The pursuit of unhappiness

I’ve come to realize that I don’t have a great track record of knowing what will actually make me happy. Not that I’m generally unhappy, or particularly hard to please, but that the achievements I thought would result in my happiness seem to have about the same chance as any random event of yielding happiness in my life.

The fact is, life is inherently complex, and achievements made in the pursuit of happiness can have unexpected side effects. All the big milestones in modern life: career, marriage, family, your first house – we pursue them because we think they will make us happy, but they are at best unreliable engines. Lottery winners, by and large, live this irony because they generally end up less happy than before (to the continued bafflement of the rest of us). This leads me to believe that the achievement-based happiness promoted (and exploited) by our culture is fundamentally ephemeral.

In our “pursuit of happiness”, all we’ve been doing is making ourselves unhappy. I think there is a more sustainable path to happiness available to us.

For a moment, imagine your life as a chapter book of experiences. When you reminisce about old times, you’re reviewing previous chapters (or even wondering how to rewrite them). When you set goals and think about the future, you’re skimming ahead to future chapters.

In this magical chapter book of your life, the remaining chapters are being written as you experience them. So when you skip ahead in your book, you’re actually not reading your book anymore – you’re reading your *expectations of how it should go*.

Now think of a time you watched a movie adaptation of a book you love. People who didn’t read the book loved the movie, but you walked away disappointed because the movie didn’t match your expectations. The book and the movie were great on their own, but your expectations about how the story should go made the experience of the movie less enjoyable.

When you read ahead in your book of life, by holding onto expectations of how it will go, you’re similarly going to be disappointed. If instead, you release your expectations and just let life flow through you – you’ll enjoy the experience a lot more.

This isn’t an easy mental shift, but a good first step is challenging yourself to be relentless in your commitment to presence. When I catch my monkey mind drifting to the expectation “I’ll be happy when…”, I stop myself and find the gratitude of the moment. This is not always easy! But the more I practice, the more I’ve been able to find the gift in every experience that comes my way.

The next time you find yourself wrapped up in thoughts about the future chapters in your life, return yourself to the current page. You might just find the story easier to follow and the reading more delightful.


Grief portals

Last night I found myself choking up while reading a Thomas the Train book with the kids. The story itself wasn’t sad, but I had the hardest time getting through bedtime because something was welling up in me. Why was I feeling so sad?

It certainly had been a frustrating day, with news of an annoying setback clouding my thoughts. But this sadness felt far bigger than just the events of the day. After the dishes were clean, I instinctively grabbed my phone and started scrolling.

The past couple of years have been incredibly challenging for me. More painful than any other time in my life. Going through a difficult divorce, transitioning to being a single dad of two young kids, and moving out of the family home to a new town. The pandemic and political concerns certainly didn’t make it easier!

When I catch myself “doom scrolling” as I did last night, I’ve come to recognize that this was me just avoiding going inward. So right as I was reading about yet another COVID variant, I caught myself and put down my phone.

Before the phone even hit the table, I burst into intense, retching sobs of grief. I wasn’t even aware of what was coursing through me or why. Whispers of thoughts of worthlessness, loneliness, and jealousy floated by my mind. Powerful waves of emotion were crashing over me and it felt like they would never abate.

Being open to experiencing emotion like this is entirely new to me. It was never really modeled for me growing up, and through the years of reflections of various teachers, friends, and romantic partners, I came to think of my sensitivity as a weakness. That it was better to move through the world being numb to my feelings.

I am forever grateful for learning through therapy and better examples that strength comes from being brave enough to sit with my emotions.

So here I am grieving, thinking I may be stuck in this place forever, but then the sadness abated as abruptly as it came. Once I passed through this emotional portal, I felt lighter. Something had gone through me and transmuted.

If we avoid feeling our emotions all the way through, all this unprocessed pain seeps out in other ways – usually through illness, anger, or by projecting it onto others. Through practice, I’ve found it far more transformative to just let the grief wash over me.

This wasn’t the first emotional portal I’ve traveled through, and it won’t be the last. I am so incredibly thankful for the great support in my life and for healthier relationships where moving this powerful, transformative energy is not just welcomed but celebrated.

Are you aware of how you avoid experiencing your own strong emotions? I know I have a number of other tricky techniques myself, like staying busy – I welcome the dialog and learning!


Toddler food

My children have three basic food groups: fruit, mac and cheese and chicken nuggets. I don’t know what is so magical about mac and cheese, but it seems like the collective preschooler consciousness just can’t get enough of it. My kids would eat mac and cheese for breakfast if I let them.

While I do my best to buy only organic and have even found mac and cheese that blends in veggies to the recipe, I’d feel better if my kids would start eating more veggies. I had a minor breakthrough yesterday evening that I wanted to share.

