How Much Do You Think About Your Future?

“What dreams may come?” wondered Hamlet as he considered whether “to be, or not to be.” The potential of an afterlife of nightmares stopped him short of self-murder. For the rest of us, the time beyond today is either ignored, dreaded, colored in unending rainbows; or maybe even calmly planned.

Experience suggests that whatever comes will include both good and bad; and depend, in part, on how we approach it.

One’s individual weather forecast depends, to a degree, on his history and inborn, genetic disposition. Yes, there are born optimists or born pessimists. Guess who has more fun?

Cognitive behavior therapists help the latter group’s struggle with catastrophization. The counselor trains his patient to recognize the error within the terror of anticipated disaster when little realistic likelihood exists. The worst of life is best encountered in the moment. Don’t pour worry over yourself, like a sticky syrup mucking-up every day. “Borrowing trouble” comes at much expense, killing our ambitions before they begin.

When we do think past the horizon, some of us mistakenly focus on only half of what must be done to raise our prospects. It is not enough to quit an awful marriage or job, despite the immediate relief of departure. What comes after? Ask how you deposited yourself in a swamp? Envision a destination and a plan of attack. None of this is easy.

I know people who need a permanent set of attached binoculars to check out next steps. Some take bodily risks. Think prodigious drinking, eating, or drugging. Nor do I speak of the ones who simply deny their self-abuse. Too many possess the “talent” (or curse) of shutting off their brains when offered a drink or walking into a restaurant: an unconscious, dissociative process like a selective amnesia. A hour earlier they intended to pass by the cocktail or the quarter-pounder with cheese. Faced with the devilish dilemma, the brain takes a vacation — temporarily closes-off a sliver of awareness. One might think of it as the sky on a clear day, but for one cloudy portion.

The future is a trickster. His opening act makes us believe we own an unused bank vault full of years. For those who do survive, unlived time is most often neither so wonderful or terrible as we imagine. Humans hedonically adapt. After a period of euphoria we tend to move back to our “set point:” our usual level of emotional equanimity or distress. Time’s passage also elevates our spirits from the first awfulness of many seeming disasters. Review your history. You might find lots of misfortune from which you bounced back.

Truth is, we are poor affective forecasters — weak at predicting the emotional residue of our adventures. Psychologists Daniel Gilbert and Tim Wilson tells us this leads to “miswanting.” We guess we will like some choices more than we do when they happen, in addition to “mispredicting” how long strong feelings will last afterward.

You think a $10,000 raise offers sustained joy? Most likely not for long. Simply put, after a year or two, most of us feel about the same as we did before the wonderful or terrible thing happened.

If you dislike the fallible weatherman, examine your prognostic success. In 10-years-time you could be surprised by how much you change and how those alterations complicate your ability to make predictions about what you will enjoy:

While I’m giving crystal ball warnings, beware of “bucket lists.” Other than people like my old buddy Ron Ableman, I knew many who kicked the bucket before they reached the list inside. Another group believed their long-awaited trip to Paris, for example, would have held more enchantment in the springtime of their life.

If you peg your well-being to winning an Olympic gold metal or some similar recognition, reconsider. Someone will win the distinction, but far more won’t. The impossible dream is the graveyard of life satisfaction. Instead, enjoy the process and more probable rewards along the way. A spot on the highest podium while your national anthem plays then will be the cherry on top.

The difficulty of depending on tomorrow for all your pleasure is well-described by Dan Greenburg and Marcia Jacobs. Their funny and all-too-true book is called How to Make Yourself Miserable.

The authors believe we manage the dreariness of our regular duties by looking toward to THE WEEKEND.

Unfortunately …

By Saturday morning you may be vaguely aware that Friday night wasn’t as great as you hoped it would be, but you don’t have much time to think about it because … you are still looking forward to the climax of THE WEEKEND — Saturday night. By Sunday afternoon, however, it is all over. Hope is dead. There is nothing further for you to look forward to, except the gloomy prospect of Monday morning and another whole week of drudgery at a job or school you detest. The weekend — like your life — can at last be viewed in its correct perspective: one colossal letdown, one gigantic anticlimax. On Sunday afternoon you are free to ponder all the great times you felt sure lay ahead, but never quite materialized.

