The world we live in is infinitely complex. The more humanity understands about it, the more we become amazed at just how intricate it is. Even something as small and simple as the head of a pin can contain thousands of bacteria and chemical reactions, interacting in ways that would take years to understand fully.
Look around you right now, what can you see? Now look again at the detail, the patterns the specks of dust form as they fall on surfaces, the care with which the furniture was put together, the way the light reflects from various surfaces. If you had to write down in detail everything that you can now see, it would probably fill a number of books. And that's just using one sense in one location. Imagine adding to that everything you can smell, hear and feel. Now multiply that by how many other locations and situations you will find yourself in during the day.
And these are just the things you can witness with your raw senses. On top of that, there is a huge amount of activity happening at a microscopic level. There are also countless things occurring in the world right now outside of your view that will certainly affect your life. Perhaps the government is making a decision that will affect you, perhaps a tax inspector is looking over your file, maybe someone who will become a close friend has just moved to your city.
The point is that there's so much going on that could affect us, it's impossible for us to keep track of it all. So how do we cope?
The answer is that we create mental short cuts. Our minds must select from the huge amount of stimulus available to us at any time and decide what's the most relevant. We must try to collect as much information that is important as we can about what's going on that may be affecting us. Perhaps we will read a summary of government decisions in the newspaper. Maybe a friend will fill us in on something that's important.
If we could have all the information we need to make decisions, that would be great, but it's impossible. At best, we can hope to pick up a tiny fraction of it. Then, we must use the tiny fraction of knowledge we have about the world to interpret that tiny fraction of information. In other words, we're operating almost blind.
It's not an ideal situation, but it's a fact of life.
So what are the implications?
This fact means that we can never assume that we've got things completely right. Any police officer knows that five different witnesses to an event can give five different accounts.
We must honestly understand within ourselves that the events and circumstances that affect us are so complex that we can never fully understand them. The truth is, our decisions are based on less than perfect information, and there's a good chance the assumptions we've made in making those decisions are wrong.
Always be prepared that you may be incorrect - that you may have missed some vital fact. And be prepared to change your mind.
Also, understand that other people will likely see things very differently to you. They are also faced with having to create mental shortcuts to explain their infinitely complex reality. Their shortcuts probably differ greatly from your own.
If you find someone else's world view difficult to understand, consider that they have certainly chosen different short-cuts to interpret reality than you have. Looking at it through that prism, the differences between us can become much easier to accept.
Five excellent mind habits to develop
Want a more useful mind? Your mind is like a muscle, it can be trained to be stronger and more efficient. Here are some good ways to help you develop your brain into a better tool. I'm not saying they're easy, but they're definitely worthwhile.
Never let a word pass you by
From a university professor to a janitor, we all hear words that we don't understand. Building up a strong vocabulary is one of the best ways to increase your thinking power. Words are more than just symbols for objects, they often describe concepts. The more concepts we have available to us, the stronger our understanding of the world becomes.
An excellent habit to develop is to look up the meaning of any word you don't understand immediately that you hear or read it. Either invest in a good dictionary or use online dictionaries such as Google's define function. There are also books specifically written to improve your vocabulary.
Try doing everyday sums in your head
We live in a world dominated by numbers. They're everywhere - from prices to speed readings to medicine doses to the amount of memory in our computers. A high level of numeracy often equals a high level of success in many areas of life. You have opportunities every day to improve your numeracy by training your mind.
Next time you are presented with a simple math problem that needs solving, try solving it in your head. It may be how much each person has to pay splitting a bill at a restaurant, figuring out how much those six boxes of Cornflakes are going to cost you, or how many hours of overtime you'll have to work in order to buy that gift for your mother. Whatever it is, try to do the sum in your head.
If you are out of practice at this, you'll likely find it very difficult at first. Persist, and as with everything, you'll soon find it becomes easier.
Learn about something you wouldn't normally bother with
If you're into politics, pick up a magazine providing a point of view you don't subscribe to. If you've never had much interest in science, history, money matters, art, or literature, watch a television show about them. If there's something or someone you think is stupid, boring or not relevant to you, give that source another chance. Too many people expose themselves to the same old ideas again and again. It is the variety of ideas available in memory, rather than the opinion of those ideas, that makes a strong thinker.
