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{ez_footer_ads} Feel Happiness http://feelhappiness.com How to Live a Happier Life Tue, 26 Jul 2016 15:39:29 +0000 en-US hourly 1 https://wordpress.org/?v=4.8 34068381 Learning Better: Ultimate Guide to Hacking Your Brain And Supercharging Your Productivity http://feelhappiness.com/learning-better-hacking-brain-supercharging-productivity/ http://feelhappiness.com/learning-better-hacking-brain-supercharging-productivity/#comments Tue, 26 Jul 2016 15:39:29 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1146 In the movie Limitless, Bradley Cooper stumbles upon a secret drug called NZT-48, which unlocks the full capacity of his brain and gives him superhuman intelligence, attention, and reasoning abilities. This lets him crank out complete books in days, learn Italian overnight, and beat the stock market. Sounds awesome, right? There is no such thing [...]

The post Learning Better: Ultimate Guide to Hacking Your Brain And Supercharging Your Productivity appeared first on Feel Happiness.

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Melted My Brain

In the movie Limitless, Bradley Cooper stumbles upon a secret drug called NZT-48, which unlocks the full capacity of his brain and gives him superhuman intelligence, attention, and reasoning abilities. This lets him crank out complete books in days, learn Italian overnight, and beat the stock market. Sounds awesome, right?

There is no such thing as NZT (not even close, really), but that doesn’t mean there aren’t legitimate ways to squeeze some more juice out of your brain. Some pharmaceuticals, as well as more natural methods exist that can make you think faster, improve your memory, enhance your concentration, or just otherwise help you get things done more effectively.

This is a very extensive topic, and my intention is to cover it thoroughly, from multiple angles. Why am I writing this in the first place? Well, I’m pleased to inform you that I will be starting a PhD program (in Information Assurance, otherwise known as cybersecurity, in case you were curious), so I am expecting the need to beef up my brain power soon. This means that I will likely be rather busy over the coming years, so A) let’s learn how to hack our brains, together; and B) I may be writing even less often, so my apologies for that.

This article will begin by diving into the subject of metacognition – thinking about thinking – and exploring a model for how people can become experts at the skill of learning. Next, I will explore some productivity hacks for both academic and professional purposes, including techniques for greatly improving your memory. A discussion of how to maintain an optimal cognitive environment via nutrition and other lifestyle factors will follow. Finally, some of the pharmaceuticals that may enhance cognition will be presented.

 

Metacognition, Cognition, and Becoming an Expert

Metacognition, which can be loosely defined as “thinking about thinking”, is one of the primary factors that separates the true brainiacs from the merely intelligent. It has been heavily studied, particularly with a focus on how to teach metacognitive skills to children. For some great overviews of this material (highly recommended if you are a teacher or otherwise work with children), see Hartman 2001 and Papaleontiou-Louca 2003.

But I’m an adult, and your probably are as well. How can we use our understanding of metacognition to improve ourselves and our ability to learn things? One approach is to model the metacognitive principles that make someone an “expert” at whatever they do, and use that model to create our own cognitive strategies. To that end, I turn to a paper that I cannot recommend highly enough to interested readers (Ertmer and Newby, 1996). I believe that having exposure to this model and some understanding of it is enough to make yourself a better learner, though practice using it would surely benefit. In any case, here’s what an expert learner looks like (emphasis mine throughout quotations):

“In 1988, Glaser and Chi listed and described seven key characteristics of expert performance that previous research had uncovered. Weinstein & Van Mater Stone (1993) have summarized these characteristics succinctly: ‘experts know more; their knowledge is better organized and integrated; they have better strategies and methods for getting to their knowledge, using it, applying it, and integrating it; and they have different motivations. Moreover, they tend to do things in a more self-regulated manner‘ (p. 32). Experts are described as being more aware of themselves as learners; their learning is ‘reflected upon more than is the learning in which others engage’ (Berliner 1994: 162). In addition, experts are thought to be more sensitive to the task demands of specific problems, as well as more opportunistic and flexible in their planning and their actions (Berliner 1994). As a result, experts are more aware than novices of when they need to check for errors, why they fail to comprehend, and how they need to redirect their efforts (Brown & DeLoache 1978).”

Being an expert in some area involves more than simply having direct knowledge of the subject matter; while that is important, experts must also be conscious of what they are doing and recognize the right approach to take for a given task. Specifically, in addition to knowledge about the subject, expert learners employ metacognitive knowledge in these other ways:

“Weinstein & Van Mater Stone (1993) indicate that expert learners strategically utilize four different types of knowledge to bring about successful learning: knowledge about selves as learners (e.g., What are my strengths? What time of day is best for me? What are my current study habits?); knowledge about learning tasks (e.g., What does this task require for successful completion? How will performance on this task be evaluated?); knowledge about a wide variety of strategies (e.g., What cognitive strategies would facilitate the recall of this information? What can I do to keep my motivation high? What obstacles in the environment must be removed or sidestepped?); and knowledge about content (What do I know about this topic?). In addition, an expert learner has the ‘skill, will, and a systematic approach to studying and learning’ (Weinstein & Van Mater Stone 1993: 35) which make strategic learning not only possible, but probable as well.”

These kinds of knowledge manifest themselves in the general approach that expert learners take towards their learning.

“Before beginning a specific learning task, expert learners tend to consider a variety of ways to approach the task. They access their knowledge warehouses to recall past experiences with similar tasks and select an approach which matches task requirements and personal resources in such a way that the desired results can be obtained. Effective learners have a plan (either in their minds or on paper) that details how they expect to accomplish their goals. While executing the task, they constantly reflect on this plan to assess the extent to which it is working and then revise or modify it as necessary. As a result of this continuing reflection, expert learners make constant on-line adjustments, eliminating extraneous steps, implementing alternative strategies, and/or performing unplanned actions whenever necessary.”

Essentially, an expert learner goes about their learning in three steps:

  1. Planning the best way to achieve their goals;
  2. Monitoring their performance and adjusting the plan as necessary;
  3. Evaluating/Reflecting upon the learning experience in order to gain more metacognitive knowledge that can be put to use in the future.

There are also three primary areas where this metacognitive process is used for strategic effect, related to the types of knowledge mentioned above.

  1. Cognitive – use of mnemonics, outlining or notetaking strategies, etc.
  2. Motivational – setting goals, positive or negative reinforcement, etc.
  3. Environmental – scheduling time for the task, finding the right place to do it, etc.

Each of these metacognitive knowledge areas can and should be considered during each of the phases of learning. In other words, you should plan out your cognitive, motivational, and environmental strategies, monitor how each of these strategies is working, and then reflect upon the results in each of these areas.

How do expert learners go about the planning phase?

“Before beginning a task, expert learners must consider three things: 1) the task demands (e.g., type and length of the material to be learned); 2) their own personal resources (e.g., knowledge of and skill at using various strategies); and 3) potential matches between the two (e.g., mnemonics vs rehearsal vs outlining strategies for remembering the names of the Great Lakes). For example, if learners think that note taking and underlining are good strategies for identifying the main points of a technical article (task) and know that they are good at underlining but poor at taking notes (personal resources), the most effective match would call for underlining.”

“The activities involved in this step tend to resolve around three major tasks: setting a clear goal, selecting and sequencing a series of strategies and/or procedures for achieving the goal, and identifying potential obstacles to the successful attainment of the goal. It is important to note that the strategies/procedures selected must include not only the appropriate cognitive strategies (e.g., outlining, memorizing, analogizing, etc.) but also the motivational (e.g., recalling previous successful performances, determining task relevance) and environmental strategies (e.g., removing distractions, forming work groups) which would be instrumental in completing the learning task.”

After implementing the plan, it is important to monitor how it is being executed.

“Throughout the execution of a learning plan, expert learners mentally check what they are doing to ensure that they are making progress toward the specified goal. Here the focus is on actually implementing the steps in the plan, while monitoring the effects of selected cognitive, motivational, and environmental strategies. This involves looking backward at the plan to determine if the necessary steps are being performed in the correct order, looking forward to the steps still to be performed, while carefully attending to what is going on at the moment (Beyer 1987). As expert learners complete each step in the plan they must consider how accurately and effectively it was accomplished and decide whether or not it is appropriate to move on to the next step. They need to pay attention to feedback regarding the effectiveness of their selected cognitive, motivational, and environmental strategies and make on-going revisions. If an obstacle is encountered, adjustments must be made, not only to remove the block but to decrease the possibility of it reoccurring at some later point.”

Finally, learners must reflect upon their learning session and the metacognitive strategies that were employed.

“Wilson & Cole (1991) indicate that the strategies of reflection and articulation (i.e., talking about one’s own knowledge, reasoning, or problem-solving processes) help to bring meaning to activities that might otherwise be more ‘rote’ and procedural. Without reflection, learners may not learn to discriminate in applying procedures, may fail to recognize conditions when strategies may be appropriate for use, and may fail to transfer knowledge and strategies to different tasks.

The paper also provided a table that would be very helpful for anyone who wants to apply this model to their own learning. Use the questions included to guide you through the metacognitive process while you attempt to learn a new skill or subject. To practice, you should consider writing your answers to these questions down the next few times you set out to learn.

Metacognition Table 1

Metacognition Table 2

 

Hacking Your Productivity

Having the right metacognitive skills is important, but the effort will be greatly aided by having an arsenal of productivity techniques at your disposal. Your understanding of how you work and learn best isn’t worth much if you haven’t tried to work and learn in a variety of ways.

In this section, the focus will be on learning techniques that will allow you to work faster, smarter, and more efficiently.

Productivity Techniques

A lot of work has been done on the subject of being more productive. Entire systems, such as David Allen’s “Getting Things Done” method have been developed and promoted extensively. To learn more about various productivity frameworks and which ones work best for which kinds of people, I recommend checking out this reference. Here, I will only go over a few methods briefly, and then some of the most effective tips for staying productive during your day.

  • Pomodoro technique. Set a timer for 25 minutes, and work hard without taking any breaks during that time. When the timer goes, off, take a 5 minute recovery break. Walk around, check Facebook, check some emails, grab a snack, do some pushups, or whatever would help you unwind for a few minutes. This thirty-minute cycle is one “Pomodoro”. Every four Pomodoros, take a longer break of 15-30 minutes in order to recharge. This is a great way of maintaining energy and focus over a period of time, and prevents you from getting too drained by constant work (or constant distractions).
  • Don’t Break The Chain method. This is a technique that was popularized by Jerry Seinfeld, apparently, and helps you maintain positive habits over the long-term. You’ll need a calendar (preferably a full-year calendar), a marker, and a task that you wish to accomplish every day. For each day you accomplish that task, make a big “X” on your calendar for that day. As you go, you’ll be motivated to continue performing that task on a daily basis in order to not break the chain that begins to form after a few days. For more info on how to adapt this method to multiple goals/tasks and to incorporate things like sick days or vacations, see this.
  • Kanban. Split your tasks into three categories: To Do, Doing, and Done. Use sticky notes, a whiteboard, or a digital organizer to break your work into tasks and visually place them into these three buckets. This is a simple way of maintaining a “to do” list that also helps you understand what you’ve already accomplished.
  • Three most important things. At the end of each day, decide what the three most important tasks you must accomplish the next day are. Make sure these are the first things you do the next day, and don’t allow yourself to get distracted with other tasks before they are complete. Willpower is drawn from a limited pool, so as you use your willpower to stay focused, it becomes harder and harder to push yourself throughout the day – particularly as distractions and new tasks pop up.
  • Must, Should, Want. This is a variant on the “most important things” method. Instead of doing the most important things, pick three tasks that fit into must, should, and want categories. In other words, pick a high priority task, a lower priority task that contributes to your long-term goals, and something that you would genuinely like to do (for fun, like reading a book).

These methods are not mutually exclusive; you should try them out and use your metacognitive skills to create your own hybrid method that works best – or that works best for the particular task at hand.

In addition to these methods, there are a number of techniques you can use to be more productive in general.

  • Use the two minute rule. Any task that will take two minutes or less to complete should be done immediately. Don’t let it become a mental burden to carry throughout the day – simply get it done. For instance, if you need to send someone a spreadsheet, fill out a brief form, make an appointment, or anything else that can be done quickly, just do it right away. These kind of tasks can add up and make your mind cluttered, and you are likely to forget to do them if you wait.
  • Take breaks to stand up and move around. Sitting all day is really bad for you, and moving around can help keep your mind and body fresh. Walk around or do some pushups at least once per hour. Better yet, get a standing desk.
  • Use apps like Evernote to stay organized.
  • Adopt a low-information diet. Have fewer daily readings, podcasts, news sites, and magazines that you visit for leisure. Cut down on email lists that you subscribe to (and use unroll.me to put all of your email subscriptions into one daily email). Watch less TV. Turn off your phone. Ask yourself if you really need to be getting that information regularly…you probably don’t. Be conscious of how much time you spend surfing the Internet, watching TV, or playing games. The RescueTime app can be very useful for this, as it documents how you are spending your time on the Internet. Use Instapaper or Pocket to save articles from the Internet that you don’t have time to read right now. For those who have a serious problem consuming too much info (myself included), you can use apps to block distracting websites, such as Cold Turkey for Windows, and Selfcontrol for Macs.

For more information on this (ironically throwing this in right after suggesting a low-information diet….), here is a long list of productivity tips, and here is a great article on how to have an uber-productive workday.

Learning Techniques

If the task at hand is of a more academic nature (this includes actually being in school, but also just trying to teach yourself new things), there are additional techniques that can be helpful. Keep in mind that the distinction between the “productivity” techniques above and these “academic” ones isn’t always clear – most likely, both will be useful to you in a variety of settings, academic or professional.

  • Learn how to speed read, or just how to read significantly faster. This is a complex topic that I won’t delve into here, but you can find more information here, here, and here. There are people who are skeptical about speed reading as well, so a more moderate perspective on speed reading may be best.
  • Use the SQ3R method for studying or reading new material. Survey: before reading the material, skim through the chapter, look at the headings/subheadings, and get a feel for how the author organized it. Question: ask yourself…what are the main points of the chapter? What are questions you may have about the subject before going into it? Read: read the chapter actively; highlight key words or concepts after you finish a paragraph. Recite: after every few pages, recite aloud the main points thus far. Review: review numerous times before an exam or needing to utilize the material. More info here.
  • Speaking of reviewing, you should briefly review immediately after consuming new material. You should then rewrite or reorganize your notes on the material within 24 hours. Schedule a review of your notes one day, one week, one month, and several months after. This will help make sure you retain your new knowledge far in the future.
  • Taking notes is important, and there are a variety of different note-taking strategies. I strongly recommend taking notes as you work through material and then retyping/rewriting those notes later that day. In order to see the connections between various ideas in the material more easily, use mind mapping. There is also the Cornell System of note taking: divide the page into a thin “cue” section on the left, a larger “notes” section on the right, and a two-inch summary section at the bottom. This helps keep your notes organized as you take them, so they don’t require as much reorganization later on.

Cal Newport’s blog is also a great resource for students, so spend a little time looking through his stuff for some more ideas.

Memory Training and Mnemonics

brain fart

One particular area that is well worth developing is your memory. Some people have a better memory than others, but there are specific techniques that can be used to train yourself to remember huge amounts of material more easily.

These techniques are called mnemonics, and usually involve the association of information that you want to remember with vivid mental images that you create. These images should be in great detail and perhaps even be weird in order to make them more memorable. The mnemonic can contain senses other than sight, so associate smells, sounds, tastes, etc. with your mental picture. The association between the information you want to remember and the image should take center stage. The mnemonic can have a location (one image is “located” in Boston and another, similar image is located in New York City) so you can separate it from other, similar mnemonics. I’ll discuss a few kinds of mnemonic techniques shortly.

First, let’s take a quick detour. Some people find it hard to believe that memory can really be enhanced to a significant degree by using mnemonic techniques, but research clearly shows that impressive memories are possible. A brilliant paper (Dresler et al, 2012) on cognitive enhancement, which we will return to in the next section of this article, discusses mnemonics.

“Since the early 1990s, the top participants of the annual World Memory Championships regularly prove memory spans of hundreds of digits (Konrad and Dresler, 2010). However, such superior memorizers do not seem to exhibit structural brain changes or superior cognitive abilities in general, but acquired their skills by deliberate training in the use of mnemonic techniques (Brown and Deffenbacher, 1988; Maguire et al., 2003; Ericsson, 2009).”

Which kinds of techniques help foster such impressive memories?

“Parallel to their success in memory artistry and memory sports, several mnemonics have been shown to strongly enhance memory capacity in scientific studies (Bellezza, 1981; Worthen and Hunt, 2011a, 2011b). Probably most prominent is the so called method of loci, an ancient technique used extensively by Greek and Roman orators (Yates, 1966). It utilizes well established memories of spatial routes: During encoding, to-be-remembered information items have to be visualized at salient points along such a route, which in turn has to be mentally retraced during retrieval. A second powerful mnemonic is the phonetic system, which is designed to aid the memorization of numbers: Single digits are converted to letters, which are then combined to form words. Both the method of loci and the phonetic system have been shown to be very effective and even increase their efficacy over time, i.e. at delayed recall after several days compared to immediate recall (Bower, 1970; Roediger, 1980; Bellezza et al., 1992; Hill et al., 1997; Higbee, 1997; Wang and Thomas, 2000).”

In addition to mnemonics, practicing the retrieval of information also enhances memory.

“Another strategic method to enhance memory retention that has gained attention in recent years is retrieval practice. While retrieval of learned information in testing situations is traditionally thought to simply assess learning success, repeated retrieval itself has been shown to be a powerful mnemonic enhancer, producing large gains in long-term retention compared to repeated studying (Roediger and Butler, 2011). For example, when students have to learn foreign vocabulary words, repeated studying after the first learning trial had no effect on delayed recall after one week, while repeated testing produced a surprisingly large effect on long-term retention (Karpicke and Roediger, 2008). Besides vocabulary learning, also text materials profit from repeated retrieval (Karpicke and Roediger, 2006, 2010)…Effects of retrieval practice were even shown to produce greater success in meaningful learning than elaborative studying strategies, which are designed to lead to deeper learning and therefore hold a central place in contemporary education (Karpicke and Blunt, 2011).”

In other words, you should repeatedly test your memory in order to enhance it. Rather than studying material over and over, you would be better off attempting to remember the material you have already studied.

Convinced? Great! So, what kinds of mnemonics can you take advantage of?

  • Acronyms and acrostics. Acronyms are where each letter represents a key word, and acrostics are where the first letter of key words form a sentence. These techniques are commonly used to remember information involving key words or vocabulary. For instance, to remember the order of operations in math, use PEMDAS, or Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally. This stands for parentheses, exponents, multiplication/division, and addition/subtraction.
  • Rhyme keys. First, memorize key words that can be associated with numbers (one – bun; two – shoe, and so on). Next, create an image of the items you need to remember with key words. This method is useful for remembering ordered or unordered lists, such as a shopping list. If you need to remember milk and bread, for instance, create an image that involves buns and milk, and another image that involves shoes and bread. Remember, weird images are easier to remember, so it’s okay if the image doesn’t “make sense.”
  • Number shape system. Similar to the above, but instead of rhymes, each number is associated with a shape that looks similar (1 – candle/spear; 2 – swan; 3 – bosom; 4 – sail; 5 – hook; 6 – club; 7 – cliff; 8 – sand clock time piece [sorry, not sure how else to describe it]; 9 – flag; 0 – egg).
  • Chaining. Create a story where each word or idea that you intend to memorize is a cue for the next concept that you need to remember. An example from Wikipedia: “when memorizing the list (dog, envelope, thirteen, yarn, window), one could create a story about a “dog stuck in an envelope, mailed to an unlucky thirteen black cat playing with yarn by the window”.”
  • Method of Loci, or the “Journey Method”. Imagine placing the items you want to remember in specific locations in a room that you are familiar with. Instead of using a room, you can use landmarks in a “journey” that you know well, such as the route to work, or the path from your bed to the front door. Remember many landmarks along this journey, possibly by writing them down and considering them as “stops” on the route. Then just associate what you need to remember with those landmarks that you already have a clear image of in your mind. This is good for both short and long term memory, but if used for long term, you should reserve a specific route in your mind for it and not “overwrite” those images. You can remember very long lists with this, if you have a sufficiently long journey.
  • Names. To remember peoples’ names – something that is a common difficulty for many individuals – invent a relationship between the person’s name and some physical characteristics about the person. For instance, my name is Mike and I have a loud voice (microphone). This isn’t a great example because my voice isn’t a physical characteristic. But if I were short, you could associate my name with “micro”.

I’ve only scratched the surface of mnemonic techniques, but for those interested in exploring this further, start here and here.

 

Maintaining An Optimal Cognitive Environment

brain technical difficulties

Up to this point, I have only discussed strategies and techniques that will make you a more effective learner and be able to accomplish more in less time. For the rest of this article, I will delve into the research about how you can actually become smarter; that is, ways to facilitate cognitive enhancement.

Primarily, this research centers on various lifestyle factors, such as exercise, sleep, meditation, and nutrition, which have been shown to improve assorted measures of cognition. Keep in mind that there are many different measures of cognition, and a ton of confounding factors that can influence the conclusions. There is also a lot of variation among individuals. As such, it’s not always clear that manipulating your lifestyle in a certain way will have a specific effect on a specific type of cognitive function; that being said, incorporating these factors into your lifestyle will likely make you smarter, more creative, and more focused.

Exercise

It should come as no surprise that exercise enhances cognitive function. After all, exercise is good for you, period. But what exactly does it do for your brain?