We do need to suppose something better is in the offing — somewhere, somehow — and energize the resolve to get there. All those who trod a long educational road toward a career valued the lofty goal. The fathers of our antique religions realized the worth of a heavenly reward — a world without gravity — for the grave circumstances we ofttimes endure on earth. But, as Greenburg and Jacobs recognized, laughing at ourselves helps too, and sooner.

Just as a predictable joke is never funny, the most remarkable opportunities and joys take you by surprise.

In my own temporary stay on the planet, for example, I never contemplated that I might become a consultant to more than one major sports team. The unsought path just revealed itself.

Sure, I passed through down times and understand more will come, but I find little profit in attempting to improve the distance-vision of the nearsighted man I am. Indeed, if I live long enough, I’ll hesitate before buying unripe bananas. Most senior citizens are wise not to take a mental leap forward. They do well to make every day count.

Nothing is static. Expect sunny days and stormy weather and many partly cloudy skies. The ability to adjust to conditions is a skill necessary for you and me, both.

The largest portion of our contentment comes not beyond our noses, but by grabbing the beauty near at hand.

Of course, I have a surgically reconstructed left knee, so she may elude me.

—–

More on affective forecasting.

The first image, What Lies Ahead, was sourced from Eurotimes.org. The art work that follows is The Future of Statues, by Rene Magritte. It was sourced from Wikiart.org.

 

 

In Which Part of Life Do You Live: Past, Present, or Future?

How much is well-being or its absence – depression and anxiety – dependent on what you pay attention to? I mean the present moment, the past, or your future? Does one best way to focus your attention exist?

Let’s look at each of these three possible orientations to time. Today I’ll start where your body is, even if your mind isn’t:

THE PRESENT

Philosophers remind us that the present is all we really have. The past is gone and the future might not come.

At least three paths allow us to live within the fleeting instant:

1. MINDFULNESS BASED ON MEDITATION PRACTICE:

Much effort is needed to develop and maintain this kind of “in the moment” way of being; daily meditation practice for the rest of your days. In doing so you can train the mind to stay in the present and refocus whenever attention begins to move toward a distraction, worry, preoccupation, memory, or anything else but your being within one second at a time. No before or after. No holding on to feelings. You observe the world rather than dwell on it. Thus, for example, pain is less fraught because you do not obsess about it. A benign sense of detachment comes to master meditators. They notice everything, but don’t pile meaning and intense emotion on everything, thus freighting the bad into something worse. Research suggests these are the most contented people on earth.

2. EMOTIONAL OPENNESS TO THE PRESENT AND WHATEVER LIFE OFFERS IN THE NOW:

Unlike the meditation experts, those in this group lead intense lives. Their openness allows for much joy, as it does for sorrow. At their best they are unguarded and brave. I am not speaking here of people with ADHD, who risk being caught in a whirlwind of thoughtless and impulsive action, untroubled by the past or future. Rather, I refer to those who are free with themselves, not self-consciously governed by what others might say or see. They are quite natural, unaffected, and spontaneous. Their self (and self-consciousness) is lost.

Such lives are not full of rigid angles and rectangular shapes. They don’t always conform themselves to boundaries drawn on hard surfaces, as one must in formal sporting events, with perimeters decisively marked as fair or foul, in or out. Think ocean or sky, not ground, when you behold them: creatures who swim or fly. Theirs is a life of discovery and bright eyes. They wish to play, not keep score; celebrate while the sun still shines.

These gifted people (whether by nature or choice) don’t achieve the dispassionate serenity of meditation gurus, but they are more “alive.”

As William Blake wrote in Auguries of Innocence,  the talented few are able

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand 
And Eternity in an hour.

3. ACHIEVING “FLOW:”

This is a cousin of #2, but applies best to work, competitive play, and hobbies. Here the path is not so much social or relational, but the singular focus on a task. In the case of elite athletes, for example, their concentration is extraordinary: They have been known to so “tune out” the sound of the crowd, that overwhelming cheers (when they finally do break through) can startle them, bringing them back to the amphitheater from the smaller arena of man against man. They had lost awareness of a stadium full of 60,000 observers. The psychologist Mihaly Csíkszentmihályi tells us, “this is a feeling everyone has at times, characterized by … great absorption, engagement, fulfillment, and skill … during which temporal concerns (time, food, ego-self, etc.) are typically ignored. The ego falls away. Time flies … and you’re using your skills to the utmost.”

