A Simple Recipe for Flow

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A few days ago, my wife wrote down a simple stir-fry recipe for me to cook.  I’m on nurse duty, and this particular recipe is the kind of comfort food she needs to help her recuperate.  I’m a decent cook (and, the recipe is simple), so after one go, I managed to memorize it.  I just finished cooking my third (and this time, double!) batch of it, and am feeling mighty good.  How can it be that this simple act of getting my mis-en-place, chopping, and then sequencing the frying could be so satisfying?  The answer is twofold: flow and acts of kindness.

You may have heard of flow (a.k.a. “the zone”) elsewhere.  If not, it’s simply the concept of “a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of [an] activity.”  It also happens to be one of the fundamental ways to help improve happiness, and according to “The How of Happiness” by Sonja Lyubomirsky, for me personally it is one the the most effective ways to build happiness.   No wonder I feel so good!  But, I am not a chef, nor do I aspire to be one.  How can it be that cooking this meal got me into a flow state?

One common mistake for those seeking flow is to look in the wrong places.  I’m a data scientist by profession, so naturally I’d expect to achieve flow when I’m writing code or analyzing data, and indeed I do (lucky for me, or I’d have to seriously consider another profession!)  But that doesn’t mean that I can’t find flow in doing such “mundane” things as preparing a meal or going for a bicycle ride.  According to Lyubomirsky, “we can experience flow in almost anything we do, however monotonous or tedious it might appear.”  It helps that this this particular activity was also a way for me to “invest in social connections” via an “act of kindness” (in this case, the most important social connection I have – the one with my spouse!) – both activities that Lyubomirsky also proposes to help increase happiness. So naturally I’m feeling quite good right now.

If you’re interested in ways to improve flow (and happiness!) in your daily life, I highly recommend reading Lyubomirsky’s book (esp. Chapter 7), or the book by the originator of the concept – Flow by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi.  You may find ways to turn the mundane into the sublime.

 

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You Are Not an Average, Joe

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When I was applying for scholarships for college, my father said something that I thought was nonsensical at the time.  I was bemoaning the acceptance rate statistics, and Dad said something like, “It doesn’t matter how many scholarships are awarded or how many people apply, you only need one scholarship.”  Being a  mathematically talented teenager, I “knew” this kind of advice was utter nonsense.  Of course it mattered!  If the acceptance rate was only 5%, then naturally I only had a 5% chance of getting the scholarship, and if the supply was limited, then the more people that applied, the worse my chances.  Right?

With time, I’ve come to realize the wisdom in what Dad said, and even from a mathematical standpoint, that he was actually correct.  It is a subtle but critically important distinction that we all would do well to internalize.  In statistical language, it means not confusing summary statistics with point observations or samples.  In layman’s terms it means: you are not an average anything (at least, not necessarily).

It is all too common to hear advice like “you should work out 3 times per week for 30 minutes,” or “the average person needs 8 hours of sleep,” or “you should eat like a caveman.”  The problem with these broad prescriptions is that they are not based on your particular needs, and they may or may not actually apply to you. You always need to examine where these recommendations come from, what assumptions they make, and whether they will likely be beneficial for you personally.  Statistically speaking, there is a very good chance that as long as they are based on solid science across a large sample, they actually will apply to you.  But you should be prepared to “reject the null hypothesis,” or to say it more concretely: “your mileage may vary.”

In other words, don’t assume that what works for the average person will necessarily work for you, but do try it as a starting point.  There is a very good chance it will work for you – after all, there is definitely something to be said for the “wisdom of the crowds.”  On the other hand, you may have to modify it a bit to suit you, and maybe even throw it out and try something else that your gut tells you is right.  More importantly, actively look out for situations where you are being treated or acting like everyone else when you shouldn’t be.  Yes, “most” people can tolerate gluten, but that doesn’t mean you can.  “Most” people happily guzzle soda made with GMO-based corn syrup, but that doesn’t mean you should.  “Most” people aspire to get a decent job working for a company, buy a house, get married, and have kids, but you should carefully consider whether that’s the best path for you.  “Most” people blindly follow in the footsteps of their parents when it comes to religion, but why would you make such an important decision by accepting the default?

