I read some article last week that I can't find again. (I know, "Look through your browser history," but it was a random sidebar that was paired with a main article, and I've been back to that main article several times now and can't get the same random sidebar article to load.) [UPDATE (7/7/15): I found it! (I think.)] Anyway, the article was called something like "Things to change for a better life" or "more happiness" or "better health." Something like that.
What struck me was that almost all of the points were things that I'd figured out on my own over the past 10 years. Things like "go to bed and wake up at the same time every day," "eat more fruits and vegetables, and less meat and processed foods," "listen to music," "ignore the news," "exercise regularly," "get a dog," "get rid of things (just not dogs, evidently)," "have experiences instead of possessions," "forgive yourself," "laugh more regularly," "keep a journal," and "don't multitask." I would add to the list two universal tips(use a daily to-do list, and orgasm) and two idiosyncratic tips (surround yourself in silence, and read P.G. Wodehouse books).
As I read this list, I thought, "Yep, already figured that out. Yep, that too." Which was both satisfying and frustrating. It was satisfying to have some confirmation of my progression over the past 10 years. It was frustrating to realize that these were things I learned, forgot, learned again, and forgot again, over and over. So this blog post is more an effort to help reinforce these ideas in my head so I don't have to learn them anymore.
SLEEP: The things we do late at night are usually just giant wastes of time. The things we do early in the morning are usually productive. So shifting two hours from late night to early morning will raise productivity. For several years, now, I've been trying to be on an "in bed at 10, awake at 6" schedule. I'm usually off more than I'm on, though. When I manage to be on for several weeks in a row, I find my natural sleep need is actually about 7.5 hours per night, so I spontaneously wake at 5:30. As I've been trying to get my dissertation moving along, I've been moving more towards an "in bed at 8 awake at 3" schedule. That's harder to do, because I like my wife, and our kids don't go to sleep like we'd like them to. (I've hinted that my wife could become a morning person, too, and she spat in my eye.) NOTE: I've also decided to start my daily to-do list (more on that later) with the kids' bedtime. Because so much of what I accomplish on Day X depends on how closely I followed my schedule to close out Day X-1.
FOOD: There are those controversial shirts that read "Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels." I'd change that to "Nothing tastes as good as healthy feels." I've really come to understand over the past two years that "tasty" food doesn't HAVE to be unhealthful, and that the worst foods can deceive you if you become used to them. Eat a cheeseburger every day and you won't notice any problems digesting it. Eat one every three weeks and it will be a giant ball sitting in your stomach for 20 hours. The good thing about it is, once you start eating healthful food, the decision is reinforced. The bad thing about it, though, is that you don't see a reason to start. I watched some documentaries and read some books and realized that the actual tips to healthy living are things we all already know. The diet-of-the-month phenomenon is based on our desire to hear something else is the answer. Sorry, it's not. Eat a lot of vegetables. There's no way around that. (ASIDE: I went to a church fathers-and-sons activity on Saturday and had two hot dogs. And I felt terrible until bedtime and then slept poorly all night, because I had a giant lump of meat in my stomach. I said to my wife, "I'm going to have to start being one of those assholes who brings his own food to pot lucks. 'Oh, you're having hot dogs? I'll just eat my salad.'" But since we started making the effort to reduce our meat consumption (about three years ago, now), my body can't make the occasional relapse to the American diet without severe discomfort.)
MUSIC: I like music. It helps me relax. Related to the prohibition on multitasking, though, I can't listen to music (even lyric-less music) while trying to do anything with words (like reading or writing). But preparing dinner, cleaning up in the evening, or working around the house is all improved with music.
CURRENT EVENTS: I've written recently about Bryan Caplan's recommendation to create a bubble, and my conflicted feelings on it. I agree I can't change world events and they just needlessly stress me, but I also think Jesus has specifically told us to watch the signs of the times. I've compromised with myself and tried to go to a once-a-day check of some news sources for general information.
EXERCISE: Exercising for weight loss is problematic (and, if not paired with eating for weight loss, stupid). But exercising for health, especially mental health, is important. Unless the other players are just giant bastards (as they sometimes are), my favorite part of each week is the two hours I play soccer on Thursdays. There's value in being active.
DOGS: The original list might have said something about pets, but we all know that cats suck. Cats are like the Modest Mouse song "Missed the Boat," which is a perfectly beautiful song that makes you want to kill yourself by the end. I've never spent time with a cat that made me happier at the end. But a handsome, non-aggressive dog is a joy to spend time with. One of the largest failures of my life so far is my inability to buy a home, so we can't own a dog.
