On Happiness

Michael Singer on Why Happiness is a Choice

TheUntetheredSoulThe cause of unhappiness is not the situations we find ourselves in, it’s the way we think about those situations.

In The Way To Love, Anthony de Mello offered this advice for dealing with those who annoy us:

“Every time you find yourself irritated or angry with someone, the one to look at is not that person but yourself. The question to ask is not, “What’s wrong with this person?” but “What does this irritation tell me about myself?”

In The Untethered Soul, Michael Singer suggests taking the same approach to all our problems:

“When a problem is disturbing you, don’t ask, “What should I do about it?” Ask, “What part of me is being disturbed by this?” If you ask, “What should I do about it?” you’ve already fallen into believing that there really is a problem outside that must be dealt with… If you want to achieve peace in the face of your problems, you must understand why you perceive a particular situation as a problem.”

Perhaps we can fix one problem. But then another comes along, and we must fix that too. Then another. And another. External changes are not a long-term solution because they don’t address the root of the problem.

“For example, if you feel loneliness and insufficiency within your heart, it’s not because you haven’t found a special relationship. That did not cause the problem. That relationship is your attempt to solve the problem…

If you try to find the perfect person to love and adore you, and you manage to succeed, then you have actually failed. You did not solve your problem. All you did was involve that person in your problem. That is why people have so much trouble with relationships. You began with a problem inside yourself, and you tried to solve it by getting involved with somebody else. That relationship will have problems because your problems are what caused the relationship.”

Instead of spending our lives battling one problem after another, Singer advocates learning to not see them as problems at all.

Singer argues that we perceive a situation as a problem when it violates some expectation we have. This explains why one person may consider something a problem and another may not: the two have different expectations about what should be.

Expectations are simply conditions we have decided must be met for us to be happy. We have a model of reality and become angry and frustrated when life doesn’t conform to it. Instead, we should adjust our model, just as a scientist would adjust a theory that was contradicted by a new observation. This may not be easy: some of our assumptions are deeply programmed into us by our life experiences and may be difficult to change. But because they are not inherent in the situations we find ourselves in, letting go of them is not impossible.

We can identify our expectations by watching for the times we feel anxious. Instead of fearing these situations, Singer argues we should welcome them as opportunities to practice letting go of our expectations. Singer likens it to a dog approaching an invisible fence:

“An invisible limit was there, and when the dog approached that limit, it gave him a little shock. It hurt. It was uncomfortable enough so that now the dog feels fear whenever he approaches the boundaries…

Since that particular dog was used to roaming free, it’s a sad day when he stops trying to get out of the yard. The only reason he would stop trying to go beyond his little space is that he’s afraid of the edges. But what if we’re dealing with a very brave dog that’s determined to be free? Imagine that the dog has not given up. You find him sitting there, right at the place where the collar starts vibrating, and he is not backing off. Every minute he’s stepping forward a little bit more in order to get used to the force field. If he continues, he will eventually get out. There’s not a chance in the world that he won’t. Since it’s just an artificial edge, he can get through if he can learn to withstand the discomfort. He just has to be ready, willing, and able to handle the discomfort.”

Singer argues that we just need to make one decision: do we want to be happy or not? Happiness is in our control, provided we refuse to place any preconditions on it.

“When everything is going well, it’s easy to be happy. But the moment something difficult happens, it’s not so easy. You tend to find yourself saying, “But I didn’t know this was going to happen. I didn’t think I’d miss my flight. I didn’t think Sally would show up at the party wearing the same dress that I had on. I didn’t think that somebody would dent my brand-new car one hour after I got it.” Are you really willing to break your vow of happiness because these events took place?

Billions of things could happen that you haven’t even thought of yet. The question is not whether they will happen. Things are going to happen. The real question is whether you want to be happy regardless of what happens. The purpose of your life is to enjoy and learn from your experiences. You were not put on Earth to suffer. You’re not helping anybody by being miserable. Regardless of your philosophical beliefs, the fact remains that you were born and you are going to die. During the time in between, you get to choose whether or not you want to enjoy the experience. Events don’t determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. They’re just events. You determine whether or not you’re going to be happy. You can be happy just to be alive.”

Choosing happiness will not always be easy, says Singer, but it is always a choice.

Would it Help?

Bridge of Spies is the true story of an American lawyer, James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), recruited to defend Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) during the Cold War.

Abel's refusal to worry, despite the risk that he might be sent to the electric chair or shot by his own people, baffles Donovan. Abel's explanation is simple, and inspiring:

"Would it help?"


Savour the Mundane

“Perfect happiness comes in tiny, incremental units only, perhaps no more than five minutes at a time,” writes Alain de Botton in The Course of Love. “This is what one has to take with both hands and cherish.”

Yet these moments need not be rare. In Peace is Every Step, Thich Nhat Hanh argues that they can be found in even the most mundane of tasks, if we take the time to savour them:

“To my mind, the idea that doing dishes is unpleasant can occur only when you aren't doing them. Once you are standing in front of the sink with your sleeves rolled up and your hands in the warm water, it is really quite pleasant. I enjoy taking my time with each dish, being fully aware of the dish, the water, and each movement of my hands. I know that if I hurry in order to eat dessert sooner, the time of washing dishes will be unpleasant and not worth living. That would be a pity, for each minute, each second of life is a miracle.”

Neil Strauss on Monogamy, Polyamory and Marriage

The TruthOne reason we marry is to create stability in our lives. Yet, as Stephanie Coontz noted in Marriage: A History, since we started marrying for love, around two hundred years ago, marriages have actually become less stable. Is lifelong monogamy an idea whose time has come and gone? Are there other forms of intimacy more appropriate to the way we live our lives today?

These are the some of the questions explored by Neil Strauss in The Truth: An Uncomfortable Book About Relationships.

“We expect love to last forever. Yet as many as 50 percent of marriages and even more remarriages end in divorce. Among those who are married, only 38 percent actually describe themselves as happy in that state. And 90 percent of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after having their first child.”

The book is not an intellectual exploration of the subject, but a personal one, as Strauss recounts his own battle to understand what kind of a relationship he himself wants.

“When I’m single, I want to be in a relationship. When I’m in a relationship, I miss being single. And worst of all, when the relationship ends and my captor-lover finally moves on, I regret everything and don’t know what I want anymore…

Maybe the problem isn’t just me. Perhaps I’ve been trying to conform to an outdated and unnatural social norm that doesn’t truly meet—and has never met—the needs of both men and women equally…

Is it even natural to be faithful to one person for life? And if it is, how do I keep the passion and romance from fading over time? Or are there alternatives to monogamy that will lead to better relationships and greater happiness?”

The book begins with Strauss in rehab for sex addiction after being caught cheating on his girlfriend, Ingrid. Like Tomas in Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Strauss sees his desire for variety in women no differently from his desire for variety in any other aspect of his life:

“I love traveling, eating at different restaurants, and meeting new people. Sex is the same: I like getting to know different women, experiencing what they’re like in bed, meeting their friends and family, and having the adventures and memories…

Whether it’s Nicole or Sage, Anne or Veronika, each woman is a wonderful world unto herself. And monogamy? It’s like choosing to live in a single town and never traveling to experience the beauty, history, and enchantment of all the other unique, wonderful places in the world. Why does love have to limit us?”

Strauss wonders whether the desire for exclusivity is selfish:

“Perhaps on some level, the demand for exclusive love is an immature demand, the desire of the needy child who hungered to be the sole object of its parents’ attention, affection, and care.”

When a relationship starts to fall apart, should we even try to save it? Strauss observes several men in therapy with him struggling hard to save marriages they’re not enjoying anyway. “You know, Neil, I call her every afternoon and tell her I love her,” one man sighs, recounting his attempts to win his wife’s forgiveness. “I send her flowers. I do everything to show her I care.” “But do you care or are you just doing a duty?” retorts Strauss.

“Most people seem to believe that if a relationship doesn’t last until death, it’s a failure. But the only relationship that’s truly a failure is one that lasts longer than it should. The success of a relationship should be measured by its depth, not by its length.”

Echoing Anthony DeMello’s belief that our behaviour is largely programmed into us in childhood, Strauss realises his life is “running on a unique operating system that took some eighteen years to program and is full of distinct bugs and viruses”, and that the roots of his behaviour can be traced back to his dysfunctional childhood relationship with his mother.

“I move on to explain the third type of parenting: enmeshment. This is my upbringing. Instead of taking care of a child’s needs, the enmeshing parent tries to get his or her own needs met through the child. This can take various forms: a parent who lives through a child’s accomplishments; who makes the child a surrogate spouse, therapist, or caretaker; who is depressed and emotionally uses the child; who is overbearing or overcontrolling; or who is excessively emotional or anxious about a child. If you grew up feeling sorry for or smothered by a parent, this is a sign that enmeshment likely occurred: In the process, enmeshed children lose their sense of self. As adults, they usually avoid letting anyone get too close and suck the life out of them again. Where the abandoned are often unable to contain their feelings, the enmeshed tend to be cut off from them, and be perfectionistic and controlling of themselves and others. Though they may pursue a relationship thinking they want connection, once they’re in the reality of one, they often put up walls, feel superior, and use other distancing techniques to avoid intimacy. This is known as avoidant attachment—or, as they put it here, love avoidance.”

