So, you’ve decided that to want to change your life for the better. Become happier. Be a better person. Find meaning. Be positive. Gain clarity. Reduce stress. Become more focused.

Where do you start?

It used to be that the choices were limited. Only a few decades ago, a person would turn to their religion as the sole source of information, but today the world offers a multitude of movements, strategies, and spiritual traditions to choose from, all of them holding the promise of a better future.

For example, wisdom traditions like Buddhism, Vedanta, and Taoism offer both a foundation of concepts and principles alongside a set of practices. In particular, meditation practices have become mainstream. In many circles people now include meditative practices in their regimen of nutrition, exercise, and a healthier lifestyle. Such practices and concepts have also become intertwined with modern science, resulting in disciplines like Buddhist Psychology [1], Mindfulness-based Cognitive Therapy [2], and Positive Psychology [3]. These modern movements adopt ideas from various sources, put them under the microscope of research, and refine them into newer and improved versions. With this type of assortment to choose from, you may find that on the very first steps of your transformative journey, you are already overwhelmed with a confusing portfolio of neuroscience, psychology, medicine, popular self-help, and religion.

In my Ride of Your Life Interview with James Pennebaker at UTexas at Austin, I asked him about this challenge of choice. His take on it emphasized the fact that a lot of stuff doesn’t really work, and what works doesn’t work all of the time:

Avoid the Bullshit

“I think most of the self-help work, much of positive psychology, much of all psychology, much like most religions, most of anything, is probably bullshit. It’s all air. Some of the right work I think is air. You try it and afterwards — are you objectively better? Very often — not, but you have done all you can to convince yourself…I get so pissed off by all of these movements, where there is this guru belief that this method is right, this method is truth — that is false. Sometimes, it’s right, sometimes it’s not.”

And of course, Pennebaker is right. There’s tons of BS out there, but perhaps more importantly, even the good stuff doesn’t work for everyone, and definitely not all the time. The optimal thing to do is different depending on the situation and context one is in.

Take mindfulness as an example. In past years we are repeatedly told that it’s good to focus on the present moment [5]. A range of books, training programs, TV shows, and digital mindfulness meditation programs (some developed by yours truly [5]), provide us with the means to “bring ourselves back” when our mind wanders. Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) [6] has been around for 36 years now. Mindfulness has been studied inside and out. It is definitely good for you, but there’s a *but*: It may not be best to focus on the present moment when you’re working on a product roadmap, reminiscing on your wedding day, or imagining your best possible future [7]. In these contexts, you probably want to move away from the distractions of the present moment as much as possible, so you can plan/remember/imagine. It’s all a matter of balance. When I asked Sonja Lyubomirsky of UCR about mindfulness in our Ride of Your Life Interview, she reinforced the need to have balanced time perspectives:

“There has to be a balance. The problem with the way most people live their lives today is that they are preoccupied with worry about the future and obsess too much about the past, so they need a “higher dosage of present” in their lives.”

Related to mindfulness research is the issue of mind-wandering [8]. In general, a wandering mind most definitely makes you unhappy (which we now know thanks to Killingsworth and Gilbert’s pioneering experience-sampling studies). Yet when you’re trying to be creative and come up with new ideas, it may be good to let your mind go where it wants [9]. Let it wander.

Context is king. In the words of Phil Zimbardo:

“Of course, the people are the actors on the stage of life, but — you're never alone. There are always other actors, it depends on how you dress, it depends on what role you are playing, it depends on who's doing the stagecraft, it depends on the props”

The bible tells us that “To everything there is a season, a time for every purpose under the heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1(, and there’s something to be said about doing the right thing at the right time. To simply ask yourself:

 “What is the most useful thing to say or to do right now?”

“Is there a future, better context, in which what I am planning to say/do is better?”

“and if it is not good for now and not good for later, is it possible that it is utter bullshit?”

References:

[1] Kalupahana, David J. The principles of Buddhist psychology. State University of New York Press, 1987.

[2] Segal, Z. V., Williams, J. M. G., & Teasdale, J. D. (2012). Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy for depression. Guilford Press.

[3] Seligman, M. E., & Csikszentmihalyi, M. (2000). Positive psychology: An introduction (Vol. 55, No. 1, p. 5). American Psychological Association.

[4] Davis, D. M., & Hayes, J. A. (2011). What are the benefits of mindfulness? A practice review of psychotherapy-related research. Psychotherapy, 48(2), 198.

[5] Parks, A. C., Della Porta, M. D., Pierce, R. S., Zilca, R., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2012). Pursuing happiness in everyday life: The characteristics and behaviors of online happiness seekers. Emotion, 12(6), 1222.

[6] Grossman, P., Niemann, L., Schmidt, S., & Walach, H. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction and health benefits: A meta-analysis. Journal of psychosomatic research, 57(1), 35-43.

[7] Sheldon, K. M., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2006). How to increase and sustain positive emotion: The effects of expressing gratitude and visualizing best possible selves. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 1(2), 73-82.

[8] Killingsworth, M. A., & Gilbert, D. T. (2010). A wandering mind is an unhappy mind. Science, 330(6006), 932-932.

[9] Carson, S. H., Peterson, J. B., & Higgins, D. M. (2003). Decreased latent inhibition is associated with increased creative achievement in high-functioning individuals. Journal of personality and social psychology, 85(3), 499.

About the Author

Ran Zilca

Ran Zilca is a research scientist, entrepreneur, and author.

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