The mastery and experience within you is matched to the challenge at hand. You won’t get this often watching TV (only seven to eight percent of the time). Neither will relaxation transport you into “flow.” You must do something. Csíkszentmihályi would have us believe ecstacy is possible in the “flow.”

Some suggest, however, we be careful of too much “in the now” living as defined by the first two paths. Isaiah Berlin, the philosopher and social/political historian, thought the detachment achieved in a Buddhist type meditation (Category #1) could be a cheat of life experience, a kind of defense mechanism against injury; valuable, but missing the full essence of life.

Those taken by the moment (Category #2) also risk some of the avoidable misfortunes that those who spend more time looking ahead might dodge. Members of this group would push back, however, claiming the reward of emotional and behavioral vulnerability is worth the risk. Take opportunity on, they might say: this life is the performance and not the rehearsal.

Nor should we forget, people suffering from Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD) are characterized as living in painful extremity too often. They can miss or discount the notion that nearly everything they are feeling at this instant is temporary, therefore potentially succumbing to passing emotional catastrophe. For them “the now” seems endlessly excruciating.

Want some homework? Ask yourself which “time zone” you usually occupy and which makes you happiest.

Stay tuned. One of my upcoming posts will deal with living in the past, which also has its ups and downs. An essay on future orientation will follow, along with some thoughts about the three types of time-focus and how to manage them.

The second image is Macaca fuscata in Jigokudani Monkey Park – Nagano, Japan, by Daisuke Tashiro. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

Therapy’s Ultimate Goal: Embracing Life

Are there endangered emotions in the world, much like endangered species? The ones that disappear? Most of us had sentiments and enthusiasms as small children we now rarely experience. What might they be? Can we get them back?

The greatest events of life, I’d argue, are fleeting. The birth of your first child is one. An early, electric kiss. The clichéd “thrill of victory” as it is felt, not reported. A musical performance of sadness or exultation so powerful you float and reverberate for days. Immediacy, intensity, and loss of self-awareness are found in these moments. Routine breaks. One is swept away.

What do we try to do with such things? Extend them, for sure. Go back to the source and regain them. Produce more children, maybe; more kisses, for certain. Play in additional ball games, too. Perhaps attend the repeat-performance of the concert the next day. But, the repeat almost never captures the wallop, the poignancy of “the first time.”

Does the picture of a speeding bullet seize the essence, help us remember and relive it? The most precious things and people are priceless, in part, because of their short supply and elusiveness. Here and gone. No matter the effort, we can’t catch an emotional deluge in a bucket and keep it in the fridge, just so.

Yet still we try. We want the honeymoon to be endless. We want our child’s spontaneity to continue forever. We think the earth-moving moment should be mounted in a frame or frozen under glass, but its soul is in the movement, not the stillness. The carefully preserved butterfly does not fly.

Some of us, as we age, lose even the ability to be astonished by life, bowled over by happiness or love, sensation or tenderness. Most want a bit of protection, so we add, without thinking, one layer at a time, beginning in youth. Seems safer, more necessary, less risky. The arrows of fate then won’t pierce as far, hurt as much, or so we believe. We want to escape fatal bullets, but unintentionally kill ourselves – the life in us – by trying to avoid them.

The bravest therapy patients attempt to change no one but themselves in their effort to recapture the innocent wonder they had at the point of creation, or grab the life-enkindling thing for the first time. They have the courage to recognize the mirror’s image, to overcome the pain of treatment, to outlast and out-will the unendurable: a kind of therapeutic integrity not to be denied. They grip tragedy and wrestle him to ground. They rip the emotional scabs off their being and bleed until purified and joyous. I still cannot believe how open they are.

As an observer of myself, I can characterize personal life from my 20s to the present as an opening more than a closing. My work required this openness, but so did full immersion in the best private moments as they happened. To my continuing surprise I become more open, not less, even now. Saying what others might not say, but only think; expressing the deepest part of myself to those who care to listen. Looking into your eyes if I am touched by your being. Life hurts more this way, but feels right and perhaps I have no choice: I became and am becoming such a person with little intention. Who knows what version of myself might appear tomorrow?