In contrast, one of his therapists says:

“A healthy relationship is when two individuated adults decide to have a relationship and that becomes a third entity. They nurture the relationship and the relationship nurtures them. But they’re not overly dependent or independent: They are interdependent, which means that they take care of the majority of their needs and wants on their own, but when they can’t, they’re not afraid to ask their partner for help.” She pauses to let it all sink in, then concludes, “Only when our love for someone exceeds our need for them do we have a shot at a genuine relationship together.”

Strauss, however, finds himself increasingly uncomfortable with his therapists’ assertions about what’s right and wrong.

“If we eliminate one half of the dysfunctional relationship, the dysfunction is gone,” I explain. “What’s left is a single guy enjoying life and its pleasures. Why is the option with two people in a reciprocal nurturing relationship any better than this option?”

Disenchanted, Strauss quits therapy, agonising over whether to end his relationship with Ingrid:

“This is it, then: I must make a decision. A lifetime of monogamy with the woman I love. Or a lifetime of dating who I want, of doing what I want, of having complete and total freedom. It doesn’t mean I’ll never have a girlfriend or a child or a family. It just means I’ll have them on my terms, not those of this repressive society that expects you to cut off your balls as soon as you say “I do”…

On their deathbeds, people don’t think about their work or their life experiences or the items remaining on their to-do list. They think about love and family. And I’m throwing it away. I may genuinely be turning that nightmare I had when I was a kid— of being a lazy, broke, unloved deadbeat sleeping on the couch in my brother’s perfect suburban family home— into a reality this time. But do I actually want that dream: a house in the suburbs, a domestic routine that never changes, a lifestyle where going out to a movie is some sort of grand adventure, ungrateful kids like me who blame all their problems on their parents?”

He decides he doesn’t.

“Ingrid strokes my head reassuringly and says, “I feel like I caught a beautiful bird in the wild and put it in a cage, just for me to look at.” I listen. She knows. She understands me. “The cage is near the window, and the bird keeps looking outside and thinking about life out there. And I need to open the cage and let it go, because it belongs in the wild.” Then her face falls, her eyes redden, and the tears start coming faster. I can’t let go, but she can. Between sobs, she sputters her last thought, the six words that will haunt me forever after: “But birds die in the wild.””

As Strauss sets out to explore alternatives to monogamy, one of his friends cautions him to remember his real objective. “The goal is not monogamy or nonmonogamy. It’s for you to be living a life that brings you happiness.”

Monogamy has its drawbacks, but Strauss quickly realises that polyamory comes with its own challenges:

“Shama Helena explains that to most people, polyamory means having multiple loving romantic relationships in which all the partners know about one another. The key word here is loving. A relationship that permits only casual sex on the side wouldn’t technically qualify. The other distinction is honesty. Having a secret mistress or being in a “don’t ask, don’t tell” relationship wouldn’t truly be polyamorous either. And poly doesn’t necessarily come with freedom. Many relationships, Shama Helena explains, require sexual exclusivity to some or all members of the group— or, as it’s called, polyfidelity…

There’s a concept called compersion. And that means if your partner has another lover, rather than being jealous, you’re happy for her because she’s happy…

True love is wanting your partner to have whatever she wants—whether or not you approve of it.”

As Strauss starts to have non-exclusive relationships, he begins to realise how difficult this is. “Compersion is a struggle. It goes against every fiber of my being. I don’t know if my resistance to it is cultural or evolutionary or both,” he says.

When Strauss tries living with three women in a group relationship in San Francisco, he realises there are other challenges. Now he’s not managing one relationship, or even three, but six: between himself and each woman and between each of the women. The conflicting expectations rapidly bring the experiment in communal living to an end.

“A piece of relationship advice Lorraine taught in rehab rings ominously in my head: “Unspoken expectations are premeditated resentments”…

In the dance of infatuation, we see others not as they are, but as projections of who we want them to be. And we impose on them all the imaginary criteria we think will fill the void in our hearts. But in the end, this strategy leads only to suffering. It’s not a relationship when the other person is completely left out of it.”

Strauss tries other open relationships, but again struggles with jealousy. When he becomes sure that one woman is on the point of leaving him for another man, he calls one of his former therapists, Lorraine, for advice.

““Just remember,” she adds soothingly, “that the only people who can be abandoned are children and dependent elders. If you’re an adult, then no one can abandon you except you.””

This doesn’t help. Strauss realises that although he wants to be able to have multiple partners himself, he wants those he’s with to be exclusive to him. The hypocrisy is not lost on him.

As he begins to realise that polyamory is not for him, Strauss’ thoughts return to Ingrid, and why he loved her.

“Love isn’t about wanting someone to save my life or see a vista with me or make me laugh or any of those selfish reasons I’ve always given for loving Ingrid. Those are just things she can do for me or ways she makes me feel…

[Love is] when two (or more) hearts build a safe emotional, mental, and spiritual home that will stand strong no matter how much anyone changes on the inside or the outside.”

Strauss realises that he should have stayed with Ingrid, and asks her to take him back. Remarkably, she agrees. As the book comes to an end, however, Strauss acknowledges that this is not the end of his story, that building that safe home together will be difficult.

“Though Disney cartoons and romance movies end the moment the lovers reunite, leaving the audience to assume they lived happily ever after, in real life this is the moment the story truly begins…

Without the intensity to keep them busy, the common enemy to unite them, or the obstacles to intensify their longing, these legendary lovers now face the biggest challenge of all: dealing with each other— and the differences, be they great or slight, in their values, upbringings, opinions, personalities, expectations, preferences, and imperfections.”

The Truth is a fascinating account of one man’s journey from monogamy to polyamory and back again, and a sobering reminder of the difficulty of maintaining any kind of relationship with another human being.

Anthony De Mello on Attachment and How to Love

TheWayToLoveAttachment is the cause of all suffering. It’s the central tenet of Buddhism and the recurring theme of Anthony de Mello’s The Way to Love.

We are programmed from a young age - by our parents, our friends, our culture, our religion – with certain beliefs. Because these beliefs are established while we’re young, and because many of them are widely held, it rarely occurs to us to question them.

However, says De Mello, many of these beliefs are false. Foremost among them is the belief that we need certain things to be happy:

“Everywhere people have actually built their lives on the unquestioned belief that without certain things—money, power, success, approval, a good reputation, love, friendship, spirituality, God—they cannot be happy. What is your particular combination? Once you swallowed your belief you naturally developed an attachment to this person or thing you were convinced you could not be happy without. Then came the efforts to acquire your precious thing or person, to cling to it once it was acquired, and to fight off every possibility of losing it. This finally led you to abject emotional dependence so that the object of your attachment had the power to thrill you when you attained it, to make you anxious lest you be deprived of it and miserable when you lost it. Stop for a moment now and contemplate in horror the endless list of attachments that you have become a prisoner to.”

These attachments cause almost all of our negative emotions:

“Each time you are anxious and afraid, it is because you may lose or fail to get the object of your attachment, isn’t it? And each time you feel jealous, isn’t it because someone may make off with what you are attached to? And almost all your anger comes from someone standing in the way of your attachment, doesn’t it? And see how paranoid you become when your attachment is threatened—you cannot think objectively; your whole vision becomes distorted, doesn’t it? And every time you feel bored, isn’t it because you are not getting a sufficient supply of what you believe will make you happy, of what you are attached to? And when you are depressed and miserable, the cause is there for all to see: Life is not giving you what you have convinced yourself you cannot be happy without.”

To be happy, we have to change our programming. We have to rid ourselves of our attachments. “You must choose between your attachment and happiness. You cannot have both,” says De Mello.

De Mello is careful to distinguish between happiness, which cannot co-exist with attachment, and pleasure, which can. Pleasure is what we feel when things are going our way. It is different from happiness because it is short-lived and accompanied by the fear that it will not last (which it never does).

“What you call the experience of happiness is not happiness at all but the excitement and thrill caused by some person or thing or event. True happiness is uncaused. You are happy for no reason at all.”

However, the pursuit of happiness cannot be our goal, because that, in itself, would be an attachment:

“If you desire happiness you will be anxious lest you do not attain it. You will be constantly in a state of dissatisfaction; and dissatisfaction and anxiety kill the very happiness that they set out to gain.”

Rather, happiness arises naturally when attachment has been eliminated, like the blue sky that is revealed when the clouds clear.

De Mello stresses that ridding ourselves of attachment does not stop us loving people and things and enjoying them thoroughly. Nor does it prevent us preferring that a favourable situation continue or savouring the enjoyment we are experiencing right now. It simply means not worrying about prolonging the experience because we know we don’t need it to be happy.

“If you just enjoy things, refusing to let yourself be attached to them, that is, refusing to hold the false belief that you will not be happy without them, you are spared all the struggle and emotional strain of protecting them and guarding them for yourself. Has it occurred to you that you can keep all the objects of your attachments without giving them up, without renouncing a single one of them and you can enjoy them even more on a nonattachment, a nonclinging basis, because you are peaceful now and relaxed and unthreatened in your enjoyment of them?”

Letting go of our attachments and beliefs and expectations is difficult because they have often been part of us for a long time. They feel like statements of absolute truth rather than an arbitrary set of inherited values.

However, we need only look at other people to see this cannot be true. We are all programmed differently. We know that many people are perfectly happy without a thing or person that we have convinced ourselves we cannot live without. We know that there are people who would not be irritated by the things that annoy us. “You see persons and things not as they are but as you are,” says De Mello. Our negative emotions are not caused by external things but by our programming. And this is something we can change (although doing so may not be easy).

