Feelings and the limits of language

How are you feeling? A simple enough question, sometimes hard to answer. If you pay close attention, you know how you feel, but describing it to someone else seems impossible. The limits of language do not allow it.

Human beings love having words, or labels, for things. If we know what something is called, we think we understand it, but we don’t. Anger, anxiety, resentment, jealousy, and fear are all negative emotions. We intuitively think of them as different, but it is tough to make a case that they feel different physically; tight throat, racing heart, nausea, shakiness, sweating.

The differences we think we perceive are a matter of context, and our minds trying to explain the situation, usually on an interpersonal basis. The same is true for positive emotions. Language doesn’t exist to perfectly capture how we feel in every moment. And this is fine.

We need to separate feelings from words that, when strung together, form our stories about ourselves. Instead, pay attention to your feeling tone; pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral. That’s it. Once you know the feeling tone, your subsequent story is cast in a revealing light, helping you examine it; positive, negative, or undecided.

The simple and quick task of separating feelings from stories, and identifying the feeling tone, sets the stage for continued curious introspection, necessary to optimize well-being.

Be well.

You must observe from the audience

We are always with ourselves, so it’s natural to view our lives from the first person perspective, as the main character. This is an egocentric position, leading us to see the world as happening to us, or for us. If we believe the narrative that we generate from this view, we become easily irritated when other characters don’t fit into the plot.

To fully understand our experiences, we need to step back and observe our lives from the audience, as if it were playing on screen. From there we have a better perspective on how all of the characters relate, their influence on each other and the natural world. This is an important technique to hold ourselves accountable for the stories we tell. To optimize well-being, our stories must seek the truth, which cannot be found in the point of view of a single person, even if that person is ‘I’.

Be well.

Well-being depends on context

When asked to evaluate your well-being, your mind will naturally focus on only a few aspects of your life. It is an impossible task to assess the totality of your experiences to date, arriving at some value representing the whole. By focusing on one or a couple of things, your mind is trying to define the context within which well-being can be tested.

This makes sense because as you go about your day, moving from home to outside, from work to family life, the immediate environment, and your role in it, changes. And you feel these changes. Everyone knows the feeling of relief you experience after leaving a hard day at work or school, anticipating a chance to relax at home.

The important concept here is that well-being depends on context. And every context boils down to one of two things: being or doing. Fortunately these align perfectly with the only two things we control, our thoughts and actions, but we will explore that at a later time.

The best way to think about being is what you perceive to be your role or identity in a given situation; child, sibling, parent, friend, colleague, professional, student, lover, athlete, the options are boundless. These labels determine our stories, and hence, our well-being. Doing, by contrast, is how we play out these roles, literally the actions we take.

Here’s the practical point. To improve well-being, we must first determine the context within which we wish for change. Meditating on this is the necessary groundwork for positive progress. Take some time to find the contexts, being and doing, that are most important to you.

Be Unrushed.

Quite often the place we least want to be is where we currently are. This is, in part, because we are thinking about what we need to do in the future. If whatever is happening right now could just end, we could get on with things. This is a treadmill scenario, common in our default mode. 

The result is a disservice to the present moment. Whatever we are doing, or whoever we are with, will not receive our complete attention, so long as we feel we have something else to do. It doesn’t take long to see that this is an unfree way of being. We are shackled by the future – by things that haven’t yet occurred – to the detriment of the only thing we do have; our present experience. 

The feeling of some urgent demand on our time – real or perceived – creates tension in our relationships. It raises fraught questions including, “Whose time is more important?” or, “Why don’t they respect my time?” The concept of time autonomy is central here. One person’s autonomy quickly abuts another’s. Anyone who has ever been left waiting for someone else understands the anxiety and ill will that pervades. 

To be sure, there are scenarios when true urgency arises, when one must be fussed about moving on to other matters: medical triage, a child in trouble, danger lurking. But these are not our usual state. To free ourselves, to embrace the present, we need to be aware of the divide between things that quickly demand our attention, and everything else. Most often, the ‘everything else’ can wait. We don’t have to rush headlong into whatever just so happened to surface in our consciousness. The present moment deserves our attention. There is beauty within it that is easily missed. 

