Tag Archives: Happiness

Feel the Fear . . . and Do It Anyway by Susan Jeffers

17 Sep

There are no big or small tasks. All are equally important.
– Shinzaemon Shimada – 13 assassins

I don’t remember how I came to read this book, but there’s something very enticing about that title.

Fear is something I’ve pondered before. There are different ways of viewing fear, or perhaps one could say there are different categories of fear. While there are many damaging and limiting fears that people can hold, I generally view fear as a useful tool to make me aware of either danger or my limits. To put it another way, it lets me know when I’m crossing the line I call my edge.

For example, with rock climbing, I started with very narrow limits, and a fear of putting my trust in the rope, but as I’ve learned to trust the rope and the person holding it, I’ve gone from tentatively putting my body weight on the rope to fearlessly throwing myself off the climbing wall, knowing that I’d be caught. At first I had a healthy fear of letting go of the holds as I perceived a chance of falling and hitting the ground, but as I learned the necessary trust, and I pushed through the fear, it subsided, and I was able to do more.

Similarly, when tree climbing without the safety of a rope, I was at first tentative, again being limited by safety fears, but as my climbing abilities increased, the fear receded, and my edge was pushed further away so I could make more apparently dangerous moves, opening up more possibilities for me.

And so it goes with the main principle in this book.

Jeffers talks of fear that stops us doing what we want, that keeps us from moving forward, or away from unhealthy relationships or jobs. She says that you will always feel fear, and if you’re not feeling fear it means you’re not growing as a person. She adds that the fear of trying new things and challenging yourself is smaller than the fear of being stuck and motionless.

She suggests some ways of dealing with this fear, such as understanding that whatever happens “I can handle it”, or realising that every choice will have a positive outcome, regardless of whether your initial goal is achieved. She justifies this by saying you’ll always learn from the choice, and the outcome you had envisaged may not happen, or even be desirable, as over time events will occur that make the outcome unlikely, and that will change your motives so that your end goal may change.

She describes how to have a balanced or “whole” life. By this she means we shouldn’t build our life around just one relationship or just our job. You become dependent on that thing / person and if it goes then it’s pretty hard to recover. So she discusses a balance between work, family, friends, hobbies, alone time, leisure, etc. She also valuably describes putting in 100% to each of these and, in each area, understanding that you are valuable, to “act as if you really count”.

Jeffers moves on to talking about giving from a place of love and trust, so not giving with an expectation of receiving something of equal value back. If you’re always expecting something back you’ll be disappointed and fearful. If you give with no expectation of receiving then in fact you’ll receive “so much richness back in return” anyway. She defines giving as giving thanks, information, praise, money and time.

She gets a bit weird in the penultimate chapter talking about getting with the vibe of the universe, but what she’s saying makes sense, and I guess she just hasn’t figured that bit out properly so resorts to a more ‘magical’ description as too many people do. She talks of saying “yes to your universe”, i.e. accepting what is. This is a key theme in just about any book of this kind, and is a prerequisite to enacting change.

She covered her bases well: when I had a question or an objection to what Jeffers was saying, she’d usually cover my issue in the following paragraph.

Yes, it’s essentially one of many American self-help books, however that’s no reason to be put off, because it’s a very practical book to help you live a more fulfilled, happy, positive and enriching life. Can’t complain about that. I’ve put in to practice what I’ve read to my benefit, and I’ve bought it for several friends one of which told me that it’s one of the best they’ve read.


The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work by Alain De Botton

23 Jul

Alain de Botton

Alain De Botton is a great chap who makes philosophy accessible, and relevant to everyday life. He not only does this with his books and lectures, but also through his School of Life which “runs courses in the important questions of everyday life” about “things we all tend to care about: careers, relationships, politics, travels, families“.

This book is a fun read, and surprisingly quite a page turner. It’s not a profound philosophical treatise or psychological exposition, rather an almost whimsical insight into different careers.

Alain describes a group of people in different types of work, from boring office work, through aviation and entrepreneurship, to a chap that designs electricity pylons. And that last one was fascinating: did you know that 2/3 of the London power supply comes from one nuclear station on the coast, along a 175km line of cable, which is made up of 69 aluminium strands, configured in the so-called cowslip formation?

cowslip formationWhat Alain perfectly described was the joy of someone who genuinely loved his work. This guy even went on holidays trekking along the routes of major power lines. A geek in the best sense of the word.

At first it seems as if he’s just describing different kinds of jobs. And he is. But there are plenty of gems in there if you look for them. The painter was a fascinating case – a dude that painted a tree. The same tree. Again and again for years. “Have you ever noticed water? Properly noticed it, I mean – as if you had never seen it before?

Or the career counsellor: “It isn’t normal to know what we want. It is a rare and difficult psychological achievement.

Alain is so good at writing he’s able to bring these different jobs to life. Which is the point really. It doesn’t matter what you do – doing something that is ‘you’ to the best of your ability, and loving it is what’s important. It’s about living. Pointless though it may seem in the grander scheme of things, it does matter from your perspective. So embrace it.

