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Hypercubes, happiness, and serenity

Posted: - Modified: | happy, reflection

I remember reading an excerpt from Flatland in Childcraft when I was growing up, and wondering: how would a flat square understand this three-dimensional world we live in? In high school, I read a book about mathematical curiosities. Challenged by the idea of visualizing hypercubes and other higher-dimension objects, I turned to a trick I’d come across while reading: take what you see, use time as the fourth dimension, and imagine all the moments superimposed. Non-existence, birth, life, motion, death, and oblivion collapsed into a single space, further complicated by the rotation and revolution of the earth, the other motions of our galaxy and universe…

I had an existential moment: life is so short and insignificant! 

And then I thought, “Hey, this is pretty cool.” I dipped into this imagined world occasionally, thinking about the past and future of places, objects, and people. It proved to be a useful test for relationships: what would life be like with the grief of losing this person – will it have been worth it? It also helped me let go of stuff. I could see myself before I got whatever it was, and I could see myself after.

You might say it’s an odd sort of happiness that maintains an awareness of death and insignificance, but it’s the sort of calm happiness that’s confident that everything will work out. Why get upset over something that will pass?

So when I came across the ideas of unconditional serenity and emptiness in Joseph Sestito’s Write for Your Lives (an approach that draws on Buddhism), I thought, “Hmm. That’s what they call it.”

It’s still a little strange to look at someone, stretch my imagination, and see them as child and senior, idea and memory. It’s good practice, though, and it reminds me that we’re all in the middle of our own journeys.

What’s success, anyway?

Posted: - Modified: | happy, life, reflection

SCHEDULED: 2010-07-30 Fri 08:00

Cate Huston and I are figuring out happiness and success. She wonders if happiness inhibits success, and if that jolt of insecurity is necessary for greatness. I'm happy and successful, so I want to explore what that means, and if being content gets in the way of being great.

It seems like you need that kind of driving ambition in order to live the kind of life that gets written about in books. This is great. History has both happy geniuses and unhappy geniuses, although we tend to focus more on the unhappy geniuses. (Perhaps they make us feel better about ourselves?)

The language that we use to talk of happiness frames it as a pursuit, a goal. People dream of being happy. People work on being happy. People achieve happiness. Or they achieve their previously-set goals, only to find that the goalposts have moved. They thought they'd be happy with a hundred thousand dollars in the bank, and now they want a million.

What if happiness isn't something to be pursued? What if it just is? What if you just are?

What if you accept the world as it is, and find your serenity and happiness in each moment? What if you don't need to be entertained or loved each moment? What if you can find the grace in the pain and the joy of life?

I'm happy. Sometimes I'm annoyed on the surface, but I'm generally happy, and it's fun to grow even happier–to get better at reflexive happy-do. I'm successful: I'm alive, I'm happy, and I love. (This is not dependent on being loved back, although that makes things even awesomer!)

Realization: Growth doesn't stop when you're doing well. Your questions change. Instead of asking, “Why does this suck?” or “How can I make this suck less?”, you ask, “How wonderful can it be? How can I help get there? How can I help more people experience this?”

A tangent: One of the interesting job openings at work is looking for people who want to challenge the status quo. Reflecting on that, I realized that my drive is different. I want to share the status quo, recognizing that there are many kinds of status quo. My status quo is that I'm happy, I have a wonderful life, and I work with an awesome organization. Within that organization, there are pockets of status quo like that. Within each person, there are moments like that. I want to bring out those moments. There will probably be resistance, even from people who already want to change, but we don't have to be adversaries.

It's different when you start from a perspective of abundance and love.

It will be an interesting experiment to see if I can keep this perspective through the years. Deepen it. Share it.

What's success?

Dreaming, I could set my sights on a job title and climb the ladder; carve out a name for myself in history through endeavor; become a titan and create an empire. (It would be nice to be like Carnegie and plant libraries all over!) There are people with drive and ambition enough for that. People will do what needs to be done.

Maybe I will explore the little way, the ordinary life well-lived. As my parents' example continues to teach me, you don't need an Extraordinary Master Life Plan to make awesome things happen. My ordinary-but-awesome life so far is working well, although occasionally people need a reminder that these things are ordinary and doable.

