I think most of us, at some point in our lives, have had moments when we felt almost infinitely powerful, peaceful, directed, or some other uplifting feeling. We got what we wanted effortlessly, our work seemed to do itself, and our self-doubt melted away.
These moments are wonderful, and they can also be a source of suffering. When we have a so-called “peak experience,” we often fall into the trap of yearning to have it again. We may feel this craving consciously — constantly reminiscing about that great relationship, athletic victory, or something else. Or, the craving may operate in the background, showing up as a nagging sense that something isn’t quite right.
Our usual reaction to this sense of “not-rightness” is to try some strategy for “making things right again.” Maybe we’ll work out really hard, try a new job, or scour the blogosphere for lists of 500 happiness hacks. Unfortunately, nothing seems to get us exactly where we’d rather be.
In this post, I’ll offer a few observations to help us let go of this need to chase after peak experiences, and to develop more appreciation for where we’re at right now.
1. Peaks Can’t Exist Without Valleys. The reason a peak experience is so exciting and wonderful is that it’s different from our everyday experience. The warmth and openness in our hearts, the lightness in our limbs, and so on during one of these high moments seem so great because we don’t usually feel them. If we had those sensations all the time, they’d lose their novelty and fade into the background.
This points to a reason to appreciate the “flat” and “valley” portions of our journey through life. Those “valley” moments — the setbacks and conflicts in our work, families, and so on — actually make the peak experiences possible. The same goes for the “flat” periods — the time we spend training for a marathon, for instance, makes the exhilaration of finishing possible.
2. No Two Experiences Are Alike. I don’t have the same mind and body I had when I was in that great relationship, played that great concert, or had that great session with a client in the past. Cells in my body are constantly dying and being born, and new neural pathways are constantly emerging in my brain with each experience I have.
Even if we could precisely repeat something we did earlier — re-run that race, have the same deeply fulfilling conversation, or something else — we’re not the same person we were then, and our reactions to the situation wouldn’t be exactly the same. Ultimately, our quest to “get back there” is futile.
3. There’s No Excitement Without Uncertainty. One reason we cling to these defining moments from the past, I think, is that we’re afraid of uncertainty — the anxiety of not knowing what will happen next. We think we’ll feel safer if we know exactly what we’ll experience in the future — and, of course, that we’re going to like it.
But what would really happen if we could guarantee or predict our peak experiences? Suppose you were about to run a race, and you knew with total certainty that you’d win. Would the race be as thrilling? I think not. Without the risk that things might not go our way, or that something unexpected might happen, we can’t feel challenged.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with having peak experiences. But I think we set ourselves up for suffering when we try to make every moment a peak experience, and that allowing each moment to unfold without resistance is a much easier way to find peace.
(This piece is an “unofficial sequel” to my last post, “Why I Don’t Force Myself To Be Happy.”)
Do you feel like you’re only creative in certain moments? I’ve worked with several people who said they only produce decent work at specific times of day, or when they’re in particular moods. The rest of the time, they told me, their thoughts and feelings get in the way, and the work that comes out of them just isn’t good enough.
One woman I worked with, who I’ll call Kelly, was a painter. Kelly had one hour each day that she called her “Magic Hour.” During the Magic Hour, she’d feel totally focused and inspired, and her ideas would naturally, effortlessly flow onto the canvas. The rest of the time, she didn’t feel capable of much more than touching up her Magic Hour work. She came to me hoping I could help her experience more Magic Hours.
“Bad” Feelings, Great Art
As we talked, one thing Kelly said jumped out at me—“I don’t work well when I feel bad.” When I asked what she meant, she explained that she “felt bad” when she was angry or afraid. When she felt those emotions, her art “turned ugly,” taking on a dark and disturbing quality. Looking at these paintings, she thought, would probably make others “feel bad” too.
As we explored Kelly’s belief that “it’s not okay to make people feel bad with my art,” what she began to see was that a lot of timeless art expresses the emotions she was talking about. Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” is a good example most of us are familiar with. The terrified figure and blood-red sky in the painting don’t exactly have us feel warm and fuzzy inside. Still, the painting conveys the artist’s feeling of fear so masterfully that it’s admired worldwide.