If you only do what the average person does, you will probably only have an average life (or worse).  To be happy and healthy, you need to be productive and strive towards fulfilling your best true self.  That involves finding your strengths (i.e., those aspects of your self where you don’t fall into the middle of the bell curve, i.e., you are not average), and doubling-down on them – not just settling for what is “normal” or “expected.”  Since you only get one life, chances are you’d like for it to be a bit more than average – it’s up to you to discover how to make it great and to march resolutely down your own path.

In the end, I worked hard on my applications, and I did get that one acceptance to a very selective college and that one scholarship I needed, and the experiences I had because of those “lucky breaks” have had a positive lasting impression on who I am and how I approach life.  But to think of them as lucky breaks isn’t right.  It’s clear now that I was not an average applicant. Rather, I was an outstanding one – I just didn’t realize it.  But on some level, Dad did.

P.S. Many of the concepts here are based on a basic understanding of statistics, a subject I and others have suggested should replace Calculus in high school curricula.   If you want to learn more about statistics in a fun way, I heartily recommend The Cartoon Guide to Statistics.

 

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WhatIf…You and Your Friends Held a Conference?

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Last Saturday, a dozen or so friends gathered at my home for the first edition of what I hope to be a recurring tradition – a sort of mini-conference for the members of a bookless book club I co-founded with Jesse Bridgewater and Chad Carson.  We called the gathering IfCon*, after the sentence prefix we use to inspire conversations at our regular meetings, “What if…”

The format of the conference was simple: every member was invited to give a 20-45 minute talk on a topic of their choice, with the only rule being “don’t be boring.” Ten talks and three meals later, I had learned a lot, laughed a lot, gotten to know them all a bit better, and was not for a single moment bored.

The full agenda is on our website, along with links to videos and slides for those speakers who agreed to have them made public.  To give a taste of what we talked about, here are the titles of the talks:

  • Tomorrow is a new day…what if you really believed it?
  • Video games as a storytelling medium
  • Divine Experience – On the Neural Basis of Revelation
  • The Piraha: A People Without Numbers
  • Life lessons from backgammon
  • An iPhone fit for a Queen: Thoughts on American consumerism from Andy Warhol
  • Longevity, Health, and Happiness : How to Live the SWEET Life
  • A Perspective on Understanding the Arts and Humanities as Demonstrated by Differential Image Analysis Bingo!
  • Reflections on man vs machine and digital vs. analog
  • Environmental, Educational, Health, & Economic Sustainability – Lessons from Cambodia

My talk was about how to live a longer, happier life by tracking the physical, mental, and social aspects of your health on a daily basis.  My friends brought up some interesting questions and challenges to my technique that still have me re-thinking my approach.  Giving the talk was invaluable for me – it’s so hard to challenge your own assumptions, but presenting your ideas to someone you know and trust can teach you a lot about your blind spots!

Aside from the actual content of the talks, one of the most gratifying aspects of the day was that nearly every speaker shared something personal.  Whether it was their love of video games or backgammon, their family trip to Cambodia to visit the schools they helped build, their fascination with language, or their personal trick for starting each day anew, I learned a little more about everyone and connected with them at a deeper level than I had before.  And if you watch my talk (Longevity, Health, and Happiness), you’ll learn how making those kinds of connections is critical to a long, happy life.

What if you and your friends held a conference?

* We subsequently discovered that there is another conference with the name, so we’ll likely change it next time around to avoid confusion.

 

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Thoughts, Words, Labels, and Actions

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While reading Gandhi’s autobiography recently, an interesting non-sequitur caused me to rediscover an important motivational technique.  Gandhi said something* about the need for his followers to internalize the British government’s rules before engaging in civil disobedience, and that they should do this via their thoughts, speech, and actions.  This 3-step progression is a natural way to build momentum and ensure that your intentions get translated into actions.

Some people find it difficult to go straight from intention to action.  The gulf seems so large, that often intentions die before they become reality.  How can you address this?  I’m reminded of a common idea from the study and practice of influence, in which it’s suggested that you get people to agree to your proposal by starting them off saying yes to a small part or small detail, and then build a series of yeses on that small seed.  You’re much more likely to win over the undecided if you build support this way.