So: success. What is it, anyway? If I can live, be happy, and share happiness, that should be pretty good. We can figure out how wonderful life can be (for as many people as possible) along the way.

Hmm, time to read up on philosophy again. I need better words and perspectives to explore this! =)

2010-07-27 Tue 19:42

Living an awesome life: Not a Greek tragedy

| happy

SCHEDULED: 2010-07-26 Mon 08:00

(There'll be more on this later, but I wanted to think about and share this now. =) )

Cate Huston and I were celebrating the respective awesomeness of our lives when she confessed that she was afraid that her happiness might unravel any moment now. I told her that I used to get nervous about whether my life would turn into one of those Greek tragedies: perfection and happiness up to a point, and then inexorable ruin. She was relieved to hear that she wasn't the only one who felt anxious about that. I shared how I got over it.

Most movies are predictable: the protagonist faces a challenge, reaches a low point, and triumphs. Tragedies work the other way: the protagonist triumphs, faces a challenge, and then falls based on innate character flaws, the consequences of previous actions, or the revenge of gods.

My life would be a boring movie. Up to this moment, life has gotten better and better. The rough points along the way turn out to have been essential for other goodness. Lacking the typical feel-good movie's story arc, am I headed for a classically tragic beat-down?

Then I realized that life doesn't have to be like the movies. It's okay to not only be happy, but also to keep getting happier every day. If by some chance my life does take a turn that seems for the worse — and it can, despite plans and preparations – that doesn't invalidate the awesomeness of life so far.

I'll still have helped people. I'll still have inspired people. Life would have still been worth it. I could get hit by a bus tomorrow and things would still be fine.

In a mean universe, this would almost guarantee that I get hit by a bus tomorrow. But I have the choice of believing in a mean universe or a kind (or at least uncaring) universe, and I choose the latter. =) Although I still look both ways when crossing the street, and am very careful around vehicles when biking.

If research is correct that happiness isn't influenced by external circumstances as much as it is by personal set-point and perspective, I'm reasonably sure that I can be happy no matter what.

When you don't rely on circumstances to make you happy, challenging events become part of the story. The perspectives, skills, and connections you develop during your good times are tested in your crucibles, helping you figure out what's really important, like the way grief teaches us about love.

Having faced the down-side, then, I can look at the up-side. What if luck, opportunity, effort, and perspective mean I have an increasingly awesomer life? Maybe this life is an experiment in happiness. Maybe I can help figure out how we can work together better and laugh together more. Maybe I can share what I learn along the way and help people get an even better start. Maybe I can help people make that shift.

So life doesn't have to follow classical narrative, and even the journey thus far has been worth it. I'm probably going to be happy no matter what, and challenges can be good things. And hey, what if this will let me help people be even happier? Wouldn't that be awesome?


| family, happy, life, reflection

(click for a bigger version)

I must be the happiest girl in the world. =)


I remember learning that you can’t help the face you’re born with, but you earn the face you have when you die.

I saw so many people with neutral or frowning expressions, and how their habitual grimaces had been carved into their wrinkles. I saw people whose crow’s feet and laugh lines spoke of lots of smiles instead.

Some people frowned a lot but were generally happy, like my dad. Some people smiled a lot but were generally happy, like my mom. And then there were people who were very good at talking themselves into sadness or anger or frustration, even though life was great, and there were people who were good at talking themselves into happiness, even though life occasionally took a curve.

I remember reading a story in Reader’s Digest about the difference between a pessimist and an optimist. Here is that story retold by Peter Robinson, excerpted from How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life:

Over lunch today I asked Ed Meese about one of Reagan's favorite jokes. “The pony joke?” Meese replied. “Sure I remember it. If I heard him tell it once, I heard him tell it a thousand times.”

The joke concerns twin boys of five or six. Worried that the boys had developed extreme personalities — one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist — their parents took them to a psychiatrist.

