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Habits and Strategies

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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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

The Importance of Self-Reflection

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

In Greek and Roman Mythology, Narcissus stared at his own reflection, so absorbed in his own image he was oblivious to anybody else. The idealized image that he saw withdrew him from the world. He was in an emotional vacuum, devoid of anything but what he wanted to see.

But aside from Narcissus, and those suffering from the psychological condition of narcissism, our own self-reflection can provide us the kind of useful assessment that allows us to live up to our own standards.

Researchers Robert Wicklund and Shelley Duval discovered back in the 1970s that when people were in front of a mirror and told they were being filmed, those people changed their behavior in very positive ways. They worked harder, gave more accurate answers to questions, were more consistent in their actions, and acted more consistently with their values.

About a decade later, Charles Carver and Michael Scheier looked at this in more depth, and within their larger explorations of self-awareness and self-regulation, found something fascinating.

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Understanding Our Social Nature

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

Our social nature has huge benefits, and underlies much of our resilience and success as a species. But it can also steer us in bad, sometimes disastrous directions, and can be used to manipulate us.

We are social creatures. We influence one another, we care about each other, we follow each other and are able to cooperate and act together as a team.

We’re also cultural creatures. We learn from each other – and learn most effectively by watching what other people do. It matters to us what other people say and think and do. The accumulated knowledge and habits and standards of the ages become part of our own self-concept.

For much of what we do, this works extremely well. For small bands of hunter gatherers, which is how mankind has spent most of our existence, it’s been essential for our survival and flourishing.

And yet these very qualities can be used against us to manipulate us into accepting, doing, and buying things that work against our deepest values, that we can come to regret, and that sometimes can lead us into horrible tragedy. They make cults possible; they make the most murderous regimes and criminal gangs possible. They allow us to be passive when emergency action is necessary. Read More

Building a Foundation of Safety and Trust

By Habits and Strategies, MasteringHappiness

There’s a vow that, if taken by romantic couples, would go a long way toward establishing safety and trust, and limiting much of the pain that couples commonly experience – much of the pain that couples commonly inflict upon one another.

There will be pain in any relationship, we hurt each other without even trying. There’s plenty of conflict in the very best of relationships. John Gottman has found in his research that in successful marriages about 69% of conflicts never get resolved. So a happy marriage isn’t about the absence of conflict, or an absence of hurt.

It all comes down to how we treat each other given that there is conflict, and times when we unintentionally hurt each other.

In other words, it’s what we do or do not do intentionally that makes the difference.

The vow that I suggest to make between the two of you is this:

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