In exercising our time autonomy, however, we must not expect others to bend to our will. Simply because we decided to focus on something does not mean that someone else need do the same, let alone share the same level of caring. That is up to them. Just as we demand respect from others on how we choose to spend our time, so too should we respect their choice. This lesson comes home to roost for parents. 

Young children don’t understand this concept. They want things to happen right now, demanding their parents to drop everything and buy in. Parents are then confronted with a challenge, weighing whether the child’s demands are reasonable, realistic, urgent, versus whether they should supersede the parent’s own interests in the moment. Not an easy decision, and one many of us have fumbled countless times. Within this, though, there is an opportunity to learn and to teach. Being honest with ourselves and with others, along with open communication, will go a long way. 

Every day presents us with challenges like this. We overcome them and we grow. But we are best able to do so by heeding the present moment with the slowness it requires. We must do our best, in whatever we find ourselves doing, to be unrushed. 

Be well.

Expect the Unexpected

We form expectations about all manner of things. Sometimes this is explicit, but often it’s not. Without being aware of our expectations, or testing their validity, we set ourselves up for disappointment. 

The most recent example of this is the proposed timing for reopening schools and the broader economy. It’s all over the media, people are protesting in the streets, governments are preparing frameworks. It seems like it’s on the doorstep. Then we hear an announcement that the mere possibility of schools reopening has been bumped back another two weeks. We feel disappointed, mislead, frustrated, ill-equipped. 

We likely didn’t even know that our expectations were building. It happens automatically and silently, based on snippets of data points and our desire to make them serve our purpose. When the verdict comes in, the inconsistency with the model of the world we built creates tension. This steals our attention. We then embark on a mission to explain how this happened, generally with the goal of confirming that we weren’t wrong to have held the expectation in the first place.

Another example to illustrate the effect of expectations is pain. When we go to the gym and have an intense workout, we expect to feel pain. In fact, we want to feel pain, as this lets us know we are pushing ourselves to create future gains. The next day, as we walk around sore, we confirm we did a good thing. Contrast this with waking up and experiencing a spontaneously stiff and sore neck. The actual sensation of pain is not all that different from our workout, but our interpretation is. We weren’t expecting this. We start thinking about what is wrong and projecting to how this will negatively impact the day ahead. The difference between these two cases is a matter of expectations.

The first step in fixing the problem of unmet expectations is being aware of how often they occur. When we find ourselves disappointed with an outcome, or experiencing anxiety about how something might turn out, this should serve as a signal that expectations are involved. Next, consider whether we are expecting things that are within our control. Generally, we aren’t, including the first example about reopening the economy. We need to challenge ourselves to only be concerned with those things that are within our control, or that we can reasonably influence, and accept the rest. Finally, once we’ve reconsidered our expectations within what we can control, we should use the data available from past experiences to consider how likely the outcome is that we expect. As in science, we should welcome the opportunity to be wrong. This is how we learn.

The world is an unpredictable place. The only expectation we should have is that almost nothing will turn out exactly as we expected. And that’s OK. 

Be well. 

Breaking bread (not bad).

An interesting observation of human behaviour during the COVID-19 pandemic is to make note of which shelves in the grocery store are empty. We’ve all heard the meme about toilet tissue. Clearly a necessity, but an odd one to hoard. What I find more intriguing are the bare shelves of flour and yeast. It would seem that everyone has suddenly started baking. Where does this urge come from?

During ordinary busy life, eating, let alone cooking, has become a matter of convenience and efficiency. We have so many things to do, that how we nourish our bodies has become an afterthought. We tend to cram in meals between other things. Worse still is that we often miss the rich opportunity to dine together, sharing stories of our days, learning from our families. 

Well, now we have the time. We are home with our families. We are dining together again. So, we bake. Making bread takes time and care. A level of attention that simply wasn’t available until now.  This is an opportunity to connect with our loved ones through making something together. I see those bare shelves as a sign of real humanity in the midst of crisis. 

I have previously written about the importance of identifying moments that matter. Sitting down to break bread together is one of those moments. My wife and I make a priority of doing this with our children. We have an ongoing joke when we sit down across from one another by saying, “Well, here we are again.” This makes light of the routine nature of the act, but within it there is comfort. We know that no matter what we have experienced that day, how challenging it may have been, we will always return to this place. 