Both of my kiddos love telling stories and have great imaginations. We love joking about silly made up things. And sometimes they like soup, but not if it has any green things in it. So I decided to try feeding them veggie soup with a dose of creativity.

I told the kids that whenever you eat veggies you grow a little bit. Being preschoolers, growing is fun and fascinating, so this concept got their attention. I asked the kids if they would try an experiment of eating a carrot and seeing if anything on their bodies grew.

So Tetris sampled a carrot, and I excitedly told her that I saw her hair grow a little. Coda of course followed his sister and they literally ate every bit of soup, even the veggies. After each bite they asked me which part grew, so it was a fun way to talk about body parts and get them to eat their veggies.

It felt like a fun little win that I thought I would share in case it inspires other parents in the same predicament. How do you get your little ones to eat veggies?


On judgment

If I feel good about my parenting, I have no interest in judging other people’s choices. If I feel good about my body, I don’t go around making fun of other people’s weight or appearance.

Brene Brown

There are times in my life where I have been judgemental of others. I’ve also caught myself filtering my actions and words to avoid others’ judgement.

It’s not just me and not just you, I think judgement deeply affects all our lives. If you view your own judgements as a thread of self discovery, my experience is that it can lead to tremendous personal and interpersonal healing.

Maybe the reason why judgement of others feels so good to us is that it takes the limelight off our own internal shame. To me, I’ve found that any such boost from being judgemental is short lived however, and I am left feeling worse off than I did before.

Looking back at the friendships and relationships I’ve had in my life, the unhealthiest where those that were polluted with judgements of friends and especially other relationships. Hidden below the surface were the issues that we weren’t ourselves able or willing to examine. Judging others was a way to avoid focusing inward.

When we judge others, we are usually just externalizing a deeper (and more hidden) judgement of ourselves. When I’ve explored my own judgements of others, I’ve often discovered some root of inner shame waiting patiently to be healed.

Most importantly for my own journey, this realization has shown me that being judged is not something to be feared or avoided. Because hidden inside that judgement is a hurt person looking in the wrong place for healing.

How do you avoid being judged by others in your life? Where do you judge others on a regular basis? Is there a nugget of truth inside that might allow you to release that tension? Or maybe you think I’m being too judgemental about being judgemental?


Anonymous brands

I like to dream up simple changes that can have far reaching effects on the world. I think this simple rule could have a huge impact:

One of the powers that we consumers have in a capitalist society is deciding which products to buy. In a sea of choices, we can choose to patronize the businesses that align with our values and produce products that meet our quality standards.

This is inconvenient for large corporations who consistently choose profits over high product quality. Consumers are generally willing to pay more for products from independent companies that produce better products in a better way.

Examples of smaller brands that consumers love include: Burt’s Bees, Tom’s of Maine, Naked Juice, Mrs Meyers Clean Day, Bear Naked Granola, Larabar, Cascadian Farms, Stonyfield, Blue Moon, Odwalla, RxBar, Justin’s Nut Butter, Smart Water, Kevita, Zico Coconut, and Annie’s Homegrown.

Except if you trust these brands because they are independent, you’d be wrong. That entire list of brands above is owned by various mega corporations with questionable businesses practices like Coca-Cola, Pepsi-Co, Hormel, Kellogg, and Nestle. In fact, most of the “independent” brands you find in Whole Foods are actually just corporations masquerading as small companies to earn your business.

It is shocking to me that this type of subterfuge is acceptable to us. After all, healthy capitalism requires rational, informed actors.

Because of this successful consumer deception, mega-corporations can continue their bad practices in secret without concern about consumer backlash. And rising independent brands aren’t allowed to grow enough to challenge the power of the entrenched players.

If Clorox were required to put their logo on all Burt’s Bee’s products, an acquisition might not even make financial sense after the decline in brand value. Clorox would be forced to make corporate changes or let a rival continue to grow.

As consumers we are essentially being asked to play a game of brand whack-a-mole. The moment we start choosing a better brand en mass, it is gobbled up behind the scenes by a corporation with maligned goals.

If we instead required corporations to label every brand with their corporate identity, the consumer would be more informed and the market would have the opportunity to choose products rationally again.

I believe this one change could lead to a paradigm shift in how our largest corporations behave, positively impacting product quality, social justice, and the environment.

Do you have other ideas for simple changes to improve the world? I’d love to hear them!


Conscious media consumption for children

As a parent of two young kids, I watch what my children eat without a second thought (mostly just looking for opportunities to expand their diet beyond variations of mac and cheese). I also limit their digital media consumption, while at times guiltily relying on such to get personal time for myself.

I recently witnessed something that underlines the importance of paying more attention to the media they consume.

While roughhousing, my daughter Tetris (4.5) told her brother Coda (2.5) “you are so awkward”. I was surprised because I’ve never heard her use that word before, let alone a judgement of that magnitude. It sounded like something she heard from someone or somewhere else. I don’t think judgement is healthy for young minds, so I paused the game and asked her with curiosity what she meant.

