An Idle Mind is the Devil's Workshop. Or is it? A discussion on Happiness and Idleness

 You’ve probably heard the expression: an idle mind is the devils workshop? It basically means that we need to have something to keep us busy in thought or action in order to keep the bad thoughts at bay. If we let the bad thoughts in we may become depressed or we may act out and do something wrong just for the sake of having something to do – both works of the devil, in so far as this saying goes. 

I understand the need to have interests, hobbies, activities, and outlets for one to focus on, they can create fun, develop artistic talents and skills, and can lead to promising careers that will help us to provide a living for ourselves and our loved ones. But I think it is actually very important that one spend some time with an idle mind. 

In my personal battle with depression, I can remember on numerous occasions, turning to an excess of activity to keep my mind busy elsewhere, focusing on anything else other than how much I hated myself, or how deep in despair I was. I would spend hours in the gym, working on my body, I would study for hours on end, determined to finish number 1 in my graduate school class, I would meet friends as often as possible, so we could hang out, I would read books on any subject under the sun, and I would watch tv: comedies, documentaries, drama etc. whatever it took to keep my mind and body occupied and keep the devil at bay. 

I don’t mean to say that any of these are bad: I am grateful for having developed a strong, and healthy body of which I am proud through my hours in the gym. I am glad for the effort I put into my studies: I learned many subjects, was able to secure employment and I learned the value of hard work. I am grateful for the laughter shared with friends, and the bonds that were developed and strengthened. I gained so much knowledge, and wisdom through my readings, enjoying many exciting stories, and discovering for the first time many of the works that I reference here in my blog. The tv, sure, I don’t even regret that, it gave me a great outlet for entertainment and could put a smile on my face when so few else could. 

The problem was not what I was doing, but why I was doing it. As I mentioned, I was doing it because I was too afraid to stop and be alone in my own thoughts. I was too afraid of what I would come to find out about myself if I let myself have an idle mind. I am definitely not advocating that you be nothing but a sentient blob who does nothing: no career, no relationships, no hobbies, no passions, these are many of the things that make life beautiful and worth living. I do think though that you need to be able to be alone in your thoughts. If this is painful or frightening right now, then I think you have some serious reckoning to work on with yourself. 

I would highly encourage you to practice meditation. Many cultures have a history of meditation and differ accordingly, but the core principle is in clearing the mind and getting in touch with your inner self. It is about finding peace and belonging in the universe simply in ones existence. Meditation is something that I try to do every day, I began practicing using the Headspace app which taught me the basics. The important thing about meditation is not how long you do it for, or even how good you are (you probably wont be able to clear your mind at first) but simply that you do it at all. The act of being still, idle and focused within will have a calming effect and can help remove the stress or need for constant stimulation. 

I hope you all have exciting, stimulating lives, full of strong relationships, exciting hobbies and adventures, but I hope that you are able to sit still, be idle, and be perfectly content doing nothing at all, and find happiness in yourself. 

If you are new to meditation and want to learn, or are struggling with the concept, I highly recommend headspace. 
You can download their app on your mobile device in the app store, or follow the link below to visit their webpage. 

Want to be Happy? Try the Danish Way – The Danes and Happiness

 

You can’t talk happiness without talking about Denmark. The tiny nation of Denmark is widely considered to be one of, if not THE, happiest country in the world. Since the United Nations began publishing its annual world happiness report in 2016, Denmark has been ranked in the top 3 nations for happiest citizens every single year. Interestingly enough, its fellow Nordic nations of Finland, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden have all made the top 10 every year. I want to look at what makes this entire group of nations collectively happy in a later post, which I intend to publish within the next two weeks. But for now, let’s focus on Denmark. 

A quick glance at the map will show you that Denmark is located way up in the northern latitudes, close to the arctic circle such that it receives hardly any daylight in winter, with plenty of dark and wet weather year-round to boot. With the known association between sunlight exposure and happiness (another future post), it might seem improbably that a nation with Denmark could rank so high in happiness. 