Attachment is not only the cause of our negative emotions. It also discourages us from seeking out other people or things:

“If you learn to enjoy the scent of a thousand flowers you will not cling to one or suffer when you cannot get it. If you have a thousand favorite dishes, the loss of one will go unnoticed and leave your happiness unimpaired. But it is precisely your attachments that prevent you from developing a wider and more varied taste for things and people.”

Nowhere is this more evident than in romantic love. Our culture promotes monogamy, encouraging us to attach ourselves to a single person, to the exclusion of all others.

Most of us seek love because we want to be special to someone. However, most people will only care for us if we please them in some way. This requires us to modify our behaviour to gain and keep their approval. And thus we lose our freedom to be ourselves.

Requiring someone to satisfy our expectations of how they should behave isn’t love, argues De Mello. We cannot truly love another person without giving them the freedom to be themselves:

“Now say to this person, “I leave you free to be yourself, to think your thoughts, to indulge your taste, follow your inclinations, behave in any way that you decide is to your liking.” The moment you say that you will observe one of two things: Either your heart will resist those words and you will be exposed for the clinger and exploiter that you are; so now is the time to examine your false belief that without this person you cannot live or cannot be happy. Or your heart will pronounce the words sincerely and in that very instant all control, manipulation, exploitation, possessiveness, jealousy will drop. And you will notice something else: The person automatically ceases to be especial and important to you. And he/she becomes important the way a sunset or a symphony is lovely in itself, the way a tree is especial in itself and not for the fruit or the shade that it can offer you. Your beloved will then belong not to you but to everyone or to no one like the sunrise and the tree.”

Love, according to De Mello, is about seeing and appreciating another person for the person they are. It is not about finding someone to meet our needs. Love demands nothing. It is unconditional.

And this means we cannot love unless we are comfortable with solitude. “To love persons is to have died to the need for persons and to be utterly alone,” says De Mello.

Seneca on Treating Every Morning as a Bonus

Life is short. We know this intellectually, but we rarely act on it. We fill our lives with bullshit, and assume there'll be plenty of time tomorrow to do all the things we don't get done today.

In one of his Letters From A Stoic, Roman philosopher and statesman Lucius Annaeus Seneca urges us to be more grateful for the time that is given to us, by living as if each day was our last and treating every morning as a bonus:

"Let us go to our sleep with joy and gladness; let us say: I have lived; the course which Fortune set for me is finished. And if God is pleased to add another day, we should welcome it with glad hearts. That man is happiest, and is secure in his own possession of himself, who can await the morrow without apprehension.

When a man has said: "I have lived!", every morning he arises he receives a bonus."

Lightness and Weight

UnbearableWhat’s better: a life of lightness or one of weight? So asks Milan Kundera in his novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

Our culture is schizophrenic. On one hand we are told to value selflessness, self-sacrifice and duty. We are urged to marry, to raise children, to contribute to our communities. Those who avoid commitment are criticised as immature and selfish.

“Necessity, weight and value are three concepts inextricably bound: only necessity is heavy and only what is heavy has value.”

On the other hand, our culture of individualism encourages us to do what makes us happy, to follow our bliss, to put ourselves first. If we’re dissatisfied with our marriage, we don’t need to work on it, we can just get a divorce.

Knowing whether to pursue lightness or weight isn’t easy. We cannot look to others for guidance. One person’s lightness is another’s weight. To Franz, the secrecy surrounding his affair with Sabina was heavy. To Sabina, that secrecy was light: it kept their relationship free from the judgement of others. When Franz leaves his wife, and the gaze of the world falls on them, their relationship becomes joyfully light to Franz and unbearably heavy to Sabina.

Moreover, many of our most important decisions – whether to marry, for example, or have children – are transformative experiences. We cannot know whether we should pursue them until we are already committed, because the experience itself changes us in a fundamental way.

 “The goals we pursue are always veiled. A girl who longs for marriage longs for something she knows nothing about. The boy who hankers after fame has no idea what fame is.”

Faced with such difficulties, we shouldn’t be too hard on ourselves if we find we don’t know what we want:

“[Tomas] remained annoyed with himself until he realized that not knowing what he wanted was actually quite natural. We can never know what to want, because, living only one life, we can neither compare it with our previous lives, not perfect it in our lives to come. Was it better to be with Tereza or to remain alone?...

Any schoolboy can do experiments in the physics laboratory to test various scientific hypotheses. But man, because he has only one life to live, cannot conduct experiments to test whether to follow his passion or not.”

On Hope

When life is hard, we often turn to hope. 

Hope allows us to believe that our predicament is only temporary, that things will get better again. Having hope is usually considered a good thing. According to Psychology Today, “As long as a patient, individual or victim has hope, they can recover from anything and everything”.

“Hope is important because it can make the present moment less difficult to bear,” agrees Thich Nhat Hanh in Peace Is Every Step. “If we believe that tomorrow will be better, we can bear a hardship today.”

But, he continues, there’s a catch:

“But that is the most that hope can do for us - to make some hardship lighter. When I think deeply about the nature of hope, I see something tragic…

Hope is for the future. It cannot help us discover joy, peace, or enlightenment in the present moment… I do not mean that you should not have hope, but that hope is not enough. Hope can create an obstacle for you, and if you dwell in the energy of hope, you will not bring yourself back entirely into the present moment. If you re-channel those energies into being aware of what is going on in the present moment, you will be able to make a breakthrough and discover joy and peace right in the present moment...”

Instead of hoping for things to get better in the future, we should learn to appreciate what we have right now.

His advice is echoed by Pema Chodron in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times:

“Without giving up hope – that there’s somewhere better to be, that there’s someone better to be – we will never relax with where we are or who we are...

Abandoning hope is an affirmation, the beginning of the beginning. You could even put “Abandon hope” on your refrigerator door instead of more conventional aspirations…”

Give up hope? This advice may seem indefensibly defeatist.

Yet sometimes hope leads to more anxiety and stress, not less. We pay a price for hope: fear. If I am diagnosed with cancer, I hope I will be able to fight it off – but I fear that I will not. If I lose my job, I hope I will soon find another – but I fear that I will not. If my partner tells me they are unhappy in our marriage, I hope we can work together to save it – but I fear that we will fail.

Fear, not hopelessness, is the opposite of hope. In Everyday Zen, Charlotte Joko Beck writes

“…what happens with you when you begin to feel uneasy, unsettled, queasy? Notice the panic, notice when you instantly grab for something. That grabbing is based on hope. Not grabbing is called hopelessness...

A life lived with no hope is a peaceful, joyous, compassionate life.”

Hopelessness does not mean that we do not care about our situation. It does not mean that we should never strive for anything. We can have goals, and if we achieve them that is fine. However, if we fail to achieve them that is fine too. In the words of the Serenity Prayer, it's about having the serenity to accept the things that we recognise we cannot change. It does not excuse us from the need to find the courage to change the things we can.

David Whyte on Expectation, Gratitude and Unrequited Love

ConsolationsExpectation is the foundation of disappointment. Without a preconceived notion of how something should be, it is impossible for us to be unhappy.

When it comes to other people, we are often told to accept them for who they are. However, we should also be willing to accept them for what they are, for the particular kind of relationship we actually have with them rather than the relationship we wish we had. Instead of wishing that an acquaintance could be a close friend, we should appreciate them for simply being someone we can share a hobby with. Instead of wishing that a friend could be a lover, we should simply be content that they are our friend.

It's this kind of acceptance that poet David Whyte writes about, among other things, in Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words:

"We can never know in the beginning, in giving ourselves to a person, to a work, to a marriage or to a cause, exactly what kind of love we are involved with. When we demand a certain specific kind of reciprocation before the revelation has flowered completely we find ourselves disappointed and bereaved and in that grief may miss the particular form of love that is actually possible but that did not meet our initial and too specific expectations."

Perhaps, says Whyte, "being unappreciative might mean we are simply not paying attention". To be grateful for the particular relationship we have with another person, to appreciate its beauty, simply requires us to fully inhabit the present moment with that person, not some imaginary, wished-for future. "Beauty," says Whyte, "is the harvest of presence."

Perhaps the hardest kind of relationship to be grateful for is that of unrequited love. And yet, says Whyte, this is the most common form of love:

"What affection is ever returned over time in the same measure or quality with which it is given? Every man or woman loves differently and uniquely and each of us holds different dreams and hopes and falls in love or is the object of love at a very specific threshold in a very particular life where very, very particular qualities are needed for the next few years of our existence. What other human being could ever love us as we need to be loved? And whom could we know so well and so intimately through all the twists and turns of a given life that we could show them exactly, the continuous and appropriate form of affection they need?"

It is the expectation that love should be perfectly requited that so often leads to heartbreak:

"Requited love may happen, but it is a beautiful temporary, a seasonal blessing, the aligning of stars not too often in the same quarter of the heavens; an astonishing blessing, but it is a harvest coming only once every long cycle, and a burden to the mind and the imagination when we set that dynamic as the state to which we must always return to in order to feel ourselves in a true, consistent, loving relationship."

The key, again, is to let go of our expectations and simply be grateful for what is:

"Human beings live in disappointment and a self-appointed imprisonment when they refuse to love unless they are loved the selfsame way in return. It is the burden of marriage, the difficult invitation at the heart of parenting and the central difficulty in our relationship with any imagined, living future. The great discipline seems to be to give up wanting to control the manner in which we are requited, and to forgo the natural disappointment that flows from expecting an exact and measured reciprocation."

