Alright people, this is my third and final post on challenges to my gratitude. It’s a little something Brene Brown calls “foreboding joy.” Especially if you’re a parent, maybe you can relate?
Alright, I’m trying something different. Rather than write about Challenge #2, I want to just speak about it. Speaking comes more naturally to me, and I wonder if I can connect better with people by speaking. So, this is kind of an experiment!
Challenge to My Gratitude #2: Planned Obsolescence
Gratitude pauses time and says, “right here, right now, I am thankful.” Gratitude stills my appetite for material pleasure, fame, physical gratification and money, and says “right now, this moment, I am enough. I have enough. Life is good.” Happiness research constantly lists gratitude as a major factor in one’s happiness, and I believe gratitude is a shortcut to living a meaningful and happy life.
So why don’t I feel grateful more often? I mean, I’m uber thankful for the life I’ve been given, but I don’t take much time to consciously feel thankful. Why?
With that question on my mind, I’ve been observing my thought patterns, and I’ve come up with three specific challenges to my gratitude. My goal hasn’t been to come up with solutions to these challenges, just to mindfully observe them. But if you have solutions to these challenges, I’d love to hear them in the comments!
In this post, I’ll tell you about the first challenge.
Challenge #1: My Amygdala
Every second, our brains are bombarded with information and we somehow have to sift through and determine what is critical and what is casual. Since nothing is more critical to the brain than survival, the first filter all this information goes through is the amygdala, an almond-shaped structure in the center of the brain, whose job is to find anything that could threaten our survival. The amygdala is a warning system, and it’s always on high alert.
I’ve found that when I listen to the news, my amygdala goes into hyper-kid-in-candy-store-mode. The news media is a steady stream of news about potential threats to my happiness, whether it’s terrorism in the middle east, the economy, or some scandal in my state’s government. News outlets are privy to the fact that as a human, I feel an innate, evolutionary duty to learn about any potential threat to my health and happiness, and they exploit these human instincts all day long. “If it bleeds, it leads.”
Is There A Solution?
I dunno. I can’t turn my amygdala off, and I’m not sure that would be wise. Without it, I’d probably go base jumping every weekend and spend all my allowance at YogurtLand. But thanks to the book Abundance by Steven Kotler and Peter Diamondes, I now at least recognize the fact that my amygdala is often telling me lies, or at least distorting the truth. Here are some trends my amygdala ignores, and of which I should be mindful when choosing how to see the world:
- Poverty has declined more in the past 50 years than in the previous 500. Over the past 50 years, while Earth’s population has doubled, the average per capita income globally (adjust for inflation) has tripled.
- During the past century, maternal mortality has decreased by 90 percent, child mortality has decreased by 99 percent, and the length of the average human lifespan has more than doubled
- Homicide rates are a hundred times less than they were when they peaked 500 years ago
- Even the poorest Americans today have access to phones, toilets, running water, air conditioning, transportation. 150 years ago, not even kings hoped for such luxury
- Right now, members of the poorest communities in Africa have access to better cell phones than the President of the US had 25 years ago, and if they’re on Google, they have more information than the President did just 15 years ago
We are healthier, wealthier, and safer than ever before, and the trends are mostly upward.
I’ve also learned that I don’t really lose much by not frequenting news sites daily. I’m slightly less informed, but I’m also more calm and happy when I don’t feed that stuff to my amygdala. I guess there’s a balance to be found.
Through mindful observation, I’ve come to see just how much my amygdala challenges my gratitude. In my next post, I’ll talk about another challenge called “Planned Obsolescence.”
In the mean time, have you found a good solution for keeping your amygdala in check? Do share.
I like shoes, pants, shirts, and hair styles that express who I am. I enjoy wearing clothing that is tailored to my body type, well-made, textured for outdoors, colored in earth tones.
In early December of 2013, I was unhappy with my clothing situation. I had stuff in my closet, but not many pieces I loved. So I decided to do something counterintuitive and go all of 2014 without buying new clothing. I hoped this fast would help me to feel more thankful for the quality items I had, and gain clearer perspective about missing pieces, or pieces to replace. I’ve found that one of the best ways to see what role food plays in my life, and to gain perspective about what role I want it to play, is to go without food for 24 hours. Why not try this concept with clothing, and go for twelve months?
