on each other can be transformed from a position of hesitant obligation, to eager devotion, in which every snicker, chuckle and howl makes us appreciate each other a little more. The strenuous journey of life, in which the highest snowy peaks and lowest boggy troughs must be traversed, is made worthwhile only if we have companions walking beside us, and laughter is how we acquire them.

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” 

W. H. Auden

The Invasion of Mindless Entertainment

Clown smile
Mindless entertainment is all around us—Photo from Gratis Photography

Entertainment has played a significant role in the history of our species. During our primitive Stone Age, it came in the form of campfire storytelling—an edge-of-your-rock thriller, recounting a face-to-face meeting with the infamous, deathly-black Jaguar, and his phantom-like ways. Then arrived theatre, with its fancily-clad actors, weaving Machiavellian tales of rebellious, snakelike deceit, building towards a heart-wrenching tragedy. Today, we’re inundated with entertainment—TV shows that portray the lives of portly Italian gangsters, feature-length movies that depict the difficult lives of young black men living in Los Angeles, and music, games, books, magazines, sports—an astounding variety of endless amusement, offering us a temporary distraction from our responsibilities, until reality returns to reclaim us. Our sanity requires entertainment as nourishment, lest we become gaunt overachievers, unable to accommodate anything but our potent ambition while creeping ever closer to the white-washed walls of the nuthouse. Entertainment takes us away from ourselves, offering a temporary form of relief—a lightening of the gravity of existence, during which our soul can rejuvenate. 

Not all entertainment is equal, however. The internet has given rise to an entirely new type of entertainment—hastily produced, easily distributed, and effortlessly consumable. These are the memes, short videos, gifs, and any other form of “quick-consumption” amusement that can be found plastered across social media. Their primary purpose is to tickle us in a way that requires zero brainpower, as quickly as possible, until we can move onto something equally as shallow and thoughtless. Though mindless entertainment does have a small degree of value (a hearty chuckle when our brains are fatigued), its proliferation in our lives has a number of negative consequences.

First, there’s our attention span. As we become more accustomed to spending our free time consuming meme after meme, video after video, and tweet after tweet of mindless amusement, when we’re faced with something valuable that requires concerted effort—a Tolstoy novel, with its 1,225 pages of sophisticated plot and bamboozling array of Russian characters—we may as well be faced with Mount Everest. We’ve become so adapted to mindless entertainment, so used to being gratified quickly and efficiently, that the motivation required to read a difficult book, get through a slow-burning TV drama, or just sit and listen to a 10-minute Beethoven masterpiece, is non-existent³; our willingness to put effort into challenging forms of entertainment all but vanished. When we do muster the courage to attempt a demanding form of entertainment, the experience is tainted with an oppressive desire for our phones, skin positively crawling with a craving for something easier, as our brains become flooded with the dopamine and serotonin associated with mindless entertainment. Many of us cave at this point, and the Tolstoy novel—that masterpiece of moral teaching that can teach you how to be a better person—is slotted back into its dusty position on the shelf, perhaps forever.

Our capacity for sustained concentration is fundamental to our success, whether at work, or play, and the teeming plethora of mindless entertainment that pervades our modern lives is damaging it. With adorable puppy videos just a few clicks away, procrastination can become impossible to resist, particularly if you’ve built a habit of gawping at them in your spare time. As we fill our lives with the quick and easy, we impair our ability for the difficult, tough, and often worthy. There’s no doubt that watching an episode of The Wire, with its incredible storytelling, and beautiful, often subtle social commentary, has greater value that spending an hour watching corgi videos. Exceptional drama can teach us about the world that we live in, even improving our emotional intelligence in the process¹. But as with anything subtle and complex, in order for us to recognise and fully appreciate its value, our sustained concentration is required — an act that is becoming increasingly difficult for the modern internet user², more accustomed to the two-second thrill of a meme than a gradually developing six-season drama.

The more time we spend scrolling through mindless entertainment, the harder it is for us to become immersed in worthy entertainment. In our age of distraction, choosing to play a game of chess, with its requirement for gradual, thoughtful strategy, isn’t much of a choice at all, and so we’re impoverished — destined to become the consumers of imbecilic nonsense, created purely for our attention, rather than for its value. It’s as though we have an addiction to easy entertainment, and when faced with something a little more challenging, can only resist our dopamine for so long before inevitably relenting, like puppets without will.

Our intelligence is another consideration. While there’s nothing wrong with the occasional hour spent amusing yourself with Game of Thrones memes, or video clips of hilarious tomfooleries, too much of this kind of entertainment will turn you into a braindead bore. Good entertainment, on the other hand, is often brimming with valuable, educational gems—a captivating Shakespeare tragedy; a ten-part series on the Vietnam War; the closing scenes of gaming masterpiece The Last of Us—these experiences bestow us with wonderfully fresh perspectives, having kicked off the shoes of a brand-new character, recently pitted in a battle against unfamiliar circumstances, we emerge with greater tolerance and empathy. These kinds of rewards can’t usually be found amongst the insipid content of Instagram or Faecesbook, and every hour spent within their grasp is an hour in which we could be learning more about the world that we live in. This is not to suggest that every spare minute should be spent on laborious, hard-hitting drama—sometimes we’re so exhausted that puppy videos are all our brains can handle. But most of the time, we should feel energised enough to opt for more valuable forms of entertainment, to avoid the descent into asinine mediocrity—a place filled with the banal frivolities of social media memes, and the vapid “hey guys” videos of Instagram influencers. The fact that an Instagram influencer even exists is evidence of our adoration of bland, mindless entertainment, at the expense of our intelligence. Immerse yourself in this kind of amusement, and it may become your whole world.

Finally, we have our mental health to consider. Social media, with its memes, videos, and fake news, has shown to increase the risk of serious conditions such as depression and anxiety. As these platforms reel us in with their interminable, flavourless content, and we remain transfixed for hours on end, we’re trading short-term entertainment for long-term happiness. The gross thrills that we’re conditioned to consume end up consuming us instead, until we come to the realisation that we’re wasting our lives on complete and utter garbage, at the expense of some truly magnificent forms of treasured entertainment, with the power to nudge us towards confidence-boosting knowledge, and greater degrees of emotional intelligence.

There’s nothing wrong with the odd cheap thrill. We can’t be forever taut, poised to conquer this and that in an endless attempt at self improvement. Relaxation is just as important as work. But in our modern world of uncountable memes, video clips, and short-form articles, the way we relax has changed for many of us, with dire consequences. After years of immersing ourselves in mindless entertainment, even instant gratification can seem sluggish. Our once stellar attention becomes broken and fragmented, our intelligence stunted, and our mental health contaminated—until the day we decide that enough is enough.

References

  1. Tom Jacobs, Watching TV Can Boost Emotional Intelligence
  2. Carolyn Gregoire, The Internet May Be Changing Your Brain In Ways You’ve Never Imagined
  3. Harriet Griffey, The lost art of concentration: being distracted in a digital world