The Pursuit of Happiness – Part 1

I recently finished one of Jordan Peterson‘s volumous books. For those of you not familiar with Peterson, he’s a Canadian clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Toronto. He has a number of credits to his name but received widespread notoriety over the last few years for his controversial views on political correctness.

While I admit that I find some of Peterson’s views antiquated and not up my alley, I admire his tenacity and willingness to argue and support his viewpoints. His second book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, was not an easy read. It’s full of abstract principles supported by concepts borrowed from theology, psychology, philosophy and literature. It took me much longer to get through than most books I pick up, both because it is written in a heavy academic style (each chapter represents a rule and is an essay in its own right) and because I was trying to absorb as much as possible.

I think Peterson makes some really interesting observations and suggestions about how we develop our perception of the world around us as well as our expectations for how that world will behave.

He describes the famous “Invisible Gorilla” experiment in which researchers showed test subjects a recording of a basketball game and asked them to count the number of times their team made a pass. During the game, a man dressed as a gorilla walks onto the court, pounds his chest and walks out of frame. Shockingly, more than 50% of subjects did not see the gorilla.

This study, aside from being both funny and disturbing, demonstrates the narrow field of a person’s perception. Peterson explains that perception is adjusted to your goals and reinforcing your beliefs (for more on this, please try my prior post on denial). In this case, most of the study participants are so focused on the goal of counting passes that their perception is narrowed and they are unable to see the unusual scene beyond their task at hand. This is a necessary strategy for all people. Although some of us have more capacity to take in and process external information, we all have a point where that capacity is exhausted. We need to prioritize what we pay attention to in order to be successful.

This (of course) is not a conscious process, but I think we can all think of a situation or two in our own life where perception was coloured by our mental state, beliefs, and goals at the time. For example, I’m not sure that 30 year-old Jess would find 15 year old pothead Kenny as alluring as hormonal teenage Jess did. Although some may argue that my taste of men has not changed drastically enough, with my shifting goal towards building healthier relationships my perception is focused and my tastes are slowly changing. For the first time in my life I am aware that my ideal partner does not include substance use in all their recreational experiences.

Peterson says that we are all born with an instinct towards ethics and a lust for attaching meaning to our experiences, but that it takes great courage and strength to carry the burden of moving towards those things. That is because doing this is a great undertaking that requires us to constantly evaluate and prioritize our goals, beliefs and expectations. This causes discomfort in moving our perception to meet those changes. This is part of what attracts us to underdog stories, they encourage these shifts by confirming that taking the high and long road gives us the hope and possibility of rebirth despite the inevitable suffering.

Peterson makes the point of showing the malevolence that awaits those of us not strong enough to take the torch and the higher path; we are jealous, resentful, and petty. Have you ever had the experience of sharing an off the cuff and out of the box idea with someone who immediately ripped it to shreds? While I like to believe that most of us do these things because we are trying to protect people from hurting themselves, we are effectively squashing growth and innovation as a result of our fear to a challenge to our understanding and perception of the world.

Can you imagine the reception the first guy that ate a lobster got? There is very little about those pinchy characters that look appetizing; but some guy was hungry, brave, and probably desperate enough to eat one and share it with others.

In my mind, I see his friends screaming “UGH! STEVE, DON’T EAT THAT!!” as he defiantly cracks open the shell, eventually pairing the meat with butter and winning people over by challenging their perception of what is acceptable behaviour.

… Thanks, Steve!

ANYWAY.

Approaching ideas by immediately pointing out the flaws and challenges discourages people from taking risks and entertaining change. We are not allowing them to do the work of figuring out if their idea is viable, we are dragging them back down onto the safe and flat ground with us. We are protecting our own perception at the expense of the expansion of theirs.

* * *

Next week is part two in this series inspired by Jordan Peterson.  We will examine how our beliefs, goals, expectations, and perception play into the pursuit of happiness.  I hope you will return!

 

What is “the flow” anyway?

I’ve been pretty open about my constant desire to control things around me, including *embarassingly* other people. I believe this is a reflection of my insecurity, fear of uncertainty, refusal to acknowledge my own faults, and general self-preservation. I hate surprises and find it difficult to go with the flow. My default belief is that everyone would be better off if they just listened to me, dammit!