Death sets the border on everything. The cliché tells us the cemetery is full of irreplaceable people, the last stop on a human world in transit. The trains of life’s are always in motion, much as we want them to wait a minute. The best of them are swift. That’s what makes a train. No picture of a locomotive moves at 60 mph unless you throw it across the room.

So my advice to all of us is this: eyes open, heart open, stay alert, let down your guard as much as your dare; but don’t lose the best of yourself. Make love to life as if she were your first and last, both. She just might be.

Of course, I’m uncatchable, but catch me while you can.

As the advertisements tells us, we are all on sale for a limited time only.

The top image is called Berliner gör’n by Till Krech and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons.

The Age of Social Comparison: When Self-Involvement Makes You Unhappy

We live in an age of entitlement and self-involvement.  A Metra train conductor offered an example last summer:

I was taking tickets and the train was getting pretty crowded. I noticed a middle-aged lady standing near an empty seat. I could tell she was asking a young woman to move a package so she could sit. Apparently, to no avail. So, I walked over to smooth the situation over. The younger woman was gorgeous, maybe 25 or so, and attending to her phone, not the person hovering over her. When I asked her to move the stuff she ignored me. I tried again, same result: head down, as if I didn’t exist. OK, now I bent down so I was harder to ignore and told her she needed to let the woman sit; said the other person had a right to a seat. Finally she talks, in a kind of astonished and disrespectful voice, ‘You don’t understand, I’m beautiful!’

Does her beauty make her happier, I wondered? Are her gorgeous selfies (I’m sure she has a ton) the path to everlasting bliss? Taking them, making them, reviewing them, sharing them, comparing them?

The back-to-back hardships of the Great Depression (1929-1939) and World War II (1939-1945), contributed to a more modest and realistic view of a life worth living: a selfie-less and more selfless life. In 1931, James Truslow Adams coined a soon famous expression capturing something now lost and redefined, “that the American Dream of a better, richer, happier life (be available) for all our citizens of every rank.” Not fame or Midas-like wealth, but “enough” in the reach of all.

Granted, he didn’t include blacks in his vision, but at least his view was independent of constant social comparisons, Kardashianized aspirations, and the belief more is always better: a bigger residence, finer clothes, and social status. Where happiness is somehow attached to what you buy and the ability to turn heads until they swivel. Where college is intended not to enlighten you to the glorious natural world, man’s loftiest thoughts, and responsibility to his fellow creatures, but to learn enough technique to receive special treatment for you and your wallet.

I believe a good part of today’s unhappiness, not including the genuine want suffered by so many, is that a large number of those doing pretty-well want more and more with no end to their wanting. Want for themselves.

Perhaps no limit exists because there is always someone with more. We envy greater beauty, infinite wealth, a bigger house, a superior job when they are not ours. Envy assumes “my life would be better if only …” according to Joseph Epstein. TV, not to mention the internet and other vehicles of voyeurism, show people flaunting their prosperity. We know how much they make for a living, where they reside, and what cars they drive. The “information highway” and its attendant loss of privacy fuels our desire and our frustration.

The question then becomes not how can I get more of what they have (and thereby grab on to more happiness), but does this path lead to my goal?

Christopher Boyce, Gordon Brown, and Simon Moore, in a 2010 article in Psychological Science, provided data from 12,000 British adults which supports the notion that comparing ourselves to others is a problem. The authors found that “the rank position of an individual’s income within his reference group dominated the explanation of life satisfaction. “In other words, “satisfaction is gained from each ‘better than’ comparison and lost for each ‘worse than’ comparison.’” Moreover, their subjects tended to make comparisons to those above themselves in income 1.75 times more than they made those comparisons to those below them.

Following the same logic, even if your wage increases by a substantial amount, your sense of well-being might not substantially increase unless the extra salary changes your rank within your comparison group (or unless your paycheck is relatively modest, as noted below). If all incomes go up without changing your rank you would be no happier.

All this envy-induced pain might be justified if it motivated people and led to the prosperity needed to unlock the door to serenity. The problem is, the key doesn’t work. Indeed, international ratings of life satisfaction put the USA high, but not as high as you’d think given our superior wealth. We rank 19th of the 34 OECD countries in the 2017 World Happiness Report.