According to Dresler et al (2012),

“…brief bouts of physical exercise improved long-term memory in young adults (Coles and Tomporowski, 2008). Intense exercise in the form of high impact anaerobic running was shown to strongly enhance learning speed in a vocabulary memorizing task (Winter et al., 2007). A recent meta-analysis demonstrated that in particular mental speed and memory processes are consistently enhanced after acute exercise, while the effects during acute exercise seem to depend on the specific exercise mode. In general, however, cognition enhancing effects of acute exercise seem to be in the small to medium range (Lambourne and Tomporowski, 2010). Besides motivational factors, an increase in general arousal level related to physical exertion has been hypothesized as a potential mechanism (Brisswalter et al., 2002).”

In other words, high-intensity exercise performed before a learning task may help improve your ability to learn and remember.

There is also a substantial body of evidence demonstrating that a consistent exercise regime can enhance cognitive function, but the different types of exercise and measures of cognition employed in these studies limit our understanding. One interesting view is that long-term cardiovascular exercise essentially “primes” the brain for memory gains from acute exercise (Roig et al, 2013):

“Although long-term cardiovascular exercise does not improve memory significantly, the practice of regular bouts of exercise have a priming effect on the molecular mechanisms responsible for memory processing (Berchtold et al., 2005), thereby optimizing the response to a single bout of acute exercise and its effects on memory performance (Hopkins et al., 2012).”

In other words, most people will get a cognitive benefit from acute exercise, but those who have been exercising consistently beforehand will get an even larger benefit.

Sleep

An important function of sleep is to improve cognitive abilities. In particular, according to Dresler et al, sleep enhances both memory and creativity. The beneficial impact of sleep on memory has been scientifically validated for nearly 100 years.

“First empirical reports on the positive effects of post-learning sleep on memory consolidation were published almost a century ago: Jenkins and Dallenbach (1924) demonstrated that memory for nonsense syllables over retention periods including sleep is less prone to forgetting compared to an equivalent time of wakefulness. Since then, hundreds of studies testing different memory systems have confirmed the positive effects of sleep on memory consolidation (Diekelmann and Born, 2010).”

Obviously, getting a good night’s sleep is important in making sure you are on your game – cognitively speaking – the next day. If you are pressed for time, you can still get some memory boost by taking power naps during the day, whether you slept well the previous night or not.

“…a growing number of studies demonstrates that also additional sleep in the form of daytime naps benefits memory function in non-sleep-deprived subjects (e.g. Mednick et al., 2003; Korman et al., 2007). Of note, even a nap as short as 6 min has been shown sufficient to promote memory performance (Lahl et al., 2008), and for some memory systems the benefit of a daytime nap is comparable to a whole night of sleep (Mednick et al., 2003).”

Learn more about how to nap strategically to get the most benefits here.

Sleep also enhances creativity, as anyone who has come up with a brilliant idea while asleep knows.

“Anecdotal reports on scientific discovery, inventive originality, and artistic productivity suggest that also creativity can be triggered or enhanced by sleep. Several studies confirm these anecdotes, showing that sleep promotes creative problem solving compared to wakefulness. For example, when subjects performed a cognitive task, which could be solved much faster through applying a hidden rule, after a night of sleep more than twice as many subjects gained insight into the hidden rule as in a control group staying awake (Wagner et al., 2004). Like sleep-related memory enhancement, active processes during sleep seem to promote creativity: If applied during sleep, olfactoric stimuli that were associated with creativity tasks before sleep trigger insights overnight (Ritter et al., in press). In particular REM sleep, the sleep stage most strongly associated with intense dreaming, enhances the formation of associative networks in creative problem solving (Cai et al., 2009).”

Meditation

Meditation – another habit that I strongly recommend you adopt right away – leads to long-term gains in many areas of cognitive function. In particular, it leads to noticeable improvements in attention. According to Dresler et al,

“During recent years, the effects of meditation practice were systematically studied also in western laboratories, and a rapidly growing body of evidence demonstrates that meditation training enhances attention and other cognitive capacities. For example, in comparisons of experienced meditators with meditation-naive control subjects, meditation practice has been associated with increased attentional performance and cognitive flexibility (Moore and Malinowski, 2009; Hodgins and Adair, 2010). In longitudinal studies, three months of meditation training could be shown to enhance attentional capacity (Lutz et al., 2009), perception and vigilance (MacLean et al., 2010). Even a brief training of just four meditation sessions was sufficient to significantly improve visuo-spatial processing, working memory and executive functioning (Zeidan et al., 2010). A recent systematic review associated early phases mindfulness meditation training with significant improvements in selective and executive attention, whereas later phases were associated with improved sustained attention abilities. In addition, meditation training was proposed to enhance working memory capacity and some executive functions (Chiesa et al., 2011). A recent meta-analysis of the effects of meditation training reported medium to large effect sizes for changes in emotionality and relationship issues, medium effect sizes for measures of attention and smaller effects on memory and several other cognitive capacities (Sedlmeier et al., in press).”

Learn more about meditation’s benefits and how to get started meditating here.

Computer Training – Overhyped

In recent years, brain training games and programs have become big business online. Unfortunately, research is mixed with respect to the efficacy of these programs. There is definitely some potential, but it doesn’t appear that the improvements that result from computer training transfer to other domains, so I cannot recommend this as a useful strategy. Dresler et al again:

“Much interest has been focused on enhancing long term memory or brain plasticity in healthy or mildly impaired older adults using training programs, especially to prevent dementia and age related cognitive decline (Cotelli et al., 2012; Tardif and Simard, 2011). Computerized training programs have shown moderate improvements of memory that are sustained 3 months after end of training (Mahncke et al., 2006). Other studies have found improvements in memory and attention (Smith et al., 2009; Zelinski et al., 2011), executive function and processing speed (Nouchi et al., 2012; Basak et al., 2008) and working memory and episodic memory in young and older adults (Schmiedek et al., 2010). However, a large six-week online study did not find evidence for transfer (Owen et al., 2010). Also, although computerized brain training games have become a major industry it is not clear that the commercial games transfer to untrained tasks (Fuyuno, 2007; Ackerman et al., 2010).”

“Computer games appear to be able to train visual skills, such as visuo-spatial attention, number of objects that can be attended and resolution of visual processing (Achtman et al., 2008; HubertWallander et al., 2011). Playing the game Tetris improved mental rotation and spatial visualization time (Okagaki and Frensch, 1994), and computer game training improved contrast sensitivity (Li et al., 2009), spatial visual resolution (Green and Bavelier, 2007) and taskswitching (Strobach et al., 2012). However, these enhanced abilities, although not tied directly to the gaming task, might nevertheless be limited to similar domains. For example, a study found that games enhance navigation performance in desktop and immersive virtual environment but not real environments (Richardson et al., 2011).”

If you have a particular interest in trying these programs, go for it. It might work. But you are probably better off spending your time and money on something else.

Nutrition

What you eat can have a dramatic impact on your cognitive function. This is true both acutely and over the long-term. A healthy diet can help ensure that your brain is functioning at its optimal level, but you can also alter your food choices in order to improve your cognitive function in the hours that follow your meal.

One of the most commonly overlooked factors in your cognitive ability is your hydration status. Being dehydrated has all sorts of nasty physical and cognitive effects. Most health experts recommend the 8×8 rule; that is, consuming eight 8-ounce cups of water per day. But not only is maintaining adequate hydration necessary, but acute water consumption can also improve visual sustained attention, short-term memory, simple reaction time, and mood (Masento et al, 2014). As such, I recommend keeping water close by at all times.

Food choices can have a profound impact on your cognitive function – just think about how sluggish you feel after Thanksgiving dinner. A very thorough review by Gibson and Green (2002) dives into the details. Despite it being often recommended that people eat breakfast, it is unclear whether skipping breakfast has a cognitive impact on children or adults. Most likely, breakfast is beneficial with respect to some areas of cognition and is detrimental in others. Lunch, on the other hand…

“…a quite consistent finding has been a drop in performance after the midday meal, known as the ‘post-lunch dip’ (Folkard & Monk, 1985; Smith & Kendrick, 1992; Owens et al. 2000). It appears that performance on tasks requiring sustained attention are more likely than briefer tasks of selective attention to be attenuated by lunch (Christie & McBrearty, 1979; Smith & Miles, 1986b). However, it remains unclear to what extent the ‘post-lunch dip’ actually depends on eating lunch (Folkard & Monk, 1985); an underlying rhythm in performance also seems likely to contribute, since vigilance was worse in the early afternoon than late morning, in subjects not eating lunch (Smith & Miles, 1986a).”

In other words, you should avoid doing the most cognitively demanding tasks in the early afternoon. A siesta would be a better choice, if you can swing it.

Dieting appears to have a psychological impact that decreases cognitive performance.

“Dieting has also been associated with impaired cognition (Wing et al. 1995). For example, female dieters performed more poorly than non-dieters on a task of sustained attention (Rogers & Green, 1993), as well as poorer performance on immediate free recall and simple reaction time tasks (Green et al. 1994). In addition, this study found that motor performance (as assessed by two-finger tapping speed) was actually better in dieters than non-dieters, indicating that these effects could not be explained in terms of a simple slowing of overall motor speed or lack of motivation amongst dieters. Further, performance has been demonstrated to be poorer, within the same individuals, when dieting than when not dieting (Green & Rogers, 1995), indicating that the phenomenon is related to dieting per se, rather than pre-existing individual differences between dieters and non-dieters. Interestingly, this study is notable for two further aspects. First, the impairments in performance were found even amongst those dieters who reported not having lost any weight over the course of the diet and, second, that the impairments were most marked in those who had been dieting for the shortest period of time. These two factors combine to suggest that the dieting-related phenomenon is psychological, rather than physiological in nature.

In other words, you shouldn’t be “going on a diet” if you want to maintain optimal cognitive function. I use scare quotes to help draw the distinction between “dieting” and merely eating healthy, which may include significant calorie reduction (or even intermittent fasting). My suspicion is that those who view themselves as “on a diet” will suffer performance reductions, whereas those who engage in exactly the same behaviors (say, eating dramatically less) but view it as a normal part of their healthy lifestyle will not lose cognitive function – and may even gain some.

What about the effects of meal composition? What impact do the specific components of your meal have on your cognitive abilities?

Let’s start with cholesterol. While the reigning health dogma screams “cholesterol is evil!!!” there are many, such as myself, who disagree. And for the purposes of our discussion here, it seems that having lower cholesterol levels (and/or attempting to lower them) may negatively impact cognitive function. This is likely due to the critical role that cholesterol plays in maintaining the lipid bi-layer of the brain.

“…a number of studies indicated that low or decreasing levels of cholesterol are associated with increased rates of death from suicide (for example, see Gallerani et al. 1995), incidence of depression (Glueck et al. 1994) and impaired cognitive function (in terms of choice reaction time; Benton, 1995). There is also some cross-sectional data to suggest that higher cholesterol levels are associated with better cognitive function (Muldoon et al. 1997).”

The amount of fat in a meal likely has little effect on cognitive performance other than making you a little more tired.

“On balance, high-fat meals appear likely to increase subsequent fatigue and reduce reported alertness, but with little effect on cognitive performance, relative to high-carbohydrate–low-fat meals. However, there were inconsistencies relating to changes in specific moods and effects of meal timing.”

Things get more interesting with carbohydrates (glucose). From a general health perspective, I would recommend consuming a low-carb diet. And by following a low-carb, high-fat diet, your brain will be healthier due to decreased inflammation, and you will probably have better cognitive performance. Nevertheless, it does appear that a meal that is high in carbohydrates is likely to stimulate improved cognitive performance in the short term. According to Dresler et al,

“Hypoglycemia, i.e. when the blood glucose level falls to very low values, can affect cognitive functioning negatively and is associated with slower reaction times in task that require attention. In healthy individuals, however, the blood glucose level appears to be fairly stable during the day. Subjective reports of “increased mental energy” have been associated with higher glucose metabolism in the brain (Posner et al., 1988; Reivih and Alavi, 1983), and this effect occurs within several minutes after glucose administration. With regard to objective cognitive performance, glucose improves attention (Benton et al., 1994), response speed (Owens and Benton, 1994) and working memory (Scholey et al., 2001), the latter occurring under conditions of high but also under low glucose depletion (Owen et al., 2012; Jones et al., 2012). The most pronounced effects of glucose on cognition are found for declarative memory (Messier, 2004; Smith et al., 2011), where effect sizes in the large range have been demonstrated in particular for demanding tasks (e.g Sünram-Lea et al., 2001, 2002a, 2002b; Meikle et al., 2004). High blood-glucose level are associated with improved memory function (Benton and Owens, 1993), and glucose administration before and after learning similarly improves memory performance, indicating that attentional or other non-memory specific processes during encoding alone cannot be responsible for the memory enhancing effects of glucose (Sünram-Lea et al., 2002a). Memory effects are more pronounced in elderly as compared to young adults, and glucose tolerance was predictive for declarative memory performance (Manning et al., 1990; Meikle et al., 2004; Messier, 2004).”

A high carb meal might be just the ticket before tackling a difficult task…just don’t make it a habit.

Unlike carbs, increasing dietary polyphenol consumption is something you should make a habit of. Polyphenols such as those from red wine, cocoa, berries, nuts, coffee, and tea have cognitive benefits that are likely due to neuroprotective mechanisms unrelated to their antioxidant activity (Lamport et al, 2012).

“Evidence suggests that consuming additional polyphenols in the diet can lead to cognitive benefits, however, the observed effects were small. Declarative memory and particularly spatial memory appear most sensitive to polyphenol consumption and effects may differ depending on polyphenol source. Polyphenol berry fruit juice consumption was most beneficial for immediate verbal memory, whereas isoflavone based interventions were associated with significant improvements for delayed spatial memory and executive function…polyphenol consumption has potential to benefit cognition both acutely and chronically.

You may want to consider increasing your consumption of lutein too – it is important in improving vision as well as cognition (Johnson 2014).

“Examination of a relationship between cognition and lutein levels in brain tissue of decedents from a population-based study of adults found that, among the carotenoids, only lutein was consistently associated with a wide range of cognitive measures that included executive function, language, learning, and memory, which are all associated with specific brain regions. The association of lutein with more than one cognitive function, the higher lutein concentrations in all areas of the brain evaluated, and the fact that these associations remained statistically significant after controlling for potential confounding factors all support a role for lutein in age-related cognitive health.”

How much lutein do you need?

“…in a double-blinded, placebo-controlled trial of women who received lutein supplementation (12 mg/d), docosahexaenoic acid supplementation (800 mg/d), or a combination of the two for 4 months, verbal fluency scores improved significantly in all 3 treatment groups. Memory scores and rates of learning improved significantly in the combined treatment group, who also displayed a trend toward more efficient learning.”

Aim for 12 mg/day. This is difficult to do via diet alone, but possible if you incorporate high-lutein foods, such as leafy greens (kale is the true powerhouse, but spinach is good too), brightly colored fruits, and egg yolks. You can view the top sources of dietary lutein here.

Omega-3 Fatty Acids

Omega-3 fats are so important, I felt they deserved their own section, even though technically they could fall under “nutrition”. After all, you can get significant amounts of omega-3’s by eating fatty fish (such as salmon) and walnuts regularly. However, you can get more substantial benefits by taking a fish oil supplement (particularly one that is high in DHA).

A recent review article looked at the randomized controlled trials of omega-3 supplementation and how it improves cognition, with encouraging results (Stonehouse 2014). In summary:

“Current evidence suggests that consumption of LC [long chain] omega-3 PUFA, particularly DHA, may enhance cognitive performance relating to learning, cognitive development, memory and speed of performing cognitive tasks. Those who habitually consume diets low in DHA, children with low literacy ability and malnourished and older adults with age-related cognitive decline and mild cognitive impairment seem to benefit most. ”

The effects are slightly different in different age groups.

“The outcomes that were improved with LC omega-3 PUFA supplementation in children included verbal learning and memory, reading, spelling, non-verbal cognitive development and processing speed, visual-perceptive capacity, attention and executive function; in younger adults memory and reaction time of memory were improved; and in older adults several studies showed improvements in memory, while executive function and visuospatial learning were also improved.”

Before you decide to supplement with fish oil, you should check with your doctor. It is a very powerful anticoagulant, so it is contraindicated with certain medications and diseases.

Creatine

You may think of creatine as a supplement for meatheads, or perhaps that it is dangerous for your kidneys. In reality, it is one of the most well-researched supplements that is incredibly safe (there is no evidence of kidney damage, but it elevates the levels of creatinine in urine, which is often used to test for kidney disease) and beneficial for a wide range of uses. Eating meat provides your body with creatine, but it is easier to achieve optimal levels through supplementation.

For our purposes here, what matters most is that it is strongly neuroprotective and generally good for your brain. Interestingly, it seems to be helpful for women battling with depression. It also aids in cognitive function and alertness in sleep-deprived or stressed individuals. You can read all about the research on creatine here.

A recent review of research on creatine and psychiatric disorders had this to say about the impact of creatine on cognitive function (Allen 2012):

“In human intervention studies, most placebo-controlled, double-blind studies reported positive findings. In healthy volunteers, creatine supplementation reduced mental fatigue following a stressful time-pressured serial calculation test (Watanabe et al., 2002). Additionally, creatine improved working memory and intelligence scores in vegetarians and vegans, who are more likely to have diminished phosphocreatine reserves due to limited meat consumption (Rae et al., 2003). In non-vegetarians undergoing significant sleep deprivation paired with mild exercise (> 24 hours), creatine improved mood and reduced fatigue and performance decline on a choice reaction task (McMorris et al., 2006). In a follow-up study, creatine supplementation enhanced performance on central executive and working memory tasks after 36-hours of sleep deprivation (McMorris et al., 2007a). In older adults (~76 years of age), creatine buffered age-related cognitive decline, with improvement in verbal and spatial short-term memory and long-term memory after one week of daily supplementation (McMorris et al., 2007b). Most recently, adults supplemented with creatine exhibited better short-term memory and trended towards better abstract reasoning than placebo controls (Hammett et al., 2010).”

While the jury is out on whether creatine will truly improve cognitive function in non-elderly, non-sleep-deprived individuals, it is certainly plausible. And given its neuroprotective (and many other) benefits, its safety, and its price (a six month supply can cost as little as $15), there is little reason not to add it into your life. By the way, go with creatine monohydrate rather than any of the other “fancy” forms that creatine can come in – it is cheaper and the most well-researched.

Caffeine

As discussed in my previous post about the benefits of coffee, caffeine is seriously good for your brain. Not only can it dramatically reduce the risk of Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s Diseases, but caffeine can also improve cognitive function in healthy individuals. Caveat: it’s possible that the cognitive benefits are just a reduction in withdrawal symptoms of caffeine, but there is debate about this.

In any case, a very interesting review article (Nehlig 2010) explored the potential of caffeine to enhance cognition.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated that caffeine decreases reaction time, increases vigilance and attention, and has positive effects on mood (at the doses used in most studies that will be considered here).”

In addition, caffeine appears to enhance passive learning, but not intentional learning. It might help you learn things incidentally, but caffeine before your study session probably won’t do much. That being said, caffeine can be exceptionally beneficial to those who are sleep-deprived or otherwise tired.

Remember, coffee isn’t the only good source of caffeine. Green tea is one of the healthiest things on the planet and also has some. And if, despite the cognitive benefits, you are trying to quit caffeine, this guide can help.

 

Nootropics And Pharmaceutical Approaches To Cognitive Enhancement

cannot brain today

A “nootropic” is a drug or supplement that improves cognitive function in healthy individuals – like the fictional NZT in Limitless. Obviously, a nootropic as powerful as NZT doesn’t exist, but there are plenty of promising substances that can still improve things like memory, executive function, attention, and motivation in healthy individuals.

Much more human research needs to be done in this area. Some individuals experiment with loads of these compounds, and there is a ton of anecdotal evidence that they can be beneficial. Some people take “stacks” of multiple substances in order to enhance the effects. There are quite a few nootropics, but I will only cover a few of the more popular ones here.

Piracetam And The –Racetam Family

Racetams are a structurally similar class of compounds that are related to Piracetam and are often marketed as cognitive enhancers and usually sold over-the-counter. Most racetams are extremely safe and nontoxic, but may result in uncomfortable side effects such as headaches.

There is quite a bit of anecdotal evidence that Piracetam and other racetams enhance cognition, but the data isn’t yet clear on what exactly these compounds do, particularly in healthy individuals. That being said, research has shown that they do have neuroprotective properties, and they are sometimes used clinically to protect the brain from trauma and cognitive deterioration, such as that which can occur after a heart bypass surgery. See Malykh and Sadaie (2010) for a literature review on the clinical uses of many racetam drugs.

The most studied of these drugs is piracetam, which likely prevents cognitive decline, but has little evidence of enhancing cognition in healthy adults. Another popular one is aniracetam, which is considerably stronger than piracetam and appears to improve creativity and holistic thinking in users.

A number of racetams offer hope for safe and effective cognitive enhancement in healthy adults, but your mileage may vary.

Modafinil

Modafinil is a prescription drug and “wakefulness-promoting agent” used primarily to treat narcolepsy. It is safe for most individuals (though it is possible to have severe negative reactions) and highly nontoxic. It is also a rather promising cognitive enhancer (Battleday and Brem, 2015).

“…modafinil appears to exert a beneficial effect on executive functions, with some benefits seen in inhibitory control and working memory paradigms, and more marked effects in higher executive functions such as planning, decision making, and fluid intelligence.”

There are some qualifications, however. Modafinil appears to be more beneficial in aiding with more complex tasks than with simple ones, and in some cases, it may hinder cognitive performance.

