Monthly Archives: February 2012

Virgin Candle

Before science came to prominence and continuing today, religion has held the emotional high ground.

Science dismissed emotion as irrational and that’s part of its success. And so, science hasn’t dealt in hope or happiness. That’s allowed religion to continue its hold on the believers by providing the emotional support science didn’t.

Over the past couple of decades science has been investigating the mechanisms behind human happiness through positive psychology and neuroscience. This is a welcome opening, developing emotional tools that were previously the domain of religion because it was the only game in town. The irrational drawbacks of religion were commonly overlooked since religion could provide emotional support and a comforting world view. If you truly believe in a possibly happy afterlife, it takes the fear away from death and helps people get through hard times.

Treating one another well doesn’t seem to happen as much in religious countries as it does in countries of mostly unbelievers. Ironically, if you look at the markers of literacy, income, homicide rates and violent crime the least religious countries outshine the religious ones.

And when taken to the extreme, if the ultimate happiness is in a promised afterlife, it becomes too easy and logical to take your life and the lives of others in the name of your religion.

Hopefully efforts being made by science to better address human happiness will gain more traction by providing scientifically supported tools and understanding of emotions instead of the emotional benefits of religion that come coupled with irrational drawbacks.


A Better Now

We like hoping for a better now, waiting for what we think are the perfect conditions. But right now is the best now, usually. Procrastinating, waiting, not starting, and getting distracted can all be justified because you’re waiting for a better now.

Maybe I’ll… it can be a long list.

I might say, “I’ll work on that online course I’m taking later, because I need to finish checking my email.” But email is most often the requests of others for your time.

Or, “The to-do-list is so long I’ll wait until it somehow gets shorter.” It won’t get shorter, by itself.

Or what about, “I’ll speak Spanish better when I get a Mexican girlfriend.” I guess my  American girlfriend doesn’t want me to really learn Spanish.

Then maybe, “I’ll meditate when the level of chatter in my mind calms down and I can be more present.” Isn’t that what meditation will help do?

“I’ll paint the outside of the house when the rains stop.” Okay, that’ll be a better now.

Most times though, this present now is the best now.

A Stationary Yacht

People like to compare themselves with others around them. Sometimes this part of human nature kicks in without helping  much and just adds stress.

For example, if you thought your life would be better if you could earn $10k more a year so that you’d be pulling in $85k. But if you did that only to find out everyone in your circle of friends made $90k that year you’d more than likely wind up feeling dissatisfied with your $85k! The only reason for your discomfort would be because your friends were making more even though you’d earlier thought $85k was the key to happiness.

And research shows that even if you didn’t make the amount you were shooting for, but you at least made more than your circle of friends you’d feel better about it.

This happens with houses too, the whole keeping up with the Jones thing. But now, probably driven by the current mortgage crisis, there seems to be a growing interest in our “footprint” on the Earth. One big way of reducing your footprint is to live in a smaller house. I think it’s an improvement over the McMansion trend of recent years. Some people are trying to live in the smallest house they can, instead of the biggest house they (can’t) afford.

It has a lot to do with marketing and the messengers. If Oprah, Brad, and Jeremy Lin start living in smaller digs the trend might really catch on.

Enter the stationary yacht. If we started calling small houses stationary yachts they’d sound cooler and imply more prestige. Maybe we could tap into our comparing and competitive nature by trying to outdo our circle of friends by buying smaller and cooler stationary yachts rather than larger and presumably cooler McMansions.


My Way

We woke up this morning to a wandering Mariachi band playing “My Way” in Spanish for  a funeral procession. Singers ranging from Frank Sinatra to Sid Vicious have belted out “My Way”- a prideful tune about  living a free and independent life. They weren’t singing about dominance or being dominated, they were just celebrating being able to live how they pleased. At some point in our lives sooner or later, most of us realize “I don’t like being told what to do.”

I think this drive for doing  it your way developed over a long period of time. For a couple of million years living as hunter-gatherers, we had a fierce need to be independent. Primatologist Christopher Boehm argues that “Nomadic foragers are universally – and all but obsessively – concerned with being free from the authority of others.” We’ve been calibrated for a world that no longer exists for most people. One of the things we’re not able to do is live in small bands. Self determination to some extent could be pursued because the groups we lived in were likely run via cooperation more than a hierarchy.

Nowadays, given the chance, in our modern world, most people want to work for themselves. at least people I know.

People don’t want to be subservient. Small steps are taken by progressive societies to make their people’s lives more even and less controlling. For example, some countries are slowly dropping diminutive titles for unwed women. In the US, progressive people and newspapers refer to all women with the more general “Ms.”  And Germany got rid of addressing unmarried women with “Frauline” in favor of generally using only “Frau.”

I think people become distrustful of a system that give others too much authority over them. Communism has crashed and burned because the power in that system was not evenly distributed, as claimed. In the US, citizens are now upset as they realize just how much  unfairness has crept into the system lately.

William Blake put it well when he said “Each man must create his own system or else he is a slave to another mans.”


The Gratitude List

Here’s a gratitude list. I’m grateful for the internet. I’m grateful for our phone service. I’m grateful for being online. And I’m thankful for being able to blog.

Sorry I didn’t post yesterday (Tuesday) on my normal Tuesday and Friday schedule. It was the first time since I started blogging that I’ve missed a scheduled post. We were offline Monday and most of Tuesday because of unusual rainstorms (it’s the dry season)  this weekend that knocked out phone and internet service to our house. The phone repairman came Tuesday afternoon and made some temporary repairs that will hopefully last until a damaged cable can be replaced.