First the psychiatrist treated the pessimist. Trying to brighten his outlook, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What's the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don't you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I'd only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist treated the optimist. Trying to dampen his out look, the psychiatrist took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had been hoping to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands. “What do you think you're doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist. “With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

How Ronald Reagan Changed My Life, Peter Robinson

I read books about happiness, too. Some books talked about set points and circumstances, showing how both lottery winners and accident victims tend to return to their previous level of happiness even after significant events. Watching people, I learned that happiness is more about what’s in your head than what’s outside it.

Hugs: Growing up, I remember giving and receiving more hugs than either of my sisters did. My eldest sister was a little aloof. My middle sister was unpredictably angry or sweet. I was mostly affectionate. Even today, I still give my parents spontaneous hugs whenever I see them, and I hug people a lot.

In high school, I came across a book on neurochemistry that suggested that hugs were associated with higher oxytocin levels and lower cortisol: more bonding, happiness, and trust, and less stress. Over time, hugs and other forms of affection could increase the number of your cortisol receptors, helping you bounce back from stress faster. It tickled me to think that there could be geeky explanations for not just happiness, but the ability to be happy and resilient.

Splash Mountain: Perhaps that was why I was generally easy-going as a child. If we changed our mind about something, I might be temporarily disappointed (if at all), but I recovered quickly. I remember my dad and I once lined up for the Splash Mountain attraction at Disneyworld Orlando. We spent what felt like two hours in line while my sisters and my mom wandered around outside. When we got near the front of the line, they announced that the ride was closed due to mechanical troubles, and they couldn’t say when it would reopen. My dad was concerned about the rest of the family, who had been waiting for us, and he suggested that we leave. I was fine with that, so we went. Shortly after we left the line, the ride started back up again. I shrugged and laughed. We eventually lined up again because my dad said that if he didn’t do that, he knew he’d hear about it for years and years. I remember it well because of that – realizing that I wouldn’t have blamed him for being impatient or carried it along like a grudge, and that perhaps this was an odd thing…

This is not to say that my childhood was entirely amiable. I found that I was generally happier when I had more choice and more solitude, and got stressed out when I had neither. For example, when a drive south to attend a wedding turned into an extended road trip with no clear end, I felt trapped and upset. But in general, I was good at letting stress go.

I remember watching how my mom’s menopausal stress combined with my sister’s teenage angst to result in fireworks in the house. Stuck in the patterns of anger and frustration, they dredged up past grievances. They survived, and have since then become closer. I remember realizing that it did no good to hang on to old hurts. Much better to let go, to be like a pond of water rippling back to serenity after disruption.

Jonathan Livingston Seagull: My mom had a copy of Jonathan Livingston Seagull on her bookshelf. I remember not quite understanding it, but reading it and rereading it nonetheless. Looking back, I think I understand it better now. I remember thinking about the deliberate experiments of flight, the joy of learning, and the challenge and delight of sharing that with others. Then I thought about journeys, and perfect speed, and how most people think of happiness as something to be pursued—but what if it just is, if someone could just be happy? And I did.

More to come…

Thinking out loud: happiness

Posted: - Modified: | braindump, happy, passion

Is it true that most people don’t know what they’re good at? That’s interesting. Maybe I can help.

I may not be the world’s best expert, but I’m good enough to enjoy writing, programming, drawing, and speaking. I’m good at being happy. I’m getting the hang of drawing and gardening. I’m starting on carpentry. I’m good at picking up new ideas and making connections.

It reminds me of how in improv comedy, my classmates struggled to fill two minutes with a list of things they loved. Me, I hardly paused for breath.

I might have figured out something here that I can help other people learn.

My mom tells this story about when she came across me reading a book far beyond my age. She asked me if I understood it. I said that I didn’t understand it the first time around, but I knew that if I kept reading it again and again, I would eventually understand it.

Maybe I’m good at figuring out what I’m good at because I give myself permission to be bad at things.

Maybe my life is filled with experiences, people, and things I love because I not only work on shaping my life, but adapting to it. (It took a while to get the hang of seasons, for example.)

I wonder what I’m doing right and how I can share it with others.