Kelly also started to see that, like Munch, she could use her “negative emotions” as fuel for her creativity, and that people appreciate art that skillfully conveys what the artist is feeling—even if those emotions are the kind Kelly saw as “bad.” With this in mind, she started more fully exploring the ideas that came up when it wasn’t “Magic Hour.” The art she’s been creating has been different, but definitely interesting.
As it turned out, Kelly didn’t actually need to experience more Magic Hours—she needed to be more accepting of the ideas that came up at other times of day.
Notice Your Self-Limitations
This story is a good illustration of how I see creativity. I think developing creativity has a lot to do with letting go of the artificial limits we put on our expression. When we’re feeling creatively blocked, often the problem isn’t that our minds are empty of ideas, but that we’re judging and pushing away the ideas that are coming up in the moment. In other words, we’re really just “blocking” ourselves.
The next time you’re feeling like you’re “uncreative” or you’ve “run out of ideas,” I invite you to try this exercise. Ask yourself: is it really true that you’re totally out of ideas? Or are you just rejecting a lot of possible ways to do the task you’re doing? And if you are pushing away a lot of possibilities, why?
This inquiry can teach you a lot about the places where you aren’t fully comfortable with yourself. Maybe, like Kelly, you think it’s not okay to create when you’re angry. Or perhaps you assume what you have to say is too controversial, and people will dislike you for saying it. Or maybe the ideas coming up for you seem too simple, because you feel a need to be complex or profound. If a belief like these comes up, ask yourself: how does it serve me to limit my creativity in this way?
Notice how just becoming aware of how you’re limiting your expression can increase your sense of freedom. When you let go of the belief that your creative work has to look a certain way, amazing new possibilities can open up.
Link Love: AlienBaby is a great example of a writer who really makes despair and frustration work for her, in a tragicomic sort of way. She denies that she’s piecing together a novel or autobiography from her blog posts, but I don’t believe her. Enjoy!
Like many people, finding happiness used to be my goal in life, and as an avid consumer of personal development products I learned a lot of techniques for getting there. You’ve probably heard many of these: think positive thoughts, force yourself to smile, take a warm bath, and so on.
For a while, I diligently used these methods, and at first they did a fairly good job of perking me up when I fell into a funk. But pretty soon, I noticed that using these techniques was starting to feel like a big effort. Constantly countering negative thoughts with positive ones, “turning my frown upside down,” and so on, began to consume a lot of time and energy. And I started wondering: is happiness worthwhile if I have to work so hard for it?
From Rejection To Curiosity
When I started getting deeper into mindfulness practices like yoga and meditation, and really noticing what was going on inside me, my perspective on happiness began to change. What I began to see was that my emotions are really just sensations I feel in my body. For example, sadness for me is a heavy feeling in my stomach, and anger is a heat and tightness in my lower back. (These words may mean different sensations to you.)
Another thing I started noticing is that, once I began seeing my emotions as simply physical sensations, they didn’t seem like such a problem anymore. Before, when I’d start experiencing that heaviness in my stomach that I called “sadness,” I used to resist the feeling, telling myself “come on, chin up, there’s nothing to be sad about.” My shoulders and my stomach would actually tense up as I tried to push the feeling away.
But today, when I get that feeling, my reaction is more like curiosity than rejection—“oh, it’s that sinking in my belly again,” I’ll say to myself calmly. And when I have this curious perspective, I start noticing things about my sadness that I never saw back when I was trying to squelch it. For instance, I notice that the heavy feeling seems to have a particular shape, color and temperature, and that it doesn’t just sit there—the energy actually moves around quite a bit before it fades away.
Most importantly, when I stop treating sadness as a problem, acting in spite of how I’m feeling becomes much easier. When my attention is no longer focused on how awful it is to be sad, how I’d rather feel better, and so on, I can start actually thinking about what I want, and going after it, despite the sensations I’m feeling in my body. Sadness, and other so-called “bad moods,” don’t have to paralyze me anymore.
I’d Rather Be Peaceful Than Happy
Today, I think of my goal in life as peace instead of happiness. No matter how amazing my life becomes, I’m probably going to have “negative” feelings from time to time, and when those emotions come up I want to calmly allow them and even be curious about what they have to offer me. I haven’t got this down completely—I have moments when I find myself fighting my emotions and telling myself I should feel differently. But when I’m able to be at peace with whatever experience I’m having, life becomes a lot easier.
