Overwhelming Kindness

Everyone knows that it’s nice to be kind, but the Prof taught me something interesting: it’s even nicer to be overwhelmingly kind, to be so intensively kind on one single day that it blows your little mind.

That makes sense: if you spread your kindness thinly over the course of a week, you might forget the flavour – like the scraping of butter that’s senselessly lost in the riot of a bacon and egg bap.

In the same way, your moments of kindness will be diluted during the week by all the other occasions when you were a douche, or just being ‘normal’.

But if you save your week’s worth of buttery kindness for one huge dollop on, say, a Friday, then all of a sudden you become – albeit briefly – hot butter spread thickly on a crumpet. An unforgettably kind kind of god.

Of course, different people have different baseline kindness. We’re talking about kindnesses that you wouldn’t ordinarily perform.

For example, on Wednesday I let a woman go in front of me in the queue because she had… fewer items in her basket than I did. That’s a kindness I never would have normally performed, so that counts.

But that same evening, I volunteered with a gaggle of other GoodGym runners at a community garden in Bournemouth. That’s no doubt a kind deed, but it doesn’t count because I would’ve done that anyway – it didn’t require any effortful kindness on my part. Baseline.

I can easily tell these two varieties of kindness apart: the first gives me a buzz of almost electrifying, almost illicit pleasure. As I turned to the woman behind me, I thought to myself: Oh my god, I’m such a queue rebel! Is this even legal? This is going to blow her MIND!

As it happened, she just said thanks and walked in ahead of me with her Dairylea Lunchables. But I can’t control that. You are what you repeatedly do: I became in that moment a little more of a kindly person. And, like the bleeding heart liberal that I am, I think that is a goal worth pursuing.

It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

It’s not every day that the premise for a Hollywood film gets turned into a psychology experiment designed to make you feel more satisfied with your life.

But that’s what has happened to Frank Capra’s perennial schmaltz-fest It’s A Wonderful Life. Continue reading It’s a wonderful life – isn’t it?

Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

I read a lot of books. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my sister, but a lot. I also make a lot of spreadsheets. Not a ridiculous quantity, like my dad, but a lot. Putting those two aspects of my nature together, I can tell you things like:

  • I read an average of 32.7 books a year.
  • About a quarter of those will be fiction.
  • I also give up on an average of 6.9 books every year.
  • In the last 5 years, I have given 45 books a rating of 5 out of 5. That’s 27% of all the books I’ve read.
  • Only 1 book in 202 has scored 1 out of 5. Most of the books in this category I don’t finish, and therefore don’t score. This one I finished, and it was irritatingly bad. It was by Jeffrey Archer.

Every now and again I read a book that defies my rating scheme. If I was a different sort of person, a more devil-may-care sort of person, then I’d break my 5-point rating for books like this.

This week I read such a book, after finding out that Alastair Humphreys reads it every year: Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. Continue reading Viktor Frankl and Man’s Search for Meaning

What Makes a Person Do a Thing?

This question has fascinated me for a long time. Why does anyone do a Thing, when doing no-thing is so much easier, more secure, and more comfortable?

  • What makes a middle-aged computer programmer with a young family do a complete career swerve and retrain as a chiropractor?
  • What makes a retired marketing manager, who had until his sixties showed little to no aptitude or interest for music, suddenly join a community choir?
  • What makes a woman in her thirties quit a lucrative career as a management consultant in the city to row single-handed across the Pacific Ocean, and become a United Nations Climate Hero for her environmental work?

(These are all people I know, by the way, all great role-models.)

Inertia, doing nothing, is the favoured course of (in)action for a human being. Inertia is defined as:

The tendency of a body to maintain its state of rest or uniform motion unless acted upon by an external force.

Do you recognise this tendency to inertia in yourself? I certainly do.

  • Staying in a dreadful job or a miserable relationship.
  • Not breaking the silence and telling someone exactly how you feel about them.
  • Pushing to the back of your mind that day-dream of cycling around the world / writing a novel / falling in love.

(All things I have done…)

If the natural disposition of a person is to keep going as they are, then what makes someone divert course, and do a Thing?

The answer to this question is crucial for anybody interested in pushing their own boundaries of existence – and encouraging others to do the same.

I should say right up front that I don’t have the answer. But I do have a few answers, which I’ve noticed over the past few years of trying to do Things.

Using myself as Subject Zero, in this blog post I’ll examine three different Things I did, and try to dig down to that critical Why?

Why did I break university rules and go abroad to study Arabic in Egypt and Tunisia?

In the summer of 2007, I was miserable. I was studying for a part-time Masters in Middle Eastern Studies at SOAS in London.

I scraped through my first year, passing gruelling courses in history and music despite my complete prior ignorance of those subjects.

For my second year I just had to learn Arabic and write a dissertation. But I dreaded going back to London, where the rain fell in spadefuls and the teaching was dry as desert sand.

I have never felt so uninspired, so lifeless. Emerging into adulthood had been a shock and I could scarcely believe what I found there. Surely there was more to it than this?

Continuing along this path might not have killed me, but I’d have certainly failed my Arabic exams, and even today I’m scared of imagining the hollow person I might have become.

Inertia was not an option. In this case, doing a Thing came from hitting a road block. I felt that I could not go forward any longer, so I changed direction.

Realising that I could learn much better Arabic in an Arabic-speaking country, I spoke to my course convenor and proposed the idea that I go abroad to study.

I was shocked when, from behind his paper-strewn desk, he told me that university rules stipulated I must attend a certain percentage of classes (I think it was something like 70%).

This rule, he explained, was protection against legal action. Apparently SOAS receives a lot of wealthy young Arab men, who are sent to study in London, but spend all their time and money on sex and drugs. Then the families sue when the university fails their sons.

So I wrote SOAS a letter promising that I wouldn’t sue them, and left for Cairo.

Why did I leave everything behind and spend 2 months cycling 4,110 miles around Britain?

Hitting a brick wall in your path is one motivator, certainly, but it seems to be more of a stimulus to the essential process of imagination.

You need to have the idea of doing a Thing before you can do the Thing. This seems obvious, but I think is often overlooked. Without engaging the imagination, when you hit a roadblock you risk descending into frustration.

I have written before about how important are people who launch themselves on crazy, stupid and arduous adventures. Without these people, how will we hear the stories that fire our own imagination?

For me, this act of imagination manifests itself as an idea that I can’t shake off. I dream up a million and one ideas every year, but only a few lodge themselves in my head like spines I can’t pluck out without action.

Cycling around Britain was one such spine.

The idea bubbled up from a soup of dissatisfaction with what I’d seen of the world. I knew Cairo better than I knew anywhere in Britain beyond my bubbles of London and South Oxfordshire. I wanted to fix that.

An inciting dissatisfaction is not quite enough to stir me into action, however. I need to know that my idea is possible, that I can turn imagination into reality.

Somewhere on the BBC, I ran across an article about a kid who’d walked around the coast of Britain with his dog. So I stole his idea, thinking that if he could do it, then I could too.

The only problem was that he’d taken 9 months over the journey and I didn’t want to commit to something so vast.

So I decided to cycle (despite not having a touring bike or having cycled further than 10 miles in the past 2 years).

This was the idea that I couldn’t get out of my head.

But still the question remains: Why did I end up acting on that idea, rather than suppressing it like so many others?

There are a few influences that I could draw on here, including some pretty life-shattering experiences, like the death of my nan and the messy break-up of a relationship.

But these are distractions from the true first cause, only coming after I had committed to the journey.

No: the moment when this imagination started to become reality was forgettably insignificant.

I told someone.

That was it. I just mentioned my idea of cycling around the country in passing, in casual conversation with my sister and my (then) girlfriend.

While an idea stays locked inside your head, it is neutralised, safe. It’s only when you let it out into the world, first as a vocalised intention, that it takes on a power of its own and action becomes inevitable.

That first step is always the smallest, but takes the greatest courage.

It’s only after you’ve vocalised your idea that other factors conspire to push you out of the door.

For me, those other factors were not just losing my nan and my relationship, but also a question: Do I really want to be the person who walked away from such adventure?

Telling my sister and girlfriend was the tiny first step on a journey of more than four thousand miles.

That epic bike ride changed my life in many ways, but it was missing something. To this day, I don’t feel like I got the most out of that particular Thing.

Why did 80 cyclists ride 70 miles to give their bikes away to migrants and refugees?

Last Spring, a friend I didn’t quite have yet had an idea: to cycle from London to Calais and donate her bicycle to the destitute migrants living there.

I thought this was a great idea. We put a call out on Facebook and very soon people from all over the UK were messaging us, joining the ride.

At Barnehurst train station, the set off point for the ride, shivers ran up my spine as more and more people arrived, saddle bags full, chattering excitedly, bikes oiled and ready to ride.

Why did all these people come together on the ride? There are two answers to this questions, a Big Reason and a little reason.

  • The Big Reason we were all doing this was to ride in solidarity with those migrants who had travelled thousands of miles to escape certain death in Syria and Sudan, in the hope of a better life in the UK.
  • The little reason, though, was friendship. Everywhere you looked on the ride were little clusters of pals, three or four here, five or six there. Anybody who came alone was soon embraced. By the time we arrived in France, we were brothers and sisters.

The Big Reason could be called our higher purpose, the lofty ambition that bonded us all, but it was the little reason that actually held the ride together.

It was the little reason that gave us belief in our higher purpose, and it was the little reason that gave us the belief in ourselves to persevere through the hard ride.

Over the next 24 hours, we went through the full 70 miles of hills and woods, rain and thunder.

Strangers worked together to navigate the back roads of Kent, leg muscle massages were passed around, food shared, bikes repaired.

We became a community and that community sustained our belief that we could succeed in our endeavour. This was exactly the same for the Thighs of Steel ride from London to Athens in 2018.

A higher purpose is needed to make your Thing about more than just you, but it’s surely impossible to sustain belief in any higher purpose without support from your friends and your community.

  • I would not have returned to Calais again and again if I wasn’t certain that I would find friends there (even if it’s just ones I haven’t yet met).
  • I would not still be living in London if it weren’t for my friends.
  • I have forgotten almost as much as I learnt from my secondary school education, but I will always remember the friends I made there, and the lessons they taught me.

If you doubt the centrality of friendships to doing Things, then perhaps the following true story will help.

In 1964, at the height of the civil rights movement, volunteers from across the Untied States travelled down to the deep south to help register black voters.

This was dangerous work, even for privileged whites. On the 21 of June, three young volunteers were killed, one black and two white.

Understandably, this discouraged some from making the journey from their safe homes to take up this deadly cause.

Fascinatingly, however, social scientists have been able to discover what kinds of people followed through on their initial enthusiasm: friends.

Those volunteers who had equally committed friends or who were part of a committed community (a political organisation or church group for example) were much less likely to drop out of the mission.

Friends hold us to account and inspire us to be the people we would like to be. Friends help us believe in ourselves and in the value of our Thing.

If you’re unsure that you can commit and follow through on doing your Thing, invite a friend and do it together.

Side note on relationships versus friendship

Relationships can be inspirational in the same way that friendships are, particularly in the early stages, when the fires burn strongly. But friendships are more powerful.

Perhaps surprisingly, friends are more likely to influence our behaviour than our partners or families.

Over time, we tend to take even the most passionate partners for granted. We start to believe that they will never leave us, and we can comfortably let our tendency to inertia show.

But because our friends can drop us any time, we tend to make a bigger effort to live up to our best selves.

What makes a person do a Thing? Four stages.

  1. You feel some dissatisfaction in your life, some hole that stimulates the imagination.
  2. You let your imagination play over the possibilities, gradually solidifying the idea that you can succeed. Here is where other people’s stories help: “If he can do it, so can I.”
  3. Tell a friend. Don’t boast, but feel the courage to take the first tiny step towards pulling the idea out of your head and into reality.
  4. Connect your idea and action with a higher purpose, supported by the belief you find in friendship and community. This will help you persevere through difficulties, and get the most out of your Thing.

EXTRA: One bizarre reason why people do NOT do their Thing

It sounds counter-intuitive, but one of the biggest reasons why people don’t do a Thing is, not because they lack the dissatisfaction or the imagination, and not because they fear failure, but because they fear success.

It seems extraordinary, but we do get scared of our power, we do fear our greatness; we sometimes feel like we don’t deserve such responsibility, or we feel like imposters when we do presume to act.

There are a couple of explanations for this strange modesty that I can think of:

  • Success means putting your heard above the parapet, putting yourself up to be shot at, perhaps more than failure might draw mockery.
  • If we believe that we are powerful, then what excuse do we have for not acting? Remember that inertia is the default setting for human beings. But if we are powerful, then we must act; we have a moral duty to use our power for good, and that takes us well out of our comfort zone.

So, in addition to the four stages outlined above, there must also be a courage to act up to your potential greatness.

This can actually manifest itself, less as courage, but more as an entitlement to greatness and power.

Some people are raised with this sense of entitlement: the schools of Eton and the colleges of Oxford and Cambridge seem to raise students who have no trouble believing themselves powerful enough to act on a global stage.

Other young people draw such belief from their religion, or from powerful role models and mentors who lead them through their early successes, expanding their scope of the possible.

For the rest of us, we must ‘feel the fear and do it anyway’. Slowly, that feeling of being an imposter will dissolve, as our comfort zones expand into new territory, and we realise the extent of our power and feel the humility of our greatness.

Good luck!

No Stuff

My name is David Charles and I own 975 things. That figure would be comfortably over 1000, but those other bits and pieces are scattered around other people’s houses so I’m going to ignore them for the moment.

That figure does however include 12 colouring pencils, 11 batteries (mostly AAA), 10 incense cones, 9 screwdrivers, 8 magnets, 7 plants, 6 thirty inch bungee ropes, 5 souvenir coins, 4 feathers, 3 juggling balls, 2 old bits of wood and a partridge in a pear tree*.

(*Probably.)

Wait a second, wait a second. You counted all your stuff?

Oh yeah. I forget that’s a weird thing to do. I come from a family that has a proud history of counting stuff and putting the data into spreadsheets.

In my opinion, our magnum opus is my dad’s spreadsheet of everything he might want to take on holiday. Not so special, you might think, until I tell you that everything is meticulously weighed. The spreadsheet includes memorable data lines like “Credit cards: 1g”.

This means that he can, not only ensure he falls within stringent baggage weight limits, but also politely inform airport staff of any inaccuracies in their equipment when weighing his bags at check in.

Minimalist Culture

The idea for No Stuff comes not from my dad, but from the minimalist sub-culture. I don’t just mean traditional ascetics or hermit monks, but modern minimalists too, people who prioritise quality over quantity.

This minimalist culture is thriving online, where people boast at each other of how few things they have. It makes a nice counterpoint to the usual materialist urge to hunt and gather.

James Wallman’s book Stuffocation gives an excellent introduction to this new form of minimalism and suggests that we can all benefit because “memories live longer than things”. His book is a manifesto for experientialism, the doing of things, over materialism, the acquisition of things.

No Stuff: How?

