Wanting others to like and admire you is a natural human drive that practically everybody has. Many times when people have too little of the drive it becomes a disorder, like psychopathy. However, it is not approved of by our society, and so, ironically, we try to be approved of by society by not consciously or outwardly trying to get approval. The problem with this is that since we’re not aware of this drive, or won’t look at it directly at least, we often end up doing things to please people instead of doing what we actually want without even realizing it.
I reiterate: it’s fine to try to make others like you. It’s just that it’s better to do it consciously. This blog is called deliberate happiness for a reason. If you think about pleasing people as one of your goals and pursue it on purpose, you can find paths that lead to a helluva lot more flourishing than bumbling about with your eyes closed and hoping for the best.
The main method I’ve seen work for this is to do what you enjoy then find people who like and respect you for doing those things. Do you like cheesy jokes, relaxing, and comedy movies? Find others who do too! Do you like anime, video games, and computers? There are sub-communities where your obsession will be a badge of honor! How about reading fantasy novels, talking about politics over coffee, and reading quietly on the beach? You can find people who think that’s the coolest thing ever. Many communities might give you a funny look if you want to dance naked around a campfire under the stars, but some will love your exuberance and come join you.
So we have a way to make sure we have the human need of belonging met while still doing what makes us most happy, but how do we know what we actually enjoy? It feels like this should be an easy question. I mean, can’t you just notice what you like or not? It’s tricky though, because we subconsciously are trying to impress. It’s respectable to like Shakespeare, classical music, and the classics. It’s cool to like parties, travel, and certain drinks. Sometimes you might genuinely like these things, but often, you find them boring or stressful, but are doing it to get some social points. How do you distinguish between these two states?
One tool I like is to imagine a scenario (ideally a real one, but you can also just use your imagination) where nobody will ever know that you did it. You’ll never be able to tell them, share it on social media, put it on your bookshelf, or any other way to communicate that it happened. It’s just you. Do you still do it?
A common example is reading the classics. If nobody ever knew you did it, would you really read Shakespeare, written in such a different English that each sentence takes forever to parse? Or would you watch an amazing drama on Netflix? Sure, Shakespeare makes timeless commentary on the human experience, but so does Game of Thrones, and it’s so much more entertaining, let alone a lot less sexist and racist.
This is by far not a comprehensive guide to living the life you actually want, but I hope it provides a couple of tools for you. And don’t just read this, nod your head in agreement, then move on. Take a moment, right now, and take five minutes to apply it to your life. Imagine what you would do if nobody would ever know, do it, then find people who like and admire you for doing so.
An important concept I’ve learned over the years is that when you are setting and achieving multiple goals, you can often focus on one and another will happen naturally as a byproduct. This way you don’t have to really think about this other goal or have it influence your decisions, taking off some mental load.
Take for example making the world a better place and being respected by your community. (Being admired by others is a very common drive, though our culture discourages admitting it, either to others or ourselves.) So you’re in a situation where you really want to be well thought of by your parents and friends, but you also see the suffering in the world and want to help. You don’t have to pursue each separately. If you work hard on compassionate endeavors, you will naturally gain the respect of your community. Altruism is an admired trait.
The general principle is that when you are pursuing what you want in one domain, some others will often take care of themselves. Take a moment to think of how this might apply to your life, and see if you can ignore some side goals, trusting that they’ll come about naturally while you move towards your main ones.
A thirst to self-improve and achieve is a double-edged sword. It can lead to a life filled with meaning and growth. It also holds the danger of cultivating a chronic sense of inadequacy or greed. Always chasing the next improvement, the next achievement, satisfaction fleeting and quickly dismissed. Never feeling like who you are or what you’ve done is enough.
This is a big problem, yet abandoning your goals hardly seems like a good solution. Is there a way to have the benefits without the cons? The approach I find works for me is what I call opticontentment.
Opticontentment is a term I coined because I couldn’t find a word for it in the English language. It’s a portmanteau of the words “optimizing” and “contentment” because it fuses the two concepts. It means to be optimizing, trying to improve and grow, while at the same time being content and happy with where you’re currently at. It could be characterised as replacing the sentence, “My life is good, but it could get better” with, “My life is good, and it can get even better”. What this looks like is a deep gratitude for what you’ve already done, for who you are, and wanting to do even more.
How do you achieve this state? Having the word for it in the first place will help, providing a way for your brain to quickly access the concept. The next step is to try to internalize it. You can use the methods I wrote about here to internalize new beliefs or thought patterns. These are a good first few steps, and I feel opticontented about them. I have every intention of discovering and developing even more techniques on implementing them, and I’ll be sure to share them with you when I do!
When you have an emotion, first ask if it’s valid, then ask if it’s proportionate. I originally read this gem in a book on anxiety, but it can really be applied to any emotion.
You can view most emotions as having a purpose or making an assessment of the world. Fear protects you from danger. Anger protects you and those you care about from injustice. Disgust protects you from disease and poisons. Emotions carry messages. Ignoring them or trying to push them away will often just make them try to say their message louder.
