Category Archives: Psychology

Inside your head

Goal-free living

At the WorldBlu forum I had the pleasure of talking to Stephen Shapiro who just finished writing a book on goal-free living which is coming out in january 2006.

As soon as Stephen mentioned “goal-free living” a flash-bulb went of in my mind, and I knew what he meant. I also knew that this is what I’ve been doing for the last 3 years, I just haven’t had a name for it. Here’s how Stephen introduces goal-free living:

We are taught from a young age that in order to achieve great success we must set and achieve our goals. However in doing so, we become focused on where we are going rather than enjoying where we are right now. We sacrifice today in the hope that a better future will emerge, only to discover that achievement rarely leads to true joy. Goal-Free Living presents an alternative philosophy – that we can have an extraordinary life now, all without goals and detailed plans. By living for each moment, it?s possible to have a successful life and follow your passions at the same time.

YES! 3 years ago I left the IT business with no new plans in mind. I gave my self some time off, and never once though consciously about what I should do next. After about 3 months an inspiration came to me, and The Happy at Work Project grew out of that. Also, for the 3 years we’ve been running the project, we’ve been goal-free. Rather than setting strategies, plans, targets, measures and budgets, we’ve done our best to cultivate every opportunity that came along and to create some ourselves. So while Stephen’s book focuses on the personal sphere, I’m here to tell you that it works just as well in a business setting!

His book gives you 8 major tips on how to live goal-free:

– Use a compass, not a map
– Trust that you are never lost
– Remember that opportunity knocks often, but sometimes softly
– Want what you have
– Seek out adventure
– Become a people magnet
– Embrace your limits
– Remain detached

That is quite simply brilliant thinking. Read more about goal-free living here.

One of the high points of the forum was when Stephen took the stage and gave a goal-free presentation about goal-free living. He’d originally intended to talk about a different theme, and had nothing prepared on goal-free living, but a few other conference attendees dared him to do it. Needless to say he nailed it, and the goal-less nature of his presentation underscored and validated the message.


Sometimes “you really should do X” but you don’t. Here’s some excellent advice from AmbivaBlog for all of us procrastinators:

According to “archetypal psychologist” James Hillman, who at some point dissolved my own suicidal feelings of frustration and failure into laughter, procrastination is a “disease” only from the point of view of the heroic ego, which believes it can and should control everything — first discipline the self, then save the world. (“Enormous inner strength and will!” “The fight of your life, for the rest of your life!”) Procrastination is one of the signs of the soul at work, undermining and sabotaging the grandiose aspirations of the hero-ego, perhaps so that something real can happen, or not happen, as it, not I, wish. In Hillman’s work procrastination means uncountably many things to the soul. It’s an intrinsic part of the work process, resisting the pen the way the knots in wood resist and redirect the chisel; it’s like the dance of avoidance all animals do on the way to their most primal gratifications, building up the intensity of mating or fighting by postponing it. It’s much like the way we turn red-faced and flee from the very person we’ve fantasized confessing our love to, or the way we eagerly look forward to going “home” and then sink into a ghastly regressive lethargy, binge-eating on our parents’ couch, because what the soul wants is something less literal than we think we want. And one of the things it wants, and loves, is its problems, which Hillman says are like heraldic emblems.

Read the entire excellent post here.

I often berate myself for not just getting the stuff done I need to do… but I also find that I can force myself to do it, and it turns out to be difficult, or I can wait until he right moment (whatever that is) and suddenly it’s so easy, it feels as if the work does itself. On the other hand, sometimes I DO force myself to do it and it also turns out to be easy :o)

Why do we play at war

Bernie DeKovens Funlog is my favourite source of play ideas (such as no-ball football or junk games). Occasionally even he gets serious, for instance when answering this question:

Why do people enjoy meeting in cyberspace to engage in simulated warfare, with games like Halo and War Craft? Why do people want to spend their time “killing” each other as a pastime?

His answer is classic:

– we play war because we need to play with it – there’s no other way to integrate such an awful reality into our understanding of the world. it is too ugly, too irrational, too stupid for us to grasp in any other way.

– we know we’re not really hurting anyone or anything, we know that we can’t really die, and without that knowledge, we couldn’t have fun

– we can trust each other if we all know that we’re trying to kill each other, that the very worst in us is not hidden or subsumed by any other attempts at being human, so when we meet, we can meet above all that

I enjoy this view because it is appreciative without romanticizing anything. War games of many kinds have been with us for as long as we have been human, and according to Bernie, this is not a bad thing to be avoided or outlawed. There’s more: Read the entire answer here.