Box Trial

One of the most memorable techniques for stuff reduction that I read about in Stuffocation is the box trial. According to this method, you pack all of your stuff into boxes. Over the course of the next thirty days, you can gradually repatriate your stuff into your life – but only if and when you actually need to use it. At the end of the month, everything left in the boxes gets chucked.

In lieu of boxes, I’ve done a countback on my spreadsheet instead. Of those 975 things, I estimate that I’ve actually used only 289 in the last month. By the box trial rules, I should chuck the remaining 686 unused baubles.

This is extreme. There are plenty of things that I haven’t used in the last month that I would miss heartily, like my beloved bivvy bag.

It does, however, make me ponder why I haven’t used my bivvy in the last thirty days. I have no answer to this ponder, which leads me ineluctably to the conclusion that I really should be using my bivvy bag on a monthly basis, minimum. Use it or lose it. Not a bad way to live.

The 100 Thing Challenge

But the box trial isn’t even nearly as extreme as the 100 Thing Challenge. The name gives it away really: live with 100 things or less.

Rules vary, but usually don’t include shared items like kitchenware, nor furniture or books. My count of 975, I should say, does not include kitchenware (none of which is mine), but does include 21 items of furniture and 102 books. Some people also count similar items as one, like “underwear” or “tools”, but I think that’s cheating (except for socks, which I count in pairs).

Personally, I love the idea of the challenge. I fantasise regularly about being able to fit all of my worldly possessions into a single backpack. But I’m also quite clear-sighted about the fact that this will likely never happen.

No Stuff Holidays

One alternative to grown up No Stuff is to play around, like when you’re on holiday.

Clara Benson writes about what I assume her editors at Salon forced her to call “the craziest OKCupid date ever”, which is a scandalously crass way of describing what was actually a fascinating experiment in No Stuff.

She and her date, Jeff, travelled through Europe for twenty-one days with no luggage, pretty much just a couple of credit cards, their passports and the clothes on their backs. Clara sums up the secret yearning we all have to throw caution and weight to the winds:

What would it be like to say no to heavy backpacks full of coordinating outfits, Lonely Planet travel guides, and cheap souvenirs?

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say that Clara and Jeff had an absolute blast and No Holiday Stuff, far from being restrictive, was like all good positive constraints and the doorway to adventure.

The Rule of Thirds

Back in the real world, I will content myself with slimming down by one third. I will, by the end of this blog post, have got rid of 325 things, leaving me with “only” 650.

This is still, obviously, a massive numbers of things: more than twice as many as I need according to the box trial rules and nearly triple according to the 100 Thing Challenge. But it does at least mean I can lose at least two of my three bow ties. Why do even I own these things? I can’t remember the last time I wore a suit, let alone a Ferrari-red bow tie.

Why No Stuff?

Enough fun and games, here are five rock solid reasons for going on a No Stuff binge.

  1. Your environment dictates your state of mind. Less clutter in your life means less clutter in your mind.
  2. Possessing a thing causes mild anxiety about that thing. If I don’t own a car, I can’t worry about it being left out on the street and getting bumped and scratched.
  3. Why do I have a thing if I don’t use it? Why do I have 25 pencils, when I don’t use them? Could someone else be making better use of them? Yes. So give them away.
  4. Having less stuff that I don’t want means I spend more time with the stuff I actually do. In some way, you become the objects with which you surround yourself. It sounds stupid, but I would never have learnt to play the guitar if I had never gone and got myself a guitar.
  5. Likewise, the stuff you don’t use is still stuff in your possession, still stuff that is liable to become a distraction, an interruption or at the very least an irritant when you’re scrabbling around in your bottom desk drawer looking for your phone charger.

Out, out, damned wax!

So I have committed to throwing away, giving away, recycling and charitying 325 things. Some of these are easy to lose, like the empty tub of hair wax that I was mysteriously keeping for posterity. Some of these will be very hard to part with, souvenirs of far-flung adventures or gifts from long lost loved ones.

Almost four years ago, me and my friend Patrick wrote a superb Christmas song that involved various parts of the world and beer. For the video he skilfully created a “Cool Saharan Beer” out of a can of Carling and a home-printed label. Since 2011, that can has sat on top of my medicine cabinet. Now it is gone.

I know I won’t miss it, in the long run, but I cherish the memories it is attached to in my brain. I can only beg forgiveness and hope that this blog post, in some small way, is a fitting memorial.

Cool Saharan beer
Cool Saharan Beer (Limited Seasonal Edition)

No Clothes

When I’m on my own. When I come in from work. When I’m hot. When I sleep. When I wake up and stumble to the bathroom. I take every opportunity to be as naked as possible. I’m writing this, dear reader, dressed only in a towel.

But I’ve never gone naked in public before. I’ve never explored or experienced what it would be like to live without clothes.

Until yesterday, that is.

Studland Naturist Beach

Yesterday, me and a couple of friends caught a bus to Studland (oh, the jokes), where there is a mile long stretch of sand reserved for naturists. Climbing over the scrub to the shore, we see flashes of pink flesh poking around the dunes.

With a squeal for the bracing wind, we threw off our clothes and ran to the sea. The water sloshed around bits it wouldn’t normally. I could dive and jump the waves without anything holding me down. It felt good, but surprisingly not unusual.

Walking back bare-buttocked up the beach, we passed a gaggle of fully-clothed dog walkers. They were the weird ones, togged up in garish garb, training shoes, bow tied laces, double socks tucked into corduroy trousers covering up knickers, belt pulling everything in tight, a vest over a bra under a blouse, fleece zipped up inside a wax jacket, a scarf against the wind, topped off with a cap.

It all looked so complicated.

A Society of Clothes

We take clothes for granted in this society. Well, some of us do. The rest obey this most basic of social norms on sufferance.

One of my friends was on her period. “I feel much better naked than wearing clothes,” she told me. “If I was wearing knickers I’d be worried about staining them. It’s so much nicer.”

Earlier in the day we’d been non-nudist swimming on Bournemouth beach. It’d been a right faff, trying to preserve our modesty in full sight of an Italian restaurant, hopping around holding onto towels while trying to pull up pants. My friend ended up with a massive wedgy. Ridiculous.

Clothes are also a tool that we can use to sexually tantalise or enhance ones natural charms. There is an interesting difference, for example, between being skimpily dressed and being stark naked. A skimpily dressed woman, in a mini-skirt and a push-up bra, is called a slut; a stark naked woman is a bohemian or a naturist.

Likewise (although facing significantly less opprobrium and social disapproval), a man oiled up in a posing pouch is a poser; a naked man, bits flopping about, is simply not.

When we strip, we are more likely to become innocent and defenceless. The strip-tease is arousing right up until the final moment of complete nakedness. Then the show is over.

Clothes of Shame

When Adam and Eve realised their state of nature, they felt shame and covered themselves up. But what if it worked the other way around? What if they covered themselves up and only then felt shame about their state of nature?

This actually seems to be the most likely explanation. Shame, according to Brené Brown, is a learned condition. Only when people point and laugh at our wee-willy-winky do we go red and cover up with a towel. I’ve got a 1-year-old niece and she is utterly shameless, prancing around without a care in the world.

The movement against body shame is usually directed at unrealistic fashion shoots, where models are air-brushed into impossibly pneumatic poses, which we’re supposed to somehow emulate.

Slim but not thin; curvy but not fat; six-pack and shoulders but no back hair: these computer assisted models are risible and should be air-brushed from history. But surely the ultimate ambition for the body positive movement is for all of us to feel comfortable naked. That’s comfortable not just in private, but also around each other.

Naturists, people who make a lifestyle of their bare bodies, I’ve realised, are not the mad ones.

Freedom Fighting Naturists

The most famous naturist I know (and the man who inspired me to do this positive constraint) is Stephen Gough, otherwise known as the naked rambler. Stephen successfully naked rambled from Land’s End to John O’Groats twice, in 2003-4 and 2005-6, but has spent most of the years since in and out of prison.

That the police and the Crown Prosecution Service feel so strongly about a man’s buttocks peaching around the Lake District is a sign to me that our civil law is still suffering a most Victorian malaise.

It’s clear that nudity isn’t for everyone. As I can attest from our Autumnal escapade on Studland, Britain is pretty chilly in the nuddy, and even Stephen Gough misses the convenience of pockets. But why the devil shouldn’t we be allowed to go on the occasional ramble exactly as god intended?

The End of Public Decency

Of course, the day public decency laws are repealed will doubtless see some outrageous displays of indecency, but that’s what you get for keeping us bottled up for so long. After a while, outrage will simmer down to normality. After a while, doesn’t your partner’s body lose its capacity to shock and surprise?

By the way, if you’re worried about cleanliness, then you need to stop and think for a second. You just shook that besuited man’s hand: does he sprinkle when he tinkles? And who’s just turned that door handle? An unsavoury butcher, a careless dog handler, an inattentive urologist? You have no idea, but somehow you survive.

There are some encouraging signs that we might be heading towards a more naked world, a world that the gymnosophists believe will be happier. To make this happen, all we need is you.

Your Turn: Be Naked

Head down to Studland, or your local naturist beach (map here). Naturists have enjoyed Studland beach for decades and local group Studland Nudists campaign for their rights and fight “nudist harrassment”. The National Trust, current custodians of the beach, welcome the bare-bodied and also serve ice cream.

The World Naked Bike Ride is an annual event that takes place in 70 cities in 20 countries, including 18 in the UK. The main focus of the ride is to challenge the supremacy of the metal apparel that many humans wear to travel on the roads (cars). But traditional clothing is also, as the organisers say, optional, making this an excellent opportunity to be publically naked.

If you’re not quite ready for a public display of nudity, then try your local sauna (not the red light ones). Let it all hang out and slowly sweat away any vestiges of shame.

As we dressed to go home, we watched a Muslim couple cavorting on the beach. Mr was taking photos of Mrs’ scandalous nudity. She was wearing clothes, of course, but her hair was uncovered, hijab thrown to the winds. They wrote their names in the sand to celebrate their love.

Freedom from the tyranny of garments comes in many guises.

No Facebook

I joined Facebook on April 27, 2007. I left, over six years later, on September 22, 2013. Contrary to my friends’ expectations, I have survived the last two years almost unscathed. This is the story of my against-all-odds survival.

Why No Facebook?

I’m going to go with just three reasons why I quit Facebook. Only three, but they’re big ‘uns.

  1. Facebook is proven to make you miserable.
  2. Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.
  3. Why do any of us use Facebook? I know it’s a bit Confucian to answer a question with a question, but still. Does anyone actually ask themselves why they’re on Facebook? When I eventually did, I had no good answer.

So let’s go through these in order.

Facebook makes you miserable

Have you heard of FOMO? It’s a highly contagious virus, that spreads rapidly through online social media. FOMO stands for Fear Of Missing Out. I’m sure you know FOMO: it’s that feeling of mild dread that you could be having a much better time elsewhere.

  • When you’re at a standard house party and see on Facebook that there’s another happening across town and it’s fancy dress: FOMO.
  • When you’re at the BFI watching a François Truffaut double bill and see on Instagram that friends are having cocktails without you: FOMO.
  • When you take a trip to Paris with your mum and everyone’s tweeting about Jeremy Corbyn at a demo for refugees back in London: FOMO.

None of these experiences of FOMO would be possible without Facebook and other social media, amplified by the mobile power of the smartphone.

What’s the problem, you may well ask. The multitudinous benefits of social connectivity surely outweigh that mild feeling of FOMO dread, don’t they?

Not sure how to break this to you, but no.

In a 2013 study published in Computers in Human Behaviour, researchers confirmed that FOMO was strongly linked to higher levels of social media engagement. The study also confirmed the obvious: that FOMO was associated with distracted driving and use of social media during lectures. Then the bombshell: FOMO was associated with “lower need satisfaction, mood and life satisfaction”.

FOMO, that modern virus of social media, makes you less motivated, more depressed and less content with your life.

 

Facebook brazenly steals everything you hold dear in life and uses it to sell shit to your friends. Your friends.

This is the one I guess everyone already knows about. You know that Facebook is a business and has a business model. You know, I’m sure, that this business model is predicated on your personal data and selling that personal data to companies who want to sell shit to people, and that the most likely victims are your friends.

This business model is pretty much common knowledge; it’s part of the contract that we enter into with Facebook when we sign up. We agree to give away our names, emails, date of birth, family and friends, photographs, likes and soon dislikes, the events we attend and the groups we join – in short, everything we hold dear. In exchange, we don’t have to pay actual money to actual Facebook for access to their social network.

The problem is that not many people have thought through the full consequences of this business model. I certainly hadn’t until I heard Shoshana Zuboff, of Harvard Business School, speak at the Elevate Festival.

Shoshana directs her analysis at Google, but the same applies to Facebook. She sees a new form of capitalism emerging, which she calls “surveillance capitalism”. This new form of economics is distinguished from the old forms in two ways:

  1. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as employees. Facebook has nearly 1.5 billion users (as of August 2015), but employs less than 11,000 people (as of June 2015). That’s one employee for every 136,000 users.
  2. Surveillance capitalism does not need the people as customers. Facebook makes its money from selling data to other businesses: advertising makes up around 90% of its annual revenue, which was $12.4 billion in 2014.

If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need the people as either employees or customers, then what do these companies need us for? As we all know: product.

But the problem goes deeper. If surveillance capitalism doesn’t need us as either employees or customers, then the people have no control over what these companies do. We can’t withdraw our labour or withdraw our custom. As Facebook pursues its ambition of becoming more and more tightly integrated with the running of our societies, this has serious consequences for democracy.

The only thing we can do is withdraw our product: quit Facebook. (Actually, we can do something else: we can join Europe vs Facebook and sue the parasites, but it’s probably easier to quit.)

 

Why do any of us use Facebook?

However, I’m going to turn a blind eye to that doomsday scenario, partially because it makes me feel sick to think we’re sleepwalking into a future where Mark Zuckerberg can, on a whim, command an army of billions, and partially because it’s not why I quit Facebook.

Facebook is distracting. We pay a high price for social media. We don’t just hand over our personal data, we hand over a large dollop of our daily attention and focus. I used to scroll around Facebook, liking all the things my friends had done and getting little bursts of dopamine in return whenever anyone liked something I’d posted. Then I’d realise that a hour had passed and I still hadn’t written anything or done anything meaningful.

That attention and focus is limited. Every minute we spend attending to something on Facebook is a minute we can’t use to focus on our work, our garden or a good meal.

First of all, I used a technique I called Facebook Zen to clear my News Feed. For a few months, it was bliss: total silence. Then I started to wonder why I was on Facebook at all. Couldn’t I get everything I needed from the world? So I quit.

FB Profile photos
No more of this crap.

The most shocking thing was that I didn’t miss Facebook for a moment. I had been expecting some cold turkey horrific withdrawal symptoms. But all I felt was a little part of my brain that I hadn’t realised had been constantly thinking about Facebook was no longer thinking about Facebook. I had freed up roughly 1% of my brain’s bandwidth to work on a knotty problem, dream up a new book idea or notice the passing smell of jasmine.

