On My Mixed Beliefs – Part I – Quakerism

I grew up in a family that had a diverse background when it comes to religion. My father’s entire family was raised in the Jewish tradition, whereas my mother’s was traditional New England Protestant. I had tastes of both in my childhood.

On my father’s side, we often spent many traditional Jewish holidays having meals at my great aunt’s house in downtown Philadelphia. I became intimately familiar with various cultural staples such as matzah ball soup, gefilte fish, and the ceremony of the menorah. We were never members of a synagogue though, nor did I go through any of the traditional coming of age rites such as a bar mitzvah (though to my parent’s credit I am pretty sure that I could have if I so desired). I could not tell you much about Jewish history, other than some basics such as the story of Moses.

On my mother’s side, my only real exposure to the Protestant religion was when I would go to church with my grandparents. I have only a few vague memories of this; the high ceilinged, white cathedral interior of their church, the heavy vibrations of the pipe organ, and the smell of all the old books and Bibles in the pews. Overall I would say these experiences really had little or no effect on me, as I was very young at the time, other than perhaps to increase my disdain for organized religion in general.

Unsurprisingly, I would say that the most profound influence in my beliefs was the culture that surrounded me when I was growing up, namely that of Quakerism.

Who are the Quakers? No, we are not, as a co-worker once remarked, “those people that wear the hats and dress all in black.” (No offense to the Amish intended!) From Wikipedia:

Quakers (or Friends, as they refer to themselves) are members of a family of religious movements collectively known as the Religious Society of Friends. The central unifying doctrine of these movements is the priesthood of all believers, a doctrine derived from a verse in the New Testament, 1 Peter 2:9.Many Friends view themselves as members of a Christian denomination. They include those with evangelical, holiness, liberal, and traditional conservative Quaker understandings of Christianity. Unlike many other groups that emerged within Christianity, the Religious Society of Friends has actively tried to avoid creeds and hierarchical structures. As of 2007 there were approximately 359,000 adult members of Quaker meetings in the world.

If I had to pick three things that I learned from Quakerism, they would be:

  1. The idea of “That of God In All Of Us”, or what I’d call shared divinity.
  2. The Peace Testimony
  3. Consensus

I’ll go through each one here in more detail.

That of God In All Of Us

Of all the things listed above, I would say the part of Quakerism that resonates with me the most is the idea of “that of God in all of us”, or that a piece of the divine resides in all living beings. From this belief emerges a very flat and open culture, one that I think is best embodied in the practice of traditional Quaker un-programmed meeting.

For all of my childhood, we lived on the campus of a private Quaker school outside of Philadelphia, Westtown School. I have fond memories of this place, with its lush forests and winding trails through fields and orchards. I consider myself extremely blessed to have been able to experience both the educational and cultural / social aspects of life at Westtown.

One of the most defining parts of my upbringing was the weekly Quaker meetings for worship. These were the equivalent of Sunday church services, but they are quite different from more traditional organized religious services. People gather in an empty hall and sit on simple padded wooden benches. These are arranged in such a way as to face an elevated line of benches, known as the “facing bench”. This is where the “elders”, or more senior members of the meeting, sit. Once gathered, we would sit in silence for around an hour. From time to time, someone would stand up and share something that was on their mind. Friends call this being “moved to speak”, in that someone feels the need to stand up and express themselves. These were not necessarily limited to discussions of faith; in fact, more often than not it was simply a forum for people to talk about whatever was on their mind to the community. At times this led to rather contentious “discussions” during controversial times, such as when a student was suspended for reasons others did not agree with. But it also resulted in what I’d describe as a profound sense of openness between members, where everyone felt at liberty to share whatever happened to be on their mind.

It was from these mini sermons that I came to appreciate the idea of the divine in everyone. Central to Quaker beliefs and practice (at least in the more liberal meetings) is that no one person can speak for God. Anyone could be moved to share, and by creating such an open forum, the diversity and breadth of material and discourse was greatly widened. You had Buddhists speaking alongside devout Catholics, alongside atheists. As long as you were respectful, you were given a pretty free reign to speak your mind.