Recognizing that this is self-aggrandizing hogwash I’ve been making a concerted effort to go with the flow when I catch myself in those micro-managing moments.

A few months ago, a medical appointment was cancelled last minute by my doctors’ office. I was annoyed because it had taken some time to coordinate the time off work. I was not looking forward to another round of juggling to reschedule. On the day that I was supposed to be out of office to attend this appointment, I was approached by my boss to take an extra ticket to an event with some key customers: a limo ride and box seats at a baseball game. In the past, living with an addict, I would have declined fearing what would have happened if I had not been at home, as planned, caretaking. In the past I wouldn’t have been able to alter my plans last minute without an enormous and crushing amount of stress.

On that day, I said “yes” and relaxed into it. I didn’t worry about the house burning down, people making bad choices without me there to intervene, or that I would be tired for work the next day. I have to tell you, if you ever get the opportunity to have a similar experience, doooo it! There was more swag than I’d ever imagined, amazing food (beyond the regular $13 hot dogs) and I got to spend an interesting evening with people that wouldn’t have normally entered my orbit.  I’d never had such an upscale sporting experience and I have to tell you, I’m now ruined for the cheap seats.

The next day, rising with little sleep, I prepared myself for a meeting that I had been dreading with someone that usually has my blood boiling in seconds and struggling to remain professional. Overtired, I did not struggle with any impatience or anger. I showed up, was professional, and left without the usual fireworks and resentments.

If you’re curious about that appointment, there happened to be an opening when I was in the doctor’s office picking up an unrelated item the following week. I didn’t have to take any additional time off work or go to any inconvenience of rescheduling. It just worked out.

A series of unrelated and unexpected events that in the past would have sent me into an incredible stress spiral and would have made everything more difficult and traumatic. This time, being open, showing up, and going with the flow altered my experience in unexpected and positive ways.

I hear you, those clichés like “everything happens for a reason” and “go with the flow” sound like total crap. I understand it seems impossible sometimes to surrender and trust that everything is going to be ok. I am the first to admit that I don’t have all the answers; but, I do know that as I learn what is “my part” and what isn’t and trust that things will work out life is getting easier.

I’m glad that I’m learning to release my iron grip on my expectations so I can appreciate and experience the things that I could have never imagined and wouldn’t have made space for in the past.

Denial (Not the River)

Denial is one of the hardest things to explain to people who show an interest in the breakdown of my last long term relationship. It is also one of my biggest sources of shame. This topic usually comes up in the form of a leading and judgmental question along the lines of: “You must have known he was an alcoholic.  How could you not?”

The truth is, most people are in denial all the time. Imagine every time you or a loved one got into a car you were pummeled with the realization that on average 100 people in the US die every day in motor vehicle accidents.  Consider living in the constant fear that in the kitchen of every restaurant you ate in, the prep cook added unsavoury things to your food. Think about what life would be like if you settled on the possibility that you would contract a flesh eating disease while on your discount all-inclusive vacation. Think of how crappy life would be if every time you ate something unhealthy you imagined exactly how long you would need to exercise in order to work off the calories.

Truthfully, there are people who suffer constantly with these truths; but for the most part, we all ignore them so as not to interfere with our daily activities and obligations. We do this because the the world is unpredictable and scary and it would be overpowering to carry that around.

Denial goes hand in hand with addiction. Most addicts function in denial of their habit and it is not unusual for the people around them to also operate in denial of the problem. In a lot of ways, this is “easier” and less scary for everyone because the reality of change, recovery, and the social perception of the disease are too much to bear.

I’m sure you can all think of some good real life examples of denial, but I like the way it is presented here as degrees of intensity:

  • First Degree: Denial that the problem, symptom, feeling or need exists
  • Second Degree: Minimization or rationalization
  • Third Degree: Admitting it, but denying the consequences
  • Fourth Degree: Unwillingness to seek help

– Darlene Lancer (WhatisCodependency.com)

Denial does not always mean there is no acknowledgement of the problem, it can also include a justification or minimization of the impact.

So why do we do it?

Simply, it’s a common coping mechanism; it is a way to avoid physical and emotional pain. It is self-preservation: “If I don’t admit the problem, I don’t have to suffer the consequences. I don’t need to fear the implications of the truth and I don’t have to take any action to correct the problem.”

