How Hobbies Bring Meaning to Our Lives

One of the ways I cope with the vagaries of life, from mundane, day-to-day stressors to major events and tragedies, is to focus on one of several life projects that I have cultivated over the years: reading, gardening, aquaculture, and, of course, blogging. These and other activities give me something to look forward to each morning, and serve as a form of therapy, allowing me to suspend all other worries and focus on something as simple yet gratifying as completing a chapter in my favorite book, or watching my plants bear fruit.

Over at QuartzAlex Preston explores the philosophy of hobbies and why they are integral to personal identity and quality of life. Continue reading

The Meditative Quality of Art

From early childhood up until my early twenties, I was an artist. Not in any particularly prolific or professional sense; just someone who liked to sketch, doodle, and draw fairly regularly. I cannot recall when or why I stopped exactly, but I have been meaning to get back into it, and on occasion I do manage to pull of a crude sketch or two.

A recent article in the Washington Post is giving me yet another reason to get back into the habit. As so many artists throughout history have attested, there is evidence that creative activity is good for the mind, as well as the body, being utilized to great effect in therapy. Everything from depression to post traumatic stress disorder and even cancer (namely symptoms like fatigue and pain) is mitigated through the creative process.

Whatever the exact mechanics of it, there is just something about making art that helps us feel better, both emotionally and physically. Here are four evidence-backed reasons, courtesy of WaPo  and Fulfillment Daily,  why letting loose with one’s inner creativity, regardless of skill level, is well worth trying. Continue reading

The Health Benefits of Watching Fish

IFLS reports on the first known study to research the psychological effect of observing marine life. It might seem like an oddly specific thing to look into, but given the long history of aquarium-keeping across civilizations, it makes sense to consider what value humans derive from the practice

Sure enough, British researchers from Plymouth University and the University of Exeter, in collboration with the National Marine Aquarium, found measurable benefits in physical and mental well being among test subjects following a bit of aquarium-gazing.  Continue reading

Article of Interest: The Cost of Paying Attention

From the New York Times comes a highly relevant reflection on something that bedevils most people in the modern world: the constant bombardment of distractions and stimuli that make it harder and harder for us to focus on any one thing.

Attention is a resource; a person has only so much of it. And yet we’ve auctioned off more and more of our public space to private commercial interests, with their constant demands on us to look at the products on display or simply absorb some bit of corporate messaging.

Bayanihan

Bayanihan is a concept in the Philippines that refers to a spirit of communal unity and cooperation, usually centered on members coming together to help one of their own. It has its origins in rural towns, where members help a family move to a new place by volunteering to physically transport the entire house to a specific location. This is usually followed by a celebration to express gratitude to the volunteers.

Bayanihan practiced in its original form. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

Bayanihan persists to this day in both rural and urban communities, especially in slums. Examples include raising money to help one member pay for medical treatment, helping new arrivals get situated, and rebuilding any homes lost to natural disaster. Even the poorest citizens manage to pool their resources and capital together to ensure one of their own is looked after.

In its most dramatic manifestation, bayanihan was utilized in the capital city of Manila to form a successful grassroots movement, which influenced the government to help establish better housing and infrastructure for poorer residents.

The Joys of the Ordinary

The key to happiness — to a life that is not only comfortable, but fulfilling — is one of those loaded concepts that elicits a wide variety of answers and musings. But one consensus that seems to emerge among people of all ages and experiences is the notion that we must appreciate the simple pleasures of everyday life — the little gifts that we take for granted yet would be much more miserable without.

The New York Times published a piece some time ago that explored this notion, citing some interesting research which, among other things, showed that the older one got, the more joy was derived from ordinary experiences. It seems that with time and experience, one learns to appreciate anything that our often difficult lives have to offer.

This is especially salient in a time of socioeconomic crisis, when people of all ages and backgrounds — but especially the younger and less wealthier — are finding their optimism and enthusiasm tested. Declining political and economic fortunes, combined with an uncertain future, would make happiness seem more elusive than ever, especially when compared to the more prosperous circumstances in which many older Americans came of age.

Amid the subsequently rising rates of depression, anxiety, stress, and sleeplessness, perhaps the age-old lesson of counting one’s blessings (in either the secular or religious sense) is as apt as ever. As the Times article noted, even in the best of times, let alone nowadays, the average person simply lacks the resources to enjoy an extraordinary life full of untold luxury, adventure, and other fulfilling activities — but nor should they require such approaches to be happy.