Psychological research suggests that beyond $75,000 in annual income, you don’t get much hedonic bang for the additional buck. In other words, all the things you would buy with the extra money your neighbor has won’t make your moment-to-moment experience of life much more pleasing unless your income was unexceptional in the first place.

What does this mean at a practical level? In the December 23, 2010 issue of The New York Review of Books, Thomas Nagel wrote:

When I was growing up, if you wanted to see a movie, you had to go to the local movie theater, and you saw what was playing that week. Now I can see almost any movie from the entire history of cinema whenever I feel like it. Am I any happier as a result? I doubt it.”

Sound familiar? Similar to kids who are thrilled with their long yearned-for Christmas gifts, we adults put most new material acquisitions on the shelf or use them with little delight after a small passage of time. Warning: if shopping is the way you fill yourself up, this is your future.

The temporary “high” of a new purchase is diminished because of “hedonic adaptation.” Put simply, we get accustomed to things. The momentary excitement of the new possession soon wanes, like the smell of a new car.

Ah, but hope is not dead. The ancient moral philosophers of Greece and Rome recommended less concern with status, wealth, and material things. Instead, they suggested personal contentment would come from knowing yourself, performing social acts of virtue and public good, and friendship. Researchers now recognize the important part friendship, doing good, and being grateful can have on well-being.

The psychologist Csíkszentmihályi offers another path to satisfaction. He points to the capacity of productive and engaging work to produce a sense of “living in the moment:” unmindful of past and future because of being pleasantly engrossed in the present. This is called the “flow” state, one in which you are completely focused at a maximum level of performance and untroubled, positive experience. “In the zone” as athletes describe it. A different path to living in the moment, of course, is the mindfulness meditation of those master meditators who are among the happiest folks on earth.

Social scientists also remind us that married people are happier than those going solo, although it is unclear whether this is due to the positive influence of marriage on well-being, the possibility individuals who are relatively happy are more likely to marry, or some other cause.

Last point: data analysis by Christopher Boyce and Alex Wood in their 2010 article in Health Economics, Policy and Law found a short-term course of psychotherapy is at least 32 times more effective than monetary awards in improving a sense of well-being among those who have experienced some form of injury or loss.

I’ve said enough. I imagine you are scheduling a therapy appointment already.

The top Foto is the work of Catarinasilva25 and is sourced from Wikimedia Commons. The four paintings also come from Wikimedia Commons and are described in this way on Wikipedia:

The Four Freedoms is a series of four 1943 oil paintings by the American artist Norman Rockwell. The paintings—Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Worship, Freedom from Want, and Freedom from Fear—are each approximately 45.75 inches (116.2 cm) × 35.5 inches (90 cm), and are now in the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. The four freedoms refer to President Franklin D. Roosevelt‘s January 1941 Four Freedoms State of the Union address in which he identified essential human rights that should be universally protected. The theme was incorporated into the Atlantic Charter, and became part of the charter of the United Nations. The paintings were reproduced in The Saturday Evening Post over four consecutive weeks in 1943, alongside essays by prominent thinkers of the day.

Multitasking, Distracted Therapists, and the Digital Carousel

multitasking3

I knew the world was in trouble when, about 25 years ago, I witnessed a psychiatrist talking on two telephones at once: one in each hand, held up to each of his two available ears. He was standing in a parking lot dodging cars all the while.

God help him if he had more hands, more ears, more phones.

His behavior is called multitasking and, trust me, you can’t divide your attention as well as you think. At least, unless you are among the 2.5% of the population some researchers believe are “supertaskers.”

Scientists report negative effects of multitasking on concentration, productivity, the way it tends to increase stress, and the addiction-like stimulation attached to computers and other digital devices. Some academicians tell us our brains are being rewired by dazzling digitals — our focus distracted by novel, but irrelevant information. Might a therapist’s rewired brain be less capable of listening to you?

Even for non-counselors, the effects of multitasking are serious: impatience, fatigue, and a fragmentation of lived-experience. Error rates go up, speed of performance goes down. You have created a traffic jam in your brain.

Think for a moment.

How many things do you concentrate on to the exclusion of everything else?

My guess is you do lots of activities while watching TV: listening to music (turning off the TV sound of a sporting event you only want to see), holding a conversation with your child or spouse, reading a magazine, etc.