So if you find yourself failing to go straight from thought to action, try one or two intermediary steps.  First, write your intention down.  Then tell someone, especially someone you know will ask you about it later.  Or, broadcast it to the world, or your world (social networks make this really easy these days). I find it also helps to name the thing you are trying to do by giving it a label or code name.  By attaching a label, you not only make it a real “thing” in your mind, but also make it easier to bring it up in conversation.  It also gives you the opportunity to give it a whimsical name that you associate with the positive side of the effort, which also acts as a code phrase between you and your confidants.  Which sounds better coming from your friend or loved one, “How’s the weight loss program coming along?” or “How is Project Slim Jim?”

As a personal example, a few years ago, I needed to drop about 10 extra pounds.  It wasn’t enough for me to just think that I wanted to drop the pounds.  I tried that for a while, and although I was able to eat a little less and exercise a little more, it just didn’t translate into losing weight.  So I started “writing down” my intention on a daily basis, by recording my weight.  That was it – just weighing myself every day, and writing that number down.  I also told my wife that I was doing it.  That one little change made all the difference, and within 6 months I had safely reached my target weight and maintained it for some time afterwards.  In the last year or so, though, it inched back up.  What happened?  A combination of life changes and the fact that I had stopped weighing myself.  Needless to say, I’m back on the scale every day now, and re-dropping those excess pounds, as part of “Slim Jim – the sequel”.

Another example: I wanted to read more books.  So I wrote down that goal, but initially I didn’t share it with anyone.  Needless to say, I didn’t really get off my butt and start doing something about it.  As it turned out, around the beginning of the year, the website Goodreads was making it easy to make my intention even more concrete by allowing me to “challenge” myself to read a certain number of books this year, and then broadcast that to all my Facebook friends, along with a notice every time I finished a book.  After I’d taken that simple, little step (of writing it down, labeling it as a “reading challenge”, and telling the world), suddenly I started to collect and organize my to-read list, and really start reading.

The inverse of this works for things you don’t want to do – bad habits, catastrophizing, and dwelling on the negative.  In these cases, the best course of action is to simply stop thinking and talking this way by catching yourself and literally mentally telling yourself “Stop,” followed by replacing the negative thought or speech with a positive one.  This technique (from what is called cognitive therapy), along with rationally examining your negative thought patterns, can go a long way towards keeping you on track and focused on the right things.

Do you have a goal you want to achieve, but just can’t seem to get started or have a hard time maintaining the effort needed to accomplish it?  Try the age-old technique that Gandhi hinted at: write it down, give it a name, tell others, and update them on your progress.  You’d be surprised at how much easier it makes turning your thoughts into actions.

I’ve tagged this post with the “happiness” tag for a simple reason: studies show that successful people are happier, healthier, and live longer.  And what is success, but accomplishing the goals you have set out to achieve?  I hope this simple technique helps you along the path to success and happiness.

* I’ve lost the exact quotation, but Gandhi makes use of the “thought, words, actions” triplet often in his writings, and even extends it, for example, in this oft-cited quote, “Your beliefs become your thoughts, your thoughts become your words, your words become your actions, your actions become your habits, your habits become your values, your values become your destiny.”

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The Perfect Happiness Storm

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Singing in the RainThis year, instead of my traditional review of TED talks, I’m going to link to a single page on the TED site – but first let me explain why.

As I grow older, my need for gifts at Christmas diminishes, but this year my wife hit the nail on the head when she gave me a small pocket book titled “Be Happy.”  Each page has a one line aphorism like “Get a good night’s sleep” or “Keep learning” or “Don’t isolate,” along with a simple cartoon illustration.  In 60 lines of text and less than 300 words, it pretty much condenses all you need to know about how to achieve happiness with about 95% accuracy.

The reason it was so apt is that I’ve come to realize that finding the key to happiness has been at the core of my being my entire adult life, and with my wife’s help, I’m just now beginning to really get what it means to be happy. Although I’m still not all the way there yet, at least I feel like there is a path for me to follow that will take me progressively closer.  As I mentioned in my previous post, an analysis of CNN Money’s “Best Advice I Ever Got” leads to “follow your passion” as a very common piece of advice.  After doing that analysis, I started thinking about what I’m passionate about – what should I be “following”? I started listing things, and the one that resonated with me the most was “finding meaning and happiness, knowing myself.”