This is not to suggest that this is something that is always a conscious act. For most, what we believe is formed by our experiences and evidence as it is presented. As humans, we are prone to something called “cognitive bias” which basically means that we create our own reality based on our perceptions which in turn influences our behaviour in the social world. So we take our experiences and sort them into something that is palatable to us and often this is done in a way that is most flattering to us so we can go on with our lives justified in our actions and choices.

I like the example that Mark Manson uses in his new book “Everything is F*cked” to demonstrate cognitive bias. A girl is mistreated by her boyfriend and he leaves her. She has one of two choices in shaping her perception of these events to make it something she can live with: 1. Boys are sh*t, or 2. She is sh*t. Option 2 is too painful, so she subconsciously chooses Option 1.

Cognitive bias is helped by another human thought process called “confirmation bias”. This is the tendency to search for, interpret, and recall information that reinforces or confirms the persons’ existing beliefs.  Returning to Mark’s example; the girl, believing that all boys are sh*t, spends a number of years subconsciously proving that rationalization correct. She is attracted to boys that treat her like garbage and enforce her cognitive bias that they are sh*t. Faced with a boy that is not sh*t, she is unable to accept this reality and ends up leaving him because the implications and adjustments that would be required to re-write her perception of the world and own cognitive bias are simply too painful to consider.

The truly tragic takeaway here is that there was a third option all along that desperation, pain, and bias caused her to overlook! Neither her nor boys are sh*t, the one that hurt her had his own set of issues which in reality had very little to do with her.

Denial is a defense mechanism that prevents threatening emotions entering our conscious thought due to an inability to cope with that negative state. This leads to all kinds of unflattering and self-sabotaging behaviour such as: lying, developing a “false self”, and social isolation. The often unethical behaviour that results can also be a source of shame, self-hatred, and low self-worth. These messy emotions provide further reasons not to face the truth. There is also evidence to suggest that in those cases where chronic substance abuse is a factor, the substance impairs insight, self-awareness and makes a person unwilling or unable to weigh future consequences in comparison with their present need. In other words, the substance becomes the centerpiece around which denial is build to act as a shield.

In facing my own denial, I’ve come to realize that while reflection is a valuable and insightful tool, dwelling on our mistakes as anything more than learning experiences is an impediment to progress. When people tell me about positive (and sometimes obvious) steps they’ve taken to improve their lives, I’ve tried to stop asking them why they didn’t make their move sooner or comment on their process. Instead I try to applaud them for making it at all. I’ve started reassuring people they don’t need to justify themselves to me, I’m happy for them taking the reigns. Period.

Denial has taught me that the brutal unflinching honesty and accountability required to face our authentic selves and learn from it is the ultimate measure of bravery. It takes amazing courage to look in those dark and hidden recesses of your mind and pull out the shrapnel.

Don’t let anyone make you feel any less than hardcore for doing it.

 

Fight, Flight, or…

You may stumble across references to the “fight or flight response”. This is the common name for a theory first introduced by the American physiologist Walter Bradford Cannon who took advantage of the lax animal rights laws of his time to develop several famous theories that scientists still use as the basis for our understanding of the sympathetic nervous system (or crap your body does without you asking).

His theory describes a series of chemical reactions that happen in the body in response to stress; specifically an event which threatens survival. Some of these changes, include: increased blood flow to muscles, increased blood pressure, blood clotting speeding up, and muscle tension increasing. Cognitively, the animal has an increased perception of control (this is not actual control, just the belief that they have it) and distortion of their social processing which leads to two basic emotional states: anxiety or aggression. As the name suggests, these changes occur as the body and mind prepare to fight an attacker or turn tail and run.

Speaking from an evolutionary standpoint, it is believed that this response was designed to help the animal respond to acute stress. For example, running the heck away from a hungry lion which presumably will be an intense but short ordeal. This response was not designed to be a steady or constant state and perhaps given the description I’ve provided it’s easy to see how spending a long period of time in an environment which promotes constant stress could impact physical and emotional health.

When I first started researching this theory I thought about dog fighting. In order to prepare a dog for the ring, handlers do not allow them to live normal lives. They chain them in place, often near but out of reach of other dogs. They are forced to exercise, are beaten, starved, traumatized and antagonized. They train them to tear apart bait animals, taunt them with objects to encourage them to bite and yank, and deprive them of affection and healthy socialization. With no trust and affection dogs will either become aggressive to the point that they fight or they are deemed unfit and often neglected or killed. A wall and a hard place.

