“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.”— Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I love this idea. I heard about it through Ali Abdaal. He uses it as a little gratitude practice that he sprinkles through his day. I’ve been using it too, and I find it pretty effective for a short little burst of joy and satisfaction and appreciation for the good in my life. And those short little bursts do seem to add up, sometimes.
As a little bonus, check out this 3-minute video of Kurt Vonnegut himself talking about this idea.
PS. After I watched that video, and thought about it for a moment, I thought to myself, “If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is!”
This is the type of recursive thinking that I think I can get behind.
Another Bonus: While writing this, I realized that Maria Popova has also written about this. Her piece is a little bit longer and a lot more fleshed out, so if you’re into this, her essay might be a nice next step in this gratitude rabbit hole.
Dust, and germs, and fear, and love.
Hate, and smoke, and pain, and joy.
Fires, and masks, and loneliness.
And yet, another breath.
It kind of hurts to breathe.
But we have to breathe to live.
It’s hard not to judge our friends during COVID.
Judging feels bad. But we’re also in a unique situation. Other people’s actions impact us during COVID. It makes it feel like, on some level, what other people choose to do (or not do) is our business. I’ve been trying to figure out how to respond to that.
So far, the best answer I’ve come to is:
Don’t judge others, but do assert your own boundaries
So, if a friend does something during COVID that we don’t think they should do – as long as what they’re doing isn’t ridiculously dangerous to public health – maybe we should err on the side of not judging them. It just feels bad, and unless we’re going to talk it out with our friend, what’s the point?
Even if we do talk it out with our friend, when it comes to decisions that are currently in the grey-area – like whether or not to wear a mask indoors in addition to distancing – they’ve probably already thought it through and made their decision. So, maybe we should just live and let live in regard to the grey-area stuff.
But it’s different if we’re planning to hang out with that friend in-person. Then things are trickier. If their decision about a grey-area health precaution doesn’t line up with our own, and crosses a boundary for us, then maybe we do have to say something. Maybe we have to be honest and tell our friend the uncomfortable truth – that their decision doesn’t line up with our own about this grey-area health precaution. And if neither one of us is okay with making an adjustment in this instance then we might have to tell them that we’re not comfortable hanging out with them in that specific context.
It doesn’t feel good to do this. But it feels better than just judging them and going along with it anyways. And it feels better than ignoring our own boundaries and resenting our friends.
We can choose discomfort over resentment1 and assert our boundaries during COVID. But we can do that without judging our friends.
Context Note: I originally wrote this piece as a journal entry for a class of mine. I’m sharing it here as I got some positive responses to it from other people of colour in my class and I think that it could potentially be a useful intuition pump.
What I talk about, below, is an idea that I’ve been finding useful for myself as an individual. It’s not a prescription for how other people should respond to what they’re experiencing. It’s me sharing an idea that I’ve personally found useful.
I think of it as somewhat separate from the broader cultural problems that it may be symptomatic of. This little blog post is not meant to suggest any kind of sufficient cultural behaviours.
I’m a person of colour. I’m a big — and kind of scary looking — brown man. I have long hair and a beard.
Lately, I’m feeling more anxious and worried than usual about how other people will respond to me in public. I’m stressing myself out with how much I’m worrying that strangers will act in a hostile way towards me based on my race. I’m worried that people will be cruel to me due to racial prejudice and discrimination.
When I pass somebody by on the street and they look at me (or don’t look at me), I often can’t tell whether they’re feeling hostile towards me or not. And, if they are feeling hostile towards me, I can’t tell whether or not it’s because of the colour of my skin, or because of some other factor. The same uncertainty runs through my mind when somebody cuts me off in traffic or interacts with me in their car in some other aggressive way.
I came across a literature review that relates to how I’ve been feeling. It was in the textbook of a psychology class that I’m doing right now. The literature review is by Brondolo, Brady, Pencille, Beatty, and Contrada (2009). It’s about the effects of racial prejudice and discrimination on the stress (and associated health problems) of targeted individuals. Our textbook summarized the findings of the literature review, which found that “being the target of racism is associated with increased rates of depression, lowered self-esteem, hypertension, and cardiovascular disease” (Spielman et al., 2018).
Reading about this finding, from that literature review, made me think about the ways in which my increased anxieties around racism might begin to impact my mental and physiological health. I worry about how my health might be negatively affected if I continue to experience the stress I’ve felt lately about my race. The stress I’ve been feeling seems to be in part related to my worries and anxieties that other people will hold hostile attitudes towards me based on a prejudice against me due to my race.