Stephen Fry on Depression

In 2006, a woman suffering from depression wrote to Stephen Fry, asking for help. His response brings to mind the analogy, sometimes referenced when teaching meditation, of serenity being like blue sky: always present, even if it is sometimes obscured by clouds.

"I've found that it's of some help to think of one's moods and feelings about the world as being similar to weather:

Here are some obvious things about the weather:

It's real.
You can't change it by wishing it away. 
If it's dark and rainy it really is dark and rainy and you can't alter it. 
It might be dark and rainy for two weeks in a row.


It will be sunny one day.
It isn't under one's control as to when the sun comes out, but come out it will. 
One day.

It really is the same with one's moods, I think. The wrong approach is to believe that they are illusions. They are real. Depression, anxiety, listlessness - these are as real as the weather - AND EQUALLY NOT UNDER ONE'S CONTROL. Not one's fault. 


They will pass: they really will.

In the same way that one has to accept the weather, so one has to accept how one feels about life sometimes. "Today's a crap day," is a perfectly realistic approach. It's all about finding a kind of mental umbrella. "Hey-ho, it's raining inside: it isn't my fault and there's nothing I can do about it, but sit it out. But the sun may well come out tomorrow and when it does, I shall take full advantage.""

Marcus Aurelius on Acceptance

One of the themes of Meditations is our need to accept the things that are outside our control.

To play the hand we’ve been dealt:

“The spot where a person decides to station himself, or wherever his commanding officer stations him— well, I think that’s where he ought to take his stand and face the enemy, and not worry about being killed, or about anything but doing his duty.” (7.45)

To treat misfortune as an opportunity for growth:

"Just as you overhear people saying that “the doctor prescribed such-and-such for him” (like riding, or cold baths, or walking barefoot …), say this: “Nature prescribed illness for him.” Or blindness. Or the loss of a limb. Or whatever. There “prescribed” means something like “ordered, so as to further his recovery.” And so too here. What happens to each of us is ordered. It furthers our destiny." (4.8)

To not worry about what might not happen:

“Don’t let your imagination be crushed by life as a whole. Don’t try to picture everything bad that could possibly happen. Stick with the situation at hand, and ask, “Why is this so unbearable? Why can’t I endure it?” You’ll be embarrassed to answer.” (8.36)

To not be surprised when people act according to their nature:

“To expect a bad person not to harm others is like expecting fig trees not to secrete juice, babies not to cry, horses not to neigh— the inevitable not to happen. What else could they do— with that sort of character? If you’re still angry, then get to work on that.” (12.16)

To let go:

“Not “some way to sleep with her”— but a way to stop wanting to.
Not “some way to get rid of him”— but a way to stop trying.
Not “some way to save my child”— but a way to lose your fear.” (9.40)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Action

In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius writes about the need to take responsibility for the things in our control.

“Our own worth is measured by what we devote our energy to.” (7.3)

To tie our well-being to our actions alone:

“Ambition means tying your well-being to what other people say or do. Self-indulgence means tying it to the things that happen to you. Sanity means tying it to your own actions.” (6.51)

To choose our actions based on what’s right, not on what other people think:

"The tranquillity that comes when you stop caring what they say. Or think, or do. Only what you do. (Is this fair? Is this the right thing to do?)" (4.18)

To not respond to hate in kind:

“Someone despises me. That’s their problem. Mine: not to do or say anything despicable. Someone hates me. Their problem. Mine: to be patient and cheerful with everyone, including them. Ready to show them their mistake. Not spitefully, or to show off my own self-control, but in an honest, upright way.” (11.13)

To feel compassion for those who hurt us...

“When people injure you, ask yourself what good or harm they thought would come of it. If you understand that, you’ll feel sympathy rather than outrage or anger. Your sense of good and evil may be the same as theirs, or near it, in which case you have to excuse them. Or your sense of good and evil may differ from theirs. In which case they’re misguided and deserve your compassion. Is that so hard?” (7.26)

...and to act kindly towards them:

“That kindness is invincible, provided it’s sincere— not ironic or an act. What can even the most vicious person do if you keep treating him with kindness and gently set him straight— if you get the chance— correcting him cheerfully at the exact moment that he’s trying to do you harm. “No, no, my friend. That isn’t what we’re here for. It isn’t me who’s harmed by that. It’s you.” And show him, gently and without pointing fingers, that it’s so. That bees don’t behave like this— or any other animals with a sense of community. Don’t do it sardonically or meanly, but affectionately— with no hatred in your heart. And not ex cathedra or to impress third parties, but speaking directly. Even if there are other people around.” (11.18)

To use our problems as fuel:

“Just as nature takes every obstacle, every impediment, and works around it— turns it to its purposes, incorporates it into itself— so, too, a rational being can turn each setback into raw material and use it to achieve its goal.” (8.35)

To eliminate what’s unnecessary:

"Most of what we say and do is not essential. If you can eliminate it, you’ll have more time, and more tranquillity. Ask yourself at every moment, “Is this necessary?” But we need to eliminate unnecessary assumptions as well. To eliminate the unnecessary actions that follow." (4.24)

To act selflessly:

"Some people, when they do someone a favor, are always looking for a chance to call it in. And some aren’t, but they’re still aware of it— still regard it as a debt. But others don’t even do that. They’re like a vine that produces grapes without looking for anything in return." (5.6)

To not be angry:

“How much more damage anger and grief do than the things that cause them.” (11.18)

And as for revenge…

"The best revenge is not to be like that." (6.6)

See also:

Marcus Aurelius on Perception

Writing in Meditations, Marcus Aurelius reminds himself that it's not external events that cause us difficulties, but the interpretation we choose to place on them.

"Choose not to be harmed— and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed— and you haven’t been... It can ruin your life only if it ruins your character." (4.7 and 4.8)

We have our emotions, and we have our thoughts about them. We can't control the former but we can control the latter, and we need to stop them fusing with each other

"The mind is the ruler of the soul. It should remain unstirred by agitations of the flesh— gentle and violent ones alike. Not mingling with them, but fencing itself off and keeping those feelings in their place. When they make their way into your thoughts, through the sympathetic link between mind and body, don’t try to resist the sensation. The sensation is natural. But don’t let the mind start in with judgements, calling it “good” or “bad.”" (5.26)

The only things we should label "good" or "bad" are the things in our control: our own actions.

“You take things you don’t control and define them as “good” or “bad.” And so of course when the “bad” things happen, or the “good” ones don’t, you blame the gods and feel hatred for the people responsible— or those you decide to make responsible. Much of our bad behavior stems from trying to apply those criteria. If we limited “good” and “bad” to our own actions, we’d have no call to challenge God, or to treat other people as enemies.” (6.41)

To be grateful for what we have without allowing ourselves to become dependent on those things:

“Treat what you don’t have as nonexistent. Look at what you have, the things you value most, and think of how much you’d crave them if you didn’t have them. But be careful. Don’t feel such satisfaction that you start to overvalue them— that it would upset you to lose them.” (7.27)

To trust ourselves:

“It never ceases to amaze me: we all love ourselves more than other people, but care more about their opinion than our own.” (12.4)

To be self-reliant:

"Poor: (adj.) requiring others; not having the necessities of life in one’s own possession." (4.29)

To not worry about praise...

"Beautiful things of any kind are beautiful in themselves and sufficient to themselves. Praise is extraneous. The object of praise remains what it was— no better and no worse.... Is an emerald suddenly flawed if no one admires it?" (4.20)

...or our reputation:

"Or is it your reputation that’s bothering you? But look at how soon we’re all forgotten. The abyss of endless time that swallows it all. The emptiness of all those applauding hands. The people who praise us— how capricious they are, how arbitrary. And the tiny region in which it all takes place. The whole earth a point in space— and most of it uninhabited." (4.3)

To recognise that we are not responsible for the behaviour of others:

"So other people hurt me? That’s their problem. Their character and actions are not mine." (5.25) 

To not extrapolate from first impressions:

“Nothing but what you get from first impressions. That someone has insulted you, for instance. That— but not that it’s done you any harm. The fact that my son is sick— that I can see. But “that he might die of it,” no. Stick with first impressions. Don’t extrapolate. And nothing can happen to you.” (8.49)

To see no more than is actually there:

“Like seeing roasted meat and other dishes in front of you and suddenly realizing: This is a dead fish. A dead bird. A dead pig. Or that this noble vintage is grape juice, and the purple robes are sheep wool dyed with shellfish blood. Or making love— something rubbing against your penis, a brief seizure and a little cloudy liquid. Perceptions like that— latching onto things and piercing through them, so we see what they really are. That’s what we need to do all the time— all through our lives when things lay claim to our trust— to lay them bare and see how pointless they are, to strip away the legend that encrusts them.” (6.13)

See also:

Your Two Minds

The distinction between our emotions and our thoughts about those emotions is one that's been made by many people. Stephen Covey pointed to "the gap between stimulus and response". Marcus Aurelius wrote about the need to "fence off" our mind from "the agitations of the flesh". In meditation we sit and dispassionately observe the emotions that arise in us. In Your Two Minds, Mark Manson offers another way to think about this dichotomy.

Manson distinguishes between the "Thinking Mind" - the part of our mind that is constantly chattering away to itself - and our "Observing Mind" - the part of our mind that keeps an eye on what our Thinking Mind is doing.