…plenty of people won’t have the money to go to faraway places or pay to jump out of airplanes. Low-cost extraordinary experiences may well be nearby, but there ought to be much comfort in the evidence that everyday things that cost little or nothing can deliver the same amount of joy. A garden. The elaborate meal that emerges from it and the spare time to invent the recipes. A return to a neglected musical instrument. All-you-can-consume subscriptions to Netflix and Spotify, with watchlists and playlists that stretch on for years.

This is not to say that we should give up on aiming for better lives; it goes without saying that, traveling the world, seeking a well-paying profession, and pursuing other life-affirming endeavors are still great goals (at least for some people). Nor should we simply accept the systemic sociopolitical and economic issues that have made it harder for most of us to reach our highest potential. But regardless of one’s circumstances, now and in the future, it seems sensible to make the most of what we can while we can, even if it is only in the process of realizing higher aspirations.

Speaking for myself, I can definitely attest to the value of this attitude. For as long as I can remember, I have suffered from regular bouts of depression and anxiety; it has only been in recent years, as I approach my thirties, that I have mitigated these conditions by, among other things, deriving as much value from ordinary experiences as possible. Reading my books, listening to my favorite songs, tending to my garden, enjoying a hot cup of tea, sleeping in my warm bed — these are the little things in which I look forward to day-by-day.

These are the seemingly mundane activities and indulgences that are easy to take for granted, but are luxuries to so many other humans. While I nonetheless have aspirations for greater things — not least of which is traveling the world — in the meantime I am content enjoying the everyday pleasures that come with my good fortune to be alive and healthy.

 

Chart: The Best Places to Be Born

In 1988, The Economist compiled a ranking of 50 countries according to which would be the best place to be born (or put another way, which would be the best to settle and start a family). This was determined on the basis of 11 weighted sociopolitical and economic criteria, ranging from the quantifiable (such as GDP growth) to the subjective (cultural richness). The results can be seen below.

The United States tops the list, followed by France, West Germany, Italy, Canada, and Japan. The Soviet Union managed a respectable 21st place, with communist Poland and Hungary not that far behind. The Philippines, India, and Mexico also ranked relatively higher than one would expect from developing countries. Saudi Arabia, Nigeria, Iran, Iraq, and Zimbabwe rank the lowest.

Anyway, in 2013, The Economist revisited this “where-to-be-born” index, which basically measures overall quality-of-life both presently and in the foreseeable future. As before, there are 11 indicators involved, including the results of life-satisfaction surveys, public trust, crime, and even geography (environment and natural beauty can go a long way towards leisure and comfort).

So over 25 years later, here are the world’s best places to be born:

The United States is now in 16th place along with former third-place winner Germany; France falls to 26, Italy to 21, Japan to 25, and Canada to a still-respectable 9. In their place are mostly small, northern European countries, as well as Australia, Singapore, and New Zealand. Notice how Saudi Arabia and Iran have improved, while poor Nigeria remains among the bottom five (indeed, it is dead last, although Iraq and Zimbabwe, whose fortunes have each only gotten worse over the years were not measured this time).

Granted, a direct comparison between these two charts can’t say much, since The Economist measured far more countries, and claims to have been much more rigorous in its metrics, the second time around. Moreover, the inclusion of several subjective factors leaves much in dispute; for example, even people in otherwise prosperous places (e.g. the French) often report a low rate of life satisfaction regardless. Needless to say, individuals will weigh certain factors differently depending on their personal or cultural preference: environment may not matter as much to some as, say, public trust, and visa versa.

Of course, any effort to determine where is the best place to live or start of family is going to be arguable. It touches on a macro version of what makes for a good life. Clearly, freedom from violence, starvation, poverty, and the like are nearly universally-agreed upon. But what do you think of these results? Where would you consider to be the best place in the world to live?

Learn Self-Help From a 2nd-Century Roman Emperor

One of my favorite and most personally influential philosophers — who I’ve written about before — has just become the subject of an article at HuffPo, where his timeless wisdom is being shared for its relevance two thousand years later.

In 167 AD, [Marcus] Aurelius wrote The Meditations, a 12-book compendium of personal writings, originally written in Greek, that reflect his extensive study of Stoic philosophy. Aurelius is now regarded as one of the most famous proponents and philosophers of Stoicism, an ancient Greek and Roman school of thought originating in the Hellenic period concerned with how to cultivate a mindset to deal effectively with any events or emotions.