I was liberated.

Two Years Later…

I still don’t miss Facebook.

I have, however, noticed that Facebook is increasingly becoming the main driver of content on the web. Facebook have the advantage over Google in that people will always prefer a friend’s recommendation over an anonymous search result. While at the moment Google is slightly better at precise searches for information, Facebook will triumph in the long term because of its social element.

Furthermore, as the whole world, every person and every business becomes embedded in their social graph, the internet could effectively cease to exist outside the four walls of Facebook. This is a bit frightening, isn’t it?

Thanks for reading. Now… Follow me on Twitter! That’s a joke (it’s not). Twitter is, in some ways, the social media of positive constraints: only 140 characters. I’d love to hear your stories of Facebook disconnection.

No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transportation

This might sound like a small thing, but it’s really not. Wait a minute – my mistake – yes, it is a small thing. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a satisfying and worthwhile positive constraint.

My case study concerns the London Overground network, but this little behavioural change is applicable to any mode of busy public transportation where you have to press a button to operate the doors.

The Overground Buttons

If you use an Overground train in London, you will observe a strange confluence of panic around the door when the train arrives at a station. This is because, unlike on the London Underground, the Overground train doors don’t open automatically at every station; you have to press a button.

As a consequence, when my bit of the network started running in 2010, I needed to learn quickly, or risk being left stranded on the platform or trapped on a runaway train.

You still sometimes see bemused and bewildered travellers, who have been patiently waiting for the doors to open, suddenly start impotently flapping and flagging as their train sallies on without them.

Or you might spot the occassional traveller who’s managed to get onto the train thanks to the button-pushing skills of another, but has not learnt the technique themselves and thus can never disembark, standing at the doors in horror as stations come and go, from here to West Croydon.

On the Button Competition

There are three buttons to operate the doors: two on the inside and one on the outside. I can guarantee you that, ninety-nine percent of the time during peak hours, all three buttons will be pressed, almost simultaneously, by three different commuters. To leave one of the buttons unpressed is mildly scandalous behaviour.

I used to be one of the button-pushers, of course. I used to feel total disdain for the other chumps who tried to press my door’s buttons. Idiots! I’m the fastest draw in the East.

The train slows, I take up my position at the door, shoulder to shoulder with my hapless adversary. The brakes jolt, a warning beep, a light goes on and our fingers jab down on the buttons. Triumph!

A moment’s hesitation, though, and my finger hits a button whose door has already started to open. The humiliation of defeat is total. I can only avenge myself by beating him to the stairs.

What I want to know is why we do this. It only takes one person to open the door. It shows a distinct lack of awareness, surely, to fail to see that there are three other people who’ve had their fingers poised over the buttons ever since we left Wapping.

Do these people (myself included) think the others are such inept button-pushers that they might cause a delay of up to twenty milliseconds in the time taken to step down from the train and join the crush for the escalators?

Or perhaps they suspect that the other three buttons are mysteriously out of order and only theirs will have the magical Open Sesame effect?

Whatever the reason, this button-psychology is a remarkable example of how individual members of a crowd can be relied upon to act as if they were completely alone. And that kind of thoughtlessness is exactly what we can attack with a positive constraint.

Feel Like Transport Royalty

Now almost everyone knows the idiosyncratic ways of the Overground. Now there are so many newbies eager to prove themselves that it’s no longer a matter of life-and-commuter-death to be a button-pusher.

So, while the four self-elected button-pushers take up their posts, I prefer to wait for the chosen one to open the doors for me. I do still feel an urge to press the button myself, but delight in not obeying that urge.

Instead of behaving like I’m the only person on the train, or the only person who can use his digits to operate machinery, I am conscious of my fellow travellers and know they’ve got me covered.

It’s like someone politely holding the door for you: it feels nice, like I’m a bit special. It doesn’t matter that these people don’t realise they’re doing me a favour, but maybe I should start saying thank you.

Advantages of No Pressing the Open Door Button on Public Transport:

  • You can relax, free of the anxiety to press the button first. Travelling on public transport is stressful at the best of times, why contribute a mote more?
  • You’re giving others the childish pleasure of operating a machine. I call this the Science Museum Effect. Kids love pressing buttons.
  • Not touching the buttons means you have slightly less exposure to the myriad bacterial and viral contaminations that thrive on public transportation.
  • You feel vaguely royal, travelling with your own personal doorman, your majesty.
  • You can position yourself directly in front of the double doors, with your doormen flanking you. Because the doors open from the middle outwards, you will be first off the train, and straight onto the red carpet, presumably.

Disadvantages:

  • If you are alone, you should ignore this positive constraint and just press the button. I don’t want to be responsible for you missing your stop.

No Hot Showers

Ah, ah – ooh, ooh – eee!

No, these are not the lyrics to the latest chart-topping teenybopper execration. They are instead the chimp-like sounds of me showering, at least since I started my most recent experiment in positive constraints: No Hot Showers.

A positive constraint is a restriction on your behaviour that you’ve freely chosen. They’re really common in art and music (a picture frame or time signature is a positive constraint), any sports and games (the ban on using your hands in football is a positive constraint) and religion (the Sabbath, Lent or Ramadan are all dedicated to exercising positive constraint).

What I’m trying to do is bring the art of positive constraints into our everyday lifestyles, through experiments in everything from No Aeroplanes and No English, to No Supermarkets and No Walking.

Too often we flounder around in the rut of our unexamined habits, without asking why we travel by plane or shop at supermarkets. Positive constraints is the method through which we can find, almost always, a better way of doing things.

For the next three months, I’ll be publishing regular experiments in positive constraints right here. Among many others, I’ll be exploring life without swearing, handshakes, meat – and pants.

I’m also writing a book that goes into much more detail on a wide range of positive constraints, examining the psychology of experiential and behavioural change. If you want to be first to hear news of the book, then please sign up to my mailing list.

Designing the No Hot Showers Experiment

Designing a new experiment in positive constraints is easy. You just think of something that you do, and then don’t.

Every morning, for example, I have a nice hot shower. Incidentally, I’ve never understood why humans wake up in the morning feeling unclean – my hair looks like I’ve been sleeping under a hedge and somehow my skin feels simultaneously dry and oily – but there it is. The morning is unthinkable until I’ve had my ablutions: a five minute hot shower.

So that’s what I do. Applying the methodology of positive constraints, then, I should now explore what I don’t. I could have gone the whole hog and experimented with No Showers At All, but I think my housemates would have reported me to Environmental Health.

Instead, last week, I started taking No Hot Showers.

Why No Hot Showers?

When you’re experimenting, it’s important not to assume too much about your results. Before I started No Hot Showers, though, I knew two things. No Hot Showers would:

  1. Wake me up. Like a punch to the face.
  2. Save on heating bills.

I’m definitely right about #1, but #2 will probably be too small to measure, particularly as I live with 7 other people, all of whom take hot showers, some luxuriantly so.

Once I’d started the experiment, though, I learnt a whole lot more about the benefits of No Hot Showers, from the mildly useful to the genuinely life-enhancing.

  1. Because it’s so freaking cold, you’ll tend not to spend so long in the shower, saving water and, in some small way, the entire planetary biosphere. Maybe.
  2. It’ll stimulate and improve blood circulation and your cardiovascular system. Your heart will explode, in other words, but what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.
  3. Washing your hair in cold water will make it all glossy and shiny. Hot water dries and frazzles.
  4. Cold water is kinder to your skin, too. I have occasional eczema and I’ve noticed an improvement since switching to cold water.
  5. Cold water doesn’t create steam, so you’ll still be able to see yourself shivering in the bathroom mirror afterwards.
  6. This is more anecdotal, but cold water seems to make my eyes a more intense blue. I speculate that this is down to pupil constriction after the adrenalin rush of the cold.
  7. Cold showers will increase testosterone production in men, leading to increased energy and strength, as well as sex-drive.
  8. Hot water is deadly to men’s sperm; for men, a hot bath is a contraceptive. Cold water will help keep your sperm plentiful and healthy.
  9. James Bond takes cold showers. You can be like him, but less of a misogynistic sadist.
  10. You don’t have to worry about fiddling with the taps to get the water temperature just right.
  11. It doesn’t matter if your early-rising housemates have used up all the hot water. Similarly, you can feel good about not using it up for them.
  12. Cold water immersion becomes a habit, something that you get used to. By practising for ten minutes every day, my body has no problem jumping into the chilly British sea water. I can play in the waves without shivering or wishing I was anywhere else. And that’s FUN.
  13. Cold water stimulates your immune system, particularly if you take a cold shower after exercise. That transition from hot to cold does wonders.
  14. Cold showers are an effective treatment for depression.
  15. Really cold showers that make you shiver can help you lose fat and build lean muscle.
  16. Cold showers are miserable! Of course they are. Who would be foolish enough to choose a cold shower when hot is on offer? Well, the answer to that question is the same people who choose the difficult path in life, the people who embrace challenges and, through those difficulties and challenges, accomplish great things. There is no scientific evidence for this, but cold showers do make me feel more resilient and determined to overcome life’s vicissitudes.
  17. Cold showers are great! Yes they are. I enjoy the adrenalin rush of icy water on my face. Hot showers are comforting, good for when you want to fall asleep on the sofa, but cold showers are like a charge of lightning down your spine. I feel electrified.

Are there any down sides to No Hot Showers? As far as I can tell, the only down side is the absence of long hot showers.

Quite apart from the fact that hot showers are enjoyable, the steam opens up your pores and relaxes your muscles. Dilly-dallying in the shower can also be a moment of meditation and the unfocussed attention that leads to good ideas.

However, a shower is not the only way of accessing these states – and I never said hot baths were off the agenda!

How to Take a Cold Shower

  1. Turn on the cold tap. Full.
  2. Don’t turn on any other taps.

You’ll also need to take off all your clothes (wet suits not allowed) and position yourself under the shower head. If you’ve got the water temperature right (see #1 and #2 above), then there’s no comfortable way of doing this.

You could start by dousing your long-suffering feet and legs, before gingerly moving the shower head the rest of your body. At some point, though, you’re going to have to duck your head under and your head is not going to like this. Personally, I love the gasping shock of walking straight into the cold stream, but do it your way.

How long you stay in depends on what you want to get out of your morning shower. If you just want to wash and wake up, then a couple of minutes is ample. If you want all the possible health benefits listed above, then you’ll need a minimum of 5 minutes, 10 to be on the safe side.

I would add: do not attempt to judge this time yourself. In a cold shower, 5 seconds feels like 5 years. I take a countdown timer into the bathroom with me and don’t leave until the beeps go off.

If you want extreme cold exposure, then you’ll need more like half an hour, but do more research before diving into Andy Murray’s ice bath.

Medical Time Out: Cold water can be a shock to the system. A cold shower probably won’t kill you, but the shock of jumping into a glacial lake might do. Don’t be an idiot. Consult your physician if you have any concerns. If you’re worried about hypothermia, then pinch your thumb and little finger tips together. If you can’t do this, then your extremities have gone numb. Get out now before you die.

But, wait – there’s more!

One of the great things about positive constraints is that there’s always more. The “positive” in positive constraints refers to your agency in your decision to restrict your behaviour.

I’m not being forced to take a cold shower and I’m not merely submitting to the necessary evil of cold showers for such and such a health reason; I’m actively choosing cold showers for their own sake.

And this feeling of having control over your life is well-correlated with happiness. By choosing and living a positive constraint, I am training for happiness.

Why are polyglots so damn nice?

The cognitive benefits of learning a foreign language are well studied and publicised. Learning a foreign language makes you smarter, better at multitasking, helps to delay Alzheimer’s and dementia, improves your memory and your decision-making and makes you more perceptive of your surroundings.

But what about the social benefits of learning a foreign language? Or, as a friend asked me the other day: “Why are polyglots so damn nice?”

We batted about a number of reasons that sprang to mind and I resolved to do further research on the subject. Unfortunately, there seems to be very little academic research into the niceness or otherwise of polyglots, speakers of multiple foreign languages.

The best I found was a study examining the relationship between empathy and achievement in foreign language learning. Excitedly, I clicked open the report, fully expecting to find hard scientific evidence for my friend’s complaint. Alas, the researchers found no such correlation.

This was rather disappointing, but I still strongly believe there is much more to this question than mere circumstantial evidence of all the nice polyglots we know.

So here are my introductory explorations of the matter. Why are polyglots so damn nice?

Empathy

Despite the one study I mentioned earlier, I’m sure there must be something in this. The researchers only tested students already studying a foreign language a university level: I’m talking about the difference between polyglots and ordinary mortals like me.

In order to become fluent in a foreign language, you must have spent a long time living and studying that language. Human beings learn by copying others and language learning in particular involves a high degree of mimicry. In order to copy others effectively (to the extent that you master a foreign language), you must be or become empathetic.

Far from being a trait fixed at birth, empathy can be practised and strengthened. Learning a foreign language to fluency is surely an excellent way of doing this. And, of course, empathy makes us nice.

Tolerance

Stepping into a foreign language is stepping into a foreign culture. The words we use affect the world the see and change the person we are. That’s why, when I studied Spanish in Sevilla, I became more expressive with my hands, more garrulous with my neighbours on the bus and more assertive in queues. That’s why, when I studied Arabic in Cairo, I became more adept at negotiation, more polite, more religious and even more assertive in queues.

When you have taken a foreign language to fluency, you cannot fail to realise that the way you do things at home is not the One True Way of doing things. Everything, from the words you use to the ethics of pig-eating is culturally relative. Even the etiquette of queueing.

This appreciation of cultural relativity makes you more flexible in your approach to others and more tolerant of strange and new things. This tolerance makes you nice.

Sociability

In order to learn any language to fluency, you must be sociable. When you’re a baby, that sociability is forced on you by family, school and roller skating club.

When you learn a foreign language as an adult, however, you often have to make a huge effort to use your new language, by seeking out conversational partners. In short, you must become highly sociable, otherwise your new language won’t get enough practise to reach fluency.

I found learning Spanish in Spain far easier than learning French in school precisely because the Spanish did not tolerate my quiet English reserve. They wouldn’t let me be unsociable, and I learnt more in two weeks of gallivanting than I had done in years of school-taught French.

Furthermore, if you’re a total dickwad, then your hard-won conversation partners won’t stick around and your language skills won’t improve. Learning a foreign language to fluency takes a special kind of sociability: the nice kind.

Humility

By the time you’re fluent in a foreign language, you’ve made more than six hundred thousand mistakes, from mere slips of the tongue to full on inadvertant insults. You’ve embarrassed yourself in front of greengrocers, taxi drivers, attractive would-be mates, teachers, work colleagues, politicians and even the neighbourhood dog.

You cannot learn a foreign language to fluency, therefore, without being humble. The only way to learn is by embracing every mistake, learning from it and jumping straight into the next one. There is surely no such thing as the arrogant learner, at least not one that has actually learnt anything.