Following the pandemic, my hope is that we can all slow down a bit, taking the time to cook and dine together more often. No one regrets having more dinners with the people they love. So, go stock up on flour and yeast. Along with your bread, may your well-being rise. 

Be well.

Remember what is important.

Most of us are craving the return to normal life right now. The same life that we used to complain about before it all changed. This reveals an interesting phenomenon of the human experience. We quickly adapt to any context in which we find ourselves. No doubt, this has served us exceptionally well over the millennia of our evolution. We have been taken from the savannah to complex nation states fueled by economies and governed by layers of bureaucracy. For the most part, we are unaware of our individual adaptation as it occurs. It is usually only when we consider the stark differences between our lives a decade ago and now that it partially sinks in. However, when we are confronted with a significant change to our lifestyle, en masse, it reallysinks in.

The default manifestation of our adaptation to the present context is taking things for granted. Many of us enjoy going to the gym or stopping by the coffee shop. These activities become a part of our routines, so much so, that they may start to seem mundane. You can easily skip a day and not think much of it. But when the ability to do these things is literally taken away, we realize how important it really was. We also realize how much of a privilege it was. 

This is where the Stoic principle of negative visualization can be useful. The Stoics suggest that we should frequently consider that we could lose anything we care about in an instant. Tragedy could befall us or those we care about at any time. This exercise isn’t meant to invoke fear or anxiety, rather acting as a reminder to be fully engaged in what we are experiencing right now.

Any time you go to the gym, sip your coffee, hug your child, or connect with a friend, could be the last time you have that opportunity. Remember this, and you will act as though these things are as important as they truly are. 

Be well.

To wait is our fate.

No one likes to wait. As we grow up, we can’t wait to drive, graduate, leave home, join the “real world”. As adults we can’t wait to build a successful career, go on vacation, get a new car, retire and be free. Nevertheless, we wait, counting down the days, ignoring today. But today is what we have, tomorrow is merely a possibility. And what’s the rush? We all know the ultimate finish line. 

In a way, we spend our entire lives waiting. In fact, life is about the wait. None of us chose to be born. We don’t control that at some point it ends. What we can do, is decide how we spend our time in between. 

This notion is illustrated by the feeling of nostalgia. Most of us have moved into a new house at some point. We were excited to buy a new home, make it our own. We couldn’t wait to leave the old place. It didn’t make us happy anymore. Then, as you close the door one last time, you are overcome by a feeling of nostalgia. We suddenly think about all the great times we had there, how we grew. It wasn’t perfect, but somehow that’s what made it ours. We wonder if we took it for granted. We are grateful to have had the experience. Then we move on.

Now everyone is waiting for the same thing, the end of social-distancing measures for COVID-19. As with everything in our lives, the current measures are temporary. They may be longer than we like, but they will come to an end. If all we think about, and bemoan, is how and when this will end, we lose the only thing we possess, the present moment. 

The current situation has been, and remains, a unique opportunity to accept the wait, take up the challenge, and do something that makes us proud. Being future-oriented is a good thing, but only insofar as it challenges us to focus on improving ourselves today. 

Don’t wish your time away. To wait is our fate. It’s what we do while we wait that makes the difference. 

Be well.

How to win the day during COVID-19 (or any day).

To understand something, you must strip it down to its raw ingredients, making sure you then understand each of them. Only then can you put them back together and assert that you know why the product of their constitution is what it is. The same applies to optimizing well-being. We need to understand the problems we have, the challenges to be overcome. 

As we continue to practice the new art of social-distancing, we may find ourselves beginning to get anxious. We feel unproductive, captive, disconnected. This need not be so, if we break things down to examine our predicament. Instead, we need to focus on winning each day, challenging ourselves to find meaning and achieve success in our new way of life. 

Stoic ethics provides a framework for identifying the most basic components of human nature. Satisfy these things, deliberately and consistently, and we’ve won. The Stoics professed that we ought to be, “living in agreement with nature.” This includes nourishing and attending to our biological functions, caring for our offspring and others, and nurturing our unique human ability to reason. 