One possible solution to this, which also came up in our textbook last week, is that appraisal could play an empowering role for my mental and physiological health. Perhaps, one way in which I can try to approach this issue with more of an internal locus of control is if I choose to focus on my appraisal of these potentially racist moments, instead of trying to guess what’s going on in other people’s minds.
When somebody looks at me in a way that I perceive to be hostile, I do have some control over how I appraise the interaction. Of course, some interactions are less subtle and vague than others. For example, someone might yell a racist slur at me. Could appraisal still play a role in helping me reduce the stress that I experience due to such an interaction? I suspect that it could.
The situational factors at play here, related to the ways in which culture and history inform other people’s attitudes (and my own attitudes) are of course important. I don’t mean to say that historically marginalized people should just get better at appraisals and that that would ‘solve racism’. But nonetheless, as a racialized person, I think that I might feel more empowered in some interactions if I focus on how I choose to appraise questionably hostile interactions, instead of trying to read other people’s minds. And, perhaps, if I feel more empowered and I feel a greater sense of self-efficacy because of this, I might not be as negatively affected by some of the potential race-related stressors in my life. I hope that I can play an active role in protecting my mental and physiological health by shifting my locus of control to be more internal in this way and by focusing on my appraisal of race-related interactions in my own life.
Brondolo, E., Halen, N. B., Pencille, M., Beatty, D., & Contrada, R. J. (2009). Coping with racism: A selective review of the literature and a theoretical and methodological critique. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 32(1), 64-88. doi:10.1007/s10865-008-9193-0
Spielman, R. M., Dumper, K., Jenkins, W., Lacombe, A., Lovett, M., & Perlmutter, M. (2018). 14.4 Regulation of Stress. In Psychology. Houston, TX: OpenStax, Rice University.
There have been so many times I have seen a man wanting to weep but instead beat his heart until it was unconscious.
— Nayyirah Waheed
We all know what it feels like to clench against reality — to deny what we are actually experiencing. It feels like being stuck and being pulled apart at the same time. This state of internal tension can be incredibly uncomfortable.
When we want to accept something, but we can’t, we can end up in this tense and rather brutal state.
Maybe, when we find ourselves in that place, we can try to navigate through it by looking for what we can accept and by accepting what we can’t currently accept.
Radical Acceptance of our Failure to Radically Accept
The stoics encourage us to focus on what we can control, and accept what we can’t control.
Tara Brach encourages this as well, through her concept of Radical Acceptance.
She implores us to:
- Respond to our present-moment (and past) experiences with mindfulness and compassion.
- Accept the base reality of what we are experiencing (or have experienced), rather than deny its existence.
- Be kind to ourselves as we work through the process of accepting our experience.
But sometimes, despite our best efforts to practice radical acceptance, we hit a wall. Sometimes we can’t let go of some aspect of our guilt or our shame. Maybe we haven’t forgiven ourselves enough to be able to accept parts of our past experience. Maybe we don’t feel we’ve done the necessary work in order for it to be okay to accept some part of our experience. At times it can almost feel inappropriate to accept our experience — especially when there is trauma involved.
When we are trying to bring acceptance to our experience and we find ourselves struggling to accept, we can end up beating ourselves up even more out of our frustration that we can’t accept our experience. It can cause some serious cognitive dissonance.
But even amidst our frustration, we have to start where we can. We need to find the level at which we can be at peace with some layer of our experience.
In these moments, we need to accept that we’re having trouble accepting.
Acceptance is Non-Binary
It could help if we shift away from thinking of acceptance as a binary thing, to instead thinking of it as a gradient.
Some amount of acceptance is probably better than none. And whatever amount of our experience we can accept (and whatever layer of our experience we can acceptance) might be able to help us on our journey towards greater acceptance.
We start by finding the level at which we can actually accept our experience. Once we find that level of acceptance, we can proceed.
We might question the effectiveness of accepting that we can’t accept something — maybe it won’t do us any good. Maybe it’s too discursive. Maybe. But what is the alternative?
It might not feel very satisfying to do this — especially if our expectation of ourselves is that we ought to be able to just radically accept all that comes our way with ease. But this is the way we can move towards more acceptance.
Acceptance is not an endurance test
In her book, True Refuge, Tara Brach provides some comforting words around this issue:
“Being present with difficulty is not an endurance test. It is not yet another domain where you need to prove that you can succeed. Sometimes you simply need to prepare the ground and find ways to feel more safe and stable. Sometimes in the face of great pain, you might stay present for just thirty seconds, a minute, five minutes. All that matters is how you are relating to pain. Refuge is always waiting for you; it is here in the moments that you regard what is happening with a kind and gentle presence.”