She was clearly surprised by my question, so I asked where she heard the word “awkward”. She then asked me what it means, but I struggled with the definition! As I contemplated, she innocently asked “does I mean like when you are not pretty?”

This was another shock, because as a parent I try to shield my kids from our disordered societal norms about beauty so that they may develop a better sense of it for themselves as they grow.

Awhile back the kids and I were talking about witches, and I was amazed at how well versed they were with their “evil” deeds and “ugly” appearance. When I told them that witches can be good and beautiful too, they were baffled. Disney has methodically perpetuated this corrosive patriarchal propaganda onto generations of young children, and I had been going along because it’s what I was raised with.

Kids are sponges that effortlessly absorb everything they hear and see. None of us are born with the ability to think critically. In a world of ever more pervasive and persuasive media, it’s becoming even more challenging for today’s parents to consciously choose what our children are exposed to.

As a dad who takes an active interest in my kid’s emotional development, I want to do better.

I’ve recently been on the hunt for better audio stories for the car and bedtime books to read that go beyond the stories of my youth. I’ve found a few conscious children’s book series that are wonderful (check out books by Adir Levy and Becky Cummings for a few), and some video programs that likewise have good messages for children (Daniel Tiger comes to mind).

If you have children, how have your children been affected by the media they consume? If you were once a child, what messages from the media you consumed as a child have you had to unwind as an adult?

This next generation of children will face many unique challenges in a changing world. I would love your suggestions on which contemporary media builds upon their innate creativity, resiliency and universal love to build a more just, peaceful, and verdant world.

And what messages are still waiting to be told that we could help bring into the world?


Healthy Boundaries

It took me 40 years to discover how to set good boundaries with others. If you were brought up in a family system that didn’t always demonstrate healthy boundaries, like me it might take a major life event to even realize you weren’t setting boundaries for yourself in the first place.

Much of this personal growth has been accomplished by working with my excellent therapist. I distinctly recall her first educating me about boundaries when discussing a difficult interaction I had with a loved one. I felt so puzzled at first by this notion of setting boundaries! It was so foreign, and as someone who has struggled with abandonment fears, really scary.

The first epiphany in setting and upholding my own boundaries was simply recognizing the inherent “okay ness” of doing so. It is healthy to set boundaries with those we love – and healthy people will not only respect those boundaries but will simply love us more in the ways we want to be loved.

Unhealthy boundary pushers will try to make us wrong for setting boundaries with them – trying to convince us that our personal boundaries are inappropriate or wrong. They will continually retest our boundaries to break them down.

Without this pillar of “okay ness”, it was difficult for me to uphold my boundaries at first. I would find myself overcome by the criticism. With time and practice, I’ve developed a greater sense of self that has allowed me to feel confident in the boundaries I set, even if continually tested.

One thing I’ve experienced when setting boundaries is that the best boundaries are those that I alone can enforce. If am I relying on a difficult person to respect my boundary for me, I’m going to have a hard time. It’s far more effective if I find a way so that I’m the one who gets to respects my own boundary.

I’m still learning how to set better boundaries and identify areas where I can better stand up for my needs. Lately I’ve become interested in exploring how to demonstrate and teach healthy boundaries for my kids so they may learn these skills earlier in life.

If you’ve struggled with setting boundaries in your life, or even if I’m speaking a foreign language to you right now, I’d love to hear your story. What has worked for you and what have you learned? How do you pass on these teachings to the next generation?


Relentlessly give the user what they want

I love my Peloton. Mostly it exists as a fancy piece of abstract art in my office, but I occasionally use it for workouts. When I overcome my lazy butt inertia, my experience is that the Peloton almost always wants to do an update.

Instead of giving me what I want (to work out), I have to wait several minutes for the software to update itself. The engineer in me appreciates their rapid release cycles, but they are just frustrating users and they probably don’t even realize it.

When I’m driving in my car and I have a flash of inspiration, I love that I can instruct Siri to “make a note” and she helpfully transcribes it for me. Then she cringingly repeats the whole thing back to me, including reading the first few words twice (presumably because they were input as the “subject” of the note).

All I wanted was for her to take a note, but a PM at Apple was (understandably) concerned that the transcription engine was so bad that the content should be verified. For a text message going to someone else this makes perfect sense, but I don’t need 100% accuracy when it’s just a note to myself. Waiting while she slowly and robotically repeats my words is just annoying and only serves to remind me how bad she is at transcribing.

There are several examples of these little annoyances in daily life. Unexamined user experience quirks like this build up minor stress and annoyance throughout the day.

If software designers would simply ask this one question relentlessly, all software would be seamless:

“Does the user want this?”

