Improve Your Thinking
Give it a little more thought.
Collaborators can help...
Improving Your Performance By Being A Better Thinker
In Think Like A Freak, by Stephen Levitt and Stephen Dubner (authors of the two best sellers, Freakonomics and Super Freakomonics), the authors point out that "most people are too busy to rethink the way they think - or even to spend much time thinking at all. When was the last time you sat for an hour of pure, unadulterated thinking?...George Bernard Shaw, a world-class writer, and a founder of the London School of Economics, noted this thought deficit many years ago. 'Few people think more than two or three times a year. I think I have made an international reputation for myself by thinking once or twice a week.'
So the first thing to do, basically enough, is to make enough time for thinking. The second is to think more correctly by re-training your brain to think differently about problems and to avoid some common thinking errors. How we think has a substantial effect on the conclusions we reach, and consequently, on the actions we take and the results we get. It's important to take the long view.
In a commencement address Steve Jobs gave, he said, "It was impossible to connect the dots looking forward when I was in college. But it was very, very clear looking backwards ten years later."
How can you deal with this phenomenon? Talk to others who are farther down the track than you are, to those who have had similar experiences, and to experts experienced in those areas who will have a broad purview over what's happened with many others in similar situations. That can give you more of an idea of what to expect later, which can help guide you now. It's always good to talk with those who have more experience than you do. They can not only suggest things you may not have thought of but tell you things, or ask you things, that can guide you away from poor decisions.
This section will consider some very useful guides to thinking in general, and specifically, for thinking about happiness and designing a road to success, with an emphasis on avoiding common errors. While it may take you a while to read and absorb what's contained here, the content is highly instructive.
Thinking Fast and Slow - Daniel Kahneman
This is a well written book with good clarity, especially considering the complexity of much of it. It makes it easy to realize the difference between a Nobel prize winner like Daniel Kahneman and many of the rest of us. There are many statements of his principles, and those of others, in this summary. While not always mentioned due to space limitations, the findings are backed by research, which are detailed in the book. As you begin to read, you may think that the summary appears to be only a collection of disconnected statements. There is a unity to them however, which will become readily apparent as you progress through it.
This book is not a fast read. It takes time to properly absorb its guiding principles, but it would be time well spent. It's also a good place to take some notes, so you can keep some of Kahneman's guidance readily available. This section takes patience, but provides worthwhile rewards that can help anyone improve her/his thinking.
Many decision makers are paid to think. This book suggests better ways to do it and pitfalls to avoid. The principles are also applicable to thinking in everyday life, not restricted solely to organizational thinking. One of the biggest threats any decision maker faces is risk. This book suggests ways to try to minimize it.
Kahneman's basic premise is that we have two types of thinking:
- automatic, instinctual thinking (System 1 - Thinking Fast)
- the more thoughtful, analytical type of thinking (System 2 - Thinking Slow).
There is no way that this brief summary can provide anywhere near the depth of topics that are covered. It is only intended to provide the general flavor of the book and to demonstrate various errors in thinking, obviously an important consideration for decision makers in any field. It also suggests that it is not always wise to place sole reliance on the opinion of experts.
Chapter 1 - The Characters of the Story
Luck plays a large role in any story of success; it is always easy to identify a small change in the story that would have turned a remarkable achievement into a mediocre outcome. The situation has provided a cue; this cue has given the expert access to information stored in memory, and the information provides the answer. Intuition is nothing more and nothing less than recognition.
Attention can be moved away from an unwarranted focus, primarily by focusing on another target. (The way to deal with it is to start thinking about something else or doing something else.)
Multi-tasking: It is the mark of effortful activities that they interfere with each other, which is why it is difficult to conduct several at once. You can do several things at once, but only if they are easy and undemanding (e.g., walking and chewing gum).
It is easier to recognize other people's mistakes than our own. (Suggests maybe we should spend more time looking carefully for ours, instead of those of others.)
System 1 thinking is automatic thinking. System 2 is an effortful, analytical system of thinking.
Chapter 2 - Attention and Effort
As you become skilled in a task, its demand for (mental) energy diminishes (- it goes toward automatic).
If there are several ways of achieving the same goal, people will eventually gravitate to the least demanding course of action.
Switching from one task to another is effortful, especially under time pressure.
Avoid mental overloading by dividing tasks into multiple easy steps, committing intermediate results to long term memory, or to paper, rather than to an easily overloaded working memory. We cover long distances by taking our time and by conducting our mental lives by the law of least effort.
Chapter 3 - The Lazy Controller
Frequent switching of tasks and speeded-up mental work are not intrinsically pleasurable, and people avoid them when possible.
People sometimes expend considerable effort for long periods of time without having to exert willpower (being in the state of "flow"). People who experience flow describe it as "a state of effortless concentration so deep that they lose their sense of time, of themselves, and of their problems", and their descriptions of joy of that state are so compelling that Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi has called it "an optimal experience": "She did not have to struggle to stay on task for hours. She was in a state of flow."
A disturbing demonstration of depletion in judgment was reported in the "Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences." The unwitting participants in the study were eight parole judges in Israel. The researchers plotted the proportion of approved requests for parole against the time since the last food break. The proportion spikes after each meal, when about 65% of the requests are granted. During the two hours or so until the judges' next feeding, the approval rate drops steadily, to about zero just before the meal. Tired and hungry judges tend to fall back on the easier default position of denying requests for parole. Fatigue and hunger probably play a role. (This might suggest that managers, and others, might avoid making substantive decisions when they are in a fatigued or hungry state. It might also suggest that visitors, such as interviewees and sales representatives, might try to schedule their visits with these findings in mind.)