Read non-fiction rather than fiction
Fiction is great. It's fun and entertaining, but generally it doesn't have much to teach us - or rather, it doesn't have anywhere near as much as non-fiction does. If you like to read to pass the time, pick up a non-fiction title. Many of them are more entertaining than you may expect.
Always be ready to question your own beliefs
Something unfortunate happens to us with each year we spend on this planet. We gradually become convinced of the correctness of our ideas. We become arrogant in other words. Make peace with the certain fact that there are a great number of things that you are wrong about. Rather than twisting the evidence to fit your theory - twist your theory to fit the evidence.
This habit can be one of the most difficult of all to develop, but it is also one of the most important.
Become a stubborn competitor
There's one character trait that unites almost all the successful people. It's seen in those with good careers, good financial positions, and attractive partners.
That character trait is that of stubborn competitor.
Whether it's the woman who wants to be more beautiful than those around her, the man who's not happy until he has a big house to bring up his family in, the businesswoman who wants to dominate her industry, or the teenager who wants to be the best tennis player ever - such people just can't be happy unless they're on top.
It's the world view of the winner, and you should develop it in yourself.
A strong competitive streak is the great motivator that drives our personalities to improve ourselves. If you can see people that are ahead of you, a determination to beat them will lead you to achieve more than you could have dreamed possible. Never be happy to be second best.
That doesn't mean being a sore loser, or withdrawing into depression when you can't be number one. It means having a deep determination to improve your game until you are the winner. To take the steps necessary to reach the top.
Fan the flame of competition inside you. Visualize what it would be like to get what you want and see that as the rightful state of things.
Don't let early difficulties prevent you from seizing that birthright. Everyone is hopeless when they first try out any activity . Whether its taking our first step, going out on our first date, starting our career, or starting our first business - to fail is the lot of the beginner.
What distinguishes winners from losers is the determination to take that failure and turn it into success. Inside their own mind, the winner can see past the humiliation of defeat towards the possibility of triumph.
"Let them laugh at me and see me as irrelevant," the winner thinks. "One day they'll see what a mistake they made."
All the successful person has to do is work at their game and one day they will take what's rightfully theirs - victory.
Keep a hunger to win and the will to endure today's defeat for tomorrow's triumph, and you too will join the ranks of the successful.
Finding your life's purpose
Many people find life a bit meaningless. They fall into a routine of living day-to-day, with little to look forward to. Each moment seems to slip by into the void, with little achieved and no feeling of moving forward.
In short, their life has no purpose.
These people realize that a purposeful life is more fulfilling. To get up every morning knowing that you have a reason to live is one of the best weapons in your arsenal against misery and depression. Yet deciding what that purpose is can be a difficult task.
Here's how to do it.
Imagine yourself sitting at home alone watching television. Suddenly, the TV starts flashing and blinking uncontrollably. Then it switches itself off altogether. There's a big flash of light, a puff of smoke, and standing in front of you is an angel.
"I have come from heaven to grant you three wishes," she says in a crystal voice. "Name any three things you desire and they will become true. No negative consequences, judgement or bad deeds shall come about as a result of these wishes. Just name them, and they will be yours."
You jump to your feet, a little shocked but not scared. The angel's so beautiful and radiant that you know she is nothing but pure goodness. You are convinced that she is a powerful and trustworthy being, who would never lie to you.
"I - I don't know what to say," you reply. "I haven't really had time to think about it."
The angel gazes down upon you with a face of pure warmth. "I understand," she says. "Make sure that you're alone in this same place exactly one week from now. I will return and that is when you can tell me your wishes. Think carefully though, as I will make this offer only once. Never again in your life will you be given this opportunity. You will not be judged on your choices or have to reveal them to anyone else. They are yours alone, private and known only to you and I."
She squints her eyes slightly and looks at you with slight disapproval. "And don't try to pull anything silly like wishing for one thousand more wishes."
With a flash of light, a puff of smoke, and a chorus of beautiful singing the angel disappears. Once again you are alone. Left to contemplate the most miraculous offering ever made.
