Wednesday, January 13, 2016


WELCOME EL NIÑO! Near Santa Cruz, California


“Excuse me, Madam,” my father
would glance at my mother
in that sidelong way
“but haven’t
we met before?”

And she: “No Sir, you must be
mistaken. I haven’t had the honor.”
He’d persist: “Madam, are you not
the beautiful brunette I saw

at the teahouse near Yastarnia Harbor,
that July when we were young?”
“So sorry Sir. That sunlit lady wasn’t me.”
“Then it must have been a dream: the sea

exceptionally blue, and you
stepping out on the white terrace . . .”
Slowly she’d lift the veil: “Now I
remember! It’s you!” — “It’s me!”

They’d fall into each other’s arms;
resume the marriage like a stroll
into autumn, the years like leaves
around their rustling feet.

The leaves persist with wooing;
the leaves do not believe
this man and woman are now gone,
two syllables of eternity.

If we continue, at least as echoes,
perhaps this is the game my parents
still play. Clothed with the sun
and the sea, she leans

toward him: “Pardon me . . .
but haven’t we met before?”

~ Oriana © 2015


Do you have hope for the future?
someone asked Robert Frost, toward the end.
Yes, and even for the past, he replied,
that it will turn out to have been all right.

~ David Ray

Because of what’s in the news, I wonder if we can apply it to terrible events. When it comes to one’s personal life, we can almost always find a redemptive side to a personal disaster. But Milosz wisely warns that it’s a cognitive error to think that because something happened, it HAD TO happen. And after a while we start to “look at the bright side.”

Usually that “bright side” includes greater awareness. Right now I'm pondering with renewed intensity the beauty of the freedom of speech, freedom of dissent and discussion. After the first year in the U.S., I began to take these freedoms for granted, like everyone else. Well, maybe not exactly like everyone else, but fearlessness is contagious. I knew I’d always remember this joke from long ago: An American tourist in Moscow talks with a Russian. The American says, “I can carry a sign, “Down with Nixon,” and nobody will arrest me. The Russian replies, “Here it’s exactly the same. I can carry a sign ‘Down with Nixon’ and nobody will arrest me.”

Now that atheists have come out of the closet in force, there is a freedom to say things like, “How can people ever grow up if they continue to believe in an invisible parent in the sky? How can anyone believe such crap?” But in the past what people really couldn’t believe was that anyone would dare to say something so “offensive”; or that anyone would take Jesus’ “I am the Truth” and change it to “I am the Lie.” The shock value was certainly there, the response as furious and desperate as the lack of any tangible evidence to the contrary, with only the straw of faith to cling to.

Now there is no shock value in saying that religion is a bunch of crap, a gigantic swindle, or that all religions are stupid and dangerous (or in Emerson’s polite wording, “As men’s prayers are a disease of the will, so are their creeds a disease of the intellect” (“Self-Reliance”). Only singling out Islam as particularly dangerous draws ire and replies like, “But what about medieval Christianity?”

The wonderful fact of not living under a theocracy is a forgotten pre-requisite for such exchanges. What do you mean, no one is going to be beheaded no matter what the person says? Or, assuming medieval Christianity, burned at the stake? It’s taken recent history to remind us what free speech means.

Freedom: yes, it can be abused. Capitalism can wreck the economy. Democracy, it has been observed, is the worst method of government — unless you consider the alternatives. Everything has a dark side; nothing, or almost nothing, is all good or all bad. Wisdom seems to lie in knowing how much restraint to use. But to be suddenly made aware of this enormous historical experiment: whole societies founded on freedom — how recent — how hopeful — how overwhelming.

The hope for the past is that like medieval Christianity it taught us a lesson of how bad things can get when carried to the extreme — religious or ideological. Thanks to the horrible nature of medieval Christianity, we can’t ever claim that any suprematist, world-conquering religion is a religion of peace. Rather, any religion can turn extreme and murderous.  As we say in California, “It was a learning experience.”


Another insight that Milosz imparted to me is one first formulated by Existentialist philosophers: THE PRESENT CHANGES THE PAST. Historians used to call the Middle Ages the Age of Faith, and that sounded oh so pious. Now we see it more as the Age of Cruelty — as well as the era of incredible filth and lack of both personal and public hygiene that made horrible epidemics all but inevitable; the era of non-stop warfare and violence; the era of burning at the stake of witches, heretics, and anyone who dared to think. Of course some good things happened too: the plough was improved, and the great cathedrals built back then still give us delight.