Many people are overconfident, prone to place too much faith in their intuitions. You know far less about yourself than you feel you do. (This is confirmed by the research of Daniel Gilbert, who you will read about soon in Stumbling on Happiness.)
When people believe that a conclusion is true, they are very likely to believe arguments that appear to support it, even when these arguments are unsound. If System 1 (automatic thinking) is involved, the conclusion comes first and the arguments follow.
Chapter 4 - Cognitive Ease
When you are in a state of cognitive ease (relaxed with your mental processes), you are probably in a good mood, like what you see, believe what you hear, trust your intuitions, and feel that the current situation is comfortably familiar. You are also likely to be casual and superficial in your thinking. (Time to exercise more caution.)
When you feel strained, you are much more likely to be vigilant and suspicious, invest more effort in what you are doing, feel less comfortable, and make fewer errors, but you are also less intuitive and less creative than usual. (It's easy to see from this that we need both types of thinking to be a good thinker. It's also important to assess our mood when making decisions.)
Chapter 7 - A Machine for Jumping To Conclusions
Jumping to conclusions is risky when the situation is unfamiliar, the stakes are high and there is no time to collect more information. These are the circumstances in which intuitive errors are probable, which may be prevented by a deliberate intervention of System 2.
There is evidence that people are more likely to be influenced by empty, persuasive messages, such as commercials, when they are tired and depleted. (Watch your decision making when you're tired. Put it off until later, especially if it's an important decision. Don't let someone else push you into making a quick decision. Those in sales are trained to get action now, not risk the possibiity that it might not happen in the future, so they often offer incentives to get buyers "off the dime." Just get someplace where you can think, without that kind of intervention, and let some time elapse before jumping in, unless there is some highly overriding reason why you need to act more quickly. Those situations should be rare.)
The Halo Effect (Emotional Coherence)
The tendency to like or dislike everything about a person, including things you have not observed, is known as the "halo effect".
The sequence in which we observe characteristics of a person is often determined by chance. Sequence matters, however, because the halo effect increases the weight of first impressions, sometimes to the point that subsequent information is wasted. (This is consistent with the old axiom that "You never get a second chance to make a first impression." If you go to an interview and do not make a professional appearance and give an appropriate handshake, you are going to have a great uphill battle in reversing the interviewer's initial impression of you.)
To derive the most useful information from multiple sources of evidence, you should always try to make the sources independent of each other. This rule is part of good police procedure (and why witnesses and suspects are usually interviewed separately).
The principle of independent judgments has immediate applications for the conduct of meetings. A simple rule can help: before each issue is discussed, all members of the committee (or participants in the meeting) should be asked to write a brief summary of their position. This procedure makes good use of the value of the diversity of knowledge and opinion of the group. The standard practice of open discussion gives too much weight to the opinions of those who speak early and assertively, causing others to line up behind them.
What You See Is All There Is (WYSIATI)
It is the consistency of the information that matters for a good story, not its completeness. Indeed, you will often find that knowing little makes it easier to fit everything you know into a coherent pattern. (However, it does not always provide a complete picture of all the information needed to make a correct decision.) We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing: "What You See Is All There Is".
Speaking of Jumping To Conclusions:
"She knows nothing about this person's management skills. All she is going by is the halo effect from a good presentation."
"They made a big decision on the basis of a good report from one consultant. WYSIATI - what you see is all there is. They did not seem to realize how little information they had."
"They didn't want more information that might spoil their story. WYSIATI.
"Evaluating people as attractive or not is a basic assessment. You do that automatically whether you want to or not, and it influences you."
Chapter 9 - Answering An Easier Question
A remarkable aspect of your mental life is that you are rarely stumped. (Isn't that the truth!) The normal state of your mind is that you have intuitive feelings and opinions about almost everything that comes your way. If a satisfactory answer is not found quickly, System 1 will find a related question that is easier and will answer it. The heuristic question is the simpler question that you answer instead. The technical definition of "heuristic" is a simple procedure that helps find adequate, though often imperfect, answers to difficult questions.
Substituting one question for another can be a good strategy for solving difficult problems. George Polya included such substitution in his classic How To Solve It: "If you can't solve a problem, then there is an easier problem you can solve. Find it."
However, a lazy System 2 often follows the path of least effort and endorses a heuristic answer without much scrutiny of whether it is truly appropriate. (It's just easier.)
Selected Characteristics of System 1:
· operates automatically and quickly
· exaggerates the halo effect (emotional consistency)
· focuses on existing evidence and ignores absent evidence (WYSIATI)
· generates a limited set of basic assessments
· sometimes substitutes an easier question for a difficult one(heuristics)
overweights low probabilities (Kahneman says the media plays a role in this, such as the focus they place on plane crashes,
which makes them seem far more common than they are)
· responds more strongly to losses than to gains (loss aversion)
· frames decision problems narrowly in isolation to one another
Speaking of Substitution and Heuristics:
"Do we still remember the question we are trying to answer? Or have we substituted any easier one?"
"The question we face is whether this candidate can succeed. The question we seem to answer is whether she interviews well. Let's not substitute. (Would she be a good manager, teacher, customer service representative, etc.)"
Chapter 19 - Overconfidence: The Illusion of Understanding
In The Black Swan (a truly challenging book), Nassim Taleb introduced the notion of a "narrative fallacy" to describe how flawed stories of the past shape our views of the world and our expectations of the future. These explanatory stories assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened, rather than on the countless events that failed to happen. Taleb suggests that we humans constantly fool ourselves by constructing flimsy accounts of the past and believing that they are true. (For example, some may recall that they have "always been good with people" or that they were talented as an artist or engineer, or have a good "Creative streak. We can also do the same when we look back on a relationship too.)