The corallory of this is that you cannot learn a foreign language without relying on and accepting the niceness of other people, who patiently listen to your manglings of their beloved mother tongue, exert themselves to comprehend your garblings and then correct you, before listening to you regurgitate the now slightly less awful mess all over again.

Your learner’s humility makes you nice and your appreciation for the efforts of others to help you makes you even nicer.

Patience

You don’t become fluent in a foreign language without being a determined little bugger. According to the European Common Languages Framework, it takes about 890 classroom hours to go from zero to fluent (level C2) in French. That’s a year of concentrated study. Note, too, that this is only teaching hours; students must typically practise their language skills for two or three times this long outside class.

Looking at it this way, achieving fluency in a foreign language is an overwhelming feat of determination and patience. Rome wasn’t built in a day and Italian wasn’t learnt in an hour.

Not only is attaining fluency a monumental task, but, as soon as it is attained, your fluency degrades. You must practise your new language every day or, before long, you will find yourself back clutching a dictionary. Language learning is not for the impatient, who want fluency now, forever, without the effort.

But your practice of patient perseverence has another side benefit, I believe. Patience means you’re less likely to get frustrated with other people. Patience makes you nice.

Listening

Finally, for now, you can’t learn a foreign language without being a good listener. How else could you pick up the difference between “sheep” and “ship”, or “sheet and “shi…”?

But being a good listener isn’t just useful for avoiding strange bedroom mishaps; it’s also useful for making other people think you’re interested in what they’re saying. And other people LOVE that.

Yes, that’s right: being a good listener is directly correlated with being a complete bastard. Oh no, my mistake: it’s directly correlated with being damn nice.

You can be nice too!

That’s the end of my little examination of the (totally unscientifically proven) reasons why polyglots might be so damn nice. I shall leave you with one important note.

I am not saying that only nice people can become polyglots.

My argument is that the correlation works in the opposite direction: learning a foreign language makes you a nice person by making you more empathic, more tolerant, more sociable, more humble, more patient and a better listener.

There is hope for me still. Now sod off and let me get on with my conjugations.

End Notes

Anne Merritt (The Daily Telegraph, 2013) Why learn a foreign language? Benefits of bilingualism

Filiz Yalcin-Tilfarlioglu, Arda Arikan (Procedia – Social and Behavioral Sciences, 2012) Empathy Levels and Academic Achievement of Foreign Language Learners

Adventures in Approach and Avoidant Motivation

Have you ever read about approach and avoidant personalities?

This is the idea from psychology that people are born with a tendency to motivate themselves either positively (approaching a goal for its benefits) or negatively (avoiding the harms associated with failure).

Approach: “Cycling around Britain will be the greatest thing that I ever do, I’m going to enjoy every moment!”

Avoidant: “I’d better not screw up this round Britain cycle ride because then I’d look really stupid!”

Stumbling across this concept made me realise that, although I set myself and sometime achieve ambitious goals, I tend to tackle those goals in an avoidant manner.

Cycling around Britain… Really fast.

In 2011, I cycled around Britain. This was, as you can imagine, a stunning experience; rarely a day goes past without a glorious memory or three dropping in to say hi. However: I cycled the 4,110 miles in less than two months, at a frankly absurd speed of over 70 miles a day. I took four rest days and resented each one.

Why? Because I was terrified, all the way around, that I would fail. I wanted to get it done ASAP, so that I could enjoy not having failed!

Cycling to the Sahara… Really slowly

Slightly disturbed by this realisation, the following year I cycled around Tunisia, forcing myself to cycle much more slowly and to really relish the adventure.

As a result, I cycled at about half the speed and took a whopping nine days off in the month. Giving myself that time meant that I fell into all sorts of adventures:

By switching off the avoidant voice in my head, I allowed myself the time to have more adventures, which meant I had a lot more FUN too.

I was successful on this trip, but a lifelong tendency for avoidant motivation is not so easily overturned! It’s something that I have to work at every day.

Do you have an Approach or Avoidant personality?

If you’re approach motivated, then you probably rush into things and get excited by all the great things that will doubtless happen.

If you’re avoidant motivated, then you probably dwell on the things that might go wrong. Like me, you might rush things because you’re scared that you’ll fail.

Other signs that you’re avoidant motivated might include:

  • You dwell on criticism, failure or rejection.
  • You feel shy or anxious, even though you have a strong desire to achieve your goal.
  • You feel inadequate or inferior to others.
  • You’re self-conscious and tend to be self-critical.
  • You use fantasy to evade doing what you meant to do.

If you are avoidant – don’t panic! Me too.

Avoidants of the world unite!

Approachers might be the go-getters of this world, but they’re also the ones whose ancesters ended up between the jaws of a sabre-toothed tiger. They’re the stupid, fools-rush-in kinds of people. Avoidants, on the other hand are thoughtful, cautious and good-looking.

It’s also worth pointing out that approach-avoidance is a spectrum; it’s not black and white, either/or. Although I do a really good job at avoiding girls, blazing rows and sabre-toothed tigers, I will approach that Vienetta with all the recklessness of a Neolithic tiger dentist.

So, if you think you’re a tad more avoidant than approach, don’t beat yourself up about how nervous, worried or fearful you get about your goals. It is possible, as I proved with Tunisia, to reframe your adventures away from a focus on avoidance alone. I really had to force myself to slow down, relax and enjoy the weird situations I’d cycled myself into.

Yes, it will always be more difficult for us than for people who were born with approach personalities, but that just means that success will be all the more satisfying for us, glorious avoidants!

Smilodon head
This sabre-toothed cat was not an avoidant personality. And see what happened to him. From Wikipedia so it must be true.

 

No Mobile Phone

I have had a mobile phone since 2001, over thirteen years, but for thirty days, from Tuesday the 10th of February until the 12th of March, I shall live without.

The big question is:

Why?

This project is part of a long term experiment with positive constraints, which are ways of opening up the imaginative space behind ingrained habits and unquestioned social customs. Having had a mobile phone for over thirteen years, I’ve fallen into lazy habits and lost both the benefits of a life without and my appreciation of the phone itself.

One of the best things about using positive constraints is that you don’t know what you’ll discover during your experiment. One of my friends recently gave up her smartphone for what she called “a shit phone” (it still made calls and thus would be considered a miracle in any other age but ours). She was expecting to experience a vast reduction in her communication; what she wasn’t expecting was that she would write more music, improve her relationship with her mother and become a graffiti artist.

Having said that, here are a couple of reasons why anyone might want to give up their phone (at least for a while):

  • Using mobile phones make us more anxious, which has unexpected knock-on effects.
  • According to a Science Museum survey, the mobile phone is the tenth most important thing people “couldn’t live without”, beating out central heating, fresh vegetables and shoes.
  • In New York, a third of people can’t even walk down the street without their mobile phones. Check out this video, part of a campaign by New Tech City called “Bored and Brilliant”:

So that’s it. If you need me, you can catch me online or at home. Otherwise, I guess I’m out!

Dr Vandana Shiva: We Need to Elevate

This is the fourth in a daily series of articles taken from Elevate #10. I hope you enjoy the read – and come back tomorrow for more!

CLICK HERE FOR PAY WHAT YOU LIKE DOWNLOAD OR £10 IN PAPERBACK

Dr Vandana Shiva fills the screen, a fifteen foot pixilated message from India. Vandana was awarded the Right Livelihood Award, the “alternative Nobel prize”, in 1993 for her work on the social and environmental costs of development, particularly the violence of India’s Green Revolution.

“We are facing multiple crises,” Vandana Shiva says with a slight smile, “crises of planetary dimensions.” We face a climate crisis. Over five hundred people were killed and over eighty thousand evacuated from their homes in Kashmir during September’s disastrous floods, making it impossible to argue when Vandana says that “climate change is not about the future; it is happening today”.

We also face an economic crisis, which has brought about a widening divide between rich and poor. Perhaps more significantly, however, this crisis is the crisis of a system. This modern capitalist economy has left half the population of the world redundant. Echoing John Holloway’s earlier remarks, Vandana says that, in this economy, “there is no place for small farmers, no place for future generations”. She describes it as “a world of corporations and oligarchs, extracting the last bit of profits from the earth”.

Finally, we face a political crisis and the erosion of democracy. “What we now have,” Vandana Shiva says, “is not a public state, working for democracy in terms of of the people, by the people, for the people. It is a corporate state, working for the interest of the corporations, by the corporations, for the corporations.”

For Vandana, these crises arise from a particular way of thinking about the world: the scientific capitalist paradigm that describes the universe as solely mechanistic. This viewpoint encourages division and separation between ourselves and the resources of the planet. “The reality of our lives,” she says, “is that there is an earth that gives us everything and we are co-creators and co-producers with the earth, to produce our food, to harness the water, to make sure all our human needs are met.” Gandhi’s words are never more appropriate than today: “The earth has enough for everyone’s needs, but not enough for some people’s greed.”

Vandana Shiva states her anti-capitalist thesis explicitly: “The economic model that turns nature into land and a commodity, people into labour and a commodity, and capital as the creator of value, is at the root of both the exploitation of nature as well as injustice.” She goes further. “Capitalism is a system that was wrong to start with,” she says. “It has been held in place for a few centuries by shifting every policy to make the false assumptions of capitalism work for a while.”

There is much evidence to support this view. Were it not for agricultural subsidies, the industrial-scale farming of capitalism wouldn’t be able to survive. “That is why half of Europe’s budget is spent on the Common Agricultural Policy,” Vandana explains. By 2011, the US alone had lent, spent or guaranteed twenty-nine trillion dollars to keep capitalism alive after the economic crisis of 2008. Vandana describes the current negotiations for the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership (TTIP) as “another artificial measure to keep a dead system afloat”.

In its most terrifying garb, TTIP will hand corporations the power to sue governments for “loss of profits”. This could ensure that our common goods, such as the National Health Service, our genetically modified organism-free fields and the data we’d like to keep private on the internet, are open to commercial exploitation.

If you think that this sounds like a lot of balony, then consider the fact that these kind of bizarre legal agreements are already in place. One Swedish energy firm is currently suing the German government for billions of dollars of “lost profits”. Why? Because, having seen what happened in Japan when the Fukushima nuclear power station exploded, the German government took what would appear to be a perfectly reasonable public health decision to stop using nuclear power. The final cost to the German tax-payer of this ghoulish pursuit of profit will not be settled democratically either: the matter will be decided through an arbitration tribunal, as if the needs and desires of profiteers and of the people bore equal weight. TTIP threatens to give unelected corporations the power to force policy on elected governments, and you can be sure, as Vandana Shiva says, that corporations “will make decisions for themselves, to keep raping the earth and to keep ripping off from society”.

All of these examples of policy manipulation are described by Vandana as “life support systems for a dying order”.

The insecurities caused by the failures of capitalism create social polarisation. “Insecurity deepens divides,” Vandana says, “so we have the rise of politics of exclusion.” This politics of exclusion leads to a rise in fundamentalism, pitting people against each other on the grounds of religion, sect and ethnicity. “Diversity has been turned into a major problem,” Vandana says, before turning the whole argument on its head. “But diversity is the solution for the future.”

Vandana Shiva believes that the crises of capitalism also represent an opportunity to create a new paradigm, one that puts humanity to work, not in the service of exploiting the earth, but in healing her, by saving seeds, planting trees and rejuvenating water resources. “It’s limitless how much work needs to be done,” she says. “Regenerating the earth needs our hands and our hearts and our minds.”

Who will lead this regeneration? “Every worker fighting for justice. Every unemployed youth demanding a place in the scheme of things. Every small farmer telling the world that it is small farms who feed the world.” The UN estimates that 70% of the world’s food production comes from the work of small farms, rather than from industrial production. Vandana Shiva singles out women for special responsibility. “Women,” she explains, “through having looked after the economy of care and the economy of sharing and an economy of responsibility, can shift to make the entire economy based on these principles of caring and sharing, not exploitation and destruction.” These shall be the leaders of our regeneration, but, as Vandana says, “there is no person who is irrelevant to the transition we must make if we have to survive”.

“The message I have for you at Elevate,” Vandana Shiva says, “is what your festival is about: We need to elevate. We need to elevate our knowledge. We need to elevate our consciousness. Let us elevate our energies, let us elevate our solidarity, let us elevate our imagination.” She raises an eloquent hand and a smile burbles about her lips. “There is nothing beyond our dreams and there is nothing to prevent our dreams from being turned into reality if we are committed.” Her voice takes on a playful warning tone. “In any case, there is nothing to lose but our extinction.”

She leaves us with a beatific smile.

Thank you for reading – I hope you found something here that was enlightening and inspirational. Come back tomorrow from 8am for more from Elevate #10.

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Most Living and the Meaning of Life: Sailing 3,500 Miles for Syria

Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.
Most Living at its Most: Simon and Maria embark on their journey of 3,500 miles.

On Saturday the 12th of July, Simon Moore and Maria Gallastegui stepped aboard ‘Rumi’, the sixteen-foot Wayfarer dinghy that they hope will carry them 3,500 miles by sea, from London to Lebanon.

A few hours after seeing them off with a pile of home-baked flapjacks, I joined a thousand other cyclists on a night-long joyride from London Fields to Dunwich, 114 miles away on the Suffolk seashore.

Two journeys: one political, one pointless. Both high on exertion, both involving the sea, both journeys into the unknown, testing our spirit and endurance. But the question is Why?

Why do we do these things?

Simon and Maria are sailing in solidarity with the people of Syria, hoping to raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the disastrous humanitarian crisis that is forgotten in yesterday’s newspaper headlines.

The Dunwich Dynamo, as it’s known, had no such charitable purpose. It was a last-minute decision to do something stupid.

But neither of those responses really answer the question. Why do we do these things?

There are a thousand ways that Simon and Maria could raise awareness (and, incidentally, money) for the plight of Syrians. So why this way? Why risk their lives doings something that has a high probability of failure and that will likely be forgotten the moment they leave?

There are a thousand ways that I could have spent my Saturday night. So why this way? Why risk my knees doing something that will only hurt and leave me sleep deprived for a week?

It is the purpose of this article to find a better answer this question of why.

Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.
Saturday Night Most Living: Halfway through the Dunwich Dynamo 114 mile night cycle from London to the sea.

Albert Camus and The Reason We Don’t Commit Suicide

Albert Camus was, in my opinion, the most successful of the French existentialist authors of the mid-twentieth century (he’d hate me for calling him an existentialist, but that is how he is remembered…). His philosophy, however flawed, at least made a stab at giving us practical answers to the problem of existence. And his works of fiction are streets ahead of Sartre.

Existentialism is most frequently diluted in our collective memories to become a particularly French form of nihilism (he’d hate me even more for associating him with nihilism!). If people make a distinction between the two philosophical schools, it’s mostly by sticking a Gaullois between their lips and shrugging their shoulders. And, unfortunately, nihilism is seen as a highly negative way of viewing existence: there is no purpose to life, existence is pointless, so why bother?

But Camus himself, in the first lines of The Myth of Sisyphus, asked this very question.

“There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.”