So what would your wishes be? Remember that you don't have to decide straight away. You have an entire week, but not one second longer.
Play a game with yourself pretending that this has actually happened. Give yourself one week to come up with the answer - but no longer. That should easily be enough time.
Take a piece of paper right now and right at the top "My list of wishes". Carry that paper around with you for the next week, writing down ideas that come into your head. At the end of the week though, make sure there are only three left.
Write the final wishes down in as much detail as you can. You don't want the angel making any mistakes.
When you have your piece of paper with your final choices written on it, you've completed the mission. You've found your life's purpose.
There are many things that each of us would like to change about reality. Life can be difficult. Just keeping your head above water can be a task sometimes. That is why we work - because we are unsatisfied with the way things are.
We may be trying to change basic circumstances such as relieving our hunger, or we may be working towards lofty goals such as world peace or immortality. Whatever it is that we wish to change, there are some things that stand out for each of us individually.
When you look at your list of three wishes, you are seeing what it is about reality that you most want to change.
They may be selfish wishes or they may be selfless. They may be simple or they may be profound. It doesn't matter. They are your deepest wants and that's all that's important.
You should dedicate your life to making them come true. It may seem difficult to find a path towards that goal at this stage. I'll go into strategies for doing so in a later article.
Just know that on your piece of paper is written your life's purpose, and it's time to start taking concrete steps towards making those wishes come true.
How to gain more confidence
There are a lot of people in the world who feel that anxiety and lack of confidence significantly inhibit their pursuit of happiness. The question "how can I become more confident and less anxious?" is a very common one.
The first thing to realise is that anxiety, in itself, is not an entirely bad thing. To worry about possible dangers and try to anticipate them is a hard-wired survival insinct. Without it, our ancestors may well have been attacked by a wild animal, or frozen to death through lack of preparation for the coming winter.
The dangers we face in the modern world are usually less immediate than that, but they exist nonetheless. It is anxiety about our future that causes us to save money, educate ourselves and take out insurance. Wearing a seat-belt is a natural anxious reaction to the possibility we may be in an accident. Without these anxieties, we may well find ourselves in a very negative situation that we could easily have avoided with a little forethought.
Over-confidence can be an even larger problem than under-confidence. Prisons are filled with people who were confident they'd "get away with it". Accident wards have many injured patients who became too confident of their motorcycling, skiing or skateboarding skills.
As with most things, balance is the key. If you're finding that anxiety is limiting the options and rewards available to you, then you should take concrete steps to overcome it. Realise that worry is not something you should be too keen to banish altogether from your life, however.
The first point to convince yourself of is that life involves risk. We can never be completely safe from the dangers that we fear. No matter how careful we are, bad things can happen.
But even if a completely risk-free life was available, would we want it? Taking calculated risks can be what makes life worth living. Risk can be scary, but also exhilerating. It can make us feel alive.
There are few worthwhile rewards in life that don't come with some level of risk attached. No friendship can be formed without someone taking the chance of trying to begin it; two people cannot fall in love wihout risking the possibility of agonising heartache if that love fails; no great job can be offered to someone who hasn't taken the risk of applying for it; and no pay-off can be realised from an investment that wasn't undertaken.
If you want the rewards of life, you must be willing to take the risks necessary to get them. More than that, you have to be prepared to fail, for it is certain that some of your bets in the casino of life won't pay-off.
Confidence in most areas of life is grown through practice. Some people have more natural ability and in-built self-confidence than others. You may have been dealt a poor hand in these areas, but that's what you have to work with. If you are lacking in natural confidence, your only choices are to strive to overcome it, or let it have a negative effect on your life.
The only way to gain a more confident attitude in any activity is to just do it. If you're a beginner, you will almost certainly fail in your first few attempts. Be prepared to shake off that failure and try again. With each attempt at that activity, you will learn more about it - physically, mentally and emotionally. Often, you will find your early assumptions about it to be faulty. With time, you'll come to know it so well and be so comfortable with it that you'll wonder what you ever worried about.
