Section Two: How to Feel Better When
You Feel Fine
would like to read part one first, click here)
1. Turn thinking into an art.
Today I went for a jog. I went along the
lake, the same way I usually go, and I noticed I was looking
at it with this perspective: Ive seen this same scenery
hundreds of times. But then I thought about the fact that
some day this wont be here any more or I wont be
here any more. Some day this moment, these times, these days
will be gone. And Ill probably look back fondly on these
times and wish I could see this scenery again, and this age again,
and in these times again. But I wont be able to. This time
will pass and Ill never be able to go back except in my
I changed my perspective, and it changed
the way I felt. I didnt have to go out of my way to do
this. I was already running. I was already thinking. I didnt
have to stop doing what I was doing. I just changed the way I
was thinking a little bit, and it changed the quality of my experience
for the better.
Ive already seen this scenery
hundreds of times is one perspective one of many
possible perspectives, and not the most life-giving by any means.
Some day Ill look back on this fondly, is another
perspective, and one with more value. It has more value in the
sense that it helps me be here and savor this moment. It makes
me feel better.
There are several aspects to a perspective:
You can make mental pictures, you can say things to yourself,
you can imagine hearing something, you can imagine smelling or
tasting or feeling something. And within each of these sense
modes, there are further aspects to notice: When you say something
to yourself, do you say it softly or yell at yourself or what?
Where does it seem your voice is coming from? Behind you? In
front of you? Inside you? When you make mental pictures, are
they moving or still, in color or black and white, clear or fuzzy?
Theres a lot to work with. And thats why thinking
is can be an art.
When I thought about looking back on the
scenery fondly, I rememebered doing that before thinking
back to some moment in my childhood or even a few years ago,
and feeling a longing for being there and experiencing it again.
And then I said to myself, gently, And some day youll
think of this moment right now in the same way. The end
result was somehow I had generated a feeling of longing for what
I was experiencing at that moment, and it was a beautiful experience.
By playing with my thinking, by exploring
the possibilities of this medium, I had transformed
a ho-hum, routine experience into something beautiful.
Your thoughts affect your body. Your thoughts
strongly affect how you feel. They can change the blood flow
in your brain. They can change hormone levels. Admiral Byrd,
the Antarctic explorer I mentioned in Section One, when he was lying in his sleeping
bag in darkness and cold, had only his mind. Since he felt like
hell at the time, his natural course of thinking was negative.
He was having trouble eating because he felt so sick, which was
dangerous because of the cold weather. I lay in the bag,
he wrote of the experience later, thinking of warm, tropical
places; doing this seemed to make me feel warmer.
He used his mind deliberately. He didnt
let it think whatever it tended to think. He directed his mind.
And so can you.
He spent over a month at the edge of death
with nothing to distract him: no TV (it hadnt been invented
yet), no radio. He couldnt even read because his eyes hurt
so much. He just lay there feeling bad. His mind became his enemy.
The dark side of a mans mind, he wrote, seems
to be a sort of antenna to catch gloomy thoughts from all directions.
But when things were the worst and he might
have lost his mind, he exerted his will upon his own thinking.
I was able to fill my mind with the fine and comforting
things of the world that had seemed irretrievably lost,
he wrote, I surrounded myself with my family and my friends;
I projected myself into the sunlight, into the midst of green,
growing things. I thought of all the things I would do when I
It wasnt easy. His mind kept pulling
him into despair. He wrote, Concentration was difficult,
and only by the utmost persistence could I bring myself out of
it. But unltimately the disorder left my mind; and, when I blew
out the candles and the lantern, I was living in the world of
the imagination a simple, uncomplicated world made up
of people who wished each other well, who were peaceful and easy-going
He was pitted against one of the greatest
challenges ever facing a human mind, and he overcame it. Probably
none of us will be up against so desperate a situation. But we
can learn from those who have gone that far. Discipline your
mind. Take control of it by deciding to. And create beauty.
Just when Admiral Byrd started to recover,
he had another accident and another big dose of carbon monoxide.
He was so sick he couldnt eat or even hardly move. His
head was in unbearable pain. Curled up in the bunk, I mumbled
like a monk fingering his beads. When my voice stopped, the silence
crowded in. He set up routines for himself, but that wasnt
enough. He also needed the will and desire to endure these
hardships. But how did he muster these? He gives the answer
in his book Alone: By taking control of my thought.
