Tag Archives: Mindfulness

Happiness is a skill

When people say they choose not to worry or they choose to be happy, I think it’s misleading. It trivializes the difficulties many people have with happiness. On the other hand, with some exceptions, I also have trouble believing that happiness is an innate talent inert to efforts to cultivate it.

I consider happiness like a skill. It’s very common for people to confuse skills with innate talents, just consider the last time someone told you they “can’t do art” or said how lucky you were that you could do math. It’s less common to hear people going the other way – telling each other to “be better” at something as if for some inscrutable reason they simply hadn’t considered the possibility of having skill, but I can admit that at times I have been tempted to say things like that.

There are a number of external factors that make happiness easier.

  • Low stress
  • Strong social support
  • Natural light

There are also actions we can take that tend to make us happier.

  • Regular sleep
  • Exercise
  • Diet

None of these are exactly building up happiness like a skill, though. They are indirect practices – like lifting weights to be better at wrestling. However, I have a personal approach to mindfulness that is, in my personal experience, the practice of happiness. To practice happiness, at any time of day, whatever you’re doing, take your attention and see if it’s on something making you happy. If there’s anything about what you’re doing that makes you happy, train your attention on that. Practice forgetting what upsets you and thinking instead about what makes you happy.

For instance, if your friends upset you, consider what has led them to make the upsetting decision and how good you will feel if you can rise above it. Think about how much you like your friends and how much better your relationship will be if you handle this situation well. If it’s hard in the moment, try to remember something in the past you liked about them. If your work is frustrating, think about the people you’re helping or think about the money you’re making, or even just focus on doing your job as well as you can. You’ll be surprised how hard all this can be, but if you keep at it, you may be surprised by how much it can help.

For more thoughts on depression and dealing with it, see the excellent blog by my friend Laura – http://www.lauravslaura.com/

Image Credit: http://thefairgo.com/road-to-happiness/


What’s the secret to happiness? I’ve just started a book that’s about that question. It’s called “Search Inside Yourself” and it’s by a Google employee. Its first claim, based on the foreword, appears to be that Google is the secret to happiness. It literally points to the happiest man in the world and says that he would have gone to Google if he could have but he had to go to the monastery as a second choice.

Nevertheless, wisdom can come from the most unexpected of places. Wisdom has not yet come from this book, mostly because I haven’t gotten very far. I think I’m still in the foreword, actually. In the meantime let me share with you some of my own wisdom.

I used to think of life as one big optimization problem. At any given moment what action should I take to make my life overall as good as possible? This seems straightforward, but just like in machine learning, it turns out that trying to find the globally optimal direction for each step in one’s life is not feasible. Life is just too complex, especially since we humans appear to have multiple hardwired objective functions that do not combine in a consistent manner.

Also, the thing about spending your life optimizing is that once you’re done you don’t get to enjoy it. Also, happiness in humans is self-regulating. The “hedonic treadmill” so to speak takes us back to our baseline happiness no matter how much we improve our external condition.

Thus, the solution may be to have a series of positive experiences, not worrying about the future more than in basic terms. What is a positive experience though?

For me, I like accomplishments. From the right perspective, one can find accomplishments everywhere. Big accomplishments like promotions, marriages etcetera, but also small accomplishments. Writing a blog every week, completing a yoga or exercise session, cooking pancakes for your family. Accomplishments are everywhere if you can accept them.

If the big accomplishments are far away, split them into small accomplishments and ride a train of good cheer to your eventual goal. Remember life has no eventual goal, so appreciate your successes along the way. Be mindful of your good works and you’ll have the energy for more good works.

That’s what I’m working on now. It’s been working pretty well for me so far. Maybe for now, so far is all that matters.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Nuclear Throne

I remember a long time ago, maybe a couple years, my mother became inspired by the teachings of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Nhất Hạnh. She handed each member of our family a piece of dark chocolate. Our job was to be mindful of this chocolate. We were to savor and enjoy it and let no sensation achieved through its consumption go to waste. In this way we would take the first step in a very long journey towards enlightenment and personal fulfillment.

“How preposterous to start with something so easy,” I thought, looking down at my empty plate and licking the chocolate from my lips. “Certainly it will mean nothing if I can properly enjoy a piece of chocolate.”

The moral of this story is that some people are really bad at mindfulness. Me, at least. My mind wanders and is seldom at the same place as my current situation. Although it would be hard to say conclusively that it has not helped at all, over a decade of sitting in the silent group worship of the Quaker tradition has not fixed this for me. In Quaker meetings I became expert at wandering my mind rather than at stilling it. I learned the value of contemplation, but not mindfulness.

What if there were a practice that could enforce mindfulness? If my brain is not completely on the task at hand, it knows, and it gives me a gentle reminder.

Enter Nuclear Throne.

Image result for Nuclear Throne
People have a hard time letting go of their suffering. Out of a fear of the unknown, they prefer suffering that is familiar. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Nuclear Throne is a “Roguelike” game. That means its levels are procedurally generated, that it is easy to die, and that when you die you start over from the beginning. A very general term for a game like this in layman’s terms is “hard.” I can invest ten intense minutes into getting to the third level only to find out the painful way that snipers explode violently when you hit them with an irradiated shovel.

In the heat of the moment, though, each lesson is easy to forget. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve fired a rocket-launching shotgun much too close to a volatile car, attempted to raise my crystal shield to defend against a crystal shield-smashing crowbar, or got too excited with my toxic triple-machinegun and ended up eaten alive by rats as I wandered through the sewers in a desperate search for ammo.

Image result for Nuclear Throne sewers
Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear. If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Although “gentle” might not be right word, Nuclear Throne is not shy about letting me know when I have allowed my mind to leave the present moment. Incineration by gem-powered gatling laser beam is paradoxically centering.

My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand. -Thich Nhat Hanh

Or rather, it is centering if I make it so. My instinct brought on by this type of game is haste. When I have to start over again from the beginning it is such a dreadful feeling that I want to sprint to get back to where I left off, but that is the path to ruin. This is where I have to remember Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching – “there is no way to happiness – happiness is the way.” I must take each moment in the game as its own. If I worry about progress once had and lost I will lose what I have now. So, too, if I worry about what I could lose. Each barrage of bullets is its own, each yeti-hurtled car and exploding canister of lethal miasma. To win the game I must let go of winning. I must, temporarily, let go of the outside world. There are a great many places in life where I have succeeded while my mind was elsewhere. However, with regards to the Nuclear Throne, I must ascend mindfully, or I shall not ascend at all.

Cover image credit: http://www.vlambeer.com/press/sheet.php?p=Nuclear_Throne#images