These are the ingredients that we must deeply understand, for when we put them together, in any one of us, they constitute who we are. One could delve into all manner of rich dialogue about any one of these, but for our purpose today I put forth a simple quiz one can employ to determine if they’ve won the day:

  1. Did you do something good for yourself today?
  2. Did you do something good for someone else today?
  3. Did you learn something today?

If we answer yes to all three, we win. That’s it. Simple. It matters not how profound or wide-reaching the actions, or their outcomes, were, but rather that they happened. In this vein, our productivity does not need to centre around a vocation, or any other thing in particular. In the age of COVID-19, if we got outside for a walk, then stayed home, and read a chapter of a book, we won the day. This is living in accordance with the human condition. If we apply this way of thinking, anything extra we go on to do is a bonus. 

As you reflect on the current state of things, think of how to win today, or any day. It is eminently achievable. 

Be well.

This isn’t the end of the story.

Perhaps you’re feeling overwhelmed, exhausted, seeing no end in sight. You think this shouldn’t be happening, it doesn’t make sense. You want nothing more than for things to get back to normal. In a word, you’re suffering. 

We are all suffering. Some more than others. That’s what happens when life changes quickly and we don’t know what comes next. People don’t like uncertainty. 

Here’s the good news; this isn’t the end of the story. 

Our experiences are simply the product of the feelings we have and the stories we tell ourselves. They change over time. We change over time. In the moment, we feel our emotions in real time. These feelings immediately dictate the story to be told, be it one of sadness, pain, anger, or joy. Later, when we’ve had a chance to fully appreciate the context we were in, the other characters involved, the outcomes of our actions, the stories change, reshaping our feelings about the events that transpired. 

This is a wonderful opportunity, one that only rational beings get to experience, so it would seem. If someone asked what you were most proud of in your life, no doubt your answer would involve a struggle that you overcame, a period of suffering. At the time it was miserable, but you persevered, grew, and became a better version of yourself. 

That is what’s happening now. It’s hard. We don’t know how the story ends, and that’s precisely where the opportunity lies. We will all have the chance to rewrite our own stories, turning this present experience into one of meaning and triumph. 

This isn’t the end of the story. But remember, our actions today will shape our stories tomorrow. 

Be well.

We Must Create Space

To give ourselves the best opportunity to optimise well-being, we must create space. There are three dimensions in which this space is to be created: time, physical, and mental.

In a previous post I explored how time is simply a tool of measurement. We use it create order in our lives and our memories. We are skilled at filling time with all manner of activities on a weekly basis. When we do this, we don’t allow ourselves opportunity to explore what makes life most meaningful. Anyone with a job, family, classes to attend, and so on, clearly understands busyness. This busyness is a constant distraction that may occupy us for years. Just as we book meetings, we must book time in our schedule to simply be with ourselves. Time to think, reflect, take stock, reprioritize. These dedicated times can be the most important appointments of our weeks or months.

Create space in your schedule.

Physical space is also crucial for our well-being. Clutter quickly becomes overwhelming. Most of us have too much stuff. Making a point of tidying up or taking a minimalist stance to acquiring things can have a tremendous impact on how we feel in our own environment. Similarly, we need periods of physical space away from other people. Aloneness, rather than loneliness, is an important tool on our well-being journey. A simple way to create physical space is to get outside in nature. The vastness of nature allows us to sense our relative smallness. This helps realign our perspective of ourselves, as we have a tendency to over-estimate self-importance.

Create physical space.

Once we successfully create space in our schedules and surroundings, we are better positioned to explore our mental space. The basis of our human experience is spacious awareness. We usually don’t recognise this during our daily routine. When we clear things away, however, we can tap into this awareness, helping us understand our state of being. Mindfulness and meditation are specific techniques one may use to guide this understanding. However, one cannot properly use these tools unless we create the necessary space. When we are too busy, don’t write things down, have too many deadlines, our minds become cluttered. We are constantly lost in thought. We are not in control. This is how we spend most of our waking lives. The problem is that during our waking lives we are not truly awake to our most fundamental state of consciousness. Creating space gets us closer.

