Monday, July 15, 2013

6 Provens ways to Feel Happier - The Science of Happiness

The Science of Happiness

From University of Virginia, the #2 public university in America, Jonathan Haidt studies 'Positive Psychology.' Today, I'll talk about his book, The Happiness Hypothesis, which explains the science of how to be happy. If you think you are legitimately depressed, there are plenty of fantastic psychiatrists and therapists who can help you. For everyone else, these tips will help add a little extra shine to your smile every morning.

Most big changes don't have a long term influence on happiness
Whether you win the lottery or become paralyzed, three years from now your absolute level of happiness will probably be quite similar. Beyond a certain level needed to survive comfortably, having money has very little impact on overall happiness. Haidt calls this the 'adaptation principle'. Most things in our life have no impact on our overall happiness because we quickly adapt. The following points have been specifically highlighted exclusions to the principle that will reduce stress and improve happiness.

1. Reduce your environmental noise pollution
No matter how much you might think it doesn't, constant noises like busy streets where you live or work increase stress and reduce concentration. Avoiding excessive noise can improve your long term happiness.

2. Reduce your commute
The stress that comes from a long, high-traffic commute can stay with you for years. The impact of a bad commute on happiness is significantly more than the impact of a nicer house, bigger yard, etc.

3. Find a sense of control
Having a sense of control over your life is a significant predictor of long term happiness. If you exercise control over your local environment and learn to assert yourself properly, you'll have more energy, better health and stronger sense of well-being.

4. Accept yourself or change yourself - but avoid being ashamed
Happiness isn't really influenced by your looks or attractiveness, but feeling ashamed about your body has a tremendous impact. For women self conscious about small breasts, augmentation has been shown to have a large positive effect on quality of life. For me personally, mole removal (a quick, low-risk procedure) has freed me from quite a bit of subconscious self-awareness and improved how I feel.

5. Foster good relationships
This one trumps all the other factors. Having a few close relationships with people you can really trust is very important. Avoiding interpersonal conflict with your family and partners is even more important. Much more so than having a wide network, cultivating good, strong and close relationships is essential for human wellbeing.

6. Strive but don't stress
Haidt has plenty of praise for Buddha's principles, but argues that modern science conflicts with the principle of non-striving, at least as far as happiness is concerned. A level of passion and effort is essential for well-being. People who have a purpose to live for and work towards are consistently happier than those without one.

These points are essentially taken from one of ten chapters. The other chapters delve deeper into love, divinity, reciprocity, adversity, virtue and many other topics that combine academic psychology with the wisdom of ancient philosophers and writers.

Monday, July 1, 2013

4 Ways to Stop Regretting Your Past

Dealing with Regret

Today you went to the gym, practiced meditation, saw a close friend or ate right. Tomorrow you're going for a run, going on a date with that cute girl, or getting that promotion at work you've always wanted. You've started doing the things in life that you want to do although you might not be seeing all the results you want quite yet. Even if you feel good about your future, you feel terrible about your past.

If any of these thoughts sound familiar, you're suffering from regret and it might be impacting your current ability to make positive changes in your life.

  • I haven't really changed, it is only my situation that has gotten better
  • If I had to do it all over again, I'd make the same mistakes
  • My lack of experience is going to prevent me from having a successful relationship/career/life
  • My brain or body has been permanently damaged by my addiction/boredom/diet/hobbies
  • The person I used to be was a horrible person for doing/not-doing certain things

Our minds love to give value to things that have already happened. Efforts to analyze the past can help us learn from mistakes, but just as often makes us want to shut out memories or mull over darker times.

1. Accept that the past determines the present but not the future
Only you can control whether your past is going to negatively impact your future. Learn from the past but don't dwell on it. At every moment, the past is utterly beyond control. Life isn't a video game where you can restart a level - it's a game with unlimited levels where there's always something new to do.

2. Prove yourself to yourself
Many regrets are born from insecurities about our current state. If you regret not doing something because you think you've missed out, it is time to do that now and prove that you're still capable. If you regret a mistake, it is time to prove to yourself that you're capable of avoiding similar ones in the future. When the insecurity is conquered, the regret will vanish.