Meditations is based around a single, simple precept: “You have power over your mind — not outside events. Realize this, and you will find strength.”

The last of the Five Good Emperors, Aurelius ruled over Rome for 20 years until the time of his death in 180 AD. He is widely regarded as one of the most respected emperors in Roman history.

“Marcus Aurelius was a true paradox — an emperor with almost unlimited power to control his world and circumstances, who nevertheless had a deep understanding that happiness and peace do not lie in the outside world,” Arianna Huffington writes in her forthcoming book, Thrive: The Third Metric To Redefining Success And Creating A Life Of Well-Being, Wisdom And Wonder.

Meditations is “undoubtedly one of history’s most effective formulas for overcoming every negative situation we may encounter in life,” Ryan Holiday writes in The Obstacle Is The Way.

If you haven’t read The Meditations, which I strongly recommend, the article shares five key tidbits to keep in mind:

1. Your own happiness is up to you.

Life’s happiness, Aurelius said, “depends upon the quality of your thoughts.”

The crux of his philosophy is the notion that while we cannot control what happens to us, we can control our reactions to the events of our lives — and this gives us immense strength and freedom.

It’s easier said than done, yes, but Aurelius’s own life is proof positive of this maxim. The emperor faced great struggles throughout his life, and his reign was marred b ynear-constant warfare and disease. His brother and parents also died at a young age.

Aurelius learned how to live within his soul — or “inner citadel,” as he put it — a place of peace and equanimity. Living from this space, he believed, gave him the freedom to shape his own life by controlling his thoughts.

2. Life may not give you what you want, but it will give you what you need.

Aurelius accepted that trials and challenges were an unavoidable part of life, but his belief that life and the universe were fundamentally good helped him to accept the tough stuff. The argument goes like this: Because life as a whole is as good as it can be, the parts of life are as good as they can be, so we should love, or at least accept, every part of life.

But Aurelius took it even one step further, arguing that obstacles are actually our greatest opportunities for growth and advancement. They force us to re-examine our path, find a new way, and ultimately empower ourselves by practicing virtues like patience, generosity and courage.

“The impediment to action advances action,” he wrote. “What stands in the way becomes the way.”

3. There is good in everyone.

Aurelius isn’t expressing blind optimism when he advises his readers to find common ground with others and seek the good in every person they encounter. In politics and life, Aurelius had experienced how people could be selfish and hurtful to others — he lived through wars and uprisings — and yet, he chose not to let the actions of others get to him. Instead, he always remembered that there is some of the “divine” in each of us:

When you wake up in the morning, tell yourself: The people I deal with today will be meddling, ungrateful, arrogant, dishonest, jealous and surly. They are like this because they can’t tell good from evil. But I have seen the beauty of good, and the ugliness of evil and have recognized that the wrongdoer has a nature related to my own — not of the same blood or birth, but the same mind, and possessing a share of the divine. And so none of them can hurt me.

 Aurelius believed that all men are made to cooperate with one another, like the “rows of the upper and lower teeth.”

4. True peace comes from within.

Many of us live frantic, high-octane lives — and we may fantasize about getting away from it all by going on a meditation retreat or taking time off from work to travel. But, as Aurelius strongly believed, you don’t need to escape your environment to find a sense of calm. We can access serenity any time in our own minds.

“People look for retreats for themselves, in the country, by the coast, or in the hills,” Aurelius wrote. “There is nowhere that a man can find a more peaceful and trouble-free retreat than in his own mind … So constantly give yourself this retreat, and renew yourself.”

Taking a “mental retreat” through a meditation practice — or simply by bringing more mindfulness into your day — has been linked to mental health benefits. Meditation has been shown to improve memory and attentionlower stress levels, enhance emotional well-being and sleep quality and boost creativity and productivity.

5. Treat life as an “old and faithful friend”. 

Perhaps the most memorable passage of Meditations encourages us to view life as being, in the words of the poet Rumi, “rigged in [our] favor.” It’s a powerful way of reframing any obstacle we encounter. Aurelius wrote:

True understanding is to see the events of life in this way: ‘You are here for my benefit, though rumor paints you otherwise.’ And everything is turned to one’s advantage when he greets a situation like this: You are the very thing I was looking for. Truly whatever arises in life is the right material to bring about your growth and the growth of those around you. This, in a word, is art — and this art called ‘life’ is a practice suitable to both men and gods. Everything contains some special purpose and a hidden blessing; what then could be strange or arduous when all of life is here to greet you like an old and faithful friend?

