Leveraging Stress for Happiness

Life is full of stress.

Many of us spend a considerable amount of our lives trying to overcome, mitigate, or avoid stress. Often times, the very stress we experience in dealing with stress becomes itself the greatest stress in our life.

This is a perfect example of the type of situation where we must be cognizant of what lies within our control and what lies without. To understand your stress, you must first reflect upon WHAT is stressing you, and WHY. What and why will tell you IF something can be done. If something truly lies outside of your power to influence or alter then you must learn to accept it and let it go. How much time must we waste stressing over matters which will never be improved through such worry. Let them go.

For those stresses that we can influence – devote yourself to improving those situations, however that may be. Understand that many scenarios will take time, perhaps several years, to truly improve, but approach it with an optimistic mindset and relish the fact that the journey towards progress and improvement is nourishment for your soul and your life.

A podcast I listened to recently, The Huberman Lab (which I highly recommend to everyone), involved a discussion between Dr. Andrew Huberman – a Biologist, and Dr. Alia Crum – a Psychologist, discussed ways in which we can leverage stress into personal growth. Despite lacking their education, expertise, and qualifications, I was able to infer that one could apply the same attitudes they described about dealing with stress and how to leverage those behaviors into generating happiness.

The most important part of Dr. Humerman’s and Dr. Crum’s discussion was that the attitude we have towards stress largely determines our outcomes we experience through dealing with stress. Studies they discussed indicated that those who view stress negatively, that is as an obstacle or an inconvenience will generally have less successful outcomes (however mentioned) in dealing with their stress or will simply succumb to stress and fail to meet their desired result. Comparatively, those who viewed stress positively, as an opportunity for growth, as a metaphorical stone upon which to sharpen themselves and their skills, were more successful in achieving desired results and had more positive outcomes whether measured as career or relationship success or in physical or mental health results.

These findings demonstrate the necessity of positive psychology in facing adversity. Suffering is inevitable. Stress is inevitable. The presence of stress and suffering will persist regardless of our attempts to remove them, thus making their avoidance futile. Rather than toil aimlessly to simply eradicate such feelings, the better approach is to face them head on, lean into the struggles, and to use them as tools to forging a better version of ourselves and a happier life.

Happiness is not something we find hidden behind stress. Happiness is something we forge through dealing with our stress and embracing the struggles that life has provided. Do not seek to become happy by avoiding stress at all costs. Learn to become happy by accepting the natural existence of stress in life and by leveraging that stress to channel adversity into a positive outcome.

Just as a blacksmith uses heat and blunt force to forge his art, we can use the heat and force of our stress to forge a happier life for ourselves.

Embracing the Struggle for Happiness

Today, modern human’s live in greater comfort and luxury than ever before. For the first tens of thousands years our existence was heavily characterized by the fight for survival. Days were spent foraging and hunting for enough food to exist until tomorrow or fighting against existential threats such as predators or roving tribes of other humans.

Over time existence got easier. Certain animals and plants were domesticated creating for the first time a food surplus, this in turn freeing up time for man to create and discover new technologies, develop art, and pursue pleasure. (I highly recommend Jared Diamond’s book “Guns Germs and Steel which covers the advent of modern society from our nomadic roots). Throughout the past several millennia the trajectory of human existence has moved further and further away from our early struggles for mere existence and closer towards greater knowledge, pleasure, and comfort.

The struggle we face is no longer for existence but for purpose in existence. Prehistoric man found meaning and purpose in survival. Prehistoric man would have received the dopamine rush that we associate and recognize as happiness and reward from a successful hunt providing food or from warding off an attack by a rival tribe. Where our ancestors would have trekked for many miles over several days to bring down a mammoth and provide food, the extent of our effort today lies in picking up our phone or computer to order delivery online, with the most difficult part of the whole process being which restaurant we will finally order from.

Don’t misunderstand me, I am a huge advocate for technological advancements and very fond of the increased availability of time to enjoy other pursuits we enjoy as a result of said technology. I am grateful that my existence no longer depends on killing a several thousand pound animal with long razor-sharp tusks. Such advancements have allowed humanity to thrive and excel – leading to unprecedented discoveries and awe-inspiring works of art and expression. I would likely have not survived my own birth were it not for technology. That said, there are obvious negative consequences to the sort of modern existence that we experience today.