As it turns out, at the core of the Danish notion of happiness, there is a concept about the art of being comfortable, about being able to find, peace, relaxation, and happiness in the little things. This concept is called hygge (Who-guh), which comes from a Norwegian word meaning “well being.” Even more difficult than pronouncing hygge is trying to explain or define it, in fact, over 1/3 of Danes believe that Hygge cant be translated or defined at all. The closest I can come to defining Hygge is as the art of comfort and enjoyment. To paraphrase Meik Wiking, founder of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen (yes they literally have an institute for researching happiness in Denmark), in his own paraphrasing of Winnie the Pooh in his book “The Little Book of Hygge”:

“It isn’t how you spell define it, its how you feel it.” ~Winnie the Pooh ~ Meik Wiking.

One of the notable things I realized while reading Wiking’s book and learning more about hygge, was that Hygge is different for everyone and it even differs at time of the year. In the notoriously brutal Danish winters, hygge involves cozying up in soft wool socks and sweaters while drinking warm beverages with a few friends around a fire. In the pleasant, sunny, summers, hygge becomes enjoying nature while rowing a canoe with a companion and watching the magnificent sunset light up the sky with a dozen hues of orange and purple beyond the horizon of the lake. For the more introverted among us it might be cozying up on a comfortable couch and listening to music, while for others it might be a board game night at a good friends house with a group of friends (note: hygge is often enjoyed in groups, though these groups are almost always small, as too large a group can ruin the hygge-lig (hygge like) experience.))

Another interesting note on hygge, is that in order for hygge to exist, it must exist in contrast to something else, the anti-hygge. This may explain why in the face of such harsh winters, such that one would find it unlikely to find the worlds happiest people, that the Danes remain happy. Without those windy, bitingly cold winters, the whole concept of getting comfortable under a blanket next to a fire doesn’t have the same appeal. Without a brutal winter that keeps you inside, that summer hoke through the mountains doesn’t seem so special, as instead it becomes the norm, the expected. Because of this, we can understand hygge as an appreciation of sorts, gratitude for special occasions, and enjoyment of the simple things that aren’t always there. 

Again, hygge is different for everyone. What it really is, is about being comfortable, and grateful. About letting your guard down, and simply being content with your place in the world. 

That being said, below is a list of things that most Danes associate as being core tenants of hygge, as reported by Wiking: 

            1.  Atmosphere: turn off the incandescent lights and enjoy some soft natural lighting such as that                     from candles or fires. Danes lead the world in candle usage and more Danes have fireplaces in                     their home than any other European nation. 

            2. Presence: turn off your phones. No talk of politics, work, or other hot-button issues. This is                         about comfort and togetherness. 

            3. Pleasure: especially comfort food. The Danes are VERY fond of their sweets and cakes. For this,                 think warm beverages, cake, cookies and more. If you are a non-Dane wanting to practice hygge                 I am sure you will have no trouble coming up with your own notion of comfort food. 

            4. Equality: Hygge is not about comparison, ostentatiousness, or anything that might make others                     feel inferior. We are all equals as humans. 

            5. Gratitude: be here in the now. Don’t look to the future and decide you can be happy When this                 or If that. This may be as good as it gets. Enjoy where you are. 

            6. Harmony: no need to stand out or show off. This is about being a group with those with whom                     you share hygge. 

            7. Comfort: think pillows, blankets, warmth and ease. 

            8. Truce: see presence above. This is no time for divisive subjects. This is about appreciation of                     your fellow human. 

            9. Togetherness: build memories and bonds with those around you. 

            10.Shelter: feel safe and comfortable. The world can be scary. Let your guard down and be                             vulnerable with those with whom you share your hygge. 

   

I have inevitably left out a great deal regarding the concept of hygge. I have every intention of revisiting this concept in future posts, as I hope to share this wonderful idea with others. In the meantime, though, I hope you can take this post to heart. Think about some ways in your life that you can introduce more hygge. Can you create a more hygge living space with some natural light. Can you make a tasty meal that will bring you comfort. Is there a group of friends you can have over for a movie night or a relaxing chat around a fire? 

However you choose to practice, I hope that you can follow the lead of the Danes, and put more hygge in your life so that you may experience a higher sense of happiness. 

I highly encourage you to read Meik Wiking’s book: you can follow the link here

Link: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B01GONJFZ2/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

Also, visit the Happiness Research Institute’s website and check out their amazing work: 

Link: https://www.happinessresearchinstitute.com/

Why Happiness does not Mean Being Happy all the Time.

