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Mastering Entropy

By Habits and Strategies

Entropy is a term from physics that describes the tendency for matter to move from order into disorder. Life can be seen as a process that is deliberately working against entropy.

If you ever watched the old Get Smart TV show, or the more recent movie, the good guys were called “Control,” and the bad guys were “Chaos.” For living creatures like us, that pretty well describes the situation. Chaos is where entropy draws everything naturally; control is the conscious ordering, the structure that we have to impose on ourselves and our environment in order to survive and flourish.

For most living creatures, instincts take charge of a lot of the necessary ordering which life requires; finding food, mating, sleep cycles, protective behavior, etc. The Austrian physicist Erwin Schrodinger in his book, “What is Life,” proposed a molecule that directed these processes to counter entropy with “negative entropy,” and his hypothesis became an inspiration for Watson and Crick’s search for and discovery of DNA.

But we humans are different in a fundamental way: our basic survival tool is our mind, and unlike instinctual animals, we can choose to use our basic tool of survival… or not.

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Turning a Wish into a Triumph

By Habits and Strategies

Have you ever watched the downhill skiers in the Winter Olympics before a race, visualizing the run, moving and swaying their bodies as though they’re on the run itself? They all do this now, because the visualization is a powerfully effective strategy for bringing out their best.

But they aren’t picturing themselves with the gold medal and the national anthem playing. They’re crouched down in a skiing stance, imagining how they’ll negotiate the challenges of the run, practicing the specific skills that will get them to that gold medal.

Much is made these days of having a compelling future vision. Picturing yourself on the winner’s block, or with that book published, or that wonderful relationship; imagining a future that you can step into… The pop psychology literature is chock full of advice for seeing yourself having accomplished your goals.

But the pop psychology literature on this is wrong.

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Distinguishing Wanting from Liking

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Happiness

What we want, and what we end up liking when we get it are two different things. They each involve different parts of our brain, and different states of mind.

Understanding this difference and bringing more consciousness to what you think you want can save you a huge amount of time, effort, and money.

This last bit is important, the amount of money we spend on things that we want, but then end up not liking, can be huge. It can make the difference between financial ease or financial stress; a sense of abundance or a sense of desperation. It can make it possible – or impossible – to save and invest.

I’ve had clients who, though they make plenty of money to live very well, end up feeling desperate and on edge financially – because they spend more than they make, buying things they want.

This doesn’t need to happen. It’s a simple enough math problem, easy to solve on paper – just don’t spend more than you make, right? But desire is a powerful motivator, and our emotions can mislead us hard with this one.

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How to Have an Accurate Assessment of Yourself

By Habits and Strategies

If you know that who you are, what you do, and how you think about things are all changeable and accessible to your own intervention and effort—What Carol Dweck, author of Mindset calls a “growth” mindset—your assessment of yourself will also tend to be very accurate.

In contrast, if you believe that who you are, what you do, and how you think about things are all fixed and unchangeable—a “fixed-trait” mindset—you will then believe that you are at the mercy of forces outside of yourself, and your assessment of yourself will be predictably and dramatically inaccurate.

In order to make accurate assessments, we have to have accurate data. If we are faced with a poor assessment, and our belief is that we are powerless to change, then the only way to salvage any emotional hope is to skew the data, to trick ourselves into discounting it. In this case, the necessary self-reflection will feel threatening to us, containing blows to our self-concept, rather than feeling like useful information. This can lead to incredible suffering and bad results, and can lead us to avoid challenges or difficult feedback—the very things we need in order to grow.

Here’s the challenge:

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If You Want to Change Something, Measure It

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Measurement is the first step that leads to control and eventually to improvement. If you can’t measure something, you can’t understand it. If you can’t understand it, you can’t control it. If you can’t control it, you can’t improve it.
― H. James Harrington

It is the mark of an educated mind to expect that amount of exactness in each kind the nature of the particular subject admits. – Aristotle

Our ability to learn is based on feedback.

If I bump my head on a cabinet, the pain lets me know to duck next time… or to change the layout of my cabinets! If a conversation sparks my interest, that spark lets me know to pay closer attention. If I feel awful whenever I spend time with a particular acquaintance, that awful feeling tells me to reconsider spending more time with him.

There is a whole field of study of psychophysiology and biofeedback that is dedicated to helping people learn to control aspects of their physiology, including certain brainwaves, in order to achieve greater relaxation, lowered blood pressure, and other psychological and health benefits.

But we don’t need that level of sophistication in order to make use of biofeedback. Our own bodies, and many common devices, give us plenty to go on… if we pay attention. This holds the key to taking charge of much more of our psychological and physiological existence than many of us know.

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Using Hope Effectively

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

When we think of emotions that can be dangerous, particularly for managing money and investing, we usually think of things like greed and fear. But there are other emotions that can get us into big trouble. Including hope.