Studies on happiness have tended toward political incorrectness: marriage is good for men but not for women; having children decreases happiness; a sense of purpose is not as important as the length of the commute to work.

And this article confirms one of my observations: men enjoy being treated as sex objects.

“A German study (by Frey and Stutzer published in 2004) found a strong link between time spent commuting and satisfaction with life. Those who spent an hour on their journey to work were found to be significantly less happy than those who did not commute.

And the study suggests that higher earnings from a job that involves commuting do not compensate for the time lost.

(Oriana: Another study found that people who live near trees and other greenery feel happier and are healthier.)

Being considered good looking increases men's happiness more than it does women's.

You tend to be happier if you think you're good looking, rather than if you actually, objectively speaking, are.

People who drink in moderation are happier than people who don't drink at all.

Men tend to be happier in a society where women enjoy greater equality.

Having children lowers your happiness levels, but your happiness increases when they grow up and leave home.

Though it is generally assumed that you need goals to lead a happy life, evidence is mixed. The reason seems to be that unhappy people are more aware of their goals, because they seek to change their life for the better.

Although there is some positive correlation between seeing meaning in life and being happy, studies suggest this is not a necessary condition for happiness. In fact, studies suggest leading an active life has the strongest correlation with happiness.

In order to lead a happy life, a rewarding life, you need to be active,” says Veenhoven. “So involvement is more important to happiness than knowing why we are here.

So far, analysis on self-confessed workaholics shows, perhaps unsurprisingly, that unwinding after work with exercise rather than a beer on the sofa makes for a happier life.”

A Scottish Antarctic expedition, 1904

A few more interesting findings:

Aging changes what makes you happy

With increasing age, people get more pleasure out of everyday experiences.

A recent study asked over 200 people between the ages of 19 and 79 about happy experiences they’d had that were both ordinary and extraordinary.

Across all the age-groups in the study, people found pleasure in all sorts of experiences; both ordinary and extraordinary.

But it was older people who managed to extract more pleasure from relatively ordinary experiences.

They got more pleasure out of spending time with their family, from the look on someone’s face or a walk in the park.

Younger people, meanwhile, defined themselves more by extraordinary experiences.


The right kind of happiness (eudaimonic, rather than hedonic) doesn’t just feel great, it also benefits the body, right down to its instructional code.

A recent study examined the pattern of gene expression within the cells responsible for fighting off infectious diseases and defending the body against foreign materials.

Amongst people experiencing higher levels of ‘doing good’ (eudaimonic, or illluminated with purpose) happiness, there was a stronger expression of antibody and antiviral genes.

While doing good and feeling good both make us feel happy, it’s doing good that benefits us at the genetic level.

Why materialistic people are less happy

The reason that materialistic people are less happy is that a focus on what you want — and therefore don’t currently have — makes it more difficult to appreciate what you already have.

A recent study found that materialists also feel less gratitude which, in turn, is associated with lower levels of life satisfaction.

The study quotes the words of Greek philosopher Epicurus, who said:

“Do not spoil what you have by desiring what you have not; remember that what you now have was once among the things you only hoped for.”


Surprisingly, people are often wrong about the type of goals that will make them happiest. New research suggests that certain concrete goals for happiness work better than abstract goals.
The study found that acts performed in the service of a concrete goal (making someone smile) made the givers themselves feel happier than an abstract goal (making someone happy).

By thinking in concrete ways about our goals for happiness, we can minimize the gap between our expectations and what is actually possible.

(I discovered this by practicing “think small”)

And then there are some older findings, confirmed over and over:

An income of around $75,000/year represents freedom from money worries. Yes, money does buy happiness — up to a point.
The controversy over whether having children decreases happiness continues. The parents’ sexual satisfaction and social life are adversely affected. Otherwise — in which country? Married or single? Just one child, or more? Are we talking about “having fun” or “having a sense of purpose”? The only answer seems to be that having children is a mixed blessing: “It’s complicated.”

There seems to be no controversy over the findings about being married: marriage (even a bad marriage) appears to confer an advantage on men, especially in terms of health, but not on women. A woman may want to “get married” and only later realize that she never wanted to be a wife — a non-glamorous term associated with subservience and caretaking (This reminded me that I wanted to “go to America” — and nobody asked me, “Do you want to be an immigrant?”) Women feel less happy with their marriages. Two-thirds of divorce cases are initiated by women. One estimate is that only 17% of marriages are happy.