Of course, if techniques for making yourself happy are working for you, more power to you. Everyone’s mind and body is unique, and different approaches work for different people. But if trying to make yourself happy is feeling like a lot of frustration and work, I invite you to try something different for a moment.
When you feel unhappy, instead of resisting the feeling, try focusing on how that unhappiness feels in your body—like I talked about with the sinking feeling in my stomach. What sensations tell you that you’re unhappy? Notice how just asking this question changes how you relate to what you’re feeling. Instead of being something threatening that you need to push away, your unhappiness becomes an object of curiosity. And the more you inquire into it and understand it, the more peaceful and composed you can be when it comes up.
Link Love: I want to spotlight Duff McDuffee’s new blog, Beyond Growth, which looks like it will be a welcome step forward in the evolution of personal development writing. I thought about Duff when I was doing this post because I was saying something kind of counterintuitive and his writing often does this as well.
I have a friend who, until lately, always seemed upset about something. If he wasn’t complaining about how someone in his personal life frustrated or let him down, he’d be angry about some current event in the world. If someone asked why he was so upset, he’d usually insist that any reasonable person would be angry about what was happening, and that if the other person knew what was really going on they’d feel the same way.
Recently, my friend had a sudden shift in his perspective. He was talking to his girlfriend, and—not surprisingly—complaining about something going on in local politics. Eventually, she became fed up and rather pointedly suggested that, if he had a problem with what was going on, he should do something about it. Otherwise, if the issue didn’t mean enough to him to inspire him to act, he should forget about it.
On one level, my friend later told me, he realized the truth of his girlfriend’s words. He wasn’t accomplishing anything by bemoaning what was going on in his life or the world except making himself and others unhappy. At a deeper level, my friend had a strongly negative reaction to what she said. This was the part of him, he recognized, that was firmly attached to his habit of complaining. The reason, he realized with disturbing clarity, was that complaining made him feel smart.
Somewhere along the line, my friend saw, he’d developed the belief that people who were happy and satisfied with their lives were either ignorant or kidding themselves. After all, he thought, there are so many things in the world worth getting upset about, and anyone who isn’t angry about them must simply not be paying attention.
Because he wanted to feel and look intelligent, he adopted the habit of constantly griping about some event or problem in the world. His girlfriend’s frustration reminded him he had a choice in how he reacted to life, and armed with that knowledge he decided to change his attitude.
This story started me thinking about the wide variety of ways in which human beings get attached to being negative. Although most people wouldn’t admit to wanting to feel unhappy, many of us have adopted patterns of thinking and behavior seemingly designed to keep unhappiness in our lives. Whether we criticize ourselves, create drama in relationships, hold onto grudges, or something else, each of us seems to have a unique and long-standing strategy for holding onto our negativity.
As my friend’s example illustrates, many of us have had these habits for so long that they’ve become unconscious and automatic, and we’ve forgotten there are other possible approaches to living. When someone with a fresh perspective makes us aware of the ways we’re bringing negativity into our lives, often just having that awareness is enough to start loosening the grip our habitual patterns have on us.
In the interest of fostering this kind of awareness and change, I’ll describe several common ways of acting and thinking we use—often unconsciously—to keep unhappiness in our lives.
1. Trying To Change A Situation Through Mental Resistance. Some part of our minds seems convinced that, if we get irritated enough about a situation in our lives, we can change it for the better. The frustration we feel and express when our cars break down is a common example of this tendency. When we have a flat tire, for instance, some of us kick the tire or pound on some other part of the car, in the seeming hope that we can beat the car into submission and make it work properly again.
To most of us, it seems “normal” to react to events in our lives with annoyance, even if there’s no possibility that getting annoyed will help and all we’re doing is making more suffering for ourselves. We may even be so accustomed to behaving this way that we no longer see ourselves as having a choice, or don’t even consciously notice we’re doing it anymore. As psychologist and shaman Serge Kahili King writes in Urban Shaman, “criticism is such a subtle thing when habitual that it can race across your mind before you notice.”