 

True happiness comes from contentment and a deep sense of understanding

I want to talk about Happiness especially in relation to how it is often confused, which is with joy, or more specifically euphoria. Joy and happiness are often thought of synonymously, but I believe when we examine them deeper, they are different.  I believe that joy is a feeling, and that happiness is more a state of being. One can and often does experience joy when they are happy but to be joyous or euphoric does not necessarily make one happy. 

In particular it is the ephemeral and superficial nature of joy that contrasts it with happiness. Joy is typically caused by outside events or happenstance, which we by now know are things that are outside of our control, and which can be taken from us. We can be joyous at getting a promotion, but we can be crushed when the company downsizes 4 months later, and we lose our job. We can experience joy when our team wins a game but then crushed the next night when they choke in game 7 to lose a series (Atlanta/Georgia sports fan here so trust me I know pain). Likewise, we experience joy when we do a line of cocaine, the pleasure center of our brain lights up, but the next day, with our serotonin depleted and our high gone, we feel miserable. 
Joy is impermanent, and fickle, it can turn to loss, heartbreak or despair at the toss of a die, and for gamblers it is. Happiness is different. Joy is dependent on things, circumstances, things outside our control while happiness is learned over time and comes from a deep sense of knowledge of oneself, their place in the universe, and their inherent sense of self-worth, things that cannot be taken. This level of understanding takes time and as it is learned it is strengthened, and it cannot be easily taken away. Just as an athlete spends years developing their body and skills, which will remain mostly intact even after periods of inactivity, so , too the happy person is able to remain happy. 
The high of a huge raise or winning the lottery eventually wears off 

Being happy does not mean constantly joyous. The happy person will experience pain and sorrow when they lose a beloved, like the woman who loses her husband after 50 years. Yes, she hurts, but if she is truly happy, she will be able to remain happy throughout. By being happy in herself she has prepared herself for this loss, and though she misses him, she carries on, head held high, grateful for the love they shared, and grateful for the life she is blessed to carry on living. 
To know true happiness is to make oneself more robust to pain, and sadness. Not immune, but certainly more resistant. Rather than chasing that which brings joy: a new car, a buzz, a better job, an orgasm, instead cultivate happiness, be grateful for yourself and be resilient. It takes time but when you get there, it will have been worth the battle. 

Exercise, Activity, Fitness and Happiness

 

Today I want to talk about exercise and the role it has in your pursuit of happiness. I will also be writing about the profoundly positive impact that exercise has had in my own life. 

Exercise makes you happy. There. That’s all you need to know. 

Go exercise and be happy. 

In all seriousness though, there is a wealth of scientific studies that have focused on the way exercise can impact happiness, and I have never seen one that shows a negative effect. In the interest of not turning this into a scientific literature review of all studies on the subject (and there are A LOT), I will simply allude to 3 studies I found during a cursory search.

 1)Effects of physical exercise programme on happiness among older people by M Khazaee-Pool 1, R Sadeghi, F Majlessi, A Rahimi Foroushani and 2) Don’t Worry, Be Happy: cross sectional associations between physical activity and happiness in 15 different European countries by Justin Richards, Xiaoxiao Jian, Paul Kelly, Josephine Chau, Adrian Bauman and Ding Ding were long term studies were subjects were asked to fill out a survey reporting their own level of happiness before and after participating in long term (several months) exercise programs. 

Similarly, 3) The Effects of Acute Exercise on Mood, Cognition, Neurophysiology, and Neurochemical Pathways: A Review by Julia C. Basso and Wendy A. Suzuki measured their subjects pre and post exercise levels of happiness as indicated by neurotransmitters and other objective indicators and they did so following a single bout of exercise. 

Endorphins: the feel good hormone released when you exercise

All 3 studies showed evidence, both subjective and objective, of exercise leading to happiness and they demonstrated the effect in both short term, immediately after exercise benefits, and long-term benefits of regularly exercising over many weeks. There is much more research out there, all showing similar results, and now that I have begun looking at it, the exercise scientist in me is chomping at the bit to dive deeper, but for purposes of the blog I’ll avoid getting too deep into the weeds of the science, for now anyway. Bottom line though, exercise promotes happiness. 

Don’t believe me? Try it yourself. 

The role that exercise has played in my life cannot be praised highly enough. I first began regularly exercising at the age of 15 and continue to do so to this day. When I began, I was a sack of bones, who barely weighted more than 100lbs soaking wet, and my self-esteem was shit. I watched my classmates start growing into strong athletic men, while I remained a string bean of a little boy (there I go comparing myself to others again). I thought I was doomed to a life of physical inferiority and self-loathing and just generally not enjoying existing as myself.