You build the best possible story from the information available to you, and if it is a good story, you believe it. Paradoxically, it is easier to construct a coherent story when you know little, when there are only a fewer pieces to fit into the puzzle. Our comforting conviction that the world makes sense rests on a secure foundation: our almost unlimited ability to ignore our own ignorance.
We can know something only if it is true and knowable. Some individuals get credit for prescience (being able to predict future events) that they do not deserve. (They were just lucky.) The language just implies that the world is more knowable than it is. It helps to perpetuate a pernicious (harmful) circle. We understand the past less than we believe we do. (Something else Dr. Gilbert confirms.) To think clearly about the future, we need to clean up the language we use, labeling the beliefs we had in the past.
A general limitation of the human mind is its imperfect ability to reconstruct past states of knowledge, or beliefs that have changed. Once you adopt a new view of the world, or any part of it, you immediately lose much of your ability to recall what you used to believe before your mind changed. Your inability to reconstruct past beliefs will inevitably cause you to underestimate the extent to which you were surprised by events. (e.g, "I always knew - as in "for certain" - that the 9/11 tragedy was going to happen." No one could have known that for certain. It was unknowable. After the fact, it is easy to think this way and to let the colossal shock of it all not be remembered as vividly as it was at the time.)
Hindsight bias has pernicious effects on the evaluations of decision makes. When the outcomes are bad, the clients often blame their agents (doctors, third base coaches, CEO's, politicians, etc.) for not seeing the handwriting on the wall - forgetting that it is written in invisible ink, that only became legible afterward. (Critics feel self-assured, even though their analysis is nothing more than 20/20 hindsight.)
Although hindsight and outcome bias generally foster risk aversion, they also bring undeserved rewards to irresponsible risk seekers, such as a general or an entrepreneur, who took a crazy gamble and won. Leaders who have been lucky are never punished for taking too much risk. Instead, they are believed to have had the flair or foresight to anticipate success, and the sensible people who doubted them are seen in hindsight as mediocre, timid, and weak. A few lucky gambles can crown a reckless leader (or professional or consultant) with a halo of prescience and boldness. (For reasons such as these, the author suggests that those who are deemed to be "experts" should have their backgrounds more thoroughly examined. It is also important to note that neither Dr. Kahneman, nor my summarization of his book, suggest that risks should not be taken, but when they are, it should be with the awareness of factors that can produce flawed judgments, which should be avoided.)
You are prone to overestimate the predictability of the world you live in. In his penetrating book The Halo Effect, Philip Rosenzweig, a business school professor based in Switzerland, concludes that stories of success and failure consistently exaggerate the impact of leadership style and management practices on firm outcomes, and thus their message is rarely useful.
Speaking of Hindsight:
"The mistake appears obvious, but it is just hindsight. You could not have known in advance."
"Let's not fall for the outcome bias. This was a stupid decision even though it worked out well." (The clear implication here is that if this person kept making the same type of decisions, his luck is going to turn bad.)
Chapter 22 - Expert Intuition: When Can We Trust It?
(You are going to have occasions when you consult experts to help you plot your future course, and for other reasons throughout your life. It's good to have some input about how reliable they might be likely to be.)
Another researcher told Kahneman that he was more willing to trust experts who claim intuition, because true experts know the limits of their knowledge. Kahneman argued that there are many pseudo-experts who have no idea that they don't know what they are doing - the illusion of validity.
A mind that follows WYSIATI will achieve high confidence much too easily by ignoring what he does not know. It is not surprising that many of us are prone to have high confidence in unfounded intuitions. Confidence that people have in their intuitions is not a reliable guide to their validity. In other words, do not trust anyone - including yourself - to tell you how much you should trust a judgment. Some mistakes are made with great confidence.
When do judgments reflect true expertise?
- when an environment is sufficiently regular or stable to be predictable
- when there is opportunity to learn these regularities through prolonged practice
When both of these conditions are satisfied, intuitions are likely to be skilled.
Expertise is not a single skill; it is a collection of skills, and the same professional may be highly expert in some tasks in her domain, while remaining a novice in others.
Speaking Of Expert Intuition:
"How much expertise does she have at this particular task? How much practice has she had?"
"She is very confident in her decision, but subjective confidence is a poor index of the accuracy of judgment."
Chapter 24 - The Engine of Capitalism
Most of us view the world as more benign than it really is, our own attributes as more favorable than they truly are, and the goals we adopt as more achievable than they are likely to be. We tend to exaggerate our ability to forecast the future, which fosters overconfidence.
More often than not, risk takers underestimate the odds they face, and do not invest sufficient effort to find out what the odds are. Because they misread the risks, optimistic entrepreneurs often believe they are prudent, even when they are not.
(If you have ever thought about starting your own business, as part of your march toward happiness and success, you should pay careful attention to what follows. The bottom line is not to discourage you from doing so, but to be aware of the real risks that are involved if you do.)
The chances that a small business will survive for five years in the United States are about 35%. But the individuals who open such businesses do not believe that the statistics apply to them. (This is analogous to the famous last words of writer William Saroyan: "Everybody has got to die, but I have always believed an exception would be made in my case." It has been my observation that, in spite of being told of risks of starting or buying a business, once people make up their mind to do it, wild horses can't stop them, and later they often repent for it.) Fully 81% of the entrepreneurs put their personal odds of success at 7 out of 10 or higher, and 33% said that their chance of failing was zero ("It can't fail.") 60% of new restaurants are out of business in three years.
