One Peak Experience

21 April 2014 · 0 comments

Walking throught the Peruvian Andes

I like to travel.

When I leave home, it’s as if I’m an entirely different person with an entirely different life. My thoughts are clearer. My experiences seem purer, unclouded by the things I own and do at home. When I’m in another country, everything I have fits into a 46-liter backpack. I’m not burdened by an apartment full of stuff. I have no pressing engagements and no deadlines. Nobody expects anything of me.

Frequently, I’m surrounded by a language I don’t understand — or understand at the level of a child. Because of this, I’m immune to advertising. I can’t be affected by the news, good or bad. I buy only what I need — toothpaste today, a notebook tomorrow — and am blissfully unaware of the world at large.

I exist only here. Only now.

Because the baggage of daily existence has been stripped away, I’m better able to focus my attention on each moment. There’s less for me to have to worry about, which allows me to feel more in control. When I travel, I enjoy life more. I see more. I feel more.

This enjoyment is intensified when my travels take me outside into nature, when I get an opportunity to hike or raft or play in the physical world.

In 2011, I visited Peru and Bolivia for several weeks. Much of that time was spent trekking through the Andes. Walking with two dozen strangers, I carried my pack through green meadows, alongside slow-moving streams, and over snowy mountain passes.

The trek was difficult but rewarding. I was in peak physical condition, which allowed me to meet the challenges presented by the high altitude and steep trails. Some of my companions became sick. Though I once twisted my ankle, my general good health granted me a sense of control over the experience. Each day, our guide led us on a clearly defined route; the ancient Incan trails helped us stay on course.

Hiking through the jungles and mountain meadows, I enjoyed one of the best periods of my life. As my body strained to carry me across the Andes, I concentrated on the path in front of me. My steps became automatic. My sense of self melted away so that I gradually became one with my environment and with the trail. I’d found flow, that state of “optimal experience”.

At 5350 Meters
At 5350 meters in the Bolivian Andes — a peak experience.

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For fifty years, Mihály Csíkszentmihályi (pronounced “me-high cheek-sent-me-high-ee”) has studied human happiness and creativity. Much of his work has focused on flow, which is his term for “optimal experience”.

Here’s how he describes it:

We have all experienced times when instead of being buffeted by anonymous forces, we [feel] in control of our actions, masters of our own fate. On the rare occasions that it happens, we feel a sense of exhilaration, a deep sense of enjoyment.

Csíkszentmihályi says that, contrary to what we might expect, these peak experiences don’t come during passive moments. We enjoy a night out with friends or a vacation to Italy, but these aren’t the best moments of our lives. Instead, “the best moments usually occur when a person’s body or mind is stretched to its limits in a voluntary effort to accomplish something difficult or worthwhile.”

People are happiest when they forget their surroundings to focus on doing their best at something that challenges and interests them. In short, happiness is produced by total engagement in the pursuit of excellence.

We can experience flow during activities as basic as riding a bike or as complex as building a bridge.

Sometimes flow is achieved through physical activity. Athletes refer to this state as “being in the zone”. People achieve this state of bliss while climbing mountains, sailing boats, or swimming oceans. But even mundane activities like mowing the lawn or baking cookies can produce flow, if they’re done well.

Peak experience also comes from mental pursuits. Many computer become so engrossed in their work that time streams past like water. I experience flow while writing.

This morning, for instance, I’ve been working to complete my guide on how to become CFO of your own life. This will be published next week as part of a complete “Get Rich Slowly” course I’m creating. While I wrote this morning, my mind was so active and so engaged that it almost felt euphoric. I was happy. I couldn’t imagine wanting to be anywhere other than in front of my computer, writing about money.

I was in a state of flow.

For more on flow, spend a few moments to watch Csíkszentmihályi’s TED talk on how flow is the secret to happiness:

If you want to learn more, pick up a copy of his book, Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience.

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How to Be Happy

7 April 2014 · 18 comments

Overcoming fear is one part of living life without regret. You do that by being open to new people and new experiences, and by acting even when you’re afraid. Another aspect of a rewarding life is learning to find happiness in your daily existence — and building upon that happiness to construct a meaningful life.

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote, “All knowledge and every pursuit aims at…the highest of all good achievable by action.” What is that good? “Both the general run of men and people of superior refinement say that it is happiness, and identify living well with being happy.”

Happiness, he said in the Nicomachean Ethics, is “the meaning and purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.”

To some extent, a good life requires good fortune. Happenstance can undermine the well-being of even the most virtuous person. But Aristotle held that ultimately happiness isn’t a product of chance. You can allow misfortune to crush you, or you can choose to bear the blows of fate with “nobility and greatness of soul”. Although fate may play a role in your affairs, Aristotle believed that in the end, happiness depends upon yourself.

Modern psychologists agree.

In The How of Happiness, Sonja Lyubomirsky shares the results of years of research into what makes people happy. Studies with twins indicate that about half of human happiness comes from a genetic setpoint. We’re each hardwired for a certain baseline level of contentment.

Other studies have shown that roughly ten percent of happiness is determined by our circumstances. Some of these conditions — such as your age or eye color — cannot be changed. But some of these external factors — such as your job, income, or marital status — can be changed.

But the surprising part of Lyubomirsky’s research is that the remaining forty percent of happiness comes from our intentional activity, from our attitudes and actions. It’s a by-product of the things we think and do.