As you can see, these prescriptions remain as applicable and necessary now as they were in Aurelius’ time, which says a lot about the human condition and our inherent struggle to improve it. As many of you may have noticed, there are many similarities between the philosophy of the Stoics and those of Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism, and other Eastern faiths (for that matter, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam each have schools of thought that overlap with Stoicism, especially with regards to mindfulness).

I think that the universal nature of these ideas further underlines their accuracy and importance to everyone; in any case, many of you may find such approaches to be intuitive or even already present in your lives without realizing it. Regardless, they’re vital, and while there’s obviously more to improving ourselves — as individuals and as a species — than just practicing meditation or creating an inner citadel of the soul, it’s a great and valuable step that should nonetheless be studied and implemented.

As always, share your own thoughts and opinions.

Lessons of Hope from

Life is beautiful, extremely beautiful. And when you are old you appreciate it more. When you are older you think, you remember, you care and you appreciate. You are thankful for everything. For everything.”

My temperament. This optimism and this discipline. Punctually, at 10 a.m., I am sitting there at the piano, with everything in order around me. For 30 years, I have eaten the same — fish or chicken. Good soup, and this is all. I don’t drink — not tea, not coffee, not alcohol. Hot water. I walk a lot with terrible pains, but after 20 minutes it is much better. Sitting or lying is not good.

That was Alice Herz-Sommer, the world’s oldest-known Holocaust survivor, in a 2006 interview with the Guardian. died in London this past Sunday at the age of 110. Most people her age (or even younger) would hardly be as sprightly and enthusiastic, yet despite both her years and her tremendous personal tragedy, she remained this way to the end. As NPR noted:

Bear in mind: In 1943, Herz-Sommer and her husband, Leopold Sommer, and their son, Raphael, were sent from Prague to a Nazi camp for Jews in the Czech city of Terezin. According to The Guardian, “she never saw her husband again after he was moved to Auschwitz in 1944 and many in her extended family and most of the friends she had grown up with were also lost in the Holocaust.”

According to the BBC, Herz-Sommer and her son “were among fewer than 20,000 people who were freed when Terezin was liberated by the Soviet army in May 1945. An estimated 140,000 Jews were sent there and 33,430 died there. About 88,000 were transported on to Auschwitz and other death camps, where most were killed.”

Even amid the unspeakable misery and despair of a concentration camp, she did everything in her power to keep hope alive. As shown in the Oscar-nominated documentaryThe Lady in Number 6: Music Saved My Life, Herz-Sommer, then already a pianist, joined others to perform music in order to lift the spirits of prisoners.

On the film’s website, Herz-Sommer was quoted about the role music played in her life:

She speaks with great pride and passion of playing more than 100 concerts inside the concentration camp and she likens that experience, both for the performers and their imprisoned audience as being close to the divine. Alice is unequivocal in stating that music preserved her sanity and her life — while bringing hope into the lives of countless others. To this day Alice never tires of saying ‘music saved my life and music saves me still.’ ”

The film’s creators added an even more remarkable observation:

Despite all that has befallen her, Alice insists that she has never, ever hated the Nazis, and she never will. Some see in her tolerance and compassion a secular saint who has been blessed with the gift of forgiveness, but Alice is far more pragmatic — she has seen enough in her life to know all too well that hatred eats the soul of the hater, not the hated.

I’m at a loss on how someone can be so liberated of hate and despair despite so much tragedy (indeed, her son had died abruptly in 2001, but years later she remained no less positive about life). Even as she approached the end of her 110-year-long life, she remained a passionate and accomplished musician — in fact, she was also the oldest pianist. Here is a brief but touching video of how she was still touching lives even at a 109.

Gustav Klimt’s Death and Life

“Death and Life”, by Gustav Klimt. Begun in 1908 and completed in 1916.

This painting is unique in that it portrays death with a sense of hope and acceptance — instead of feeling threatened by the figure of death, the humans seem unconcerned. Even the personification of death doesn’t seem particularly menacing, comparatively speaking.

Klimt was near the end of his life at the time — he would pass away two years later — and the painting has been interpreted as reflecting his acceptance of mortality. Indeed, he chose to depict moments of pleasure, beauty, youth, and serenity among his subjects.