Two kinds of decisions

Why is it, that you eat that extra helping of ice cream, even though you know full well, that it’s not good for you? Why do you smoke that cigarette and why don’t you go out and exercise? We may now have the answer!

It seems that we use our emotions short-term decisions and analytical thinking for decisions that have no immediate consequenses, according to a new study published on October 15 2004 by the National Institutes of Health.

For the study, a research team which included NIA grantee David Laibson, Ph.D., of Harvard University and the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, MA, asked 14 participants to choose between receiving money at an earlier or later date. For instance, a participant might be asked to choose between receiving $27.10 today versus $31.25 in a month; or $27.10 in two weeks versus $31.25 in six weeks. As the participants made these choices, their brains were scanned using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI). This imaging tool enables researchers to measure second-by-second brain function in thousands of specific brain regions.

When participants chose between incentives that included an immediate reward, fMRI scans indicated heightened activity in parts of the brain, such as the limbic system, that are associated with emotional decision making. In contrast, deliberative and analytic regions of the brain, such as the prefrontal and parietal cortex, were activated by all decisions, even those that did not involve an immediate reward. However, when participants resisted immediate rewards and instead chose delayed rewards, activity was particularly strong in these deliberative areas of the brain.

“Our research suggests that consumers have competing economic value systems. Our emotional brain has a hard time imaging the future, even though our logical brain clearly sees the future consequences of our current actions,” Dr. Laibson says. “Our emotion brain wants to max out the credit card, even though our logical brain knows we should save for retirement.”

From my personal experience, I remember the first time I tried Bungee jumping. I’d signed up for it a week ahead, with a (in retrospect) rather cavalier attitude. Bungee jumping – pphhh. Thousands of people do it, rationally it can’t be that difficult or dangerous. But let me tell you, as the actual moment approached all the rational, logical arguments went out the window and I was SCARED!

One implication of this study seems to be, that if you want people to deal rationally with a threatening issue, it’s good to do it ahead of time, before the issue becomes immediately critical. Another implications is, that once the situation IS critical, emotions will come into the foreground. There is nothing wrong with that, you just need to appreciate it and to make room for expressing those emotions.

Consciousness – an illusion?

In an article entitled The Grand Illusion: Why consciousness only exists when you look for it, Dr. Susan Blackmore looks at different models of consciousness.

It seems that most of our current thinking on consciousness is being contradicted by modern brain research, and that a new model is needed.

If you are not yet feeling perplexed (in which case I am not doing my job properly), consider another problem. It seems that most of what goes on in the brain is not conscious. For example, we can consciously hear a song on the car radio, while we are not necessarily conscious of all the things we do as we’re driving. This leads us to make a fundamental distinction: contrasting conscious brain processes with unconscious ones. But no one can explain what the difference really is. Is there a special place in the brain where unconscious things are made conscious? Are some brain cells endowed with an extra magic something that makes what goes on in them subjective? This doesn’t make sense. Yet most theories of consciousness assume that there must be such a difference, and then get stuck trying to explain or investigate it.

She also mentions some studies done with change blindness. Take a look at this picture, and see if you can spot what changes every time it flashes.

Here’s my favourite quote from the article:

It sounds bizarre, but try to catch yourself not being conscious. More than a hundred years ago the psychologist William James likened introspective analysis to “trying to turn up the gas quickly enough to see how the darkness looks.” The modern equivalent is looking in the fridge to see whether the light is always on. However quickly you open the door, you can never catch it out. The same is true of consciousness. Whenever you ask yourself, “Am I conscious now?” you always are.But perhaps there is only something there when you ask. Maybe each time you probe, a retrospective story is concocted about what was in the stream of consciousness a moment before, together with a “self” who was apparently experiencing it. Of course there was neither a conscious self nor a stream, but it now seems as though there was.

Perhaps a new story is concocted whenever you bother to look. When we ask ourselves about it, it would seem as though there”s a stream of consciousness going on. When we don’t bother to ask, or to look, it doesn’t, but then we don’t notice so it doesn’t matter.

The fact that you can’t unconsciously examine consciousness made me think of this grook by Piet Hein:

Mirrors have one limitation: You can’t
either by hook or by crook
use them to how you look when you aren’t
looking to see how you look.