This becomes so routine, so normalized, that we are unaware of how many duties we take on incompletely. We switch from one to another, hardly noticing. Time is spent reorienting ourselves as we move between tasks, slowing progress. By attempting to do more than one thing at a time, we increase the amount of time taken on all the jobs so targeted.

When was the last time you savored a single bite of food? You didn’t if you were involved in conversation. If you check your mail every time your phone pings and answer each ring, you will find not only compromised focus, but electronic seduction away from the people you love, the music that could move you, and the joy of witnessing your child’s first step.

Have you ever driven in a mindful way? Felt the vibration of the car, the tactile sensations produced by your body against the seat, the variegated sky ahead, the sounds of the other cars, the curious shapes and shadows on the highway, the slight alteration in position and muscle movement when you press on the brake? No music, no speaking, no day dreaming: you and the machine and the road, alone.

Do you really listen to your conversation partner? Focus on the tonal quality of his voice, his inflections, the transforming expression of his face, the way he uses his hands, the volume of sound he produces, when he takes his breath, and the emotional weight of his words? Or are you distracted by other sounds and sights, a sense of impatience; and the chatter going on inside your head wondering what to say next, when you need to get home, how soon you can eat, or the presentation you must make tomorrow?

512px-human_multitasking_spp_1772_logo

My job as a therapist was to attend to what patients said and didn’t say, to detect the tiniest quiver in the voice, the slight raising of an eyebrow, the hint of a tear coming to the eye, the crispness and energy of the gait, the bouncing of a knee. And, if I did this they were usually freer to be trusting and prone to validate their own feelings — think their words and emotions had value because another person thought so.

I brought intensity and concentration to be in-the-moment with my patient, mindful of everything related to him; not preoccupied, day dreaming, or worrying about someone else. If a therapist half-listens he should be paid half the fee.

Though I was not always successful, I tried to be an enemy of routine.

You would not and should not go to a therapist who does less than keep this kind of focus (with only occasional lapses). Why then fragment your own attention? By doing many things at once you sacrifice full engagement and satisfaction with any one of them.

I do understand, especially for moms, you don’t always have a choice. I do understand that attention to one thing is often a luxury. All the more then, we must slow down what we can control for as little or as much as it is, battling a world driving us to speed up.

I imagine you are reading this on a computer or phone. You own these. But might it be just the other way around? Might it be the computer (and other digital distractions) “own” you?

How would your life be different if you practiced being in-the-moment, attentive to what is present at that time and place — making a living-space in your head so you can really live — not plow through the day on an attention-rotating carousel: a mind-sucking, soul-deadening, endless haste over things that won’t matter to you in 10 minutes or 10 days or 10 years?

Starting is not hard. Take one bite of food. Savor for color, texture, the sensations on your tongue, the taste and aftertaste — slowly.

The news on the radio on TV or online will wait. If World War III starts you will know. The “Vice President in Charge of Looking Out the Window” will monitor the weather. The downloaded music can be accessed at another time. The incoming text message is almost certainly not urgent. The phone can be turned off.

Difficult choices are required. Some things must be cut from your life. The incoming stream of electronic flotsam can be consulted only after a longer stretch of time has elapsed: first 10 minutes, then 15, longer and longer. Mindfulness meditation, if you make it a practice, will improve focus and joy in the things you love. One task and only one task must be the only thing you take on for, say, 45 minutes before a break or switching attention.

A few years ago I saw the following cartoon: a middle-aged, long-married couple were sitting together. The husband was reading his newspaper while his wife talked. He spoke: “I’m sorry dear, but I was distracted and missed what your were saying. Can you repeat everything you’ve said since we got married?”

Really.

The logo is called Human multitasking DFG Priority Program Logo as created by Sppteam. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons. This essay is a revision of one I posted some years ago.

A Man with the Key to Happiness

Is a gold medal the key to happiness? The man in the picture won one, but I’d not suggest you aim for something similar. Happiness is not in the precious metal medal. In fact, Steve Henikoff — the happiest man I’ve ever known — never strove to win it.

I had a Thursday dinner with Steve. He was in Chicago to receive the Genetics Society of America Medal for outstanding contributions to the field of genetics in the last 15 years. The award itself takes the form of a very heavy, circular, gold paperweight inscribed with his name.

