The Changing Self

In Buddhist philosophy there are two central teachings to the origin of suffering. One is impermanence, the idea that everything is in a constant state of flux. The second is clinging; when we cling to conditions in a changing world, we bind ourselves to suffering.

Clinging to both “bad experiences” and “good experiences” can be a source of suffering. Because when we cling to negative feelings, we prolong their power over our thoughts and actions. Instead of letting them take their course and then letting go, we hold onto these feelings and even begin to identify with them. And when we cling to positive feelings, we also attach to them as our only source of happiness, but we simultaneously set ourselves up for suffering once those positive feelings inevitably go away.

If everything is constantly changing, then the key to living a healthy life must be embracing this change as it unfolds, rather than attaching our happiness to a certain set of conditions. When we learn how to ride out these ebbs and flow of life, we paradoxically find contentment in the present moment (because we learn to embrace whatever is as it is).

Full acceptance of the present moment also includes an acceptance of its transient nature. And full acceptance of yourself also includes an acceptance that you too are always changing. From moment-to-moment, it often feels as though we are a static entity. But when you view yourself 10-20 years in the past, or what you will be 10-20 years in the future, you’ll often find that you can change drastically from one phase of your life to the next.

I find these ideas very conducive to personal development and mental health. Actually, the whole notion that “thing’s change” has helped me overcome countless internal battles over the past few years.

But it takes practice. Mainly, daily mindfulness, and actual eye-witness of this change as it takes place in the present moment. Conceptions of our “static self” can only be de-mystified by daily meditation into the nature of our changing selves. Change is not just an esoteric concept, but an observable, empirical truth that can be discovered by anyone who watches their daily experiences on a consistent basis. One of the my favorite meditations in de-mystifying this fixed self is objectless meditation. It is a pure mindfulness practice where the observer doesn’t try to concentrate on any one object, but instead allows their awareness to expand to the full range of their experience. During such a meditation your object of focus will shift between different sensations in your body, as well as different thoughts, emotions, memories, and imaginations. A person who has developed a strong sense of mindfulness will learn how to better engage in this process of change without clinging to any singular aspect of their experience.

And the ultimate goal of your meditation is to take this awareness into your daily activities. That means embracing change in all aspects of your life: your health, your relationships, your career, your personal habits, etc. All aspects of your being are in a dynamic state of flux. And keeping this simple truth in the back of your mind at all times can do wonders.

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Classification of Emotions

Psychologists have yet to fully tackle the question “How many emotions do we have?”

Part of the difficulty is because our experiences are so complex and involve so many different factors, so distinguishing one emotion from another is a lot like drawing lines of sand in the desert. It can be hard to determine where one emotions ends or another begins.

Even when we analyze a commonsense emotion like “happiness” or “anger,” we know from everyday experience that these emotions come in many different degrees, qualities, and intensities. In addition, our experiences are often comprised of multiple emotions at once, which adds another dimension of complexity to our emotional experience.

Despite how difficult these distinctions may be, plenty of psychologists have attempted to classify our emotions into different categories.

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Workload Recovery Influenced By Leisure Time At Home

In a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology, researchers found that the balance between housework and leisure activity played a crucial role in workload recovery and lowering stress levels.

Researchers found that in families where both spouses work, individuals who spent more time doing housework reported higher evening cortisol levels (a biochemical correlated with stress) and poorer afternoon-to-evening recovery.

While husbands often spent more time on leisure activities than their wives, the study also indicated that when husbands help out with housework this can lead to lower stress levels for wives (although slightly higher stress levels for husbands). In addition, husbands whose wives spent less time on leisure activities had better after-work recovery times.

There a couple lessons here. One is that a cooperative household where both husbands and wives share housework is better for overall reduction of stress rather than an uncooperative household (where one spouse has a significant more amount of work than the other). The second lessons is one that I frequently mention on this blog: leisure time is important for life satisfaction (and, my guess, probably overall productivity as well).

But here’s the thing. People always say they are too busy to enjoy themselves. They come home from a rough day at work to find more and more chores to do: pick up kids from school, help with homework, cook, clean, pay bills, etc. But I believe that however busy you may be, it is absolutely necessary that you find time for leisure and relaxation. Here are some suggestions to help get work done and still find time for relaxation:

  • Find ways to divvy up the work (have kids do small chores, carpool, etc.)
  • Try to only focus on tasks that are absolutely necessary.
  • Don’t let your inner clean freak get the best of you. Cleaning the house once a week should be fine.
  • Make a schedule and leave time to actually enjoy yourself.
  • The kinds of breaks you take are important: 20 minutes of meditation may be more rejuvenating to you than watching 2 hours of TV. Try new things and find what works best.
  • Conscious practice over time can build a stable routine.
  • Try to see if you can make some chores more fun by blurring the line between work and play.
  • Also lower stress levels by taking more quality breaks during your workday (start by checking out this list of 50 Stress Relievers That Take 5 Minutes or Less).
  • Don’t be afraid to take a 30-60 minute nap (when done right, it can boost alertness and productivity).

Again, these are just suggestions. And I realize some of this stuff is commonsense, but it’s worth reminding people about. I find people often underestimate the importance of leisure, but it’s something that – in my mind – is crucial to both productivity and life satisfaction. We need to know how to recharge our batteries. I’ve seen people just try to “push through” ridiculous work schedules; maybe sometimes it’s necessary, but it shouldn’t become the norm. Focus on smart work, not hard work, and part of that intelligence definitely includes well-spent leisure time. Enjoy yourself.


Hugging Yourself Can Reduce Pain


Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist at Stanford University, recently wrote about a study that suggests we can reduce physical pain by hugging ourselves.

The study included 20 participants who willingly received small pulses of pain by an infrared laser. The researchers found that during trials when participants had their arms crossed in front of them they reported less pain. Each participant was also hooked up to an EEG, in which brain scans showed smaller spikes of brain activity during those same trials.

Neuroscientist Giandomenico Iannetti from University College London suspects that when we cross our arms in front of ourselves this confuses the brain when processing tactile stimuli. In a way, it redirects our attention from the source of pain to this other tactile overload, which can often help reduce pain. It’s similar to when you pinch yourself in order to distract yourself from another long-lasting and irritating sensation somewhere else in the body. Of course, the lift is usually very temporary, but it does work.

Kelly McGonigal mentions in her article how she prefers the crossed arms position because it mimics the act of giving yourself a hug and expressing self-compassion. That makes me wonder if the intention of giving oneself a hug would lead to even greater reductions in pain. I’d also like to see future research testing to see how this generalizes to psychological pain as well.

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Toxic Happiness: The Downsides of Too Much Joy

Rarely in life are things just “black” vs. “white” or “good” vs. “bad” – but instead different shades of grey.

In my post Depression: The Yin of Happiness, I describe how depressive states aren’t all bad. They can sometimes motivate us to reevaluate our lives and solve personal problems. So in many ways a period of depression can actually guide us to be more happy in the long-term.

The key idea is that while depression may usually be seen as solely “bad” or “negative,” it can actually serve a positive function, especially if our depression is triggered by events that we have control over.

On the other end, while depression can sometimes lead to more happiness, too much happiness can also sometimes lead to more depression.

A recent study by psychologists at Yale University has identified several downsides to “too much” happiness. Here are the main pitfalls they’ve found:

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