Dial “C” for comfortable

I somehow stumbled upon the website of George Sheehan, a doctor who played a vital part in the fitness and running boom in the 70s. The site has a lot of his essays, one of which is about comfort:

In preaching the gospel of fitness, I emphasize the word ‘comfortable.’ Whatever the activity it should be done comfortably. Most people believe the opposite. To be of any value, exercise should be uncomfortable. People are quite sure their exertions should involve, if not pain, at least some discomfort.

Yes! I teach aerobics at a couple of local gyms in my spare time, and this is exactly my approach: That exercise should be comfortable and fun. It can be strenuoues, but not so much that you don’t want to do it again tomorrow. If your chosen form of exercise is too hard or boring – what’s going to motivate you to keep going over a longer period of time? This echoes a previous post about not doing stuff you don’t enjoy.

Now, I’m going to do a radical shift here and claim that this notion of comfort is important not only in physical exercise, but for any change process as well. Lots of people have a similar notion that change must be difficult, but I actually think that often the primary impediment to change is our own notion that “change is hard”. I believe, that it is absolutely possible to design major change projects so that they are mostly comfortable. I don’t think they can be comfortable for all of the people all of the time, but neither does it need to be a difficult time for all involved parties.

Not only that, but I’m convinced that the only change processes that stand a chance of succeding, are those approached in this manner – with the idea that the process itself should be mostly comfortable and fun.

Suggestions for a happier life

I was net-researching the discipline of positive psychology, and found the website of David G. Myers, which is a veritable gold mine of information on being happy and many other issues besides.

I especially enjoyed the list of 10 suggestions for a happier life. Basic stuff, but still true.

Positive psychology was defined by Martin Seligman (I wrote a little about it in a previous post), and there’s also a review of his book on the subject Learned optimism

Rule #1

What would the world look like, if we all didn’t do stuff we didn’t want to do? Let’s say you’re a college student and you don’t feel like going to classes today and you simply stay home or do something else. Or let’s say you don’t want to go to work today and instead stay home and play with your kids? What would that do to society in general?

Common wisdom has it that nothing would get done, or at least only the stuff that everybody likes to do. We’d be knee-deep in garbage because nobody wants to be a garbage man, and we’d all have to walk or drive ourselves cause nobody would want to drive the busses.

In short, society would collapse according to common wisdom. Once again, common wisdom is dead wrong.

If we all do more stuff we enjoy, we’ll end up liking more things. Going back to the college student who doesn’t want to go to classes today, let’s say he forces himself and goes anyway. He might have a great time, but odds are that he doesn’t. This probably also means that he feels even less like going the next day and the next. If he’d given himself a day off, his desire to go would return faster than if he forces himself.

Doing stuff you like to do increases your energy and makes you more open to new experiences. “Pulling yourself together” to force yourself to do something you hate saps your strength and makes you less willing to try new experiences. So if we all avoided doing stuff we don’t want to, we’d all want to do more different things. Of course, the enthusiasm you put into a job you really want to do, and the resulting quality of your work is usually much higher – giving you even more energy.

There are a few things to consider: First of all lots of people have a hard time knowing what they want to do. They’ve become used to doing things whether or not they like them that they’ve lost the sense of what they enjoy. This sense probably returns with a little practice. Secondly, we’ve all been raised with the idea, that when faced with an unenjoyable task, the right and honorable thing to do is to clench your teeth, put your nose to the grindstone, pull yourself together and get it done. The idea that “if it’s not enjoyable, don’t do it”, can cause some guilt. Obviously feeling guilty is not enjoyable either, which ruins the whole point. This probably takes some practice also.

Furthermore, some things need to get done, and if I don’t do them who will? This requires organizations to build up diversity to such a level that almost any task will find a person somewhere in the organization who will actually enjoy doing it. Or at least not totally loathe it.

Remember, every time you force yourself to take on a task that you really hate, you’re stealing that task away from another person who would enjoy it – and who would consequently do a much better job of it. Remember, there are people who enjoy collecting garbage and driving busses. If you have any doubt that almost any job can be enjoyed by someone, read this article.

Notice also, that I’m not saying that people should do whatever they want. I’m simply saying:
Rule #1: “Don’t do stuff you don’t like doing”.

Once in a while it’s good to challenge yourself, so as an addendum to the above rule, I’d add:
Rule #2: “Once in a while, do something you don’t know if you’ll like. If you don’t like it, see rule #1”

Just imagine the kind of world that would build!