Steve and I go way back, to sixth grade or so. He was a curious kid, interested in many things: from photography to music, from chess to skiing, from crossword to jigsaw puzzles. Even Mad Magazine. And he was a passable softball and basketball player, just one of the guys you wanted to be around and who wanted to be around you. But Steve had a greater gift that went unnoticed at the time: to enjoy whatever he was doing.

He hasn’t lost it.

Sounds simple. Try it sometime and you’ll find it isn’t so easy.

Dr. Henikoff’s research has moved the entire field of genetics forward through a combination of technical innovations and fundamental discoveries,” said Dan Gottschling, Ph.D., a principal investigator in the Division of Basic Sciences at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. “His selection as the recipient of the GSA Medal is a fitting honor to a scientist who inspires so many of us in so many different fields.”

Please understand, Steve was delighted to receive the award, but that is not the secret to his happiness.

If you read the rest of the GSA’s press release, you will note words like “visionary,” “influential,” “landmark research,” “inspiring,” and “generosity.” Yet, none of this high praise has much to do with happiness either, except the last of those words: generosity. Steve loves to collaborate with others and mentor young scientists. Like nearly everything else about his vocation, those activities are unselfconscious and fun.

The hitch in achieving moment-to-moment happiness is something called “hedonic adaptation.” We are built to quickly return from a high or low point — a great achievement or a heartbreak — to our relatively steady state of emotional functioning. Put differently, we live on a “hedonic treadmill,” only temporarily able to get higher than our own “normal” mood. The new car smell doesn’t last, the raise in salary is yesterday’s news, and the thrill of a better job title is pushed aside by growing ambition and a bigger goal.

That’s where Steve’s model is instructive. He was thrilled to win the award, but you can’t win gold medals every week. What then? Must you work into the dead of night figuring out how to boost your well-being?

I doubt the good Professor thinks much about being happy. Indeed, I suspect not thinking about it is one of the most important reasons he enjoys himself most of the time. Steve probably wouldn’t say this, but here is his secret:

He doesn’t meditate about life satisfaction, he lives it. His high-powered brain does not over-think.

Dr. Henikoff is at ease with himself, having fun — yes, fun — in the full-immersion joy of invention and discovery. SH loves to think about his research, talk about it, solve scientific puzzles, write about the work, and discuss his findings with others. Steve thrills to spark the minds of young scientists. He lives in the moment, having the kind of good time we all once did — when we were preschoolers playing games, learning new things, and exploring a world where everything was fresh. All before we began to worry about what others thought about us and punish ourselves to succeed.

IMG_0176

Steve Henikoff has not lost the childlike wonder of a new day. He cannot wait to get to his lab and do work that is not work, but play.

The Professor doesn’t puzzle much about philosophical stuff. He is pleasantly busy with those tasks he has identified as the most important in his life. He achieved success not because he strove for it, but because the involving and enjoyable work was so well done, it caused others to notice. Had you given him enough to eat, a decent place to sleep, and a lab to work in, I believe he’d have been just as pleased on a daily basis even without recognition. Oh, yes, he might have required some clothing, too!

I must mention his comely and compatible collaborator and wife, the brilliant Jorja. Both his happiness and his work — their work — are completed by her presence. A woman he knew, after only six weeks, was perfection. A young lady he married in just that time, over 40 years ago.

Steve creates for the love of it. He is content learning, doing, and mentoring. It is not as though he has avoided losses, including those dear to him. But Steve’s attitude is simple. Loss is in the nature of things. There is nothing to do but accept it and, before long, jump back into the pool of life.

The water in which my friend swims is not untroubled. The academy is a competitive pond, full up with sharks. But Dr. H. has the gift of buoyancy. Moreover, he does not add the unnecessary weight of hoping for a bigger home or fancier clothes.

Little thought is spent on those concerns that might distract and destroy this scientist’s equanimity. He doesn’t have to screen them out. At “work” they are simply absent.

Look at Steve’s smile in the top photo. Why is Dr. H. so happy? For him it was just another day at the office, doing the magic he was made to do. Who among us could wish for more?

The top photo is of Steve in his lab. The second image is a 1974 snapshot taken in Boston. From left to right: Steve and Jorja Henikoff; my wife, Aleta; and yours truly.