Peace Testimony

Another of the Quakers’ central beliefs is of the wrongness of violence. The most visible evidence of that today is likely the American Friends Service Committee, which has been working since 1917 in various anti-war activities, such as assisting peace church members in achieving Conscientious Objector status, or assisting in non combat efforts during times of war (such as medical corps). While I have been fortunate not to have to decide whether to participate in war during my life, I feel nonetheless very strongly in the general immorality of war. I don’t presume to speak for anyone but myself (isn’t that a rather Quakerly statement?), but I feel as though this belief at least in part comes from the aforementioned idea of shared divinity. After all, if there is something sacred in each of us, how can we cause another harm? And war is nothing if not harmful, in all its forms. All one need do to understand this would be to read Mark Twain’s short story, The War Prayer, a brilliant and chillingly honest view of the horrors of armed conflict.

“O Lord our God, help us tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with their little children to wander unfriended in the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames in summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it.”

Consensus

Though I have never witnessed it first hand, I have learned that Quakers believe strongly in a consensus based model of decision making. In other words, “Consensus requires that every member of the business meeting consent to an item of business to pass it. If one person blocks consensus, that item is not passed.”1 This may sound like a recipe for bureaucratic hell (and from talking to my parents, who participated in many Quaker meetings for business, it sometimes was), I think it provides another example of Quakerism’s profound respect for individual opinion and freedom.

Governing by consensus is inherently a voluntary process, as every member must agree to proposals. Mind you, this does not mean you must agree with the proposal. Quakers may “stand aside” if they believe that a proposed action is wrong, but do not wish to block its approval. In this way, I think the practice gives a way for people to show their objection to ideas while not forcing them into becoming obstructionists.

I should note that I do not believe that governing by consensus is viable at any large scale. Can you imagine trying to get an entire town, let alone an entire county or state to agree on anything together? But that hardly makes it any less of an effective and respectful means of governance. If anything, it may contribute to my growing belief that large scale democracy may be headed for failure. (Another post? Perhaps.)

Quakerism truly has had a lasting impact on my beliefs. The idea of shared divinity, the staunch opposition to war and violence, and the inherently voluntary nature of Quaker society all appeal to my moral foundation of individual liberty and respect for others’ person and property. Related to that note, I think Quakerism may well have been a reason I naturally gravitated towards the tenets of classical liberalism.

But it would be too simple to say that my beliefs end there, for I am also what I’d consider a humanist. Aren’t the two rather incompatible you say? I think not, but that will all be part of a later post.


  1. http://quaker.wikia.com/wiki/Consensus 

The Many Definitions Of Wealth

When someone says they are “wealthy”, what does that really mean?

If you think about it, the word “wealth” likely has very different meanings to different people.

For some, they will follow the dictionary definition of “a large amount of money and possessions”. Perhaps they desire a fleet of expensive cars, or an enormous house on a large property. Or, maybe they want to pull a Scrooge McDuck and take a swim in their piles of money.

But for others, the definition of being wealthy may have a simpler meaning. Perhaps they desire the ability to leave their boring day-to-day job and travel the world. Or, be free to pursue their dream career of writing cheap supermarket romance novels. Some may want to find a small homestead in the wilderness and subsist off the land, without any outside contact. Still others may want to open their own small business.

None of these necessarily means you need to have a lot of money, nor do they entail having a lot of material possessions.

I would argue that the truest definition of wealth is closer to the second set of examples. Being wealthy means that you are able to spend your time and energy as you desire, rather than simply trade your labor for the goods required to maintain your life. For example, if you are able to live comfortably on a minimal salary, and as a result can take work as a freelance writer on a part time basis, you free up considerable time for pursuing whatever projects suit your whimsy. I don't think anyone would call such a person wealthy by society's normal definition, but if you ask them, I would suspect they would say they feel wealthy.

