Personal Development

How are you?

If you encountered five people a day, every day for forty years, you would have been asked “How are you?” and you would have responded “I’m fine,” seventy-three thousand times.

You tell others that you’re fine, but what do you tell yourself? For every time you greet another person, you probably greet yourself a hundred times.

I don’t mean that you say the words “How are you?” in your mind throughout the day. I mean that on a semi-conscious level, you take stock of your situation, concluding that you’re either OK or your not. You do this many times a day. For all the complexity of life and for all the variety of human emotions, your mind recognizes a binary status at any given moment.

The belief that you’re OK or not OK determines how you will feel and what you will perceive in the next moment, so it’s important. If you often tell yourself you’re not OK when in fact you’re OK, then you might have the opportunity to improve your life just by changing how you assess your status.

Let’s skip over the question of what makes a person OK or not OK and say that if you’re under an immediate threat to your health or safety, you’re not OK, otherwise you’re OK.

But here are some reasons why you might be telling yourself you’re not OK: I’m late. My hair is a mess. I’m bored. I’m a little cold. I’m unprepared. I don’t know what to focus on. I just had an argument. I want chocolate. I wasted an hour on something unproductive. I don’t feel as good as I did before. I think I’ve failed at my mission in life. I just stepped on a piece of chewing gum. I don’t like what I’m looking at. I’m tired. It’s rainy and the news is bad.

My point is not to debate how severe or threatening any particular situation might be. My point is just to ask whether some percentage of the “not-OK” conclusions that you make each day could be switched to “OKs.” I’m late but I’m OK. I’m tired but I’m OK. And so on.

If you could get even a few more OKs each day, this could translate into thousands more OKs in the coming years, which could mean thousands more moments in which you allow yourself to relax, which could benefit your health.

Suggestions:

Try to notice the conclusions you make throughout the day about being OK or not-OK.

If you can’t perceive those conclusions as they happen in your mind, consider your behavior. Are you behaving as though you’re OK or as though you’re not OK? What does your breathing and posture tell you about the conclusion you’ve made?

Consider whether some of your not-OKs could be switched to OKs. Perhaps a not-OK from before is still echoing in your mind now even though your situation has changed?

Notice how much effort you might be spending on explaining or justifying why you’re not OK. What would happen if some fraction of that effort were redirected to the opposite conclusion?

 

 

Commentary:

This is my second “personal development” post. It was inspired by my experiences in a stress management course I’m taking at the Benson-Henry institute at MGH in Boston, but the material is not from the course. In writing the post I had to work through a few things. First of all, I’m reluctant to tell other people what to do, and I don’t want to sound like I’m lecturing. So I thought about avoiding generalizations and framing the post as an anecdote about how I changed my own thinking on one particular occasion. Writing is best when it’s personal and concrete, right? But you could also say that writing is best when you get to the point. I concluded that the material amounts to a few assertions and a recommendation, that’s it. I took it as my job to make those things clear so the reader could quickly grasp them and accept them or reject them. There’s also a tendency for me to think I should have fully mastered whatever material I write about, and be able to report success in implementing whatever I propose. But I’ve realized that setting such a high bar can become an excuse for not writing and hence a reason that I never get to learn from whatever I might have written.

Personal Development

Checking News

In 2019, I’d like to overcome my habit of checking news. On a bad day, I might check news a hundred times, hovering over the New York Times, CNN, Reuters, Google News, and Facebook in search of breaking headlines and updates to trending stories. The temptation to take out my phone and read news arises when I’m standing in the subway, waiting for food at a restaurant, sitting on the toilet, lying in bed trying to wake up, or pacing around the kitchen wondering what to do next with my day. When I’m at my desk, I might have a dozen browser tabs open to different news sites and articles I’ve started reading in between other tasks. Sometimes while I’m checking news online, the news is also playing on the radio.

There are three reasons why I check news, not including any practical need I might have for information about current events. In truth, almost nothing I see in the news aside from local weather has any bearing on what I do during the day. And while the desire to be well-informed is a good excuse for frequently checking news, it could be better satisfied by reading books and maybe looking at the news once a week. My real reasons for checking news are not often obvious to me at the time, but they reveal themselves in hindsight.