When simple psychometric assessments are considered, modafinil intake appears to enhance executive function, variably benefit attention and learning and memory, and have little effect on creativity and motor excitability. When more complex tasks are considered, modafinil appears to enhance attention, higher executive functions, and learning and memory. Negative cognitive consequences of modafinil intake were reported in a small minority of tasks, and never consistently on any one: decreased performance on a cognitive flexibility task (the intra/extra-dimensional set shift task in Randall et al. (2004)), increased deliberation time during harder trials on a planning task (the One-Touch Stockings of Cambridge task in Randall et al. (2005a, 2005b)), increased deliberation time on one divergent thinking task (the Cambridge Gambling Task in Turner et al. (2003)), and decreased performance on another (the abbreviated Torrance in Mohamed (2014)). It appears that modafinil exerts minimal effects on mood – if anything improving it – and only rarely causes minor adverse effects.”

Another important caveat is that modafinil appears to be more effective in individuals who have lower IQ scores (Randall et al, 2005). This means that more intelligent individuals won’t get as much of a cognitive boost as those who have more catching up to do – but it also means that some of the research on modafinil may understate the cognitive benefits. If experiments were done on groups with higher than average IQs, then the detection of the positive impact of modafinil may be limited.

Stimulants

There are a number of stimulant medications, usually prescribed for ADHD, that have been shown to have cognitive enhancing effects. This includes amphetamines (Adderall) and methylphenidate (Ritalin), which are commonly used (often illegally) by students who want to improve their focus and study harder in school.

A word of caution is in order here. First of all, these are controlled substances, so it will be illegal for you to use them without a prescription. Second, these medications have some abuse potential and may have some negative impact on health. That being said, they are used on a daily basis by many individuals over long periods of time and are usually well tolerated.

Research clearly shows that these drugs can enhance cognition in healthy, non-ADHD individuals. For instance, in a review of nearly sixty studies, single doses of methylphenidate were found to improve cognitive function in a number of domains (Linssen et al, 2014).

“The studies reviewed here show that single doses of MPH [methylphenidate] improve cognitive performance in the healthy population in the domains of working memory (65% of included studies) and speed of processing (48%), and to a lesser extent may also improve verbal learning and memory (31%), attention and vigilance (29%) and reasoning and problem solving (18%), but does not have an effect on visual learning and memory. MPH effects are dose-dependent and the dose–response relationship differs between cognitive domains.”

Another review and meta-analysis was performed, looking at studies of modafinil, methylphenidate, and amphetamine use in non-ADHD youth, ages 12-25 (Bagot and Kaminer, 2015).

“Modafinil appears to improve reaction time (P ≤ 0.04), logical reasoning (P ≤ 0.05) and problem-solving. Methylphenidate appears to improve performance in novel tasks and attention-based tasks (P ≤ 0.05), and reduces planning latency in more complex tasks (P ≤ 0.05). Amphetamine has been shown to improve consolidation of information (0.02 ≥ P ≤ 0.05), leading to improved recall. Across all three types of prescription stimulants, research shows improved attention with lack of consensus on whether these improvements are limited to simple versus complex tasks in varying youth populations.”

Methylphenidate improves a number of cognitive domains, but appears to be more effective when performing unfamiliar tasks and may even hinder performance on tasks that are more routine.

“Methylphenidate also appears to have some effect on higher-order cognitive processes; however, there seem to be environmental and task limitations. Declarative memory, cognitive flexibility and increased response time and accuracy on auditory tasks show improvements for up to 4.5 hours after methylphenidate ingestion. Also, improvements in spatial tasks utilizing skills of planning and adaptation and memory have been shown in novel situations. Methylphenidate appears to have a dual but contradictory effect on cognitive enhancement such that it improves performance in unfamiliar tasks, but results in a deficit in planning latency and increased impulsivity leading to poorer performance in familiar tasks. Indeed, novelty appears to influence cognitive effect, as those who take methylphenidate may be better able to shift attention to unfamiliar characteristics of stimuli with fewer errors in task response. Additionally, there may be up to a 10% improvement in conscious error awareness without a concomitant change in response speed.”

Amphetamines seem to enhance learning ability, making them a useful study aid.

“Amphetamine may enhance knowledge acquisition and coding of information, as well as ability to retrieve information. However, these processes may, again, be limited by stimuli characteristics and medication half-life. Studies have shown that acoustic and semantic information may be encoded and accessed more easily with amphetamine. Temporally, amphetamine should be taken prior to learning; the hour after knowledge acquisition may be the most crucial for consolidation; recall may be most noticeably improved 1–3 days following the initial learning event; and recognition of previously learned information may be maximized 1 week following learning. Those with lower baseline functioning in insightful problem-solving, semantic retrieval and non-verbal intelligence may be aided by amphetamine in these domains.”

Interestingly, despite the cognitive benefits of these stimulant medications, it doesn’t appear that their use improves actual academic outcomes in those who have ADHD – actual study behaviors may be more important (Advokat and Scheithauer, 2013). Why?

“To address that question we considered some non-cognitive behavioral effects of stimulants on mood and motivation. We found evidence that stimulants reduce frustration, improve self-regulation, and increase effortful behavior, and that the drugs’ euphoric effects do not necessarily impair attention. However, all of these actions would facilitate academic performance and would not explain the discrepancy.

On the other hand, we also found evidence that stimulants “promote risky behavior” and may increase the interfering effect of environmental distractions. Results concerning risky behavior might be reinterpreted as evidence of stimulant-induced “inflexibility,” or “cognitive stereotopy,” which have been recognized for a long time (Robbins and Sahakian, 1979). Nevertheless, it may be that some students, either consciously or not, use these effects to their advantage. For example, the “inflexibility” that may be induced by stimulants might be put to good use by promoting a consistent, habitual, study schedule. Perhaps stimulant-induced facilitation of episodic memory does benefit ADHD students with good study habits. Alternatively, the drugs may not have much benefit if students use them to stay up longer the night before exams, or to write papers at the last minute.

In other words, stimulant medications are unlikely to be a “magic pill” for cognitive enhancement. To actually improve academic outcomes, you’ll need to implement the metacognitive strategies discussed in the first section of this article.

“These data suggest that the GPA disparity between ADHD and non-ADHD students could be eliminated if ADHD students were able to develop well-established study habits. The results imply that the drugs alone are not sufficient to overcome the disadvantage of not preparing for exams. Unfortunately, it is not clear from these data alone if taking stimulant medications actually helps ADHD students to do that. That is, do the stimulant drugs help students to plan ahead, or to begin studying ahead of time so that they can compensate for their cognitive deficit? If so, why didn’t more of the ADHD students do that?”

…And More!

As discussed at the beginning of this section, there are far more nootropics than I can possibly cover here, though I’ve tackled the most important ones. If you are interested in getting a feel for the state of the research on assorted pharmaceutical neuroenhancers, these two papers by the same author should get you started (Fond et al, 2015; Fond et al, 2015). Over the coming years and decades, some of those substances may fall into wider use.

It is important to note that there are many issues with attempting to study the cognitive effects of various drugs (Husain and Mehta, 2011). There are many different cognitive domains, and different substances act in different ways and influence these domains in different ways. Some substances may improve a few domains and have negative effects in others. There is also a huge variability in the response of different individuals to these drugs, so even if there is some statistical benefit on average, your results may be far better…or worse. And it is likely that certain subgroups will benefit more than others; for instance, as discussed under the modafinil section, those with lower IQ or baseline cognitive function likely benefit more than those who are already high-functioning.

As such, be very careful if you are considering experimenting with nootropics. Keep your expectations in check.

 

Summary/Conclusion

Becoming more productive and a more effective learner is something within reach of everyone, and there are many strategies you can use for this purpose.

First, you’ll want to make sure you approach the task at hand in an optimal way. This requires the development of metacognitive skills, which will allow you to improve your ability to learn. These skills include the ability to plan, execute, and reflect upon the environmental, motivational, and cognitive strategies available to you.

There are also many techniques and systems that can make you more productive, a better learner, and enhance your memory. These techniques can be very simple, or they may take a lot of practice; either way, you’ll want to build up your repertoire of productivity and learning hacks in order to make the best use of your metacognitive strategies.

Beyond this, there are many lifestyle factors which have an impact on your cognitive abilities in general. Make sure you get regular exercise, sleep well, meditate, and eat right based on your needs. Supplementation with certain substances, such as fish oil and creatine, may also help.

Finally, consider the use of nootropics, which have the potential to further enhance your cognitive abilities with little effort. However, you must be careful for both legal and health reasons. Don’t take this step lightly.

The post Learning Better: Ultimate Guide to Hacking Your Brain And Supercharging Your Productivity appeared first on Feel Happiness.

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Coffee And Health: Brewing The Healthiest Cup Of Coffee Possible http://feelhappiness.com/coffee-health-benefits/ http://feelhappiness.com/coffee-health-benefits/#comments Sun, 27 Mar 2016 18:01:35 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1138 Can you imagine how unproductive the American office worker would be if coffee wasn’t widely available? I shudder to even consider the prospect of this awful, dystopian world. Besides water and tea (and I have much to say about how beneficial it is to drink green tea), coffee is the most popular beverage in the [...]

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coffee withdrawal

Can you imagine how unproductive the American office worker would be if coffee wasn’t widely available? I shudder to even consider the prospect of this awful, dystopian world.

Besides water and tea (and I have much to say about how beneficial it is to drink green tea), coffee is the most popular beverage in the world. According to Statistic Brain, 54% of Americans over the age of 18 drink coffee on a daily basis – that’s more than 100 million people. Out of these, 60% claim they need coffee to start their day, and 54% claim they “need coffee to feel like their self”.

Coffee, due to its caffeine content, is pretty damn addictive. At one point in my life, I went from having barely drank coffee in my life to six cups a day in 10 weeks. And trying to quit after that? Ugh! Intense headaches and no motivation to get out of bed. Personally, I suspect that the addictive nature of caffeine has fueled some of the popular perception that coffee isn’t particularly healthy, or at least is a somewhat “risky” thing to drink regularly.

Luckily, this perception is inaccurate. While there are some people who are very sensitive to caffeine, the rest of us can drink coffee without a problem. Even pregnant women can likely drink up to two cups of coffee per day without negatively impacting the child. And for the rest of us, coffee is actually pretty damn healthy!

 

What’s In A Cup Of Coffee?

coffee flavored sugar milk

Before diving into the health benefits of coffee, it is worth knowing what is actually in the coffee you drink. There are hundreds of different compounds in coffee, but there are a few that are most important.

  • Caffeine. Duh. This is the main psychoactive component of coffee, and by far the most studied. Many of the health effects described later in this article are due to caffeine (which, of course, you can get from non-coffee sources). It’s that thing that wakes you up, but it’s also the thing that might make you irritable and restless.
  • Chlorogenic acids. These are phenolic compounds, 45 of which have been found in coffee thus far. They also are responsible for much of the health impact of coffee – phenolic compounds are antioxidants and do a lot of good stuff.
  • Diterpines. Primarily cafestol and kahweol. These guys help give coffee its bitter taste, and they help fight cancer. For what it’s worth, they also are linked to higher cholesterol levels, if that’s something you’re concerned about.

While you might expect that these components will exist in roughly the same proportions in each cup of coffee, you would be mistaken. For instance, the amount of caffeine in a cup of coffee varies dramatically, even when purchased from the same coffee shop on a different day. Many things can affect the caffeine content: the variety of bean, roasting method, particle size, brewing time, and the proportion of coffee to water.

There really is a science to coffee, and the way it is prepared will have an impact. Covering all of these differences is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is worth noting that lighter roasts have more of the healthy chlorogenic acids than dark roasts (though it is unclear whether lighter roasts have more caffeine, as rumored). Instant coffee is also loaded with chlorogenic acids. To maximize the health benefits of coffee, it is better to choose a light roast or instant coffee…which is a bummer, because my favorite is French roast. Oh well.

 

Health Benefits of Coffee

Drinking coffee may feel as though it gives you superpowers in the morning, but it also does a whole host of nice things for your body behind the scenes.

Coffee, The Brain, and Cognitive Function

Let’s start with the health impact of coffee and caffeine on the brain – an area that I personally find most compelling. Diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s are debilitating for the elderly, and can be devastating to the families of those afflicted (particularly in the case of Alzheimer’s). Unfortunately, there are no cures yet.

But there are ways to prevent the onset of these diseases, and caffeine seems to be one of the best. While the mechanism of action is not fully understood, it appears that caffeine protects against Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s by protecting the integrity of the blood-brain barrier.1 A 2010 meta-analysis found caffeine to substantially reduce Parkinson’s disease risk – there was an overall risk reduction of 25%, with a linear dose-response.2 In other words, each additional cup of coffee should decrease your risk in proportion to how much caffeine it contains. However, it does appear that estrogen may block some of caffeine’s neuroprotective effects, so women undergoing hormone replacement therapy may not benefit.3 A 2007 review found a decreased risk of Alzheimer’s in coffee drinkers,4 and lifetime caffeine exposure and current caffeine consumption have a positive impact on cognitive function in elderly women.5

But wait, there’s more! Total coffee and tea intake has been associated with a reduced risk of brain tumors.6 Not only that, but a 2015 meta-analysis showed that coffee and caffeine are significantly related to a reduced risk of depression; each additional cup of coffee per day reduces the risk of depression by 7%!7

Some of the more exciting research regarding caffeine’s impact on the brain is about how it affects cognitive function in healthy individuals. Much of this research is summarized in Nehlig 2010,8 a paper which I would highly recommend to interested readers.

“It has been repeatedly demonstrated that caffeine decreases reaction time, increases vigilance and attention, and has positive effects on mood (at the doses used in most studies that will be considered here).”

Here are some more specifics and qualifications:

  • “…caffeine facilitates learning in tasks in which information is presented passively; in tasks in which material is learned intentionally, caffeine has no effect.”
  • “…caffeine does not seem to consistently improve immediate free recall of words, letters and digits. Caffeine facilitates performance in tasks involving working memory to a limited extent, but hinders performance in tasks that heavily depend on working memory.”
  • “It is well-known that caffeine ingestion leads to dose-dependent increased energetic arousal. At low doses, caffeine improves hedonic tone and reduces anxiety, while at high doses there is an increase in tense arousal, including anxiety, nervousness, and jitteriness. Caffeine improves concentration and help to focus mainly by eliminating distractors.”
  • “Caffeine can apparently improve performance directly over a wide variety of mental tasks, and indirectly by reducing decrements in performance under suboptimal alertness conditions. The efficacy of caffeine under states of reduced alertness is quite consistent.”

coffee for work

In other words, caffeine is not a perfect performance enhancer, but it definitely has some serious positives. In particular, it seems to be helpful for those who are sleep deprived or otherwise tired. Note that it is also possible that some of these beneficial effects are merely the result of correcting for caffeine withdrawal symptoms that subjects may have been experiencing; whether or not this is the case is up for debate. In either case, it is clearly beneficial for the brain.

Coffee And Cancer

Coffee, perhaps due to its phenolic compounds, substantially reduces the risk of various types of cancers. For instance, Yu et al. (2011) found that each additional cup of coffee per day reduced the risk of cancer by 3%.9 Specifically,

“In subgroup analyses, we noted that, coffee drinking was associated with a reduced risk of bladder, breast, buccal and pharyngeal, colorectal, endometrial, esophageal, hepatocellular, leukemic, pancreatic, and prostate cancers.”

Other studies have investigated the effects of coffee on different kinds of cancer. For instance, a 2012 meta-analysis found that each cup of coffee conferred an 8% reduced risk of endometrial cancer,10 and a meta-analysis from 2011 showed that each additional cup reduced the risk of pancreatic cancer by 4%.11

Perhaps the most impressive cancer reduction is that of liver cancer; a 2007 meta-analysis found that an increase of 2 cups of coffee per day was associated with a 43% reduced risk of liver cancer!12 In fact, coffee seems to just be great for your liver in general. Cadden et al. (2007) found that coffee prevents the elevation of liver enzymes, and reduces the risk of cirrhosis and hepatocellular carcinoma (liver cancer).13 A more recent review, Saab et al. (2014) found that coffee consumption is beneficial in a wide range of liver diseases, and recommended that coffee consumption be promoted among those with liver issues.14 Note that, consistent with our discussion above, the study found that filtered coffee appears to have more benefits than unfiltered coffee.

Coffee and the Cardiovascular System

Since caffeine is a stimulant, there are many who are concerned that drinking coffee may not be good for your heart. This fear is primarily centered on the belief that drinking coffee will increase blood pressure. What does the evidence say?

Overall, the evidence is mixed but promising for coffee drinkers. One review of prospective observational studies found that drinking more than 3 cups of coffee per day was not associated with an increased hypertension risk, but that 1-3 cups per day is associated with a slight increase.15 In contrast, a more recent meta-analysis found no significant effects from coffee on blood pressure.16 A different meta-analysis found that hypertensive individuals may experience an acute increase in blood pressure when drinking coffee, but that they experienced no increase in blood pressure with long-term consumption of coffee.17 In other words, those who don’t normally drink coffee may experience a short-term spike in blood pressure, but habitual coffee drinkers won’t have elevated blood pressure compared to non-drinkers.

The story doesn’t end there. Interested readers can refer to Bonita et al. (2007) for a review of the mechanisms by which coffee components may influence cardiovascular health and risk factors.18 In practice, these effects provide some benefits with respect to cardiovascular disease outcomes (O’Keefe et al, 2013).19

“From a cardiovascular (CV) standpoint, coffee consumption may reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes mellitus and hypertension, as well as other conditions associated with CV risk such as obesity and depression; but it may adversely affect lipid profiles depending on how the beverage is prepared. Regardless, a growing body of data suggests that habitual coffee consumption is neutral to beneficial regarding the risks of a variety of adverse CV outcomes including coronary heart disease, congestive heart failure, arrhythmias, and stroke. Moreover, large epidemiological studies suggest that regular coffee drinkers have reduced risks of mortality, both CV and all-cause.”

A gigantic meta-analysis performed on 1.28 million subjects found that 3-5 cups of coffee per day was associated with a decrease in cardiovascular disease risk by about 10%, and that even heavier consumption did not elevate risk.20

Coffee appears to be dramatically beneficial with respect to diabetes. A 2005 review found that drinking 4-6 cups of coffee per day reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes by 28%, and 6+ cups per day reduces the risk by 35%.21 Consistent with these findings, a more recent meta-analysis on over 450,000 participants found that each additional cup of coffee per day reduced the risk of diabetes by 7%.22 It is worth noting that those who drank decaf coffee had a similar risk reduction, so it is not the caffeine that confers this benefit.

Finally, I should point out that filtered coffee removes more of the diterpine compounds – cafestol and kahweol – which increase serum lipids or cholesterol levels. Boiled or unfiltered coffee doesn’t remove these compounds, and is thus more likely to raise cholesterol levels. Conventional wisdom is that we should aim for lower cholesterol levels, but there are also many nutritionists (or just hobbyists like myself) who believe that high cholesterol is fine, if not a good thing. I’ll leave it to you to determine whether you care about this effect or not.

Coffee and Dental Health

Coffee has been known to stain teeth, but this is purely a cosmetic issue. It also isn’t exactly conducive to having fresh breath. Not to downplay these concerns, but coffee may on the whole be beneficial to your oral health.

Some evidence suggests that coffee reduces the risk of dental caries (cavities) when taken straight black; adding milk and sugar ameliorated this benefit.23 It appears that the antioxidants in coffee make your teeth less adhesive, so bacteria don’t stick to them as well. A recent study found that coffee consumption was associated with a small reduction in periodontal bone loss, and no evidence of harmful effects was found.24

Coffee and Hydration

It is commonly believed that drinking coffee causes dehydration, and some recommend that for every cup of coffee you drink, you need an extra cup of water beyond the normal recommendations. That coffee makes me feel the need to pee far more often doesn’t help.

But it turns out that coffee may not be as dehydrating as people think. For instance, Ruxton (2008) concludes that

“The available studies on hydration found that caffeine intakes up to 400 mg per day did not produce dehydration, even in subjects undergoing exercise testing. It was concluded that the range of caffeine intake that appeared to maximise benefit and minimise risk is 38 to 400 mg per day, equating to 1 to 8 cups of tea per day, or 0.3 to 4 cups of brewed coffee per day.”25

Perhaps a higher caffeine intake than that may cause dehydration, but there are not enough studies with such high consumption to make that conclusion.

coffee poop

A more recent study of 50 males consuming 4 mg/kg of caffeine (the equivalent of 270 mg of caffeine, or 2-3 cups of coffee, for someone who weighs 150 lbs) found that coffee has an equal hydration effect as water.26 In other words, those who consume coffee in moderation should be able to count a cup of coffee as the equivalent as a cup of water in determining their overall fluid intake for hydration status. The researchers acknowledged that high doses of caffeine in individuals who don’t normally consume caffeine will cause an acute increase in urine volume, however.

Coffee and Exercise Performance

Caffeine is often added to pre-workout supplements, perhaps partly for marketing purposes: it helps get people to buy your product when they can say that they actually felt its effects acutely, something that caffeine will surely do. But it actually does benefit exercise performance, though it isn’t entirely clear-cut what it will benefit and how much needs to be consumed to experience those benefits.

There appears to be substantial agreement that caffeine improves endurance performance. In addition, there is some evidence that coffee and caffeine itself have similar benefits for endurance training when consumed one hour before the bout of exercise.27

In high doses, caffeine is considered a performance enhancing substance. But what about more normal doses? A review by Spriet (2014) addressed this question by looking at studies using a “low” dose of 3 mg/kg, or about 200 mg (2 cups of coffee) for most individuals, finding that there are performance improvements.28 To summarize the findings:

“It has long been known that moderate to high caffeine doses (5–13 mg/kg bm) ingested ~1 h before and during exercise increase endurance exercise performance in laboratory and sport field settings. Recent work also suggests that caffeine is ergogenic in some short-term high-intensity exercise and sport situations and also in team-sport simulations. Lower caffeine doses (≤3 mg/kg bm, ~200 mg) taken before exercise also increase athletic performance, and recent evidence has demonstrated an ergogenic effect of low and very low doses of caffeine taken late in prolonged exercise. Low caffeine doses do not alter exercise-induced changes in peripheral whole-body responses to exercise and are associated with few, if any, side effects. Low doses of caffeine (~200 mg) have also been shown to improve vigilance, alertness and mood, and improve cognitive processes during and following strenuous exercise.”