I have a tip for you. The easiest way to
gain control of your mind is by asking questions. You
cant stop yourself from thinking any more than you can
stop yourself from breathing. But you can control your breathing,
cant you? And you can control your thinking. You can direct
your mind onto new lines of thought by asking yourself a question.
Make it a good one and keep asking it.
Ill give you an example. Lets
say you start thinking youll never be able to accomplish
some goal you really want. It starts looking hopeless. Your mind
is spinning down into a negative spiral and you want to gain
control. Ask yourself a question and keep asking it.
There are many possibilities. How about,
What small thing can I do right now, today, that will bring
me even a tiny bit closer to my goal? Thats a good
question. If you have no answers, keep thinking. And remember,
the best way to think is on paper. Keep asking that question
of yourself even if you have to ask it for a week solid before
you come up with a good answer, keep your mind on it. Youll
evenually be able to come up with an answer.
You can see how important it is to ask
a good question. A bad question will just make things
worse. For example, you could also ask, Why do I always
fail at everything I try? Do you see what a lousy question
that is? Do you see how that question also directs your mind
Ask yourself a good question and keep asking.
Thats the easiest way to control your mind.
That's just one way to experiment with
your thoughts. Your mind is like the ultimate canvas to a painter,
and when you start treating your own thoughts like an art form,
you can add a lot of good feeling to your life.
2. Moderate your desires.
We own more things that we ever did before.
A king of an empire only a thousand years ago was poor compared
to a modern Westerner. You and I have access to things completely
incomparable to a kings. And we hardly ever think of it
that way. Microwave ovens, TVs, phones, medical care, paved roads,
hot showers, flushing toilets it goes on and on. And for
the most part, we get accustomed to it and take our wealth for
granted, never realizing how lucky we are. People in the West
have become progressively wealthier through the years. And it
keeps increasing. The average U.S. citizen in 1953 had access
to 153 electronic appliances. Twenty years later, a U.S. citizen
had about 400. The median size of a new home built in the U.S.
in 1949 was 1100 square feet. By 1993 it had grown to 2060 square
feet. A person in the U.S., on average, owns twice as many cars
now as people did in 1950.
But owning things costs time.
Americans spend forty percent less time
with their children now than they did in 1960. And even though
there are more households now with the husband and wife both
working, each American employee spends, on average, 163 more
hours per year on the job than a person did in 1969.
One of the things both Gandhi and Buddha
borrowed from Hinduism is this fundamental truth: Your desires
make you unhappy. Of course, you cant get rid of desires
altogether (well, you can, but youd probably have to have
most of your brain removed), but you can alter your relationship
to your own desires. Gandhi is a good example of this. He was
a lawyer and had the fine things a lawyer had: Nice clothes,
a nice place to live for his family, etc. But he gave it all
up. He had something more important to do.
Seems like a big sacrafice, doesnt
it? And Im sure in a way it was. But when you realize your
level of happiness the actual amount of satisfaction you
get from your everyday existence doesnt have much
to do with how many of your desires you satisfy, then moderating
your desires is more like a priviledge than a sacrafice. It simplifies
your life and you can actually become happier.
There is a kind of constant grasping for
what you dont have that can produce unhappiness, even if
you actually succeed in getting much of what you grasp for. It
is that needy, grasping state of mind that is itself unhappiness.
I have a simple, practical series of questions
I ask myself, and it always brings back perspective. Its
1) Am I hungry?
2) Am I having difficulty getting enough oxygen?
3) Am I shivering from cold or passing out from heat?
In a way, these are stupid questions. Almost
everyone almost every time will be able to answer no to all three.
But it changes what youre comparing your present situation
to, and that can put your situation in perspective and make you
When you dont appreciate what you
have, youre missing out on some good feelings. Heres
a way to produce it: Compare your situation to something worse.
Your mind makes comparisons a lot, usually automatically and
usually without being aware youre doing it, and usually
the comparison is between where you are now and something better.
That either makes you feel motivated or depressed. If it makes
you motivated, dont change a thing. If it makes you sad
or dissatisfied, change the comparison. Theres no reason
you have to always compare your situation, your looks, your financial
status or anything else of yours to something better. Its
just as valid, and it feels better (and so is better for your
health, your relationships, your thinking ability and your competence)
to compare your present status to something worse: Either someone
else whos worse off than you, or to a time in your past
when you were worse off, or whatever.