In other words: Why, if there is no purpose to life, do we not just go and kill ourselves? His response, teased out over the course of a hundred pages, is the concept of ‘most living’.

Best Living versus Most Living

The existentialist idea that life is ‘absurd’, that there is no inherent meaning in the universe, means that there can be no such thing as universal morality. The only problem is that this leaves us with no road map for life. Without universal morality, there is no model existence for us to strive to follow: Jesus was just another guy. There is no such thing as ‘best living’.

But the only thing more absurd than the absurdity of life is taking the absurdity of life so seriously that you would kill yourself to avoid it. And, if the course of ‘best living’ is no longer open to us, as it was to our believing forefathers, then the only course of life that we can pursue is ‘most living’.

Most Living at its Most

And this is why we choose to spend twelve hours cycling overnight to the seaside, when we could be asleep and dreaming. This is why we choose to spend six months battling across the high seas in a dinghy with four holes in the hull, when we could just fire off a petition or two to parliament.

It’s not about finding the best way to spend our Saturday night, or finding the best way to raise awareness of the plight of the Syrians – because the mythical best does not exist. It’s about investing in our present moments the most we can. That is all we can do to rage against the absurdity of our life and our inevitable death.

And there was no greater ‘most’ way that I could have spent my Saturday night. There is no greater ‘most’ way for Simon and Maria to demonstrate their solidarity with the people of Syria. These are heroic challenges that take every ounce of strength. It is most living at its most.

Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.
Rowing a sixteen-foot dinghy under thunderous skies: insignificance is no obstacle to most living.

From Theoretical Philosophy to Practical Psychology

In The Myth of Sisyphus, Camus implores us not to commit suicide, either physical or philosophical. He encourages us to throw ourselves into life with full force: as Don Juan, as Conquering Hero, as Stage Actor – without losing sight of the ultimate absurdity of our actions.

Yes, Camus was an optimist. You may, as a rigorous philosopher, be able to pick holes in his argument. It’s not the most logical I’ve ever heard. But that hardly matters now. What matters is that, half a century later, psychologists are offering some tantalising evidence of quite how accurate his dichotomy between best living and most living was.

Carol Dweck and the Growth Mindset

Carol Dweck has been researching motivation, personality and development for many years, at Colombia, Harvard and now at Stanford. In the course of her research, she has discovered that the human brain approaches the various challenges of life through one of two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset.

The fixed mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is fixed, it can’t be improved. You’re either born with it, or you’re not.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) I have no artistic talent and I might as well never bother trying to draw an apple every again.

The growth mindset follows patterns of thought like this:

1. (MINDSET) Artistic talent is something that you can improve through hard work and practice.

2. (OBSERVATION OF THE WORLD) When I try to draw the still life of an apple, it looks nothing like an apple.

3. (CONCLUSION) If I want to be able to draw an apple, all I have to do is put in the hours and practice.

In both cases, the challenge is the same and both people realise that they’re bad at drawing. But only the person with the growth mindset will ever do anything to improve themselves. It gets worse.

It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.
It got better, actually. For those most living, that is. For those best living, all that was left was knee surgery.

Fixed Mindset and the Fear of Failure

The fixed mindset also breeds fear: the fear of failure. If intelligence or strength or artistic talent is fixed, then any failure is final. If you have built your self-image around being superb at drawing the still life of an apple – and you lose the annual still life of an apple contest, then what are you? Any opportunity to be judged becomes an existential crisis and you will cease seeking out new challenges. This has the effect of shrinking the fixed mindset’s world until it only participates in the smallest fields of endeavour, where success is guaranteed.

The growth mindset, on the other hand, sees failure as an opportunity to learn. Any new challenge, opponent or obstacle is great fun because it is only by failing that you are able to improve and grow. A growth mindset says yes to everything, even when failure is almost certain. A growth mindset is greedy for new experiences, for shocks and jolts and tests and obstacles and difficulties.

Growth Mindset and Most Living

The fixed mindset is focussed on judging others and on being judged. Success is measured in concrete successes; a zero-sum game in a finite, competitive world. The growth mindset is focussed on learning and helping others learn. Success is measured in growth; an infinite horizon in a world with so many secrets.

The fixed mindset is obsessed with being the best in life. The growth mindset is obsessed with getting the most out of life. The fixed mindset yearns for a mythical best living. The growth mindset is Camus’ most living.

Which mindset would set you out into the world, sailing 3,500 miles in an absurd attempt to raise awareness of a crisis that you can never alleviate? Which mindset would put you into a thousand-strong bike ride through the night, knowing that you’ll end up with broken knees, sleep deprivation and a £100 taxi fare?

Which mindset would you choose?

Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?
Under open skies and an empty sea. What could be more than most living?

10 great excuses to avoid making your dreams come true

Worried that you might be about to embark on the trip of a lifetime? Looking for some excuse not to step out of your front door? Scared that perhaps you might finally become the person you always dreamt of becoming?

Fear not! For I have compiled here an easy-to-remember list of great excuses that will successfully prevent you from ever making your dreams come true.

Note: These fail-proof excuses have been tried and tested on literally millions of people just like you. The human race has been proudly dodging, delaying and demurring their dreams since time began. (Warning: 97.2% of these humans did not procreate and are lost to the gene pool forever.)

1. I don’t have enough time. (Variations: I am too busy / I have too much work.)

Not too busy to take a photo of a clock, though.

A thought experiment might suffice here. If you carried on doing whatever it is that you are doing now, what will the world look like in ten years? What about if you take steps to follow your dream?

Without prejudicing your answer to the above thought experiments, there is the old saying: No one, on their death-bed, wishes they’d spent more time in the office. What kind of world are you building with your time, as currently allocated? What could you be building instead?

There is another aspect to this objection: Is your time actually yours to allocate? The most obvious answer, if you’re an employee, is No. Likewise, you may feel, if you are a mother or father or even a member of the local trombone choir. But these are all different orders of obligation. There is hierarchical obligation, that is weighted on your shoulders without your choice. And there is volitional obligation, like that towards your fellow trombonists.

Obligations can always be re-negotiated. Even children can be accommodated (see below).

 2. I don’t have enough money. (Variation: I don’t have the right equipment / stuff / shoes.)

16 Twixes for £2 or 2x 9 Twixes for £2?

What is it that you think money will accomplish for you? Think not in terms of needing money as a prerequisite for X. Think rather about how you can acquire X. Sometimes the answer will be through money alone, but I fear that would indicate a failure of imagination more than anything else. (But I accept that often we are tired and our imaginations exhausted.)

Ask the question: What would happen if I tried to do this without a million dollars / new shoes / a buffalo? Really think. 99% of the time you’ll find your imagination can fly over any apparent obstacle with ease.

Solidarity, mutual aid and recycling are all ways that you can make things happen without recourse to huge amounts of money. Do, swap, borrow.

3. I don’t have the right contacts / network / friends to make this happen.

Maybe you hate other people. Maybe you are anti-social. Maybe you don’t like asking other people for favours or access. I don’t either.

Is there something you can do to push yourself towards your goal that doesn’t require other people? As you march towards your future, you’ll find you naturally bump into people who will help you make it happen. There is no need to force relationships and there is no reason why you can’t start without them.

Taking that a bit deeper: Why do you think you need other people? Are you sure you’re not just using them as a crutch? If you are: well done! You’ve found a great excuse. You’ll never know if you could have managed without them and you’ll never know if you could have made contact with them.

4. I have a family / business / goldfish to look after.

Good for you! Caring is one of the most genuine human actions. But why are you being hierarchical about this? Speak to them (technical note: goldfish speak Portuguese) and involve them in the power structure. Why can’t you take your family / business / goldfish with you through your dream? Were they not part of your dream in the first place? If not, then perhaps you should think more carefully about their place in your life.

Alternatively, maybe you can swap dreams. Maybe they have a dream ready for the taking too. Take some time out and explore each other’s dream-lives. You might find that the world is a better place afterwards.

5. My boss / dad / government won’t let me.

My dad, yesterday.

Ooh, that’s a low blow. Delegating your responsibility for your life to someone else. Shifting the blame to an outside agent. Removing yourself from the equation. You might think this is an infallible excuse, but really… Why are you making an exception of your dream? You’ve already disobeyed your boss, your dad, your government – and any other figure of authority or representative of hierarchy – countless times! Why let them stand in the way of your dreams?

If you’re still having trouble squaring feelings of obligation, loyalty or guilt with your desire to act, then you should think more deeply about where the feelings are coming from. Some feelings of obligation aren’t hierarchical. The example of your dad above is mischievous. Of course your dad deserves consideration. Ask: is he being hierarchical about this? Is there room for negotiation? Are my desires being taken into account? Is there a threat of force if I disobey?

Any answer of ‘yes’ to the threat of force test is a sure sign of hierarchy and a relationship that you should immediately discontinue if possible, or disobey. Only by standing against hierarchy will you be able to win freedom for your actions. And you will probably be surprised by the emptiness of the overlord’s threats. The world will not collapse down upon you. And you will have won an element of freedom.

If you decide that this hierarchy is just too convenient an excuse to give up, I have one word of advice: Don’t tell the person that they are stopping you from becoming a god because they might get a bit pissed off with you. Also, you might find that they release you from their unwitting bondage.

6. The time isn’t right. (Variation: I’m too old / young.)

We’re all just birthday candles in the wind.

When is the right time? When should I take the bins out? Now? In ten minutes? At 4.27pm? On Tuesday? Does any of this make sense? No. Is this an extraordinarily boring discussion? Yes.

Am I too old to take the bins out? Am I too young? At what age should we start taking the bins out? At what age should we stop? Does any of this make sense? Is this an extraordinarily boring discussion?

Ultimately, as any parent who intends to devolve bin-removal duties to their offspring will know, you just have to pick a day – any day – and start. The time is never right, so don’t wait for it.

7. I have no grand dream to follow. (Variation: I have too many dreams!)

I can sympathise with this one, having swung from one extreme to the other several times. A “dream” is a stupid concept that means nothing. Last night I dreamt that I had a heart attack and my mum had to give me CPR. Full of symbolism, perhaps, but utterly useless as motivation.

What is a dream, then? A dream (he said, blithely attempting the impossible) is simply something that you think about or do for long enough that it begins to define you. You don’t define the dream, the dream defines you.

For example: I got it into my head about twelve years ago that I was going to be a writer of earth-shattering proportions. I flounced around university for a few years boasting of my soon-to-be-realised achievements and did precisely zero writing. BUT this wasn’t all hot air. Eventually, I started to feel that being a writer of earth-shattering proportions WAS part of my destiny. And I started to feel bad that I wasn’t doing anything to help fate along. So I started writing. Twelve years on, that stupid adolescent “dream” has defined me.

Don’t panic about not have a grand dream. Just do something you enjoy. Then do it again. And again. And again. And gradually, you’ll find that your actions define you and, retrospectively, you’ll define your actions as contributing to your dream.

Likewise, don’t worry about pursuing countless “dreams”, goals or white elephants. Find a way to combine them all into one thing. For example, my first book, The Soles of My Shoes, was a travel book – and that’s my top two right there – travel and books.

8. There’s no point. (Variations: It’s all been done before! / I can’t make a difference.)

This is particularly common as an excuse in the fields where there is the most point, where the difference to be made is greatest: politics, medicine, education to name but three. The size of the problem is so great that a single person feels overwhelmed and doesn’t see the point in swimming against the tide.

But it is those three fields which perhaps illustrate best the answer to ‘It’s all been done before!’ syndrome. Just imagine a doctor, faced with open heart surgery, heaving a big existential sigh and muttering, ‘It’s all been done before!’, before dropping his scalpel and going for a cigarette. The sentence loses all meaning.

The value of something is not in its uniqueness, but in its doingness.

I hope this illustrates the answer to ‘There’s no point!’ as well, but there is a more obvious response to the fear of ennui: you have more allies than you think. Logically, you know this must be so. On a planet of seven billion people, you cannot be the only person who thinks what you are doing is a good idea. You can even be alone with one other. There are literally thousands, millions probably, of people who think what you are about to embark on is the bee’s knees.

‘But how do I find these legions of allies?’ I hear you cry. There is only one answer: by starting. By starting, you are pushing a beach ball down a dune. You and all your friends begin to live your new reality, your new reality starts to define you and everyone you encounter starts to associate you with your new reality. Before long, you aren’t looking for allies; they are looking for you.

9. I don’t have the right skills / fitness levels / brain.

Get fit! Frowning uses more muscles than smiling.

Nobody does. I can tell you right now that 0% of basketball champions, 0% of Nobel Prize winning scientists and 0% of dauntless explorers came out of their mother’s wombs being able to do what they ended up being famous for.

Cycling 4,110 miles is a long way. Guess what: I didn’t have the fitness to cycle over 100 miles in a day when I started. How did I get to that level of fitness? By doing it. By getting on a bike and riding, day after day. Start now and you’ll get there.

10. I’m scared.

There is nothing to fear, but fear itself. And a traffic warden with a shotgun.

Ah – congratulations! You have discovered the catch-all excuse des champions, mon ami! This would appear to be the perfect excuse. It doesn’t harp on about circumstances, it can’t be bought, it won’t disappear over time – and, to top it all, it has the glossy veneer of self-deprecating honesty about. “I would do it, mate, but to be honest, I’m scared!”

Well, I’m sorry. You may be a champion excuse-finder, but this one won’t cut it. In fact, being scared is the ultimate motivation. When you feel scared of something, you can be 99% certain that this is exactly what you really want to do.

How to Make a Good First Impression: The Scientific Way

Do you smile a lot? Do you wear a suit? Is your hair combed? Do you wear loud ties? We are judging you! Unfair, but true. The good news is that we can use the science of first impressions to subvert.

This study from the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin looks at everything from the neatness of your attire to where you place your hands and examines how important each is in the overall judgement people make of your personality. The study also looks at how accurate the first impressions were for the subjects’ personality traits, but what I’m interested in is how to manipulate other people’s judgement of me. Obviously.

The study looked at ten personality traits:

  • Extraversion
  • Agreeableness
  • Conscientiousness
  • Emotional stability
  • Openness
  • Likability
  • Self-esteem
  • Loneliness
  • Religiosity
  • Political orientation (liberal)

I’m going to ignore the last three because, frankly, I’m not interested in coming across as a lonely, religious liberal. So that leaves seven personality traits.

The study measured the effect on first impressions of the following ten physical attributes:

  • Healthy vs. sickly appearance
  • Stylish vs. unstylish appearance
  • Distinctive vs. ordinary appearance
  • Neat vs. messy appearance
  • Smiling
  • Looking away from camera
  • Arms folded
  • Arms behind back
  • Energetic vs. tired stance
  • Tense vs. relaxed stance

So let’s get straight to the point. How can I make the absolute best first impression?

Smile and have an energetic stance. These correlate strongly with all seven traits. If you do nothing else, just smile: we can all do that, even if we’re tired.

Almost as effective as these two is having a relaxed stance. This correlates strongly with all of the seven traits, except for conscientiousness. So be energetic, but not frantic.

