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  • Writer's pictureLihong

Stumbling on happiness

So I read Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert a while ago, and started this blog post which I never finished - till now. I'm just going to reflect on some passages that stuck with me. The hardest part of this is actually typing everything out in a coherent way because there's so much going on in my head that I struggle to put it all down. Even putting it down as it is looks like mind vomit.

The concept of nexting, or not staying in the present

Gilbert writes that humans are the only animals that can vision and plan the future (nexting), and in so doing create anxiety for ourselves: for example, as we read a sentence, we're able to predict the next words or even the end of a sentence based on our experience reading other sentences with similar structures and word patterns. We're surprised when a word is unexpected - which means we can tell if someone wasnextingif they are surprised by an event.

And this tendency to next also short circuits some of the relationships we're trying to build (the concept of Second Circle is worth exploring). Why do I say that? I think that when we try and predict, we get out of being in the present moment. We're not fully engaged in the interaction with someone because we're focused on what we can get out of the interaction that can help us plan a future - which does not exist yet. This takes away from the present moment, and if we think about it, if that future depends on what we're doing in the present, doesn't it make sense to be fully present, and trust in the process reality making? Let's test it out with a very simple example. Say you're on a date, and you kind of like this person but you're also very anxious about having a partner so you're already nexting to a future that includes them, and you try really hard to impress them. You don't really pay attention to them because all you're looking for are signs that they're impressed. Nothing wrong with that, but this might cause you to miss out on the signs that they might not actually be a great fit for you. Or you might put so much energy into impressing them that you're not really watching their reactions, which might show that they're really not all that impressed. When we're not really listening, and just waiting to talk, people can tell, and it makes them want to disengage. In an episode about how our brains are hard-wired to be defensive, Brené Brown talks about how people mostly want to tell their stories, but don't really want to listen to others' stories. That's also at the crux of many conflicts.

So what does being present look like? I think a very good way to understand that is to do some improvisation games. The point with improvisation is that you need to listen and respond to the other person, without being married to one particular idea. You're not the only one at the steering wheel, and the direction can change anytime. You only stay together if you don't try to control the steering wheel (we know what a disaster it can be when two people fight for control of a steering wheel in a moving car). A lot of what we seek from relationships, like intimacy and a sense of companionship, can be found if we treated it like an improv game, rather than a project with timelines and deliverables. In improv, we have to create a safe space for vulnerability and "failure" - it's okay if that move didn't work, let's try another one. Life's really one great improvisation exercise, and it would be helpful if we could see it that way because then we wouldn't be so hung up on things that would usually be called failures (stagnation in a career), and maybe use it as a prompt to change directions or be creative about the situation (explore laterally in that career maybe?). We can take lessons from nature. When the roots of a plant meet a rock, they don't try to grow through it (which would be futile and a waste of good energy), they just grow around it. Sometimes being in a large and complex system makes it really hard for us to get to where we want because we can't change it. What if we just let go of that thought and question ourselves if there's only one place we wanna be?

I love this comic's deadpan humour that reveals so much truth (I think it was a magnet on my friend Emma-Sofie's fridge)

A: One day we will all die

B: Every other day we won't be dying.

I could probably go on forever about embracing complexity and uncertainty, because it's something I've been grappling with for years, after growing up and studying for so long in a system that demands that kno

w what we want to be and assumes there are goalposts in life (when the goalposts are actually constantly shifting). When I was 13, my school made us create a LinkedIn profile. It was such a great way to make us all anxious and focus on filling that CV up, rather than focus on our actual relationships with people and communities and of course, ourselves (that is also another rabbit hole I could go down, but later). It's really not easy to stay present when everything around us seems to want us to not be present. Of course, I'm not saying to never plan, but the point is not to let that take over your life, which is actually the present moment you're living. 

Every experience we have instantly becomes the lens through which we see other experiences. This is why I find it hard to answer the question: So which country did you prefer? I've lived in France, Sweden, the UK and Singapore, and this is a question that often comes up when I meet new people. A younger, less aware self would have been able to answer easily. At every point in time, I would have been able to say which place I felt happier in (limited only to the places I had been in so far), but as I experienced more and more, I know that every new place I experience, I see through the lens of the previous experiences. What's more, I've also grown as a person and so have my happiness scale, i.e. something that made me very happy in the past only makes me moderately content now, because I've experienced more.

Memories are inevitably edited experiences; our brains cannot store the full-sized versions of experiences as that would take too much brain space. It would be better to think of memories as synopses of experiences. In that sense, the way we recount a memory "fixes" how we think of the experience in our minds, i.e. the tags to that experience are the words with which we recounted it. Actually, the more important thing to realise here is that those tags can be changed. So an experience does not have to be labeled a bad one forever in our minds, we can move past that (I'm not saying it's easy to move past a traumatic experience, but that it is possible, and we'd have to put in the work and perhaps therapy hours). Being aware of that frees us from caging ourselves inside an experience that we feel defines us - both negatively and positively. Why would we want to be free of an experience that we feel defines us positively? I think sometimes we raise these experiences up so much on a pedestal, and especially if we talk about them a lot (it's normal, it makes us feel good to talk about great experiences), even great experiences and our self labeling can trap us inside. What if there was more to that experience that we could explore, if we didn't just stop at this label? 

I feel like this a lot

Picture was taken in a tunnelbana (subway) station in Stockholm

I'll end this rambly post with a short poem I wrote 

I am made of clay Shaped by invisible hands Edited by time Proofread by chance My body bears the marks of  Passions and pathologies I smooth them over with water  Caution – too much water and I won’t hold my form Definition by negation  The boundaries between Me and  Not me are porous  Breathing.

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