Coffee and Mortality Risk

Ahhh, mortality risk. The motherlode of health benefits! While causality has yet to be established, there is a strong association between reduced mortality risk and drinking coffee.

A very large study conducted by Freedman et al. (2012) measured the association between all-cause mortality risk and coffee consumption in over 400,000 individuals.29 They found that drinking coffee reduces the risk of death from all causes by a few percentage points, whether drinking caffeinated or decaf coffee.

“Adjusted hazard ratios for death among men who drank coffee as compared with those who did not were as follows: 0.99 (95% confidence interval [CI], 0.95 to 1.04) for drinking less than 1 cup per day, 0.94 (95% CI, 0.90 to 0.99) for 1 cup, 0.90 (95% CI, 0.86 to 0.93) for 2 or 3 cups, 0.88 (95% CI, 0.84 to 0.93) for 4 or 5 cups, and 0.90 (95% CI, 0.85 to 0.96) for 6 or more cups of coffee per day (P<0.001 for trend); the respective hazard ratios among women were 1.01 (95% CI, 0.96 to 1.07), 0.95 (95% CI, 0.90 to 1.01), 0.87 (95% CI, 0.83 to 0.92), 0.84 (95% CI, 0.79 to 0.90), and 0.85 (95% CI, 0.78 to 0.93) (P<0.001 for trend). Inverse associations were observed for deaths due to heart disease, respiratory disease, stroke, injuries and accidents, diabetes, and infections, but not for deaths due to cancer.”

To translate, drinking one cup of coffee per day reduced the risk of death by 6%, drinking 2-3 cups per day reduced the risk by 10%, drinking 4 or 5 cups was associated with a 12% decrease in mortality, and drinking 6 or more cups reduced the risk by 10%. In other words, moderate consumption of coffee may help you cheat death a little longer.

 

Healthy Ways to Consume Coffee

By now, surely you are convinced that coffee is not only safe, but a healthy thing to consume in moderate amounts on a daily basis, despite the stigma against it. That being said, not all coffee is equal, and there are both good and bad ways to take it.

Coffee Pugkin Spice Latte

First things first – ditch the cream and sugar. Sugar is bad for you, period. Cream will add a lot of calories to your coffee, but won’t add any real benefits. Most creamers are very unhealthy. Follow this rule alone – that is, take your coffee straight black – and you won’t jeopardize the health benefits of coffee by adding a bunch of harmful crap to it. Coffee is also a crop that is heavily sprayed with pesticides, so it is worth springing for organic if you can afford it.

Not everyone can handle the deliciousness that is black coffee. Luckily, there are still things you can put in your coffee to improve the taste and texture without sacrificing your health. Here are a few suggestions:

  • Personally, I like to add coconut oil and cinnamon to my coffee. The cinnamon is very healthy and adds flavor. Coconut oil contains healthy medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which boost energy. The coconut oil also makes it a little more “creamy”, for those of you who need to replace unhealthy creamers.
  • Drop a square of uber-healthy dark chocolate into your cup and let it melt. The darker, the better. Aim for a minimum of 70% cacao content.
  • Try using egg yolks as an emulsifier. Egg yolks are super healthy and are loaded with micronutrients. Plus, they are a breakfast food, so they sort of “go” with coffee well. Here’s a recipe.
  • Something called “Bulletproof Coffee” seems to be all the rage nowadays. It’s your standard black coffee with some added grass-fed butter and some MCT oil (such as that from coconut oil) thrown into a blender. Here is a recipe, straight from the inventor. This guy is selling his own butter and MCT oil, but they are overpriced. You can make this yourself with grass-fed butter and coconut oil.
  • Will Brink created what he calls “Bomb Proof Coffee”, which contains added cocoa powder (make sure it isn’t “Dutch Processed”), l-tyrosine, creatine, and coconut oil. These videos describe what is in it and how to make it, and this article explains the science behind why the ingredients should be included.

With a little creativity, I’m sure you can come up with your own healthy additions. Note that coconut oil seems to be a common one, and is quite delicious. Side benefit: it keeps my lips from getting chapped. My preferred brand is Viva Labs, which is cheap and high quality. You can get yours here.

Besides these various add-ins, the method you brew your coffee also has an impact. I’ll admit that I’m out of my league here – I just use a single-serving K-cup machine. Nevertheless, there are some differences in what compounds different brews will produce:

  • Standard drip coffee maximizes caffeine content and decreases diterpines
  • French press doesn’t filter out diterpines
  • Single-serve machines reduce both caffeine and diterpine content
  • Instant coffee reduces caffeine and filters out nearly all diterpines
  • Cold-brew coffee has ambiguous effects on caffeine and retains most of the diterpines

Different brewing methods also affect the flavor of your coffee. You can find amusing but unscientific taste tests from Thrillist and Huffington Post. Thrillist recommended the AeroPress machine in their test (currently about $34 on Amazon), while HuffPo recommended the Chemex (currently $36 on Amazon).

Instant coffee, despite its taste, is a healthy way to go for those concerned about cholesterol. For anyone else, the French press results in a more “pure” product than the drip or single-serve methods (and here is a quality French press for about $25). Cold-brewed coffee is about two-thirds less acidic than the other methods, so it is less likely to upset your stomach and would be better for those with acid-reflux (and perhaps is better for your teeth?). This involves steeping ground coffee in water for 12+ hours in a cool environment.

 

Conclusion

It is a very lucky thing for the world that coffee is such a healthy drink. Do not be afraid to indulge yourself and have a few cups of coffee per day. It’s a fantastic part of a good morning routine.

 

Footnotes

  1. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3086010/
  2. http://www.coffeeeureka.com/wp-content/uploads/2014/10/Caffeine-Exposure-and-the-Risk-of-Parkinson%E2%80%99s-Disease.pdf
  3. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3221408/
  4. http://www.maneyonline.com/doi/abs/10.1179/174313206X152546
  5. http://aje.oxfordjournals.org/content/156/9/842.full
  6. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/92/5/1145.short
  7. http://anp.sagepub.com/content/early/2015/09/09/0004867415603131.abstract
  8. http://content.iospress.com/download/journal-of-alzheimers-disease/jad091315?id=journal-of-alzheimers-disease%2Fjad091315
  9. http://bmccancer.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2407-11-96
  10. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/ijc.27408/full
  11. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3063915/
  12. http://www.gastrojournal.org/article/S0016-5085(07)00568-9/fulltext?refuid=S0973-6883(12)00036-9&refissn=0973-6883
  13. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2036.2007.03319.x/full
  14. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/liv.12304/full
  15. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/93/6/1212.full
  16. http://journals.lww.com/jhypertension/Abstract/2012/12000/The_effect_of_coffee_consumption_on_blood_pressure.1.aspx
  17. http://ajcn.nutrition.org/content/early/2011/08/31/ajcn.111.016667.full.pdf
  18. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Joe_Vinson2/publication/6439485_Coffee_and_cardiovascular_disease_in_vitro_cellular_animal_and_human_studies/links/551ee5390cf29dcabb08412d.pdf
  19. http://content.onlinejacc.org/article.aspx?articleid=1712575
  20. http://circ.ahajournals.org/content/early/2013/11/07/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.005925.full.pdf
  21. https://jama.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=201177
  22. https://archinte.jamanetwork.com/article.aspx?articleid=773949
  23. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848806/
  24. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Elizabeth_Kaye/publication/259445701_Coffee_Consumption_and_Periodontal_Disease_in_Men/links/53da40260cf2e38c633667b8.pdf
  25. https://classnet.wcdsb.ca/sec/StM/Gr11/Technology/TPJ-3MI/Class%20Documents/Unit%203%20-%20The%20Muscular%20System/Impact%20Of%20Caffeine%20On%20Mood%20Performance%20and%20Hydration.pdf
  26. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0084154
  27. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0059561
  28. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s40279-014-0257-8/fulltext.html
  29. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3439152/

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Impostor Syndrome: Why Success Makes You Feel Like A Fraud http://feelhappiness.com/impostor-syndrome-why-success-makes-you-feel-like-a-fraud/ http://feelhappiness.com/impostor-syndrome-why-success-makes-you-feel-like-a-fraud/#comments Tue, 09 Feb 2016 17:17:34 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1131 I’m just some guy writing this. I was certainly not an English major, and can count the number of papers I wrote in college on one hand. Nor am I a positive psychologist, or a psychologist of any kind for that matter. I’m not a doctor, nutritionist, or otherwise accredited as a health expert. I [...]

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Dog with impostor syndrome

I’m just some guy writing this. I was certainly not an English major, and can count the number of papers I wrote in college on one hand. Nor am I a positive psychologist, or a psychologist of any kind for that matter. I’m not a doctor, nutritionist, or otherwise accredited as a health expert. I haven’t had some crazy unique life experience that has provided me with a universal insight into happiness, life, health, etc. I’m just some dude who happens to be fascinated by these subjects.

So why the hell are you people even listening to me? Somehow, this little site has managed to snag over 800,000 page views in its lifetime, and will cross a million just a few months into 2016. My writing has even been featured in a book, for Christ’s sake! While I can certainly recognize that this is impressive, it often feels to me more like I am a fraud. What have I done to trick Google into sending me all of you people?

As it turns out, this kind of insecurity is so common and pervasive that it has been given a name: impostor syndrome, or the impostor phenomenon. Impostor syndrome happens among those (typically high-achieving individuals, but not exclusively) who have difficulty accepting and internalizing their own success. The result is a fear or anxiety about being “found out” as a fraud. In the minds of the “impostor”, their accomplishments are due to luck or external factors, rather than their own abilities and efforts.

Many people feel this way. And most of those whom suffer from the impostor syndrome have no idea how common it is. In fact, it appears to be endemic among young professors and teachers, librarians (for some reason), women in leadership positions or in scientific/computing fields, high-achievers in general, and minorities (due in part to affirmative action). Quite a few famous and rather successful individuals have suffered from impostor syndrome, including Emma Watson, Sonia Sotomayor, Tina Fey, Maya Angelou, Tom Hanks, Don Cheadle, Sheryl Sandberg, and Kate Winslet. In fact, some researchers believe that upwards of 70% of people have experienced it.

 

What Is Impostor Syndrome?

Let me begin by saying that impostor syndrome is not a “mental illness.” More accurately, the term “impostor syndrome” describes a set of common behaviors, traits, or reactions to certain types of situations. In other words, it is more of a coping strategy than anything else….and a poor one, at that. To better understand the impostor phenomenon, let’s take a look at a literature review by Sakulku and Alexander (2011).

One of the more interesting concepts is the Impostor Cycle. Read this over and see if you can relate:

“The Impostor Cycle starts when an achievement-related task, such as school work or vocational task is assigned. Individuals with trait impostor fears are bothered by anxiety-related symptoms (e.g., Chrisman et al., 1995; Clance & Imes, 1978; Thompson et al., 2000). They may react to this anxiety either by extreme overpreparation, or initial procrastination followed by frenzied preparation (Thompson et al., 2000). Following task completion, there is an initial sense of relief and accomplishment, but those good feelings do not persist. Although Impostors may receive positive feedback about their successful accomplishment of the task, Impostors deny their success is related to their own ability. They reject positive messages about their personal contribution because those messages are incongruent with their perception of their mechanics of success (Casselman, 1991). If Impostors have over-prepared, they believe that their success is due to hard work. Those who initially procrastinate, likely attribute their success to luck. Impostors also hold fixed beliefs that accomplishment through hard work does not reflect true or real ability (Clance, 1985). The combination of Impostors‟ beliefs about the mechanics of success and their perceptions of the key contribution of effort or luck influencing their success on a particular task reinforces the Impostor Cycle. When facing a new achievement-related task, self-doubt creates a high level of anxiety, and the Impostor Cycle is repeated.”

From that description, we can already see that the impostor syndrome comes in a few different flavors. There are the “I just got lucky” and the “I’m not smart/talented, I just work hard” varieties. There’s also the “I’m a fake/fraud” variety. In each of these cases, those with impostor syndrome will downplay or be very uncomfortable accepting compliments. Comedian Amy Schumer captures this perfectly (foul language warning).

Those with impostor syndrome hold incredibly high standards for themselves, and expect that everything they do will be done flawlessly. They realize that, while perhaps talented themselves, there are many exceptional people and their own talents or skills do not set them apart from the rest. Because of this, those with impostor syndrome will often simply dismiss their own talents and consider themselves a failure when they are merely not the best.

“Impostors disregard their success if there is any gap between their actual performance and their ideal standard, which contributes to discounting of positive feedback. Since Impostors are high achievers who also “make unreasonably low assessments of their performance” (Want & Kleitman, 2006, p. 969), the repetitions of success emphasise [sic] the discrepancy between their actual and ideal standards of success as well as strengthening the feeling of being a fraud or an impostor.”

“They not only discount positive feedback and objective evidence of success but also focus on evidence or develop arguments to prove that they do not deserve praise or credit for particular achievements (Clance, 1985). The Impostor Phenomenon is not a display of false modesty.”

Unsurprisingly, this results in feelings of fear and inadequacy.

“For Impostors, success does not mean happiness. Impostors often experience fear, stress, self-doubt, and feel uncomfortable with their achievements. Impostor fears interfere with a person’s ability to accept and enjoy their abilities and achievements, and have a negative impact on their psychological well-being. When facing an achievement-related task, Impostors often experience uncontrollable anxiety due to their fear of failure. Burnout, emotional exhaustion, loss of intrinsic motivation, poor achievement, including guilt and shame about success are reinforced by repetitions of the Impostor Cycle (Chrisman et al., 1995; Clance, 1985; Clance & Imes, 1978). The perfectionistic expectations of Impostors also contribute to the feeling of inadequacy, increasing levels of distress, and depression when Impostors perceive that they are unable to meet the standards they set for themselves or expectations from family and people around them. Clinical observations by Clance (1985) revealed that high levels of anxiety, depression, and general dissatisfaction with life are common concerns that motivate Impostors to seek professional help.”

It is quite likely that your family life and how you grew up would impact the likelihood of you suffering from impostor syndrome. While the empirical evidence backing up the following assertions about family life is unclear, they seem plausible.

“Clance (1985) suggested four general characteristics of the family that contribute to the perpetuation of the Impostor Phenomenon from many of her patients‟ developmental histories: (1) the perception of Impostors that their talents are atypical compared with family members, (2) family messages that convey the importance of intellectual abilities and that success requires little effort, (3) discrepancy between feedback about Impostors’ abilities and success derived from family and other sources, and (4) lack of positive reinforcement.”

I also suspect that many of those who suffer from impostor syndrome have been high achievers their whole lives, and are very used to the process of comparing themselves with others. But when you compare yourself to the wrong people, you then start to feel inferior. And as you reach a higher and higher level (graduate school, promotions, etc.), your additional success only further “proves” how much of an impostor you are. Each step up puts you in contact with people who you might further struggle to compare yourself with.

“Fear and guilt about success in Impostors is related to the negative consequences of their success. For example, when their successes are unusual in their family or their peers, Impostors often feel less connected and more distant. They are overwhelmed by guilt about being different (Clance, 1985) and worry about being rejected by others. Apart from having a fear of atypical success leading to rejection, Impostors are also frightened that their success may lead to higher demands and greater expectations from people around them. Impostors feel uncertain about their ability to maintain their current level of performance and are reluctant to accept additional responsibility (Clance, 1985). They worry that higher demands or expectations may reveal their intellectual phoniness.”

As you can imagine, the impostor syndrome could be particularly nefarious in professional settings. Vergauwe et al (2014) set out to explore this impact further. They found that those with impostor syndrome are less likely to engage in useful tasks outside of their job description, such as helping someone else out with their work. These kind of tasks fall into what the researchers call organizational citizenship behavior, or OCB.

“…it can be argued that due to the fear of being exposed, impostors can become so engaged in their own tasks and performance that there remains less energy for tasks that are not part of their job description. Presuming that high personal achievement is the ultimate cover for their self-perceived fraudulence, and that personal resources are restricted, we expect impostors to be less inclined to engage in OCB.”

Those with impostor syndrome also tend to be less satisfied with their jobs – but due to feelings of incompetence, they are less likely to seek out other work.

“…employees with strong IP [impostor phenomenon] tendencies (i) are rather dissatisfied with their jobs, (ii) report less OCB, and (iii) express a stronger intention to stay in the organization because the monetary, social, and psychological costs associated with leaving the organization are perceived as too high. Consistent with our expectations, we found that the constant fear of being exposed as incompetent along with the reoccurring feelings of anxiety and self-doubt are also reflected in lower levels of overall job satisfaction.”

On the plus side, the perception of social support does help mediate these negative work-related outcomes.

“Our results indicated that, to a certain extent, social support can indeed act as a buffering variable in these relationships. We specifically found that, when social support is high, the negative relationships between impostor tendencies and satisfaction and OCB disappear. This suggests that perceptions of strong workplace social support could be the key to temper some of the negative effects of impostorism. We support Whitman and Shanine’s (2012) proposition that this buffering effect could be due to the more adaptive coping mechanisms impostors use in case of a high social support perception.”

This result will be instructive when attempting to rid yourself of impostor syndrome in your personal life.

 

How to Overcome Impostor Syndrome

While there may not be an effective self-help video called “Get Confident, Stupid” that will work here, the suggestions in this section ought to help. One thing to keep in mind is that, while it is certainly important that you stop feeling like a fraud, it is arguably much more important whether or not you will allow that feeling to prevent you from taking an action that you otherwise would and should have taken. Carl Richards, writing for the New York Times, summed this up nicely (hat tip to my friend Dan for pointing me to this article):

“We know what the feeling is called. We know others suffer from it. We know a little bit about why we feel this way. And we now know how to handle it: Invite it in and remind ourselves why it’s here and what it means.

For me, even after six years of sharing these simple sketches with the world and speaking all over the world, you think I’d be used to it. In fact, the impostor syndrome has not gone away, but I’ve learned to think of it as a friend. So now when I start to hear that voice in my head, I take a deep breath, pause for a minute, put a smile on my face and say, “Welcome back old friend. I’m glad you’re here. Now, let’s get to work.””

If you’ve made it this far in the post, you’ve already done what is by far the best thing you can do to reign in your impostor syndrome: recognize that it is ridiculously common, and you are not alone. You can probably benefit from having a mentor (at work, school, or just in general). Chances are they’ve gone through something similar and can provide both guidance and reassurance.

Prove Your Impostor Syndrome Wrong

In addition to recognizing how common it is to feel what you feel, it helps to deliberately prove yourself wrong. Unfortunately, due to the impostor cycle, simply getting promoted or experiencing certain successes will not provide evidence that you are legitimately qualified, even though it would for someone with a healthier mindset.

But you can at least accept that you had some role in your success. Even if you were lucky to have the opportunities that you did, you also had to take some action that led to your success. Unless that action involved deliberately lying or misrepresenting yourself, it is clear that your action does not make you a fraud. There are plenty of people who have every opportunity that you do, but still fail to achieve things despite these advantages. Luck or not, they didn’t do what you did.

Next, I would encourage you to make a realistic assessment of your abilities. Many high achievers are smart people and sort of wish they were geniuses, but the majority of us are not – rather, we have some areas that we are quite smart, and some areas where we struggle. This is true in areas besides intelligence as well. Write down a list of things you’re truly good at as well as areas where you might need work. There are areas where you are doing well, but there are others where there is legitimate room for improvement.

When doing this assessment, don’t compare yourself with the A-listers and phenoms in your domain. You don’t need to be the best in order to be quite good and provide value to others. And we often compare our weaknesses with other peoples’ strengths, which is totally unfair. You only have access to your own self-doubt, so it is easy to make a very negative comparison with everyone else. You can’t know how they feel. For more on this, see my post Social Comparisons, Biases, and Self-Image.

You should also keep some sort of record of when people say nice things to or about you. You might take positive feedback the wrong way in real-time, but having a page full of positive things people have said can be helpful to look through when you are feeling like a fraud. For instance, I save all of the positive feedback I receive about this blog in a separate folder. Keep in mind that when you deny positive feedback from someone, you are also making a negative claim about that person’s judgment. Rude.

Another great way to prove your impostor syndrome wrong is to teach others or share your expertise. Taking on this kind of role will help you realize that you do in fact have much to offer.

Reframe Your Thoughts

Impostor Syndrome Heart

Besides gathering evidence to prove your impostor syndrome wrong, you should also learn to reframe your thoughts of inadequacy and self-doubt. The impostor syndrome will have you thinking as though you are being “inauthentic.” But what does it even mean to be acting like your “true self”? We all act in different ways to different people in different contexts, and this is not incongruent with acting “authentically.”

The reality is that nobody knows what they are doing. I like to think about this with respect to my parents. We tend to assume that our parents know exactly what they are doing and that, therefore, their behavior in some situation was out of line. But my/your parents are just normal people trying to get by, just like everyone else (unless, of course, they aren’t). You aren’t a fraud, you are just doing your best. Instead of looking at your actions as a life-or-death, out-of-your-league attempt at success, they are just experiments. And instead of relying on your own flawed thoughts about how much or little you deserve the successes you achieve, you can allow the market to determine whether your contribution was valuable to others or not. In other words, if your boss tells you that you did a good job on a project, your experiment succeeded. You might be a perfectionist and think it is unsatisfactory, but “good enough” is often precisely what’s needed.