The greatest consequence of modern humanity’s trajectory is struggling to find meaning or purpose in our existence. It would seem that happiness would thrive in a society with the omnipresent threat of death and disaster has been largely removed. This is not the case. Quite the opposite. Instead we see levels of anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to rise year over year. As technology allows for healthier, longer, safer, lives filled with new and exciting toys, gadgets, experiences, and hobbies, – one would expect that depression would be decreasing and that happiness would increase. Why then do we see the opposite?

The answer appears to be partially explained by the fact that the removal of existential struggle and the over-abundance and easy-accessibility of happiness or pleasure inducing experiences or materials has blunted our ability to actually experience the emotions of joy or happiness. As Dr. Andrew Huberman, a PhD of Biology at Stanford University, says: “pleasure is not a problem. Dopamine is not a problem. Too much pleasure experienced too often without a prior requirement for effort in order to achieve that pleasure/dopamine is terrible for us however, it lowers our baseline level of dopamine and the potency of all experiences.” It isn’t that pleasure is the problem. The problem is that a surprising adverse consequence of the development of modern society and technology is that the availability of pleasure has increased to unprecedented levels and is available without prerequisite levels of effort or labor. Dr. Viktor Frankl said that “when a person cannot find a deep sense of meaning they distract themselves with pleasure.” The more one indulges in a pleasure, the less and less they will actually enjoy it, leading to a never ending cycle of needing more and more – the very basis for addiction that we see all too commonly today.

Numerous religions, particularly Eastern religions, note the inherent coupling of existence and suffering. Bygone generations of humanity derived happiness and pleasure in their overcoming of struggle and suffering. In finding purpose in their overcoming of suffering they were able to discover meaning in existence. Ironically the removal of struggle has not lead to an increase in happiness and pleasure but instead increased it. The human’s of today must be intentional about creating a life of purpose in order to create happiness. This naturally leads to the question about what does purpose look like and how do you pursue it?

Friedrich Nietzsche said: “he who has a why to live for can bear almost any how.” In order to create happiness in our lives we must find a why, what do we live, what is our purpose. Dr. Jordan Peterson believes that having a goal, ideally a goal that improves society in some way, can provide meaning to life because it creates a worthy pursuit. That pursuit provides pleasure, pleasure that we must work for, in the accomplishment thereof but that the pursuit itself presumably makes us a better person and that we should derive joy from the effort of becoming a better person. To the point of goals that improve society, remember the Alchemist by Paulo Coelho where it is said that any goal that enriches the individual enriches the world because in pursuing our own goals or dreams we nurture the soul of the world by nurturing the self – the self being just single part of or one specific iteration of the larger whole.

The purpose of this post is not to suggest that we burn our libraries, destroy our technology, and scatter our food stores so that we may return to a subsistence living and once again return to our subsistence levels of existence in order to once again derive happiness and meaning in the very struggle for survival. The purpose is to merely highlight the deleterious effects of what in most ways is a very positive trend – that towards greater technological and scientific advancement, and to urge everyone to discover passions and to create noble goals worthy of pursuit and to struggle mightily in the achievement thereof. To quote Dr. Frankl once more: “What man actually needs is not a tensionless state but rather the striving and struggling for some goal worthy of him.”

If this is resonating with any readers I can tell you, I have been there. Much of my twenties were a struggle to find meaning and purpose in my existence. It wasn’t until I realized that sense of purpose in my work helping others, and later in committing myself to creating a better version of myself, a version built with struggle which I had to fully embrace, that I began to experience true happiness and live with real purpose. Nobody can find your purpose for you, you have to do that on your own. You may discover in fact that it is your purpose that finds you. Once that purpose is realized and you commit yourself to living with purpose, in whatever way that looks to you – you will have discovered the creation of happiness.

It is not through the abolishment of struggle that we find happiness. It is in aiming that struggle towards the ideals of a better Self and in embracing the pain of that struggle that we create happiness of our own accord.

Take Control

The idea of only concerning yourself with that which lies within your ability to control is one of the primary tenets of stoicism. This tenet may be the single most useful concept within the stoic philosophy and can be utilized to create a life of greater happiness even today, thousands of years after the beginning of stoic practices.