Moderate your desires. Pay attention to
your own greed and curb it by simply being aware of it and naming
it greed and reminding yourself that the satisfaction of your
desires isn't really where happiness comes from. You'll feel
3. Watch less TV, experience more flow.
People watch TV more than any other off-work
pastime. Producers and advertisers want very much for this to
continue, and they do everything in their power to tempt you
away from other things. But studies have shown that the more
TV you watch, the less enjoyable it becomes, and the worse you
feel. So dont watch very much.
In the rest of your free time, find things
to do that produce flow. Find something that produces
a sense of enjoyment, focus, and being lost in the activity.
In flow, time flies. And the good feelings have a tendency to
spill over into later times.
Common leisure activities people use to
produce flow include: playing cards with friends or family, reading
a good book, building things, cooking food, playing sports and
games, playing a musical instrument, painting, writing, taking
a class, etc.
Activities involving pleasant interactions
with other people seem to be the most enjoyable for the most
people. We are profoundly social creatures and staring at a TV
screen is to some degree an isolation, even if someone is sitting
right next to you.
A key element to producing flow is challenge.
When there is a challenge that requires skill on your part, it
focuses your attention and allows you to enter flow. TV requires
no skill. Reading a fiction story is almost the same as watching
TV accept that reading tends to produce flow and TV doesnt.
Why? Two reasons: Television is constantly interrupted by commercials,
so you cant really get lost in the story. And also, something
we forget: reading is a skill. And you can only read as fast
as your skill allows, so the better the story, the more you push
your skill, which causes you to concentrate and enter flow.
Make your work into more of a flow activity
too. Make sure your work is meaningful to you, focus your attention
on it, keep your work as uninterrupted as you can, know what
youre trying to accomplish for the day or hour or task,
push yourself to the upper level of your skill (but not much
beyond that), and make sure you have a clear form of feedback
so you know how well you are meeting the challenge. Try to turn
as many of your daily tasks as you can into a flow experience.
It feels good.
A pleasant side-effect is that playing
or working at the upper end of your skill increases your
skill, and that will also make you feel good.
The researcher, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi,
in his book The Evolving Self: A Psychology for the Third
Millennium, had this to say: Television the world over
seems to have the following effects on viewers: It makes them
feel very relaxed, but also significantly less active, alert,
mentally focussed, satisfied, or creative compared with almost
anything else they could be doing. At the same time, in every
culture where TV is accessible, people watch it more than they
pursue any other activity in their free time.
Strangely enough, people who watch a great
deal of TV enjoy it less than those who watch very little. And
the longer you sit and watch, the worse your moods will get,
at least according to the research.
Reading can produce flow, can be a break,
and it can also teach you useful things if you read the right
books. The requirement for a good book is not only that itll
teach you something useful (Im talking about nonfiction
books here), but also that you want to read it.
I consider myself lucky. When I was in
fifth grade, I had the privilege of being in a special class.
Instead of normal English classes, my reading skill was high
enough I got to skip that and instead all we did for the hour
was read. Whatever we wanted. There was no teacher lecturing.
There was no requirement other than we had to read something
during that hour every day.
I fell in love with reading and it has
never faded. Its an unfortunate by-product of our schools
to pretty much turn most people off of learning. We were forced
to learn things we didnt want to know when there were things
we did want to know. So most people, when you say, read
nonfiction books are not at all excited about that.
But it can be exciting. It can be
a wonderful flow experience that can also change your thinking
forever. It can teach you things youll never forget and
that youll use for the rest of your life. I guess I dont
have to tell you this. I just realized you are now reading
this nonfiction article and the people I need to lecture about
this are somewhere else not reading nonfiction.
But the important thing is not to force
yourself to read something you are not interested in. At least
thats important if you want to experience flow. Find something
youre interested in. Something you want to read.
Thats where you start. Your own interest is most important.
Trust me if you are interested in it, there is a book
on the subject.
Your skill level and the challenge must
match or it stops being enjoyable. In his memoir, Education of a Wandering Man, Louis LAmour,
the western fiction writer, wrote about a checker player in San
Pedro he knew in real life. LAmour was hanging out with
a bunch of sailors hoping for a job on a boat.
The man took his checker game seriously,
studied books on strategy, carefully deliberated over each move,
and he was very good.
One day another fellow came along, a man
with an amazing head for figures. He liked to play checkers and
he was also very good, but he didnt deliberate over his
moves at all. He talked casually with other people while the
serious player was thinking, and then as soon as he made a move,
the newcomer would make his move, apparently without even thinking
it over. And the newcomer won every time.
