Why do we resist happiness?

Sarah Von Bargen, whose blog is about building a happy life, tells a great story:

30 minutes across town happiness is waiting for me. 

In this case, it takes the form of a dance class filled with The Perfect Playlist,  women I like, and a teacher I adore. I HAVE ALREADY PAID FOR IT and every class I miss is a $20 bill I’m starting on fire and waving in the air. 

And yet! Even though I know this class will make me happy, even though I’ve already paid for it, instead of going I’m … not. I’m saying “Hey, Happiness! I see you over there, waving frantically. I see you and Imma opt to sit here in my dirty yoga pants and watch Parks And Rec reruns instead of hanging out with you.”

Have you ever done this? If you’re a human who is alive, I’m pretty sure you have.

Sarah is talking about why we resist happiness – in the last post, I alluded to this as  the elephant/rider parts of your brain, as per Jonathan Haidt’s model. But either construct works. We avoid doing what we know is good for us and makes us happy because it’s hard. Getting off the couch and going to the gym is hard; working on your book is hard; searching out a new recipe, walking to the store to buy the groceries with your re-usable bags and walking them home and chopping veggies and toasting spices is hard. It’s also very rewarding, but it’s hard. And sometimes it’s a hassle.

Sarah suggests that when you do make the effort, remember to say to yourself, in the midst of your hassle-filled but happy-making work, This makes me happy. It’s a little mental reminder – a small recognition that you’re glad you made the effort.



The biology of habits

Ninety-five percent of our brain activity isn’t conscious. Our unconscious brain controls a lot of things we think we are in conscious control of, like the food we stuff in our mouths or the emails we check compulsively during a meeting. Sometimes we do have conscious control of these things, but often we do not.

Once we start doing something (like flossing our teeth, or checking Facebook at work when we get bored) we eventually don’t have to think about it anymore. Our basal ganglia take over. It’s easy to see that sometimes this automatic action is a good thing (such as doing our yoga first thing in the morning) but often it is not (like biting our nails).  Good or bad, we can manipulate these habits into being.

In The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt used the metaphor of an elephant (the automatic process – our habits) with a tiny rider atop (the controlled processor – our willpower). As much as we might want the rider to direct the elephant, the rider is only the elephant’s guide. The elephant is in charge and pretty much goes where it is used to going, stopping for things that pack a reward (like food or love) and running from things that signal danger or discomfort. The rider can provide direction, but only when the elephant doesn’t have conflicting desires of its own.

The emotionally intelligent person, according to Haidt, has a skilled rider who knows how to distract and coax the elephant without having to engage in a direct contest of wills. And even when the rider is able to change the elephant’s behavior, it requires a big investment of energy.

If we want to live with the greatest ease and power, we need to invest in training the elephant, not convincing the rider. This does not mean that we give over the best parts of ourselves by focusing on unconscious habits. Your rider can do incredibly complicated, beautiful, sensitive things that habit can never replicate. But the rider is easily tired and fuel inefficient. It doesn’t have the same stamina to make decisions all day long. Moreover, the rider (conscious thought) is slow, processing about 50 bits of information per second. In contrast, the elephant (our unconscious brain) processes about 11 million bits per second.

Your brain, unlike your mother, does not distinguish between good and bad habits. Once we form a habit, the neural pathway that controls that habit exists in our brain forever. Although it is nearly impossible to eliminate a bad habit, you can conform it into a good habit.

There are three essential components of a habit. The first is the trigger – these can be emotions, times of day, sounds, smells.The next component is behavior. This is the path the elephant walks down. For instance, when you finish your breakfast (trigger), you brush your teeth (the behaviour, or the elephant’s “path”). The last component is the reward. Reward is what determines if a routine is worth remembering or repeating in the future. The rewards needs not be complicated or external, like money or food. In fact, internal and non material rewards are easier to tie to the routine and tend to be immediate, for instance, the endorphin rush after exercise.

Knowing this makes it easier to start to craft your life to build better habits. Start ridiculously small and, when you are ready to invest more time and effort into a major habits overhaul, do so. A good book to help you is Christine Carter’s The Sweet Spot.




Yama and Niyama: the first two rungs of astanga yoga

Some people go to yoga class to stretch and strengthen. There is however a spiritual component to yoga which is basically the same as any world religion or spiritual practice, with the same basic principals for leading a good and moral life.


These principals are meant to be practiced at all levels – thought, word and action. They are ideals whose perfection one becomes more aware of on increasingly subtler levels as one progresses on the path of yoga.

The yamas are moral disciplines and restraints which regulate our relationship with other individuals. The niyamas are constructive observances designed to organize our personal lives. Briefly, the yamas and niyamas include:


AHIMSA: non-violence with mind, action and speech, non-hurting, non-injuring, non-harming, and not killing.

SATYA: Truthfulness, meaning the avoidance of all falsehood, exaggeration and pretense and is necessary for the unfoldment of our intuitive, discriminating faculties.

ASTEYA: Non-stealing. This refers not only to stealing physical objects but also to taking credit for anything that is not rightly ours.

BRAHMACHARYA: Literally, “walking in Brahman”. It is the control of sensual desires, allowing one to channel that energy to higher purposes. Although Brahmacharya is frequently translated as celibacy, it more properly refers to continence, in either celebate or married life.