"Our Thinking Mind is like a horny dog on a leash that keeps running after things and if we aren’t used to using our Observing Mind, then our Thinking Mind drags us along with it."

Unfortunately most of the time that's exactly what happens. Our Observing Mind starts identifying with what our Thinking Mind is feeling, fuelling those feelings and setting up a feedback loop that robs us of any self-control.

"Most of our psychological and emotional stress happens because our Thinking Mind and Observing Mind are “fused” and we don’t recognize the difference."

The solution isn't to try to avoid those emotions, however.

"You can’t control your Thinking Mind. Those emotions pop up and will continue to pop up.

The trick is to not fuse with those emotions when they arise."

Manson offers some suggestions on how to do this:

  1. Use language carefully. Say "I feel anger/sadness/fear" instead of "I am angry/sad/frightened". By doing so we avoid identifying with our feelings and create psychological distance from them.

  2. Express gratitude for negative feelings. As William Irvine suggests, if nothing else they provide us with an opportunity to put these theoretical ideas into practice.


MeditationsOne of life’s difficulties is remembering our past experiences. We struggle to recall what we were doing a couple of years ago. We read a book or watch a documentary, then a few months later find ourselves barely be able to remember its key points.

Over the years a number of practices have emerged to fight this amnesia. Diaries and journals have long been popular as a record of events. In 17th century Europe, keeping a commonplace book – an intellectual scrapbook of quotes, information, ideas and thoughts – was a recognised practice. Today we might take photos or videos, or write a blog.

Meditations is one such device – a collection of aphorisms, insights and observations written by Roman emperor and philosopher Marcus Aurelius to remind himself how to live.

Meditations was never intended to be published or read by others. Even the title is unlikely to be original; Aurelius probably gave it no title at all. The short passages that comprise the work are haphazardly spread across twelve books with little to unify them. Nevertheless, a number of themes emerge.

Aurelius was heavily influenced by the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, in particular his idea of the “three disciplines” of perception, action and will. The discipline of perception is about remaining aware of the difference between an event and the interpretation we place on it. Translator Gregory Hays provides an example:

“For example, my impression that my house has just burned down is simply that— an impression or report conveyed to me by my senses about an event in the outside world. By contrast, my perception that my house has burned down and I have thereby suffered a terrible tragedy includes not only an impression, but also an interpretation imposed upon that initial impression. It is by no means the only possible interpretation, and I am not obliged to accept it. I may be a good deal better off if I decline to do so. It is, in other words, not objects and events but the interpretations we place on them that are the problem. Our duty is therefore to exercise stringent control over the faculty of perception, with the aim of protecting our mind from error.”

Having seen things for what they are, the discipline of action is about taking responsibility for those things that are in our control. In contrast, the discipline of will is about accepting the things that are outside our control, done to us by nature or by others.

Meditations is not a philosophy of how to enjoy life, but of how to get through it with minimal suffering. Its advice is unflinchingly practical. At times it’s grim and pessimistic, infused with a sense of the shortness of life. Not for nothing did Alexander Percy refer to it as “the unassailable wintry kingdom of Marcus Aurelius”.

See also:

The Obstacle is the Way

TheObstacleIsTheWayWe sometimes make the mistake of thinking that life is supposed to be easy. When difficulties arise we can become angry or frustrated at the interruption to our perfectly planned lives. We forget that problems are inevitable. "Life is difficult," Scott Peck reminded us. For Peck, discipline - specifically delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing - was the key to solving those problems. In The Obstacle Is The Way, Ryan Holiday argues that it's the "three disciplines" of Stoicism that we need.

"The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way," said Roman emperor and Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius. Holiday argues that the obstacles in our lives are not merely to be seen as things to be overcome but as opportunities to practice some virtue or improve our condition. That with the right approach we can actually emerge on the other side of life's difficulties as better people. We shouldn't avoid difficulties, or learn to put up with them, we should embrace them as the fuel we need for self-growth.

Holiday advocates the Stoic "three disciplines" as the way of doing this: the disciplines of perception, action and will. Or, quoting Aurelius again:

"Objective judgement, now at this very moment.
Unselfish action, now at this very moment.
Willing acceptance - now at this very moment - of all external events.
That's all you need."


To a large degree, our obstacles are only obstacles because that's how we choose to see them. Once we recognise that the situation and how we feel about it are two separate things, we can look for alternative, more constructive interpretations. It's an idea that recurs in many other places, from Buddhism to Shakespeare ("There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so," says Hamlet).

Doing this requires us to learn to control our emotions (or "domesticate" them, to use Nassim Taleb's wonderfully evocative term), neither allowing them to control us nor pretending they don't exist. It requires a shift in perspective, looking for the bigger picture or interpreting the events in a different way. It requires mindfulness, focusing on the present moment, "not the monsters that may or may not be up ahead". It requires us to believe that there is a genuine opportunity here, buried inside the obstacle, and finding it.

"You lost your job or a relationship? That's awful, but now you can travel unencumbered... If someone you love hurts you, there is a chance to practice forgiveness."

The discipline of perception is also about recognising which things we have control over, and which we do not. As the Serenity Prayer says, "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference". The things we can change, we can then subject to action. The things we cannot change require us to exercise our will.


"Once you see the world as it is, for what it is, you must act. The proper perception - objective, rational, ambitious, clean - isolates the obstacle and exposes it for what it is. A clearer head makes for steadier hands. And then those hands must be put to work."

Even if the conditions are not to our liking, we must act - with deliberation, boldness and persistence. We need to make a start, even if we're not sure of ourselves, using our frustration to power our actions. If we try something and it fails, we try something different. We iterate and keep moving forwards, step by step, focused on what is in front of us, dismantling our obstacles piece by piece. Whatever must be done, we do it, and we do it well, but not letting the best become the enemy of the good. What's right is what works.

Attacking problems head-on may not be the best approach. We need to look for opportunities to attack from the flanks, where we may meet less resistance. Or wait to be attacked, using the momentum of our obstacles against themselves. If we are patient, some obstacles may prove only temporary, fizzling out of their own accord.

Sometimes the correct action can be to not attack the problem at all, using the obstacle as an opportunity to explore a different direction altogether:

"There is a certain humility required in this approach. It means accepting that the way you originally wanted to do things is not possible. You just haven't got it in you to do it the "traditional" way. But so what?"


Some problems may be outside our control. These must be endured through the exercise of willpower.

"If Perception and Action were the disciplines of the mind and the body, then Will is the discipline of the heart and the soul... Will is fortitude and wisdom - not just about specific obstacles but about life itself and where the obstacles we are facing fit within it."

Our will is like a fortress inside of us, but it's one we have to build and actively reinforce during the good times so its strength is available to us in the bad. One way to do this is by thinking about what may go wrong before beginning an endeavour: a "pre-mortem" or what William Irvine refers to as negative visualisation.

"Far too many ambitious undertakings fail for preventable reasons. Far too many people don't have a backup plan because they refuse to consider that something might not go exactly as they wish...

About the worst thing that can happen is not something going wrong, but something going wrong and catching you by surprise. Why? Because unexpected failure is discouraging and being beaten back hurts. But the person who has rehearsed in their mind what could go wrong will not be caught by surprise."

When we recognise that something is immune to action, we need to go with the flow, not struggle against it:

"It doesn't always feel that way but constraints in life are a good thing. Especially if we can accept them and let them direct us. They push us to places and to develop skills that we'd otherwise never have pursued."

Acceptance is not sufficient, however:

"The next step after we discard our expectations and accept what happens to us, after understanding that certain things - particularly bad things - are outside our control, is this: loving whatever happens and facing it with unfailing cheerfulness... We have to learn to find joy in every single thing that happens."

Echoing something that one of my schoolteachers once said when a pupil asked him how he could be so cheerful teaching the same material year after year, Holiday observes that if we have to put up with something, we might as well be happy about it. Since we can choose our response to every situation, why choose anything other than cheerfulness?

"See things for what they are. Do what we can. Endure and bear what we must." The Obstacle Is The Way provides an excellent introduction to the ancient philosophy of Stoicism and a practical guide to applying it in modern life.

Start With Why

In his TED talk Start With Why, Simon Sinek argues that what differentiates successful companies and individuals is that they don't simply have a great product to sell, they also understand why they do what they do:

"What you do simply serves as proof of what you believe. People don't buy what you do, they buy why you do it."

Sinek argues that when hundreds of thousands flocked to Washington to hear Martin Luther King speak, none of them went to see him. They went for themselves, because his "why" resonated strongly with their own. He didn't say "I have a plan", as so many politicians do. He said, "I have a dream".

Similarly, we shouldn't try to sell a product by enumerating the great things it can do. We should explain why we built it, what we believe, what kind of person or company we are, what problem we set out to solve. 

Our emotions are more powerful than our logical mind. Often, all our logic does is manufacture post hoc rationalisations for what our emotions have already decided. By appealing to those emotions first, we make it more likely that others will want what we are offering.

Stop Trying to be Happy

In "Stop trying to be happy", Mark Manson argues that happiness isn't something to be sought directly: it arises naturally when we're living a life in accord with our values.

"Just as a confident man doesn't wonder if he’s confident, a happy man does not wonder if he’s happy. He simply is... Happiness is not achieved in itself, but rather it is the side effect of a particular set of ongoing life experiences."