Remember that when you choose to hold back due to feeling like a fraud, you deny the world the genuine value of what you do. And you probably underestimate what that value is. This quote from Carl Richards can help make it easier to reframe your ideas of how much value you provide:

“When we have a skill or talent that has come naturally we tend to discount its value.

Why is that? Well, we often hesitate to believe that what’s natural, maybe even easy for us, can offer any value to the world. In fact, the very act of being really good at something can lead us to discount its value. But after spending a lot of time fine-tuning our ability, isn’t it sort of the point for our skill to look and feel natural?”

The scenario that you are envisioning as a sign that you are not valuable (or that other people will soon figure out that you aren’t valuable) could be interpreted – probably more accurately – in a different and more useful way. For instance, I often will consider my introversion to be a weakness and a sign that I am not that good, but it is more realistically one of my strengths. It helps give me an attention to detail that perhaps a more extroverted me would not have.

So instead of fighting it, wear your impostor syndrome like a badge of honor. The feeling of being an impostor is a signal that you are doing things right. People who are lazy or truly incompetent don’t worry about feeling like an impostor so much. As philosopher Bertrand Russel said, “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.”

You can allow yourself to enjoy the feeling of being an “impostor.” If people are going to find you out eventually, then why not enjoy your time experimenting with new possibilities people may not have tried? Or just take advantage of the time to learn as much as you possibly can?

 

Conclusion

Accept that there will be times in your life where you are not competent and will need to learn new skills, such as when starting a new job. This is normal and happens to everyone. You aren’t an impostor, you just need to get up to speed.

Some feelings of self-doubt are normal, but you are not a fraud. Nor are you alone.

“But I am very poorly today and feel very stupid and hate everybody and everything. One lives only to make blunders.” – Charles Darwin to Charles Lyell in 1861, one year after “On the Origin of Species”

“I am assailed with my own ignorance and inability. Honesty. If I can keep an honesty to it… If I can do that it will be all my lack of genius can produce. For no one else knows my lack of ability the way I do. I am pushing against it all the time. Sometimes, I seem to do a good little piece of work, but when it is done it slides into mediocrity…” John Steinbeck, June 18th, 1938, while writing “The Grapes of Wrath”

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Never Get Sick Again: How to Optimize Your Immune System http://feelhappiness.com/never-get-sick-again-how-to-optimize-your-immune-system/ http://feelhappiness.com/never-get-sick-again-how-to-optimize-your-immune-system/#comments Sun, 03 Jan 2016 20:19:39 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1122 In the last few years, I’ve gotten sick very infrequently. When I’ve had cold symptoms, it was invariably after pulling an all-nighter, or a weekend of relative debauchery. In other words, I had it coming. And when I say “cold symptoms”, I mean some of the mildest sniffles and coughing you’ve ever seen. And the [...]

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put the hell in health

In the last few years, I’ve gotten sick very infrequently. When I’ve had cold symptoms, it was invariably after pulling an all-nighter, or a weekend of relative debauchery. In other words, I had it coming. And when I say “cold symptoms”, I mean some of the mildest sniffles and coughing you’ve ever seen.

And the common cold is, well, common. Americans suffer through a billion colds every year. Adults tend to get on average two to four colds per year. How is it that I am getting only very mild colds, and at only about half the rate of the average adult?

I’ve always lived a relatively healthy lifestyle compared to most, but I’ve never been the kind of person who controls every last variable in my environment, or eats only clean foods, never drinks alcohol, etc. I added one very simple, cheap, and easy behavior to my lifestyle in January 2013 which seems to have done the trick: vitamin D supplementation! Soon after that, I added zinc to my supplement regimen, which provided further immune benefits.

I plan to cover about a gazillion different things you can do to improve your immune function in this article. However, as a big proponent of the 80/20 rule, I figured I’d give away my “secret” right at the beginning. Simply adding the cheap supplements of vitamin D and zinc to your routine could provide an incredible bang for your buck, immunity-wise.

Oh, and one other quick tip. Drink a ton of water. Seriously. Not only is staying hydrated important for immune function, but it provides the double “benefit” of making you need to pee frequently, and thus provides a very easy reminder to wash your hands frequently throughout the day. I used this strategy recently while working in an urgent care clinic, and the close proximity to all sorts of diseased people didn’t affect me one bit!

In what is to follow, I will walk you through reams and reams of different tips, tricks, and lifestyle modifications that will make you impervious to all infectious diseases, guaranteed! (Warning: not really a guarantee.)

 

Nutrition: What to Consume

The first step towards a healthy immune system is to make sure that you are getting enough of certain nutrients.

Vitamin D

You know how people tend to get sick in the winter more often than other seasons? I know I’ve always been told that this was because the cold weather somehow suppressed your immune system. While there is probably some truth to that hypothesis, it doesn’t look like it is entirely convincing.1

A more plausible explanation would be having lower levels of vitamin D. There is quite a bit less UVB light exposure during the winter, which means your body isn’t synthesizing its own endogenous vitamin D in nearly as high levels as it would when you are spending summer days out on the beach. A growing body of literature is showing how important optimal vitamin D levels are for immune function, and how vitamin D can help prevent both autoimmune and infectious diseases.2,3,4,5

Making sure you get enough vitamin D is important, but it’s also pretty easy. During the summer, spend more time out in the sun. Keep in mind that sunscreen prevents your body from synthesizing vitamin D from the sun’s rays, so you might want to consider getting sun protection from the food you eat instead. Of course, since getting sunburn can lead to skin cancer, you’ll need to balance the risks. A short period of exposure to the sun (say, 15-30 minutes without sunscreen) over large portions of your body should do the trick with a minimal risk of burn.

You can also get vitamin D in your diet, with egg yolks and fatty fish being good dietary sources. However, it is difficult for most people to get enough through their diet, particularly if they also lack sun exposure. “Fortified” foods use synthetic forms of vitamin D that are potentially harmful, so don’t rely on them for your vitamin D needs either.

Ultimately, most people will benefit from taking fairly large doses of a vitamin D supplement for much of the year, but particularly during the winter months. I suggest you check the vitamin D status in your city in order to determine how much you’ll synthesize from the sun while you are outside. For some of you it will be sufficient, but I suspect most people reading this will benefit from supplementation.

You should make sure you are supplementing with an oil-based vitamin D3, specifically. Until and unless more research determines that it is okay, you should avoid using other forms of vitamin D (such as D2). The optimal blood level and dosage of vitamin D is up for debate, but over the past few years, as more and more benefits of vitamin D have been discovered, the guidelines have tended to climb. You’ll likely want to take several thousand IU’s of vitamin D supplements on a daily basis, but the only way to know for sure is to get tested. In addition, if you are taking vitamin D in significant amounts, it is imperative that you also take a vitamin K2 supplement, which works synergistically. Taking vitamin D without K2 can lead to nutrient imbalances over time. It is not yet established what the optimal ratio is, but one recommendation is to get at least 100 mcg of vitamin K2 for every 5000 IU’s of vitamin D.

Zinc

The next most important element of an immune-system boosting regimen is the highly underrated and under-appreciated mineral, zinc. It is instrumental in having a healthy immune system, and a deficiency makes you far more susceptible to illness. An estimated 17.3% of the world’s population is at risk for zinc deficiency; this risk is lower in high income areas (as low as 7.5%), but is gigantic in other regions (30% in South Asia, for instance).6

Supplementation with zinc can go a long way towards reducing your chance of illness by shoring up your immune system. As Fraker et al shows,

“…short periods of zinc supplementation substantially improve immune defense in individuals with these diseases. Mouse models demonstrate that 30 d[ays] of suboptimal intake of zinc can lead to 30–80% losses in defense capacity. Collectively, the data clearly demonstrate that immune integrity is tightly linked to zinc status.”7

When it comes to zinc supplementation, please be mindful of your dosages. It is very difficult to get too much zinc from dietary sources alone, but easy while supplementing. I recommend getting this zinc supplement, but only taking half a pill per day, or about 25 mg. I accidentally took too much one day and had to uncomfortably sweat it out for the next few hours. Don’t repeat my mistake!

Maintain A Healthy Gut Microbiome

The next most important thing to do is to make sure you have a healthy gut microbiome by consuming enough probiotics and prebiotics. Having a healthy ecosystem of friendly gut bacteria is one of the more effective things you can do to avoid getting sick and improve your immune system.8,9 And lactic acid bacteria specifically help your immune system, so taking probiotics (which often contain lactobacillus) is beneficial.10

Fermented foods such as yogurt, kefir, kombucha tea, sauerkraut, and kimchi contain loads of healthy bacteria. You can also use probiotic supplements; I recommend using a greens powder that also contains loads of other healthy stuff. In general, eating a good probiotic yogurt a few times per week should suffice.

You’ll also want to make sure that all those bacteria have something to munch on of their own. Prebiotics are indigestible to you, but make a nice food source for all the healthy bacteria in your gut. Prebiotic foods include garlic, onions, Jerusalem artichokes, jicama, asparagus, and under-ripe bananas. As a general rule, consider adding high-fiber foods to your diet for a similar purpose; just don’t eat too many grains. Focus on berries, almonds, cruciferous vegetables (broccoli, cauliflower, brussels sprouts), and root vegetables.

Other Nutrients That Help Your Immune System

Making sure you have adequate levels of vitamin D and zinc, as well as making sure you take care of your gut bacteria, should go a long way towards ensuring that your immune system is healthy and strong. But there are many other nutrients that can enhance immune function.

immune system

When most people think about supplementation to improve their immune system, they think of vitamin C. There is definitely some evidence that vitamin C protects the immune system,11 but taking extra doses in response to a cold appears misguided, despite being a common practice. However, for people who undergo lots of physical stress, like heavy weight-lifters or marathon runners, some extra vitamin C may be effective in improving immune function.12

An old review article found that other important nutrients for your immune system include copper, selenium, iron, vitamins A, E, B-6, and folic acid.13 Additionally, increasing your antioxidant consumption in general is helpful.14 In other words, you’ll want to eat a varied and healthy diet, making sure that you are not deficient in any particular nutrients. Eat your vegetables!

Here are a handful of other suggestions:

  • Drink green tea. Boosting your immune system is only one of many of the benefits of drinking green tea. It’s loaded with antioxidants and other goodies that will keep you healthy.
  • Drink loads of water.
  • Eat dark chocolate. It’s also loaded with antioxidants and dramatically reduces inflammation, which may explain why dark chocolate prevents so many diseases.
  • Add garlic to your diet. My girlfriend and I love garlic and add it to just about everything. And why not? It’s delicious! More importantly for our purposes here, garlic also helps stimulate your immune system.15
  • Use coconut oil. Coconut oil is another one of those can’t-endorse-it-enough superfoods, which happens to have strong anti-bacterial, anti-viral, and anti-fungal properties. It can be fairly expensive in most places, but you can get a humongous tub of it on the cheap here.
  • Consume apple cider vinegar. Admittedly, I have not tried it myself, but there are some who believe that it has immune-boosting properties.
  • Spice up your food. Many spices are loaded with antioxidants and have antimicrobial properties, so try to include some spices in every meal. Turmeric is generally a good choice.
  • There are many herbs that have antimicrobial properties or are said to enhance the immune system in some way.16,17 Echinacea is probably the most famous for this effect, but there are many others. I have little experience in this area, and would advise anyone who is interested to do their own research. Consider that many herbs have powerful chemicals that can have serious health effects, including interacting with medications. Be careful.

You’ll get the most bang for your buck by focusing on vitamin D and zinc, but there are clearly many other nutrients that impact your immune system.

 

Nutrition: What Not To Consume

Not only are there nutrients that you must make sure you consume in sufficient quantities to maintain a healthy immune system, but there are also foods that you should deliberately avoid. If you are interested in this subject, I strongly suggest reading this 11-page paper by Dr. Ian Myles, which summarizes modern research on how our diets can adversely impact our immune system. It’s ridiculously fascinating.

Here are a few rules:

  • Try to avoid eating out at restaurants as much as possible. Obviously, there are many good reasons to go to restaurants, but your health is simply not one of them. They may be adding things to your food that are bad for you, and you would have no idea. You also don’t know what kind of sanitation practices they use.
  • When shopping for food, you should tend towards the organic options if you can afford it. Pesticides can wreak havoc on your immune system.18 Organic is more expensive, but you don’t need to get everything organic. Certain foods are more important to purchase organic, but you should do your own research to determine how important this is to you.
  • Avoid all processed foods, gluten, and sugary foods and drinks. According to Dr. Myles, these foods lead to increased inflammation, reduced control of infection, increased rates of cancer, and increased risk for auto-inflammatory diseases and allergies. They are also really bad for your gut bacteria.

Seriously, you should avoid sugar like the plague. According to Dr. Sears,

“Eating or drinking 100 grams (8 tbsp.) of sugar, the equivalent of two- and-a-half 12-ounce cans of soda, can reduce the ability of white blood cells to kill germs by 40 percent. The immune-suppressing effect of sugar starts less than thirty minutes after ingestion and may last for five hours.”

Unfortunately, you’ll want to avoid artificial sweeteners as well, which tend to pulverize your gut bacteria.19 Splenda (sucralose) seems to be particularly bad.20 So if sugar is bad and artificial sweeteners are bad, getting your sweet-tooth on may be a bit challenging. Stick with real fruit and dark chocolate. Alternatively, stevia is a natural sweetener that does not have the problems associated with artificial sweeteners.21 If you simply need added sweetness, use stevia.

 

Exercise Guidelines To Optimize Immune Function

Exercise provokes a huge number of physiological changes in the human body, including quite a few changes that directly impact the functioning of the immune system. For the nerds who are interested in learning more about these physiological changes, read this paper. It’s dense, but interesting.

Physical exercise is generally considered necessary to maintain optimal health and fitness. But the relationship between exercise and the immune system is more complex.

Acute bouts of exercise create a stress response in humans, suppressing the proper functioning of the immune system. This stress response is so strong that researchers will sometimes use exercise as a means of simulating a traumatic event in their experiments! Therefore, a given bout of exercise will tend to make it more likely that you will get sick. Heavy acute exercise loads can depress immune function for 3-72 hours post-exercise.22 Moderate physical activity does not tax the body’s immune system to nearly the same degree.

High-intensity training absolutely should NOT be ruled out based on this – you just need to weigh the pros and cons. The anti-inflammatory effect of exercise may potentially make up for the increased susceptibility to infection. High intensity exercise will most certainly reduce your risk of chronic degenerative diseases, even if short term infections might increase.

There is a perception among athletes that long-term, moderate exercise improves their immune systems. While there is some evidence of this, there isn’t enough to draw any significant conclusions for the average person.23 Perhaps the ideal form of long-term exercise for immune function would be yoga, which improves immune system markers by reducing the body’s response to stress.24,25

Additionally, there is some evidence that supplementation with glutamine, carbohydrate consumption, probiotics, and antioxidants may reduce the negative immune system impact of heavy exertion.26,27 Normally I wouldn’t recommend most carbohydrates, but consuming them at around the same time you are exercising isn’t the worst idea in the world.

Perhaps the right strategy may be to continue doing high intensity training a couple times a week, but also do yoga a couple other times per week to help balance it out while remaining fit. You might also want to consider going easy on the exercise when you really can’t afford to get sick, or if you are engaging in other “riskier” activities such as poor eating and not getting enough sleep.

 

Mental Health, Happiness, And The Immune System

hypochondria

This is a blog largely focused on happiness, so how can I not bring up the role that emotions play in immune system health?

As discussed in the previous section, physical stress decreases immune function. But psychological stress has a serious impact as well. Here is a meta-analysis of over 300 empirical studies on psychological stress and immune response. The whole thing is interesting, but I will summarize the most important results. Note that “cellular” corresponds to immune defense mounted against viruses (intracellular), whereas “humoral” corresponds to defense against bacteria and parasites extracellularly. The researchers found that

  • Acute stressors that last for only a few minutes have mixed effects, upregulating some markers of immune function and down regulating others.
  • Brief naturalistic stressors, such as exams, tended to suppress cellular immune function while preserving humoral.
  • Chronic stress suppresses both cellular and humoral measures of immune function.

In another study, higher psychological stress increased the infection rate when subjects were exposed to various respiratory viruses, such as the common cold.28 And on a related note, depression and negative mood states down-regulate the body’s immune response, which can lead to delayed healing and higher susceptibility to infection.29,30

Taking steps to reduce the chronic stress in your life is one of the best ways to reduce your susceptibility to illness. This could involve restructuring certain aspects of your life (job, family, etc.), coming to terms with and accepting certain aspects of your life that you can’t change, and things like meditation that will manage the existing stress and reduce your body’s response to it. I have written extensively about this and related subjects (after all, that’s what this blog is for!), so here are some ideas:

Negative emotions can clearly have a negative influence on our immune function, but what influence might positive emotions have? The effect of positive emotions on immune function has been studied to a vastly lesser degree than negative emotions and stress. In addition, the studies that have been done have numerous caveats, so we must be cautious trying to extract meaning from their results. For those interested in a review of relevant studies, here is a good paper. It appears that positive mood states lead to improved markers of immune activity. In addition, people who are generally positive (or, in their lingo, “trait positive affect”) tend to have better immune function.

In general, your efforts to improve your life and become happier will also pay off with an improved immune system.

 

Lifestyle Factors Impacting Your Immune System

It’s a little bit ambiguous what would be considered a “lifestyle factor” and what wouldn’t. I mean, what isn’t a lifestyle factor? Well, whatever. The three subjects I will include here are sleep, the use of certain substances, and hygiene.

Get Enough Sleep

tired

There is certainly a popular conception that sleep deprivation weakens immunity and makes people more likely to get sick. In my personal experience, this is certainly the case. Very rarely do I get sick, unless I’ve pulled an all-nighter or have barely slept for several days.

For a short, fascinating discussion of how sleep and the immune system are related, see this. Disruptions in the circadian rhythm have negative effects on your immune system,31,32 so maintaining a consistent sleep schedule is important. You don’t want to get too much or too little sleep; there is a sweet spot, somewhere between 6 and 9 hours per night, usually between 7 and 8.

I’ve personally found that having a morning routine is the best way (for me) to maintain a consistent sleep schedule. I suggest picking a specific time to wake up each day, but going to sleep whenever you are tired. If you struggle with sleep, take a look at these resources:

Reduce Alcohol And Tobacco Usage

Smoking tobacco suppresses the immune system, both for heavy and light smokers.33,34 But there is good news: quitting smoking for just 31 days restores some measure of immune function.35 And after three months without smoking, there is a substantial recovery of the immune system.36

For optimal immune function, you simply shouldn’t smoke. But the relationship between alcohol use and the immune system is slightly more complex. You can find an interesting discussion of alcohol’s effects on the immune system here, but I will summarize the most important findings.

  • Both acute and chronic alcohol consumption can weaken the immune system.
  • Alcoholism can lead to malnutrition and vitamin deficiencies, but is also related to immune suppression independent of these factors.
  • The effects of acute drinking are less certain, but do appear to have negative effects on the immune system.

A night of binge-drinking will weaken your immune system, as will drinking regularly. On the other hand, light alcohol consumption, such as a single glass of red wine with dinner, may actually have positive effects on your immune system.37

You’ll also want to consider the impact of any drugs (licit or illicit) or medications you might be taking. There are far too many possible substances to discuss individually here; however, it’s a pretty decent bet that whatever you might be taking or thinking of taking, it probably will weaken your immune system.

Practice Good Hygiene

General Malaise

Don’t let the relative position of hygiene in this article fool you about its significance; good hygiene is likely the #1 thing you can do to prevent yourself from getting sick. Of course, it is way less exciting than the other strategies for improving your immune system, so it is getting shoved way at the bottom of this article!

A massive literature review of over 100 years of studies says that hand-washing is a critical means of preventing infections.38 In fact, hand-washing with soap can reduce the risk of contracting diarrheal diseases by over 40%!39 And while you and I have likely never spoken, I feel confident in assuming that you are the kind of person who doesn’t like diarrhea.

Speaking of diarrhea, here are some hygiene tips to help prevent you from getting sick:

  • Wash your hands all the time, particularly after being in contact with sick people or touching public things.
  • Use a towel to open bathroom doors and to turn on the tap.
  • Avoid touching your face, especially during flu season.
  • Keep your keyboard and car steering wheel clean by wiping them down with an antibacterial.
  • Cough and sneeze into your elbow. And yell at other people when they don’t do this. Seriously, it’s one of my biggest pet peeves. How can people not be doing this in this day and age?

As I mentioned in my introduction to this article, one tip is to drink tons and tons of water. Water is good for your immune system in and of itself, but it’ll also force you to go to the bathroom more often, and thus (hopefully) wash your hands more frequently.

 

Conclusion

This has been a very dense post, detailing many possible ways for you to optimize your immune function. Having covered so much ground, let’s take a moment to summarize the most important things you can do.

  • Get enough vitamin D and zinc. Supplement if you have to. You probably do have to.
  • Drink lots of water. No more soda.
  • Be mindful of your physical activities – if you feel like you might be coming down with something, don’t work out too hard. Try adding yoga to your exercise regimen.
  • Take steps to structure your life such that chronic stressors, such as unhappiness at work, are minimized. Find ways to manage your stress in a healthy way, such as through meditation, yoga, taking walks, reading, etc.
  • Have a consistent sleep schedule. Make sure you get the right amount of sleep for you. For most people, that is about eight hours.
  • Quit smoking, and don’t abuse alcohol. Drink in moderation.
  • Follow good hygiene practices. Make sure you wash your hands frequently.