The first reason I check news is that I’ve gotten tired working on my current task, whatever it is, and I need a break. The second reason is that I’m bored or lonely and I’m looking for stimulation. The third reason is that I’m anxious and I’m looking for a distraction from troubling thoughts. In all three cases, I’m looking for something quick and easy, and the news provides.

Unfortunately, what the news provides is never what I’m really looking for. When I turn to the news as a break from my current task, I’m seeking refreshment so that I’ll be able to concentrate again, but the news leaves me exhausted and discouraged. When I turn to the news because I’m bored, the news provides excitement, but this excitement is of a hollow kind that leaves me unsatisfied and ultimately more bored. When I turn to the news because I’m anxious, the news distracts me from what I’m worried about, but it does this by causing new worries. While these new worries at first crowd out the old ones, they eventually welcome the old ones back to join.

Every time I check the news, my emotions are basically the same: shock and disbelief, leading to anger, leading to sadness, leading to helplessness, hopelessness, and gloom. I’m left with a sense of guilt (I wasted my time checking), futility (I can’t change any of these horrible things that are happening in the world), disappointment (I didn’t really get what I was looking for), and confusion (I guess I don’t really understand the world). Often these feelings impel me to check the news again, looking for something hopeful, fascinating, or urgent that will distract me from my deepened frustration, and the cycle continues. I tell myself “I need to know what’s going on” and “maybe I missed something important” so I keep scrolling and searching. But the news just hurts more and more.

Checking the news is a way of rehearsing impatience. As soon as I’ve extracted whatever stimulation is to be found in the current news item, I start looking for new ones. I’m carried along from link to link, article to article, always choosing the path of greatest stimulation, juiciest distraction. I feel a reduced sense of volition, as if I’m being pushed and pulled around with little choice in the matter, even though it’s me who’s doing the clicking and the scrolling. It doesn’t matter that sometimes, my browsing leads me to the encounter the work of the world’s greatest, most thoughtful, courageous, and incisive journalists. I’m paying just enough attention to be frightened but not enough to learn or truly appreciate.

What is the way out? Some ideas:

First, focus on breathing. Take a deep breath before you check news. Notice whether the urge to check is stronger or weaker after you’ve inhaled and exhaled slowly. Take some more breaths. Maybe you don’t need to check?

Second, focus on a comforting, joyous image. Before you take out your phone, think about a thing that makes you happy. Take ten seconds to visualize yourself experiencing that thing. Maybe you don’t need to check?

Third, check yourself instead of the news. How are you doing? Is it possible that in fact, you’re doing fine, your doing OK, right now, at this particular point in your day? Try affirming that you’re all right, you’re OK, just as things are now. Maybe you don’t need to check?

 

Commentary

This is my first post in a new category that I’d like to explore here on my blog, personal development. I figure I’ve been alive long enough that I might know some stuff about life that could be helpful to others; at the same time I’m dealing with some things and I’m probably confused about some things that I could get a better grip on if I wrote about them. Writing this post and keeping it in mind over the past few days has already helped tame my news-checking urge.

My aim in this post (and future ones like it) is to address a problem without lavishing too much attention on the thorny details of the problem as if those details were the most interesting thing in the world. While I could have gone into a cinematic exposition of a specific news-checking experience, I took it as more important to reach the solutions at the end.

In writing the post, I was concerned about painting too harsh a picture of myself — maybe that’s a risk of succinctness. I felt a temptation to assure the reader, particularly anyone who might be a friend or loved one, that my situation is far from dire. I’m doing lots of rewarding things in my life, I feel joy each day, and I’m not sitting around checking news to the exclusion of all else. Rather, checking news is a habit that seems to grow and shrink according to the amount of idle time that’s available for it. However, the specific percentage of my time I might be spending on the news doesn’t really matter as far as the point of the post, and I figured that being milder and chattier in my self-portrayal wouldn’t really make the post better.