Sometimes obstacles present themselves that prevent someone from going into a business, which greatly disappoints the budding entrepreneur. Later, they may discover that it worked out for the best. Keep this in mind with any other disappointments you may have in life too. As Kahneman noted earlier, we are poor judges of the long term effects of what happens to us. We are often saved from very unpleasant outcomes, in business, love and in other areas of life. As the famous axiom says, "Be careful what you wish for. It might come true.")
One of the benefits of an optimistic temperament is that it encourages persistence in the face of obstacles. But persistence can be costly. A Canadian organization, the Inventor's Assistance Program, collected a small fee to provide investors with an objective assessment of the commercial prospects of their ideas. The forecasts of failure were remarkably accurate: only 5 of 411 projects that were given the lowest grade reached commercialization, and none was successful. Discouraging news led about half the inventors to quit after receiving an unequivocal grade predicting failure. However, 47% of them continued development efforts even after being told that their project was hopeless, and on average the persistent, (or obstinate) individuals doubled their initial losses before giving up.
(This doesn't mean you shouldn't be persistent in pursuit of your goals. You must be realistic though about when it might be time to pull the plug, because the time and money meter both continue to run, as long as you press forward. There can be opportunity costs too. The time you keep expending on "a lost cause" might be better utilized in a more promising direction. This can be true in business, love and love in general.)
More generally, the financial benefits of self-employment are mediocre: given the same qualifications, people achieve higher average returns by selling their skills to employers than by setting out on their own. The evidence suggests that optimism is widespread, stubborn, and costly.
(I've had my own businesses: convenience stores and a state approved real estate school, worked as an employee, and have also done both at the same time. People often think that career decisions have to be all one way or the other. It may be sensible to work for someone else and to operate a side enterprise part-time. If such a side enterprise becomes successful, it may later cause the owner to leave his full time employment to cast all his eggs into his own business. However, it may be a wiser strategy to simply continue working for someone else and to continue to operate the part time business.
It's often good not to put
all your eggs in one basket ...
I once asked Bob, a very fine man I knew, why he continued to work at his full time job when he was also very successful selling real estate. He was a highly trustworthy person that anyone would have wanted to deal with. He said he felt that continuing in the same fashion, rather than going full time in real estate, provided him with better overall advantages. So if you are successful in a part-time venture don't feel as if you should necessarily "go full time with it". I did once. It cost me a lot of money and about five years of extra grief. So evaluate such choices very carefully and try to minimize the risk as much as possible. )
For a number of years, professors at Duke University conducted a survey in which the chief financial officers of large corporations estimated the returns of the Standard and Poor's Index over the following year. The Duke scholars collected 11,600 such forecasts and examined their accuracy. The conclusion was straightforward: financial officers of large corporations had no clue about the short-term future of the stock market; the correlation between their estimates and the true value was slightly less than zero. When they said the market would go down, it was slightly more likely than not that it would go up. These findings are not surprising. The truly bad news is that the CFOs did not appear to know that their forecasts were worthless.
Overconfidence is another manifestation of WYSIATI: when we estimate a quantity, we rely on information that comes to mind and construct a coherent story in which the estimate makes sense. Allowing for the information that does not come to mind - perhaps because one never knew it - is impossible.
Organizations (and individuals) who take the word of overconfident experts can expect costly consequences. As Nasim Taleb has argued: inadequate appreciation of the uncertainty of the environment inevitably leads economic agents to take risks they should avoid.
Philip Tetlock observed that the most overconfident experts were the most likely to be invited to strut their stuff on news shows (so be careful about advice you get from "experts" through broadcast media).
Experts who acknowledge the full extent of their ignorance may be expected to be replaced by more competent competitors, who are better able to gain the trust of clients (most likely because they are giving them a rosier scenario, telling them what they want to hear,, such as real estate agents who might suggest a higher listing price for a home in order to get the listing, instead of listening to a more honest, but lower estimate from another agent - something that sellers don't want to hear).
The main benefit of optimism is resilience in the face of setbacks. According to Martin Seligman, an "optimistic explanation style" contributes to resilience by defending one's self-image. In essence, the optimistic style involves taking credit for successes, but little blame for failures. (As President Kennedy noted, "Victory has a thousand fathers, but defeat is an orphan.")
Organizations may be better able to tame optimism than individuals are. (Individuals can try to do the same on their own or engage others to serve as an informal "committee" to assist them.) The best idea for doing so was contributed by Gary Klein who proposed the "premortem". The procedure was simple: when the organization has almost come to a formal decision, but has not formally committed itself, Klein proposes gathering for a brief session a group of individuals who are knowledgeable about the decision. (It might not hurt to include a few individuals who aren't too.) The premise of the session is a short speech: "Imagine that we are a year out into the future. We implemented the plan as it now exists. The outcome was a disaster. Please take 5 to 10 minutes to write a brief history of that disaster." (Basically, why it happened and what the causes were. This is a terrific technique because it looks down the road, instead of just looking at the present through rose-colored glasses.)
The premortem has two main advantages: it overcomes the "groupthink" that affects many teams once a decision appears to have been made, and it unleashes the imagination of knowledgeable individuals in a much needed direction. The main benefit of the premortem is that it legitimizes doubts. Furthermore, it encourages even supporters of the decision to search for possible threats that they had not considered earlier.
Speaking of Optimism
"They have an illusion of control. They seriously underestimate the obstacles."
"This is a case of overconfidence. They seem to believe they know more than they actually do know."
"We should conduct a premortem session. Someone may come up with a threat we have neglected."
The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable - Nassim Nicholas Taleb
One single observation can invalidate a general statement derived from millennia of confirmatory sightings of millions of white swans. All you need is one single and, I am told, quite ugly black bird. This is not so much about exceptions as it is about the oversize role of extreme events in many domains in life...the exceptional event (The Black Swan) can lead to the degradation of predictability.