Take, for example, the story of Trent from The Simple Dollar. In 2008, he quit his full time job and started working at home full time writing and doing other smaller scale jobs. An explicit reason for his choosing this was because he saw his children growing up, and wanted to spend more time with them. Between his regular daytime job and working on his blog, he found his days become every fuller. So, he chose to cut the cord from his nine-to-five job and focus on his dream. Years and many, many posts later, he certainly seems to be doing well. While I don't know Trent, I would guess that if you asked him, he would probably agree with the statement that in the broadest sense of the word, his life is certainly full of wealth. It's an inspiring story, and one that I would love to some day follow.

I think that becoming wealthy in this sense is really all about focus and sacrifice.

It requires focus, in the sense that you need to keep that goal of financial independence in your mind at all times. Remind yourself every morning what it is you are working for, be it the ability to spend more time with your children, or start that small business you've always wanted. Keep these reminders close by, so that they never slip from your mind.

It also requires sacrifice, in that you need to be able to give up the ability to spend your money, time, or effort on things that don't get you closer to that goal. Life is full of random temptations, and while I'm not suggesting that you become a slave to your goal, it's foolish to think that you can simply carry on living on a whim, rather than carefully considering the minute-by-minute decisions and actions that move you closer to where you want to be.

I think that the notion of wealth today has been twisted by the reality-TV / tabloid driven media such that many view the excessive lifestyles of the super-rich with great envy. I wonder though, if we all got back to basics and thought about the things that are truly important to us, and what we would do with our lives given freedom from reliance on our paychecks every two weeks, if a more achievable and simpler vision of being wealthy might emerge.

Productivity Advice From A Bygone Era

I was just reading an article on one of my favorite blogs, The Art Of Manliness, which is basically the text of a book on productivity book called “How to Live on Twenty-Four Hours a Day” by Arnold Bennett. In today’s flood of “productivity p0rn”, this book sets itself apart, despite being written over a century ago (1910, to be specific). I thought it would be fun to quote a couple passages and reflect on them a bit.

The most important preliminary to the task of arranging one’s life so that one may live fully and comfortably within one’s daily budget of twenty-four hours is the calm realisation of the extreme difficulty of the task, of the sacrifices and the endless effort which it demands.

Bennett aptly describes how one of the most difficult things about productively using your spare time is just how little of it you have. I’ve written previously about my own realization of this fact, and how it radically changed my priorities. Like it or not, our lives are bound by time, and no matter how much you would like to, we extend ourselves beyond that. Choosing what to do with your time is hard and requires careful consideration if you are going to do it wisely.

But when you arrange to go to the theatre (especially with a pretty woman) what happens? You rush to the suburbs; you spare no toil to make yourself glorious in fine raiment; you rush back to town in another train; you keep yourself on the stretch for four hours, if not five; you take her home; you take yourself home. You don’t spend three-quarters of an hour in “thinking about” going to bed. You go.

When we face a task that we truly value, like an important date with someone we care deeply about, we don’t waste our time pondering about what to do next or how exactly to accomplish things; we think for a bit, then we act. The old phrase “paralysis by analysis” has a lot of truth to it. We can spend enormous amounts of time thinking about doing something worthwhile, or wandering aimlessly around the web. But if we don’t force ourselves to take action, we will never accomplish anything.

People say: “One can’t help one’s thoughts.” But one can. The control of the thinking machine is perfectly possible. And since nothing whatever happens to us outside our own brain; since nothing hurts us or gives us pleasure except within the brain, the supreme importance of being able to control what goes on in that mysterious brain is patent.

This is why I fell in love with the science of human behavior, and to this day greatly enjoy learning about how we think. To say that we are victims of our emotions and whims is simply false; one can absolutely learn to use reason and logic to examine and fundamentally change how we think. There is nothing more powerful than using the might of our minds for our own purpose, nor nothing more destructive than our thoughts run wild.