Here is a sample of just how good his writing is:

The man was evidently disinclined by nature to pay extravagant compliments, for when he finally spoke, it was to say ‘Fuck off‘ again with a resolve which his previous riposte had perhaps lacked – to which sentiment he then added, lest there remain any ambiguity, ‘Get the hell out of here before I shoot you in the ass.'”


22 Jul

“Most men pursue pleasure with such breathless haste that they hurry past it.
Soren Kierkegaard

Happiness is a concept that is difficult to pin down. However Daniel Kahneman gives an interesting lecture describing a distinction between two kinds of happiness.

He says that we have happiness in the moment, where a “moment” is defined as being a period of around three seconds that our conscious mind holds. This happiness in the moment is contrasted with the happiness of the memory of the event, i.e. looking back at what happened given our constructed story of what happened.

This perspective sits well with the idea that William James puts forward in defining the difference between the self as “I” and the self as “me”, where the former is the “consciousness of the self in the here and now” and the latter is the “self which we tell others about, is autobiographical or the “me” which again is a coherent account of who we think we are based on past experiences, current events and aspirations for the future.

This distinction does draw into focus what you are trying to achieve in your pursuit of happiness. This is worth considering given what so many psychological studies reveal about how our memories don’t necessarily give a true picture of our past but are rather highlights or what we prefer to remember for better or worse.

Kahneman talks about a cool study which shows that people who have a colonoscopy that finishes particularly painfully will remember the procedure in a worse light than one that was longer and more painful yet ended on a relatively mild note. The implication is that you remember better the last part of a bad experience which then colours your memory of the whole experience.

In terms of enjoying the moment I can recommend the increasingly popular mindfulness approach which is essentially “bringing one’s complete attention to the present moment, and non-judgmentally“. The last few years has seen a lot of positive studies proving the efficacy of mindfulness in increasing happiness as well as reducing stress, improving sleep, relationships and helping with psychological problems such as depression.

Other Philosophers

Of course plenty of philosophers have considered happiness over the years and it’s interesting to look at what they say in the light of Kahneman’s distinction.

Epicurus says what you need to be happy is:

– food and shelter
– time to think
– friends to talk to
– autonomy from a tyrannical boss
– a fine woman

Seneca says that you should expect the worst, so as to be happy with what eventually does happen. This approach requires accepting what you can’t control.

Montaigne contemplates the simple and carefree life of a goat and suggests that rather than reciting what other people think, it is preferable to understand for yourself how to achieve more happiness and fulfilment.

Nietzsche talks about how you can attain fulfilment through effort that may not be pleasant, using the analogy of getting to the top of a mountain. As a cyclist I can agree with this.

For some very practical and positive ideas to help in the pursuit of happiness, see my review of Bertrand Russell’s excellent book.

Agnes Repplier said “It is not easy to find happiness in ourselves, and it is not possible to find it elsewhere“.

Personally I tend to take the Nietzschean approach to fulfilment, and so I have to make an effort to focus on the moment in a more mindful way. I think choosing one thing to focus on and doing it to the best of your ability fits with this. Multitasking is not a productive way to do things and neither is taking on too much, so it’s preferable to learn to let go of things so you can focus on less things and do them well, which can give more fulfilment.

A helpful aphorism from Richard Feynman goes: “Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do“.

The Conquest of Happiness by Bertrand Russell

19 Jul

Most folks are as happy as they make up their minds to be.

– Abraham Lincoln

Written in Russell’s usual say-it-like-it-is style, The Conquest of Happiness gets straight to the point with an incisive view of how to be happy, that is as apt today as when it was written nearly 50 years ago.

The book is split into two halves: the first describing the main causes of unhappiness, and the second, well I think you can guess that it’s the causes of happiness.

To summarise: live in the present; enjoy the small things; don’t compete with others; avoid boredom, yet aim for moderation in things that excite you; avoid fatigue, mental as well as physical; don’t envy others, rather aim for an expansive view, becoming pleased for the success of others; eschew guilt: be able to separate yourself from the, usually subconscious, influence of parental morals, and question your moral framework so that it is wholly rational; aim for a realistic self-perception and don’t be afraid of what others think, as that way they’ll think better of you!; show affection for others and you in turn will be shown the same, though don’t do it with payback in mind; find a balance with the work you do: one with autonomy, mental challenge, something that is constructive rather than destructive; give yourself lots of interests – the person who says he has many dislikes and is disinterested in so many things has less opportunity to enjoy life; accept what can’t be changed and work to change what you can; while introspection is good in small doses, looking outwards maintains a healthy perspective and increases happiness.

A lot of the things he says may seem obvious to me, but then I’m a happy person already. That said, some things are great and I am pondering them further. Besides, some of the simplest lessons in life are those that we have to learn over and over again. I think it can help plenty of people that want to make the effort to be happier. It’s the kind of book that can be read more than once, and will reveal more insights when you’ve had more life experience.

I’ve written an overview of other philosophers’ approaches to happiness here.

Word of the Day – Eudemonia

11 Apr

I really like the second definition.

eudemonia \yoo-di-MOH-nee-uh\, noun:

1. Happiness; well-being.
2. Aristotelianism. Happiness as the result of an active life governed by reason.

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