We can be a bit easier on ourselves if we’re having trouble accepting all the change in our lives right now. Accepting that we’re having trouble accepting is where we can start.
I recently realized something about meditating, which hadn’t clicked for me before.
I already had a vague understanding that the mind and the body are connected and that science backs that up. I knew that there was some kind of biological justification for why we bring attention to both our mind and our body when we meditate. But I recently read a passage from Tara Brach’s book True Refuge, which helped make this connection clearer to me.
I thought it might be worth passing this along, because, after finding out about this connection, I’ve started to place more emphasis on the physical sensations that arise when I meditate. And after I started doing that, my experience of meditation has felt even more therapeutic than it did before.
The connection I’m going to describe may already be obvious to some people, but I think it might be a new idea to others who, like me, hadn’t already made this connection.
So, here’s the idea –
When we meditate, we aspire to include an integrated awareness of both our mind and our body.
The scientific justification for why we do that seems to be rooted in the idea that neurons that fire together, wire together1.
Tara Brach quotes this idea in True Refuge and goes on to explain that,
“If we are unaware of the anxiety in our bodies, we will identify with the felt sense of endangerment or craving, which will generate a new cycle of obsessive thinking.”
So, when we meditate, if we don’t bring awareness to the physical aspect of our experience in addition to the mental aspect of our experience, we risk getting pulled back into a cycle of obsessive thinking. This is because of how our neural circuitry works – because neurons that fire together wire together.
When we meditate, part of what we’re trying to do is to bring awareness to the full scope of our present moment experience and then to allow our experience to be just as it is, without fighting against it. When we’re able to sit with our full experience without aversion to any aspect of it, our experience starts to feel less overwhelming. We begin to feel more balanced and we get back some agency — it starts to feel more possible to choose how to respond to what’s happening in our life.
But, if we just focus on bringing awareness to our thoughts and emotions and neglect to bring awareness to the physical sensations in our body, we risk instinctually fighting against the physical aspect of our experience. If we’re accepting our thoughts and emotions, and allowing them, while still tensing against what’s arising in our body, our neural circuity is still being sent signals about the tension in our body. If we leave that tension in our body unexamined, we risk having a new wave of painful thoughts and emotions that get triggered by the neural circuitry that’s associated with our unexamined physical tension.
So, if this idea is true, then when we’re fighting against any part of our present moment experience, or even when we’re simply unaware of some part of our present experience, we can end up being pulled back into the grip of a painful mental loop. We can get stuck in a trance of suffering.
Therefore, when we meditate, we should aspire towards an integrated awareness. We should intentionally notice what’s arising in both our mind and our body. We know that we’re supposed to do this – almost all guided meditations encourage us to do so – but this explanation for why we do this, can help us remember that a simultaneous awareness of both our mental and our physical experience is crucial to the therapeutic aspect of meditation.
When we bring awareness to the full scope of our experiences, meditation becomes a more effective coping tool.
“Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
— Richard Feynman
We should spend more of our time dabbling. Dabbling in side-interests nourishes us as individuals and makes us more likely to be able to contribute in a way that helps others.
When we spend time and effort on a pursuit that we find meaningful, outside of our vocation, we’re dabbling.1
Dabbling is something in-between work and play.
It’s not work. It’s not a job. And that makes a difference. It takes the pressure off.
But it’s not exactly leisure either.
Dabbling is about spending time and effort on a pursuit that you could choose to make your main thing, but which you’ve chosen not to make your main thing.
When we dabble in a field of art or science, we’re not trying to make money. We dabble in fields that interest us, because we find the fields compelling in and of themselves.
We can dabble in any field we want. We don’t need credentials to dabble. And in the internet age, it usually doesn’t cost money to dabble.
Also, dabbling is a fun sounding word. It should sound fun. Dabbling is closer to play than to work, even if what one person dabbles in is another person’s profession.
You might say, “Sure, dabble away. Who says that we shouldn’t dabble?”
The thing is, yes, nobody explicitly says that we shouldn’t dabble. But we tend to worry that we have finite mental resources. And then we get stingy with our mental resources.
The thinking goes like this: If we want to get ahead in our careers, maybe diverting our energy to a hobby is a waste. Hobbies are nice, but they are a luxury. In this view, only children and aristocrats can dabble, not responsible adults.
But perhaps this view is wrong. Or at least, short-sighted. Maybe we should place more value on our dabbling that we currently do.
Work-life balance is complicated. When we’ve tapped out of the energy that we can put towards our main job, there’s an open question of what we should do with the rest of our time and energy.
There’s a paradox that plays out in our brains. Dabbling in side-interests that demand some energy and intentionality can seem an awful lot like work. So, when we’ve already finished our main work for the day, it can seem like dabbling might take away from the little energy that we have left. Dabbling can seem subtractive from our well-being.