But there’s a way to manage hope so that we’re able to have our dreams for the future, and then make them happen in the real world – if that’s possible.

Greed is a kind of hunger for things in themselves, disconnected from any genuine well-being, and regardless of the consequences. Fear speaks to the need for security – including that deep primal need for survival we talked about an earlier column.

Hope speaks to wishes for potential future flourishing.

A significant portion of our psyche leans toward the future. Our self-concept holds an evolving image of the person we want to be – always a bit better than we are now. Hope is the emotion that draws us toward that image, and the vision of the life we want to lead.

Hope lies at the heart of our aspirations and ambitions; our dreams and wishes. It fuels us to strive for goals and achievements.

It can also lead us to wish for things we cannot have, aspire to achievements we cannot reach, and fantasize dreams that we cannot fulfill.

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A Simple Tool for Managing Emotions

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Getting overwhelmed or misled by our emotions can be a source of significant trouble. Emotions are not simple, but sometimes there are simple actions we can take to manage complex things. Today let’s look at a simple way to avoid getting overwhelmed by your emotions.

  • When people were treated for phobias, practicing this simple skill lowered their fear by over 18%, and their psychological reactivity by over 27%. They also were less constricted generally, shifting from feeling a sense of threat to a sense of opportunity.
  • When feeling stress, using this technique led to people having 40% fewer alcoholic drinks when they went to a bar or party than those who did not use this technique.
  • When feeling angry with someone, those using this technique were 40% less verbally and physically aggressive than those who did not.
  • Rejection brings with it actual pain. When feeling rejected those using this technique showed less activity in the parts of the brain connected to physical and emotional pain.

Using this simple tool can help us to deal with emotionally upsetting situations with a greater sense of calm and competence.

Okay, enough buildup, here’s the skill:

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What We Remember… and What we Don’t

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

We each have, in effect, two selves: an experiencing self and a remembering self. Understanding the difference can help us make the most of our best times, and minimize the memory of our unpleasant ones.

Imagine that you’re asked to hold your hand in ice water for sixty seconds. It’s unpleasant and painful; not something most of us would choose to do for fun.

Now, imagine that you’re asked to do the same thing, same temperature, but then once that 60 seconds is up, continue holding your hand in the ice water for another 30 seconds. The only difference is that the additional 30 seconds will be one degree warmer than the first 60 seconds.

Which would you choose? Read More

A Sense of Awe

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, MasteringHappiness

After my workout, I stopped at the cliffs above Capitola, overlooking the Monterey Bay. It had just rained lightly, so the air was crystal clear, and the brownish gold of the kelp beds at low tide made a vivid contrast with the blue gray ocean. The little bit of sun that peeked through the clouds lit a meandering path across the water and through the center of the wharf.

The Monterey Bay looks very tame from the shore, but it drops off quickly, reaching a depth in some places of over two miles; like an undersea Grand Canyon. During the right time of year it’s not unusual to see humpback whales, dolphins, and a whole host of other cetaceans pretty close in. I didn’t see any on this particular day, but I know they’re out there; along with the harbor seals and sea otters providing comic relief.

Then there are the sea monsters… the great white sharks, among other dangers. Those are the things that keep me mostly swimming just a bit inland in a chlorinated pool.

I force myself to stop on these cliffs almost every morning, because I know it’s important for me. I began doing this several years ago, when I noticed I was getting too caught up in day to day anxieties and concerns. The five to maybe ten minutes I spend gazing out at the protected expanse of the largest ocean on earth gives me something I need – something we all need, a fundamental requirement for our happiness and well being actually… and something that is all too easy to be oblivious to in these days of iphones, kindles, and reliably traumatic 24 hour news cycles.

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Taking the Mystery out of Panic and Anxiety

By Emotions, Moods and Reactions, MasteringHappiness

Panic: Of “Pan,” the God of woods and fields who was the source of mysterious sounds that caused contagious,  groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in  people in lonely spots.

—World English Dictionary

At the famous Battle of Marathon in 490 B.C., the outnumbered Athenians, led by their brilliant general Miltiades, took the Persians completely by surprise, sending them into a fit of terror thought to have been brought on by the god Pan—a panic—leading to a remarkable victory. The Athenians lost 192 men to Persia’s 6,400.

Panic and panic attacks—anxiety that seems to hit you out of the blue—can be extremely debilitating. It can make it difficult to function, and its unexpected nature can lead to a general feeling of anxiety, wondering and never knowing when we might get hit by it.

Though we usually think of panic and anxiety as psychological phenomena, most of the symptoms of panic anxiety are actually physical: dizziness, shortness of breath, hot flashes, chest pain, racing heart, sweating, trembling, choking, nausea, and numbness. Only three symptoms are psychological: fear of dying, fear of losing control, and feelings of unreality. That so many symptoms are physical may turn out to be more important that we have thought.

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