Create mental space.

Wellness Reductionism

Let’s begin with a subtle distinction between terms that are often conflated; well-being vs. wellness. I proposed a definition of well-being in a previous post. In short, it’s the sense of fulfilment, satisfaction, happiness, or alignment that we all seek. Wellness refers to the things we do to move toward well-being.

This is important to recognize, as there is an inherent conflict between the holistic and individualized context of well-being and the piecemeal wellness products we are sold.

The Wellness industry, like all others, exists to make money. The Global Wellness Institute estimated a market size of $4.2 trillion in 2017. The industry is overwhelmingly concentrated on nutrition (weight loss), fitness (gym memberships/subscriptions), and aesthetics (spa/anti-aging). Throw in some mind-body (yoga/retreats) for good measure.

The marketing is simple and effective: buy our stuff – feel better. And buy it we do. The trouble is that we don’t stop to think, during our hurried lives, that these wellness products are extrinsic, while the well-being we truly seek is intrinsic.

The Wellness industry applies a reductionist approach because it is profitable. It focuses on things we can change with products: what we eat, when and how we exercise, what we wear, etc. While optimizing these can improve our health, they do not address the foundations of our well-being, including our values, goals, purpose, self-identity, expectations, relationships, and more. This is the inner work, unique for each of us. Even harder to accept is that there is no quick fix on offer.

The pursuit of well-being is common to all of us. Our feelings about whether we are, or are not, achieving it form the essence of the human experience. What an incredible opportunity to explore and share our storied paths. The journey begins with awareness; awareness that our well-being cannot be purchased in shiny wellness packaging. Do the inner work. See the products for what they are. It might not be obvious at first, but you are the only one who knows what you need.

The Vacation Fallacy – Part 2

In wonderfully coincident timing, the Farnam Street Blog recently published a piece (click here) on how to think about your travel experiences. Their thesis aligns with mine (confirmation bias alert) in that vacation should be used as an opportunity to experience the diversity of the world and promote different perspectives. In keeping with their theme of mental models, they propose two ways of thinking:

1) Algebraic equivalence – realizing that different approaches can sum to the same value. Different cultures may have different definitions for things you take for granted. For example, some cultures place less emphasis on working life than we do in Canada. They may feel that other factors are more important to lead the meaningful and successful life we all seek. Experiencing this can be powerful enough to make you re-evaluate your own relationship with work and the meaning it creates for you.

2) Galilean Relativity – altering your point of reference, allowing you to make new observations. By getting outside of your routine environment, you are bound to notice new things about how societies, nature, transit, etc., operate. Gaining new perspectives and insights is one of the highlights of the travel experience.

They conclude their article with a few recommendations to help us get the most out of travel. These include journaling, not over-planning, deliberate goal setting, and having a growth mindset. All great advice! I encourage you to check it out.

The Vacation Fallacy

Disclaimer: I love vacations. I really do.

Vacations aren’t achieving what you think they are. If your life was just the way you wanted it, you would only go on vacation for one reason; to experience the richness and diversity the world has to offer.

This is not why most of us take vacations. We want to take a break, reset, refresh, get away.

What is it that we want to get away from? We fool ourselves by thinking we are trying to escape our jobs, our daily tasks, our house cleaning, our commutes, the so-called rat race.

The trouble is, these will be eagerly awaiting our return. Nothing really changes.

We are attempting to escape ourselves, if only for a few days. But rest assured, your mind will travel with you. And the really sticky point is that once you arrive in your hallowed sanctitude, your mind is not burdened by needing to board a return flight to make a quick trip back to work, unmet demands, that pile of laundry, that argument with your sister.

Vacation is a concept, an ideal. It’s a promise to yourself that, for a brief time in the foreseeable future, you will shed the trappings of your everyday thoughts. It’s a promise that will most likely be broken.

It doesn’t have to be this way. If you can accept your today, and every day thereafter, for what it is, you’ll have nothing to escape. Now that’s a challenge! It’s actually THE challenge, for all of us, all the time.

Do this, and vacations will be what they ought to be, an enrichment of your human experience. Then once they are past, the memories can be enriched even more in the telling and re-telling.