By following these steps, you ensure that your body is in the best possible position to fight off any illnesses that life tries to throw your way.

 

Footnotes:

  1. http://www.nrcresearchpress.com/doi/abs/10.1139/y98-097#.VLl6RCvF_UU
  2. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1365-2265.2011.04261.x/full
  3. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1568997212001310
  4. http://www.mdpi.com/2072-6643/5/7/2502/htm
  5. https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Martin_Hewison/publication/51578407_Vitamin_D_and_immune_function_an_overview/links/53ff0f860cf21edafd15a3a9.pdf
  6. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0050568
  7. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/130/5/1399S.long
  8. http://www.thelancet.com/pdfs/journals/lancet/PIIS0140673603124890.pdf
  9. http://www.nature.com/nri/journal/v9/n5/full/nri2515.html
  10. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022030295767844
  11. http://www.karger.com/Article/Abstract/90495
  12. http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.0020168
  13. http://vitasanoldrops.com/literatur/Vitagil_ve_Beta_Glukan_lit9.pdf
  14. http://www.annclinlabsci.org/content/30/2/145.short
  15. http://jn.nutrition.org/content/131/3/1067S.full
  16. http://ict.sagepub.com/content/2/3/247.short
  17. http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/ben/cmc/2004/00000011/00000011/art00006
  18. http://www.citeulike.org/group/7833/article/4129098
  19. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v514/n7521/full/nature13793.html
  20. http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/15287390802328630#.VJ9rK14As
  21. http://www.iiste.org/Journals/index.php/JBAH/article/viewFile/14218/14526
  22. http://www.nature.com/icb/journal/v78/n5/full/icb200069a.html
  23. http://europepmc.org/abstract/MED/10910293
  24. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3099098/
  25. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3144610/
  26. http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/j.1753-4887.2006.tb00195.x/abstract
  27. http://www.medizin.uni-tuebingen.de/transfusionsmedizin/institut/eir/EIR_15_2009.pdf#page=105
  28. http://repository.cmu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1259&context=psychology&sei-redir=1&referer=http%3A%2F%2Fscholar.google.com%2Fscholar%3Fhl%3Den%26q%3Dprevalence%2Bof%2Bcommon%2Bcold%26btnG%3D%26as_sdt%3D1%252C50%26as_sdtp%3D#search=%22prevalence%20common%20cold%22
  29. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0022399902003094
  30. http://www.annualreviews.org/doi/abs/10.1146/annurev.psych.53.100901.135217
  31. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0192056195000513
  32. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00424-011-1044-0
  33. http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00011-008-8078-6
  34. http://www.nature.com/nri/journal/v9/n5/full/nri2530.html
  35. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0091674995701354
  36. http://europepmc.org/abstract/med/6633406
  37. http://journals.cambridge.org/action/displayAbstract?fromPage=online&aid=1364236&fileId=S0007114507838049
  38. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/30144131?sid=21105521806353&uid=2&uid=4
  39. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1473309903006066

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How To Meditate: A Beginner’s Guide To Meditation Practice http://feelhappiness.com/how-to-meditate-a-beginners-guide-to-meditation-practice/ http://feelhappiness.com/how-to-meditate-a-beginners-guide-to-meditation-practice/#comments Tue, 17 Nov 2015 00:11:30 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1109 Meditation is one of the most valuable practices that someone interested in personal development can utilize. As with so many things, meditation is very easy to learn, but difficult to master. I’ll be the first person to admit that I am not a great meditator. I’ve stopped and started a meditation practice more times than [...]

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dog meditating

Meditation is one of the most valuable practices that someone interested in personal development can utilize. As with so many things, meditation is very easy to learn, but difficult to master.

I’ll be the first person to admit that I am not a great meditator. I’ve stopped and started a meditation practice more times than I can count. I’m far from an expert. Meditation is something that I am actively working on, and am hoping to improve at, not something that I am qualified to lecture you on.

I wrote this post in large part as a means of getting more knowledgeable about it myself and to help motivate myself to practice. Don’t take my word as gospel. But as long as I am putting in the time and effort to educate myself about it, it would be rude of me not to share my findings with you!

In this post, you (we) will learn about the many benefits of meditation, answer some common objections to it, learn some meditative techniques, and how to make meditation a part of your life. Keep in mind that there is a wonderful variety to the world of meditation, and this discussion is inherently limited. This article – and no article, for that matter – can possibly be a comprehensive guide. If you are interested in meditation, follow the links I’ve provided and do your own research as well.

 

Benefits Of Meditation

After spending some time studying up on the benefits of meditation, it almost seems as though regular meditation practice can make you superhuman. The mental and physical benefits that meditation can provide are nothing short of astounding, particularly when you consider how simple meditation really is.

Many of these benefits stem from the mindfulness, or the moment-to-moment awareness, that meditation can instill in us. Mindfulness is something that we have access to at all times, and some effects of meditation can be felt very quickly. As little as ten minutes of mindfulness meditation was enough to change peoples’ perceptions of time, for instance.

But most people assume that they won’t be able to feel the benefits of meditation until they become experts; it is only the Buddhist monks who isolate themselves from the world and meditate all day, every day, who can get the superpowers that meditation provides. While it is certainly true that you will get more out of meditation if you put more into it, the benefits aren’t reserved only for the truly dedicated. In one experiment, meditating for 20 minutes per day for five days was enough to reduce stress, even compared to a muscle-relaxation group. And significant structural changes to the brain have been demonstrated in meditators after just 30 minutes per day for 8 weeks. A little bit goes a long way.

If you are interested in some more detail about the significant quantity of research on how meditation changes the human brain, take a detour and read this and this. That second link has a fantastic description of how to perform a mantra meditation as well, so keep that in mind as we discuss types of meditation later on.

thoughtless meditators

Now, where was I? Oh yeah! Meditation improves attention and reduces mind-wandering. Meditators are better at disengaging from distracting thoughts – thoughts become less “sticky.” And this tends to make people happier. On a similar note, meditation reduces “cognitive rigidity,” which means that creative problem solving might be easier.1 The mindfulness that meditation engenders improves executive function and allows for superior emotional regulation. It reduces the tendency to ruminate over negative thoughts, and helps curb automatic or impulsive behaviors. It also improves self-esteem, at least in the short-run. To summarize, mindfulness meditation improves cognitive ability in general, pretty much across the board (although more research confirming these findings and elaborating on them would be great).2

Based on the above, it should come as no surprise that mindfulness meditation is helpful in treating anxiety disorders and depression. There is no shortage of research demonstrating this.3,4,5,6,7,8 If you like reading the more nerdy science aspect, I suggest diving this fascinating literature review from 2011 on the subject of mindfulness meditation and psychological health. Here’s something likely related to the anxiety-reducing effects of meditation: it turns out that mindfulness also helps treat sexual dysfunction, which means that it can be a valuable practice for the many millions of people who could use some work in this area.

“Mental problems feed on the attention that you give them. The more you worry about them, the stronger they become. If you ignore them, they lose their power and finally vanish.” – Annamalai Swami

There are physical benefits to meditation as well. Notably, meditation improves immune function, so those who meditate may get sick less often.9 Meditation may also slow, prevent, or even reverse age-related brain degeneration.10 Given the immense toll that dementia has on the elderly and their families, I think this provides everyone with a strong reason to meditate. Transcendental meditation has been shown to improve cardiovascular health measures and decrease the incidence of cardiovascular disease and all-cause mortality.11

Both yoga (what I would consider an especially awesome kind of meditation) and transcendental meditation have considerable health benefits, including improved cognition, respiration, reduced cardiovascular risk, lower body mass index, and reduced blood pressure and risk of diabetes. Yoga also strengthened immunity and ameliorated joint disorders (though transcendental meditation did not).12 Yoga reduces inflammation from stress and improves general health in many ways.13

Mindfulness also leads to healthier eating habits and weight control – obviously, another area that many individuals struggle with. In general, mindfulness meditation is related to positive health measures and outcomes in a variety of areas. For the nerds, I suggest reading this paper for more of the specifics.

Last but not least, Carson et al demonstrated that a mindfulness intervention improves relationships and relationship satisfaction.14 Specifically, “the intervention was efficacious in (a) favorably impacting couples’ levels of relationship satisfaction, autonomy, relatedness, closeness, acceptance of one another, and relationship distress; (b) beneficially affecting individuals’ optimism, spirituality, relaxation, and psychological distress; and (c) maintaining benefits at 3-month follow-up.”

Clearly, meditation has a lot to offer. I’m sure more benefits will be discovered over the coming years, but this should be plenty to convince most people that meditation is something worth adding to their lives.

 

Objections To Meditation

That being said, many people are still quite hesitant to try meditation, for a number of interesting reasons. A fascinating article by Jill Suttie discusses a few of these.

waldo meditating

Meditation is just some New Age BS. Or a related objection: Meditation goes against my religion. First of all, meditation need not be a religious thing at all. While meditation is often associated with eastern religious traditions such as Buddhism or Taoism, it is also a component of all western religions, and is just as easily a secular pursuit. You are in no way betraying your religion by meditating, nor are you necessarily doing something religious if you are an atheist.

And it isn’t just New Age hippies doing meditation either. This may have been true a few decades ago, but meditation has gone mainstream since then. It is incredibly popular among many segments of the population, including sports stars and other public figures. Plus, it has been heavily studied, so there is a strong scientific rationale for meditating.

“This is universal. You sit and observe your breath. You can’t say this is a Hindu breath or a Christian breath or a Muslim breath.” – Charles Johnson

Mindfulness will make me less productive, or be less of a “go-getter” at work. This objection I can understand. After all, meditation makes people more content and accepting of the world as it is. But remember: one of the major benefits of meditation is increased focus and attention, something that is clearly applicable to the working world.

“In one 2012 study from researchers at the University of Washington, a group of human resource professionals were trained in either mindfulness meditation or relaxation skills over an eight-week period and were tested on how they handled complex multitasking. Participants who received mindfulness training remained more on task, with less task-switching, and reported better moods, than those who underwent relaxation training or were on a wait-list to receive training. This suggests that mindfulness helps us focus more efficiently on a task.”

And since mindfulness meditation decreases “cognitive rigidity,” those of you who require more creativity at work will be more likely to think outside the box and come up with new ideas and solutions related to the task at hand.

Meditation also helps with impulse control. Resisting your urges will help you make more thoughtful decisions, and enable you to think through the consequences of your actions in advance. This is very important in a work environment.

“For example, when an employee makes a mistake and you want to yell at him even though you know that it’s better — for him and for the morale of the group — to ask some questions and discuss it gently and rationally. Or when you want to blurt something out in a meeting but know you’d be better off listening. Or when you want to buy or sell a stock based on your emotions when the fundamentals and your research suggest a different action. Or when you want to check email every three minutes instead of focusing on the task at hand.”

Meditation takes too long, and I simply don’t have the time for it. As you can probably guess, people who feel this way are likely the individuals who would benefit most from some mindfulness meditation. Nevertheless, it is a legitimate concern: who has the time to sit around for twenty minutes doing nothing?

“Nature does not hurry, yet everything is accomplished.” – Lao Tzu

Meditation doesn’t need to be time consuming. Even just five minutes a day can have a significant impact. Numerous studies have shown that it doesn’t take much time to reap the rewards that come from meditation. For instance,

“In a 2011 study from the University of Wisconsin, non-meditators were trained in mindful attention meditation over a five-week period and tested on brain activity patterns using an EEG. Mindful meditators who practiced on average five to 16 minutes a day saw significant, positive changes in their brain patterns—patterns suggesting a greater orientation toward positive emotions and connections with others—as compared to those on a wait-list for the training.”

And if meditation makes you more productive, that seems like a great investment of time.

 

A Beginner’s Guide On How To Meditate

Finally, we’re getting to the good part! In the next section I will discuss some of the many varieties of meditation, but for now, I will stick with some good practices that you should begin with.

Just like with physical exercise, meditation is best practiced with a “warm up” and a “cool down” period included.

First things first, you’ll need to find a quiet, comfortable place that is free from distractions. Make sure your noisy kids are in the other room, your phone is silent, and that you don’t have anything that you need to do during the period of time you set aside to meditate. If you are expecting an important call, then pick a different time to meditate. Many people believe that the morning is the best time to meditate – it’s quieter, people are less likely to bother you, and you don’t have as much time to talk yourself out of it! Of course, whatever time works best for you is fine; this is just a suggestion.

“If you can’t meditate in a boiler room, you can’t meditate.” – Alan Watts

I would also strongly advise against meditating after a large meal. Feeling uncomfortably full will be very distracting. Conversely, meditating on an empty stomach, if you are hungry, will also make it more difficult to concentrate.

When you are ready to meditate, there are a few steps you should take to set the tone for your session:

  • Commit to practicing your meditation for the full time you’ve set aside (be it five minutes, an hour, or whatever), even if you feel bored or that it isn’t going well. You will complete your meditation, even if you find your mind wandering. That’s kinda the point…
  • While it is not necessary, taking a few minutes to stretch or do some yoga poses will help you relax and make the meditation session easier. Stretching loosens your muscles and tendons, which allows you to sit or lie more comfortably. I’ve found that my post-yoga meditations are vastly more productive.
  • Before starting, take a moment to remember why you are meditating in the first place. This could be anything; personally, I’m terrified of Alzheimer’s disease, so I might think about how my meditation practice is keeping my brain healthy. What you focus on here is just a quick reminder that you are doing something worthwhile.
  • Meditation is better when you are in a good mood, so take a moment to practice gratitude. Think about one or two things that demonstrate why your life is awesome.
  • Finally, affirm your intentions. Say to yourself something like: “I am going to spend the next X minutes meditating. There is nothing else for me to think about or to do during this time.”

By performing the above “warm up,” you are priming yourself for a more valuable meditation session. Now it’s time for the meat of your meditation.

It is often a good idea for beginners to set a timer for the duration of the meditation before beginning. Your meditation will be less effective if you are concerned with looking at the clock and wondering when it will be over. Feel free to use this online meditation timer, or an app for the same purpose.

It’s time to get into position. There is no single “correct” position, but most people will meditate while sitting on either a chair or cushion. Many people meditate in the “lotus” position, with their left foot on their right thigh and vice versa, but this is not required. The most important thing is that your back is straight, with good posture. No slouching! You can also lie down, but then you risk falling asleep. If you find yourself dozing off when you meditate, try doing it with your eyes open to allow more light in. If you have back problems or simply can’t maintain good posture for some reason, try out these back-friendly meditation positions.

The basic meditation itself involves focusing on your breath. Breathe deeply, preferably through your nose, and exhale out your mouth. Aim to have your exhalations longer than your inhalations. There are many different kinds of breath work you can do – one that I just tried today and found very satisfying is to repeatedly count to ten breaths. Count one breath in, one breath out. When you reach ten, start over again. Inhale: one, exhale: two. When you get better, count each inhale/exhale combo as one.

brain distractions while meditating

While focusing on your breath, it is inevitable that thoughts will arise, distracting you. If you lose your place while counting, don’t get mad – just start over again from one. You don’t “win” by counting as high as you can or anything, so there’s no reason to get frustrated!

Here’s an incredibly important point: meditation is not about stopping your thoughts, but rather about letting go of them. So when a thought does arise, you haven’t failed. Just take that thought, observe that it happened, let go of it, and get back to your counting. You’re never going to completely quiet the mind, nor is that the goal. The purpose of being mindful is to calm your mind and be able to observe your thoughts with clarity.

Matt Valentine explains a related point quite well, and I strongly recommend reading his post about meditation tips for beginners.

“Don’t get confused, while mindful awareness itself is nonjudgmental- that is, while being mindful you’re simply observing without purposely thinking anything and making any judgments- it doesn’t mean no judgmental thoughts will arise while being mindful.

Mindfulness and mental activity are two totally separate things. Mindfulness observes this mental activity nonjudgmentally, but the mental activity itself sprouting from you while meditating encompasses all of you, and that includes thoughts that have to do with your beliefs and opinions.”

Being mindful doesn’t mean being perfect at shutting thoughts and judgments out of your mind. It means being aware of those thoughts as they occur.

As you meditate, you develop mindfulness not so much by being able to focus on the object of your attention (breath, in this case) for longer, but rather by noticing those moments when you are distracted. When you find yourself distracted from your breath, that means that you were unable to notice the pull of the first thought which began another whole train of thought and robbed you of your attention. So make a game of trying to catch that first thought that is trying to draw your awareness away from your breath. Just keep doing this until the allotted time is up.

When your meditation session is complete, you should do two things to “cool down” and ensure that you make the most of the experience.

  • Just as you did before the meditation, spend a minute or two practicing gratitude. Keep the good vibes going!
  • Have a clear idea of what you are going to do next, be it making a cup of tea, reading the news, brushing your teeth, etc. Allow the mental clarity from the meditation to continue through your next activity, rather than quickly abandoning it and moving on to the rest of your frenetic day.

And that’s it! You’ve completed your formal meditation for the day! But that doesn’t mean your mindfulness practice is over – you should continue to have moments of clarity and awareness throughout your day. Here are a few suggestions for ways that you can integrate mindful awareness into your daily grind:

  • Take a break from whatever you are doing every once in a while and breathe deeply for a few moments. Try to do this several times per day, for 20 seconds to a minute. You can try using the Meaning to Pause bracelet, which gently vibrates periodically in order to remind you to be mindful. For a discount, use coupon code LIVEANDDARE.
  • Play “the noticing game.” Take a moment to become fully aware of your environment. Notice everything around you through as many of your senses as possible. This is a good time to appreciate the beauty in the world around you.
  • Use “touch points.” Pick something you do routinely, more than once per day, such as turning a doorknob or opening your laptop. Each time you do it that day, become aware of what you are doing and the physical sensations of your hands. This is a way that you can become mindful of something you normally take for granted.
  • Become fully immersed in music. Pick a song (perhaps one you’ve never heard before), put on some headphones, and try to tune in to the intricacies of the sounds. Notice the interplay of each of the instruments.
  • Practice mindfulness while doing chores, like folding laundry or washing dishes. Normally, these are mild nuisances, but you can turn them into mindfulness practice by paying attention to all the sensations that occur while you perform them.
  • Take mindful showers. Feel every sensation during the shower – how does the water feel on your skin? What does the temperature and pressure feel like? Notice how the drops of water run down your body.
  • My favorite: make a game of “noticing” the next thought that pops into your head, whatever it is. Usually, this allows you to have mindful awareness and clarity for at least a few seconds before a thought arises. Once it does, you’re ready for it, you notice it, and you can play the game again.

For insightful and detailed answers to many questions about meditation, read this article. And even if you don’t have any questions, read it anyways.

 

The Many Types of Meditation

What I’ve described above is just one of many kinds of meditation. But I strongly encourage you to experiment with other kinds and continue doing whichever methods work best for you. I will briefly cover a number of these in a moment, but you can find many more options here.

In the basic meditation described above, the object of your attention was your breath. Breath is a great choice for two main reasons: it’s always available to you, and it is something that happens both consciously and unconsciously. But it is far from the only choice. You can try doing similar mindfulness meditations, but focus on an image, a word or phrase, or even a flickering candle in a darkened room.

mindful eating

Another great option is mindful eating, where you make yourself truly aware of all the features and sensations that food can evoke. The “classic” example of mindful eating is the raisin meditation, which involves eating a single raisin and experiencing it fully with each of your senses. But you can do this with any food.

One of my personal favorites is the body scan meditation, which I do for a few minutes after every yoga session. This meditation consists of focusing your attention on each individual part of your body, noticing how they feel, and progressively relaxing each part. This feels great, and helps you discover which parts of your body might be carrying excess tension.

Mantra meditation is another option, though I have personally never done it myself. It consists of repeating a specific mantra (for instance, “om”) over and over in your mind throughout your meditation session. This seems like a fairly easy one to integrate into your daily life, simply by mentally repeating your mantra while doing whatever else you’re doing. Here is more information on how to perform mantra meditation.

An alternative kind of meditation that has an entirely different set of benefits from mindfulness is the lovingkindness meditation. It consists of wishing happiness and well-being for all, often by silently repeating a certain mantra. These meditations tend to involve focusing first on oneself, then a close friend, followed next by someone you feel neutral toward, then a difficult person, all four of the above equally, and finally on the whole universe. Here is a guided meditation that can walk you through this. And here is a related compassion meditation.

All of the above meditations are usually performed while in a seated position, but walking meditation is often easier to do for longer periods of time, since it is easier to maintain a good posture. Focus your mind on the physical sensations of walking, such as how the soles of your feet feel as you take steps. Imagine your feet kissing the earth with each step. This is a good explanation of how to perform a walking meditation, and this article details several different forms of walking meditations.

Finally, I’d like to point out that, especially for beginners, guided meditations are often easier than meditating on your own. I’ve included my favorite below, but you can find a ton of these online. Try a few out and see what you like!

Hypnosis

At the request of one of my readers, redditor thesegates, I am including a brief section on hypnosis. I was not all that familiar with the subject, but apparently one of my favorite YouTube guided meditations is actually hypnosis, performed by renowned hypnotist Michael Sealey. Funny coincidence!

Hypnosis is very much related to meditation, and one could argue that they are just two different ways of achieving the same state of mind. The primary difference with hypnosis is that there is usually a more direct goal involved – overcoming a fear, gaining confidence, quitting smoking, etc. Hypnosis is a procedure in which suggestions are given to the subject while they are in a state of focused awareness – a meditative or hypnotic state.