APARIGRAHA: Non-possessiveness. This means using the things of this world for their intended purpose, without feeling that you own them or are owned by them.


SHAUCHA: Purity. Purify the body by eating healthy foods, and purify the mind by ridding oneself of undesirable thoughts or emotions.

SAMTOSHA: Contentment. Not allowing outside influences to disturb your inner tranquility.

TAPAS: Literally, “that which generates heat”. This refers to those actions, disciplines, and austerities which purify the mind and the body and increase desire for enlightenment.

SVADHYAYA: Self-study.This refers to the study of the scriptures and of the internal states of consciousness.

ISHWARA PRANIDHANA: Literally means “surrender to the ultimate”. When you unite your will with that of a higher principal. all egotism, pettiness, and selfishness are removed.


The Frugal Gardener: The $100 Challenge

I have instituted for myself a $100 Gardening Challenge. I would not, I announced to my colleagues and friends, spend more than $100 on my yard and garden this year. “Good luck,” they said, because even those not as crazy about their garden as I am spend far more than that.

Gardening in Canada is a multi-billion dollar business. Even my financially responsible friends who find all sorts of ways to keep their grocery, gas and clothing costs down, and do their own household repairs and renovations to save money, will joke about the huge hemorrhage of cash that happens every spring with their yard and garden. They shrug in a “nothing you can do about it” kind of way.

But I think there are things you can do about it, and some things you should do about it. For instance, many flowering bedding plants have been treated with neonicotinoids, which are implicated in bee colony collapse. When I went to a garden centre this spring, a sign proudly announced that their bedding plants were 70% neonicotinoid free. That’s nice, but which 70%? As a consumer, this isn’t useful.

So I decided to drastically cut down on my flowering bedding plants and grow from seed. Here’s a picture of my front flower bed, which traditionally I have filled with petunias. This year, however, I filled it with Johnny Jump Ups, all from seeds I gathered myself. This plant will naturally seed itself down, and those seeds will survive the winter. Perennials tend to die because their roots get frozen, so are not a good choice for an above ground planter like this. Seeds from tough little plants like Johnny Jump Ups are a good choice.

johnny jump ups

There are many other ways you can cut your gardening costs – composting to improve your soil rather than buying soil conditioners or soil, laying down newspaper and covering with mulch (possibly obtained for free from the wood chippers of a tree removal company?)  rather than using landscaping fabric (I have a particular hatred of landscaping fabric, see this overview for all the reasons you shouldn’t use it), host a plant swap, rain barrels, drip irrigation, and propagating your own plants through cuttings or root division.

Why not give yourself a similar challenge? The actual monetary limit will depend on the size and style of your property, but it’s an interesting exercise and a mindful gardener may find it useful.

Holding Yourself to Your Own Standard

It’s easy to slip when we set out to change and master our behaviour. Life’s distractions get in the way. Here’s a technique that’s simple but focuses your intention on whether or not you have held yourself to your own high standards in the course of a day, as explained by executive coach Marshall Goldsmith.

Every evening, or at the end of the workday depending on your questions, take some time to answer a series of questions that force you to evaluate whether you have been true to your behavioural intentions. Marshall Goldsmith pays someone to call and ask him these questions, but I’m far too thrifty for that. If one of my questions was “Did I do my best to steward my financial resources responsibly today?” then if I paid someone to ask me that the answer would obviously be no. But, the advantage of Marshall’s way is he can’t wiggle out of it. The guy is calling and asking.

Everyone will have a different set of questions, some as little as 3 or 4 and others as many as 20 or 25, but here are some basic ones I would use:

  • Did I do my best to set clear goals?
  • Did I do my best to make progress towards goal achievement?
  • Did I do my best to find meaning?
  • Did I do my best to build positive relationships?
  • Did I do my best to be fully engaged?
  • Did I incorporate vigorous physical activity as well as stretching into my day?
  • Did I do my best to eat a healthy diet?
  • Did I do my best to respect the environment by reducing, re-using and mindfully consuming?

The wording “Did I do my best” may seem repetitive, but it’s important because it makes you accountable for your actions, rather than focusing on outside factors. There are certainly forces and systems that influence and affect your life, but that’s not what these questions are about. As Viktor Frankl wrote, “When we are no longer able to change a situation – we are challenged to change ourselves.”

I said this technique was simple, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Marshall tells his clients that within 2 weeks half of them will have given up on the daily questions; they will abandon them rather than face the constant failure of their own test.

That said, the questions can work effectively because they reinforce our commitment. They ignite our motivation where we need it, not where we don’t – the questions focus on where we require help, not where we’re doing just fine. They also shrink our goals into manageable increments. Little by little, day by day, we can strengthen our habits.

They also highlight the difference between self-discipline and self-control. “Behavioural change demands self-discipline and self-control. We tend to use these terms interchangeably, but there’s a subtle difference. Self-discipline refers to achieving desirable behaviour. Self-control refers to avoiding undesirable behaviours,” Marshall says.

Most people are better at one than another and we can phrase our questions accordingly. “Did I do my best to limit my sugar consumption?” calls for self-discipline, while “Did I do my best to say no to sweets?” hints at self-control.

Best of all, the questions provide structure. Marshall claims we’ll never get better without structure and intuitively this makes sense.

.Hoot by R. Hannah