Happiness at work

Posted: - Modified: | career, happy, ibm, reflection, work

What makes you happy at work?

It’s good to know what specific activities make you happy. That way, you can work with the organization to do more things that fit you. It’s also good to know what general factors contribute to your happiness. When the tough times come, you can hang on to those reasons.

Almost a year ago, I came up with this map of things that make me happy at work.

Since then, I’ve been doing way more of my happiest activities than the unhappiest ones. It’s amazing how life works. Hooray!

What factors make me happy at work?

  • Playing to my strengths: Building resources and organizing information give me the feeling of flow. When people use something I share, learn from one of my presentations, or save time/energy thanks to something I’ve done, I feel great, too.
  • Working with awesome people: The world is full of incredible people, and I’m thrilled by all the opportunities we have to connect and collaborate.
  • Helping people: I love answering questions, helping people learn, and encouraging people to explore. I get a kick out of seeing what other people can do.

I braindumped a quick list of my go-to communities and people in response to a few questions asking me for referrals. It took me a few minutes to write that. I thought I’d share it in a quick update on Lotus Connections Profiles, and it turned out that other people found it useful, too! Nifty. That made me happy. =)

I care a lot about happiness at work. I do my best work when I’m happy. People tell me that they value my energy and enthusiasm, and I can only share that energy and enthusiasm if I have a good foundation of happiness. Besides, if I focus on doing things I’m good at and happy about, I free up opportunities for other people who love doing the things that aren’t a good fit for me. I don’t expect to be ecstatic-happy all the time, but being pleasantly happy most of the time is fantastic.

What makes you happy?

Patternicity, how things come together, and happiness

| happy, reflection

I’m fascinated by how things come together. When we look back, we weave almost-random elements of our lives into a coherent story, one thing leading to another.

For example: I’m marrying W- this August. I can trace this all the way back to how I got interested in computers and reading as a child. It’s a long story through three countries, with plenty of choices and chances along the way – and yet, looking back, there’s a certain inevitability to it, a flow, an internal logic.

I know it’s my mind playing tricks on me. Humans are good at patternicity, finding meaningful connections in randomness. I wonder:

Do people have varying levels of patternicity?

Is it a skill that gets developed and reinforced?

How does it affect happiness?

One of the things that always comforts me when things go wrong is that I’m sure it’ll all come together somehow. A seeming failure turns out to be the building-block for something great. More religious people place their faith in challenges being part of an overall plan. I don’t, but I trust that things will work out.

So I’m very good at patternicity and almost reflexive when it comes to justification. Did I burn the pasta sauce? Oh, well, that helps me learn more about paying attention to details. Did the cats throw up on the carpet? Time to break out the carpet cleaner and think about fond memories. Yes, I have fond memories involving vacuuming liquids out of carpets: W-’s basement got a little damp one time when we were just friends, and I helped him out. I occasionally get those “Oh, that’s interesting, so that’s another reason why that was useful” moments, like when my Argentine tango explorations led to building a friendship with someone who has been my mentor for a few years.

I think patternicity plays a big role in amplifying both happiness and sadness, which is why it’s important to practice it consciously. If you’re good at seeing connections between things, you might see the whole world as against you, or you can see how things come together to help you.

I play with patternicity. I don’t fool myself into thinking this is part of a Great Destiny or that I’m living a pre-determined fate, but I’m amused by how the different threads come together. New interests grow from of long-dormant seeds. The more I practice explaining things and tracing the paths, the easier it gets. It’s like a mental puzzle, like those word games that ask you to get from CAT to DOG by changing one letter at a time, using only English words in between. (That one’s easy.) It’s like those brainstorming exercises, when you think of the similarities between two wildly different things. (How is a cat like a dishwasher? Both clean their plates.)

Maybe it’s why I like connecting the dots so much. Playing with patterns exercises your ability to hold multiple things in your head, to free-associate and find connections, and to make those connections visible and plausible. Connecting people, resources, and tools—that works much the same way too.

When you look back and trace your development, can you build a story out of it?

Thanks to Jeffrey Tang (the Art of Great Things) for the nudge to write about this!