Just before I began exercising, I had either quit or been cut from every team I had been on and was starting to get a little soft, skinny fat you could say. Luckily, my parents were avid fitness enthusiasts and they got me working with their trainer. I became hooked within a few weeks as soon as I started to see results. My trainer from my teenage years continues to be a close friend and mentor now, nearly 2 decades later. He taught me that I can achieve my goals through hard work, and more importantly he taught me how to love myself. 

That isn’t to say that in order to love yourself you have to be an avid gym goer or athlete. Not at all. You are 100% worthy of love and have every reason to be happy, and joyous as exactly who you are. I do think that some form of regular activity however, will help you find that sense of happiness that you may be lacking. I am especially grateful for the evidence that regular exercise over time promotes long term happiness, and not just the short-term euphoria that one often experiences after a workout. This doesn’t even consider the multitude of physical health benefits that exercise improves such as longevity, and quality of life, allowing you more time to enjoy all the other things that make you happy: children, friends, movies, books, travel, and more. 

I would caution you though not to put too much of your sense of happiness into your physical prowess and definitely not into your physical appearance. Unfortunately, our bodies are ephemeral and subject to reclamation or dramatic change by the higher powers of the universe. You could get sick or have an accident that prevents you from participating in exercise, and if your sense of self-worth is too tied up with your physical self, this sudden change can lead you towards a depression. 

Additionally, I want to caution against the over correction of loathing or shame with regards to your physical self which is arrogance and ego. You don’t want to be that person, I know because at times I have allowed myself to become this way. Feeling a sense of superiority to others or narcissistic obsession. This is a major overshoot and will ultimately result in unhappiness for you and probably others as well. So, no!

I am not encouraging you to become a health nut, who eats, breathes, lives and dies exercise, unless that’s what you want, and I’m not suggesting you kill yourself in the pursuit of physical attainments, but I do encourage you to participate in exercise regularly. Consult your physician if there is any doubt in your mind that you can be safely active, and if you do have restrictions I hope you can find something, anything that you can do to be active, even a slow walk outside. Exercise has been a major pillar of my life, helping me learn both self-esteem and humility, given me a great hobby, introducing me to many amazing people, at one point being my career, and hopefully leading me to a long happy life. 

I will leave you a quote by Socrates, the same man who gave me the inspiration for the name of this blog. Disclaimer: the first part of the quote says that no man (or woman) has the right to be an amateur in the matter of physical fitness. Yes, you have every right. This isn’t ancient Athens and there is no threat of war against Sparta or the Persians. The real reason why I share this quote is because i find it fascinating that even 2500 years ago, our ancestors even then understood the importance of physical activity and the pursuit of happiness. 

Just ignore the first sentence!

“It is a shame for a man to grow old without seeing the beauty and strength of which his body is capable.” Socrates. 

Links to the above referenced studies, in case you want to take a closer look: 

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/25492721/

https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-015-1391-4

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5928534/

The Buddhists and Happiness

I want to go ahead and warn those of you that may reading this that this post may be more personal than my previous several. As I’ve been reviewing my posts to date, I decided I wanted to add more personal anecdotes and stories in an effort to connect more with you, my readers, and eventually create a dialogue (once I actually have readers.) Rather than continuously lecture you on the pursuit of happiness (and I do realize my posts have been more essay-ish than conversational). I want to talk with you about it, pointing you in the direction of my favorite sources of wisdom on the subject or share a story from my past, in the hopes that you may choose to open up and share your own experiences either with me and your fellow readers here in my comments section, or in general with whomever. If you don’t open up here, that is totally fine but I hope that you can use my experiences that and my thoughts that I share here on your own pursuit of happiness. 

About 7 years ago when I was in one of my low valleys on the rollercoaster that is life, I thought about ending my own life (sorry dark), this was not the first or the last time I would feel this way.  This isn’t a cry for help (I am feeling extremely happy and in love with life these days), but the reason I bring up my depression is because at this time when I was searching for anything that could pull me out of despair, I discovered Buddhism, and the book that I picked up, which I will reference shortly was probably the single most helpful tool I had in overcoming my depression. 