Take the example of learning to ride a bike. Most children are very keen to learn this skill because of the promise of fun and greater mobility that it brings. But it also brings danger - that of falling off and injuring yourself. Yet most children accept that the risk of injury is worth the reward of fun and mobility.
And so, a child climbs onto a bike for the first time, grips the handlebars, turns the peddles and - CRASH - he falls off and scrapes some skin from his knee. He is now very wary of his new toy, but after a time, he tries again. He turns the peddles and takes off. This is it - he's riding a bike! And then, inevitably, CRASH! More blood and more tears. On his third attempt, he goes even farther before colliding with a tree. On his fourth attempt, he rides around the entire block before slipping on some gravel and scratching his elbow.
Within a fortnight, the child is confidently using his bike. It has expanded his horizons and allowed him greater freedom than he could have imagined. He still knows that he will probably crash one day, but the taste of liberty the bike gives him is worth that risk. He's now teaching himself how to do wheelies.
This analogy is typical of almost any skill - from sport, to social life, to career, to investment. You may be terrified of talking to people in groups, or going to job interviews, or talking to members of the opposite sex. At the same time, you probably haven't had much experience of these activities. Like all new things, your early attempts were probably a little clumsy and felt awkward. With each mistake though, your skills will improve.
The way to get better at something - and therefore become more confident at it - is to gain as much experience in it as you can.
Sometimes, the hardest step can be the first. Exposing yourself to the risk of failure is very difficult, and your first reaction may be to avoid taking that risk altogether. This psychological inhibition can be very difficult to overcome. It can feel like a wall within your mind that's painful to push through. Nevertheless, push through it you must. Take the risk, prepare yourself for the inevitable mistakes, and just do it.
You already know what the rewards are that await on the other side of this learning curve. So get going and start training yourself in that activity. The more quickly you get through the difficult initial stages, the more quickly those rewards will be yours.
Six things likely to make you happier in the long-term
I've previously looked at how to get a short-term "hit" of happiness. Now I'll explore the more important subject of long-term happiness.
Obviously, we are all individuals, with different wants and needs. There are some needs that are broadly common to us all, however, even if we sometimes like to pretend we're "different" with regards to them. If you're missing one or more of the below, you're likely not as happy as you could be.
Moving towards bettering your situation in one of the areas mentioned will almost certainly increase your general satisfaction with life. Alternatively, finding yourself moving backwards in one of the areas will probably make you feel less satisfied.
I won't go into strategies for achieving within these areas at the moment. I'll save those for the broader discussion they require. Firstly, my aim is simply to identify what these general life-satisfaction zones are.
So without any further introduction, here they are:
1. Being involved in a loving relationship
More than almost anything else in life, most people long to be in a loving relationship with a significant other person. The desire for this outcome is so strong, that it seems to be hard-wired. It's at the centre of our very being.
The evidence that those in a good, long-term relationship are generally more happy is all around us. There are plenty of surveys that tell us so, but we don't need to be told. We can see it with our own eyes. We can feel in our hearts that this is one thing we really want.
Such a connection can also be the building block of a family, which can extend the initial loving couple into a close-knit emotional group.
A loving relationship is the foundation upon which most people who achieve the goal of happiness build.
2. Being in good health
Bad health, be it mental, emotional or physical, makes it very difficult to enjoy the good things that life has to offer. Poor health leaves us feeling depressed, lethargic, numb and just downright sick. People who suffer drops in their level of health through accident, disease or aging gain a fast appreciation of just how important it is to their well-being.
Maintaining a good level of health is an essential part of being content with life.
3. Having satisfying employment
Most of us work because of financial necessity. Being at work takes up a big chunk of our time - not only actually being there, but also commuting to it, recovering from it and thinking about it. Many jobs are dull, unsatisfying, and draining - both emotionally and physically.
Yet work also forms an important part of our identity. One of the first things people ask upon meeting us is what we do. It's rare to meet a happy unemployed person, even if they're not financially burdened by that unemployment.
Finding more satisfying work often translates directly into spending more of your time in a satisfying way. How can such an outcome do anything but increase your happiness?
4. Being financially independent
Financial independence can be measured on a crude scale. It's largely a factor of how many assets we have. For the sake of simplicity, by assets I'm referring broadly to resources we own that we can use to support ourselves, such as cash or shares.