But perhaps it’s not subtractive. Maybe we could reframe dabbling and choose to see it as additive. Maybe even multiplicative, if we get lucky.
Could dabbling help us recharge even more than leisure does?
We when we finish our work for the day, we intuitively sense that we need to relax and recharge. Leisure that demands nothing of us seems at face like the best way to relax, so that we can be prepared for tomorrow, when we need to work again. So, we watch TV, or scroll through our phones. We do this so that we don’t wear ourselves thin. We do this to chill.
But we’ve all experienced the sensation of too much leisure leading to a feeling of bloat. Sometimes chilling can be a lot like numbing.
It’s not that leisure can’t be nourishing. But there’s a limit on how much leisure we can engage in before it goes from being nourishing to being numbing. That’s where dabbling comes in. It’s another way to nourish ourselves.
We can recharge during our free time by dabbling in side-interests. Dabbling does require more effort than pure leisure. But the benefits of dabbling outweigh the extra effort involved. Dabbling takes some effort up front, but it recharges us.
It’s a balancing act. We don’t need to spend all of our free time dabbling in side-interests outside of our work. But we also don’t need to spend all of our free time on pure leisure. Again, this in and of itself is not a controversial opinion. But maybe we should encourage ourselves to spend more of our free time dabbling than we currently do. We can do a lot more dabbling if we watch a bit less TV.
Could dabbling make us better at our jobs?
Many of us feel a nagging sense that we should be spending more time working. This feeling can be omnipresent anytime we’re not actually working. In its worst form, we feel like we should be working when we’re relaxing during our free time and we feel like we should relax a bit more when we’re trying to work.
This sense can make us feel like we should really work it up or really chill out, at any given time. Dabbling in side-interests lives somewhere in-between these two states.
Dabbling isn’t subtractive from our work. It also isn’t subtractive from our leisure. It’s additive to both. It’s somewhere in-between both.
In the short-term, from the perspective of your work-brain, it can feel like time spent on dabbling would be better spent on doing more work. It can feel like dabbling is subtractive from our overall productivity.
But the research seems to indicate that this isn’t the case.
In Range, David Epstein demonstrates the value of dabbling, writing that:
“Compared to other scientists, Nobel laureates are at least twenty-two times more likely to partake as an amateur actor, dancer, magician, or other type of performer. Nationally recognized scientists are much more likely than other scientists to be musicians, sculptors, painters, printmakers, woodworkers, mechanics, electronics tinkerers, glassblowers, poets, or writers, of both fiction and nonfiction. And, again, Nobel laureates are far more likely still. The most successful experts also belong to the wider world.”
We may not be Nobel Prize contenders, but we could all benefit from the possibility of being able to make more of a contribution through our work. Perhaps, like these highly successful scientists, we too could create better results at work by spending more time dabbling in things that aren’t our main work. Maybe we too could see additive benefits to our work if we choose to spend more of our time dabbling.
In the best-case scenario, maybe our dabbling could be more than just additive to our work and life. Dabbling, done right, has the potential to be multiplicative.
Dabbling can help us make decisions from an interdisciplinary perspective. It can help us see solutions to problems that lie at the cross-section of two worlds that otherwise wouldn’t cross paths. This multiplicative effect isn’t guaranteed, especially in the short term. But in the long- term, we probably increase our chances of stumbling upon unique ideas and solutions by dabbling.
Work before you dabble
If we were all independently wealthy, we would be free to dabble all the time. But we’re not.
Richard Feynman says that you should “study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible.”
But, since we need to be able to support ourselves financially, Feynman’s advice is only half of the equation.
We should, indeed, dabble. We should dabble guilt-free. But we can only really do that once we’ve finished the work that we need to do on any given day.2
How much work do we need to do on any given day in order to support ourselves? The answer to that question depends on each of our personal contexts. But there’s some equilibrium of what’s “enough”.
Once we’ve done “enough” for the day, we all have some hours left in the day.
These are the hours that we can dabble with. This is our free time.3
How we choose to spend our free time
We can choose to spend our free time connecting with family and friends, relaxing through something that lets us go on autopilot, or by dabbling.
We each get to decide how we intend to spend our free time. We all have a different ratio of how we’d like to spend it.
Perhaps we might surprise ourselves if we were to spend more of our free time dabbling. In the short run, we may find that dabbling energizes us more than we might intuit it would. In the long run we might find that our dabbling helps us make the world a better place.
So, the next time you have some free time, consider dabbling.