Bon voyage!

Two hard truths to set you free

We think we are more important than we actually are. I mean this in the individual sense. Afterall, our own thoughts are the only ones we can think. Try as you might to, “put yourself in someone else’s shoes,” the experience will undoubtedly be coloured by your prior thinking and cognitive biases. Why does this matter? Because we get caught up in our inner narratives that tell us our perspective, our work, our contribution is more impactful than someone else’s. This happens quietly and insidiously, creating a sense of self-righteousness that erodes our well-being.

If your self-esteem is related to being right, feeling validated, or having others recognize your accomplishments, be prepared to feel down. If your expectation is that your work will make a difference, something largely out of your control, prepare to feel frustrated. If you can’t understand why others don’t see things your way, perhaps your analytical skills have become blunted by self-importance. This may sound extreme, but as you traverse the regular highs and lows of your week, I think these sentiments will resonate. 

Fortunately, you can free yourself from these perceptual binds by accepting two hard truths.

  1. You are replaceable. 

If I didn’t show up to work, a couple of people might think my unexplained absence was odd. After a day or two, some calls or e-mails would be placed to see what was up. Let’s say I then decided I was done; I wouldn’t go back. The immediate workplace concern would be to take stock of my former responsibilities and ensure that someone else was assigned to cover them. Intermediate to long-term plans would be made to find a lasting replacement. Three months from now, people may briefly recall the strange time when Andrew suddenly left. They would then go about their days. 

Now a real-world example. A teacher has been on staff at a local high school for 30 years. They taught thousands of students over this time. They were part of the fabric and culture of the school. This year, they retired. The staff had a lunch on the last day of school. A couple of colleagues paid a public tribute, shared some stories and bid their farewell. There was pizza. The retiree then walked out of the building for the last time. The administration then hired a new teacher. The remaining staff will file into the school at the start of the next year, their routines entirely unchanged. The incoming students will only know the retiree by their picture on the wall. 

These examples underscore that no matter how seriously you take your work, how much pride you have in the outcome, the world necessarily carries on in your absence. One could view this perspective as negative, deflating. The rational response is not to stop doing things because there is no point, but rather to cease worrying about day-to-day trivial matters and burdening oneself with overinflated self-importance. Accepting your replaceability causes you to evaluate the worth of your own progress, shifting toward a focus on the most meaningful pursuits.

There is a notable exception to the notion of being replaceable. You are not replaceable to your family and closest friends. It is to them, and only them, that your continued relationship matters, because the strength of that relationship is connected to their own well-being.

2. There is no legacy.

There are currently around 7 billion people on the planet. Billions have come before and billions more have yet to exist. The sheer magnitude of humanity makes the probability of your name or work being widely known, at present day, extremely low, let alone being recalled as some form of legacy generations from now. Of course, I recognize that most people don’t strive to become a global name. If notoriety is what you seek, it is likely to be sought or measured on a more local scale. But to what end?

Fame, that is strangers knowing who you are, is no reflection of the value you have created for yourself or anyone else. Fame is most often serendipitous. Value, on the other hand, is generally related to a dedicated pursuit of one thing that others deem to be desirable. Most links of the value chain, however, don’t indicate what happened upstream, or who was responsible for it. People are just happy to capture it. But time and desires change. What once was desired ceases to be so. The work done to generate value was not done in vain, it’s simply no longer as valuable as it once was. 

If your goal is to build something that will result in your being remembered long after you are gone, a legacy, you will most likely fall short. For this, too, is mostly out of your control. As with your replaceability, this should be viewed in a positive light. Why burden yourself with trying to influence the lives of those not yet in existence, when there is so much to be addressed in the present? You risk tying your sense of well-being, achievement, meaning or success to something that you will never experience. Instead, focus on meaningful efforts where you can improve and bring value to the current situation. 

This does not mean that we should not worry about the future state of humanity and the world we live in. The only way to effectively change it for the better, is to be firmly present in the happenings of this moment, where we can continuously do our best to be a force for good. 

By accepting that you are replaceable and that your purpose is not to create a legacy, you will stop prioritizing your time and work to the neglect of what matters most; your family, your friends, and your unique human experience.