Everything the user experiences in the course of using your software should pass through this filter. Does the user, who just sat down to exercise, want to wait several minutes watching a progress bar? If not, then accomplish your engineering need another way!

Less user-focused engineers advocate for their own needs: “But we need to update so everyone is on the same experience!” Then design your platform to support overnight or post-workout updates. Like technical debt, minor user experience oversights like this build over time into a frustrated user.

If your company has user-facing software, use this question as a tool to refactor and refine your user experience. Be relentless about delivering a user experience where user needs are met at all times.


What masks do you wear?

Interacting in a world of masks has been an insightful experience for me. Without visual clues as to the emotional state of those around me, the world seems somehow flatter and colder.

While shopping at Whole Foods today, I realized that in many ways I’ve always worn a mask, shielding my authentic self from the outside world.

In fact, wearing masks of self protection seems to be part of the human condition. They protect us from the fear that our inner pain might be exposed to the outside world.

Sometimes we put on a mask because others expect it of us. Like the checkout clerk who is having a bad day but is forced to wear a happy mask. Why is our culture so allergic to healthy emotional expression, forcing others to dehumanize themselves for our comfort?

Sometimes, we project our most painful masks onto others. Instead of expressing those dark and difficult emotions like feeling “weak” or “unimportant”, we put the masks on those in our lives who will wear them for us. We feel weak inside, so we make our loved ones feel weak. It’s a subtle and terrible thing we humans do to one another.

Most of us aren’t even aware that we wear masks. It’s one of the most difficult personal growth tasks you can sign up for, finding and removing these layers of protection. Exposing your authentic soul to the outside world.

All my life I’ve been wearing masks like this. One such mask protected me from my fear of abandonment. Calcified with age, it caused me to form relationships that were not healthy for me, abandon my own needs in favor of pleasing others, and be dishonest with myself and those that I love – all to avoid a fear that I wasn’t willing to face or share.

I don’t want to wear these masks anymore. I’m ready for a life of greater authenticity and deeper connection.

As the world starts opening up again and we stop wearing our covid masks in public – what of these inner masks will you remove as well, to emerge a more aligned and authentic you?

Musings Parenting

Intend and dream

I have a newfound interest in exploring my dream life. To better honor and engage with the sacred journey that I embark on every night.

When I was a child, I had recurring nightmares. My experiences at night were so traumatic that I developed a fear of sleep itself, knowing that the monsters of my dreams would be there waiting for me night after night.

As is often the case with universal timing, my mother happened to be taking a class in lucid dreaming. She taught me the basics of lucid dreaming, imparting that it might help me overcome the nightmares.

An enviable part of being young is the flexibility to absorb most any teaching, and I recall being able to lucid dream by almost the first night. All I needed was this flash of inspiring possibility.

The first stage of lucid dreaming I experienced was of simple awareness; knowing that I was in a dream. While this didn’t alone stop the nightmares, it calmed me and encouraged me to continue.

Over a short time, I could command the monsters to obey my will. They weren’t always so obliging, but with time I was organizing colorful parades of these monsters in my mind. What was once so terrifying became a playful game of celebration.

The feeling of triumph I got from this experience was profound and extended into my waking life. I became more confident at school and I felt more empowered in my life. I had accomplished something that felt like magic, and it had a real energy to it.

I retained this lucid dreaming ability for a few years, but with time it withered away. In college, I myself took a dream course in hopes of rekindling the experience. Through journaling, I was able to at least start remembering my dreams again, but actual lucid dreaming remained elusive.

I’ve spent most of this life remaining curious about dreams, but not really getting to the point of prioritizing the experience enough to dig deeper.

Now is the time for me to prioritize dreaming.

From my experience, an important aspect of any inward journey is setting intentions for the meditation. Ask your guides what you want to come out of this sacred time you are setting aside for yourself, and they will often deliver in profound ways.

So I’ve decided to approach each night as a journey inward, and set intentions as I go to sleep about what I want to get out this time.

In a previous post about morning rituals, I wrote about the importance of allowing screen-free time in the mornings after I wake. I’ve found that an important part of remembering my dreams and receiving the results of my intentions comes from allowing space for it to come in. If I get into productive mode immediately, I’ll quickly forget important aspects of my journey and the dream time that I set aside for insights has been wasted.

One final thing I’ll add is that I’ve always encouraged my children to approach dreams as something they have control over. Every night since they were too little to talk, I’ve asked them to think about what they want to dream about that night – like selecting from a menu of experiences to enjoy. Every morning, I ask them with genuine interest what they dreamt about and tell them about any dreams I remember. I hope this sets them on a path of having a more meaningful relationship with their own dreams.

What is your relationship with dreams? Do you have experiences of lucid dreaming you could share with me? Any techniques that you use to better remember your dreams? How do you talk to your kids about dreams?