Man, know thyself. I say it out loud. The phrase is one of those phrases with which everyone is familiar, of which everyone acknowledges the value, and which only the most sagacious put into practice. I don’t know why. I am entirely convinced that what is more than anything else lacking in the life of the average well-intentioned man of to-day is the reflective mood.

Self reflection is probably one of the most important habits we can cultivate in our daily lives. The great Roman philosopher Seneca said that we should “retire into [ourselves] as much as possible.” Being conscious of and evaluating our actions and habits can bring about change in our lives like no other act. I make it a point to write in my journal for a few minutes every morning, even if it is simply noting down some highlights from the previous day. Looking back on events, I’m often amazed at the revelations I have about how I could have acted differently. It is only by shining the light on ourselves in a thoughtful and prescriptive manner that we can fully realize our potential.

The book illustrates how truly great advice can be timeless. Despite being written in an era drastically different from our own, the book is filled with salient points. The language, while somewhat formal, is often witty and entertaining. A highly recommended read, especially considering its short length.

The Powerful Effect Of Preconceived Notions (And Letting Them Go)

Every day we go into life with expectations about how things will occur. These beliefs have an astounding impact on our perceptions of and reactions to the world around us, often times without us even being aware.

Think you’re immune? Just see if any of these scenarios strikes a chord with you.

You get a request to attend a meeting at work to discuss something, and even before you walk into the room you think to yourself “This person never has anything useful to say. This is a total waste of time.” In the meeting, you are quick to interrupt, dismissive, and don’t take the time to listen carefully and understand the other side of the conversation. As a result, things don’t get moved forward, and several people come away with a clear negative impression of you.

A friend whom you have not spoken to in quite a while calls you, and when you see the number you think “What does (she | he) want? We haven’t talked in ages, so why would they call now? They probably just need a favor.” You don’t answer and as a result, miss an invitation to a baby shower (for a baby you still don’t know about).

When trying to put one child down for a nap, the other comes into the room and starts to ask you a question. Without thinking you tell them they “can’t be in here because I’m trying to put your (brother | sister) to sleep. You can’t have my attention all the time!” The other child gets upset with you and storms out, shouting “I just wanted to help put my (brother | sister) to sleep! Why are you always so mean?!”

When we allow these expectations to override our senses (and with them, often our better judgement) we set ourselves up to miss out on an amazing number of opportunities for positive interactions in our lives. And while it’s not necessarily easy to overcome this habit (when are habits ever easy to change), the fundamental principles aren’t that difficult to understand.

First, be conscious of these tendencies and their role in your behavior. At every chance you can, ask yourself, “What do I expect to happen here? Why do I expect that? Could something else happen?” Cultivating awareness is probably the hardest task, as we are so used to simply reacting to things without thought. If you know ahead of time that a potentially difficult situation is coming up (think about the time before that meeting), it might be a good idea to scribble some things down on paper. The simple kinetic act of putting our thoughts on paper can be amazingly illustrative. What sounded perfectly logical in our minds looks absolutely ludicrous once we actually spell it out.

Second, work to change the underlying negative scripts that support the beliefs in the first place. When you find yourself saying “My kid always needs my attention. Why can’t they just leave me alone? Can’t they see I need to take care of the other kids?”, try changing it to “Boy, my kid sure does love to spend time with me. How can I let them be a part of what I’m doing while not neglecting the other kids?” Here again, I think writing these thoughts down (both the old and the new) can be a difference maker. Our thoughts hold incredible power over us, so we may as well learn to turn them to our advantage.

When we let go of our preconceived ideas about things, the change is results can be monumental.

Instead of an un-productive meeting, a wonderful discussion ensues with all sides contributing, and a project is put firmly back on track thanks to the cooperative attitudes of everyone. You learn several new things, and everyone is impressed with your open-mindedness and listening ability.