Our perspective quickly changes, however, when we start observing ourselves as we’re reacting to situations we dislike. By observing yourself, I mean getting a clear idea of the sensations arising in your body as you start becoming irritated, and the behaviors you usually engage in to express that irritation.
For instance, perhaps irritation manifests for you as a sinking feeling in your chest, a tightening in your shoulders, a heat in your forehead, or something else. As for the behaviors you do when you’re irritated, perhaps you yell at people, withdraw from contact with others, clench your fists, and so on.
When we gain an understanding of how we normally tend to react, often we suddenly feel a sense of freedom in how we respond to our circumstances. Once we recognize the ways we usually behave, feel and think, we begin to become conscious of that our way of being isn’t the only possible way. Equipped with this knowledge, we can choose a more constructive and less stressful way to respond to situations we encounter in life.
2. Making An Identity Out Of Our Negativity. It seems human beings have a deep-seated need to create an identity—to incorporate certain things we do, think and have into our idea of who we are. We get feelings of security and power from thinking and saying things like “I’m a computer programmer,” “I’m a father,” “I’m a member of this or that political party,” and so on—as if programming computers, raising children and having a party membership were aspects of our being or essence, rather than just activities we do from time to time.
Sometimes, consciously or otherwise, we treat our craving for an identity as more important than our happiness. This occurs when we make an identity out of unhappy situations in our lives. For example, perhaps we get into the habit of telling ourselves and others “I have an illness,” “I lost a loved one,” “I was mistreated as a child,” and so on, and deriving a feeling of safety or uniqueness from saying these things.
We limit our growth and happiness when we treat these events as part of who we are rather than simply experiences we had. Instead of letting our pain pass away, we cling to and even celebrate it. As Buddhist teacher B. Alan Wallace sagely writes in Tibetan Buddhism From The Ground Up, “identification with depression obscures the fluctuations that are taking place from one moment to the next, replacing them instead with a sense of homogeneous continuity.”
Awareness, again, helps us end our identification with our difficult experiences. To gain awareness in this area, we need to watch ourselves for those moments when we get perverse satisfaction from telling people how unhappy we are, or how terrible past events in our lives were. These are places where we’re deriving a sense of self from our painful experiences. Simply recognizing where we’re creating an identity out of our misery helps us see that we have choice in how we define ourselves, and that we can leave behind the aspects of our identities that no longer serve us.
3. Feeling Superior For Being Unhappy. As Bertrand Russell observed in The Conquest Of Happiness, we often meet people who “are genuinely unhappy, but they are proud of their unhappiness, which they attribute to the nature of the universe and consider to be the only rational attitude for an enlightened man.”
Some of us, like the friend I discussed earlier, derive a feeling of superiority from being perpetually unhappy or dissatisfied. We might, like my friend, complain constantly because we associate negativity with intelligence. Perhaps we adopt a jaded, cynical attitude toward the world because it makes us feel well-informed and cultured. Maybe we relentlessly criticize others to feel morally righteous. And so on.
While we may get a temporary high from judging and condemning people and circumstances in our lives, this attitude ultimately holds us back. Our negativity keeps us in an unhappy, unproductive place and damages our relationships with others. When we watch ourselves carefully for places where our negativity has us feel better than other people, we take a significant step toward restoring peace and focus to our mental lives.
“If you aren’t outraged, you aren’t paying attention,” says a popular bumper sticker in the United States. If you aren’t angry about the current political situation, in other words, you must be uncaring or ignorant. But is this really true? Isn’t it possible to understand, and work to change, what’s going on without getting “outraged” and bringing extra suffering into your life? Just considering this kind of question can do much to free us from our habitually negative patterns of thought and action.
Personality tests are becoming increasingly popular among people starting out in their careers and those seeking career transitions. These tests are intended to gather information about the taker’s desires, fears, values and skills and recommend careers best suited for people with those traits. If we pick a career that other people with our personality type tend to enter and avoid those careers they stay away from, the theory goes, we’re likely to find job satisfaction.
On the surface, this sounds like a good idea. Getting clear on our likes and dislikes, and learning which careers people with those traits tend to prefer, seem at first glance to be helpful career guidance.