If you can’t manage these three, then a combination of dressing neatly and stylishly, holding your hands behind your back and looking generally healthy should make a favourable impression. Don’t bother folding your arms: it has a negligible impact on other people’s impression of you.

I’m actually quite heartened by the findings of this study. The key to a good first impression is not artificial social markers, like a fancy watch and £600 shoes. The best way of making a good first impression are things we can all afford: a smile and an energetic and relaxed manner.

Finally, a warning for those who dress ‘distinctively’: yes other people will think you are open, but they will also think you are lonely, liberal and irreligious!


This blog post is entirely based on the following paper, which I recommend you read:
Personality Judgments Based on Physical Appearance
Laura P. Naumann, Simine Vazire, Peter J. Rentfrow and Samuel D. Gosling
(Pers Soc Psychol Bull 2009; 35; 1661 originally published online September 17, 2009) http://www.simine.com/docs/Naumann_et_al_PSPB_2009.pdf

No Money Mondays

This is something I’ve been working with for a while. The premise is simple: don’t spend any money on Mondays. This is a fairly meaty post, so I’ll cut to the chase:

Why No Money Mondays?

  • It helps me to be more mindful of money, of how easy it is to spend, and how pointless. A day without money somehow frees my mind. I feel less stressed. I’m out of the game for a day. I can look at adverts, but I’m not part of that world.
  • It helps me live more healthily. I can’t just buy a nice packet of biscuits when I feel like it; I’ve got to finish up those lentils that have been sitting in my cupboard since January. I can’t pay for the bus; I have to cycle or walk.
  • I realise how possible a day without money is. It makes me dream of a life without money and what that would mean.
  • It helps me become more creative with how I spend my time and energy. A quick thought comes into my head, like: ‘I need to buy some new batteries for my dictaphone.’ I hear myself think this, but I have to reformulate a solution. I can’t just buy some new batteries. I can take the batteries out of my bike lights for the time being.
  • It saves me money! Every day, I record my spending. Over the course of a year, this forms a fascinating record of my spending patterns. On weeks when I have a No Money Monday, not only do I reduce spending on one day of the week, but that parsimony spills over into the rest of the week. This is another good reason why I do it on a Monday, the first day of my week. (The main reason is, obviously, alliteration.)
  • I am more productive: no more time-wasting shopping-excuse excursions.
  • Monday is when I do my accounts (usually with horror). It feels good to have a money-fast after that.

The History of No Money Mondays

I’m not the first person to think not spending money once a week is a good thing. No Money Mondays used to happen every week in Britain. Not on Mondays, but on Sundays. Shops, markets and businesses were forced to shut down for a day – by law. But now Sunday trading is part of every British high street – and even if it wasn’t, the internet would provide for every fleeting desire.

Sunday trading surged forth as a result of the free market reforms of the moribund Conservative government of John Major. The Sunday Trading Act 1994 made buying and selling legal. I’ll rephrase that: before 1994 it was illegal for shops to open on a Sunday. Illegal. Those of a younger generation will find this hard to believe, but it’s true.

But Sunday trading didn’t come into Britain without a fight. It was vigorously opposed when initially put to the House of Commons by Maggie Thatcher back in 1986. It wasn’t just vigorously opposed, but it became Thatcher’s only policy defeat in the House. The only time Maggie Thatcher was defeated in the House of Commons was when she tried to let shops open on Sundays. I’m sorry for the repetition, but this seems impossible to believe today. She wasn’t defeated on the Falklands War, she wasn’t defeated on privatisation, she wasn’t defeated on emasculating the trade unions. She was defeated over her Sunday trading bill.

The Bill of 1986 was defeated by an alliance of Christian Conservatives and Labour trade unions. The Christians wanted to ‘Keep Sundays Special’, to protect the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the trade unions opposed workers being forced to work on Sundays. When the Sunday Trading Act finally passed in 1994, it was only because of amendments that protected workers rights: Sunday working would be voluntary.

I’m interested in why Sunday trading was opposed. I can see why trade unions wanted to protect their interests: a seven-day working week isn’t everyone’s idea of fun. I can see why Christians wanted to defend the Sabbath: the Book reserves Sunday as a day of Holy rest.

But is there something more? I would say yes. I would say that behind this opposition was an instinctive desire to protect ourselves from continuous striving. A day with an open shop is a day with the possibility of buying and selling. And if you’re buying and selling, you’ll profit or lose: you’ll move up the escalator or down.

Close those shops and the escalator stops. A moment’s respite from the pressing needs of survival.

The Rights of Religion

I am a big believer in religions. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a Believer (or even a Belieber), but I can see that religion grows out of an instinctual need. And these instincts are usually good for us, or serve some purpose. Religion dominates in three domains:

  1. Community.
  2. Contemplation.
  3. Charity.

These three areas are not well served by other organisations and none cover all three, all together, all the time. Large, participatory organisations like Amnesty International offer us a combination of community and charity. Certain activities, like yoga, might give us community and contemplation. But religion alone nourishes all three. This comprehensive coverage explains both the rise of religions – and their ongoing popularity, in spite of all their absurdities and inherent threats.

It is with absolutely no surprise whatsoever that I see science gradually demonstrating the crucial importance of these three areas of life to our well-being as humans. A healthy network of colleagues and friends is an excellent marker for happiness. Purposeful contemplation, of the sort that prayer or meditation offers, is great for our physical and mental health. And charity, including volunteering our time, makes us feel happy.

To me, it is obvious that such a recurring and popular phenomenon as religion must provide the human race with some large benefits. I remain an unbeliever, but I am happy to take my lessons from religion. A money-fast Sabbath is one such.

I believe that the fight against Sunday trading in Britain, although economically indefensible, was an instinctive response to a real threat. But because it was a threat that we could not frame in a logical way, the Bill passed when all logical opposition was overcome (the trade unions’ objections to Sunday working). However, both the threat and our instinctive response to it, represented by the religious Christian Conservatives, remain.

So I would like to bring back the money-fast Sabbath. In my own irreligious fashion, I propose No Money Mondays. Instead of using laws, we will have to use our will-power, but I think it is worth it.

Facebook Zen

  • Do you have a problem with information overload?
  • Are you frequently lured to Facebook AGAINST YOUR WILL by the evil cookie monster, ‘Cool link, dude’?
  • Do you confuse looking through your Facebook News Feed with being productive?
  • Do you wish you could quit Facebook, but fear the consequences?

If you answered ‘Yes’ to any of these questions, then you need Facebook Zen.

What is Facebook Zen?

Facebook Zen is this:

Facebook Zen
My News Feed

Oh yes. That is my News Feed. You will notice that THERE IS NOTHING ON THERE.

That means:

  • Nothing to get distracted by.
  • Nothing to time waste with.
  • No empty information calories.
  • No ‘cool links’ to lose three hours over.

And it means there is no need to quit Facebook.

Why not quit Facebook if it stresses you so much?

Because Facebook can be useful. Honestly, it can!

You probably don’t care about why I find Facebook useful, but perhaps my list will help you make your own list – AND THEN MAKE SURE THAT FACEBOOK ISN’T MAKING YOU DO ANYTHING THAT ISN’T ON THAT LIST.

Do you see?

So, for me, Facebook is great for:

  • Making contact. I once saw a guy on a bus in Croatia quickly scribble out his name on a piece of paper and stuff it into the pocket of a girl he’d been chatting up, saying, ‘Find me on Facebook!’ – just before she stepped off the bus and out of his life.
  • Staying in contact. I’ve got old, old friends on Facebook who I haven’t seen for years (not since I chatted them up on a bus in Croatia) – you never know when they might come in handy.
  • Stalking people – but on my own terms, not because Facebook thinks I’ll be interested in their lurid holiday snaps.
  • Spreading something that I have created, that I think others will find valuable. Like this blog post, for example.

If you’re worried about what you’ll lose by getting a Zen-like Facebook page, then consider this:

  • If someone really thinks you’ll really appreciate the minutiae of their daily routine or that you would benefit from seeing an inspirational quote or a picture of a kitten doing ninjitsu, then they’ll either post it directly onto your wall or tag you in the post. Or tell you in person, like in the good old days.
  • Therefore, all you’re really filtering out is information vomit and spam. Or, more politely, water cooler chit-chat.
  • And, remember, you’re not quitting Facebook, you’re just turning down the volume so you can hear yourself think. OM.

If you desperately want the serendipity and spontaneity that the News Feed (let’s face it: incredibly rarely) provides, then by all means surf some of your friends’ pages and go where your finger clicks you. But make it a deliberate choice, not because you’re forced to by the Facebook News Feed cookie monster.

Most of the time we need less information, not more. Facebook Zen provides this, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

So…

How do you get Facebook Zen?

Well thankfully (and quite against form), Facebook makes it easy.

If you’re a sharp Facebook user, you’ll have noticed Lists. These are a way of grouping friends. Among these lists are Smart Lists. One of these is called Acquaintances. It’s supposed to be used in partnership with another smart list called Close Friends, but we’re only concerned with Acquaintances.

Why? Because one of the features of the Acquaintances list is that people in that list DO NOT APPEAR ON YOUR NEWS FEED.

Score. Now, down to business.

First: forget the name Acquaintances. It’s just a name, you’re not defriending anyone. In fact, they’ll never even know about their demotion*. Into this list you are going to put every single Facebook friend you’ve ever made and will ever make.

Here’s how:

    1. Go to this page: https://www.facebook.com/friends/organize (sign into Facebook if you aren’t already).
    2. A page will pop up saying something like:

See less from these 8 friends in News Feed? You haven’t interacted lately with these friends. Would you like to add them to your Acquaintances list? (You’ll see them less in News Feed.)

    Haha! This is the stuff – but we want MORE!

  1. So scroll down down down to the bottom of this page and you’ll see a link that says something like: Include 163 others – now click this!
  2. Then press the Add to Acquaintances button on the right hand side at the bottom of the page.

If you have any other ‘Smart Lists’ running (like location-based or school-based lists), Facebook may prompt you to add even more friends to your Acquaintances list – just go through steps 3 and 4 above until it stops prompting you.

Et voilà! You have now pushed all your friends out of your News Feed and you now have achieved Facebook Zen.

OM.


*Except for all my friends: yes, you have all been turned into acquaintances. Sorry.

What a to do! Suggestions for list-makers

I have a problem with TO DO lists. They are impossible. Not only that, but – being optimists – we don’t even realise it. It’s almost tragic, our list-making.

Bob Dylan’s TO DO list.

What I mean to say is: if you managed to survive the public education system with a shred of your imagination intact, then of course your life is going to be overflowing with things TO BE DONE.

Put another way: there will always be more on your TO DO list than CAN BE DONE in an average human life-span.

You still don’t get what I’m saying, do you?

Here it is: if you were to write out your TO DO list in full, you must understand that you will DIE long before every item is ticked off.

There.

That might sound a little morbid, but it does give a certain poignancy to all such lists, which could be useful. Perhaps if we considered these lists in their true light, we would spend less time on TIDY ROOM and more time on READ HAMLET.

Suppose you have a TO DO list of ten items. What six items would you immediately strike off if you knew you were going to DIE after only doing four of that list? That should be a pretty reasonable guide as to what you should be doing and what is probably not worthwhile.

I also wonder what items would miraculously appear on our TO DO lists if we are honest with the truth that our time on this earth is finite. Perhaps CREOSOTE FENCE would be replaced by APOLOGISE TO JANET.

Think about it the next time you are looking down your TO DO list…

###

Even if you don’t follow my rather morbid objection, I have a further problem with TO DO lists. The name.

I believe that the first step in doing anything is to think of doing it. So merely by adding a task to your TO DO list, you have (by definition) already started it. Therefore, it shouldn’t be called a TO DO list, but rather a DOING list.

This has the advantage of being far more optimistic and gives you the impression that the task is pretty much over and done with. Which (I would argue) it is. If you think about it, you can easily write a novel without ever being able to spell properly, but it is an impossible task if you never even think of writing a novel. The thinking of it is always our biggest hurdle to accomplishing a task.

So I challenge you to change the name of your list and see what a difference it makes to your productivity and contentment.

Sleep Long: Be Awesome

Sleep 10 hours or more every night and you will reap huge benefits on your physical and mental performance and, not surprisingly, you’ll feel great! (You’ll also be less likely to get fat and die…)

Now, I’m not just making this up – science told me. Volume 34, Issue 7 of Sleep, in fact. More precisely, a snappily titled article, “The Effects of Sleep Extension on the Athletic Performance of Collegiate Basketball Players”.

A-ha. Basketball players, you notice. Yes, the fact that their free throw and 3-point field goal percentages both increased by 9%, might seem to be rather sport-specific, but they were also faster in sprints and had faster reaction times. Not only that, but their mood was also elevated, with increased vigour and decreased fatigue and the players reported increased physical and mental well-being.

That’s the carrot, anyway. So why not try to sleep a couple of hours longer at night for a couple of weeks and see what happens? It might be hard at first, but persevere.

And if you prefer the stick to the carrot:

  • Short sleep duration is associated with obesity
  • Short sleep duration is associated with greater risk of death

Off you go now – to bed with you!


You can access the articles here:
Sleep extension benefits: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=28194
Sleep and obesity: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18239586
Sleep and mortality: http://www.journalsleep.org/ViewAbstract.aspx?pid=27780

Money

Money’s a funny thing. It seems to be the most important thing in all the world, essential to feeding and loving and living. Then, just when it seems more important than ever, you realise that it isn’t at all.

But surely money…

  • gives you power.
  • makes you feel good.
  • makes other people respect you.

Well, yeah it does. But it’s a short-cut.

It is easier to buy your power than it is to influence others by your actions. It is easier to spend on instant gratification than it is to spend your life content. It is easier to earn money than it is to earn the respect of others.

But this isn’t what I’m most concerned with. I couldn’t really care less if you want to spend money on power, happiness or respect. No: I’m worried because money is boring.

Here are some choices, with money or with imagination:

  • We could go to the cinema tonight. Or we could jump in the Serpentine and make out on the island.
  • We could go to a restaurant for dinner. Or we could rummage around the fruit and veg market after closing and cook up some free food on an open fire in the woods.
  • I could join a gym and work-out in front of a mirror. Or I could go for a run in Epping Forest, get covered in mud and see how high I can climb a tree.

Boring is the enemy and money is the friend of boring.

If you think about it, it’s obvious: money is what (stereotypical) accountants like best. Anyone who wants to live like a (stereotypical) accountant is welcome to their money, but me? Naw thanks.

This boredom can be overcome, of course it can. I’m sure you can think of a hundred interesting things to do with a hundred pounds. But how many people actually spend a hundred nicker on fitting out the local bus shelter with velcro so that all the morning commuters get their suits stuck on the sides?

Of course we don’t. That’s because money is part of a system and that system is boring. You can’t package up a sunset or a tree mud or a lake. People have tried, oh boy have they tried, but some things are beyond market forces.

Money is part of a boring system so we can only spend it on boring things. Rent, restaurants, retail. Drink it on a Saturday night, then dance it away at a club – who ever thought we’d pay to dance?