Instead of missing out on an important occasion in your friend’s life, you get to congratulate them on their news and end up talking with them for over an hour about each others’ lives. As a result you make plans to get together after work and a friendship is rekindled.

Instead of having one tired child (who is now more awake thanks to the shouting match) and one child who now sees you as uninterested in them, you experience an incredibly tender moment where your older child sings a lullaby to your younger one, kisses them, and tells them how much they love them.

Don’t go through life blindly listening to your own expectations. Examine them, question them, and drop them by the wayside if they aren’t helping you lead a happier, productive life.

Why We Make Bad Choices – Cognitive Dissonance

This is a post in an ongoing series about the tricks our minds play on us which cause us to make poor decisions (known in psychology as cognitive biases). Learning about how we perceive and interpret the world around us is a critical part of self reflection, so I want to take some time and explain things in (hopefully) clear, understandable terms. While I’m going to use a fair amount of the language of psychology, I will also do my best to define things in ways those of us without degrees in the subject can understand. As always, feel free to ask questions in the comments if things aren’t clear.

Here we introduce the concept of cognitive dissonance, which is a key idea to understand for the rest of the series. It is summarized fairly easily as follows: when we hold two conflicting ideas, beliefs, or attitudes, we experience mental discomfort that we will naturally want to resolve.

I know, it sounds like pure psychobabble. But bear with me, as it truly is important to understand this.

Let’s say you are on a diet, but one day you slip up and eat several slices of greasy, delicious pepperoni pizza. Immediately afterwards, you feel guilty about your actions. One one hand, you hold the belief that you are a person capable of staying on a diet (because who wants to admit that they have no willpower); on the other hand, you just ate a slice of pizza, and you also know in your heart that pizza is far from a healthy food. This contradiction (“I eat healthy” versus “Pizza is bad for you”) causes you to experience mental angst.

The only way to resolve this is to change one or both beliefs so that they are no longer incompatible with each other. How we do this varies depending upon many things, but we’ll try to illustrate two possibilities.

First, we might minimize or belittle the idea that pizza is bad for you. Perhaps we think “Well, a couple slices isn’t that bad. I dabbed off some grease so the fat content must be lower.” If the pizza is no longer so unhealthy, then eating it doesn’t mean we broke our rule of eating only nutritious food.

Second, we might lessen the strictness or specificity of our belief that we eat healthily. Instead of “I eat a healthy diet”, we might substitute “I try to eat healthily, but I don’t do it all the time.” If we no longer believe that we are someone who always eats healthful food, then eating fatty pizza doesn’t contradict that carefully constructed image of ourselves.

Are either of these inherently bad ways of dealing with the discord between our two beliefs? You could probably argue on both sides. On the one hand, pepperoni pizza is likely unhealthy any way you look at it, but on the other hand giving ourselves permission to circumvent good behavior without specific reasons is not a good way to instill new habits.

What’s more important is simple awareness of this tendency, and considering it when reflecting upon our lives and the decisions we make. As you’ll come to see, this statement will likely be repeated throughout the series. If you gain nothing else from reading these posts, learn to be conscious of how our minds work. Understanding this is crucial, and it’s why I truly believe that everyone should learn a little bit of psychology. After all, what’s more important than knowing ourselves as human beings?

In the coming weeks and months we are going to learn more about the specific ways in which our mind tricks us and causes us to ignore or misinterpret important things in the world around us. Stay tuned, it should be an interesting ride.

Books That Changed My Life – Raising Resilient Children

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

I would say that it is no exaggeration that my children are the single most important thing in my life. Becoming a parent has profoundly changed my outlook on life in more ways than I can count. There is no more important job than raising my children to be successful, kind, compassionate members of society, and it is one both my wife and I take very seriously.

With that in mind, I make it a point to read books on various subjects around the general theme of parenting and healthy childhood development. And while my background in psychology means I could certainly understand the more theoretical and academic works, in my world of limited time I tend to heavily favor those with a decided practical slant. And I must say, that is one area where this post’s book shines.