An Easy Exercise in Happiness #1

Preziosi_-_Turkish_Street_SceneWe are programmed to be vigilant: to think ahead, to anticipate problems, to correct our errors. “Lions and tigers and bears, oh my!”

Unfortunately, all this planning to avoid going wrong and retrospective analysis of where we went wrong can make it harder to be happy. Today, I’ll give you one thing to do that will be fun, won’t cost you anything, and is repeatable as often as you like.

I’ll talk about a city walk where most of us are intent on our destination and want to arrive promptly. We focus on what we are going to do later or troubled about some other problem. Instead, be alive to the walk — the people, the sidewalk, the architecture — the tops of buildings you rarely view. Be alive to the sounds, the birds singing, the trees rustling and moving.

Remember when you were a kid and you witnessed the movement of clouds, entranced for minutes at a time? Be a kid again. Be amazed again.

Do you recollect when you were a child in the back seat with adults in the front? Recall watching the cars go by, the trucks go by, and the train crossings. Remember counting the Buicks or the box cars? Recall getting dizzy looking at the passing train?

Remember deciding to count just one kind, one make, or one color of automobile? Remember how easy it was to make life into a game?

What will you see on your walk? What will you be mindful of? What will you notice?

Look, really look!

Look with fresh eyes!

Let the game begin!

Different bags, hats, accents.

People carrying things, carrying themselves.

Pants.

The gyros, hot dog, and bakery scents.

The wide, the narrow; the tall, the short.

Bottoms.

The high heels, the low heels, the flats, and the sneakers.

The covered up and the uncovered.

Facial hair.

The mini-skirts and the maxi-dresses.

The muscular and the thin, the shapely and the ship-shape.

Street musicians.

The round and the right-angled.

The ones looking at the jets or listening to electronics or talking to their neighbor.

Bouncing bosoms.

Phones.

The loping, the slouched, the upright, and the just right.

The smiling, the laughing, the sad, and the studious.

Colors and patterns.

The shirts (with their ties) or school names or favorite team logos.

Snatches of conversation.

The beautiful and all the in-betweens, and not quites, and almosts.

Cologne and aftershave.

Street noises; even the screech of the trains.

The hurried and the evenly paced.

The things omnipresent, but never seen.

The lightly dressed and the rightly dressed.

The blind, the sighted, and the bespectacled.

Beggars.

Skin: the yellow, the white, the caramel colored, the deep brown, the black, the sunburned.

Canes and metal walkers; the walkers walking with walkers.

Shorts.

The men holding hands, the women holding hands, the babies being held or pushed, the men and women holding hands, the parents holding hands with their children.

People making speed and men making time.

The warm and the cold, the hot and the cool.

Bicyclists.

The carefree, the careworn, the careless.

Hair styles, hair blowing, hair color, and the hairless.

The cigar smoke, the sewer steam, the cigarette smell.

The light and the dark and the blank expressions.

The faded, the fading but still fabulous.

Legs.

The kids, the teens. The no-timers and the old-timers.

The frail, the fraught, the frowning, and the robust.

WELCOME TO THE WALKING SHOW! WELCOME TO THE FESTIVAL OF LIFE!

Here is an entertainment without an admission fee: a new show every day, every minute, every night. No reruns, no DVDs, no downloads — one time only and gone. This constellation of faces and bodies, of sun and clouds, of moving cars and trucks disappears as soon as you stop to think.

Don’t think or you’ll miss the array; miss the “hurrah” in the array.

The kaleidoscope is only there if you notice. The fragrances are only special if you don’t preoccupy yourself with all the junk in your head. All the people are only special if you make them so.

This pattern of sounds will never be repeated. A new symphony every second.

The pattern of light and shadow will never be seen again. No one, not even someone walking beside you will experience the spectacle exactly as you do. Your perception is unique.

The faces on the people will never be the same, not even tomorrow when they are a day older.

Get out of your mind ahead. Get out of your mind behind.

Live in the moment.

If you do, prepare to be dazzled. Cover the internal mirrors looking back at you to enjoy what is outside, not the tempest inside.

Don’t judge what you see, don’t reflect, just observe.

DO IT!

The top image is a 19th century Turkish street scene painted by Amedeo Preziosi. It was sourced from Wikimedia Commons.