Thursday, August 27, 2015

Chopping Chillies

I love going to restaurants where the Chef comes out to explain the menu. Clearly this doesn't happen often. We love great stories, and the glint in the eye of someone who is passionate about their craft spreads through the tongues of the recipients to the ears of their friends. Soon the Chef will stay in the Kitchen and you will hear about the food from the waiter. We have an innate ability to sense authenticity. We let storytellers break the rules if the story is theirs. If the story is raw and full of flavour.

Clair Whitefield is a storyteller. She is a friend of my girlfriend and I hadn't yet heard her show, but I spent the morning handing out flyers for 'Chopping Chillies' on the Royal Mile in Edinburgh. I then headed round the corner to see it for myself. Her beautiful layered 40 minute tale was a lesson in the complex flavours of happiness. It was like hearing directly from the Chef, but what she was letting us taste was what I have been studying with you on this blog.

Her one-woman spoken word show builds up various characters as they experience life with all its complexity. They have their own stories. The stories weave together. And it all comes together in a way that leaves you grateful that happiness isn't just a TV dinner. It makes you laugh. It punches you in the stomach. It holds your hand. It wets your cheek. It makes you sniff.  

It feeds you with the energy and desire to take another bite.

Angry Elephants

It is difficult to push on through reading a book where you don't agree with the ideas. It is not quite as difficult as having a conversation with someone with aggressively different views, but it is hard. When the clash of ideas is live, the thing I struggle with is body language. We are very good at telling if someone is on the same page as us. A nodding head. The way legs and arms are crossed. Whether the way they sit is mirroring us. Tone of voice. There isn't a checklist, but we know. And we like it when people agree.

If we are able to allow a 'Bull Quota' for all the things we completely disagree with, there is a chance that we can get to some interesting ideas that will improve our questions. It is easier for our rational side to hold ideas in mind that we disagree with. Someone 'believing' that 2 + 2 = 5 is not upsetting. Where it gets difficult is when the language someone uses pushes our buttons. When it does trigger an emotional reaction. How do you train your elephant to behave?

There is an art to putting across ideas without emotional triggers. Absent the triggers, writing and conversation becomes boring. So art, and life, is normally applied in adding triggers and passion rather than taking away. Most books seem to be written for people who already almost agree with the author. They are peppered with lines that would upset people outside the tribe. Unlike live conversations, when the triggers come up, you can just put the book down. People are much more complex than books. They don't come with summaries and reviews. With Amazon ratings. You may be thoroughly enjoying the 'first few chapters' and then come across some impassable bridge. What do you do? How do you carry on enjoying their company when your elephant gets restless or even angry?

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Happiness Project (Megan)

Guest Post by Megan Butler
The gauntlet that Trevor threw down was to define happiness in 100 words or less. While I can do it for myself in 31, it probably would need a little bit more context for anyone else.

I am not an eternal optimist. Part of this comes from years of training to focus on identifying and managing risks; part of this is personality. So setting myself the task of spending 30 days exploring what happiness means to me was fairly daunting but probably long overdue.

My happiness project was simple: every day, I had to write down at least three things that made me happy that day. I set myself two rules:
1.     They had to be things that made me happy not things I felt I should be grateful for.
2.     They could not be the phrased as the opposite of something negative.

Heres what I learned:

Happiness is not a zero-sum game. When you live in a country where you are surrounded by want and deprivation, it's easy to start defining happiness in terms of things you have that others don't. "I'm happy for a warm bed when that homeless guy by the train station will be sleeping on a stack of bricks tonight", for example. While there is a lot of gratitude in that statement, there is also a lot of guilt. And guilt and happiness are poor bedfellows. Defining my happiness relative to someone elses want was simply not an option for me.