It’s a totally barbaric and I’m glad an outlawed “sport” in many areas, but it shows us that in the absence of love, support, and socialization and with the addition of trauma and stress the dog develops chronic aggression or anxiety; stuck in fight or flight, 24/7.

I have a rescue mutt. She is of uncertain origin, adopted as an adult. I know very little about her except that she was captured running wild in the backwoods of Ohio. When  she came home with us, it was clear she’d been through some things. When we would walk her through the neighbourhood she would lunge at other dogs snarling and barking. She was also skiddish if anything or anyone was behind her and would attempt to run away.

Nothing we tried stopped her from being a Tasmanian devil of snarling fury or a panicked rabbit darting away from a loud noise.

It was clear that on the leash she felt trapped and threatened, any dog that approached was out to get her. As a last ditch effort, I decided to take her to an off-leash dog park. My local park is not fenced and runs along a highway. It is also popular and almost always packed with dogs. It was sink or swim; I had visions of her running onto the road or getting into a bloody fight with another dog.

Neither of those things happened.

She didn’t revert to fight or flight. She acted like a dog: sniffed butts, played chase and didn’t run off. I trusted her and I guess she decided to trust me back.

Such a small thing, but so significant. Truthfully, she is still not perfect on a leash, she pulls and yanks me around although she is no longer aggressive. She is also still prone to flight if someone she doesn’t trust is behind her.  But, to me, she represents hope of change; that although she is fundamentally altered by her experiences it is possible to evolve beyond basic instinct.

So, what does this have to do with codependency and recovery?

Anxiety and aggression are both responses to fear. Many people with codependent traits grew up in dysfunctional families, some with addiction, abuse or neglect. Living in a constant state of fight or flight has conditioned us to fear (among other things) rejection, criticism, conflict, failure, vulnerability, and lack of control. We live in readiness, anxiety, and/or aggression because that’s our “normal”. We subconsciously expect the attacks and abuse to continue and maybe even believe we deserve it.

Anxiety leads to overthinking and drawing away from reality. It can cause us to get caught in those “what ifs”, which causes us to magnify and distort what is actually happening in our lives. And because we are used to bad things happening we probably don’t even realize we are stuck and out of touch. We have learned not to value our feelings and repress them which also helps to increase our anxiety, sticking us more firmly in the loop of fight or flight.

But, like my dog, we can learn to override our basic programming. We don’t have to keep doing those things that we had to do to survive. We can change. It is important to remember that as hopeless and stuck as we feel, there are choices beyond kill and cower. We can choose another path by working a program that helps us relax, restores our confidence, and teaches us to trust and let it go.

Simple, not easy, but priceless and worth the effort.

Karma, For Dummies

Being spiritual is not something that comes easily to me. I don’t remember ever having anything close to what could be described as blind faith or trust in the universe.

When I was in middle school, a Christian family moved in across the street in my very small town. They had a daughter about my age. We had nothing in common, but they were kind and generous people and… well, there weren’t a lot of local playmates for any of us to choose from.

The family held daily bible readings. We would be running wild in the yard and get called inside where the mother would read us a bible passage and a second reading geared more towards children, usually a cute story with biblical morals. I don’t remember this being an unpleasant experience but truthfully I don’t think I got any spiritual substance from the practice.  Even at that age I was incorrigible and my engagement was tied more closely to the post study snack rather than any real appreciation for the divine.

I remember the day we covered Genesis and the creation of the world. I asked about dinosaurs, evolution, UFOs, and how could we possibly be the only life in the universe. To the mother’s credit, she was patient and told me that she believed those 7 days did not flow through time as we experience it today. The world was new, in Beta test. Even an omnipotent being needed time and some test subjects. Maybe all those details were not captured by the mortals who pieced together the Holy scripture.

I didn’t buy her explanations then and continue to resist anything that can’t be explained with logic, reason, and proof.  Needless to say, there is a lot that happens in life that can’t, so I find myself trying to force things into simplistic and ill-fitting boxes or obsessively trying to come up with rationalizations for things that are not rational, logic for things that are in no way logical, and for proof where there isn’t any.

