Alain de Botton

Bring the Traveling Mind-set Home

October 18, 2019

“What, then, is a traveling mind-set? Receptivity might be said to be its chief characteristic. Receptive, we approach new places with humility. We carry with us no rigid ideas about what is or is not interesting. We irritate locals because we stand in traffic islands and narrow streets and admire what they take to be unremarkable small details. We risk getting run over because we are intrigued by the roof of a government building or an inscription on a wall. We find a supermarket or a hairdresser’s shop unusually fascinating. We dwell at length on the layout of a menu or the clothes of the presenters on the evening news. We are alive to the layers of history beneath the present and take notes and photographs.

“Home, by contrast, finds us more settled in our expectations. We feel assured that we have discovered everything interesting about our neighborhood, primarily by virtue of our having lived there a long time. It seems inconceivable that there could be anything new to find in a place where we have been living for a decade or more. We have become habituated and therefore blind to it.”
—Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel


Are You All Stressed Out? Great!

May 02, 2016

Photo courtesy Ryan McGuire

I can’t say I’ve ever been a big fan of stress. That is, until I read The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for You, and How to Get Good At It, by Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D. She completely changed the way I look at stress—and at the challenges in my life. 

I first began to consider that stress wasn’t the demon it’s been made out to be when I listened to McGonigal’s TED talk on the subject (thanks to Laure Ferlita for sending me the link). At the time, my main takeaway from the talk was this quote: “Chasing meaning is better for your health than trying to avoid discomfort.” I’d been avoiding discomfort as much as I can, because I struggle with feelings of inadequacy and I don’t feel I handle the stressful aspects of life well. (To put it in McGonigal’s terms, I’m not “good at stress.”) However, McGonigal makes clear that there are consequences to avoiding the discomfort of stress, including missed opportunities and a limited future. She also notes that avoiding anxiety-producing situations has the opposite effect to making you feel safe, because it reinforces fears and increases your worries about future anxiety. Huh.

I’d sum up the book this way: Whether or not stress is harmful depends on your mindset. Change the way you perceive stress and you will change how it affects you. As McGonigal writes, “The same experiences that give rise to daily stress can also be sources of uplift or meaning—but we must choose to see them that way.” How do we do this? McGonigal offers several tools and exercises, or mindset interventions, to help us to make that shift. There’s so much good material in the book that I recommend you read it. In the meantime, here are some of the points I found most interesting:

One of the most effective ways to change how you think about stress is to determine and write about your personal values. This practice, according to McGonigal, makes people feel more in control, strong, loving, and connected. Even better, the benefits of this practice can be long lasting, even if you only do it once. Why is this so powerful? McGonigal reports that analysis of studies concluded, “When people are connected to their values, they are more likely to believe that they can improve their situation through effort and the support of others. That makes them more likely to take positive action and less likely to use avoidant coping strategies like procrastination and denial.”

Changing how you respond to the physical symptoms of anxiety and stress can help you see stressful events as challenges rather than threats.  Do you think anxiety drains you, or can you see how it can be a source of energy? The only difference between the rush you get when doing something fun/scary versus something scary/scary is how you perceive the event. When you feel physical and mental signs of anxiety and stress, tell yourself you’re excited. I used this concept recently when the horse I was riding spooked. All that adrenalin was helping me stay alert and focused! (Not to mention in the saddle instead of on the ground.) As McGonigal says, turn your “uh-oh” to “oh, yeah!”

Failure and setbacks are NOT to be avoided. McGonigal writes, “[People] view [failure] as something to avoid at all costs because it will reveal that they aren’t smart or talented enough. This mindset can creep in whenever we are at a growth edge, pursuing any goal or change that is beyond our current abilities. Too often, we perceive setbacks as signals to stop—we think they mean something is wrong with us or with our goals…”

A stress-free life is not necessarily a happier life. Interestingly, people who have a life without adversity are less happy and healthy than those who have experienced “an average number of traumatic events,” and they’re significantly less satisfied with their lives, according to McGonigal.

