Category: Happiness

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

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The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.

A Journey of Self Discovery

“Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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In her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert told her story of self discovery in which she spent a year journeying through Italy, India, and Indonesia. On how people can go on a journey of self discovery she notes:

The last thing I ever wanted to become is the Poster Child for “Everyone Must Leave Their Husband and Move to India In Order to Find God.” … It was my path—that is all it ever was. I drew up my journey as a personal prescription for solving my life. Transformative journeys come in many forms, though, and often happen without people ever leaving home.

As Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire note in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “knowing loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat is crucial to the positive disintegration process and acts as a catalyst for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation.” He continues:

Rather than something to be avoided or denied, it is the hardships and challenges both internal and external — that make us beautiful.

As Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Making the best out of difficult experiences, something Marcus Aurelius advised, is the key to turning adversity into advantage.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously wrote in On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

To Sacrifice the Joy of Life is to Miss the Point

Your ability to get things done and be productive is not always a function of hours.

Working more doesn’t always mean you’re working better or harder. It doesn’t mean you’re doing your best. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re going to live a more meaningful life. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you’re going to finish your project faster.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells the story of a man who wanted to transcend his suffering. So he goes to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help. He asks the master “Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years.”

Thinking he could do better, the man then said, “Oh Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years.”

“But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?” the man asked.

The Master replied, “You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life.”

Working harder often misses the point.

When interviewed, those nearing the end of their lives did not say they wished they’d worked harder. Rather, they encouraged being willing to make sacrifices to spend time doing things that bring enjoyment.

Just to be clear, I’m not in the The 4-Hour Workweek camp. Farnam Street Media is 60+ a week.

However, it’s not a simple ask coming up with work life balance. As David Whyte argues, that is a flawed lens.

Questions about work and its interaction with the joy of living are personal and significant. We often only think about them toward the end of our life, when it’s too late to make changes.

Start asking yourself these questions today. And if you need a break, join me for a thinking/reading week in Hawaii this March.

Emilie Wapnick: Why Some of us Don’t Have One True Calling

What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you’re not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you’re not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls “multipotentialites” — who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?

See, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any interests — it’s that I had too many. In high school, I liked English and math and art and I built websites and I played guitar in a punk band called Frustrated Telephone Operator. Maybe you’ve heard of us.

This continued after high school, and at a certain point, I began to notice this pattern in myself where I would become interested in an area and I would dive in, become all-consumed, and I’d get to be pretty good at whatever it was, and then I would hit this point where I’d start to get bored. And usually I would try and persist anyway, because I had already devoted so much time and energy and sometimes money into this field. But eventually this sense of boredom, this feeling of, like, yeah, I got this, this isn’t challenging anymore — it would get to be too much. And I would have to let it go.

But then I would become interested in something else, something totally unrelated, and I would dive into that, and become all-consumed, and I’d be like, “Yes! I found my thing,” and then I would hit this point again where I’d start to get bored. And eventually, I would let it go. But then I would discover something new and totally different, and I would dive into that.

This pattern caused me a lot of anxiety, for two reasons. The first was that I wasn’t sure how I was going to turn any of this into a career. I thought that I would eventually have to pick one thing, deny all of my other passions, and just resign myself to being bored. The other reason it caused me so much anxiety was a little bit more personal. I worried that there was something wrong with this, and something wrong with me for being unable to stick with anything. I worried that I was afraid of commitment, or that I was scattered, or that I was self-sabotaging, afraid of my own success.

If you can relate to my story and to these feelings, I’d like you to ask yourself a question that I wish I had asked myself back then. Ask yourself where you learned to assign the meaning of wrong or abnormal to doing many things. I’ll tell you where you learned it: you learned it from the culture.

The 11 Essential Attitudes for Meditation

This comes courtesy of Mindfulness in Plain English, one of the best books on meditation and mindfulness that I’ve ever come across.

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The very process of observation changes what we observe.

