The Secret to Interpersonal Happiness

Jul. 24th, 2017 10:20 pm
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Posted by zenhabits

By Leo Babauta

As much as we desire being connected to others — good friendships, a wonderful romantic relationship, close family members — this connection always comes at a cost.

We get frustrated by other people.

You know it’s true. You might be really good friends with someone, but then they get angry at you for some reason, or they behave without consideration, and all of a sudden, your mood is much darker. You’re not happy with them, maybe they’re not happy with you. Things can go sour very quickly.

This is such a difficult problem that you could devote entire books to ways of working out these kinds of conflicts and frustrations. But I have one technique that, if applied consistently, will lead to a lot more happiness.

The secret: always take the good-hearted view of other people.

That takes some explaining, so let’s take a look at two ways of looking at other people:

  1. The ill-intentioned view. When someone does something rude, you think, “Why do they have to be so inconsiderate?” or “Who does that?” Basically, you see their actions in the worst possible light, without putting yourself in their shoes. Most of us do this regularly without realizing it. Anytime you’re mad or frustrated with someone, this is what you’re doing.
  2. The good-hearted view. When someone does something inconsiderate — and I’m not saying their actions are justified — you can try to think of those actions in a good-hearted way. For example, maybe they’re having a bad day and are grump — that doesn’t excuse their actions, but you can understand the feeling of being grumpy. Or maybe they were hurt by something you did (which you might not realize) and they are lashing out because of that hurt. That’s not a nice way to react, of course, but we can all relate to feeling hurt and lashing out. So the good-hearted view is that this is someone you care about who is hurting. Forget the personal offense, think about their pain, and be compassionate towards that pain.

Let’s take a brief look at the ill-intentioned way of seeing things, then go into what I believe will transform most people’s interpersonal happiness — the good-hearted view.

Why the Ill-Intentioned View is a Problem

It’s easy to see the rudeness, inconsideration and plain wrongness of other people. That’s because we’re looking at it from our own point of view, and thinking they should see things the same way as you do.

For example:

  • They left dirty dishes or a big mess in the kitchen. Why didn’t they just clean up instead of being inconsiderate? You feel they’re not acting as they should.
  • They said something kind of mean to you. You have no idea why they would be mean, you’re a good person who doesn’t deserve that.
  • They are mad at you for some reason. You don’t deserve that! What’s their problem?

Of course, there are much worse things, but these are some typical interpersonal problems, and common reactions.

These are natural reactions, but looking at things this way causes you to feel bad about the other person. You are frustrated, angry, offended or hurt. You build up resentment.

You might also react badly to the other person — say something hurtful or angry, lash out, ignore them, whatever your habitual way of responding to these things might be. This obviously will make them react badly to you, and now your relationship is hurt. You’re not happy, and neither are they. This isn’t a good situation.

The problem with the ill-intentioned view is that it doesn’t help anybody, and hurt the relationship. Worse yet, it’s self-centered (you’re seeing things from your own point of view) rather than thinking about the other person (whom you care about), both of you, or your relationship together.

The Solution: The Good-Hearted View

OK, so the self-centered view of seeing the ill-intentions of the other person isn’t ideal (not that any of us are ideal!). So what about the good-hearted view?

Well, this approach tries to use empathy, to see the good heart of the other person, to assume that they are good people with decent intentions who make mistakes and are having trouble of some kind.

For example, some reasons someone might act badly:

  • They genuinely didn’t realize how you would take their actions — from their perspective, there was nothing wrong with what they did. Your interpretation might be that they are wrong, but that’s only one way of seeing it.
  • They were caught up in their world, and weren’t thinking of how their words or actions might affect other people. This, of course, is self-centered, but we all do this, probably every day.
  • They are having a bad day, are in a bad mood, or are in the middle of a tough problem in their life. This causes them to react badly to you. This is not an excuse for bad behavior, but you can understand this, as we all go through it.
  • They have a bad habit of reacting to people in certain harmful ways. This doesn’t mean they have a bad heart, but instead, they developed bad patterns when they were young. At one point, these patterns were meant to protect them from harm, but now they just harm others.
  • They were abused by someone, or hurt in the past, and now they are worried that you are going to harm them. So they protect themselves. Not an excuse, but more of a way to understand people’s behavior.
  • You did something that they took offense to, and so they’re reacting badly to something you did. Maybe you didn’t realize you did this, but that’s the world they’re in.
  • They genuinely were trying to do something to help you, but you took it the wrong way.