Popular thought regarding hypnosis is generally that it is bunk; however, over the past fifty years or so, extensive research has documented that hypnosis is quite real, and has several very real benefits. In fact, about 95% of people are at least mildly susceptible to hypnotic suggestion, but the degree varies considerably, and appears related to an individual’s ability to become effortlessly absorbed in things like reading, music, or daydreaming.15 The Mayo Clinic in 2005 concluded that “patients treated with hypnosis experienced substantial benefits for many different medical conditions.”16 More research is needed, but hypnosis has been shown to be very effective at reducing pain, and can also reduce allergy flare ups, be used as a form of surgical anesthesia, control warts and other dermatologic conditions, relieve symptoms of irritable bowel syndrome and other gastrointestinal issues, control headaches, reduce the negative side effects of chemotherapy, improve asthma symptoms, reduce impotence, improve mental health, and a handful of other things. A more recent review has confirmed these findings.17

How can you use hypnosis to your benefit? Unfortunately, this is simply an area in which I am incapable of providing solid advice. You’ll need to do your own research (and if you find any good resources, let me know in the comments). One option is self-hypnosis, which you can read a little more about here. You can also try watching some hypnosis videos online, such as the one I inadvertently watched:

You can check out other hypnosis videos by Michael Sealey here. If you know of any other good ones, please let me know.

 

How To Establish A Consistent Meditation Practice

Probably the most difficult thing about meditation is getting yourself to actually do it consistently. I have tried this many times and failed, but am determined to succeed this time around. In this section, I will describe a method for making sure the meditation “habit” sticks. This method draws heavily upon my previous post, How to Achieve Your Goals in 3 Simple Steps, as well as this post at Live and Dare.

The obvious place to start is to make sure you are as motivated as possible to establish a meditation practice. To this end, it helps to understand the benefits that meditation can bring to your life. I imagine that there are incredible benefits that can only be discovered through actually practicing regularly, but reading through the first section of this post is a good start.

You’ll also want to connect your meditation practice to your deeper values. Of course, this requires some reflection on what your values are in the first place! It can help to ask yourself the following questions:

  • What do you spend most of your time thinking about?
  • What do you spend most of your money on?
  • How do you spend your time?
  • In what area of your life are you the most reliable and disciplined?
  • Imagine yourself 10 years in the future. Looking back, what are you most proud of?

After pondering these questions, you should have a pretty good idea of what is important to you, what your goals are, and what makes you “tick.” Now you need to tie these values to meditation. How might meditation help you achieve your goals and live more in alignment with these values?

A personal example: I want to spend more quality time with my girlfriend, but I often find myself distracted. Meditation would help me stay more focused and able to listen more intently to her, without my mind wandering to the assorted tasks I feel the need to accomplish. It would also help me accomplish those tasks themselves more easily and without distraction, freeing up time.

If you really care about advancing your career, meditation can make you more productive at work. If you want to be a better parent, meditation will help you avoid snapping at your kids when they do the things that kids do. If maintaining optimal health is important to you, meditation has many health benefits in and of itself, but can also help you eat better and be more focused at the gym.

Now that you’re sufficiently motivated, it’s time to make it happen. This requires having a healthy mindset towards forming habits. There are two different mindsets I can think of, and you might find one more effective than the other, though the second is usually a safer bet if you do it right.

  • The “do the right thing in this moment” mindset. This might be less likely to make meditation stick as a habit, but it could also result in you meditating more by being more flexible. Instead of thinking about habit change as a long-term process, focus only on what the right behavior is at this very moment. It can seem daunting to think about needing to meditate every. Single. Day. And that might be intimidating enough to stop you from the get-go. But you know meditating is the right thing to do, so if you have time to do it right now, just commit to meditating right now. I describe this mindset in more detail here.
  • The long-term, habit-forming mindset. Rather than thinking of meditation as an option, treat it as a given part of your day, like showering or sleeping. This mindset involves more planning, and can sometimes fall apart if the right conditions don’t hold on a given day. But when done effectively, it can make the decision to meditate happen on autopilot. To do this, you must plan in advance what time you will meditate, how long your sessions will be, where, and what specific kind of meditation you will do.

If you elect to go with the second mindset, I advise you to make meditation a part of your morning routine. You must be consistent, and mornings are generally the time when you’ll have the fewest excuses to deviate. You should also go easy on yourself with respect to the length of your session – try committing to a shorter period than you can handle in order to get into the habit. Even two minutes a day can become a habit, and can then be steadily increased.

live in the moment

Despite having it all planned out, there will be times when you just don’t feel like meditating. Tough shit, just do it anyways. And if you mess up and don’t follow through, don’t let it be an excuse to continue slacking. Get right back to it the next day.

To make the habit stick, you can take advantage of your psychology and hack your way into making it easier. Set up triggers that you associate with meditating. When that trigger is pulled, you know it is time to meditate; over time, you can condition yourself in this way such that you no longer need to actively decide to meditate, you just do it. Set up something in your environment that reminds you to meditate at your scheduled time, such as

  • A phone alarm at your chosen time
  • Post-it notes placed in strategic locations as a reminder, such as your bathroom mirror
  • Have specific clothes you wear while meditating, and set them out the night before

Feel free to get creative with your triggers.

Next, you’ll want to set up a reward system for sticking to the program. Eventually, you might feel that meditation is its own reward, but it probably won’t seem that way at first! So feel free to treat yourself. Of course, your reward can’t be destructive (“Every time I meditate, I’ve earned some heroin!”). Perhaps give yourself a square of dark chocolate. It is important that your reward be scarce – if you treat yourself to chocolate after meditating, then you should never have chocolate when you aren’t meditating. Perhaps a better reward system is to treat yourself when you’ve accomplished certain milestones, such as meditating for seven days in a row, 30 days in a row, etc.

Finally, you need to make yourself accountable. I’m doing this (in part) by writing this post; I’ll be embarrassed if one of you asks me how my meditation is going in a few weeks and I haven’t been doing it. So go tell people that you intend to make a habit of meditating. Join a meetup or hang around with other people who meditate.

One very effective way of making yourself accountable is to put money on the line. Give your friend $140 at the beginning of the week, and have them give you back $20 for each day you meditate. If you don’t meditate, they get to keep the money.

By following these steps, you give yourself the greatest possible chance of succeeding in establishing a meditation practice. And while I can’t say this from experience, I imagine that once you’ve been doing it for a little while, the pleasure of meditation itself will make it very easy to continue.

 

Conclusion

Meditation is one of the greatest treats you can give yourself. I plan on making this a part of my daily routine, so here I am, announcing it to the world.

Do you have any experience meditating? How has meditation helped you? Do you have any tips to share?

 

Footnotes:

  1. http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0036206
  2. http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.477.2159&rep=rep1&type=pdf
  3. http://www.researchgate.net/profile/Lone_Fjorback/publication/51091009_Mindfulness-Based_Stress_Reduction_and_Mindfulness-Based_Cognitive_Therapy_-_a_systematic_review_of_randomized_controlled_trials/links/0912f50f6641822f46000000.pdf
  4. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3718554/
  5. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2848393/?wptouch_preview_theme=enabled
  6. http://europepmc.org/articles/pmc4142584
  7. http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/images/uploads/Keng_Review_of_studies_on_mindfulness.pdf
  8. http://www.mindfulnessstudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/S1-Mindfulness-Based-Therapy-A-Comprehensive-Meta-Analysis-by-Khoury-et-al..pdf
  9. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12883106
  10. http://users.phhp.ufl.edu/lwaxenbe/Articles%20for%20Jackie%20Maye’s%20Quals/Exploring%20age-related%20brain%20degeneration%20in%20meditation%20practitioners.pdf
  11. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510697/
  12. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3482773/
  13. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2820143/
  14. http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0005789404800285
  15. http://ptintensive.com/images/Truth_and_the_Hype_of_Hypnosis_-_Scientific_American_5-18-2005.pdf
  16. http://www.mayoclinicproceedings.org/article/S0025-6196(11)63203-5/fulltext/
  17. http://nvvh.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/overzicht-wetenschappelijke-hypnose-onderzoeken.pdf

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Book Review: Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges http://feelhappiness.com/book-review-tiny-buddhas-365-tiny-love-challenges/ http://feelhappiness.com/book-review-tiny-buddhas-365-tiny-love-challenges/#respond Tue, 06 Oct 2015 19:59:49 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1103 I was recently sent a copy of Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges to review. You can buy your copy here. I have reviewed one of Lori Deschene’s other books, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself. You can read my review of that here, or purchase that book here. That book actually featured a piece [...]

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I was recently sent a copy of Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges to review. You can buy your copy here. I have reviewed one of Lori Deschene’s other books, Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself. You can read my review of that here, or purchase that book here. That book actually featured a piece of my own writing, which you can read here.

With that administrative information out of the way, let’s get to the review!

The format of the book is kind of like those daily calendars, where each day you get some new tip, optical illusion, joke, etc, often given as a gift during the holidays. In this case, each day presents a new challenge – basically, a personal development tip or exercise. Interspersed between the challenges are short but insightful pieces by members of the Tiny Buddha community. Each month has a different theme; March is authenticity and vulnerability, and August is acceptance and nonjudgment, for instance.

In my opinion, the determination of whether you find this book useful to you or not is whether you appreciate its format and what you can do with it. On the surface at least, it is meant to be used as a daily exercise in order to add more love to your life – to improve your relationship with yourself and with others. Some of the exercises work great for this, but others will be difficult to implement that way.

For an example I’m taking at random, February 27th asks you to “think of a problem you’ve been obsessing about. Now identify someone else who’s also affected by this problem.” You are then tasked with better understanding this person. This is certainly a valuable exercise, but it might simply not apply to you that day. Ultimately, if your intent is to go through the exercises each day as designed, there will be some days where it will simply not be possible.

For the purpose of this review, however, I’ve just been breezing through the whole thing, one exercise per day be damned! I’ve gained a lot from reading it, because there really are tons of valuable exercises. I think this book shines as more of a reference manual. If I’m feeling angry and need to release this anger and forgive someone, then reading April’s exercises can give me some ideas for ways to do this. In fact, that is exactly what happened recently, and the book’s exercises were indeed valuable.

I strongly recommend this book, but not for everyone. This book isn’t particularly “deep”, and is going to be nearly useless to anyone who doesn’t attempt at least some of the exercises. But it is a feast for the personal development junkie, loaded with things you can do right now to stimulate your personal growth (particularly in how you relate to others).

If you are looking for a book that you can just read and be inspired, you should go with Tiny Buddha’s Guide to Loving Yourself, and not this one. But if you are looking for a highly practical way to push yourself and are willing to do the work, definitely take a closer look at Tiny Buddha’s 365 Tiny Love Challenges.

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The Stubborn Asshole’s Guide To Accepting Criticism http://feelhappiness.com/the-stubborn-assholes-guide-to-accepting-criticism/ http://feelhappiness.com/the-stubborn-assholes-guide-to-accepting-criticism/#comments Mon, 10 Aug 2015 20:32:01 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1095   A few months ago, I left my previous job on a sour note. My boss and I did not get along very well, for numerous reasons. As with all things, it is the other guy’s fault and not mine…but if any responsibility could be ascribed to me, I’m betting it’s because I have a [...]

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I'd agree, but

A few months ago, I left my previous job on a sour note. My boss and I did not get along very well, for numerous reasons. As with all things, it is the other guy’s fault and not mine…but if any responsibility could be ascribed to me, I’m betting it’s because I have a hard time accepting criticism.

Some people can take criticism like a pro, but it’s always been a struggle for me. A lot of that is because I’m genuinely, truly right most of the time. No, that’s not the problem – it’s that I am acutely aware of the fact that I’m right, and have a difficult time letting go of that. I don’t think I’m alone here; many people have a similar struggle. Except that when they disagree with me, they aren’t in the right. But that’s a different story.

I’ve put together this guide for people like me. People with big egos. People who are sometimes too smart or too rational for their own good. People who love to argue, because they know they’ll “win”.

Our ability to deal with criticism can be a significant weakness. But with a little bit of effort, this weakness can be turned into a strength. Those of us who are right all the time are often great at analyzing things, and (constructive) criticism can be a great source of information. When handled appropriately, criticism can help us to become even more right, more of the time!

You’ll notice that I used the word “constructive” parenthetically in the last paragraph. Destructive criticism is at least as prevalent as the constructive variety, but it has only one redeeming quality: you can feel good about fighting back! But even that benefit begins to wear thin pretty quickly.

I like almost everyone I meet, but when I was living in Israel, I met one person who was full of nothing but destructive criticism (or I guess you could say he was full of shit). Unfortunately, I had to spend quite a bit of time with him, and listen to him routinely bash me about everything: how I was lazy, how I was a very negative person, and about how my blog was stupid and a waste of time. His only redeeming quality was that he loved The Simpsons, but even that didn’t stop him from “grinding my gears” and making me want to smash my face into the wall. I’m about as even keel as a person can be, but enough destructive criticism can reduce just about anyone to madness.

pissed off eyebrows

Therefore, this guide will only be focused on constructive criticism, and how the stubborn asshole can learn to engage with it rather than fight it.

 

When Is Criticism Constructive?

The first hurdle is to recognize when a given piece of criticism is constructive in the first place. Oftentimes, this will be obvious. But for the stubborn asshole, even constructive criticism can feel like an attack on our inner child. For us, criticism will almost always come as a surprise. But haters gonna hate, and there’s nothing we can do about that!

It’s completely natural to have certain cognitive distortions that make it difficult to take criticism, whether it be constructive or destructive. Understanding these distortions and how we respond to them can help us become more aware of the quality of the feedback we are receiving.

  • Hostility bias. We tend to naturally assume that we are being negatively and unfairly targeted by whoever is providing feedback. In other words, they are being purposefully hostile.
  • Personalizing. Even if only specific acts of ours are being criticized, we feel as though our character or personal nature itself that is in question.
  • Catastrophizing. We may panic and blow things out of proportion when criticized. Perhaps it feels as though we cannot cope with whatever change may be required to integrate the feedback into our lives. (“Oh no, I’m going to get fired because my TPS reports aren’t detailed enough!”)

Put simply, whenever someone gives you any kind of negative feedback or criticism, you are inclined to hear it as “You suck!” In many cases (particularly on the Internet), this is exactly what they are saying. But there most certainly are times where you receive legitimate constructive criticism, and there are ways you can tell that this is the case.

The first and most important filter you should use is to note the source of the criticism. You need to decide whether or not it actually matters what the feedback-provider thinks. Are they your boss? Girlfriend? Brother? Even people you don’t particularly care about (or need to impress) can teach you stuff and provide valuable feedback, but they most certainly deserve less of your effort or consideration.

Can you reasonably make the case that the criticizer is trying to help you, or are they just a troll? Intent matters, and is a factor in determining how much respect their opinion deserves.

Let’s say someone comments on this blog post and tells me how much they dislike it. If the commenter has meaningfully contributed to the discussion on prior blog posts, are on my mailing list, or have tweeted or shared other posts on Facebook, I should take their comment seriously. If this is their first comment and it reads “I hate you and your stoopid advice,” I can reasonably ignore it.

Some other things to look out for when trying to separate constructive criticism from the destructive variety:

  • It offers suggestions for improvement. Not all constructive criticism contains specific ways that you can improve, but if a criticism does, there is a good chance it is constructive. Is the criticism about you as a person? Useless. Is it about your actions? Potentially constructive.
  • It isn’t selfish. If the person offering the criticism would gain personally from putting you down, that’s a strong sign that the criticism isn’t worth much.
  • It can reasonably be discussed and implemented. If the criticism is about something that would be impossible to fix, or does not lend itself to a reasonable debate about its merits and demerits, you are wasting your time by listening to it. This is closely related to the specificity – the more specific the criticism, the more constructive it can be.
  • It affirms your values. If spending time with your family is a fundamental value of yours, and someone tells you that you don’t call your siblings often enough, you should probably call them more.

It’s unlikely that you’ll carry around a checklist of these items so that any time you receive criticism, you can methodically assess whether it is constructive or destructive. But just reading through this post and keeping these guidelines in mind, you should be able to make fairly accurate snap judgments about whether a piece of criticism is worth listening to or not.

You may still disagree with the content of a piece of constructive criticism, but it is important to acknowledge it rather than dismiss it outright. And when someone provides you with constructive criticism, it may be helpful to reframe the encounter as the other person trying to help you, no matter how much of a d-bag that person is and no matter how wrong they are.

 

The Stubborn Asshole’s Mindset For Taking Criticism Well

Now that you know how to tell whether criticism is constructive or not, what is the right way for you to think about receiving criticism?

The first thing to keep in mind is that constructive criticism is one of the most valuable sources of feedback that helps you identify your own weaknesses and areas of improvement. Even the most stubborn of the stubborn assholes knows that they are not perfect, no matter how damned close to perfect they may be. When you argue with people as much as I do, for instance, every once in a blue moon you find that you are wrong about some very minor detail. Of course that isn’t the case right now, in whatever argument you happen to be having at the moment. But you can at least be your gracious and humble self by recognizing that there is some possible world, some alternate universe where you ARE wrong.

In addition, you must never take constructive criticism (or any feedback, for that matter) personally. You are the shit, no matter what other people may say. If you do take it personally, you’ll be too busy plotting your revenge on this person to get any value whatsoever from it. Don’t attack the attacker – remember, you are a better person than they are, so there’s no need to stoop to their level.

Keep in mind that providing feedback to another person can be difficult too. Give the other person the benefit of the doubt, keeping in mind that they may be nervous or may not be expressing their own criticism well. I should have kept this in mind at my last job – my boss told me (a little too late, unfortunately) that he felt he had done a very poor job of explaining to me his criticisms, in part because giving feedback made him uncomfortable. This was a big takeaway for me; we could both be “right,” but miscommunication can make us talk past each other instead of about the same thing.

 

You’re Receiving Criticism – Now What?

When someone criticizes you, you need to know how to react appropriately.

The first and most important thing you can do is to be aware of your emotional reaction to receiving the piece of criticism. In the short term, it can be very difficult to control your emotional response (things like meditation can help you develop this control over the long term), but there are situations where you really shouldn’t express your emotions visibly. You may want to punch the criticizer in the face, but even if they deserve it, this is usually a bad idea. Don’t punch them in the face; just notice your strong desire to do so. Nor should you become visibly angry, cry, deny it, or blame others. These things can come later.

If you start feeling an angry or emotional reaction to a piece of criticism, try to get either 24 hours before addressing the criticism, or at the very least a few moments to take some deep breaths and calm yourself down. You simply will not be able to handle criticism properly while under the influence of strong emotions.

But if you do have a strong emotional reaction to the criticism, consider for a moment what this means. Chances are, if you are feeling hurt by it, that’s because you already believe it to some degree, right? There are many exceptions to this, but if you didn’t believe it at least a tiny bit, you should be able to dismiss it outright. And if you already partly believe their criticism, why would you fight back?

Exercise: Imagine that you are insecure about something that you aren’t actually insecure about in real life (for instance, I could imagine myself being insecure about being overweight, which I am not). Now picture a situation where you receive a criticism such that this insecurity would be relevant. How would you feel in that situation? How would you react to the criticism? Given that you don’t actually have that insecurity, how would you react to that criticism now?

Perhaps after running through this exercise and pondering it a bit, you’ll be able to handle criticism less emotionally. You can recognize that if you get upset about a piece of criticism, that just provides some evidence that you believe the criticism to be at least partially correct. And since you are a stubborn asshole who doesn’t believe the criticism to be correct, you can’t really get upset about it.

Once you’ve got your initial emotional reaction under control, there are things that you ought to do to make the most of constructive criticism.

  • Actively listen. Ideally, you should be paying close attention to what the other person says. At the very least, you need to do a great job pretending – but usually it’s easier to actually listen. Make sure you understand what they are saying – whether you agree or disagree – before repeating back to them a paraphrased version of what they said, and then getting into a discussion about it. More info on active listening can be found here.
  • Ask clarifying questions. Do this instead of verbalizing whatever excuses are surely coming to mind. Your goal is to find out as specifically as possible what their criticism is – this way, you can either learn something from the experience if they’re right, or you can validate yourself if they’re wrong. When your excuses are phrased as questions, it can let you air your concerns while sounding as though you appreciate their criticism. It also allows you to gather more evidence that the criticizer is out to get you, if they truly are.
  • Demand evidence. The criticizer has the burden of proof on them, so make sure they present you with evidence justifying their feedback. Acknowledge the parts of their criticism that you do agree with – it’s too easy to focus on fighting them on what you disagree with. Figure out whether it is an isolated or recurring issue, and seek specific solutions that address the feedback.
  • Request time to follow up. Actually try to make changes based on their suggestions. You can also make changes that you think would work better than theirs, even if only to prove them wrong in your own head. Either way, do something and follow up.
  • Thank them for their feedback. Yes, even if you don’t agree with it. The process of receiving feedback – and this necessarily includes receiving some bad or incorrect feedback – is important in and of itself, so you ought to welcome it. If your ego gives you a hard time at this stage, just remember that thanking them for the feedback doesn’t imply agreeing with the feedback, so you are in no way “giving in” or “losing” when you thank the criticizer. Feel free to come up with as many excuses as you want (and write them down, even!), but don’t bother voicing these concerns, even when the criticizer is wrong. I know it’s difficult to swallow your pride and say “thank you for the feedback,” but humility is part of what makes you so great anyways.
  • Don’t beat yourself up. Don’t hold a grudge against someone who criticizes you, especially at work. Don’t ruminate over the criticism. I’ve done this before and it sucks. This doesn’t help you improve nor does it make you feel better, whether the criticizer is right or wrong.

If you can handle this process, you can handle criticism like a pro. It’s not easy, because it means you need to at least hold the “You’re wrong! I’m right!” inside. But by maintaining your cool, you come across as the better man, as you deserve. And it’s completely worth it on the off-chance that you might actually learn something or improve in some way.

 

Constructive Criticism For The Stubborn Asshole – Advanced

While the process above is a solid starting point for any stubborn asshole, there are more things that you can do to make the most of any constructive criticism that is headed your way.