If I can’t neatly sort and explain things, you ask? I dramatically crumble into a depressed existential crisis.

I acknowledge that this is part of why I struggle with letting go. I need (want) to always understand the why; even when it’s not available or knowing doesn’t make me happy either.

In recovery I have been looking for compromise; for ways to help me accept and let go of the unexplained. One concept that has helped me is Karma, or the idea that there is a relationship of cause and effect in people’s action (or inaction). Rooted in Hinduism and Buddhism, this idea has also been compared to Newton’s Third Law (thank goodness, some science!) which postulates that every action has an equal or opposite reaction. In other words, the universe is keeping tabs and eventually everything evens out.

I used to think that Karma was a result of justice and judgement, reward and punishment, but now I realize it’s about being accountable for yourself. Karma is supposed to encourage you to own your actions, the way you treat others, and also to trust that others should be left to do the same. Karma teaches us to be calm, emphasizing intelligent, unemotional and logical action. This leads to acceptance of reality as well as peace, calm, and surrender.

Another thing that makes this idea attractive to me is that it is often tied to reincarnation. Although I’m not sure I believe in an afterlife, it does help to justify the idea of suffering. While you may not get to experience the return of energy in this life, you will in the next. Some even teach that lifetimes are like levels in a video game with each life subjected to a new lesson or obstacle to overcome. Failure results in repeating the level while passing leads to harder and harder tests until you finally face off against the big boss and are rewarded with enlightenment, peace, and ethereal rewards.

While I think it’s unlikely that I will ever formally practice religion, I do see the value of spirituality. Belief in the unseen and unexplained makes it easier to let go by suggesting things will be sorted out when I let go. And, more importantly, these ideas can inspire hope, trust, and motivation to continue in this age of uncertainty, distrust, and scarcity. Because really, we could all use that extra bit of inspiration to convince us to continue when it seems like there is no hope.

Bill Murray (& Showing Up)

I’ve been a fan of Bill Murray since I was a kid. Growing up, he was a standout in Ghostbusters, What About Bob?, and my all-time favourite Groundhog Day. On screen there was always something compelling about him.  He doesn’t fit the mould and there is something magnetic about him. He is genuine, which seems like a strange thing to say about some who makes a living pretending to be other people.

One of my favourite Bill Murray movie quotables is from Ghostbusters:

Why worry? Each of us is carrying an unlicensed nuclear accelerator on his back.

Even in advance of his current popularity that moment captured a little bit of Bill’s approach to living: in the moment, available, doing what he has to do, tongue in cheek, and never-mind the consequences.

Recently I watched The Bill Murray Stories on Netflix. The documentary by Tommy Avallone chronicles stories of the actor making incredible cameos in people’s lives: appearing in a couple’s engagement photos, showing up at a house party and doing the host’s dishes, serving drinks at local watering hole for the evening after befriending the bartender, or putting his hands over men’s eyes in a public restroom whispering in their ears “no one will ever believe you”. In the absence of proof it would be unbelievable that a celebrity of this caliber would just show up and be present, silly and playful, without security or worry, just to be in the moment with non-celebs.

I’ve since read articles speculating on the actor’s motives, not limited to: commentary on how technology has impaired our ability to connect, keeping his improv skills sharp, or a way for him to feel “normal” and momentarily escape his celebrity status.

Regardless of the legend’s motives, I find his actions inspiring. To me, Bill’s antics represent truly being open and available to experience life. As a chronic over-thinker I envy, idolize, and aspire to this state of being. I desire more than anything to just show up and participate without crippling myself with the details.

I think that’s what true freedom and success is about: showing up and making the most of it. Not how many dollars in your bank account, the size of your house, the number of countries you’ve visited, how many offspring you’ve produced, or how successful you are in your chosen profession. I don’t think it’s about grabbing every opportunity that is presented, but being open and available to experiences that enrich your life in the moment, in the present.

While I shuffle forward into my new life I keep Bill in the back of my mind as inspiration to not get so invested in the details and try to enjoy the moments as they come.