A simple scale of financial independence looks like this, with the most desirable level being at the top and the least desirable level at the bottom:
being able to live however we like without having to work, although we may still choose to do so,
being able to live comfortably without work,
being able to take some time off if we desire, but knowing we'll eventually be forced to return to work,
being forced to work to support ourselves right now due to a lack of assets,
being forced to work in order to pay off debt.
We are all prisoners of financial necessity. In order to live, we must have money to spend - on food, on clothing, on shelter. In addition to this, money can bring us some of the enjoyable things in life - comfort, entertainment, travel and so on.
The level of financial independence we have is the distance between ourselves and this financial necessity becoming a problem. Generally, this distance is measured in assets.
The more financial independence we have, the more happy we are likely to be.
5. Having a good social life
We are social creatures. Spending time with each other renews our spirits. It helps us to laugh, deal with tragedy, examine possibilities, and solve our problems. There are also many activities that are just more fun if you do them with others.
Having a group of friends to share your life with is an important component of happiness.
6. Having a sense of purpose
Miserable people often complain that they can't see the point of going on. Without a reason to exist, we feel aimless and despondent. A goal to focus on is something we all need. It provides us with something to look forward to.
Such goals vary from person to person. Some people want to raise a loving family, others want to achieve a charitable aim, others want to build a successful business.
Having something to strive for makes us want to go on. It helps to make us feel alive.
So there they are - my six foundations for a happy life. Each is quite broad and ready for you to interpret in your own way.
It’s not easy being happy when you’re not in control
The basis for happiness is having control over your own existence.
This is a simple and obvious statement, yet who among us has not ceded such control before? To assume responsibility for our lives can be a struggle, often it’s easier just to let outside forces take over.
So the smoker has another cigarette, the alcoholic has another drink or the drug addict takes another hit because “it’s an addiction and I have to”. The obsessed lover allows their emotions to be controlled by someone who may not even care for them in return. And the bully victim lets others make him do things he doesn’t want to.
Opportunities to allow outside forces to take control of our lives are everywhere. Other people, circumstances, and even our own bodies and emotions can make demands upon us that we may find almost impossible not to comply with. These forces are usually indifferent to our happiness, and may even be downright hostile towards it.
If you allow these forces to take control over you, finding happiness will be very difficult. Ultimately, each of is responsible for our own well-being. If we expect forces outside of ourselves to take care of us, we’re likely to be very disappointed.
Here are some influences that many people let take control over their lives:
Disapproval of others
Desire for love
Once we give up command over some aspect of our life to an outside force, it can be very difficult to get it back again. It’s not impossible, however.
The first step to regaining control is to admit to yourself that you’ve lost it.
For example, one of the hardest steps reformed alcoholics go through on the way to recovery is the first one – admitting they have a problem. This is true in almost any area where a person has ceded power to an outside influence – be they a drug, another person, or an organisation.
Look at your own life. Are you really in control? Or is somebody or something else working the levers?
This can require deep examination, as often the outside force tries to disguise its influence from us. It makes it easier for it to maintain power.
Once you’ve identified that you have a problem, the next step is to seize that power back. At the centre of your being lies your will – the conscious you. That is the part that should be in control of the decisions you make, and nothing else must influence that process.
Nobody and nothing likes to give up power. Whether it’s a person, a group, or a part of yourself such as your appetite or addiction, you can expect a fight.
Once the fight begins, the forces outside your will try anything to get you to concede and return to the status quo. The will threaten, beg, lie, whisper, yell and demand you return to them what they feel is rightfully theirs.
You should expect this and be prepared for it. The secret to overcoming these desperate measures is not to try and provide yourself with hidden crutches. Your opponent will likely find them and try to kick them out from under you.
Instead, prepare for the fight. Look forward to it. Relish it.
You are the one that’s in control now, and your opponent is going to have to deal with it – whether they like it or not.
What could feel better than knowing that and seeing the results from your resolve?
A smoker, who’s determined to regain control by quitting, can expect her addiction not to give up easily. She can be certain that it will make life as difficult as it can for her. It will whisper lies into her ear and make sure she thinks of nothing else but having another cigarette. It will scream at her and demand that she concede to its wishes.