Here’s a suggestion: imagine that the criticism is directed at someone else besides you. Sure, the criticizer is addressing you – but maybe it’s actually John down the hall that is responsible. Don’t take this too far, of course. The idea isn’t to be delusional, but rather to disassociate yourself from the criticism and take it less personally. In other words, you aren’t actually believing that it was John who was criticized, but you can pretend as though it was in order to feel less of that initial sting. But you know what? When you are right about everything, there is even a decent chance that the criticism should more appropriately be levelled at someone else. So give yourself a break (mentally).

Now – with the sting of being personally criticized safely deflected – ask yourself: If I had come to the same conclusion as the criticizer on my own, what actions would I take now? The criticizer thinks that you (or, rather, John down the hall) don’t put enough detail into your TPS reports. The solution could be to spend an extra five minutes per day filling them out, first thing in the morning. You may be thinking this is the solution for John, but you’ve at least acknowledged the criticism and figured out how to deal with it. It sucks that you have to do John’s work for him and spend those extra five minutes yourself, but doesn’t that just further prove how great you are?

You can also reframe the criticism. Most of us look at it as a bad thing, but receiving criticism gives the stubborn asshole certain opportunities that he would not have. For instance, receiving (wrong) criticism from others gives you the opportunity to practice forgiving others for their mistakes! It also gives you a chance to challenge any people-pleasing tendencies you may have; let people think what they want! And when someone delivers criticism poorly, it gives you a chance to teach them how to treat you (“You make some valid points, but you really shouldn’t raise your voice if you want me to receive this well.”).

But true mastery of the stubborn asshole method involves learning to seek out criticism for the value that it provides. Sometimes other people see things that you don’t. Oftentimes you are right and they are wrong, but there are ways to improve yourself that will only be found when someone else points them out. Even if all you learn is how to give good constructive criticism, that’s a valuable skill in itself!

I recommend finding trusted mentors to give you feedback, and to take their word more seriously than others. My old college roommate made his own “brain trust” back in the day, and I think that’s a wonderful idea! Let your best friends, your girlfriend, your family, and/or a coworker you like know that you welcome them to look at you with a critical eye. Tell them that you want them to voice their criticisms to you – and warn them that you may be resistant when it comes. But these are the people who are most likely to find accurate things to criticize, and even if you disagree at first, it may plant the seed for change in your mind.

 

Conclusion

Many people have a difficult time accepting criticism, but it is especially difficult for some people, including myself. Us smarty-pants really are right most of the time, and any challenge to this is threatening. But ultimately, we must all take responsibility for any mistakes that we have made, and the quality of the things we do in general. Handling criticism well is a valuable component of taking responsibility.

I’d like to close with some good advice from Matt Walsh over at the Huffington Post:

“Try to go about your day under the following four pretenses: 1) You are not perfect. 2) You could stand to improve in every single facet of your life. 3) People who point out your flaws or critique your actions aren’t necessarily motivated by cruelty, hatred, and animosity. 4) Some people know how to do certain things better than you know how to do them, and you should be grateful if they take the time to offer you guidance and insight into their areas of expertise.”

It’s not an easy pill to swallow. But do it anyways.

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Don’t Ruin The Moment By Wishing For Something Different http://feelhappiness.com/dont-ruin-moment-wishing-for-something-different/ http://feelhappiness.com/dont-ruin-moment-wishing-for-something-different/#comments Sat, 11 Jul 2015 21:38:03 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1088 “To be upset over what you don’t have is to waste what you do have.” – Ken S. Keyes Jr. The other day, I was eating a delicious, simple, and healthy meal I had made for myself. And then I was struck with a thought: I’d really prefer eating sushi. I spend a lot of [...]

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Comparisons

“To be upset over what you don’t have is to waste what you do have.” – Ken S. Keyes Jr.

The other day, I was eating a delicious, simple, and healthy meal I had made for myself. And then I was struck with a thought: I’d really prefer eating sushi.

I spend a lot of time analyzing my own thought processes and how they influence my happiness. And that previous thought is a paradigmatic example of one kind of thought process that is poison to a happy moment.

Too often, we ruin a perfectly good moment by comparing it to an idealized but nonexistent possible world. Instead of living in reality, we long for a fantasy.

In the case of me wanting to eat sushi instead of what I made for myself, this would seem fairly inconsequential. But in that moment, instead of continuing to enjoy a meal that would normally give me great pleasure, I found considerably less joy in the experience because I was wishing for something different.

Any time you perform a mental comparison in the form of “X is okay, but Y would be better,” you remove yourself from the moment and stop appreciating or savoring the experience. Not only are you no longer living in the moment (and we all know we should be in the moment as much as possible), but you take a perfectly good experience and make it worse for yourself.

To add insult to injury, this mental comparison does nothing to improve your situation anyways!

Unfortunately, most of us will make these sorts of comparisons all the time, and in many different contexts.

  • “My girlfriend is making me see acceptable movie X, but I want to see awesome movie Y.”
  • “I shouldn’t have RSVP’d to that party so quickly, since I just got invited to a better one.”
  • “I ordered the fajitas because I wanted to try something different, but I should have stuck with the tried and true burrito.”

By definition, most of our life experiences are fairly average. And in the Western world at least, average is pretty good. That means that these thoughts could be happening dozens of times per day! And that doesn’t even include all of the thoughts we have that take away from really good experiences.

What an incredible waste.

While it is unlikely that any but the most enlightened among us will eliminate these thoughts entirely, there are things we can do to reduce their frequency.

Before getting into these techniques, I want to caution you against a red herring. In the personal development sphere, you may see people suggesting that you make “downward” rather than “upward” comparisons. In other words, instead of thinking “I wish I was eating sushi instead of this home-cooked meal,” you could think “This home-cooked meal is way better than that gruel alternative!”

This mental change does benefit your overall happiness. The problem with it, for the purposes of this article, is that it still takes you out of the moment. Switching from upward to downward comparisons is just a Band-Aid. Our goal is to develop the ability to appreciate the things that we have, and reinstate our ability to enjoy the little things in life.

This doesn’t just happen automatically. It takes conscious effort. And that effort involves an understanding that you won’t immediately be “in the moment” and avoid these mental comparisons as soon as you finish this article.

Any exercise that helps foster gratitude or mindfulness in general will be beneficial in this area. Meditate, keep a gratitude journal, etc. But I want to focus on an exercise that will specifically target these kinds of poisonous mental comparisons and help short-circuit them.

It’s quite simple, but also incredibly challenging. We quickly get used to the things that give us pleasure in life, and they become less enjoyable than they once were. That’s why my delicious meal became boring.

Start paying attention, and take note the next time you find yourself making one of these upward comparisons. Depending on the subject matter, the next step may involve finding a relevant downward comparison. But here’s the fun part: you’re going to give up whatever it was that you stopped appreciating for a week, and replace it with the downward comparison if necessary.

Two examples will help demonstrate. If I catch myself being relatively dissatisfied with my meat and veggies concoction (as compared with sushi), I can make the downward comparison that it is certainly better than not having a hot meal at all. For the next week, not only will I not eat sushi, but I won’t eat any hot meals either. I’m going to really enjoy my cooking afterwards!

Perhaps you are at a bar and order a decent beer, but wish you had tried something else. No need for a downward comparison – you can simply avoid alcohol entirely for the next week. Or you can make the comparison, and drink nothing but Bud Ice.

The idea with all of this is that we aren’t just changing the comparisons we make. Any comparisons made in this process are simply a necessary step in the process of self-denial. You aren’t replacing upward comparisons with downward ones. Rather, you are using downward comparisons as a stepping stone to eliminating comparisons entirely, and reconnecting with your ability to appreciate simple pleasures as they occur.

Soon enough, you’ll be able to savor your experiences rather than succumb to distractions and useless comparisons.

Anyways, it’s time for dinner 🙂

photo by:

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Take A Moment To Appreciate Your Accomplishments http://feelhappiness.com/take-moment-to-appreciate-your-accomplishments/ http://feelhappiness.com/take-moment-to-appreciate-your-accomplishments/#comments Tue, 23 Jun 2015 23:57:21 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1084 “You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha It was at the 2012 Rutgers University Dance Marathon (RUDM) where I discovered this simple, versatile tool. It can and should be used in almost any situation, and it is easy enough to do that even the most [...]

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success kid accomplishments

“You, yourself, as much as anybody in the entire universe, deserve your love and affection.” – Buddha

It was at the 2012 Rutgers University Dance Marathon (RUDM) where I discovered this simple, versatile tool. It can and should be used in almost any situation, and it is easy enough to do that even the most excuse-prone among us can’t rationalize avoiding it.

I’ve written about RUDM before, where I described 32 lessons that I learned from my experience. I’d like to focus today on one of those lessons in particular.

Many of us take our own accomplishments for granted. Even when we have done an incredible job with something, we may not give ourselves proper credit for it. I know someone who had lost 80 pounds in a little over a year (in a healthy way, no crash dieting, etc.) but who regularly ignores their own strength and determination. The fact is, you can’t pull something like that off without demonstrating what an exceptional person you are.

Besides this small blind spot that people often have with regards to their accomplishments, it is so easy to forget to appreciate them, particularly while busy or when time has passed. You feel as though you have too many things to do that you can’t focus on what you’ve already accomplished, or that your accomplishments are a thing of the past and irrelevant today.

Well, I’m feeling a little nostalgic, so I’d like to remember the advice (as well as the accomplishment itself) I had learned during the 32-hour….well, marathon, that is RUDM.

The head of the organization, Dean Arnholt, told us this during one of her several inspirational speeches during the event (paraphrased): “I know that you are all busy, tired, and have a million more things to do before this event is over. But don’t forget to pause and reflect on the incredible accomplishment that you guys have spent thousands of hours to make happen. Before DM is over, make sure that you take at least one minute to stand up here on the second level to look down at what you have accomplished with your hard work.”

I heeded the Dean’s advice, and damn, she was right. Not only was the event an incredible thing to put together (and a wild success), but it was very difficult to fully appreciate what I had done to contribute without a moment of dedicated time to reflect on this. For even just a few moments, I had to let go of the drive to continue doing task after task, and just stand there in awe at what was transpiring in front of me.

Each of us on the board had a different role, and could appreciate different parts of the Marathon in different ways. I had been in charge of raising the operating budget (a princely $84,000), which paid for all expenses related to RUDM. So it was an incredible experience for me, looking at the gym, seeing all of the tables, video games, computer stations, the whole catering section, the production team and DJs, and a thousand other things, and realizing that it was through my efforts that all of this was actually paid for. For just a moment, I stood transfixed, awe-struck at the totality of what we had created.

This is a great demonstration of the more general idea that you ought to take time out of your day, even for just one minute, to appreciate the things that you’ve accomplished.

To the person who lost those 80 pounds, how can you possibly call yourself lazy, claim that it is difficult to motivate yourself to exercise, or, most ridiculously, say that you feel “fat”? Take stock and remember all that you’ve accomplished!

Everyone can do this. You need not have done anything “exceptional,” however you may define that. Even very “ordinary” things that you have done can be awe-inspiring with the right perspective, such as graduating from college, closing that business deal, talking yourself out of a traffic ticket, raising a child, saving money, learning a new skill, or winning a belching contest.

It’s so easy to take your accomplishments for granted, but the occasional one minute pause can help you remember the great things you’ve done. Specifically, I’d like to do that right now, as a small “thank you” to the readers of this blog, and particularly those of you who comment, share, or engage in any way.

When I first started blogging a little over three years ago, I had high hopes that I’d become an “A-list” blogger, that I’d help hundreds of thousands of people with my words, that I’d be a “location independent lifestyle entrepreneur,” and so on. I can unequivocally say that this has not happened (yet).

I could look at the thousands of hours I’ve spent blogging, call it a waste, and dub myself a failure. But while I may not be the international playboy that I had hoped at the outset, I have accomplished quite a lot.

For instance, when my original Dance Marathon post was published about 38 months ago, I was receiving fewer than 1000 monthly visitors. As I write this, I am closing in on 40,000 per month. And I did all that while finishing up college, living in a foreign country, multiple job changes, working full time, trying to keep my girlfriend happy,  and even starting another blog on the side.

I often take this for granted, and writing about it is cathartic. It would be easy to look at my experience blogging, compare myself to some of the big names, and feel like I’ve done very little. But while I may not be “A-list”, I’ve still built something really cool. I’ve still learned a ton from my experience. And while I may not have influenced hundreds of thousands, I do still hear from people who claim that my writing has improved their lives in some way. If that’s not awe-inspiring, I don’t know what is.

So thank you all, because you guys have helped get me off the ground. You’ve been the fuel that has helped me do what I consider to be a really cool thing.

Take a moment and do this yourself. Pause, reflect on your accomplishments, and realize that you have done some truly impressive stuff, overcame serious setbacks, and made yourself a better person. And remember that feeling every day.

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No One Owes You Anything http://feelhappiness.com/no-one-owes-you-anything/ http://feelhappiness.com/no-one-owes-you-anything/#comments Sat, 13 Jun 2015 20:21:40 +0000 http://feelhappiness.com/?p=1073   Every once in a while you come across something that really sticks with you. You read the article, and it wrenches your mind in a direction that you are unfamiliar with. It leads to an “ah-ha!” moment. A few weeks ago, I came across one of these. Harry Browne, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate [...]

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No one owes you anything

Every once in a while you come across something that really sticks with you. You read the article, and it wrenches your mind in a direction that you are unfamiliar with. It leads to an “ah-ha!” moment.

A few weeks ago, I came across one of these. Harry Browne, former Libertarian Party presidential candidate in 1996 and 2000, wrote a letter to his 9-year old daughter that was published in a newspaper column on Christmas 1966. It was intended as a gift for her, and while I hope she also received more tangible presents, it is chock-full of wisdom.

I am republishing his letter here. I suspect that many people will misinterpret his words, so I have added my own somewhat disorganized thoughts below. Enjoy!

It’s Christmas and I have the usual problem of deciding what to give you. I know you might enjoy many things — books, games, clothes.

But I’m very selfish. I want to give you something that will stay with you for more than a few months or years. I want to give you a gift that might remind you of me every Christmas.

If I could give you just one thing, I’d want it to be a simple truth that took me many years to learn. If you learn it now, it may enrich your life in hundreds of ways. And it may prevent you from facing many problems that have hurt people who have never learned it.

The truth is simply this:

No one owes you anything.

Significance

How could such a simple statement be important? It may not seem so, but understanding it can bless your entire life.

No one owes you anything.

It means that no one else is living for you, my child. Because no one is you. Each person is living for himself; his own happiness is all he can ever personally feel.

When you realize that no one owes you happiness or anything else, you’ll be freed from expecting what isn’t likely to be.

It means no one has to love you. If someone loves you, it’s because there’s something special about you that gives him happiness. Find out what that something special is and try to make it stronger in you, so that you’ll be loved even more.

When people do things for you, it’s because they want to — because you, in some way, give them something meaningful that makes them want to please you, not because anyone owes you anything.

No one has to like you. If your friends want to be with you, it’s not out of duty. Find out what makes others happy so they’ll want to be near you.

No one has to respect you. Some people may even be unkind to you. But once you realize that people don’t have to be good to you, and may not be good to you, you’ll learn to avoid those who would harm you. For you don’t owe them anything either.

Living your Life

No one owes you anything.

You owe it to yourself to be the best person possible. Because if you are, others will want to be with you, want to provide you with the things you want in exchange for what you’re giving to them.

Some people will choose not to be with you for reasons that have nothing to do with you. When that happens, look elsewhere for the relationships you want. Don’t make someone else’s problem your problem.

Once you learn that you must earn the love and respect of others, you’ll never expect the impossible and you won’t be disappointed. Others don’t have to share their property with you, nor their feelings or thoughts.

If they do, it’s because you’ve earned these things. And you have every reason to be proud of the love you receive, your friends’ respect, the property you’ve earned. But don’t ever take them for granted. If you do, you could lose them. They’re not yours by right; you must always earn them.

My Experience

A great burden was lifted from my shoulders the day I realized that no one owes me anything. For so long as I’d thought there were things I was entitled to, I’d been wearing myself out — physically and emotionally — trying to collect them.

No one owes me moral conduct, respect, friendship, love, courtesy, or intelligence. And once I recognized that, all my relationships became far more satisfying. I’ve focused on being with people who want to do the things I want them to do.

That understanding has served me well with friends, business associates, lovers, sales prospects, and strangers. It constantly reminds me that I can get what I want only if I can enter the other person’s world. I must try to understand how he thinks, what he believes to be important, what he wants. Only then can I appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.

And only then can I tell whether I really want to be involved with someone. And I can save the important relationships for those with whom I have the most in common.

It’s not easy to sum up in a few words what has taken me years to learn. But maybe if you re-read this gift each Christmas, the meaning will become a little clearer every year.

I hope so, for I want more than anything else for you to understand this simple truth that can set you free: no one owes you anything.

I want to get this out of the way first, because I suspect it could be on many readers’ minds: Mr. Browne is not suggesting that we manipulate people. He says he must get inside other peoples’ minds in order to “appeal to someone in ways that will bring me what I want.” Some may interpret this as manipulation, but it is merely the recognition that, because the other person doesn’t owe him anything, he must be prepared to make some suitable “trade” for what he wants. In order to get what he wants, he must give someone else what they want. Everybody wins.

While many people may not like thinking of it this way, my economics background inclines me to be particularly attached to this “trade” analogy. When you walk into the grocery store, you do not expect the grocer to give you all of the food you want without you providing something in return. They might do this if, say, they are having a great day, or they really like you, or you seem to be in need and they are a kind person. But it is not simply expected that you will be provided for, free of charge.

Mr. Browne is suggesting we have a similar mindset with regards to all our relationships, and in general how we relate to the world. Things do not come free, but can be acquired more easily by doing things for other people.

You may have certain expectations about the world, and how you ought to be treated by your friends, neighbors, family members, lovers, teachers, strangers, and so on. But these expectations are liable to ruin your day and make you unhappy. The solution isn’t to lower your expectations, as many do, but rather to eliminate the idea of “expectations” entirely.

Think of it this way. We all want things: love, happiness, friendship, chocolate, leisure time, money, intellectual stimulation, and so on. But everyone wants different things to different degrees – our desires are our own. It is every one of our individual responsibilities to go after what we want. Nobody owes you these things, and none of them are guaranteed or promised to you simply by virtue of your existence. Heck, even my own mother, who loves me quite a lot, can only go so far in terms of guaranteeing my safety and happiness!

This may sound bleak, but it is actually liberating. It means that everything you give to others, you give by choice. And everything you receive from others is because they wanted to provide it. I have some great friends who would go very far out of their way to help me, not because they owe me, not because “that’s what friends are for,” but because they want to help me. What an incredible blessing this is!

(Note that, when discussing people not owing each other, this excludes agreed upon commitments. If you have agreed to do something, then you “owe” someone whatever it is you’ve agreed to. But you didn’t owe them the courtesy of agreeing to some obligation. If we make a $5 bet and I lose, I owe you $5. But I wasn’t obligated to take the bet in the first place.)

Unfortunately, many people take that kind of thing for granted. When their friend comes to pick them up from the airport, it means nothing because they feel as though they’re owed that much. And if, for whatever reason, the friend can’t come to the airport, these people get angry and upset.

But if you accept Mr. Browne’s perspective, you are relieved from that selfish part of you that expects to be repaid for anything kind that you do (and often leads to bad feelings when your expectations aren’t met). When others are kind to you, you no longer take that for granted. And you are no longer enslaved by the perception that you are obliged to do certain things that you truly don’t want.

How does this improve your interpersonal relations? It clears a space for genuine connection, free of preconceived notions and from the scourge of “keeping score” in your relationships. You respect and honor the other person’s freedom to choose how they want to relate to you. This means respecting that someone you love may not love you back. They don’t owe you love, and that’s okay. If they love you, it’s because they really love you and you make them feel good. If you love them, it is because you really love them and they make you feel good. No one needs to feel like they “owe” each other for the love or kindness that they provide. Whatever is given, is given freely.

You cannot ask others to conform to your expectations and become someone they are not. If you do, you will inevitably be disappointed – not to mention that you will likely hurt those around you.

If you don’t owe anyone else anything, then you can give more freely of yourself, without strings attached. This makes you less resentful of others, and gives you the authority to look after your own interests first and ensure your personal needs are met. You do this by associating with whoever you want to associate with, generally based in part on the things that they can offer you: love, friendship, money, etc. Surround yourself with these people, and give them value. If you want someone to be your friend, you should figure out who they are and what they value, and then provide them with what they want. They are not obligated to reciprocate, and if they don’t, that’s okay. Look elsewhere.

All of your relationships involve this kind of back-and-forth “trading.” This has a negative connotation of being “selfish,” but it is not selfish to look after your own interests, so long as you don’t actively harm someone else.

People will also extrapolate from the principle and assume that if someone does nothing for you, then you should do nothing for them. This couldn’t be further from the truth! It buys into the idea that we owe each other things, and that you being nice to someone else is only done out of obligation. But you can still benefit from giving to others – perhaps just with a warm and fuzzy feeling, the respect of others, a tax refund, whatever. If you have two cookies, you are not obligated to share – but if you do, perhaps you’ll make a new friend.

Ultimately, Mr. Browne’s philosophy here is not about being self-centered. It’s about clarifying your values, finding out what makes you happy, and going after it, while considering the consequences of your actions. When you realize you don’t owe anybody else, you are free to pursue your goals unapologetically while recognizing that what you provide others is done freely. And when you realize that you are owed nothing and yet have so much, you will feel immense gratitude.

What do you think about this advice?

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