Think about some of the stressors that cause anxiety, frustration, or unhappiness in your life today. Here are a few of mine: getting passed over for a promotion (dealing with this as we speak), getting sick and missing out on pleasurable activities, the general situation surrounding the Covid-19 virus and ongoing uncertainties and disruptions of “normal” life. Seriously, if you are reading this and your goal is to generate more happiness, actually write down 3-5 things that make you feel unhappy, or at least keep a mental list.

How many of those things are within your control to change? If I look at my list I can come up with a few solutions: speaking to my manager or applying for new jobs may alleviate issues surrounding the lack of a promotion, taking better care to get adequate sleep and nutrition might bring me back to health or prevent future illness, as far as Covid, well, not much can be done there. So yes, some degree of control lies within my hands, but at the same time I am limited in my ability to affect certain outcomes. I can’t give myself a promotion, I can only set myself up for the greatest chance of success, but the actual outcome lies in the decisions of others. I can take preventive measures to stay healthy but the truth is that people get sick, and sometimes getting sick disrupts our lives – it is somewhat inevitable. And Covid? Don’t get me started – few situations I have observed in my life have ever presented themselves as more out of control, and I learned a long time ago that stressing over the virus itself or other people’s decisions surrounding the virus.

Do the things that cause you unhappiness, or that are preventing you from realizing happiness lend themselves to being influenced by certain actions, thoughts, decisions, or behaviors on your part? If the answer is yes, do something about it. If not, learn to let it go and accept that you are not an omnipotent being with the power to bend heaven and earth to your own will. The worst thing you can do is do nothing, and simply wallow in misery – trust me, I have done that and it only leads to a negative spiral of deeper and deeper despair.

The reason I bring this up today is that over the weekend I was reading “The How of Happiness” by Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Doctor of Psychology at UC-Riverside who has spent her career studying Happiness. Dr. Lyubomirsky’s has performed and observed studies indicating that only 10% of our happiness is due to circumstance, 50% is due to genetic predisposition (a shocking figure worthy of future discussion here), and that the remaining 40% of happiness is within the control of the individual based on certain thoughts and behaviors.

My guess is that the average person would believe that circumstance plays a much higher role in happiness than a mere 10%. Dr. Lyubomirsky points out that this figure is because most of us are looking for happiness, or trying to create happiness, from the wrong things. Her research and those of others indicates that happiness doesn’t come from wealth, luxury, cleanliness, or comfort. The recurring traits of the happiest people include: strong social connections and relationships. they express gratitude, they have lifelong passions and goals, they exercise, and they practice optimism.

These traits are worth practicing as they will build a foundation of positive thinking and the creation of happiness. Regardless of one’s circumstances, we have the power to create – to a large extent anyway – a life of happiness if we know where to focus our energies.

Be mindful of this the next time you feel anxious, depressed, or stressed. Take the time to reflect on your thoughts and feelings and determine whether what ails you is within your control. Do not become upset over circumstance, but remember that happiness lies in your behavior, attitude, and decisions – things that are always under your own control.

Let Dogs Remind You of the Shortness and Beauty of Life

“It is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it…Life is long if you know how to use it.”

Seneca

It is well known that dogs are masters of living in the moment and giving unconditional love. They teach us to see joy wherever we look and whatever we do. We may be completely safe and comfortable in the company of our dogs, for in their eyes we could never be a disappointment. It is more than their grand enthusiasm for life, the fact that our caring for them nurtures our compassionate self – making us happy, or that a hug can boost our oxytocin to induce joy as if we were hugging a loved one. There is another lesson that dogs teach us, and it is a tough but important pill to swallow. That is that time is brief, and life is doomed to end.

Sadly, dogs do not live long in comparison to we humans who love them, and in the wake of their passing we are left struggling to pick up the pieces of our broken hearts, move on, and search for meaning and approval in their absence of our biggest fans. Whether it was pure chance or an intentional act of intelligent design by the creator(s) of the universe to teach us this harsh truth, the brief time which we get to enjoy with our dogs is a painful reminder of the fragility of life and of the unstoppable march of time.