His Tao, in his own words:

I live a little bit on the seat of my pants, I try to be alert and available … for life to happen to me. We’re in this life, and if you’re not available, the sort of ordinary time goes past and you didn’t live it. But if you’re available, life gets huge. You’re really living it. – Bill Murray, From an Interview with Charlie Rose via Flavourwire

Our Love Affair with Substance Use

I grew up in a very small town.

My hometown consists of a graveyard, a community centre, a couple of convenience stores, a church and about 100 houses. It’s also a 15 minute car ride to the closest more substantial small town. It is part of a large but underpopulated county in southern Ontario, Canada. My high school had about 500 students, grades 8 -12, many of whom were bussed close to an hour to get there.

Admittedly, I was an odd kid. I was teased in elementary school for being quiet, shy, a bit too liberal for that small farming community, and well… we’ve chatted previously about my home life, I didn’t think I belonged there either.  By the time I made it to high school I had cultivated a tougher persona. I lacked confidence in my appearance and my self and I tried to disguise that by being disruptive, argumentative, opinionated, and a general pain in the butt.

It’s safer to be feared than loved.

– Machiavelli, the Prince

I remember the first time I drank excessively, I was about 15. A girlfriend, that had an equally complicated opinion of herself and desperate need for approval, flirted with an older boy to get us a bottle of pear liquor. It went about as well as you’d expect. I still associate pears with hangovers. However, I persisted.

By the end of my high school career I could out drink most of my classmates (male or female), snuck into bars, experimented with several gateway drugs, was a chain smoker, a master of several drinking games, and spent most of my time in a perpetual state of party. Through those actions, I had the illusion that I gained acceptance. People seemed to find me more approachable or maybe, like many drunks, I just had an inflated sense of self-importance.

At university, in my final year, my party life ended. I was 23 and developed a blood disorder. As a result of this, I have to maintain a moderate lifestyle. Drinking in excess and drug use carry the very real threat of death. It was a lot earlier than I wanted to accept my mortality but, looking at the trajectory of my life, I could have easily graduated to full addiction so I am somewhat grateful.

Following my medical crises, my ability to fit in got worse. While I’d been partying for years, many of my conservative small town friends were just getting started and there were very few social events that didn’t involve excessive use of something mind altering. I found people who were intoxicated hard to be around. It no longer seemed fun to me; there was always drama, someone crying, fights, and conversation that can only seem interesting to people in a similar state.

I kept getting polite invites but I noticed I made people uncomfortable. They would question why I wasn’t drinking and pressure me to join them. When I politely refused, they would appear uncomfortable, like I was judging them. I eventually mostly stopped going to bars and gatherings where the intent was to party and it started to feel like my presence was requested mostly to avoid cab fare.

Later, as my friends started settling down and having kids, I started going to more events. I noticed that the drinking and the drugs didn’t stop. Name the occasion and I was offered alcohol and/or a joint was being passed: children’s birthday party, christening, baby shower. Again, with the questions about why I wasn’t drinking more or why I didn’t want to get high.

Substances are widely accepted to punctuate many life events and are a common theme in popular media.

Bad day at work? Have a drink.

Broke up with your boyfriend? Let’s get stoned.

Got that promotion? Cocktails!

Engaged? Vegas binge till we blackout, y’all!

Over time I developed the ability to nurse a drink or two for an entire evening, but generally still find it easier to leave before people get too sloppy and start asking questions about my relative sobriety.

I guess the point that I’m trying to make here is that I feel like we need to seriously look at our relationship with substance use. Especially following recent changes in legislation in Canada that make it easier and easier to obtain various legalized substances. Notably, recent changes to provincial liquor law providing more retail options for purchase of alcohol and allowing drinking in public, which was previously regulated. This nips at the heels of federal legislation reform on cannabis.

While I don’t necessarily think that regulation is the answer to reducing addiction, I think that increasing the availability of these substances without more discussion on how Canadians relate to them is a mistake.

Getting drunk or stoned is not romantic, it doesn’t make you cool, it’s not for everyone, and ultimately it should just be for recreation. Substances do not solve your problems, they are not a valid way to cope, they don’t make you more attractive or desirable, and are they really how we want to punctuate our happiest events — by potentially not being present for them?

Everyone is entitled to occasional escape, being a human is at times complicated and challenging but I wish we would do more to remind ourselves that substance use is a privilege, a personal choice, and should be approached with in a healthy state of mind.