For example, an electron is an extremely tiny item. It cannot be viewed without instrumentation, and that apparatus dictates what the observer will see. If you look at an electron in one particular way, it appears to be a particle, a hard little ball that bounces around in nice straight paths. When you view it another way, an electron appears to be a wave form, glowing and wiggling all over the place, with nothing solid about it at all. An electron is an event more than a thing, and the observer participates in that event by the very act of his or her observation. There is no way to avoid this interaction.

Meditation is no different. What you are looking at responds to you looking at it.

Thus, the process of meditation is extremely delicate, and the result depends absolutely on the state of mind of the meditator.

Here are the essential attitudes to success in the practice of meditation.

1) Don’t expect anything. Just sit back and see what happens. Treat the whole thing as an experiment. Take an active interest in the test itself, but don’t get distracted by your expectations about the results. For that matter, don’t be anxious for any result whatsoever. Let the meditation move along at its own speed and in its own direction. Let the meditation teach you. Meditative awareness seeks to see reality exactly as it is. Whether that corresponds to our expectations or not, it does require a temporary suspension of all of our preconceptions and ideas. We must store our images, opinions, and interpretations out of the way for the duration of the session. Otherwise we will stumble over them.

2) Don’t strain. Don’t force anything or make grand, exaggerated efforts. Meditation is not aggressive. There is no place or need for violent striving. Just let your effort be relaxed and steady.

3) Don’t rush. There is no hurry, so take your time. Settle yourself on a cushion and sit as though you have the whole day. Anything really valuable takes time to develop. Patience, patience, patience.

4) Don’t cling to anything, and don’t reject anything. Let come what comes, and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is fine, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it all mindfully.

5) Let go. Learn to flow with all the changes that come up. Loosen up and relax.

6) Accept everything that arises. Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate. Don’t condemn yourself for having human flaws and failings. Learn to see all the phenomena in the mind as being perfectly natural and understandable. Try to exercise a disinterested acceptance at all times with respect to everything you experience.

7) Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.

8) Investigate yourself. Question everything. Take nothing for granted. Don’t believe anything because it sounds wise and pious and some holy man said it. See for yourself. That does not mean that you should be cynical, impudent, or irreverent. It means you should be empirical. Subject all statements to the actual test of your own experience, and let the results be your guide to truth. Insight meditation evolves out of an inner longing to wake up to what is real and to gain liberating insight into the true structure of existence. The entire practice hinges upon this desire to be awake to the truth. Without it, the practice is superficial.

9) View all problems as challenges. Look upon negativities that arise as opportunities to learn and to grow. Don’t run from them, condemn yourself, or bury your burden in saintly silence. You have a problem? Great. More grist for the mill. Rejoice, dive in, and investigate.

10) Don’t ponder. You don’t need to figure everything out. Discursive thinking won’t free you from the trap. In meditation, the mind is purified naturally by mindfulness, by wordless bare attention. Habitual deliberation is not necessary to eliminate those things that are keeping you in bondage. All that is necessary is a clear, nonconceptual perception of what they are and how they work. That alone is sufficient to dissolve them. Concepts and reasoning just get in the way. Don’t think. See.

11) Don’t dwell upon contrasts. Differences do exist between people, but dwelling upon them is a dangerous process. Unless carefully handled, this leads directly to egotism. Ordinary human thinking is full of greed, jealousy, and pride. A man seeing another man on the street may immediately think, “He is better looking than I am.” The instant result is envy or shame. A girl seeing another girl may think, “I am prettier than she is.” The instant result is pride. This sort of comparison is a mental habit, and it leads directly to ill feeling of one sort or another: greed, envy, pride, jealousy, or hatred. It is an unskillful mental state, but we do it all the time. We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state— estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

Explore your breath.