As much grief as we may experience through our learning of this lesson, it is one we must be ever mindful of, and will ultimately be forced to learn whether we want to or not. The time of all living things on this earth is doomed to end someday. Life has yet to show any possibility of escaping death, and in fact life could not exist where it not for its equal opposite, death. Whether we live a few days as if we were a mosquito or hundreds of years like trees and turtles, life will end, as will the lives of everyone we care about.

At this point you are probably thinking: hey Matt, chill the fuck out man, this blog is supposed to be uplifting and if you’ve made it this far you’re likely on the verge of tears, a panic attack, or just plain depressed. My intent is quite the opposite. Knowing the brevity of our time should encourage us to live happier lives, to savor every moment, to spend every second loving and supporting our fellow beings, and to view every instance with profound wonder and joy. Time is too short to fear death, and we have precious little of it left (however much that may be) to waste any more of it not being completely and wholly happy in the beauty of our existence. If life were everlasting, then there would be no joy or meaning in anything. There would truly always be tomorrow, and no moment would hold true value or importance. The very finite nature of existence is what makes it special.

Dogs perhaps our best reminder to make the most of our time. I was struck by this idea while enjoying an early morning cuddle with my dog, Floyd. For the umpteen-hundredth time, I was struck by just how much love and appreciation I have for him, which made me want to savor the moment even more, knowing that someday, hopefully in the distant future, I will be left with mere memories such as this.

Let not the tone of this post cause you any worry over Floyd’s wellbeing. He is quite alright and thriving. As I type this my left elbow is resting on his back as he snores loudly beside me on the sofa, after having spent a long day enjoying the company of my sister and her boyfriend’s dog Moose. He is doing great. But not for the first time his presence and spirit have been a muse of sorts for me, inspiring certain revelations or reminders about happiness which I was encouraged to share.

When I look at him as I am doing now I see compassion, love, and kindness anthropomorphized. I also see a close friend, whom sadly even under the most optimistic of expectations will likely be parted from this earth within the next 15 years, likely sooner. I say this with little trepidation as I know that short of giving him love, affection, care, exercise, and healthy food, there is little that his mother and I can do to change this fact. What we can do is commit ourselves to enjoying every moment we have together, such that when that inevitable parting comes, we may say goodbye without a regret about the things unsaid or the memories we never made together.

Seneca the Stoic once said: “it is not that we have a short time to live, but that we waste a lot of it… life is long if you know how to use it.” Funnily enough, death is the only certainty in life (along with taxes if you ask Benjamin Franklin) yet most of us live as if we were destined to live forever. We prioritize that which matters little, which brings us neither joy nor enhancement of our character nor the betterment of society, and when we lie on our death beds many of us reflect with pity and regret that we didn’t enjoy or make greater use of our time.

I am reminded of this reality every time I look at Floyd. Knowing the compassionate nature that he and his fellow canines have for us, I would not be surprised if there was some conversation in another realm between dogs and the creator(s) of life, wherein our beloved four-legged friends agreed to sacrifice their time on earth, living shorter lives, in return for reminding we humans of the importance of making the most of whatever time we have got.

Whether this is accurate or merely my attempt to make sense of the cosmic injustice of short lives for dogs, the importance of the lesson remains. Time is short, if you waste it. If you make the most of it, appreciate what you have, live with virtue, treat others with kindness and respect, then you will have made the most of your time and lived a full life, whether you die at 50 or 100. Let not this lesson in love be lost at the expense of our beloved dogs. Hug the ones you love, say I love you often – and mean it, take a chance on yourself, prioritize health and happiness, and make the most out of this crazy ride on this weird blue rock that flies round the sun which we are all on.

Perspective, the first pillar of Happiness

This post is about one of the fundamental principles of happiness. As I have done my research and reading I have come across several recurring themes that appear to play a major role in happiness and have been identified by numerous philosophies, religions, and individuals as paramount to a joyous existence. I will call these the Pillars of Happiness and over the coming weeks and months will elaborate on each of the pillars, beginning with the first one here.