Manson also makes a distinction between happiness and pleasure. He suggests that when most people seek happiness what they're actually seeking is pleasure - "good food, more sex, more time for TV and movies... and so on". However, pleasure is short-term and superficial. Happiness is more enduring, precisely because it arises as a by-product of the way we are living our life.

Manson disputes the idea that to be happy we need to be successful:

"For instance, a friend of mine recently started a high-risk business venture. He dried up most of his savings trying to make it work and failed. Today, he’s happier than ever for his experience. It taught him many lessons about what he wanted and didn’t want in life and it eventually led him to his current job, which he loves. He’s able to look back and be proud that he went for it because otherwise he would have always wondered “what if?” and that would have made him unhappier than any failure would have.

The failure to meet our own expectations is not antithetical to happiness, and I’d actually argue that the ability to fail and still appreciate the experience is actually a fundamental building block for happiness."

His broader point is an idea that I've heard others echo: that while setting goals is useful to give us a direction in which to head, whether we achieve them is secondary. What's important is what we do or learn while trying to get there.

If we focus too hard on the goal itself there's a danger that we won't know what to do when we achieve it. Focus on the goal of running a marathon and there's a risk that we stop running altogether once we complete it, feeling there's nothing left to achieve. Focus on running a marathon as a means to improving our fitness, or establishing a habit of running more frequently, however, and we're more likely to retain a sense of momentum.

Goals should be a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And then, even if we don't achieve them, we can still feel that we have learned something valuable on the way.


"With regards to being happy, it seems the best advice is also the simplest: Imagine who you want to be and then step towards it. Dream big and then do something. Anything. The simple act of moving at all will change how you feel about the entire process and serve to inspire you further.

Let go of the imagined result — it’s not necessary. The fantasy and the dream are merely tools to get you off your ass. It doesn't matter if they come true or not. Live, man. Just live. Stop trying to be happy and just be."

Scott Peck on Discipline

RoadLessTraveled"Life is difficult."

So begins psychiatrist Scott Peck's exploration of personal growth in The Road Less Traveled: A New Psychology of Love, Traditional Values and Spiritual Growth. The book considers the role of discipline, love and faith in our mental and spiritual development and as the opening line suggests, is unafraid to remind us of some fundamental truths that our self-centred, pleasure-seeking culture often minimises.

“Most do not fully see this truth that life is difficult. Instead they moan more or less incessantly, noisily or subtly, about the enormity of their problems, their burdens, and their difficulties as if life were generally easy, as if life should be easy…

Life is a series of problems. Do we want to moan about them or solve them?”

Peck goes further, however, asserting that overcoming problems is what gives life meaning:

“Problems call forth our courage and our wisdom; indeed, they create our courage and our wisdom. It is only because of problems that we grow mentally and spiritually.”

Peck begins by looking at discipline, which he defines as a set of tools for solving life’s problems. He identifies four: delaying of gratification, acceptance of responsibility, dedication to the truth, and balancing.

“The problem lies not in the complexity of these tools but in the will to use them. For they are tools with which pain is confronted rather than avoided, and if one seeks to avoid legitimate suffering, then one will avoid the use of these tools.”

Delaying gratification

Delaying of gratification is being willing to tolerate some discomfort today for greater satisfaction later. 

A desire to deal with problems as quickly as possible, or a belief that we are incapable of dealing with them at all, can indicate an inability to delay gratification. Peck describes a patient who was having difficulty with her children:

“[She] was a basically loving and dedicated but rather helpless mother to her two young children. She was alert and concerned enough to perceive when her children were having some sort of emotional problem or when something was not working out in her child-raising. But then she inevitably took one of two courses of action with the children: either she made the very first change that came to her mind within a matter of seconds—making them eat more breakfast or sending them to bed earlier— regardless of whether such a change had anything to do with the problem, or else she came to her next therapy session with me, despairing: “It’s beyond me. What shall I do?” This woman had a perfectly keen and analytical mind, and when she didn’t procrastinate, she was quite capable of solving complex problems at work . Yet when confronted with a personal problem, she behaved as if she were totally lacking in intelligence.”

The cause?

“The issue was one of time. Once she became aware of a personal problem, she felt so discomfited that she demanded an immediate solution, and she was not willing to tolerate her discomfort long enough to analyze the problem. The solution to the problem represented gratification to her, but she was unable to delay this gratification for more than a minute or two, with the result that her solutions were usually inappropriate and her family in chronic turmoil.”

Similarly, Peck describes the first time he was able to fix a mechanical problem with a car after forcing himself to work through the problem slowly.

“Actually, I don’t begin to have the knowledge or the time to gain that knowledge to be able to fix most mechanical failures, given the fact that I choose to concentrate my time on nonmechanical matters. So I still usually go running to the nearest repairman. But I now know that this is a choice I make, and I am not cursed or genetically defective or otherwise incapacitated or impotent. And I know that I and anyone else who is not mentally defective can solve any problem if we are willing to take the time.”

Another symptom of an inability to delay gratification is a reluctance to tackle problems in the hope that they will go away. Rather than trying to find a quick solution, we try to avoid having to find a solution at all. Rather than trying to minimise the amount of pain, we try to avoid it altogether.

Accepting responsibility

The second tool in the toolbox of discipline is the acceptance of responsibility.

“We must accept responsibility for a problem before we can solve it. We cannot solve a problem by saying “It’s not my problem.” We cannot solve a problem by hoping that someone else will solve it for us. I can solve a problem only when I say “This is my problem and it’s up to me to solve it.” But many, so many, seek to avoid the pain of their problems by saying to themselves: “This problem was caused me by other people, or by social circumstances beyond my control, and therefore it is up to other people or society to solve this problem for me. It is not really my personal problem.”

Sometimes we don't take enough responsibility for our behaviour, usually because we're trying to avoid the painful consequences of that behaviour. Sometimes we take responsibility for more than we should, attempting to solve the problems of others when we should be placing the responsibility on them.

Dedication to the truth

The third tool is dedication to the truth. We cannot hope to solve our problems if we are oblivious of, or lie to ourselves about, their nature. This means constantly examining ourselves, being willing to be challenged, and being completely honest.

We must take care to constantly revise our maps of reality as we acquire new information, however painful that process may be, lest we find ourselves using maps that once served us well but are now outdated. The best way to ensure our maps are accurate is to expose them to the criticism of others.

Dedication to the truth also means not lying to others, although Peck accepts that there are situations where withholding the truth is the kindest thing to do. However:

“The decision to withhold the truth should never be based on personal needs, such as a need for power, a need to be liked or a need to protect one’s map from challenge… [it] must always be based entirely upon the needs of the person or people from whom the truth is being withheld.”


The fourth and final tool of discipline is balancing, the ability to discipline discipline itself, to be flexible and act spontaneously. At its core, balancing is about giving things up, about trading off one thing against another. Sometimes we can become so attached to one thing that it damages our relationship with another. The ability to recognise when we are out of balance, and need to give something up to restore our balance, is essential for a happy life.

Giving something up is painful, but Peck argues that we should see this as a positive thing. To be mentally healthy we must grow, and growth requires the giving up of our old selves. The pain of giving up is thus an indicator that growth is happening.

One important kind of balancing that Peck refers to is "bracketing". He defines this as "the act of balancing the need for stability and assertion of the self with the need for new knowledge and greater understanding", and notes that this must be done "by temporarily giving up one's self so as to make room for the incorporation of new material into the self". Expressed another way, it's the ability to evaluate and assimilate new knowledge on its own terms, separated from our own preconceptions and emotional biases, the ability to view the world as others see it.

To summarise, Peck views discipline as a set of four tools - delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, a dedication to truth, and balancing - that enable us to solve the problems life throws our way. However, using these tools is difficult and requires motivation. Peck believes this motivation is provided by love. I’ll discuss his views on that subject next.

On Mindfulness

In our lives, we are all trying to do two things: find happiness and avoid suffering.

Typically, we do this by trying to get and hang on to the things we think will give us pleasure and avoid the things we think will cause us pain. When we find someone we love, we marry them. When we see a new gadget, we rush out to buy it. When we find a neighbourhood we like, we buy a house there. 

Despite this, however, we often find ourselves dissatisfied. Our partner’s mannerisms, once endearing, become annoying. Our phone, once perfectly adequate, suddenly seems too small. A noisy family moves in next door. If only we had a more understanding partner, or that new iPhone, or we lived somewhere else, then we would be happy, we think.

Yet even if we get these things, our happiness is only short-lived. There are no perfect people, places to live, or phones. Before long we become dissatisfied again, and new “if only”s take the place of the old.

Escaping this cycle requires becoming comfortable with where we are right now. How can we do that?

Why we suffer

First, we need to understand why we suffer.

You might think we suffer when something bad happens to us. However that’s not exactly true. We don't suffer because of the situation. It's our opinions about that situation that cause us to suffer.

For example, being stuck in a traffic jam is not inherently bad. It just means we are moving more slowly than usual along a particular stretch of road. Only when we allow ourselves to get frustrated, and start thinking about the fact that we’re now going to be late for work, and that this means we’re going to miss an important meeting with our client, do we become unhappy.

The distinction may seem pedantic, but it’s crucial. It means we can reduce the suffering we experience by changing the way we respond to a situation. As Viktor Frankl observed in Man’s Search For Meaning, subsequently echoed by Stephen Covey in The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, there is a gap between stimulus and response into which we are able to step.