The serious one was obviously completely
outmatched and he never showed up again at the seamen hangout.
His skill level didn't match the challenge and playing checkers
wasn't fun any more. For something to produce flow, the challenge
has to be within your range of skill.
LAmour liked poetry and on long lonely
voyages at sea when he was standing lookout at the bow of the
ship, he recited poetry to himself. Thats an example of
self-generated flow. It is a challenge to remember poems. It
made the time go faster and more enjoyably.
In an essay contest for the magazine
Restaraunts and Institutions, one waiter wrote in to say
he gets high waiting tables. There is a high,
he wrote, when I have enough tables to keep me busy but
not enough to bury me. Thats a beautiful and intuitive
description of flow. Im on fire, he says, I
am totally involved, moving fast and making every move count...it
can be great fun. When Im busy, my jokes are funnier and
my troubles are gone.
April 24th through 30th, 1995, was the First Annual National
TV-Turnoff Week. The point was to find out the degree to which
TV is interfering with study, learning, reading and physical
fitness, and how watching TV encourages aggressive behavior,
creates driven little consumers, undermines family relationships,
reinforces stereotyping, etc.
The idea of National TV-Turnoff Week is
to see what else you can do for a week instead of TV. I thought
that was a good idea, so I tried it. My son was 13 at the time.
He loved his TV programs. If he had some spare time, he spent
a lot of it watching TV. So I used it as a punishment. When he
did something he wasnt supposed to do, I took his TV away
for a week.
I was amazed. He became more sociable.
We talked more. He took up juggling and learned to do it. He
didnt like it as well, of course. He still wanted to
watch his programs. But he was better off. He had more skills.
He had better relationships. These are ultimately more important
and more satisfying than finding out whats happening on
the latest favorite sitcom. Its like sugar very
appealing but not good for you. A carrot is better than a piece
of candy but its not as attractive.
But that doesn't mean it is impossible
to resist TV. You can still eat vegetables even though sugar
is available. And you can watch less TV and do more activities
that produce flow, and if you did this, you would feel good more
4. Change your habits with frequent
You have an insight. You know itll
change your life for the better. Three weeks later you realize
youve forgotten all about it and nothing has changed. What
went wrong? Its not that the insight was worthless
it was a good one. Its not that youre weak or insincere
about your desire to change. You have good intentions. Its
just that the opportunities to put that insight into practice
were too far apart.
A habit is like a path through a meadow.
When you want to form a new habit, its like going off from
the middle of the path to a new corner of the meadow. The first
time you do it, youve only tramped the grass down a little.
If you came back three weeks later, that new path would have
Youre brain is like that. The more
times you go over some behavior or thinking pattern, the stronger
it makes that pathway in your brain. After awhile, its
like a well-worn path you can leave it alone for two months
and when you come back, its still there.
So when you want to make an insight stick,
when you want to form a new habit, when you want to make a change:
Find some way to practice that habit every day until its
a well-worn path. If the real-life opportunities to practice
only occur every month, then practice in your head every day.
Mental practice works almost as well as real-life practice.
Form new habits successfully and you will
feel good more often.
5. Change a pattern of interaction with
a person who seems to make you feel bad.
Sometimes when you interact with a particular
person, you feel bad. Usually, there is something repetitive
about the way the two of you interact. For example, maybe you
do a particular kind of thing, and the other person always tries
to make you feel guilty about it.
Think of something different to
do, some different way to respond. If you usually argue,
try just listening. If you are usually quiet, try being talkative.
Try to make a change that you think might improve things. Or
at least try something that will make things different.
Focus on one pattern, figure out how you
will respond to it differently, and be consistent with that new
change for awhile, allowing enough time for the old pattern to
rearrange itself around the new change.
The way the two of you interact is making
you feel bad. Thats not good. Feeling bad is bad for you
health, bad for your mind, bad for your relationships, and no
When you decide to try something different,
you may feel awkward. Thats a good sign. It means
youre doing something you wouldnt normally do, which
is exactly what youre after. Keep it up. The other person
will have to find some way of dealing with it, and the way they
find might be a new pattern that doesnt make you feel as
Concern yourself with changing something
you do (rather than trying to get the other person to
do something different).