However, basing one’s career path on personality test results makes an assumption I question. It assumes we should choose only those careers that the test tells us we’re comfortable with, rather than trying to understand and perhaps overcome the discomfort we believe other careers would provoke in us. In other words, it assumes that, if we’re afraid of doing something, we shouldn’t try to come to terms with the fear, but instead select a career where we don’t have to face it.
For example, following this thinking, if you’re an introvert and dislike working in groups, you should choose a job that mostly involves working alone. If you’re convinced that you’re not creative, you should select a career that involves structured, rote activity with little need for innovation. If you’re shy, you should stay away from selling and networking. And so on.
At first glance, it may appear that we’ll lead happier lives if we stick to careers—and other activities—that we’re fully comfortable with, and avoid anything that might trigger our anxieties. However, it seems that—no matter how successful we become—part of us remains dissatisfied when we limit our horizons out of fear.
For instance, I know several highly-paid lawyers who wanted to be artists of various kinds when they got out of college, but were skittish about the financial instability of the professional artist lifestyle and what their families might think if they made such a choice. However, a few years into their law careers, they regretted their decision and wished they’d been able to overcome their fears.
How Our “Survival Personalities” Limit Our Growth
I believe this happens because we recognize, on some level, that our fears aren’t part of who we really are. They’re just strategies we developed—often in early childhood—to protect ourselves from perceived threats in the world. I think psychologists John Firman and Ann Gila put it well in Psychosynthesis: A Psychology of the Spirit when they describe most of our fears, dislikes and discomforts as aspects of our “survival personalities.”
As young children, we’re completely dependent on our parents to meet our needs and ensure our survival. Over time, we learn which behaviors make them more likely to pay attention to us, and which ones make them pull away. To ensure we get the care we need, we learn to prefer those behaviors to which our parents respond favorably, and shun those they dislike.
If our parents seem to respond positively when we’re quiet and submissive, for instance, we learn to passively bend to others’ will. By contrast, we learn to avoid aggression, as it upsets our parents and puts us at a perceived risk of abandonment. Over time, we start believing these desires and fears are part of who we are—part of what Firman and Gila call our “authentic personality”—but in fact they’re part of an artificial “survival personality” we created to make sure we get our parents’ approval.
Our survival personalities can get us far in the adult world. If we learned to be submissive as children, for example, we may have great success in a workplace that’s rigidly hierarchical and where obedience is highly valued. However, part of us remains aware of when we’re following the rules of our survival personalities rather than doing what we truly desire. This part yearns to get back to being who we really are, and ultimately this yearning becomes so painful and powerful that we fall into despair. As Firman and Gila put it:
Many of us can live a long while lost in an identification with survival personality, especially if this mode is well-functioning, adaptive, and capable of success in the world. However, in many cases, survival personality sooner or later eventually wears thin, revealing the hidden chasm of nonbeing on which it is built. . . . The pressure from such hidden wounds can and does eventually wreak havoc in our lives and in our world.
When we avoid the career we want based on discomfort—when we say, for instance, “oh, I could never be an entrepreneur because I’m afraid of selling things to people” or “I could never be a musician because I have so much stage fright”—we’re following the dictates of our survival personalities. If we take this approach to life, eventually unease and dissatisfaction with what we’re doing catch up with us.
What Do Personality Tests Really Measure?
Taking a personality test to clarify your likes, dislikes, strengths and weaknesses is certainly interesting, but basing a career decision on your test results isn’t likely to bring you satisfaction in the end.
This is because much of what such a test will show you—particularly in the area of your dislikes and anxieties—is your survival personality, the personality you developed to get the care and attention you needed as a young child. Following your survival personality’s rules in selecting a career may make you a well-liked and productive worker, but in the long term it won’t bring you the happiness you seek.
This isn’t to say that personality tests have no worthwhile purpose. In pinpointing areas where you’re afraid, anxious or blocked, a personality test may help you recognize places where you have opportunities to grow as a person. In other words, it may help you see where your survival personality is artificially limiting your options.
It may take some inner work, but overcoming your fears and finding a career in line with your authentic personality—what you genuinely desire and find meaningful—is the best way to achieve lasting satisfaction.