However, even if we agree that this gap exists and that we can use it to choose a response that will cause us less suffering, being able to do it is another thing entirely. Perhaps we can manage it when we’re stuck in traffic, but what about a more challenging situation – being left by our spouse, for example?

Fortunately, there is a tool that is designed to help us do this: mindfulness.

What mindfulness is

Mindfulness is simply the non-judgmental observation of whatever is going on in the present moment. That can be an experience (say, the feeling of the wind blowing in your hair), a thought (“I wonder what I’ll have for dinner tonight”) or an emotion (“That guy is an idiot!”).

By observing it, we distance ourselves from it. This can help us avoid getting sucked into a train of thought that, at best, distracts us from what’s going on, or, at worst, leads to us obsessing over something over which we have no control. This distance is the very gap between stimulus and response to which Frankl was referring. By consciously creating and enlarging this distance, it becomes easier for us to acknowledge what is happening while refusing to become entangled in what we think and feel about it. It allows us to respond to the situation instead of reacting to it.

In particular, when we experience a painful situation, mindfulness means being unafraid to look directly at it and experience it as it is, instead of trying to avoid it. As Pema Chodron memorably puts it in When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice For Difficult Times we should:

"...acknowledge that right now we feel like a piece of shit and not be squeamish about taking a good look... We could smell that piece of shit. We could feel it; what is its texture, color, and shape?"

Mindfulness also means not becoming caught up in positive experiences, thoughts or emotions. We should enjoy them when they arise, certainly, but take care to not crave their continuation. When a positive experience ends, as they all inevitably must, we will feel sadness and loss in direct proportion to the strength of our attachment to that experience.

What mindfulness is not

Mindfulness is not about analysing our experiences, thoughts and emotions. It’s not about suppressing them, or denying them, or even reappraising them to see them in a different, more constructive way. It is purely about observing them, then seeing what happens.

Mindfulness is not indifference. If we are indifferent to something, we don't care about it. It implies a degree of apathy. When we are mindful, however, we do care. Mindfulness does not remove our responsibility to act if a situation can be changed, but it encourages us to accept those situations that cannot. After all, if a situation cannot be changed, what is achieved by obsessing over it?

Mindfulness is not about being emotionless. Joy and sadness are entirely appropriate in certain situations. If a loved one died, it would be dysfunctional for us to not feel sad. Mindfulness is simply about not letting those feelings of sadness overwhelm us. As a result, writes Charlotte Beck in Everyday Zen:

"If we can accept things just the way they are, we’re not going to be greatly upset by anything. And if we do become upset it’s over more quickly."

Developing mindfulness

Like playing an instrument, mindfulness is a learned skill. And like playing an instrument, where we must practice our scales before we can play in a concert, mindfulness requires practice too.

Meditation is the formal practice of mindfulness. It allows us to improve our skill so it becomes easier to apply mindfulness in the heat of everyday life. As exercise strengthens our muscles, meditation strengthens our ability to be mindful.

There is nothing complex about meditation. The most common way of meditating is to sit still and focus on a single thing. Often this focus is our breath, flowing in and out of our body. As we sit, our mind invariably becomes distracted and we start thinking about something else. When we realise that our attention has drifted, we gently label the thought (like brushing a crystal glass with a feather), then patiently return our attention to the breath. This is not a problem. We don't beat ourselves up when it happens. Indeed, being distracted, then returning our attention to the breath, over and over and over again, is the entire point.

Meditation does not have to be a big time commitment. Just ten minutes per day can make a difference. Even though meditating is a simple procedure, having an instructor talk you through what to do during the session can be helpful. For this, I’ve found the guided meditations offered by Headspace to be excellent.


While meditation is important for helping to develop mindfulness, it's important to remember that this is just practice. The goal remains to be mindful in everyday life.

Mindfulness is not a panacea. It is a process of gradually retraining the mind to respond to the change inherent in life in a more constructive way. As Dan Harris says, it might make you 10% happier. That's good enough for me.

The River

Once upon a time, there was a river. In the river, stood a man.

Sometimes flowers would float past. These the man would grab, to savour their beauty. Sometimes driftwood would bob by. This the man would avoid, pushing away the pieces that came too close lest they strike and injure him.

Day and night the man stood there, grasping his flowers and dodging the driftwood.

One day there was a fearsome storm. The river rose and became choked with debris. Buffeted by the flotsam, the man struggled to keep his footing. The flowers were swept from his grasp.

Nearing exhaustion, the man caught sight of a young boy sitting cross-legged on the bank.

“Help me!” cried the man. “The river will sweep me away!”

The boy stared back, puzzled. “Then climb onto the bank,” he said.

“I don’t know how,” replied the man.

So the boy showed him the way. The man climbed out of the river and sat beside him.

“But now how will I collect the flowers?” the man asked.

“You don’t need to hold them to appreciate their beauty,” said the boy. “In your grasp they will wither and die anyway.”

So the man sat on the bank, watching the flowers and the driftwood float by. And for the first time, he smiled.

Social Pain

In Your Brain At Work, David Rock suggests that social exclusion feels physically painful because it’s processed by the same brain regions as physical pain.

He cites research performed by Naomi Eisenberger, a social neuroscientist at the University of California on what happens when we feel socially excluded:

“What we found is that when people were excluded, you see activity in the dorsal portion of the anterior cingulate cortex, which is the neural region that’s also involved in the distressing component of pain, or what sometimes people call the ‘suffering component’ of pain. Those people who felt the most rejected had the highest levels of activity in this region.”

Eisenberger goes into more detail about her research in a fascinating interview with Edge.

If the processing of physical and social pain are linked, does this mean that those who are more sensitive to physical pain are more sensitive to social rejection too?

“We found that subjects who, at baseline, are naturally more sensitive to physical pain are the ones who later on report feeling more rejected where they get excluded.

We've also seen some genetic evidence for this. We find that people who carry the more rare version of the mu-opioid gene, which is linked to a greater sensitivity to physical pain, are individuals who have a genetic disposition to be more sensitive to physical pain. These are the same individuals who report feeling more upset by social rejection; they show greater pain related neural activity in response to social exclusion.”

What about painkillers? Does this mean they can suppress social pain too?

“One of the most interesting studies we've done is one where we looked at acetaminophen. We typically think of acetaminophen as a physical painkiller. In this particular study, we randomly assigned people to either take it everyday for two weeks or take a placebo everyday for two weeks. Instead of measuring their physical pain, we measured their social pain. We asked them each evening to rate their hurt feelings. We also then brought them in at the end of a separate study to look at their neural sensitivity to social exclusion. What we found is that the people who were taking acetaminophen reported less hurt feelings than people who were taking placebo, and they showed less pain related activity to social exclusion, just as a function of taking acetaminophen.”

Eisenberger has also studied social connectedness. Because we often talk about these as “warm” feelings, she decided to investigate whether they activated the same brain regions that process temperature.

“To look at physical warmth, we have them holding onto one of those warm packs that athletes will use where they crack them open and shake them up and it produces warmth in the packet. We scanned people when they were holding warm packs and a neutral temperature pack, and we also scanned them while they were experiencing social warmth. To do this we had the participants’ family members and friends, before the scanning session, write email messages to the participants. These were loving, tender messages that the subjects saw for the first time when they were in the fMRI scanner…

Some of the same regions that are processing physical warmth and the pleasantness of that sensory experience were the same ones processing the social warmth that people are getting from these loving messages.”

Good social relationships are widely believed to be important for health. The common perception is that this is because of the support we receive from these relationships. However, Eisenberger’s research has shown that the ability to offer support to others may be just as important.

“So we ran a study where we brought in couples, and the female member of the couple was in the fMRI scanner, and essentially we scanned her brain while she was providing support to her partner. Her partner stood just outside of the fMRI scanner, and on certain trials he received electric shock. The female could support him on some trials by holding his arm as he went through this experience…

There were two main findings here. The first is that we saw reward-related activity when people were providing support to somebody else… We actually saw more reward-related activity when the females were touching their partners when they were getting pain—when they were support-giving—compared to when they were just touching their partners and their partners weren't getting pain. It seems like maybe there was something more rewarding about being able to provide support than just being able to be in physical contact with your partner when they're not going through anything negative.

The last interesting finding was that the females who showed more reward-related activity when they were support-giving were also the ones who showed less activity in the amygdala. This is a region that's involved in a lot of different things, but one of the things that it's involved in is processing threat…

The idea here is that to the extent that we're in a caregiving situation, we need to remain calm… There may be something about caregiving that actually turns down our own internal stress level so that we can engage and provide adaptive help to others.”

So next time you’re feeling rejected, take some painkillers, pull on a warm sweater, and find someone else to help.

Attraction vs. Happiness

Writing in the New York Times, Arthur Brooks warns of the dangers of assuming that the things we are attracted to will make us happy:

“We assume that things we are attracted to will relieve our suffering and raise our happiness. My brain says, “Get famous.” It also says, “Unhappiness is lousy.” I conflate the two, getting, “Get famous and you’ll be less unhappy.”

But that is Mother Nature’s cruel hoax. She doesn’t really care either way whether you are unhappy — she just wants you to want to pass on your genetic material. If you conflate intergenerational survival with well-being, that’s your problem, not nature’s. And matters are hardly helped by nature’s useful idiots in society, who propagate a popular piece of life-ruining advice: “If it feels good, do it.” Unless you share the same existential goals as protozoa, this is often flat-out wrong.”