None of the above excuses bad behavior. It’s wrong to be rude, to yell, to be violent. But to act badly is human, and to judge everyone for their bad behavior means we won’t be friends with anyone. Ourselves included, because if we’re honest, we have to admit that we act badly sometimes too.

We’re not looking for excuses, but instead to see the good heart in the other person. Yes, they acted badly, but it’s with a good heart. If we can see this, perhaps we can see the other person in a more kind light, and react to them in a more helpful way.

Some ways we can react, now that we see them in a good-hearted light:

  1. We can try to understand them, maybe even talk to them about what’s going on. People often like to be heard and understood. Make them feel like what they’re doing is understandable.
  2. From this place, we might also share how their actions affected us, without blaming, accusing or guilt-tripping. Instead, it’s from a place of wanting to resolve the conflict.
  3. We might give them compassion for the difficulty they’re going through. Maybe a hug, or the appropriate equivalent — just a “hug attitude,” where we’re trying to commiserate with them and make them feel better somehow.
  4. Or we might just feel the compassion inside, and not let ourselves get caught up in resentful or frustrated emotions, and instead, just leave the other person alone until they feel better, if that’s more appropriate.
  5. If the other person is genuinely harmful, you might need to get away from them (for your own protection), but with compassion you might not be so angry at them.

These are just a few options, but you can see that these actions are much more helpful for the relationship, for the other person, and for our own happiness.

You might say, “Well, isn’t this just rewarding or excusing their bad behavior?” That’s one way to see it, but I believe it’s more about not getting caught up in our own self-centered view, and not engaging in unhelpful and harmful patterns of thought. With the good-hearted view, we are more understanding, more compassionate, more likely to be happy and have good relationships.

The next time you feel difficulty with someone, try the good-hearted view. You just might find some happiness in a difficult situation.

The 4 Keys to Learning Anything

Jul. 18th, 2017 07:03 pm
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Posted by zenhabits

By Leo Babauta

I’ve been studying how to learn, as I try to teach myself new skills … and absolutely love learning new things. But I keep running up against a few key problems:

  1. Becoming overwhelmed. The more you learn, the more you see there is to learn. The beginner doesn’t know how much there is to study, but as you start to explore, you find new caverns, and they are immense. Then as you explore those caverns, you find even bigger ones. It can become overwhelming, and lots of people eventually give up because of this feeling.
  2. Failure feels bad. If you want to learn to play chess, you’ll lose a lot at first. Then you get better, and lose a lot. In fact, no matter how good you get, you’ll probably lose a bunch of times. This happens not just with games, but with learning languages, physical skills, academic subjects — you’ll fail a lot. There are ways to set it up so that you rarely fail, but then you’re not really learning much.
  3. It can feel like you’re just treading water. In a fantasy world, you’d learn at a breakneck pace, downloading new skills and knowledge into your brain like they do in the Matrix. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work like that. You read and read, or practice and practice, and a lot of the time you barely get better. Other people seem to be learning at twice your speed! Sometimes it seems like you’re not learning anything. This can be really discouraging.
  4. There’s always a strong feeling of uncertainty. Humans don’t like the feeling of uncertainty, for the most part. We avoid it, become afraid of it, get angry or frustrated. But when you try to learn a new skill, it’s almost all uncertainty. You constantly forget things, you don’t understand anything, or when you think you do understand, you try it and it turns out you didn’t understand at all. This feeling of uncertainty causes a lot of people to give up.

OK, so we all want to learn skills — new languages, programming skills, physical skills, history, math, writing, games, so much more. But these four problems stand in our way.

Let’s take them on. We’re going to discover four keys to overcoming these four problems, so that we can tackle anything we want to learn.

First Key: Small Focuses

Yes, it’s true: there’s a vast amount of things to learn, and it can be overwhelming. But that’s true of life itself — there’s so much to see and do, and no one can ever do it all. All we can do is one step at a time.