A skillful alternative reaction to your feelings is to ask yourself first, is this message true? Your worry says you’re in danger. Are you really? You anger says a boundary has been transgressed. Is that actually true? Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes when you take a step back, you’ll realize that the emotion is misfiring. You’re scared of a snake that is small, not poisonous, and not aggressive. You’re angry at your partner for snapping at you, but really, you just had a bad sleep and an impartial observer would say that they had spoken in a neutral tone.
This step often diffuses a lot of the emotion. It won’t immediately go away, since most feelings take awhile to dissipate from the body. However, it won’t be fed by recurring thoughts and beliefs that keep stoking the fire. If it’s not fed more firewood, it will eventually die down.
What about when it is valid? Sometimes you’re anxious about bears, and it’s because you’re in bear country and you saw some bear scratches on a tree recently. Maybe you’re feeling angry because somebody did indeed do something wrong. The next question is whether the response is proportionate to the size of the problem. If you’re in bear country, your odds certainly go up of an attack, but you’ve taken all reasonable precautions and the frequency of bear attacks is vanishingly low. Maybe a minor amount of anxiety might be warranted, but feeling twitchy about every sound in the woods is too high.
This step can help because we often actually want to keep the feelings that make us miserable. This is because we think they’re useful. We think being anxious will push us to succeed, that anger will protect our rights and change people’s behavior. This may or may not be true, but often the “dose” of the emotion needed to accomplish this is much lower than what you’re feeling. In fact, the dose might be so high as to have a negative impact. Your anxiety might cripple your performance, your anger might make people dig in their heels or simply get angry back. When you realize that the emotion might be valid but not proportionate, it removes a block that stops you from fixing the emotion. Now instead of having two warring desires in your head, both to be safe and to be less stressed, you can simply have the goal to reduce your worries to a more useful level.
Again, these questions in themselves are usually not enough to alleviate the emotion in the moment, but it can often be the deep work that can get to the root of the actual issue, preventing it in the future, or removing a barrier that’s stopping you solving the real problem.
Nowadays many people move frequently, either for work or living a nomadic lifestyle. While this can lead to a much richer life (both financially and experientially), it can leave a gaping hole when it comes to long term friendships. I feel like I have learned how to maintain long distance friendships far more than most people I know, largely thanks to it being a necessity with my constant moving, so I thought I’d share some lessons I’ve learned.
1. Set up regular Skypes
Whatever you do, don’t just say, “Let’s talk again sometime” and leave it at that. Set up weekly, biweekly, or monthly Skypes. Whatever is the default happens; that’s why it’s so easy to maintain relationships in school and university. The default is seeing your friends every day. This is true for local friendships too, but especially for remote ones because you won’t have the triggers of seeing them at unrelated events to remind you that you should hangout. Set up a few regulars so that you can maintain a level of friendship that is a lot more satisfying than receiving a congratulations on your wedding that happened a year ago.
2. IM or text a lot
Skypes are good, but to really maintain your relationship, it helps to IM. The benefits of IM compared to other mediums of communication is that it’s considered OK to just spontaneously talk to somebody instead of arranging an hour two weeks out and it’s not set to a certain time period. You could just send two messages back and forth or chat for hours. This allows you to get and give emotional support if something just happened, to share those random shower thoughts you have, and just generally keep the relationship alive.
3. Encourage spontaneous calls
If there was one gripe I have about modern culture that’s not actually all that serious, it would be that people are against spontaneous calls. They want you to book something weeks out. Calling without texting first is considered rude. This leads to much less close relationships because neither of you can reach out when you need it, and people think they have a lot less spare time than they actually have. They might make you book two weeks out when actually they’re feeling lonely that evening binge-watching Netflix. Being able to call just to chat is a huge boon to a friendship, local or remote. Of course first if they’re OK with it because some people are quite opposed, and let them know that you’re open to it. Just be OK with people saying that they’re busy and you’ll have access to a whole new realm of social connection.
4. Have friends on different time zones
This applies less if you don’t move internationally very frequently, but if you do, this is essential. Otherwise you might move to a new place and find that all of your friends are asleep until 10:00 PM your time. I try to have friends in North America, Europe, and Australasia to make it so that if I feel like chatting in the morning or the evening, there’s always somebody awake and not working.
In conclusion, loneliness is endemic in our modern age where people are less location dependent, so being able to maintain a long distance friendship is extremely good for people’s mental health. I hope these pointers will help you and others be able to do so so we can live in a flexible but connected world.
One of the most common and mundane reasons to get angry is that somebody else is getting mad at us for “no good reason”. In some part of our brain we think, “It is unfair they are upset. I will stand up for myself! If I get angry, they will realize their misplaced ire and repent.” Of course, if you take just a few seconds to think on this, you’ll find that this has an extremely low success rate. In fact, usually it just prompts them to get even more irate. Because from their perspective, often they didn’t even realize that they were expressing anger (or it was at least justified irritation), and all of a sudden you just got mad out of nowhere or are becoming defensive instead of hearing their important grievances.