All living things exchange gases with their environment in some way or other. This is one of the reasons that breathing has been chosen as a focus of meditation. The meditator is advised to explore the process of his or her own breathing as a vehicle for realizing our inherent connectedness with the rest of life. This does not mean that we shut our eyes to all the differences around us. Differences do exist. It means simply that we de-emphasize contrasts and emphasize the universal factors that we have in common.

The recommended procedure is as follows: When we as meditators perceive any sensory object, we are not to dwell upon it in the ordinary egoistic way. We should rather examine the very process of perception itself. We should watch what that object does to our senses and our perception. We should watch the feelings that arise and the mental activities that follow. We should note the changes that occur in our own consciousness as a result. In watching all these phenomena, we must be aware of the universality of what we are seeing. The initial perception will spark pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings. That is a universal phenomenon, occurring in the minds of others just as it does in our own, and we should see that clearly. By following these feelings various reactions may arise. We may feel greed, lust, or jealousy. We may feel fear, worry, restlessness, or boredom. These reactions are also universal. We should simply note them and then generalize. We should realize that these reactions are normal human responses, and can arise in anybody.

If you’re interested in meditation, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Mindfulness in Plain English.

Hunter S. Thompson on Living versus Existing

Hunter S. Thompson’s letter to Hume Logan on finding your purpose and living a meaningful life is one of the most popular posts to ever appear on Farnam Street.

One reader found it so valuable he dug into Thompson’s work in search of more wisdom. He ended up printing out a copy of Thompson’s “Security” and mailed it to me.

Thompson, for his part, lays out some timeless wisdom yet again.

Security … what does this word mean in relation to life as we know it today? For the most part, it means safety and freedom from worry. It is said to be the end that all men strive for; but is security a utopian goal or is it another word for rut?

Let us visualize the secure man; and by this term, I mean a man who has settled for financial and personal security for his goal in life. In general, he is a man who has pushed ambition and initiative aside and settled down, so to speak, in a boring, but safe and comfortable rut for the rest of his life. His future is but an extension of his present, and he accepts it as such with a complacent shrug of his shoulders. His ideas and ideals are those of society in general and he is accepted as a respectable, but average and prosaic man. But is he a man? Has he any self-respect or pride in himself? How could he, when he has risked nothing and gained nothing? What does he think when he sees his youthful dreams of adventure, accomplishment, travel and romance buried under the cloak of conformity? How does he feel when he realizes that he has barely tasted the meal of life; when he sees the prison he has made for himself in pursuit of the almighty dollar? If he thinks this is all well and good, fine, but think of the tragedy of a man who has sacrificed his freedom on the altar of security, and wishes he could turn back the hands of time. A man is to be pitied who lacked the courage to accept the challenge of freedom and depart from the cushion of security and see life as it is instead of living it second-hand. Life has by-passed this man and he has watched from a secure place, afraid to seek anything better What has he done except to sit and wait for the tomorrow which never comes?

Turn back the pages of history and see the men who have shaped the destiny of the world. Security was never theirs, but they lived rather than existed. Where would the world be if all men had sought security and not taken risks or gambled with their lives on the chance that, if they won, life would be different and richer? It is from the bystanders (who are in the vast majority) that we receive the propaganda that life is not worth living, that life is drudgery, that the ambitions of youth must he laid aside for a life which is but a painful wait for death. These are the ones who squeeze what excitement they can from life out of the imaginations and experiences of others through books and movies. These are the insignificant and forgotten men who preach conformity because it is all they know. These are the men who dream at night of what could have been, but who wake at dawn to take their places at the now-familiar rut and to merely exist through another day. For them, the romance of life is long dead and they are forced to go through the years on a treadmill, cursing their existence, yet afraid to die because of the unknown which faces them after death. They lacked the only true courage: the kind which enables men to face the unknown regardless of the consequences.

As an afterthought, it seems hardly proper to write of life without once mentioning happiness; so we shall let the reader answer this question for himself: who is the happier man, he who has braved the storm of life and lived or he who has stayed securely on shore and merely existed?