A double-negative doesn't make a positive. Happiness is not the opposite of unhappiness. Avoiding the negative, at best, will simply secure a neutral result. By only recording the happy moments in my days I learned that true happiness cannot be neutralised by a negative event, or even a series of them. Realising this meant that suddenly the things that used to cause me a huge amount of stress, didn't really matter anymore. Landing up in the emergency room with a banged up shoulder after falling off a step became much less of an issue when I could focus on the gorgeous sunset I saw. Smashing a glass bottle of parsley on my kitchen floor wasn't great but it didn't detract from the happiness I felt from the song playing in my head when I woke up.

You can hold on to happiness. Somewhere in my life I must have stumbled on some sort of motivational poster telling me that the more you try to hold on to happiness, the more it will elude you. In my mind, happiness was fleeting. However, the fact that I had to consciously record the happy events in my day meant that I spent most of the day with them tumbling around my subconscious or recounting them. This alone made me considerably happier.

Happiness is surprising. I didn't limit myself to writing down new things every day, but there was still surprisingly little repetition in my lists. In some cases, there was a novelty element: the shadow my orchids cast on the wall when I was opening my curtains in the morning made my heart sing for all of two days. Sometimes I was just more aware of certain things than others. I'm a creature of habit. I make myself the same breakfast every morning, but it was only a handful of times that my breakfast  made me happy even though I'm fairly sure I do a good job of it every day. Being surprised by happiness on a daily basis has itself been a wonderful experience.

You can make your own. The happiness project taught me how simple it can be to make my own life significantly happier. I used to think that I hated being cold, but three weeks into the project I realised how happy having warm hands made me. Being in the depths of winter in a country that admittedly has a mild winter but where indoor heating is not at all common meant that I was often in rooms for extended periods of time where the temperature was 10-15 degrees. The solution was to carry gloves in my handbag. Having warm hands continued to make me happy even though it was a conscious effort on my part.

Happiness is to be continued. I found the whole project so worthwhile that two weeks after it was meant to end, I'm still doing it. Im still being surprised, and yes, still happy.

Other Guest Posts by Meg

Money and Happiness

We personify things in order to understand them. We think in stories, and the stories that make the most sense involve the challenges, tragedies and triumphs we have gone through. One tool that makes no sense to personify is money. It isn't a thing. It does nothing. It feels nothing. It has no story. There is no point in hating money. But without understanding how it works, it can suck the story out of things that do matter. Through relationship issues, unemployment, bankruptcy, family responsibilities and unexpected financial bumps, money can suck the joy out of life. Don't let it.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Pausing Opportunity Cost

Opportunity Cost is a powerful concept. Time is precious. Assets are valuable. They are limited, and used in one way, they can not be used in another. To make good decisions, you can't just look at costs and benefits. You have to look beyond. Look at the world of opportunity, and what the thing doing the doing could be doing. But Opportunity Cost is a tough task master and favours things we already understand. Things that can be reduced to numbers. It is in a rush. Sometimes there is a cost to not pausing your calculation of opportunity cost.

Monday, August 24, 2015

More than Nice

I know very little about music. I have favourites that come up and I love, but my collection is a mess and I often don’t know the song or band names. I have actually given up on building a collection since the arrival of iTunes, and then Spotify. My approach has just been to ask my friend Stuart for new recommendations every now and then, or to spy on Spotify buddies. I added asking Twitter recently, and the recommendations were great. 

I also don't know much about coffee. I only started drinking it about 18 months ago. Until then, I had only had about 4 cups in my life. All of them had been in social pressure situations where someone had made me a cup, and I felt it would be rude to not drink it. I was a teenager with a half formed back bone. There are people who get as much pleasure from coffee as Stuart gets from music. Actually, I think Stuart gets as much pleasure from coffee as he gets from music. I like it now, but more in the sense that I like music. I like the atmosphere of coffee shops.