But if she is strong, with time, its influence will become weaker. Through a sheer act of will, the smoker will show her addiction that it is beaten. It will see that it no longer has control over her, and will retreat and hide back into the hole it emerged from.
The same is true of the bullied son. Once his mother sees that he is asserting control, she will try anything to prevent him from doing so. She will threaten, ridicule and scream. Every strategy she can think of to prevent the abomination of him being back in control of his life will be utilised. She will try to show him that he is small and powerless, and that he may as well abandon this impossible quest immediately.
But these are signs of weakness, not strength. Beneath her seeming total power and control lies a pathetic fear. A fear that perhaps this time he will actually do it, that he will be the one making the decisions for himself.
If he shows her that his will is immovable, gradually she will come to accept the new situation. She will see that he is no longer hers to bully and control. Perhaps she will even desert him, but most likely she will stay and treat him with a newfound respect.
He has faced his fear and seized back control. He’s nothing less than a hero.
You too can become a hero over your own existence. Identify the areas where you’ve given up control to an outside force, then seize it back. Be prepared for a fight, but look forward to it, don’t fear it.
Expect to win. Tell yourself that nothing is strong enough to beat your resolve to succeed.
When you’ve won and are back in power, you will find it much easier to be happy. In fact, such control is the basis of all happiness.
Not only that, but you can congratulate yourself on a battle fought and an enemy defeated.
Understand the true nature of reality
Your life will never be perfect, but you can certainly make it better than it is now. The first step to achieving this is learning to understand the true nature of reality. It’s only by understanding the situation we find ourselves in, that we can do something about it. In fact, many of the great scientific and technical achievements of humanity prove this point.
For example, for most of the history of civilization, people believed that the Earth was at the centre of the universe, with the sun the moon and the planets orbiting it. It was Nicolaus Copernicus, the Polish mathematician, whose finding in the 16th century that the sun lay at the centre of the solar system that turned previous knowledge on its head. This discovery was one of the key events in modern science, and led us directly to the modern world.
It is humanity’s understanding of physics, chemistry, biology and other scientific disciplines that allow us to have such mastery over our existence. Without this background understanding, we could have no cars, aeroplanes or electricity. It was by understanding the nature of reality through science that we improved our existence. We looked past what appeared to be or what we hoped was the truth (the Earth was the centre of the universe) to see what actually was.
You can use this same technique to improve your own life. I’m not suggesting that you conduct scientific experiments on yourself, instead always do your best to understand the true nature of reality. For it is only with this knowledge that you can make good decisions.
Most people already think they have a pretty good idea of what’s going on around them, but in many ways they’re like those that believed the Earth was at the centre of the universe. They’re unwilling to face up to the fact that what they believe to be the truth may be wrong. Through wishful thinking, delusional despair, or just plain laziness, people give up on enquiring into the nature of things. They already think they know it all, so why bother re-examining their beliefs?
This attitude can lead to frustration, anger and misery when reality fails to behave in the way we expect it to. I can’t possibly be wrong, people think, so it’s the world that’s faulty. Don’t you make the same mistake.
The first step to becoming educated is realizing that you know nothing.
The world around us is complex beyond belief. You will never even come close to understanding everything that affects your life. Experts in any particular field soon discover that the more they know about something, the less they realize they know. You are ignorant about virtually everything and will remain so throughout your life. But the less ignorant you are, the better decisions you can make and the more power you will have over your existence.
So keep an open mind. A great many of the things you hold as sacrosanct truth are probably incorrect. When you hear an opinion or a finding that disagrees with your beliefs, stop yourself from dismissing it out of hand. If the world doesn’t behave in the way you expect it to, you’re probably the one that’s wrong. Rather than resigning yourself to despair, re-examine your beliefs – can you learn something from this that will help you in the future?
Read everything you can get your hands on, and do so with an open mind. Challenge yourself with views that you find stupid, boring, or possibly even offensive. What can these views teach you about the world?
As the old saying goes, with knowledge comes power. So gain a little more knowledge, and with it a lot more power.