Do you think Zorba would have paid to dance?

Get More Sex #3: Politics

Great news for anarchists!

Sexual activity is higher among self-defined political liberals than among moderates or conservatives, and it is highest among those who describe themselves as ‘extreme liberals’.

On the other hand, sexual activity is also above average among ‘extreme conservatives’.

Here are the cold, hard statistics. First is the number of sexual encounters per year for the group, followed by the same number adjusted for differences in age, race, and marital status.

Extreme liberal: 73 / 72 sexual encounters per year.
Liberal: 62 / 62
Slight liberal: 63 / 60
Moderate: 60 / 60
Slight conservative: 55 / 54
Conservative: 52 / 54
Extreme conservative: 59 / 62

These politics are also reflected in the fact that the most sexually active Americans are far more likely than average to approve of premarital or extramarital sex, to see positive benefits in pornography, to watch X-rated films, and to favor giving birth control pills to teenagers.

But it isn’t always liberal attitudes that match up with having a lot of sex. People who own guns also have higher-than-average sexual frequency.


More: http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m4021/is_n2_v20/ai_20302952/?tag=content;col1

Get More Sex #2: Religion

Religion can be a minefield when it comes to having sex. But what are the stats?

A US study shows that Jews and agnostics are 20% more sexually active than Catholics and Protestants.

They also found that Baptists have slightly more sex than the national average, while Presbyterians and Lutherans are slightly below average.

But why? God only knows. I mean, I could speculate that it’s because there’s more shame and guilt associated with the Christian religions, but really I have no idea. Hell-fire and damnation tends to dampen the passions, somewhat.

Another study found that observant married Jewish women reported having sex three to six times per week more than twice as often as married women in general. Ooo-whee!

But there’s more! Statistics have also shown that people who rarely go to church have 31% more sex than people who regularly go to church. Not sure about people who never go to church.

Extremely devout people are also less likely to masturbate and use vibrators. Those who attend church regularly are less likely to become sexually active, to have multiple and casual partners, and to have extra-marital affairs.


More: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-07-20/sex-statistics-who-does-it-the-most/#

Get More Sex #1: Wealth

If you want to have more sex, get rich or get poor.

People on very low incomes and those on very high incomes have sex more frequently than anybody else. Men earning a middle class income of £45,000 (US$75,000) per year average twelve fewer days of sex a year than men who earn about £15,000 (US$25,000) annually. Ouch.

I would hate to speculate why this might be, but I will nevertheless.

Low GDP has long been associated with high birth-rate in developing countries. But why? One possible answer is evolutionary.

A low income means an uncertain future for your progeny, compared to the future of sons and daughters of a person with plenty of money coming in. Poverty means inhibited access to medical care, education, food and many other things necessary to a secure life.

Therefore, in the absence of increasing wages, we have loads more sex in the hope that plenty of descendants will survive to pass on our genes through sheer statistical weight of numbers.

So why do the rich get loads of sex too?

One answer is that wealth has long been associated with desirability. If you’re rich and powerful, you are intoxicatingly attractive to the opposite sex, particularly to women if you are a man.

This doesn’t mean that men are any less shallow than women, just that we tend to go for a luscious child-bearing physique over a big bank balance.


Thanks to http://taraparkerpope.com/ for the fact.

36: A thought experiment to kick your ass

Yesterday I was 28. Today I am 36 years old.

I woke up this morning and I’d lost 8 years in a dreamless sleep. In the mirror, my face was a little more lined, a little thinner, my eyes a little duller. But not much had changed. I’d just lost 8 years of beating-heart life.

36 is a believable age. I could feel, today at 36, just like I did yesterday at 28. I know people who are 36 and they are not much different to me as I was yesterday. So why not?

8 years is a long time. Think of it all, reeling away behind me, all those days, suns and moons. And I’ve done nothing with it. I just woke up this morning, 36 years old, 8 years down.

Hits me in the guts, thinking of all the things I could have done if I hadn’t been asleep. I want to cry, I want to jump and run, I want to eat the world and leave marks.

I know I’m not 36 years old. But I could be soon and it needn’t be an 8-year dreamless sleep that I lose to.

The next 8 years I could lose on Facebook, in supermarkets, bored or brainless. I panic.

It’s a thought experiment.

But there is a deadline to life. Impending panic is a shock to start an engine. I feel it in my groin, in my guts.

So what is it? What thing would I jump to do if I did wake up aged 36 tomorrow? What one thing would make me think: “Fuck! Why didn’t I just do this sooner?”

Smile or Die Trying

At the risk of sounding like a laughter yogi… smile!

It will:

  • Give you a more fulfilling and longer lasting marriage.
  • Give you a greater sense of well-being.
  • Make you more inspiring to others.
  • Make you live longer.
  • Make other people smile too.
  • Make you feel happier.
  • Give you a bigger hit of endorphins and serotonin than chocolate or money or even sex.
  • Reduce your blood pressure.
  • Make you more likeable.
  • Make you seem more courteous.
  • Make you seem more competent.

Check out this TED talk for a bit more detail:


Some more smiling research stories:
http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/7849905/Smiling-makes-you-happy-research-into-botox-shows.html
http://longevity.about.com/od/lifelongbeauty/tp/smiling.htm
http://education.ucsb.edu/janeconoley/ed197/documents/Keltnerexpressionsofpositivemotion.pdf

Palestinian Jokes: No Laughing Matter

There’s a Arab proverb that says: “I laugh, therefore I exist.” So here are some jokes from Palestine, proving that they do – still – exist.

The Hebronites

The Palestinians tell jokes about the Hebronites in the same way that the English tell jokes about the Welsh, or the French about the Belgians. Here’s one that is (apparently) a true story:

There’s an old man living on his own in Hebron. His only son has been arrested and is in prison in Israel. The old man desperately wants to plant some potatoes in his garden, but he doesn’t have the strength any more and, with his only son in prison, there’s no one who can do it for him.

So he writes to his son, saying, “I want to plant some potatoes in our garden, but I don’t have the strength to work the soil any more. What should I do, son?”

The son gets the letter in prison and writes back, saying: “Whatever you do, do not go anywhere near the garden – I hid weapons there!”

When the old man gets the letter, he’s shocked and doesn’t go near his garden. In the meantime, the Israeli army have found out about the letter and, the next morning, the old man wakes up to find hundreds of soldiers in his garden. They dig up every inch of the soil, searching for the weapons – but they don’t find any.

Mystified, the old man writes to his son again: “The soldiers came and dug up the garden, but they didn’t find any weapons, now what should I do?”

The son writes back: “Now you can plant your potatoes!”

Have you heard the one about the Christian Hebronite who converted to Islam? One day he met a Muslim Imam and the Hebronite said to him: “If you can show me how clever you Muslims are, I will convert to Islam!”
“Okay,” said the Imam. “Do you have any children?”
“Yes, I have one child.”
“Is it a boy?”
“No,” said the Hebronite.
“Then it must be a girl!”
At this the Hebronite bowed down, crying, “Oh Allah! You’re powers are truly great! I convert to Islam!”

There was once a Hebronite called Abd Ali who owned a shop in Ramallah. One day he got a visit from the police. They pointed at his shop sign – “Abd Ali and Associates” – and asked, “Who are your ‘associates’?”
“Oh, it is just me, it is only the name of my shop, that’s all.”
The police shouted at him: “That is dishonest!” and then beat him up.
Abd Ali was so humiliated that he left Palestine and went to Saudi Arabia, a very devout and strict nation. This time he was very careful about his shop sign. He called his shop: “Abd Ali, the One and Only.”
He was decapitated.

Political Jokes

“We’re living through a big joke!”

(This was not a joke.)

One day in the market a man loses his father… so he buries him.

A boy asks his father for two shekels for a return bus trip to a checkpoint.
“One shekel should be enough,” his father says, “you’ll be coming home in an ambulance!”

The French President, the US President and the Palestinian President all appear before God. They each approach him in turn, presenting their dearest wishes for their countries.
The American President says, “I wish for those cowardly French to commit troops to the War On Terror.”
God replies, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the French President approaches God and says, “I wish those damned Americans would stop killing for oil!”
God answers, “That will never happen in your lifetime.”
Next, the Palestinian President approaches God, very humbly and says, “I only wish for a Palestinian state.”
God replies, “Well that will never happen in MY lifetime!”

A dentist from Gaza goes to an international conference on wisdom teeth. A French dentist comes up to him and asks: “How do you extract wisdom teeth in Gaza?”
“Well,” the Gazan dentist replies, “first we use a scalpel to make an incision into the neck, then we break the jaw and drill into the gum. Then we get some pliers and pull the tooth out from below.”
“My god!” the French dentist exclaims. “Why so complicated?”
“Because in Gaza, you’re not allowed to open your mouth!”

Just a Joke!

This was told by a giggling school-girl – naughty!

A man rushes home, quick, quick, quick.
Grabs his wife, quick, quick, quick.
Runs to the bedroom, quick, quick, quick.
Switches off the lights, quick, quick, quick.
Makes a tent in the bed, quick, quick, quick.
Says: “Look at my watch – it glows in the dark!”


I got all of these jokes from the excellent short film (No) Laughing Matter that was shown at the Palestine Film Festival in London yesterday. If you ever have a chance to see this film, then do so. You can see a teaser below.

(No) Laughing Matter – teaser

Seize the Weekend!

Welcome to your fourteenth weekend of the year.

What are you going to do with it?

What have you done with your weekends so far this year? Could you do better?

For a lot of people, weekends are sacrosanct. It’s our only chance to sleep late, our only chance to switch off, to meet up with friends for longer than a quick pint.

But it’s also the only chance we get to seize the day for ourselves. The weekend holds no obligations (if you’re lucky…) – no deadlines, no schedules, no timetables. Anything could happen today and tomorrow – anything.

You could find yourself halfway up a mountain by lunchtime.

You could be swimming in that loch in the sunshine.

You could start writing a novel.

You could buy a guitar and sing crazy songs about musical body parts.

You could help your neighbours with their shopping.

You could bake a cake for your nan.

But remember: after this one, you’ve only got another 39 left – and one of those is New Year’s Eve.

Make the most of them. Make the most of this weekend.

Is this the Secret to a Bigger Life?

Life is what we remember. Most of your life isn’t spent now; it’s spent then – in memories.

To get a bigger life, therefore, you might think we need bigger memories.

But our memories are selective. To use my favourite cycling metaphor, while you will inevitably spend most of your time going uphill – what you remember are the downhills. Our memories cut the boring stuff.

So we don’t need a bigger memory.

We need bigger time.

Time and Travel – or Time Travel?

Consider this: you spend weeks and weeks looking forward to your holiday. Time in the office seems to drag on forever. Finally you get on the plane and shoot off to a beach on Bermuda.

Lying here, with the sand between your toes, the office seems a million years away. Why is that? But your two weeks of cocktails and beaches fly by in the blinking of an eye – and suddenly you’re back in the office.

Now it’s Bermuda that seems a million years away. Did time get mixed up in the Bermuda Triangle?

A physicist might put it thus:

A displacement in space is equal to a displacement in time.*

Or, to put it another way, travel makes time bigger.

Continuity and Happening

Think back to what you were doing ten seconds ago – chances are it was the same thing you are doing now – can you remember how you were feeling then?

Doesn’t it feel weird to think about how you felt just a moment ago? I bet you weren’t really feeling much in particular, at least not until you thought about it.

That’s continuity for you.

The brain seems to have two modes: one for when things are happening and one for continuity. And the more we allow continuity to build up, the less we can pull out of it and remember. It all blends into one.

Our brains don’t bother to make a distinction between this moment reading a blog post and that moment ten seconds ago reading a blog post. In our memories it’s just going to go down as ‘read blog post’ – if that. More likely, it will just get subsumed under ‘just another day at the office’ and none of the specifics will be remembered at all.

For all your brain cares: that moment of your life simply didn’t happen.

Happening and Memory

Happenings, however, break up periods of continuity – and, in doing so, happenings also create a bigger life. Happenings mean that less of our lives get lost in the long tedium of continuity: happenings give us pegs from which to hang the memories of our lives.

For example, how many times have you placed a rogue memory with this kind of dialogue?

‘Oh, that was just before John broke his leg – yes, and not long after Fran won the three-legged race at school – hahaha!’

Travel is a kind of happening. The chronology below shows the effect of continuity and happening on life/memory:

  • Location A: continuity
  • Event 1A
  • Event 2A
  • Event 3A
    • Travel to location B: a new continuity
    • Event 1B
    • Event 2B
    • Event 3B
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 4A
  • Event 5A
  • Event 6A
      • Travel to location C: another new continuity
      • Event 1C
      • Event 2C
      • Event 3C
  • Travel to location A: resumption of continuity
  • Event 7A
  • Event 8A
  • Event 9A

Events in locations B and C are distinct and separate from the memories made in the other locations. They seem to stand out more due to the unique nature of the location in which the memories were made. It is harder to place event 5A in the logical progression of the year than 2B or 3C, for example. Although the time spent on the activities may be the same, event 5A appears smaller in life, in the memory, than event 2B.

This has serious implications for our lives. Allowing too much continuity to build up makes our lives smaller!

Breaking up this continuity is the secret to remembering more of your life and thus having, not a longer life (who really wants that, wrinkles and all?) – but a bigger life.

Happening + Bigger Time = Travel

Happenings are not always good (poor old John). They are not always desirable.

Travel, however, is a form of happening that is usually (more of less) in our control. It is also (in the form of a holiday at least) designed to make us happy. That seems to make it a particularly good sort of happening.

Furthermore, because travel creates bigger time, the power of memory associated with it is multiplied. Travel is a happening that leaves an impression on your memory disproportionate in size compared to normal life.

Think about this: despite the fact that you spent 230 days in the office last year, the moments you remember best from that year were those 14 days on a beach in Bermuda. It broke the continuity and created big time.

It made yours a bigger life.


*The incredible distances achievable by flight seem to totally fox our poor little brains. It seems literally unbelievable that we could have been at work in Croydon yesterday, when today we are sipping a Piña Colada on Elbow Beech.

You can test this out. How much travel is needed to blow the mind. Walk down the street and look back at the hundred or so metres you’ve travelled and ask yourself if you can remember what it was like to be you back then. What about a longer walk? I think the brain starts to break up its continuity when the distances become unobservable. A trip of twenty miles or more definitely has the ability to make the brain marvel – when you think about it.

How to be Happy, in 59 Seconds

This is taken from 59 Seconds by Richard Wiseman, a book that wants to make your life better – in 59 seconds or less. It is all based on scientific research. If you like that sort of thing.

Here is what he suggests to make you happy.

Write a diary

  • Don’t suppress negative thoughts – they will only come back stronger. So write about them.
  • List 3-5 things to be thankful for once a week. Appreciate things that go unnoticed.
  • Describe a wonderful experience you have had in life.
  • Describe a great future; realistic, but in which you have worked hard and achieved your goals. It won’t help you achieve it, but it will make you smile.
  • Write a short letter to a person you are thankful for. Imagine you have only one opportunity to tell them. Describe what they mean to you and the impact they have had on your life.
  • Think back over the past week and make a note of three things that went really well for you (this can be trivial, like stroking the cat and getting a purr in return).