Interaction of any kind requires both people
to play the game. If you are playing checkers with someone and
you get up and go for a swim, your checkers game is over, and
whether the other person likes it or not, his checkers
game is over unless he can find someone else to play with. Whatever
you normally do to interact with the person who seems to make
you feel bad is allowing them to continue what he is doing. Sit
down with paper and pen and try to come up with some alternative
responses. Try to squeeze ten ideas out of your brain. Then pick
the best one and try it next time. If you get a different interaction,
keep it up. This can help you feel good more often, or at least
help you feel bad less often.
6. Practice not flinching.
You know the usual definition of flinch:
When I take a swing at you, you close your eyes and jerk your
head. Using the same idea and expanding it into psychological
and social realms, we get this: To flinch means to pull back,
shrink back, pull away or turn away in order to avoid discomfort
Most people have a strong desire to put
their hands in front of their body when they stand before a group.
When they succumb to that desire, thats a flinch.
Telling someone something she doesnt want to hear, youre
flinching if you shift your bodys weight from one foot
to the other, pick at your fingernails, cross your arms, put
you hands in your pockets, look at the floor while you talk,
say it jokingly, etc.
Flinching is an attempt to protect yourself.
Just about everybody does it and theres not a person alive
who doesnt want to do it sometimes, but when you
give in to it, you make yourself weak.
Refusing to flinch makes you strong. When
you look someone in the eyes and let your arms hang where they
naturally hang and speak truthfully, youre unnervingly
powerful, not only in the perception of the person youre
talking to, but in your own perception. You will feel more powerful.
You dont have to spend years getting
good at this. You can do it the very next time you talk to someone.
When you feel the urge to flinch (and it may be a very strong
urge) make the decision right there to resist the urge.
It works in all areas of your life. When
you want to be emotionally strong, refuse to flinch at emotions.
When you want to be socially strong, refuse to flinch in social
Wherever you flinch you will be weak. Wherever
you refuse to flinch, you will be strong.
Itll make it easier if you use algorithm
number one from the first section: Steady your mind by calming
your breath. Breathe deeply and relax the tense muscles in your
Honesty and integrity also make it easier
to resist the temptation to flinch. Looking someone in the eye
and feeling comfortable about it almost requires no guilty conscience.
And also, the other side is true too: It
will help you become more honest when you dont flinch.
You can see a graphic example of not flinching
in the movie Tombstone,
about Wyatt Earp. In one scene, Kurt Russel, who is playing Wyatt,
is talking to a loudmouth, bully dealer. He tells the dealer,
Youre sitting in my chair. They have an exchange
of words and the whole time Wyatt never flinches. He was unarmed.
The dealer had a gun, but before the exchange was over, Wyatt
had disarmed the dealer and thrown him out of the saloon. Its
just a movie, but that scene portrayed the real man accurately.
He disarmed many a man when he himself was without a gun.
He did it with courage. He didnt
flinch. It made him powerful. And it can do the same for you.
Flinching feels bad. When you refuse to flinch, you can feel
good more often.
7. Use what you get.
Everybody gets some good breaks and some
bad breaks in their lives, and thats true for you too.
What counts is what you do with them.
Whatever happens to you, find a way to
extract some advantage from it. Come up with some way you can
turn it to your benefit. I dont mean just come to accept
it or live with it or tolerate it. But think of a way you can
use it that will make you glad it happened.
This is as creative an act as painting
or inventing. Ask the question relentlessly: How can I
turn this to my advantage? Ask it for days. Ask it for
weeks. Ask it until you get the answers you need.
Thomas Edison said his deafness was his
greatest blessing because he missed out when people talked about
negative circumstances he wasnt interested in. Yes, being
hard of hearing has disadvantages. But there are advantages.
And he could have whined about the disadvantages, but instead,
he put his attention on the advantages. He used his deafness
to help him.
You may have heard of Stephen Hawkings.
He is considered by some the greatest mind since Einstein. Hes
got Lou Gehrigs disease that slowly destroys nerve and
muscle systems. He is now confined to a wheelchair, cant
talk, and cant move much more than a finger. Yet this man
has continued his work. His mind is unaffected. He can still
Its unfortunate. Its definitely
tragic. But Hawkings has used his handicap. He cannot spend hours
drinking brandy and conversing with friends. He cant work
out and keep himself in shape. He cant go shopping or cook
or do the dishes. Pretty much all he can do is think. And he
has taken full advantage of that disadvantage. He has pushed
his thoughts boldly where no one has gone before. He used what
he got, and has turned it not only to his own advantage, but
to the advantage of humankind.
Use what you get. Its the only sane
thing to do with it and it will make you feel good more often.
read a summary of the principles