3. Focus on yourself, not on others
Many regrets are born from fear of judgment by others. You might fear being seen as inexperienced or as a bad person for the things you did or did not do. You have the ability to nurture a different reputation. People only put stake in rumors until they learn the real you. When a positive reputation precedes you and a charm surrounds you, even the worst history will only add to an aura of uniqueness.

4. Continue to fight the behaviors you regret
Many regrets are born from valid mistakes. Like other problems in life, regrets are solved by confronting them instead of running away from them. Next time you start feeling regret, think instead of a way to confront any related feelings.

Friday, June 28, 2013

Simple Fitness - Looking your best

Being fit and looking good - some may call it shallow, or hollow, or tangential to real personal growth, but I say they're wrong.

In this post, I'll give a very high overview of getting in shape aimed at those women and men with very little muscle and/or high body fat. Getting in shape can take months or years depending on your current physical state, but is 100% worth it.

Balance - a three-part approach
For a fitness beginner, it is essential to take a balanced approach to fitness. All three items listed below are essential:

  • Exercise
  • Nutrition
  • Rest

The type of exercise routine you pursue depends on the goals you have. If you're not significantly overweight, your first goal should be muscle building. If you are significantly overweight, your first goal should be fat loss.

Muscle Building
If you want to look good, you need muscles. Muscles get bigger when they are used. Most advice you'll find on the internet is going to point you to one of two great strength-building programs: Starting Strength and Stronglifts 5x5. These are great for beginners and I strongly recommend either one. If you want to skip the strength building and focus on your beach muscles, here is the basic advice:
  • Plan to exercise 4-5 times a week
  • Make a workout plan and follow it
  • Lift 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps if you want muscle size
  • Lift free weights in most cases over machines
Fat Loss
Although diet is the most important factor in fat loss, most people can burn between 500 and 800 calories per hour of intense exercise. For a beginner, more than 45 minutes of intense exercise a day can be too much. I'd recommend Couch to 5K for cardio supplemented with 40 minutes per day of light-to-moderate biking for fat loss in a beginner. 

If you want to lose weight eat less calories. If you want to build muscle, eat more calories. But do it right. For years I exercised without caring about my diet, thinking that all I needed to do was eat enough protein while keeping the right calories. It turns out nutrition is extremely important in weight loss and muscle building. In addition to reaching the right macronutrient ratios, it is essential to eat foods that help your body recover, that promote anabolic hormone levels and elevate your energy and metabolism levels. There is lots of science to nutrition.

You want to eat foods with lots of protein, that increase anabolic hormones like testosterone and human growth hormone (HGH) and reduce levels of catabolic hormones like cortisol and estrogens. For those who want a quick summary, here are some options:
  1. Eat cruciferous vegetables like broccoli and brussels sprouts - Slow the conversion of testosterone to estrogen, boosting the first and reducing the latter. Helps reduce cortisol.
  2. Reduce alcohol intake - Alcohol stresses the body, raising cortisol and lowering testosterone. Drinking a lot at night can lead to poor sleep.
  3. Eat nuts like Brazil nuts and cashews - Nuts have tons of healthy fats which help boost testosterone production and tend to be highly anti-inflammatory, which helps lower cortisol and promote muscle recovery
  4. Eat a balance of red meat and fish - Red meat contains saturated fats and minerals necessary for testosterone production while fish like salmon contains Omega-3 fatty acids which help reduce cortisol. Both are high in protein
  5. Eat plenty of fruits and vegetables - The fiber and nutrients in fruits and vegetables, in conjunction with sufficient protein, help you recover from workouts, but avoid eating excessive fructose found in fruits like apples, bananas and citrus.
  6. Drink plenty of unsweetened tea, especially green tea and decaffeinated tea - Excess sugar and caffeine can spike cortisol levels, but in general tea helps reduce inflammation and cortisol while increasing fat loss

Getting sufficient rest is essential for fat loss and muscle building. Having a fairly regular sleep-wake cycle helps your body maintain hormone levels properly and getting enough sleep ensures your body is able to recover properly. If you want to work out intensely 4-5 times a week, you'll probably need 9 hours of sleep a night to see the gains you want to see.