Special thanks to Sam Mitchell for his help with this piece! He often helps me make my writing better and his efforts on this piece were particularly helpful in organizing and structuring my thoughts.
Philosophy is meant to help us live a better life.
We can get lost going down esoteric rabbit holes that weave in and out of different thinkers’ nuanced disagreements about what is right. And that can be fun. But it can also be a self-indulgent waste of time.
A good friend of mine once told me that I was addicted to philosophical bullshit. This was a few years ago, but he’s still probably right on some level. It’s easy to enjoy engaging ideas, regardless of how useful they are.
Part of why stoicism is such a beloved philosophy is because it aims to be the antithesis of philosophical bullshit. It’s about practical action.
Marcus Aurelius berates himself to live his philosophy instead of just thinking pretty ideas.
“Do what nature demands. Get a move on — if you have it in you — and don’t worry whether anyone will give you credit for it. And don’t go expecting Plato’s Republic; be satisfied with even the smallest progress, and treat the outcome of it all as unimportant.”
Trying to do good in the world doesn’t need to be a showy thing.
It also doesn’t have to be complicated. Some situations are genuinely complicated and may require some humming and hawing, but there are also times when we make things seem like they need more rumination than they actually do.
“Waste no more time arguing about what a good man should be. Be one.”
Marcus Aurelius was really trying to drive this point home to himself. It’s a point that’s worth reminding ourselves of, fairly often.
We have to remember why we do all this thinking and experimenting and reading and learning. The point is to do good in the world and to be at peace with ourselves.
“The task of philosophy is modest and straightforward.”
We can benefit from acting with intention on an individual level. This is true even if it turns out that there is a God who predetermined everything. It’s also still true even if it turns out that all of life is arbitrary chaos.
Sometimes we feel discouraged when we think of the vastness of existence. It can feel fruitless to continue taking determined actions in the face of this behemoth of uncertainty.
We can start to question whether there’s a point to do anything. This line of questioning can quickly lead us to nihilism. If everything is either uncertain or predetermined, why bother?
Marcus Aurelius grappled with this question. In his journal to himself, Meditations, he contemplates the cycles and flux of the world. Does God determine what happens? Or is it all arbitrary? There’s no way we can know. The conclusion he reaches, about how to respond to our uncertainty about the nature of reality, is, “If it’s God, all is well. If it’s arbitrary, don’t imitate it.”
Marcus Aurelius presents a positive and pragmatic approach, that works in either scenario. It’s possible that life is actually arbitrary. Maybe it’s planned, maybe it’s chaos. But either way, he implores us not to imitate the (potentially) arbitrary nature of being.
But what does that mean?
I think that he’s implying that we must continue to act in line with our intentions, despite the possibility of randomness.
Intention is the opposite of the arbitrary.
What is the alternative to acting with intention?
If we throw up our hands and say that nothing we do matters, life feels pointless.
The pragmatic response is to act with intention — which is, to act in line with our values — despite the uncertainty. We will never objectively know whether or not life is arbitrary, but if we choose to act like it’s not arbitrary we can make the experience of being alive better for all involved.
With intentional action, we can make the world better for ourselves, for our families, and for our communities.
If enough people continue to do that over time, then life will be as good as it can be.
It won’t matter whether or not the true nature of being was random all along.
What matters is what we do with what we’ve got. What matters is whether or not we are living in line with our intentions.
We are capable of nourishing ourselves.
Sometimes, we are the only person we have. Hopefully not for long. But there will be times in our lives when there is no one else to nourish us. There will be times when we are in need of care and there won’t be someone there to take care of us in that very moment.
Luckily, we are capable of nourishing ourselves. We can give ourselves the love and kindness we need. It doesn’t always have to come from without, it can also come from within.
This doesn’t mean we are a rock. Nor are we an island. Existing in a silo forever is incredibly difficult.
But we can learn to nourish ourselves. Better to have it and not to need it. Though I suspect that for most of us, we very often do need it. We need to love ourselves.
This is especially true in the little in-between moments. These moments combine together to make up a lot of our lives.
Nourishing ourselves can take many different shapes.
We can nourish ourselves by actively cultivating parts of our lives that bring us joy. This is especially the case towards things that bring us joy and also don’t make us feel bad afterwards.
We can nourish ourselves by trading our expectations for appreciations. By actively practicing gratitude.
We can even nourish ourselves by nourishing others.
In moments of great pain, we can show ourselves the kindness of accepting our present moment experience.
There are umpteen ways to nourish ourselves.
Nourishing ourselves is always available to us, in every moment, even when we are completely alone. I find it comforting to remember that we always have the ability to help ourselves. At the least, we nourish ourselves each time we take in our next breath.