Searching for Meaning

Viktor Frankl was an Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist who survived three years in German concentration camps during the second world war. In Man’s Search For Meaning he analyses his experiences in the camps and provides a template for finding meaning in life, even under the most difficult of circumstances.

Frankl believed that life is not a quest for pleasure or power, but a quest for meaning. However this is not a search for an abstract meaning of life, but for a specific meaning of our particular life at a given moment in time. Meaning may vary from person to person and from day to day. Moreover, not only must we create this meaning, we have a responsibility to do so:

“Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognise that it is he who is asked…

Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfil the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual.”

How might we do this?

“The perception of meaning… boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.”

Where might we look for meaning? Frankl saw three possible sources:

1. Work

The most obvious source of meaning is by achieving or accomplishing something: by creating a work or doing a deed.

2. Love

The meaning of love is about helping another human being realise their potential:

“By his love he is enabled to see the essential traits and features in the beloved person; and even more, he sees that which is potential in him, which is not yet actualised but yet ought to be actualised. Furthermore, by his love, the loving person enables the beloved person to actualise these potentialities. By making him aware of what he can be and of what he should become, he makes these potentialities come true.”

3. Suffering

The attitude we take toward unavoidable suffering can also be a source of meaning. The suffering must, however, be unavoidable – seeking meaning in avoidable suffering is merely masochistic.

Frankl describes how many prisoners in the camps occupied themselves with thoughts of happier times to make the horrors of the present less real. But:

“In robbing the present of its reality there lay a certain danger. It became easy to overlook the opportunities to make something positive of camp life, opportunities which really did exist.”

Or, as others have said, “lean into the sharp points”. There is value in fully experiencing the difficult things in life, rather than running away from them.

Not everyone gave up, however:

“We who lived in concentration camps can remember the men who walked through the huts comforting others, giving away their last piece of bread. They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing: the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

That insight forms the foundation of Stephen Covey’s hugely successful book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

We can find meaning in suffering by changing the way we look at it:

“Once, an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, “for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such a suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering – to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.”

In addition, we cannot be sure that a given situation is good or bad. Frankl recounts an instance when a transport of sick inmates to a “rest camp” was being organised. His name was on the list, supposedly because a few doctors were needed too. Despite the stated purpose of the transport, all the inmates believed it was actually destined for the gas chambers. However, when given the opportunity to have his name removed from the list, Frankl refused, an earlier incident having convinced him that it was better to let fate take its course.

“The next morning I departed with the transport. This time it was not a ruse. We were not heading for the gas chambers, and we actually did go to a rest camp. Those who had pitied me remained in a camp where famine was to rage even more fiercely than in our new camp.

Months later, after liberation, I met a friend from the old camp. He related to me how he, as camp policeman, had searched for a piece of human flesh that was missing from a pile of corpses. He confiscated it from a pot in which he found it cooking. Cannibalism had broken out. I had left just in time.”

The transitoriness of life should not deter us from searching for meaning:

“The only really transitory aspects of life are the potentialities; but as soon as they are actualised… they are are saved and delivered into the past, wherein they are rescued and preserved”

It’s for this reason that we should not envy the young:

“What reasons has he to envy a young person? For the possibilities that a young person has, the future which is in store for him? “No, thank you,” he will think. “Instead of possibilities, I have realities in my past, not only the reality of work done and of love loved, but of sufferings bravely suffered. These sufferings are even the things of which I am most proud, though these are things which cannot inspire envy.”

Man’s Search For Meaning is an incredible story of survival and an invaluable guide to dealing with the difficult times in our own lives.

Seven Habits

The book that’s probably had the biggest influence on my life is Stephen Covey’s The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.

The book offers a paradigm, a way of looking at life, that really resonates with me. It isn’t a quick fix manual. It’s not a catalogue of techniques. It’s a framework for living, for helping you chart a course through life. It describes seven practices that, when internalised as habits, provide the basis for living a successful life, while leaving the definition of "successful" up to you.

The habits

Habit 1, be proactive, is the foundation. It’s about one simple idea: that there is a gap between a stimulus and our response into which we can step. Habit 1 is essentially nothing more than a reminder of our own free will. Yet the way Covey phrases it - a gap between stimulus and response - emphasises our ability to override our conditioning and choose our behaviour.

Habit 2 says we should begin with the end in mind. We can work as hard as we like at climbing the ladder of success, but it will do us no good if, when we get to the top, we realise it was leaning up against the wrong wall. Habit 2 is about setting a direction for ourselves, deciding what we want to achieve in our life.

Habit 3, put first things first, is about prioritising the things that are important to us, but which may not be urgent, in order to achieve our goals. It’s about managing ourselves effectively.

Habit 4, think win/win, states that in our interactions with others we should, wherever possible, go out of our way to identify solutions that both parties see as a win. It’s about having the courage to express your own feelings and convictions, balanced with consideration for the thoughts and feelings of the other person. You neither seek to win at their expense (win/lose), nor subordinate your own wishes to theirs (lose/win).

Seek first to understand, then to be understood, is habit 5. It says we should listen to the other person first, in order to deeply, thoroughly understand the way they see the situation. Only when we can explain their point of view as well as they can, should we focus on communicating our own point of view.

Habit 6, synergize, is about coming together to produce things that are better than what we could have produced alone. It’s about valuing the differences between people, building on each other’s strengths and compensating for each other’s weaknesses. It builds on the motive of win/win and the communication skills developed in habit 5.

Finally, habit 7 is sharpen the saw: preserving and enhancing our own ability to produce. Covey encourages us to do this by regularly exercising the four aspects of our nature: the physical, mental, spiritual and social/emotional. Physically, it’s about exercising, eating well, and getting sufficient rest and relaxation. Mentally, it’s about constantly informing and expanding our minds through study, reading and writing. Spiritually, it’s about keeping our bond with the sources that inspire and uplift us, whether that’s listening to great music, reading great literature, getting out in nature, or our religion. Socially and emotionally, it’s about helping and developing our relationships with others.

P problems are PC opportunities

I’ve taken more from the book than just the seven habits, however.

One of the things Covey talks about is the need to strike a balance in our lives between P - the things we produce - and PC - our production capability. He uses the analogy of the goose that laid the golden eggs: the goose is PC, the eggs are P. Enjoys the eggs and neglect the goose and before long you won’t have any more eggs. Conversely, a goose that can lay golden eggs is useless if it never actually lays any.

My biggest weakness is arguably my lack of patience. In particular, I get exasperated when my kids don’t do what they’re told and I hate being interrupted when I’m in the middle of something. Covey argues that these production problems should be viewed as production capability opportunities. If a colleague asks me to do something while I’m concentrating on a difficult task, I need to look at it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with my colleague instead of becoming frustrated because I've been interrupted. If my son refuses to tidy his room, I need to see it as an opportunity to improve my relationship with him.

I still struggle with this in practice, but it’s something I try to constantly keep in mind.

Love is a verb

People sometimes talk about love like it’s a feeling. For example, someone at a difficult point in a relationship might say, “I guess I just don’t love him any more”.

Covey asserts that love is first a verb, not a feeling. Love is something we do. It means sacrificing for, listening to, empathising with, appreciating and affirming the person we claim to love. Love the feeling flows from love the verb, not the other way around. As habit 1 emphasises, we can always choose what we do.

What is important to another person must be as important to you as the other person is to you

Covey uses the metaphor of an “emotional bank account” to describe the state of our relationship with another person. Many deposits into that account result in a relationship with a high degree of trust and mutual understanding; many withdrawals lead to mistrust and misunderstanding.

Covey lists six actions that constitute major deposits: understanding the individual, attending to the small things, keeping commitments, clarifying expectations, showing personal integrity and apologising sincerely where necessary. But the one piece of advice that really stuck with me was this: we should always strive to make the things that are important to another person as important to us as that person is to us.

If something is important to someone we care about, we should make that thing important to us too. Doing this shows the other person that we care about them and gives the relationship a significant boost. This is as true of our relationships with our children as it is of our relationship with our spouse.

Two people can disagree and both be right

Study the picture below:

image from www.phillipwells.com

Now look at this picture and describe what you see:

image from www.phillipwells.com

You would probably describe the woman in this picture as old and ugly, with a large nose and jutting chin. But what if you were told that you’re wrong, that this is actually a picture of a young woman, dressed in furs and a necklace, with a petite nose?

Covey uses this optical illusion to demonstrate that two people can see the same thing, disagree, and yet both be right. Moreover, our perception is influenced by our conditioning. By showing you a picture of an old woman first, I made you more likely to see the old woman in the second picture. Covey cites an experiment where those who were shown a picture of a young lady first tended to see the young lady in the second picture, and had difficulty identifying the old woman.

I was blown away by this demonstration when I first read about it. I now think about it every time I hear two people interpret the same event in different ways. In particular, it’s really opened my eyes as to why there often seems to be such a gulf between the way blacks and whites perceive a particular situation.


The Seven Habits was first published in 1989, but it still stands up as an insightful and thought-provoking manual for living. I first read it seventeen years ago, when I was single and just starting on my career, and it really helped me think about the direction I wanted to take my life. Now 41, married with two children, I recently re-read the book after wrestling with a sense of dissatisfaction with several areas of my life. Again, it helped me get my bearings.

It's not a panacea. Knowing what to do is one thing, doing it is another. But even when I get lost, at least I have a compass to guide me in the right direction. The rest is up to me.