The bright side is that in your anger is the seed of a solution. Say the person said, “Stop being angry!” what would you say? You’d probably say something along the lines of, “I can’t.” Either it’s justified and so won’t just go away, or you can’t just “turn off” your anger. If you could, maybe you would, but that’s not how your emotions work.
And therein is the lesson. Just as you cannot turn off your anger, neither can the other person. Using this empathy to realize that they cannot stop their flashes of annoyance any more than you can, that they feel they are right as much as you do. That emotions are not like light switches where one can simply turn it off.
Of course, this insight won’t instantly make you stop getting angry in response to others for that very reason. You cannot just stop having reactions. However, if you work on internalizing this idea, you’ll find yourself reacting less frequently, with less intensity, and you won’t feed your anger as much. You’ll be less likely to ruminate forever about how unfair it is that that person got mad at you and realize that we’re all just imperfect humans, doing our best, with emotions that are far more complicated than a light switch.
When you’re feeling anxious, upset, angry, or otherwise in a bad emotional state, a good general approach to fix it, in escalating levels of time and probability of success, is to do emotional CPR. CPR stands for cognitive, physiological, and reset.
Cognitive refers to cognitive approaches, using just your mind. They’re usually the quickest and least intensive ways of fixing something. They aren’t necessarily easy per se, but they are not very disruptive. If you’re having a bad time at the office or in a difficult conversation, you can do it without anybody noticing. They also are often quite quick.
These involve things like:
If those don’t work, changing your physiology will often do the trick. Sometimes your thoughts cause your feelings, but sometimes your feelings cause your thoughts, and a way to kickstart your feelings is to change your chemistry. This can be things like:
Lastly, if none of those work, you can do what I call a hard emotional reset. If physiology is like closing a program and restarting it to see if it stops glitching, an emotional reset is restarting the whole computer. What constitutes an emotional reset will vary from person to person, but the general approach is to pull out all the stops. Some examples might be:
Whatever your cup of tea is, it’s one of the things that reliably gets your mind off the problem (perceived or actual) and gets you in a good mood. This, understandably, should be saved for last because it takes more time and energy investment. Sometimes it can be short, but from what I’ve seen, for most people, if the things before haven’t worked, usually it takes at least an hour to fully reset.
So the quick recap is:
I hope that the next time you’re feeling down that following this method will help you.
If you want to get into a meditative state more consistently, one method I find useful is to read poetry about meditation. This isn’t unusual. Many meditators describe how talking or reading about these states can often trigger them to happen. Poetry is particularly well suited for this compared to prose because it’s more in the realm of emotions and experiences rather than analytical thought, which is one of the foundations of meditation.
A good way to use this to augment your practice is to read a related poem before or during your sit. In the former, simply read the poem, savor it, then start meditating with that kickstart. In the latter, use the poem as your meditation object. The thing you focus on does not need to be the breath. That is just the most common one. You can either read a stanza of the poem, then meditate, then read another, then meditate, or you can read the poem very slowly, really being present for every line. Another method is to simply choose one line or stanza and use that as your mantra, repeating it again and again, focusing on each syllable, either out loud or in your head.
To find a poem you can either google them or write your own. I find writing my own to be very useful because they are tailor made to my experiences and the approaches I find most useful. I will include one here as an example, but you might find others more to your taste.
In every moment
There is peace
Find it now,
Don’t need a reason
Don’t need a cause
Joy is there
Relax into it
Find your joy
Enjoy the sights
Drink deep this moment
One problem when you’re sad is that listening to a song that will usually boost your mood will seem sickeningly sweet. However, listening to happy music is often a really powerful way to get you out of a funk. Listening to sad music can sometimes feel cathartic, but sometimes it can just reinforce the negative emotions. It can make you feel sadder or angrier, confirming your view that the world sucks, people are terrible, and nihilism is probably correct.
A way out of this problem is to keep a list of songs that start sad or angry, then slowly morph into happy or inspirational tracks. Whenever you run across a song that fits this criteria, add it to your list, then, when you’re in a terrible state, you can pull it up and listen to it. The melancholic start will fit with your current mood, but like a nicer version of slowly boiling a frog, you’ll gradually be shifted into something more uplifting.
Habits aren’t just about flossing and exercising. Habits of thought can be far more impactful on your life, yet most people don’t think deliberately about how to change them. CBT does try to do this, but I have found its meta-approaches for replacing distorted thoughts with healthier thoughts to be sub-optimal. It’s easy to forget the idea you thought of in therapy or while thinking about how to have a more realistic and happy outlook. You do it for a few days, then life gets in the way, it slips your mind, and you’re back to your default patterns.
A trick I have found useful for this is to use Habitica, a gamified habit forming system, to help retrain your neural pathways. The quick explanation of Habitica is that when you do a behaviour you would like to do, you get coins which you can spend on various things in the game. To make this work with CBT, you simply input the desired replacement thought pattern, then you get rewarded every time you remember to do so. This sets up a system to remember and has helped me with an enormous number of patterns that led to unwarranted feelings of guilt and anxiety, and I hope it can help you too.
Katherine Xio Savoie
I'm an effective altruist who co-founded Charity Science. This blog is where I write about everything, particularly happiness, health, life hacks, and psychology.