The book to which I am referring is called The Art of Happiness by Howard Cutler and His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The first thing that struck me was that the Dalai Lama said that happiness is determined by one’s state of mind and not by external events. I am positive that HHDL and Dr. Cutler (an American Psychiatrist) are not the first to say this and it probably wasn’t the first time I myself had read or heard it but at this point in my life it really struck me as powerful. Think here again about the stoics, telling us to only concern ourselves with that which is within our control and ignore that which is without. The state of mind in choosing to be happy is what we can control and external events remain almost entirely without. 

As I have read and continue to read philosophy and discover how various cultures tell us to be happy, I am stuck by how similar they are no matter what geography or time period they come from. At the core, the path to happiness is similar. Though striking I suppose it shouldn’t be surprising, as we are all one race, and we all share the same core desires in finding happiness. 

As I mentioned before, the first time I picked up this book, I was in a horrible state of depression. I had graduated college a few months earlier. As a student, I was average at best, and part of me still suspects they gave me a passing average simply so I would leave and the school would no longer have to be associated with me. I had no real purpose in being there, it was simply what people did. As such, I had no goals and zero job offers upon graduation, it probably didn’t help that I didn’t even look for jobs prior to graduating. This goes to show you just how unprepared I was to face the world. I had never for a second imagined my life after graduating from college, that moment which as a child I imagined would suddenly “make me a grownup.”I kept expecting something to just happen that would make me happy, and that my life would just figure itself out.

I was lucky enough to visit new Zealand for a few months later that year. I had planned to find a job and explore the country for a year. In reality though I spent only a little bit of time  and even less effort looking for some form of employment and  instead spent most of my time seeing the sights and partying. New Zealand was in fact hosting the Rugby World Cup that year which gave ample opportunities for the partying in particular.

 I don’t regret the trip, the island nation of new Zealand is beautiful, and I sincerely hope I can return someday. But despite the fun parties with total strangers, the natural beauty, and the general lack of responsibility, I found myself profoundly depressed. A feeling that only got worse as I returned home to live with my parents, my years worth of cash spent in only 3 months, and struggled to find work. I wondered if perhaps I had wasted my only chance at life by screwing off for 4 years of college. It didn’t help that my closest friends from home and college appeared to be on the fastrack to success with an impressive list of accomplishments such as medical school, JD, MBA, financial consulting etc. Compared to these accomplishments I felt insignificant and unworthy of happiness. 

My problem was this: I was letting myself get down because I was looking without instead of looking within and CHOOSING to be happy and to be grateful. I felt insignificant because compared to my friends I was unsuccessful. On top of that, what did it even mean to be successful? I felt bad because I didn’t have a job or because I wasn’t headed to graduate school? So what, that doesn’t make me any less of a person, but at the time it did. I was making a critical mistake here and allowing my self-esteem be tied up in what Dr. Mellody called “other esteem” rather than self-esteem. As Dr. Cutler says in the art of happiness: “Our feelings of contentment are strongly influenced by our tendency to compare.” I may have seemed unsuccessful by COMPARING myself to others, or by allowing someone else to define what it meant to be successful and even worthy. 

The Dalai Lama says that “mindset is key” when it comes to happiness. In particular, we can influence our mindset with gratitude. Stop for a moment and think about what you are grateful. A fun exercise I began participating in around the time I first picked up the Art of Happiness and still often perform to this day was a gratitude journal. At the end of every day, just before bed I would write 5 things about that day for which I was grateful. Some of the things I came up with: Laughed at a funny joke (During my depression induced insomnia I realized Scrubs re-runs were on at 2am, and no matter how down I was, I could still laugh at Donald Faison and Zach Braff 2. I had a good dinner (heartbreaking how many people cant say that every night); I have a roof over my head. Even if you lack those things, and I truly hope you don’t, but if you are reading this you can be grateful for your ability to read or to connect with others. 

Realizing that my sense of despair had nothing to do with who I was, or what was happening to or around me, but rather with how I perceived of the world and of myself, I began my recovery. By choosing to be grateful, and making a decision to be happy every day, I eventually got better and while I have had relapses, I feel that overall the trajectory of my life has begun to shift upwards towards happiness and liberation, and I hope that yours does. 

Choose to be Happy today. 

Suggested Readings: The Art of Happiness by Howard Cutler and His Holiness the Dalai Lama

https://www.amazon.com/dp/B0043VDI6A/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1

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