Spending and Giving

  • Buy experiences, not goods. Experiences tend to be social and the memory of them will improve with age, whereas goods tend to look worse with time. Like my bike.
  • We grow accustomed to changes in our circumstances. So riches will become quotidian.
  • Giving will make you happier than receiving gifts.
  • For a cheaper boost, carry out five non-financial acts of kindness on a single day. Don’t dilute the effect by spreading them out over the week.

Act happy

50% of  your happiness is genetic, 10% due to general circumstances, but 40% is governed by your day-to-day behaviour.

  • Smile for 15-30 seconds. Imagine a situation that would make you smile to make it convincing.
  • Sit up in your chair – posture is important.
  • Swing your arms like a kid (a human child, not a goat).
  • Add a spring in your step.
  • Use more expressive, excitable hand gestures in conversation.
  • Nod your head when others speak.
  • Wear more colourful clothing.
  • Use a greater frequency of positive words and a lower frequency of self-references in your conversation. The film was incredible! Not average.
  • Use a larger variation in the pitch of your voice. Squeak and growl.
  • Speak slightly faster.
  • Arm yourself with a significantly firmer handshake.

Intentional change

  • Intentional change (i.e. pursuing a goal, starting a new hobby) will make you happier than circumstantial change (i.e. a change in circumstances – getting a new car, house etc..).
  • Make the effort to start a new hobby, project, sport – something new, not habitual.
  • Look at something you enjoy already and find something new that is related. For example, playing the clarinet if you enjoy the piano.

All this advice seems pretty cool to me. However, it does come with a ‘be bothered’ warning. Can you be bothered? Seems like a lot to remember for me – no, I mean, go for it!

How to be Amazingly Happy!

Here’s a list of the most pleasurable (legal) things humans can do:

  • Have sex.
  • Suck on a piece of dark chocolate (minimum 60% cocoa).
  • Have a relaxed lunch with a friend.
  • Learn something new.
  • Go shopping!
  • Use your sense of smell – really sniff that flower!
  • Do some gardening.
  • Cook.
  • Sit in silence.
  • Go fishing (aka sit in silence).
  • Play or listen to music.
  • Go for a walk (or any form of exercise).
  • Trust others.
  • Have a nap.
  • Dream (including lucid dreams).

Just for the sake of completion: yes, certain drugs are also extremely pleasurable, but remember how harmful they can be – and just because something is less harmful than heroin doesn’t mean it’s safe!

Also realise that your use of drugs could give you such a massive high that real life just doesn’t seem that great any more. I’m being serious: a cocaine high can increase dopamine levels by 300-700%, compared to the 100% dopamine increase during sex – and you don’t even want to think about what amphetamines can do. Just remember that dopamine is involved in the wanting (i.e. addiction) rather than the liking (i.e. pleasure).

Cool, now I sound like your dad.

This list is compiled from Sex, Drugs and Chocolate: The Science of Pleasure by Paul Martin.

How to Avoid Regret

This is a moderately long article (2000 words). If you’re short on time, you can get straight to the point by going to the summary at the bottom of the page.

The Disaster Paradox

The human cons itself into feeling good about things. This should make us happy – our minds are on our side! They are constantly trying to turn negatives into positives. This is the work of what Daniel Gilbert calls the psychological immune system. The comparison with the physical immune system is a good one: our psychological immune system steps in when something really bad happens and corrects it without us having to do anything consciously.

Sometimes, though, when we’re infected with a minor virus, the immune system doesn’t kick in and we get a cold. Equally, sometimes something minor goes wrong in our life, the psychological immune system doesn’t kick in and we get really annoyed by it. This happens all the time. You might get made redundant: a complete disaster, but you start to rationalise it. It’s an opportunity to develop yourself and you never really liked the company anyway. But if you miss the bus on the way home you get into a stinking fury and it ruins your whole day.

This leads to an interesting paradox. Because mildly bad experiences don’t threaten our psychological health it is sometimes hard to see them positively compared to really awful experiences.

An experiment was done with volunteers who were told that they were joining an exclusive, elite club, but that they had to undergo an initiation which would be an electric shock. There were two sets of volunteers, one set who had a small electric shock and one set who had a massive shock before joining. Interestingly, the people who received the bigger shock preferred the club compared to the people who only had to suffer a small shock. Their psychological immune systems had kicked in at the higher level and had turned it into a positive.

That’s why it’s the small things that really get to us – you can forgive a cheating partner, but not the fact they always leave dirty dishes lying around.

This fact means that bystanders to an insult are often more hurt by it than the actual victims. The bystanders get mildly miffed and don’t trigger the psychological defences, whereas the victim gets badly hurt and looks on the positive side. However, we are not aware of this paradox: we believe that if we were insulted we would feel terrible and that the bystander wouldn’t be too bothered.

Our Defence: Rationalisation

The premise of the good psychological immune system is that it changes the facts to suit your mental state. This is the process of rationalisation. Before you got fired you thought you wanted that job – you did want that job: your brain had rationalised all the bad aspects of the job, leaving you with a feeling of satisfaction. The job was earning you good money and wasn’t too much of a pain in the ass. But as soon as you got fired you realised how awful it was; your brain rationalised in the opposite direction to match your new circumstances and to keep you happy.

How can this be? Simply that, when the psychological immune system is faced with hard evidence opposing the required mental state, it demands more rigorous standards and we criticise that evidence furiously. Forty percent of recently laid-off workers don’t find work again for at least six months, but that figure doesn’t apply to you because you’ve got excellent experience and great references. And when faced with favourable evidence we accept it with very little consideration. Four percent of recently laid-off workers find work that pays better than their old job; you’re easily in that four percent. Our brain agrees to believe what our eyes show us and in return the eyes look for what our brain wants to find. We tackle the bad event with rationalisation, re-framing it in our favour.

But beware: research shows that deliberate attempts delude ourselves will fail. We must feel as if we have come upon the positive feeling honestly, even if subconsciously we are still deluding ourselves. Asking a friend, ‘That job never suited me, did it?’ is an example of a loaded question wrapped up as an honest inquiry. It won’t work unless you’re really gullible.

These rationalisations or explanations are the psychological immune system’s filing mechanism. Explanation closes the file and we cease to respond emotionally to an event that has had closure. Think about the great thrillers in film or literature: there are always plenty of cliff-hangers. You are desperate for the mystery to be solved and, when it is, you get a great dose of pleasure and forget about it, you move onto the next chapter. But if the mystery is never resolved, you keep on thinking about it long after the book’s finished. With explanation we can file the event away. Even fake explanations enable us to move on (as long as we believe in them).

Conversely, the unexplained dominates our mind. If you find out that you have a secret admirer, but you don’t know who, it keeps you buzzing for days – weeks, even! The unexplained is rare and unusual, it captures our attention and we keep thinking about it. This is great if the unexplained is a happy event, like your secret admirer; not so great if the event is a disaster, like your redundancy. If you can explain an event, you can move on from it. However, even in happy circumstances, most people will choose to avoid uncertainty; we are a cautious people and think we’ll  prefer guaranteed outcomes.

What Makes Us Feel Regret?

We feel more regret when:

  • we suffer because of bad luck rather than through human error;
  • we are rejected unanimously by a broad range of people, rather than one judge;
  • we learn of alternatives to our choice than when we don’t;
  • when our bad choices are unusual rather than conventional;
  • when we fail by a narrow margin than a wide margin;
  • when we accept bad advice, rather than reject good advice;
  • when we don’t act, than when we do (even wrongly).

We feel more regret in these situations because the psychological immune system is less able to rationalise away these occurrences. Bad luck is a poor excuse; we prefer to have someone to blame. But then again, we can’t blame everyone. If you have a choice of a hundred spaghetti sauces and the one you choose is not good then you only have yourself to blame because you could have gone for a different one. If you are doing something that no one else is doing and you fail, you only have yourself to blame. If you come within a millisecond of breaking the county 100m sprint record, then you’ll obsess over all the little things you could have done to get that last fraction of a second. If you accept bad advice then you can only blame yourself for being so stupid to have taken it. Rejecting good advice is much easier to rationalise: maybe it wouldn’t have worked out so well for you, it was still the right decision in the circumstances and so on.

The interesting thing about the last point, however, is that we expect to regret incorrect decisions that we act on more than incorrect decisions where we didn’t act – even though the opposite is true. Daniel Gilbert gives an example with stock shares.

You have shares in Company A and consider moving them to Company B, but don’t. Company A’s shares then lose £1,000 in comparison to B’s. At the same time you have shares in Company C and decide to switch them to Company D, whereupon they instantly lose £1,000 in value compared to Company C.

Which scenario do you instantly feel worse about? The one where you make the switch, right? The one where you took action. But we know that inaction, in the long run, will make you feel more regret than action.

We find it harder to generate a positive view of inaction because we can’t think of all the lessons we learnt from the experience, whereas with action you can always say: ‘Well at least now I know!’ Although our psychological immune system can rationalise an excess of courage better than an excess of cowardice, we will always err on the side of inaction for fear of looking like an idiot.

We are also more likely to look for the positive in things that we’re stuck with. Tests on people on election day show that they prefer their chosen candidate on the way out of the polling booth, compared to on the way in. Siblings, employees and spouses should provide numerous other examples from your own life. You demand higher standards from someone on a first date compared to someone you’ve already said ‘I do’ to. We feel happier when we get a test result saying that we have a potentially deadly genetic defect OR if it says that we don’t – but we feel terrible if the tests are inconclusive. We can’t feel happy until the fate is irrevocably ours.

Summary: How Can I Avoid Regret?

Our psychological immune system will kick in at a certain level and particularly when we:

  • take action;
  • are in pain;
  • are trapped and have no choice.

Conversely, the psychological immune system is not good at seeing the good side of:

  • inaction;
  • mildly negative events;
  • avoidable events.

But, when given a choice, we do not choose action, serious pain and irreversible commitment over inaction, mildly painful things and freedom. So we are actively choosing the things that will leave us less satisfied in the long run.

However, knowledge is power, so I have a few of suggestions of how to avoid regret. Do not be surprised if you find them hard because they run counter to every instinct you have.

  • Don’t think too much, just act – even if you think inaction is wiser.
  • Consequences from actions, bad or good, can and will be justified.
  • But equally, keep most people on your side – your psychological immune system can’t ignore overwhelming evidence!
  • If in doubt, follow conventions – they are more easily justified.
  • Don’t be afraid of failing spectacularly – you won’t feel that bad.
  • When you fail by a hair’s breadth use it as motivation, try not to think what might have been.
  • Don’t fear the catastrophe.
  • Don’t fear pain – in fact, seek out real hardship.
  • Don’t give yourself a choice, commit.
  • Start shopping in smaller shops (or write a specific shopping list before hand).
  • Become a determinist (‘There was nothing I could do…’).
  • Look for the good (or the diabolically disastrous) in the small things that go wrong.
  • Writing about bad events can make you feel better about them. However, logically enough, writing about good events makes you feel worse about them!

I’m sure you can already spot problems with this list (slavery was a convention once and presumably Hitler could have done without some of the consequences of his actions) so remember to do things that you can justify to yourself and, if in doubt, write down this justification in plain, logical language so that later, when you are kicking yourself for investing in paper pickaxes, you can remember what on earth possessed you. At the very least this justification will make it look more like you had no choice anyway so you can just sigh and get on with no regrets.


This article draws heavily on the work of Daniel Gilbert, specifically his book Stumbling On Happiness.
This was originally published on the website, How to be Human. I hope it finds a new audience here.

How to Make Happy Memories

There is a lot going on in our lives and our poor little brains are just not big enough to remember every detail of all the things that we experience. So they engage in a bit of reductionism. We remember our birthday party last year as being ‘fun’ or ‘debauched’, we remember the botanical garden at Kew as being ‘lovely’ or ‘green’ and we remember banoffee pie as being ‘yummy’ or ‘sickly’. We might go a bit deeper than this for vivid memories, we might remember (or imagine we remember) particular scenes or words, but most people do not have a photographic memory.

So you might imagine that we are more or less at the mercy of the experience itself as to whether it is a happy memory or a sad memory; an exciting memory or a disappointing memory. If the film was an excruciatingly tedious series of over-blown monologues then you are inevitably going to have a memory filled with disappointment. But you would be wrong.

An experiment was done in 1990 by cognitive psychologists concerning memory and the effect of ‘verbal overshadowing’. A group of volunteers were shown a particular shade of yellow for five seconds. Half the volunteers were then asked to describe the colour they saw verbally for a further thirty seconds; the other half just sat and waited for thirty seconds. Everyone was then asked to pick out the particular colour from a line-up of yellows. 73 percent of the non-describers successfully picked out the correct shade of yellow they had studied just thirty seconds earlier from this line-up. That is quite shocking in itself, but incredibly only 33 percent of the people who had described the shade of yellow successfully picked it out. Their description had interfered with their memory, overwriting what they had experienced and replacing it with something else.

This has fascinating implications for happiness and memory. Imagine if, by a simple process of reprogramming, we could remember that monotonous film as a great occasion, one that made us ecstatically happy, rather than bitterly disappointed. All it would take would be a chat over a glass of wine afterwards with a friend, describing all the good bits, all the bits you enjoyed – even if it was just the fact that you had a good nap during the tedious monologues.

But there is also another implication contained in my first sentence: there is a lot going on in our lives and our brains are not suited to remembering fine details of our experiences. They want to reduce things down to simple ‘good/bad’ adjectives. But if we take time over our experiences, being careful to process them in a ‘happy’ way rather than just experiencing them and automatically assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ then we will be more able to generate happy memories. This explains why some people just seem to be happy all the time and others just seem to be permanently annoyed by everything: these people might just have got into the habit of assigning ‘good’ or ‘bad’ more often.

So perhaps the solution is to try and do less and concentrate more on the things that we do experience. Slow down and think about your experience for happiness. Instead of going to Kew Gardens and rushing around trying to see everything, go to just one of the greenhouses and spend all day studying a particular species of plant. By doing things slowly you will remember more and be able to draw more happiness out of each experience. You would have a surfeit of adjectives for that plant, not just ‘pretty’ or ‘withered’ and thus you would be more involved in your own experience.

This need not be the Zen advice that it appears to be. I recently took a long distance bicycle ride to Bordeaux and find that the memories of it are still incredibly vivid and a constant well-spring of happiness. It’s not as though I was picking a blade of grass and contemplating it for hours on end, but just by progressing through France at a leisurely 10 mph I was more deeply involved in my own experience.

How to make happy memories:

1) Self-modify your experiences by discussing them and framing them in a positive light.
2) Broaden your memory’s record of an event by spending longer over it, relishing the moment.

Give it a try today, after all: what price happiness?


This was originally published in 2009 on the (now defunct) How to be Human site. I hope it finds a new audience here.