A "Black Swan" is an event with the following:
- it is an outlier, an extreme rarity, it lies outside the realm of regular expectations, because nothing in the past can convincingly point to its possibility
- it carries an extreme impact
- in spite of its outlier status, human nature makes us concoct explanations for its occurrence after the fact, making it explainable and predictable. Stop and summarize the triplet: rarity, extreme impact, and retrospective, (though not prospective) predictability...The effect of these Black Swans has been increasing: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, the effect of the spread of the Internet, etc.
The central idea of this book concerns our blindness with respect to randomness, particularly the large deviations. Black Swan logic makes what you don't know far more relevant than what you do know. Consider that many Black Swans can be caused and exacerbated by their being unexpected.
The next killing in the restaurant industry needs to be an idea that is not easily conceived by the current population of restaurateurs. (In theory, this could be a new chain of fast food restaurants serving only horse, dog and rabbit meat. Certainly, highly unlikely. But other less likely things have come to pass, which is Taleb's point.) The more unexpected such a venture, the smaller the number of competitors, and the more successful the entrepreneur who implements the idea. The same applies to the shoe business and the book business - or any kind of entrepreneurship. (This is somewhat analogous to the "Blue Ocean Strategy" where one enjoys an entire market to itself initially due to her/his intuition, then ultimately shares it with later competitors, making it then part of a shared "Red Ocean"- the ocean bloodied by competition.) The payoff of a human venture is, in general, inversely proportional to what it is expected to be.
It is much easier to deal with the Black Swan problem if we focus on robustness to errors, rather than improving predictions. Black swans being unpredictable, we need to adjust to their existence, rather than naively try to predict them...Certain professionals in prediction, being they are experts, are in fact not. The strategy for discoverers and entrepreneurs is to rely less on top down planning and focus on maximum tinkering (making attempts) and recognizing opportunities when they present themselves. (Summarized: tinker and experiment by making "little bets".)
This book is about uncertainty (a basic decision making condition). Almost everything in social life is produced by rare, but consequential, shocks and jumps; all the while almost everything studied about social life focuses on the "normal", particularly bell shaped curve methods which tell you next to nothing. Why? Because the bell curve ignores large deviations and cannot handle them, but makes us confident that we have tamed uncertainty.
Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. Your library should contain as much of what you don't know as our financial means allow you to put there - which he calls your anti-library.
His investing: " I was not able to build a career betting on Black Swans - there were not enough tradable opportunities. I could, on the other hand, avoid being exposed to them by protecting my portfolio against large losses." (In our personal lives too, we may not be able to predict "The Black Swans", but we should try to protect ourselves against catastrophic losses with the decisions we make, and not just financial ones.)
"Secrets Of A Happier Life"
Emma Seppala, Time Special Edition: "The Science of Happiness" - From the book The Happiness Track: How To Accelerate Your Success
Dr. Seppala shares some excellent points regarding being happier by focusing on being present, rather than always living in the future. Not only can this make us happier, but also more successful in what we do:
"You strive nonstop to exceed your goals, constantly playing catch-up with your ambitions to-do list. In the process, you sacrifice the present, foregoing personal happiness, enduring negative feelings and tremendous stress - because you believe that the eventual payoff is worth it.
The problem comes, however, when we keep delaying our happiness in favor of getting more things done so we can even be happier later - or so we think. This delaying process can go on forever, turning into workaholism, which damages the very success and happiness we are seeking. (It's natural, of course, to delay happiness short-term, such as when a student has to work while going to school trying to graduate, or when a nursing candidate needs to spend many hours studying for state boards. The point is though that a whole life shouldn't be lived like that.)
Paradoxically, by slowing down and focusing on what is happening right in front of you now - being present instead of always having your mind on the next thing - will make your life much more successful. Research shows that remaining in the present - rather than constantly focusing on what you have to do next - will make you more productive and happier.
Dr. Sapalla says that "multitasking has become a way of life. Instead of helping us accomplish more things faster, it actually keeps us from doing anything well. (While people frequently feel that multitasking helps them "get more done", many research studies have shown just the opposite.) When you are able to give any task your undivided attention, you will accomplish it far more efficiently and quickly, while also enjoying the process. One study she noted found that the more people engaged in multitasking, the higher their anxiety and depression levels tended to be. On the other hand, research shows that when we are completely in tune with what we are doing, we more fully enjoy the activity. It is also allows us to be more productive.
According to a study she cited, by psychologists Matthew Killingsworth and Daniel Gilbert of Harvard University, adults spend only about 50% of their time in the present moment. They also found that when we are in the present moment, we are also at our happiest, no matter what we are doing. Being present can also help improve relationships, one of the biggest predictors of happiness and success.
Sappala also says that the first step is awareness. We should try to reorient our attention fully on what is going on in front of us. She also suggests taking a technology fast, meditation, and focusing on your breath. (A variety of methods for implementing these recommendations are available online.) Finally, she says "when you feel pleasure, close your eyes and be 100% present with that pleasure. Learning to bask in pleasurable experiences helps to extend the feeling. (Combine that with gratitude for the pleasurable experience too, as that is well-known as a further happiness enhancer.)
Meditations - Marcus Aurelius
Based on the translation of Maxwell Staniforth's Penguin Classic, this extract takes the twelve books of Marcus Aurelius' work, identifies excerpts, and classifies them under topical headings I've created. Marcus Aurelius' observations are as sage today as they were almost two thousand years ago. They are outstanding guides to improved thinking in every phase of life:
Maximus was my model for self-control.His character was an admirable combination of dignity and charm, and all the duties of his station were performed quietly and without fuss. Kindliness, sympathy and sincerity all contributed to give the impression of a rectitude that was innate rather than inculcated. Nobody was ever made to feel inferior to him, yet none could have presumed to challenge his pre-eminence.