For a more detailed overview on getting into shape, check out the FAQ from reddit's r/fitness.

19 Ways to Overcome Life's Brutal Realities

I recently saw a post on reddit titled "19 Brutal Truths About Life That No One Will Tell You" (here) that really got me thinking about self improvement and the community around it.

That article in particular bothered me because it preys on insecurities. Self-help schemes for centuries have focused on convincing people of their flaws before promising a secret, easy, magic solution. I don't see that  article as a scam, but I think it's a shame that people give that article so much power. Just because it presents every point in a blunt, demeaning fashion that people can relate to (because who doesn't have some insecurity). Most importantly though, that article tears the reader down. Here, I'll present 19 ways for the reader to respond to these "Brutal Truths" and emerge a better person.

1. Get "friendzoned" less by being more attractive
Very, very few people are fundamentally unattractive. Your face is the only part of you that can't be changed (without plastic surgery), and other than horrible asymmetry I guarantee it is not unattractive. Your big nose, tiny eyes, wide lips and other features have very little impact on attractiveness. Whether you are male or female, focus on the basics: reduce body fat, add muscle and take care of your skin and hair. As a bonus, wear clothes that fit and try to smile more.

2. Stop people from talking behind your back by being a better friend
Your friends are absolutely going to talk about you and sometimes it won't be nice. That is unavoidable, but you do it to your friends too. However, you have some friends or colleagues who you tend to say nice things about. Try to be more like him/her. Stop talking bad about your friends to other friends. Start volunteering to drive, to host, or to plan.

3. Stop worrying about unflattering pictures by noticing how normal they are
People over-analyze their faces, but other people aren't paying that much attention to you. Also, you are used to seeing yourself in mirror image so when you see yourself in a photo it looks wrong. Try this: go to facebook and browse the photos of your attractive friends. You'll find an abundance of 'unflattering' photos that you didn't notice and don't change your opinions of the person. How's that for perspective?

4. Deal with sexual jealousy and insecurity by thinking about yourself
Your partner probably fantasizes about her exes from time to time. Maybe that hurts to think about, but your exes are fantasizing about you too. And you fantasize about your exes. And people you've never even talked to fantasize about you. And your girlfriend has fantasized about thirty different celebrities. In the end though, you're the one with her (or him) right now and that is what really matters, because there are three other people out there fantasizing about your girlfriend and wishing they were you.

5. Accept rude thoughts by realizing you won't act on them
Sometimes you think horrible things about other people. Maybe you laugh inside at the bully in highschool that hasn't gotten anywhere, or the girl that rejected you who is now a single mother of three. Our brains think many horrible thoughts. Every person's brain has thought about jumping off a ledge with no intention to actually do it (known as the high-place phenomenon). Realize that having negative thoughts about a person doesn't make you bad. And being glad that a bad thing happened to a person doesn't mean that you'd ever intentionally cause that bad thing to happen to him.

6. Overcome other's judgement by noticing when they are invalid
Never caring about other's judgment is very hard (and silly) to do. Often times, we can take valuable lessons from the opinions of others. Just as often though, the opinions of others aren't fully tied to the reality you live in. When others have an opinion about your current, tangible state, those judgments may be worth considering. You might want to know that others think you smell bad, look unhappy, are too mean, etc. The less valuable judgments are about your capabilities, your future, your motivations and your values - other people almost never get those right.

7. Gain the attention and respect you want by making yourself beneficial to others
People are inherently selfish. Sure, we care selflessly about our existing friends and our families, but in the end, most of our actions and relationships are self-serving. If you find that no one wants to be your friend, or listen to you, or even respect you, let that be a signal that you're doing something wrong. Figure out what people want and be able to provide that (hint: people like feeling cared about, people like money and people like opportunities)

8. Improve other's impression of you by dressing well
The most important part of dressing well is wearing clothes that fit. Second is wearing clothes appropriate to the occasion and culture. I don't know a thing about fashion, but if you want to fit in, wear what everyone else wears. If you want respect, wear the clothes that someone you respect wears.