The first pillar of happiness that I want to discuss is perspective. Perspective is about how we see ourselves, our emotions, the world around us, and our thoughts toward that world. It can be used synonymously with attitude or viewpoint. With the wrong sort of perspective it may be impossible to experience and know happiness. With the right perspective, happiness becomes something that can be enjoyed almost immediately. Let us unpack this idea further.

The reason why perspective matters so much is that there is a tremendous amount of opportunity to feel sadness or unhappiness in life. Suffering is an immutable characteristic of existence. Suffering is the first part of the noble eightfold path of Buddhism, each of the Abrahamic religions acknowledge suffering as part of existence and describe at great lengths the suffering of their followers as well as their religious figures. I am not as familiar with Hinduism, Taoism, or other major religions as with the aforementioned, but I do know that they have a healthy respect for and admission of the presence of suffering in our lives. We don’t need religious texts or philosophers to tell us about suffering, any of us who are old enough to be reading this post have experienced some measure of suffering in our existence, and as such we can agree that suffering is part of life.

The only way that we can experience happiness in light of an existence fraught with suffering is through our perspective. First, we must come to recognize the truth of the following statement by Alan Watts, who said that “all men suffer but not all are unhappy, for unhappiness is a reaction to suffering not suffering itself.” It is easy to understand how one might mistake suffering for the literal embodiment of suffering which is not the case. It isn’t suffering that causes us to be unhappy, but rather our reaction to suffering.

Through the perspective of realizing that it is our reaction to suffering that causes us to be unhappy, we realize that we have the power to choose our reaction and our thoughts around any given situation. This is precisely what Viktor Frankl wrote in Man’s Search for Meaning, that “everything can be taken from a man but one thing, the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way.”

Those of us familiar with the life of Dr. Frankl will know that he endured suffering on an unimaginable scale through his experience as a Jewish prisoner in Nazi Concentration Camps. Through his willpower and perspective towards his suffering, he was able to endure what so many sadly were not. If he can survive his time in the death camps, so too can we choose our outlook or perspective in the face of whatever suffering will come our way.

We can further change our perspective on life in general, not merely with regards to suffering, by remembering the teachings of the stoics, who remind us to focus only on that which we cannot control. Most of what happens in life is the work of forces greater than any of us are able to understand and thus we are helpless to exert any sort of control. We cannot control circumstances but we can control our outlook through perspective. Tony Robbins is fond of saying “life happens for you, not to you.” This is an excellent way to shift perspective around things that might initially cause us unhappiness, as we choose to perceive them as opportunities for growth and development rather than as harmful or hindering.

We can go a step beyond this by adopting the perspective of the stoics once again and reminding ourselves that events are objective, rather than subjective. Things that happen are not good nor bad, they simply are. Only our reaction to them gives them any label such as good or bad, and only our reaction can allow things to make us happy or sad. Marcus Aurelius once wrote: “Do away with the opinion I am harmed, and the harm is cast away too. Do away with being harmed, and harm disappears.” Pain, unhappiness, suffering, they are all constructs of the mind, if we can adopt the perspective on our existence to be immune to such thoughts or feelings then we can remain happy regardless of what may happen in our lives.

Maintain a positive perspective on life, make yourself impervious to suffering our harm, and choose to see the beauty in all things that are our existence. If we allow our mind to become reactive towards the world around us it may be very easy to adopt a negative and unhappy perspective towards existence. The person who has a happy, joyous, and optimistic outlook creates that very type of life for themselves and for others. Positive people with happy perspectives light up the world around them and are a beacon of hope for those who would emulate them and feel the same way. The Dalai Lama said in the Book of Joy: “Changing the way we see the world in turn changes the way we feel and the way we act, which changes the world itself,” before adding “a healthy perspective really is the foundation of joy and happiness, because the way we see the world is the way we experience the world.”

If our own mind is committed to the decision of being happy, rather than looking to the outside world to behave in such a way that causes us to react happily, then we are able to create a happy existence for ourselves through our perspective. Remember this thought every day, that happiness is a choice, not a reaction. If you perceive the world as cruel, dark, inhospitable, and unhappy, then that is exactly what it shall become. If you are able to permanently adopt the perspective that no amount of suffering can shake you from the possibility of happiness, recognize that the struggles in life make us better, and remember that life happens for you not to you, then you will be able to experience endless happiness.

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