An angry look on the face is wholly against nature. If it be assumed frequently, beauty begins to perish, and in the end is quenched beyond rekindling.
In every action, let your own self-approval be the sole aim both of your action and your intention.
To live each day as though one's last, never flustered, never apathetic, never attitudinizing- here is the perfection of character.
Today I have got myself out of all my perplexities; or rather, I have got the perplexities out of myself - for they were not without, but within; they lay in my own outlook.
Instead of paying to be spared from such and such a thing, why not rather pray to be delivered from dreading it, or lusting for it, or grieving over it.
If you claim for yourself such epithets as good, modest, truthful, clear-minded, right-minded, high-minded, be careful not to belie them; and if you should happen to forfeit them, lose no time in recovering them again.
When another's fault offends you, turn to yourself and consider what similar shortcomings are found in you.
Let no one have the right to say truthfully that you are without integrity or goodness; should any think such thoughts, see that they are without foundation.
Do not be afraid of work, be sparing in your wants, attend to your own needs, mind your own business, never listen to gossip. Be not absorbed in trivial pursuits.
He was impervious to flattery. Discourtesy was as foreign to his nature as harshness or bluster. I thank heaven that under my father the Emperor I was cured of all pomposity. (His adoptive father Antoninus Pius)
In the management of your principles, take example by the pugilist, not the swordsman. One puts down his blade and picks it up again; the other is never without his hand, and so only needs to clench it.
If it is not the right thing to do, never do it; if it is not the truth, never say it. Keep your impulses in hand.
Try to see, before it is too late, that you have within you something higher and more godlike than mere instincts which move your emotions and twitch you like a puppet. Which of these is it, then, that is clouding my understanding at this moment. Fear, jealousy, lust, or some other.
Do not indulge in dreams of having what you have not, but reckon up the chief of the blessings you do possess, and then thankfully remember how you would crave for them were they not yours.
Living In The Present
Do away with all fancies. Cease to be passion's puppet. Limit time to the present. Learn to recognize every experience for what it is, whether it is your own or another's.
The art of living is more like wresting than dancing, in as much as it, too, demands a firm and watchful stance against any unexpected onset.
A healthy mind ought to be prepared for anything that may befall.
The sole life a man can lose is the life he is living at the moment; and furthermore that he can have no other life except the one he loses. For the passing minute is every man's equal possession, but what has gone before is not ours.
You have only to have done with the past altogether, commit the future to providence, and simply direct the present hour aright in the paths of holiness and justice.
Become 'a totally rounded orb in its own rotundity joying' (Empedocles), and to be concerned solely with the life which you are now living, the life of the present moment, then until death comes to you will be able to pass the rest of your days in freedom from all anxiety, and in kindliness and good favour with the deity within you.
(Editor's Note: Heraclitus taught that the essence of Being is Becoming; an incessant movement of change by which one aspect of a thing is always leading on to another. All things are in flux. You cannot step into the same river twice.)
The whole universe is change, and life itself is what you deem it. Life is opinion. (Editor: Hamlet says: There is nothing good or bad, but thinking makes it so.)
Avoid talkativeness, avoid officiousness. (Be stiller. Listen more. Talk less.)
Therein is the secret of cheerfulness, of depending on no help from without and needing to crave from no man the boon of tranquility. We have to stand upright ourselves, not be set up.
Man lives only in the present, in this fleeting instant; all the rest of his life is either past and gone, or not yet revealed.
Nothing so enlarges the mind as the ability to examine methodically and accurately everyone's life experiences.
At any moment, you can choose to retire within yourself. Avail yourself often of this retirement, and so continually renew yourself. Make your rules of life brief, yet so as to embrace the fundamentals; recurrence to them will then suffice to remove all vexation, and send you back without fretting to the duties to which you must return.
Whatever is , is in some sense the seed of what is to emerge from it.
Time is a river, the resistless flow of all created things. One thing no sooner comes into sight than it is hurried past and another is borne along, only to be swept away in its turn.
What follows is ever closely linked to what precedes; it is not a procession of isolated events, merely obeying the laws of sequence, but a rational continuity.
We shrink from change; yet is there anything that can come into being without it...Is it possible for any useful thing to be achieved without change? Do you not see then that change in yourself is of the same order, and no less necessary to Nature?
Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature's delight.
Make a habit of regularly observing the universal process of change; be assiduous in your attention to it, and school yourself thoroughly in this branch of study; there is nothing more elevating to the mind.
No thought is wasted on what others may say or think of him or practice against him; two things alone suffice him: justice in his daily doings and contentment with all fate's apportionments.
Now your remaining years are few. Give men the chance to see and to know a true man, living by nature's law.
Soon enough, remember, you yourself must become a vagrant of nothingness; soon enough everything that now meets your eye, together with all those in whom is now breath of life, must be no more. For all things are born to change and pass away and perish, that others in their turn may come to be.
Fame and Ego Taming
Remember that in a very little while both you and he will be dead, and your very names will be quickly forgotten.
Keep before your eyes the swift onset of oblivion, and the abysses of eternity before us and behind; mark how hollow are the echoes of applause, how fickle and undiscerning the judgments of professed admirers, and how puny the arena of human fame.
The man whose heart is palpitating for fame after death does not reflect that out of all those who remember him, every one will himself soon be dead also, and in the course of time the next generation after that, until in the end, after flaring and sinking by turns, the final mark of memory is quenched.