Yes, it is true that stress can be harmful under certain circumstances, notably when you feel inadequate to it, it isolates you from others, and it feels meaningless and against your will. While there may be times when these conditions are beyond your control, the strategies mapped out in The Upside of Stress can help you grow from stress, and learn to transform it into something positive.

Some books have made a huge difference in my life—The Upside of Stress is one of them. It left me feeling more optimistic about my ability to thrive under stressful conditions rather than curl into a ball and hide. Though I haven’t gone so far as to wish for stressful experiences, after reading The Upside of Stress, I feel better prepared to face them when they inevitably show up.

What stressful experiences have you found most meaningful?


Five Ways to Cultivate Pronoia

July 13, 2015

Um…cultivate what?

I just came across the term pronoia recently. Have you heard it before? According to Rob Brezsny’s book Pronoia: The Antidote for Paranoia, “It’s the understanding that the universe is fundamentally friendly. It’s a mode of training your senses and intellect so you’re able to perceive the fact that life always gives you exactly what you need, exactly when you need it.” Wikipedia has this to add: “A person experiencing pronoia feels that the world around them conspires to do them good.”

We often don’t have much control over what happens to us, but we do have the ability to choose how we see the world. If we find what we look for, and we get what we expect, why not expect the best?

Here are five ways to cultivate pronoia:

As corny and simple as it seems, count your blessings. Health, family, friends, home, comfort in all its forms—your most basic blessings are the most precious…and often the most overlooked.

Choose your input carefully. With what kind of images, stories, and news do you feed your mind? The frightening, sad, ugly, and negative? Or the beautiful, uplifting, joyful, and positive?

On a related note, actively search for beauty. Look for it in nature, music, art, architecture, food, literature, and so on. What do you find beautiful and uplifting? (For more about the importance of beauty in our daily lives, click here.)

Mahatma Gandhi said, “Be the change that you wish to see in the world.” If you want the world to be a nicer place, do something nice—for yourself and for someone else. In this way, you’re an active part of the conspiracy to do good.

Let go of judgment when seemingly bad things happen. Life may conspire to give you what you need, when you need it, but it doesn’t always give you what you want, when you want it. (And sometimes it gives you what you definitely don’t want.) You can waste a lot of time bemoaning circumstances you don’t like, or you can listen to some widsom from Captain Jack Sparrow: “The problem is not the problem; the problem is your attitude about the problem.”

Author Susan Jeffers said, “We have been taught to believe that negative equals realistic, and positive equals unrealistic.” But we don’t have to continue to believe that or live it. Let’s cultivate pronoia instead.


Well, What Did You Expect?

March 05, 2012

Saturday afternoon, my husband and I were in a minor fender bender. We weren’t hurt, the damage to our car is minimal, and the other driver’s insurance should cover the repair. While we waited for the police to arrive, my thoughts took the following turn: “Great. Here’s one more poopy thing happening to me this year. 2012 is shaping up just as poorly as 2011. What is going to happen next?”

I sat in my car, unhurt, watching the breeze blow Spanish moss on the oak trees while white fluffy clouds scudded across a blue sky, thinking poor, pitiful me thoughts. That was bad enough, but what bothered me most was the mindset I seem to have fallen into: being on the lookout for catastrophe. I don’t deny that bad things do happen, but this expecting catastrophe mindset is draining happiness out of my life, making me cringe and cower as I face each day, as if waiting for blows to fall. That’s not how I want to live!

A friend and I have an ongoing joke about “fresh hells”—as in “What fresh hell is this?”  At least, it started as a joke, a way to lighten up when something bad happened, as bad things do from time to time. We use the image and the phrase to help us laugh when we want to cry, and as a shorthand for some unwanted and un-looked for experiences. I don’t want necessarily to give up this joke, but maybe it’s time to add a positive version? Fresh heaven, perhaps?

Really, I’m grateful for my life, and the many beautiful things in it. Perhaps it’s time to go back to making lists of things I’m grateful for and things that make me happy. I believe we mostly find what we’re looking for, what we expect, and if my expectations are that things will be happy and good, they will be more likely to end up that way.

I’m expecting better things of 2012. How about you? How have your expectations affected your life?

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