9. Make the most out of what you have by not regretting past decisions
Take your bad decision and accept that you made it for very good reasons at the time. Maybe you were misled, maybe you didn't care, but what's done is done. Things like college degrees provide value, opportunities and status. If you think your degree is worthless right now, talk to other people who graduated in your class and see what they are doing with their lives - it might surprise you how normal you are.

10. Gain status and money by educating yourself constantly
If you don't have a degree and you have a good job, make time every day to become better at what you do - real world capability is respected more than a diploma. If you don't have a good job, consider going back to school with a practical focus. With the right degree you're practically guaranteed a job with a decent salary. Try Computer Science, Biomedical Engineering or Nursing.

11. Make a better life for your children by building wealth and connections
Providing a good life for your children can be done many ways, but having enough money to raise them right is a big one. If only for your childrens sake, educate yourself to get a high paying job, then network constantly. One day, when you can send them to college and help them land a job every summer, you'll know your effort was worthwhile.

12. Overcome stigma from your past by being the best person you can be now
People may judge you for many things you can't control today - race, gender, family history, educational background, sexual orientation, performance record, criminal history, etc. Some people will always judge you for things you can't control today, but you can shift people's opinions by impressing them. You'll be surprised how fast people will change their opinions of you when you are friendly and helpful to them.

13. Make a difference by being active in your local community
Sometimes you can't control what goes on in your country. Even in a democracy, your vote in one in a million and you're choosing the lesser of two evils. On a smaller scale though, the politicians in your city or country really are people just like you who want to make a positive change by spending 10 hours a week on city council. In fact, many of the biggest changes you can make may be in your own city.

14. Relate better with others by reducing secrecy
Everyone has a few people they trust to the extreme. A secret you tell your girlfriend will probably be told to her best friend, and her best friend's best friend. If you break up, it will be told to her next partner. Some deep personal secrets might never be shared, but you'll find that maintaining less secrecy helps you open up to others - and being open with others helps build strong relationships.

15. Stop wasting time by identifying dead-end relationships
You're likely to have plenty of people in your circle of friends that don't like you very much. It's often easy to tell who they are - the ones that are mean to you in front of mutual friends or the ones that 'forget' to leave you off invitations. Some people just don't like who you are and never will. Identify these people and refocus your time and energy away from them onto the friends that actually care about you.

16. Get offended less by understanding people's motivations
It doesn't matter whether you're mad at a spouse, offended by a stranger's words or hurt by an acquaintance's actions - looking at the situation from their perspective can help lessen negative emotions. People do things for themselves and rarely think about others. 90% of the time when someone hurts you, they weren't doing it for that purpose and considering their possible motivations can help you realize the reality of the situation.

17. Get a better job by improving your qualifications
There is a huge demand for highly qualified workers everywhere in America. There are also huge numbers of mediocre workers vying for (better) jobs. If you want that promotion or that new job, realize that you have to stand out. Go the extra mile, work on a side project, learn how to communicate more efficiently, learn how to dress more appropriately, take a class, apply to similar jobs or do one of a thousand other things to better yourself. When you are more qualified, you'll be surprised how easily opportunities for advancement present themselves.

18. Be happier by cherishing every moment for yourself
When you spend every moment caring what other people are going to think about you, you'll miss enjoying the things in like that you are experiencing. Cherish every moment and precious memory for its own sake without worrying about what other people are thinking.

19. Improve self esteem by fixing one-sided relationships
We've all met people who think they are better than us. There are two good options for dealing with these kind of people. If they're judging for the wrong reasons, forget about them. Never stay in or pursue a relationship where you feel degraded or put down, no matter how great a person seems in your head. However, if a person is judging you for a valid reason, you have the option of improving yourself. If you're unwanted for being fat, poor, unhygienic, mean or uneducated, maybe it is time to reconsider your own choices.

Are you wishing you started thinking this way sooner? See the next piece on Dealing With Regret.