There seems to be an increasing interest in happiness, not only on a popular level (as one indicator, searches for “happiness” have been on the rise in the last few years), but also in terms of the scientific study of what makes us happy (see, for example, Happiness: No Longer the Dismal Science, or Maslow 2.0: A New and Improved Recipe for Happiness).

This year, I discovered a new feature that LinkedIn put together – soliciting The Biggest Ideas of 2013 from about 60 different influencers.  Many of the so-called big ideas are just whatever the author happens to be working on (i.e., they were using this feature as a self-promotion tool).  So in an attempt to discern the larger themes, I ran all of the text of these ideas through a textual analysis.  Naturally some terms like “social media” and “data” rose to the top as being important themes for this year’s big ideas.  But to my surprise, “happiness” was also relatively high on the list.

Last, but not least, Netflix recently recommended, and I happily watch The Happy Movie.  It was great.

So it’s all coming together – a book and a movie about happiness arrive at the same time that some scientists and influencers are focusing on happiness, while simultaneously and independently, I decide that happiness is my passion.  Naturally, I went to the TED site to see what those bright people might have to say about it, and you know what I found?  A whole collection of talks that TED had already organized around just this topic!  So, to start the new year off, here’s a dose of happiness talk, curated by the fine folks at TED.

As I’ve learned elsewhere, one of the components of happiness is sharing your passion with others, so I’ll try to do more of that here on this blog by following up on the themes I discover as I try to discover the secrets of happiness.

Happy New Year!

 

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I Ride My Bike Every Day, Life is Good

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This morning I got a little reminder of the wonderful gift of life.  I had to drop off a rental truck a few miles from my house, and needed to get home.  My usual ride (my wife) was busy, so I just took her “cruiser” bike, threw it in the back of the truck, and pedaled my way home after dropping the truck off.  It was a bit cold (in the high 30’s), but otherwise a nice day for a ride.  I must have been quite a sight, all bundled up against the cold, riding a too-small-for-me bright orange cruiser with a wicker basket on the front.  And a big-ass smile on my face.

Until a few years ago, I used to be a fairly avid cyclist.  A 20-mile quick training ride was the least I’d consider worthy of my time.  Unfortunately, a just-serious-enough knee injury has kept me out of the saddle, but as I dismounted this morning, I was reminded of those physical feelings I used to get.  The cold-numbed thighs and cheeks, the wobbly legs and sore backside.  It didn’t take much – just a few miles on a simple one-geared coaster-braked cruiser – to drop me right back into that euphoric state of mind.  I really missed riding.

I recently read a couple of articles on CNN Money in which they interviewed dozens of highly successful people and asked them to name the one piece of advice they had received that they considered most valuable.  Being a data scientist, I naturally viewed this as an opportunity to mine the answers for wisdom.  I ran the text of the answers through a simple auto-summarizer that I like to use (more about that in an upcoming blog post), and categorized the results.  The second-most important theme that emerged was the hackneyed, but nevertheless true-to-the-core aphorism to “follow your passion.”  (The most important theme?  I’ll also cover that in that other blog post.) Until this morning, I had forgotten about how much I loved riding a bike.  That passion had fallen by the wayside, much to my physical and, more importantly, mental detriment.

A few years back, my wife bought some blank notebooks.  They were a very simple design, with a string-clasp closure, and a cover with a line-drawing of a boy on a bike and the caption, “I ride my bike every day.  Life is good.”  I thought they were cute, but didn’t really get them until now.  The notebook covers, assuming you use them often enough, are a constant reminder to find those things which bring you joy, and to make doing them a habit, a part of your daily routine.  For me, that coincidentally happens to be riding a bike, and so I’ll be prioritizing replacing my 20-year-old road bike with something that is gentler on my aging body in the coming year.

I was originally going to title this post “Life: Love It or Leave It,” but decided that could easily be misinterpreted if taken literally.  But metaphorically, it is spot-on.  As we turn the page to a new year, it’s time to ask ourselves, “What is my ‘bike’?”

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