So, with only a couple of weeks left in 2013, I needed to take inventory and see what purchases I would need to make before launching my new resolution in January. I tend to be fairly minimal by nature, and whenever I make new purchases, I try to give away older items, maintaining a streamlined wardrobe. But it had been a while since I’d gone through everything, so I pulled all the clothing out of my closet, lugged it into my office, went through it piece by piece, and created this spreadsheet (which has been updated since).
I ended up with around 150 items. When I really evaluated each piece, and considered the role it played in my overall wardrobe, I realized I had many pieces that I didn’t love, and that were unnecessary. So, slowly, I folded and placed each item I no longer wanted in a bag, and gave them all to a friend. I counted each pair of socks as one item, each tie as an item, each belt as an item, but did not count clothing exclusive to a particular activity like biking or climbing shoes. I whittled my entire wardrobe down to about 115 items. I’m not sure whether 115 will sound like a lot or a little to anyone who reads this, but I will say that I was surprised how many items I had. You might try this activity for yourself to get a frame of reference.
After sorting, I made a list of repairs I needed to make to certain items (sewing holes in my Smartwool socks, etc.) if they were going to last me all of 2014, and I made a list of items I needed to replace. I purchased a new pull-over, a new pair of casual shoes, and a few pairs of socks, and gave away the items they replaced.
Now I was ready for my 2014. I chose as my mantra, “Fully enjoy each item I own.”
As the months in 2014 ticked by, I tried to non-judgmentally observe my experience, and here are a few realizations I gleaned in the process.
- In January through March, I learned that I compare myself to others often. I notice what others wear, and tend to feel a need to look my best whenever possible. As I was mindful, I realized that much of this inclination was the result of subconsciously internalizing marketing messages from clothing retailers. I noticed just how much of an appetite I had for buying new stuff and keeping up with the latest styles. By April, my mind learned that I meant business about not buying new stuff, and I slowly began to just opt out of keeping up with others in my mind. Letting go of the competition, and having the freedom to dismiss marketing messages off-hand, ended up being a very relaxing experience.
- Along the same lines, I gained a deeper appreciation for companies like Patagonia, who reminded me to enjoy the stories I was wearing in my older clothing, to be more selective about new purchases, and who empowered me to do my own clothing repairs.
- I was most frustrated by small things. Not having socks that matched well. Not having a shirt with the right cut. Not having just the right tie or shoe.
- A friend gave me three Patagonia short-sleeve button shirts half-way through the year, and they came just in time. I thought my short-sleeve plaids would get me through the year, but I only had 4, and three of them were several years old and begging to be retired. But, like nearly all shirts, the shirts my friend gave me were too wide for my taste. So I got on YouTube, and learned how to tailor a shirt. I found a “pinch-and-pin” shortcut that made tailoring them easy, after a lesson or two on using a sewing machine from Angela.
- Towards the end of the year, I consciously broke my goal and made a few purchases. I purchased one more short-sleeve button shirt (it was on sale and I loved it), and I made a few purchases that I justified by characterizing them as “gear” rather than “clothing.” These included new running shoes (I hit 750 miles on mine and desperately needed an upgrade), new hiking pants (I blew the crotch out of my old ones, again, and could see there was no way to securely sew them up this time), a hooded running sweatshirt for cold morning runs, and a tank top for exercising. All in all, I’m happy I made these purchases and don’t feel like they tainted my resolution.
The best part of this fast, like the best part of all fasts, was when it ended. As I held off on new purchases throughout the year, I learned a lot about what I really wanted in my wardrobe and what I didn’t. Fasting gave me a great excuse to be mindful about my clothing on a whole new level. At the end of 2014, I went through my entire wardrobe again and gave away everything I didn’t love, and bought replacement items that I loved. Ironically, I now felt deeper certainty about eliminating even more pieces from my wardrobe, getting my list down to just under 100 items, which is where it currently sits. I made several purchases a few weeks ago, and I am happier with my wardrobe than I have been in years!
This experience has taught me the satisfaction of making fewer and more thoughtful purchases; it has also helped me to exercise my restraint and more thoughtfully enjoy each piece I own. I wasn’t perfect, but it turns out that the solution to my wardrobe dissatisfaction in 2013 was a year of simplifying and restraint in 2014.
Were you successful (or not) with any of your 2014 goals? Do tell.