Raising Resilient Children is a beautifully (yet concisely) worded series of chapters on how to impart your children with, well, resiliency. How does one define this? While the authors describe several areas, I’d like to focus mainly on one.

Resilient children are able to overcome problems and obstacles they face. As a parent it is natural to want to see your child sail through life with nary a bump, but the reality is that this is neither practical nor desirable. Even if through some extremely overzealous form of “helicopter parenting” one was able to see their child avoid any hint of difficulty, the result would be a person incapable of living in the real world. What we instead want is to give our children the tools with which they can navigate the inevitable bruises of life using problem solving and a healthy dose of hard work.

The authors describe a series of principles which will help teach children how best to weather the challenges of life. Each chapter first lays out challenges we face as a parent in adopting these practices, then offers specific guidelines on how to overcome them. For example, let’s look at one obstacle mentioned in the section on teaching our children to be empathic.

The authors note that many parents believe that showing empathy equates to showing weakness. That is, by listening to and validating the feelings of our children, we are somehow allowing them to get the better of us. They give several examples from their own experience, which is helpful in that it can help us identify with parents dealing with similar struggles. The authors go on to give helpful advice on how one can express empathy but still set firm limits with children.

The book also encourages a lot of self-reflection, that is that parents can and should routinely look at how they are behaving and what effect it has on their children. The authors often will ask some simple, yet profoundly perspective shifting questions. For example, in the same section discussed briefly above, they ask:

Am I saying or doing things in a way that would make my children the most receptive to listening to what I have to say and learning from me?

Would I want anyone to speak with me in the way I am speaking with my children?

What do my children think about the choices I make for them?

As parents we are human and subject to the same biases, mistakes, and occasional blow-ups as everyone else. We often feel pressure to show strength and authority, but neglect to see things from the perspective of the very people we are working so hard for: our children. This book helped me to recognize that being strong does not mean being a disciplinarian; rather, it means accepting our children for who they are, showing them our love through understanding and gentle guidance, and teaching them the means to be successful in whatever pursuits they desire.

The Amazing Productive Value Of Five Minutes

Sometimes, the most powerful changes we can make in our lives are surprisingly small.

An excellent example of this is how much more productive we can be in our lives just by recapturing the little periods of time in between major activities. Let’s say that I’ve put on some water to boil for tea, and I know that between the water heating and the tea steeping, there will be around five minutes of useful free time before my tea is ready.

Now, in the past I’ve typically used this time to browse Facebook, or perhaps read an article on Feedly, or just surf the web aimlessly. This wasn’t intentional use of my time, because I didn’t feel that “wasting” that tiny amount of time really meant anything. After all, what can you really do in five minutes?

There’s two main problems with this way of thinking.

First, there tends to be a lot of these little chunks of time throughout the day, and they add up quickly. I haven’t collected any real data, but it would not surprise me if, in a typical day, there were upwards of five or six of these periods. That comes out to almost half an hour of time that ultimately gets wasted. What would happen if you spent another half hour a day reading that book you’re trying to finish?

Second, there are absolutely ways to be productive and useful in five minutes or less. Yes, it’s true, the short time is limiting, especially in terms of activities which have a ramp up time (like writing, for example, where I clearly do better after getting into a groove). But if you look at your to-do list(s) (because you are maintaining stuff there, right?), you will surely find a number of little pesky chores that need to be done. Putting dishes away, responding to an e-mail (marginally acceptable, this really should be done in batch), wiping down the counters… the list goes on.

I’ve worked very hard to break this habit over the last month or so, with some very positive results. I’m far from perfect, but it’s clear that the habit of being intentional is just as important with short periods of time as it is in the grand scheme of things. So the next time you find yourself standing around waiting for the microwave to finish, instead of pulling out your phone and checking on the latest updates, pick some small bit of work and get it done.