POSSESSIONS: Things are stressful. Things are divisive. Things cause most of the problems in life and then tell you, "You can solve all these problems with a few more things." We came to China with 12 suitcases and our lives are no less satisfying then they were when it required a 27-foot truck to move our possessions.
EXPERIENCES: Since we already had too many things, what were we supposed to get for our kids for Christmas? Two years ago, we presented to them the idea of spending our money on experiences we'd have together. We thought it was an idea we'd invented, but it turns out a lot of people already knew about it. Last year for Christmas they got a book, a toy, and a clothing item, I think. Then we went to Angkor Wat and rode elephants. They talk more about Cambodia and elephants than they would any physical gift. (Cambodia was a comparable option for us because we were already in Asia. If we'd been in America, maybe it would have been Yellowstone or New York City. Anything but a Disney experience, which is the stupidest thing a family could possibly do, in my view.)
SELF-SATISFACTION: My religion was presented to me very, very poorly, which, combined with my natural disposition to depression, produced some terrible results. The more I've learned my religion for myself, the more I've come around to the idea that I can be imperfect and acceptable to God at the same time. I think lots of people have this experience. They say, "My religion made me feel guilty, so I quit religion." I'd submit to you that the problem wasn't religion, it was the religion presented to you. This goes for Mormons who say the same thing. Just because you heard it every week in Sunday School doesn't mean it was an accurate presentation. General Conference talks by apostles and prophets are more trustworthy than a misremembered testimony from the ward's resident weirdo.
LAUGHTER: I read an article once about a woman who decided she'd have a good, uncontrolled laugh and an orgasm once a day for a year. I'll write more about orgasms later, but the therapeutic properties of laughter shouldn't be underestimated. You can't expect to be happy if you don't bring produce the universal signal of happiness: laughter.
JOURNAL: A journal doesn't help you be happy if you use it as a place to write what you wish you were saying to the people who annoy you. (See research about how venting doesn't improve mood.) But recording things helps you reflect on them (like how this blog post might help me remember these things I know).
MULTITASKING: Research shows that people who multitask perform each activity worse than they otherwise would, and they THINK they performed it BETTER. Do one thing at a time. Someone else might call that "being in the moment." I just call it "don't suck at the things you do."
TO-DO LIST: Even a giant to-do list is better than no list. You encourage yourself as you complete a task and cross it off. You have incentive to keep going. You don't feel like you're moving from one crisis to another. You're in control more with a to-do list. And, like I mentioned earlier, running your day from 8 PM to 8 PM instead of from midnight to midnight helps with productivity.
ORGASM: I know I'm out of the mainstream here with many religious people and many of the people I know, but I say an orgasm is a mental health issue, not a reproductive issue. This is more obvious for the female orgasm, but it is true for the male orgasm, as well. The orgasm happens in the brain. The release of endorphins makes you feel better. People do all kinds of things to feel better, from taking a nap to soaking in a bathtub to eating a rich dessert to going to the gym. But since this is probably veering close to uncomfortable territory for most readers, I'll just end by acknowledging that not all orgasms are created equal and that some enhance your intimate relationships while some diminish them, and relationship-enhancing orgasms are of a greater variety than most people are willing to accept.
SILENCE: The other night we were leaving our building. Both elevators arrived on our floor at the same time. My family got in one. I got in the other. That elevator ride was so enjoyable. I've read a few articles about "highly sensitive people," and while I really want to discount the idea as fake (like ADHD and parents who say their poorly-behaved children "are on the autism spectrum"), a lot of it seems to describe me. I cannot get any work done with noise, which is great for the modern workplace where no one is trusted with a private space. I also cannot distinguish between noises, so I often find myself telling my children, "I can't understand you because there's a TV on in the other room, the washing machine is going, the air conditioner is on, and you're mumbling." Of course working in isolation might not be practical, but at least finding longer moments of silence should be. This week my students are all involved in something else, so I came into work this morning and took my comfortable chair from my desk to my classroom. "See you next Monday!" I (sort of jokingly) said to my office-mates. Because this week I'm going to get stuff done.
WODEHOUSE BOOKS: This is related to the point about laughter. I know what makes me laugh. I should be reading a Wodehouse chapter every day. And with the size of his oeuvre, it would be YEARS before I had to repeat a book. (Other books I enjoy include Ian Fleming's James Bond books and the Masie Dobbs books by Jacqueline Winspear. But Wodehouse is designed for laughter, not just enjoyment.)