For the past six weeks I’ve been keeping a daily gratitude list. The list can be mundane like the first paragraph above. Basically anything you’ve come across in your life resulting in a feeling of thankfulness is worthy of jotting down on your list.

The idea of keeping a gratitude list pops up when researchers talk about factors that influence people’s happiness. It’s an easy thing to do with outsized benefits when it’s done with the idea that you’re trying to become happier,versus just going through the motions. A gratitude list pushes you to pay attention to things in your life you might otherwise take for granted. One researcher suggests viewing the items you list as “gifts” you want to savor.

It’s easy to do. I think it’s good to use a cheap spiral bound notebook or any thing you’re not too fussy about. If you get a fancy leather-bound journaling books  you may be reluctant to write all the simple and private things you’re grateful for in such a permanent feeling “book.” With a cheap notebook, you can tear out pages and even chuck the whole thing out when it’s full, who cares? The point is to write just four or five sentences that mean something to you and aren’t for anyone else. Don’t worry about spelling or penmanship.

Like most new habits the hardest part is just starting. But if you just break it into small easy chunks you’re on the way. Take it day by day and pick a time that’s convenient, like right before bed. Write the four or five things you’re thankful for, current or older, simple or grand, and especially people. Going for detail about a particular thing is more effective than a superficial listing. If removing something from your life would make your life less enjoyable it’s a good candidate.

And you can be grateful for this: once you establish the habit the research seems to show that doing it once or twice a week is effective too.

About Names

Note to parents: avoid giving your kids weird names. Please.

My parents gave me an unusual name so I feel qualified to offer this advice.

It’s happening all over world. Unusual names in Sweden have gotten so out of hand that there’s a law to curb naming people with especially odd names. It sounds a little complicated in Sweden but it comes in part as a reaction to so many people with similar names.

Even our little town in Mexico, conservative parents and neo-hippy parents seem to delight in assigning their kids hard to pronounce difficult first names. I’ll pass on giving you examples, but take my word for it. In Mexico I changed my name to Nico; I like it and it’s easier for everybody.

This past weekend I was introduced to a few people as Stocker and was reminded how much I don’t like having an unusual name. More than 95% of the time, people are confused about my name when we first meet. It’s not their fault, I’d have the same questions and confused interpretations. Especially in the last ten years or so with the publicity given to celebrity stalkers. Most people will say something like “Your name is Stalker?”

That’s not all, there’s more. My last name, Cary, is more often a first name and my first name, Stocker, is normally a last name, both of which cause another problem. Most times when I need a file retrieved, at say the DMV for example, it’s not found until I suggest they look under Cary Stocker and it’ll be there. Not their fault, but it’s inconvenient for the filer and me.

But, there’re some advantages to having an unusual name. One is most people seem to remember my name once they get it. And another advantage is that I had no problem buying the name for this site.

William Gibson

I just read a good book. It’s a collection of nonfiction articles written by fiction writer William Gibson. The book is “Distrust That Particular Flavor.”

Gibson is one of my favorite living authors. His fiction writing is about the near future and has been pretty good at conjuring up what’s just around the corner. Outside his tribe of admirers, Gibson is best known for coining the term “cyberspace.” Gibson was writing about cyberspace in 1984. Now in 2012, most people understand what you mean if you use the term.

Not known for writing nonfiction, he does a good job with it in articles and reviews collected from the past few decades. In “Distrust That Particular Flavor” Gibson shares his observations on a range of subjects from the attractive strangeness of Tokyo to the unrecognized strangeness of recordings.

For example, before epic storytelling and writing, people were forgotten within a couple of generations. Gibson points out that now, we not only can be aware of the dead but  experience them as well in a way that was until recently not possible. If a singer died and you’d never heard him, well… you never would. But now we have the ability to see and hear artists who’re gone. And we’re so used to it that we’ve forgotten how novel it is in our history. If Elvis had died 200 years ago his performances would be gone with him.

Each article in the book is followed by Gibson’s reflections on his writing and mindset when he wrote the article and what his opinion of the article is today, sort of like seeing “before and after pictures.” That’s interesting and so are the insights he shares in this collection.


Why Blog?

Why blog and what’s a blog for? I think there’re lots of good reasons to have a blog. Here’re some of the reasons:

A blog frees memory space in your mind; once you’ve written an idea down you don’t need to worry about  forgetting it.

Blogging is basically storytelling which has always been important for communicating information and entertaining. These days, telling a story well is important for forming connections and influencing people. Your ability to tell a story is sharpened every time you write.

A blog functions as a note to the future. Down the road, you can look back at a snapshot of what was happening and what you were thinking by rereading a blog post.

Creating a blog teaches you a new skill, constructing a website.

A blog gives you a unique online presence. If your blog is good, you can probably use it in place of a resume, showing more of who you are and what you can do. Just attach a cover letter.

Writing makes you organize your thoughts, clarifying ideas before they turn into the swamp gas of your marshy memory.

Old friends who discover your blog seem to enjoy catching up with you.

Publishing on a schedule builds discipline.

A blog can help you make sense of an externally chaotic world, like a rock in a river. Blogging allows you to share your musings with a potentially large audience, and maybe even build up a tribe.

There’s also a factor of serendipity, you won’t really know where your blog will lead. I saw this site’s ranking, it’s at position 6,658,374 out of about 450,000,000 (active blogs in English), not too bad. If you enjoy writing and sharing, that’s good enough.