How Writing Things Down Keeps Us Positive

I want you to try a little exercise with me. It won’t take long, but I do insist that you try it in real time while reading this. You will need a paper and pen, or some other kind of medium for recording things. Ready? Okay, here we go.

I want you to think of and write down the first five negative memories you have of recent interactions with others. They can be your children, your spouse, or people at work. Don’t go into detail, just five quick sentences or descriptions.

All set? Good, now, repeat the same exercise, except with the first five positive memories. When you are done, keep reading. Don’t worry, the Internet will wait.

Now ask yourself a few simple questions. Were you able to think of five things in both cases? Which was harder to recall, the positive or the negative ones?

If you found it easier to remember the negative memories, don’t feel bad. As it turns out, our brains are hard-wired to recall negative memories far more easily than positive ones. It’s called the negativity bias, and it’s a well known psychological behavior.

I’m as guilty as anyone in this regard. At the end of the day at work I can often only recall the frustrations or negative interactions I’ve had. Even when talking about my children, whom I am incredibly grateful to have in my life, I’ve found it’s entirely too easy to focus on negative behaviors. As a result, I often miss out or discount the many small positive things that happen on a daily basis.

I overcome a major challenge at work, but all I can remember is looking over a poor design for an upcoming project and how angry it made me feel (I’m a bit of a “do-righter”, but that’s another story).

I take a walk in the woods with my young son and we spend nearly an hour wandering around learning to identity the different kinds of trees, but all I can remember is how he was too rough with his little sister after lunch.

My wife leaves a little note for me saying how much she appreciates my helping out with the kids, but all I can remember is how she chided me for not finishing some task around the house on time.

Fortunately, with a little intentional behavior, this tendency can be overcome.

First, make note of these small positive occurrences when they happen. When I say “make note”, I mean that quite literally. It’s fine to be more mindful of these things and enjoy them in the moment, but to really be effective I’ve found I must record them somewhere, before they get lost in the jumble of events my brain processes. In the digital age I do this by sending myself an e-mail, snapping a photo, or making a note in Evernote with my mobile device. A small notepad would certainly work too. The exact method isn’t important, so long as it gets the memory out of your head.

Second, create a habit of reviewing these tiny but crucial moments at the end of the day. It’s refreshing and rejuvenating to see these little moments revisited, and it helps to end the day on a positive note. This doesn’t need to take a long time, perhaps five or ten minutes.

Try this habit for a week, and see if your mood and perception doesn’t shift. As an added bonus, you’ll be building up a reservoir of good things that happen to you, which is a powerful thing to have when your life hits an inevitable rough patch. By reminding ourselves of all that is good in our lives, we develop better resiliency and ability to work through the difficulties we face. Memory is a powerful thing, especially when selectively focused.

Books That Changed My Life – The Feeling Good Handbook

This post is part of an ongoing series on books that have greatly influenced my life.

Today, I want to be open and honest about a fairly dark period in my life. It’s important that we reflect on these times, so that we may learn from them and make ourselves more resilient. Life has a way of throwing challenges at us when we least expect it, and while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control how we respond.

During my second and third years in college, I went through what in hindsight was a period of fairly deep clinical depression. I was often melancholy, unmotivated, and (despite being surrounded by a wonderful group of friends) lonely. The cult of macho surrounding my fraternity boy existence demanded strength, so I hid my feelings and pushed them aside. I felt lost, and wondered why everyone else seemed so happy and successful, when I doomed to a life of perpetual failure.

It took some time and a few fairly harsh experiences for me to realize that I could not solve this on my own. I felt ashamed, but knew that I must seek help if I was to break free. Thankfully, I found a wonderful psychologist who helped teach me why I felt the way I did, and importantly, how I could change the way I thought. The connection between thoughts and emotions, while not obvious to me at the time, sparked an intuitive reaction that motivated me to learn more. And the more I read, the more I understood how critical our patterns of thought were to our well being.

Which brings us to the book I’m writing about today, The Feeling Good Handbook by Dr. David Burns.