So we have to not focus on all the innumerable huge caverns that have yet to be explored … but the ground right in front of us.

What small area can we study right now?

What small focus can we conquer? What little area can we explore?

Ignore all the vast uncharted territories for now, shut the rest of the world out, and just be in this one place. Just study this one thing. One small step at a time, a few small steps each day, and we can explore a lot over time.

Second Key: Flip Failure on Its Head

Did you all see the video of Deepmind’s AI after it taught itself to walk? The amazing thing about this is that it did all of that through trial and error. Every single mistake was a lesson.

In fact, that’s similar to how we learn. We don’t know that our knowledge is wrong until we test it out and see whether it works. We can’t truly learn something new until we try and fail a bunch of times.

We all learned to walk that way … wobbly, falling down, until we got the hang of it. That’s also how we learned to talk, to feed ourselves with a spoon, etc. Sure, we had the benefit of being able to see examples of doing it right, but we had to try and fail a whole lot of times before we got it.

Unfortunately, at some point we start to fear failure, but that fear is just holding us back. Failure is really the learning process. Every loss at chess, every falling down when we’re learning a backflip … those are lessons.

So instead of looking at failure as “bad,” we have to flip it on its head. Failure is a lesson, an opportunity to get better, a wise old teacher telling us where we need to focus our learning efforts.

When you fail, smile and say thank you for the lesson.

Third Key: Find Enjoyment in the Process

It’s a tough thing when we feel we’re not making progress, that things are moving too slowly. We want to get to expert level (or at least “advanced beginner”) as quickly as we can, and when it takes five times as long, we can get frustrated.

The answer is to forget about the pace of our progress, but just focus on enjoying the process of learning.

It’s like when you go on a hike, and you’re fixed on getting to your beautiful destination … but it’s a long journey, and you get frustrated by how long it’s taking. Instead, focusing on the journey itself is a better way of traveling. Enjoy the scenery, the exertion, the beauty of each step.

When we’re learning, instead of focusing on where we want to be, we can enjoy the particular focus we’re studying right now. We can be grateful for where we are, for having the opportunity to learn at all. We can enjoy the falling down, and any progress we’ve made so far.

Whenever we find ourselves wishing things were moving faster, that’s a good sign to change focus to where we are.

Fourth Key: Learn to Relish Uncertainty

I think the uncertainty of learning something new, of being in such a foreign place, is probably the most difficult thing. We don’t like that uncertainty, and we usually shy away from it.

With conscious practice, we can change our feeling about uncertainty. We can start to find the joy in this place of not knowing, of not being in complete control, of not having solid ground under our feet. That might sound weird, but it’s possible.

Let’s take a few examples:

  • You’re learning to play Go, and you are playing your first few games. You keep losing, you don’t have any idea where you should play, you worry that every stone you place is a big mistake. This is a place of uncertainty. Can you enjoy this process of trying something and not knowing how it will turn out? Be curious about what might happen when you play your moves? See it as an exciting opportunity to experiment, to explore, to play and have fun!
  • When you’re learning a language, you might be deeply afraid of speaking, because you don’t know what you’re doing (uncertainty). But if you don’t speak, you’ll never learn. So instead of fearing this uncertainty, you dive in and make a complete fool of yourself. Better to be a fool who’s learning than the chicken who doesn’t learn anything new. It’s like dancing wildly with random moves in the middle of a crowd … just have fun being silly! You can do the same thing with speaking a new language — try it, look foolish, enjoy this place of wild abandon.
  • When you’re learning to play music, you can get stuck on the certainty of learning songs from sheet music, because it’s easy to just follow pre-written instructions. But you don’t really learn until you put the sheet music away and try to play the song on your own. And you really learn when you try to play without following someone else’s pre-written music — just playing your own song, riffing and making it up as you play. Of course it’s much more uncertain, and will probably suck. But so what? Just have fun and make stuff up. Relish this place of creation and uncertainty.

So uncertainty can be enjoyed if we think of it as play. If we think of it as creation, learning, exploration, curiosity, finding out, experimenting, openness and newness. It’s courage.

Be courageous today, and put yourself in a place of uncertainty. And then let your heart fill up with the freedom of not knowing and flying without a plan.