The fun side of coffee

There are plenty of things where all the individual flavours blur to the lay tongue. Before putting in a bit of effort, you can kind of get it, but really getting it requires a deep dive. I recently started writing 100 word blog posts, and requesting guest posts of the same length, on the subject of ‘happiness and learning’. I received some criticism that this was an attempt to reduce something as beautifully complicated and personal to 100 words, and demeans our understanding of a complex emotion. More specifically, was this ‘an endorsement of every lament on the shallowness of modern culture in general and social media in particular? (or maybe we can just post memes of lolcats)’.

I don't agree that modern culture is shallow. Steven Pinker talks of the ‘good old days’ delusion where as we get older we remember the past better than it was. Older generations have always looked on new ways of communicating derisively. Socrates didn't write, because he thought the modern invention would turn people into lazy thinkers. Fortunately his student Plato did.

The intention of my 100 word posts isn’t to reduce. Like fine music, coffee, wine, chocolate, food or anything truly complex and interesting, I think you have to try isolate individual flavours first. Once you know what real vanilla smells, looks, and tastes like, you can start to recognise its part in complexity. Subtlety. Hints. Aftertastes. The individual parts can then form elaborate, layered plots full of intriguing characters. If you are a music and coffee philistine like me, you don't get to experience the full story. You just get to look at the cover. You may know it looks, sounds or tastes nice. But nice is a word that drives English teachers nuts for a reason. There is more.

Starting small doesn't mean you can't go deep.


A Contrarian is not someone who always disagrees. 'The same but opposite' carries no new information. A Contrarian is someone who gets as much information from the consensus as possible, but is prepared to go against the popular view. There is a very fine line between being contrarian and being stubborn. A Contrarian regularly fights with the spectre of arrogance of giving their view more weight than the majority. Crowds carry wisdom. Being contrarian, and correct, requires a deep understanding of how little we know, how often we are wrong, and how much of what happens is down to chance.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lecture Voice

I have always been an argumentative chap. I have managed to twist this into defining myself as 'curious'. A combative debate style when you are trying to win often leads to bruised egos and miffed mojos. It isn't actually that fun having a discussion with someone who shoots down everything you say. The other disadvantage of going in guns blazing is you don't walk away knowing anything more. So in reality, you have lost. You may have refined the way you tell the world the truth, but it is only in finding a chink in your argument that you actually gain anything. We learn when things go wrong, not when we glide along smoothly.

A friend captures me talking a few years back - not rare

I still make the mistake of slipping into 'lecture mode' occasionally.  I am having a chat with someone and we stumble onto something the other person hasn't looked at much. I loathe it when I am the recipient of an unsolicited lecture, so when I catch myself doing it, I feel very naughty. There is a very specific tone of voice people take when they have turned off the discussion. When they are telling you something rather than the two of you dancing towards a deeper understanding together.

I was very involved in the church growing up. I went to various protestant Christian churches (Methodist, Anglican and Baptist) and got involved in lots of discussions trying to get deeper into the meaning of life. When we got to a point where there were clashing ideas, sometimes the person I was talking to would turn to the lecture voice. It is similar to the 'reading voice'. We don't talk the same when we are chatting as we do when we are repeating something we have read somewhere. The reason this bothered me was I had normally read the same things. In this case, the Bible. I know there is value in hearing a message over and over. You can think of it differently each time. It can soak in. But that has its time and place, and a discussion turning to a lesson isn't much fun.

I now have what I call my 'anthropological switch'. When I am chatting with someone and realise they have turned on the lecture voice, I stop trying to have a discussion. I try and just ask questions. A form of Theatre Sports. In Theatre Sports they teach you it isn't helpful to obstruct. Always go with the flow and build on what the person has said. Don't look for holes, look for flavour. Add.

This is a similar way to the approach I now take with Yoga, or any philosophical or religious school. My aim isn't to pull apart the argument. It is to listen to it. To see it as a story. To give it the benefit of the doubt. To see the value. Rather than trying to enforce my story, listening helps me walk away knowing a little more about the story of others.

I still need nudging when I do slip into my lecture voice. Those closest to me seem to have figured out a way to do this with a wink and a smile.