All things fade into the storied past, and in a while are shrouded in oblivion. Even to men whose lives were a blaze of glory this comes to pass; as for the rest, the breath is hardly out of them before, in Homer?s words, they are lost to sight alike and hearsay.
Think of the totality of all Being, and what a mite of it is yours; think of all Time, and the brief fleeting instant of it that is allotted to yourself; think of Destiny, and how puny a part of it you are.
How many whose praises once used to be sung so loudly are relegated to oblivion; and how many of the singers themselves have long passed from out sight!
Put from you the belief ?I have been wronged?, and with it will go the feeling. Reject your sense of injury and the injury itself disappears.
Whatever happens, happens rightly. Watch closely and you will find this to be true.
Live as though there were a thousand years ahead of you. Fate is at your elbow; make yourself good while life and power are still yours.
A good man does not spy around for the black spots in others, but presses unswervingly on toward his mark.
Contentment comes from doing a few things and doing them well. Most of what we say and do is not necessary, and its omission would save time and trouble. At every step, therefore, a man should ask himself, "Is this one of these things that are superfluous?"
To avoid discouragement, never become unduly absorbed in things that are not of the first importance.
Even eminently virtuous men, men in the closest correspondence with the divine and living in intimate union with it through their good works and devotion, should know no re-birth after their death, but be doomed to utter extinction.
Ponder on the lives of men who have set no bounds to their passions, the men who have reached the very summits of glory, disaster, odium, or any other of the peaks of chance; and then consider, 'Where are they now?' Vapor, ashes, a tale; perhaps not even a tale.
Pride that swells beneath a garb of humility is of all things must intolerable.
How small a fraction of all the measureless infinity of time is allotted to each one of us; an instant, and it vanishes into eternity. How puny, too, is your portion of all the world's substance; how insignificant your share of the world's soul; on how minute a speck of the whole earth do you creep. As you ponder these things, make up your mind that nothing is of any import save to do what your own nature directs, and to bear what the world's Nature sends you.
Bearing Trouble and Misfortune
Be like the headland against which the waves break and break; it stands firm, until presently the watery tumult around it subsides once more to rest. How unlucky I am, that this should have happened to me! By no means; say rather, How lucky I am, that it has left me with no bitterness; unshaken by the present, and undismayed by the future.
A man is foolish to gasp and fume and fret, as though the time of his troubling could ever be of long continuance.
When force of circumstances upsets your equanimity, lose no time in recovering your self-control, and do not remain out of tune longer than you can help. Habitual recurrence to the harmony will increase your mastery of it.
If someone uses force to obstruct you, then take a different line; resign yourself without pang, and turn the obstacle into an opportunity for the exercise of some other virtue.
I, who have never willfully pained another, have no business to pain myself.
If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself but to your own estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment.
Work and Accomplishment
At day's first light have in readiness, against disinclination to leave your bed, the thought that I am rising for the work of man. Is the purpose of my creation, to lie here under the blankets and keep myself warm. Ah, but it is a great deal more pleasant! Was it for pleasure, then, that you were born and not for work, and not for effort?...But repose has its limits set by nature, in the same way that food and drink have; and when you overstep these limits, you go beyond the point of sufficiency; while on the other hand, when action is in question, you stop short of what you could well achieve.
Nothing can happen to any man that nature has not fitted him to endure.
The mind can circumvent all obstacles to action, and turn them to the furtherance of its main purpose, so that any impediment to its work becomes instead an auxiliary, and the barriers in its path become aids to progress.
Press on steadily, keep to the straight road in your thinking and doing, and your days will forever flow smoothly. ("Press on toward the mark..." - The Bible)
Because a thing is difficult for you, do not therefore suppose it to be beyond mortal power. On the contrary, if anything is possible and proper for a man to do, assume that it must fall within your capacity.
Shame on the soul to falter on the road of life while the body still perseveres.
Accustom yourself to give careful attention to what others are saying, and try your best to enter into the mind of the speaker.
A man's worth is no greater than the worth of his ambitions.
Work yourself hard, but not as if you were made a victim, and not with any desire for sympathy or admiration.
Concentrate wholly on the task before you, and on the instrument you possess for its accomplishment.
At every action, no matter by whom performed, make it a practice to ask yourself, 'What is the object of doing this? But begin with yourself; put this question to yourself first of all.
Think of your many years of procrastination. Your time has a limit set to it. Use it then to advance your enlightenment; or it will be gone, and never in your power again.
Guard against another kind of error; the folly of those who weary their days in much business, but lack any aim on which their whole effort, nay, their whole thought is focused.
Now that your hairs are grey, let it play the part of the slave no more, twitching puppet wise at every pull of self-interest; and cease to fume at destiny by ever grumbling at today or lamenting over yesterday.
We must press on in haste, not simply because every hour brings us nearer to death, but because even before then, our powers of perception and comprehension begin to deteriorate.
Practice, even when success looks hopeless.
When an operation, no matter of what sort, is brought to a close at the right moment, the stoppage does it no harm and the agent himself is no worse for discontinuing his action.
If there is something good to be done or said, never renounce your right to it. Those who criticize you have their own reason to guide them, and their own impulse to prompt them; you must not let your eyes stray toward them, but keep a straight course and follow your own nature.
The man who has done one good action does not cry it aloud, but passes straight on to a second, as the vine passes on to the bearing of another summer's grapes.
Do not be distressed, do not despond or give up in despair, if now and again practice falls short of precept. Return to the attack after each failure, and be thankful if on the whole you can acquit yourself in the majority of cases as a man should. Bu have a genuine liking for the discipline you return to.
Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to keep myself good; just as a gold piece, or an emerald, or a purple robe insists perpetually, 'Whatever the world may say or do, my part is to remain an emerald and keep my color true.'
Fortune's favorite is the man who awards her good gifts to himself - the good gifts of a good disposition, good impulses, and good deeds.
Let your one delight and refreshment be to pass from one service to another, with God ever in mind.
Life is short, and this earthly existence has but a single fruit to yield - holiness within, and selfless action without.
'It is the fate of princes to be ill spoken of for well-doing.' ( From Antisthenes)
When you have done a good action, and another has had the benefit of it, why crave for yet more in addition - applause for your kindness, or some favor in return - as the foolish do.
A man's true delight is to do the things he was made for. He was made to show goodwill to his kind, to rise above the promptings of his senses.
The sinner sins against himself; the wrongdoer wrongs himself, becoming worse by his actions.
Once you have done a man a service, what more would you have? Is it not enough to have obeyed the laws of your own nature, without expecting to be paid for it? That is like the eye demanding a reward for seeing, or the feet for walking. It is for that very purpose they exist; and they have their due in doing what they were created to do. Similarly, man is born for deeds of kindness; and when he has done a kindly action, or otherwise served the common welfare, he has done what he was made for, and has received his quittance. (Be kind and expect nothing in return.)
Waste no more time arguing what a good man should be. Be one.
Have I done an unselfish thing? Well then, I have my reward. Keep this thought ever present and persevere.
The soul attains her perfectly rounded form when she is neither straining out after something nor shrinking back into herself.
While life is still with you, begin at last to be a man.
Right and good fortune both are on my side.
Kindness is irresistible, so long as it be genuine and without false smiles or duplicity. The most consummate impudence can do nothing if you remain consistently kind to the offender.
In regard to the impulses, we must take care to keep them always subject to modification, free from self-interest, and duly proportioned to the merits of the case.
By following the way of God and being at one with him in thought, man is borne onward by the divine hand.
Put your whole heart into doing what is just, and speaking of what is true; and for the rest, know the joy of life piling good deed on good deed until no rift or cranny appears between them.
Peace and Happiness
Let it be clear to you that the peace of green fields can always be yours, in this, that, or any other spot; and that nothing is any different here from what it would be either up in the hills, or down by the sea, or wherever else you will.
In moments of anger, let the thought always be that the loss of temper is no sign of manliness, but that there is more virility, as well as more natural humanity, in one who shows himself to be gentle and peaceable; he it is who gives proof of strength and nerve and manliness.
Remember the country mouse's encounter with the town mouse, and the flurry and the agitation into which it threw him. (Marcus warns not to exchange the quiet of one's own soul for the perturbations of the world.)
The fiercest energy is not incompatible with the ability to relax.
(In these times of peace should reflection on making a difference take place.)
Never make light of a friend's rebuke, even when unreasonable, but do your best to restore yourself to his good graces.
All too soon thou shalt have no more time to do thyself right. Man has but one life; already thine is nearing its close, yet still hast thou no eye to thine own honour, but art staking thy happiness on the souls of other men.
So much more regard we have for our neighbors' judgment of us than for our own.
Everything is but what your opinion makes it; and that opinion lies within yourself. Renounce it when you will, and at once you have rounded the foreland and all is calm; a tranquil sea, a tideless haven.
Never let the future disturb you. You will meet it, if you have to, with the same weapons of reason which today arm you against the present.
Reflect often how all the life of today is a repetition of the past; and observe that it presages what is to come.
(Renoir's last words: "I am still progressing.")
Like ears of corn the lives of men are reaped; This one is left to stand and that one cut down.
Wait with a good grace for death, as no more than a simple dissolving of the elements where of each living thing is composed.
Unswervingly tread the road onward to life's close, where duty bids you to arrive in purity and peace, unreluctant to depart, in perfect and unforced unison with fate's apportionment.
Recall one by one each of your acquaintances; how one buried another, only to be laid low himself and buried in turn by a third, and all in so brief a space of time. Observe, in short, how transient and trivial is all mortal life; yesterday a drop of semen, tomorrow a handful of spice or ashes.
I consist of a formal element and a material. Neither of these can ever pass away into nothing, any more than either of them came into being from nothing. Consequently every part of me will one day be re-fashioned, by a process of transition, into some other portion of the universe.
How many who came into this world with me have already left it!
A true man, instead of clinging to life at all costs, ought not to dismiss from his mind the question of how long he may have to live. Let him leave that to the will of God, in the belief that the womenfolk are right when they tell us that no man can escape his destiny, and let him devote himself to the next problem, how he can best live the life allotted to him. (From Plato)
In the interruption of an activity, or the discontinuance and, if it were, death of an impulse, or an opinion, there is no evil. Look back at the phases of your own growth: childhood, boyhood, youth, age: each change itself was a kind of death. Was this so frightening? Or take the lives you lived under your grandfather and then under your mother and then your father; trace the numerous differences and changes and discontinuances there were in those days, and ask yourself, 'Were they so frightening?' No more so, then, is the cessation, the interruption, the change from life itself.
Meditate on what you ought to be in body and soul when death overtakes you; meditate upon the brevity of life, and the measureless gulfs of eternity behind it and before, and upon the frailty of everything material.
Just as an actor is dismissed by the manager who engaged him: "But I have played no more than three of the five acts." Just so, in your drama of life, three acts are all the play. Its point of completeness is determined by him who formerly sanctioned your creation, and today sanctions your dissolution. Neither of those decisions lay with yourself. Pass on your way, then, with a smiling face, under the smile of him who bids you to go.