The Mindfulness of Pure Experience

Jul. 14th, 2017 01:30 pm
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Posted by zenhabits

By Leo Babauta

Dropping any story or narrative in your head about what’s happening right now … what are the sensations you’re feeling at this moment?

What are you smelling, tasting, feeling, hearing, seeing? What colors, textures, qualities of light can you perceive? What does it feel like where your body makes contact with your clothing, with your chair, with the earth?

This is your pure sensory experience, and it is rare that most of us let ourselves just stay in this place.

Usually, we’re caught up in a narrative about ourselves, our lives, our current situation, other people. We might notice the pure experience, but almost immediately we start judging it, wishing it were different, getting upset at it, or wishing it didn’t have to change.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with having thoughts about our experience — it’s natural. But it can be the cause of anxiety, fear, unhappiness, frustration.

Dropping into the mindfulness of pure experience is a way we can deal with those problems, in any moment.

Actually this is what meditation is, for the most part — dropping into pure experience. Many people misunderstand, and think, “I shouldn’t be thinking! I’m screwing this up, because I keep having thoughts.” This is not a problem. When you meditate, thoughts will come up. You will get lost in a train of thought.

What you want to do, in meditation, is get better at noticing when you’re lost in a train of thought. Then, after noticing, simply return the the immediate sensations of your breath and the rest of your current experience. It’s like waking up from a dream. Meditation is training to wake up more often, and stay awake longer.

Let’s talk about dropping out of thought and into pure experience.

What Pure Experience Is

So what do I mean by “pure experience”? Isn’t everything part of our experience, including thoughts? Yes, that’s technically correct (the best kind of correct), but it’s useful to distinguish between our train of thoughts (what I like to call our “story” or “narrative” about our experience) and the actual sensations of what’s happening right now.

A couple examples of the difference between the two:

  • You feel coldness on your skin (sensation). You immediately think, “This sucks, I don’t like the cold, I need to get warmer.” This is your narrative about the situation, your interpretation, your judgment. It makes you unhappy. The pure experience of cold, without judgment or narrative, is just a sensation.
  • You’re in an airport, and there are noises from people talking all around you, smells from the pretzel shop, light and colors and shapes and visual textures, and more. These are your sensory experience. Your story about how irritating the people are, or how you need to get a cinnamon pretzel in your belly right now, are your thoughts, judgments, narrative. The story can cause you to be unhappy with the situation, but the sensations are just sensations.

So right now, you can notice your sensory experience:

  1. What can you hear? Take a moment to pay attention to all auditory sensations you are receiving.
  2. What light can you see? What is its quality?
  3. What colors and shapes can you see? Soak in the visual sensory information you’re receiving.
  4. What touch sensations can you notice in your body right now? Can you feel your feet, your butt on a chair, your jaw, your chest?

What do you notice? Can you be curious about these sensations, and stay with them?

Noticing Thoughts, and Returning to Pure Experience

What happens when you (inevitably) start thinking about the sensations instead of staying with them?

Well, this can lead to an extended daydream as you get lost in the narrative about your experience. Now you’re not actually experiencing the moment, but caught in your story and judgments.

These judgments usually aren’t helpful — they say some version of, “I don’t like this situation (or other person, or something about myself) and I want it to be different.” Or, “I love this so much and I never want it to end, but it will, oh why does it have to end?” Either way, we can be unhappy, frustrated, clinging to what we don’t want to lose or rejecting what we don’t want to experience.

Instead, we can let go of the story, let go of the judgment, and return to the sensations.

We can practice getting better at noticing whether we’re “in our head” or “in our body.” That means noticing whether you’re lost in thoughts, or present with your experience.

Once we notice being lost in thoughts, we don’t have to judge that. We can just notice, non-judgmentally, and then make it a habit to return to sensation. What sensations can you notice right now?

Don’t judge the sensations, just pay attention to them. Don’t push them away and wish they were different, just be curious about them. Don’t cling to them if you like them, but notice with gratitude and let them flow past you lightly.

This is returning to pure experience, with mindfulness and gratitude.

This is the joyful mindfulness of the present moment. Practice now!

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