Because circumstances play such a small role in your well-being — and because many of your circumstances are unchangeable — it makes more sense to boost your bliss through intentional activity, by controlling the things you can and ignoring the things you can’t.

I’ve been reading and writing about money for nearly a decade. I’ve been reading and writing about happiness for nearly as long. The subjects are deeply intertwined. Based on my research and experience, I’ve developed not only a philosophy of well-being, but a short summary of the research into how to be happy. This hundred-word piece is a sort of personal roadmap; whenever I sense I’m drifting off course, I re-read it, and I find my way again.

My friend Lisa is a graphic designer. Recently, for kicks, she and I collaborated to create a print based on my summary of how to be happy. It looks like this:

How to be happy

That’s dozens of books about meaning and happiness compressed into one hundred words. Notice that none of this advice involves waiting for someone or something to make you happy. All of it requires intentional activity on your part to increase your well-being. Happiness isn’t something that just happens; happiness is a byproduct of the the things you think and say and do.

We’ll talk a lot more about happiness in the months to come. Stay tuned!

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This is a guest post from Betsy Wuebker. It fits perfectly with my recent meditations on action and fear. Betsy and her husband Pete are location independent entrepreneurs who currently live on the island of Kauai. She writes on travel, simplicity and independence at PassingThru.

More than forty years ago, I had a conversation with my father. From his hospital bed, he delivered a warning: “Never say ‘what if?’ There might not be a second chance. You don’t want to look back and be sorry.”

Dad died two days later, and his comment was cemented in my memory.

I think Dad sensed what was coming and stepped outside his normal comfort level to communicate a legacy. When my husband’s parents were passing decades later, they lamented the things they hadn’t finished. As they started to say their good-byes, both longed for second chances. Their voices joined my father’s to form a sort of heartbreaking chorus.

In Viralnova’s list of dying people’s regrets, things left undone are cited: not traveling, staying in a bad relationship or terrible job, hesitating, failing to risk. Clearly, unresolved regret can interfere with our sense of contentment to the very end.

When you’re younger, you might hedge decision-making with the illusion of a second chance. There seems to be plenty of time to try new things, to get things right.

But as the years have passed, I’ve gradually learned to make most decisions by following my father’s advice. I think about what I might regret the most, and then choose the opposite. And once in a while, I give myself a second chance. So I moved across the country and back, quit jobs and working for others altogether, traveled, resumed or let go of relationships, and took piano lessons again.

I’m not completely without regrets, but attempting to navigate life with less remorse compels one to settle things. I think in terms of the long run (which, at my age, is rapidly shortening). Can I change it? Do I want to try? Should I let it go?

I make choices by asking, “If I don’t do this, will I be sorry?”

Or, “Does this give me a second chance to get things right?”

Recently I got a letter from my elderly uncle. Reminiscing, he wrote, “I envy your trip to Russia. Always wanted to go there, but never made it.” I perceived only a small regret in this. Whether my uncle visits Russia now makes no real difference. He’s led a very interesting life with long-held other priorities, so letting go of this desire is okay.

Sometimes the universe itself puts forward second chances; if so, I pay attention.

Last year, we moved to Hawaii; it was a second chance at a plan I’d bailed out of in my twenties. I left a friend in the lurch then and I’ve regretted it ever since.

Six weeks ago, I gazed over the cliffs of Normandy. For twelve years, I’d regretted not making the day trip to the D-Day beaches from Paris. I’d have surely regretted not seizing the chance this time.

Regrets require that you accept them and acknowledge what you’ve learned, or act to change the situation. Thoreau said, “To regret deeply is to live afresh.” Second chances can determine whether we live afresh in sadness or joy.

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24 March 2014

A Summary of My Philosophy on Action and Fear

Note: Today, as with every Monday during 2014, I’m publishing a short “chapter” from my unpublished ebook about fear, happiness, and freedom. Today marks the conclusion of the first section, the section on fear. Here’s a summary of everything we’ve discussed so far. During the past three months, I’ve written a lot about the relationship [...]

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We Are What We Repeatedly Do

We are what we repeatedly do — not what we once did, and not what we did only once. One mistake does not define you, nor does a single act of kindness. These events may provide glimpses of a potential you, but who you really are is revealed by what you do on a daily [...]

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13 March 2014

In Order to Lead, First You Must Follow

To prepare for two upcoming projects (an Entrepreneur article on work-life balance and my upcoming Pioneer Nation presentation on time management), I’ve been re-reading Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography. This morning, I happened upon Franklin’s story of starting the Philadelphia public library. When he publicized the “scheme” (as he calls it), he had trouble selling subscriptions. (In [...]

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11 March 2014

What I’m Up To: My Work for 2014

Sometimes it seems like I’ll never learn. After vowing at the end of 2013 that I wouldn’t overburden myself this year, that I’d take 2014 off as a year to relax and to work on my own projects, I’m just as over-committed as ever. On one hand, I don’t mind. It feels good to be [...]

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10 March 2014

Action is Character

A decade ago, I was full of hot air. And I was lazy. And depressed. This wasn’t a good combination for getting things done. I talked a lot about the things I wanted to do, but I never did them. I found reasons not to. I even had trouble keeping up my end of the [...]

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3 March 2014

Action Comes First: Coping with Fear and Procrastination

Every morning, Kim wakes at five o’clock to get ready for work. Most days, I just lie there. “I don’t need to get up,” I think. “I’ve nowhere to go.” But I’ve learned that if I don’t get up, I regret it. If I stay in bed, I don’t make it to the gym. I [...]

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