By the time I got to this book, I’d already read a number of others on the subject of Cognitive Behavioral therapy, such as Martin Seligman’s Learned Optimism, so I was fairly well versed in the theory that our thoughts can have a pronounced effect on how we feel. But Burns’ book was by far the most well written and practical of the bunch, and the result was nothing short of amazing. The idea is that by simply applying some reflection and logic to our thoughts, we can generate dramatic changes in our mood and the way we perceive the world around us. Sound like snake oil? I thought so too, until I tried it.

It turns out that we humans tend to think in extremely illogical ways. For example, when we forget to respond to a client e-mail, we might think “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that! My boss is upset and I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” In that one stream of thought are three brilliant examples of what Burns calls cognitive distortions. These are ways that we warp our patterns of thought in ways that distort reality, often in ways that make things appear a lot worse than they really are.

  1. “I’m such an idiot, I should have responded to that!” – Ah, the should statement. What a useless word! All it does is create shame and regret. We cannot change what we have done, and hindsight is always perfect, so what good does it do to retroactively criticize ourselves?
  2. My boss is upset…” – So, you can now read minds? Perhaps your boss is upset, but you can’t know until you speak to them.
  3. “…I’ll be passed over for that promotion.” – Now you can predict the future? How do you know for sure that this one incident will knock you out of the competition?

I don’t think that it is possible to describe how powerful the impact of becoming conscious of, and later learning to direct, my thoughts was on my life. Besides affecting a profound change in my emotional well being, it greatly influenced my ultimate choice of college major (psychology), knowledge I (despite being in a totally unrelated field) still make daily use of.

How We Create Our Own Stress

Between stimulus and response is our greatest power – the freedom to choose.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

I’ve written before about how kids can be amazing teachers if we just let them, and this week yet another example of that came to pass.

It was later in the evening, and I was in the process of giving my son a bath. It had been a trying day at work, so my mind was drained and it was all I could do to keep up with the boundless energy of a four year old. My son is an extremely perceptive little guy, so he noticed that his dad was a little less talkative than usual.

Him: Daddy, why are you so tired?

Me: Sorry buddy, Daddy had a really crazy day at work.

Him: Why did you make your day at work so crazy Daddy?

Me: No buddy. Daddy didn’t.. pause

I was about to say “No buddy. Daddy didn’t make his day at work crazy, all the <insert various mean but yet appropriate for kid words here> at Daddy’s work made his day crazy.” But his question made me think: did the people at work really make my day crazy, or was it how I chose to react that caused the problem?

If you think about it, we’ve all probably been guilty of this classic mistaken attribution of our bad days at some point. “That guy really ruined my day!” “If only my flight were on time, I wouldn’t be so stressed out!” “That damn kid, if he would just leave me alone I wouldn’t be in such a bad mood!”

All of these responses, while completely natural, are based on a fundamentally flawed idea – that the things that happen to us determine our own response.

The jerk at the coffee shop this morning didn’t make you angry, you got upset because you felt he was disrespecting you and the other customers. The flight being late didn’t stress you out, your worry about not being on time did. And the kid demanding your attention? Well, perhaps you hold a belief that he should be more independent at his age, or that you deserve some quiet time to yourself, and his threatening that makes you uncomfortable.

Mind you, I don’t want to imply that merely being aware of this fact will allow you to flow through life with the calmness of a Vulcan. Nor am I saying that one should feel bad about reacting to life’s little challenges in a, well, human way. Being aware of our thoughts and how they affect us is not the same as the ability to turn those thoughts in a more productive direction. But awareness is certainly key, and a valuable skill to have in your emotional toolkit.

The next time you feel yourself becoming angry, or your blood pressure rising, take a moment to consider what is going through your mind, and how it is affecting your emotions. Consider carefully if you are creating your own stress, and if so, if it is really a productive use of your energy. We have so many things to do and so little time to do them; why add more unnecessary tension?