Surprisingly (or perhaps not), renters tend to be happier than home-owners.

Contrary to the old myth of the gloomy Scandinavians, they appear to quite cheerful and satisfied with their lives. Predictably, Africa is the place of greatest suffering.

Higher levels of education are associated with less happiness. The usual explanation is higher ambition, a known source of misery (the Buddha seemed to understand that long before modern researchers).

Youth is generally the least happy time of life. The older we get, the happier we tend to feel, and the more likely we are to recall positive rather than negative experiences.

Charles Warren Eaton, Bruges, Moonlight, 1910

And now, to make ourselves happy, let’s take a break and listen to Rubinstein play this wonderful waltz (op 64 #2) by Chopin


How to keep those New Year’s resolutions: find the smallest challenge.

Personally, I find that “tiny goals” work for me better than anything else. And I can work on them in the evening, when supposedly devoid of willpower. It’s like spot-cleaning a carpet versus trying to tackle the entire carpet.

I love the motto: “Find the smallest challenge.” Why? Because then your success is guaranteed. And it’s very good for us to experience success.

So: rather than resolving to “exercise more,” think if there is one simple exercise so easy you could do it every day. You can always make it more difficult later, e.g. slow down the movement, especially as you are finishing the exercise.

Let me repeat: Start easy. Find the smallest challenge that’s 100% doable. The rest is of little importance, in my experience. Once you find the smallest challenge, the rest is as easy as breathing.

If you need a more fancy term than smallest challenge, think of it as THE LAW OF THE LEAST EFFORT.

As for giving yourself little rewards, that works only for obnoxious chores, rather than working toward a meaningful goal. That kind of work is self-reinforcing. But when it comes to obnoxious chores — sure! Whatever works. Go ahead and bribe yourself.

The worst kind of life — and sometimes there is no escape — is totally based on flight-or-fight, reacting rather than acting. Yet you can almost always act — simply find the smallest challenge. Is yours taking a deep breath before you speak? Go ahead and do it! Suddenly you can cope.

“For years, Dr. Kelly McGonigal has taught a very popular course called The Science of Willpower in Stanford’s Continuing Studies program, where she introduces students to the idea that willpower is not an innate trait. Rather it’s a “complex mind-body response that can be compromised by stress, sleep deprivation and nutrition and that can be strengthened through certain practices.” For those of you who don’t live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can also find McGonigal’s ideas presented in a recent book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.  

Will power is like a muscle. The more you work on developing it, the more you can incorporate it into your life. It helps, McGonigal says in this podcast, to start with small feats of willpower before trying to tackle more difficult feats. Ideally, find the smallest change that’s consistent with your larger goal, and start there.

Know that people have more willpower when they wake up, and then willpower steadily declines throughout the day as people fatigue. So try to accomplish what you need to — for example, exercise — earlier in the day. Then watch out for the evenings, when bad habits can return.

Understand that stress and willpower are incompatible. Any time we’re under stress it’s harder to find our willpower. According to McGonigal, “the fight-or-flight response floods the body with energy to act instinctively and steals it from the areas of the brain needed for wise decision-making. Stress also encourages you to focus on immediate, short-term goals and outcomes, but self-control requires keeping the big picture in mind.” The upshot? “Learning how to better manage your stress is one of the most important things you can do to improve your willpower.” When you get stressed out, go for a walk. Even a five minute walk outside can reduce your stress levels, boost your mood, and help you replenish your willpower reserves.

Sleep deprivation (less than six hours a night) makes it so that the prefrontal cortex loses control over the regions of the brain that create cravings. Science shows that getting just one more hour of sleep each night (eight hours is ideal) helps recovering drug addicts avoid a relapse. So it can certainly help you resist a doughnut or a cigarette.

Also remember that nutrition plays a key role. “Eating a more plant-based, less-processed diet makes energy more available to the brain and can improve every aspect of willpower from overcoming procrastination to sticking to a New Year’s resolution,” McGonigal says.

Don’t think it will be different tomorrow. McGonigal notes that we have a tendency to think that we will have more willpower, energy, time, and motivation tomorrow. The problem is that “if we think we have the opportunity to make a different choice tomorrow, we almost always ‘give in’ to temptation or habit today.”

Acknowledge and understand your cravings rather than denying them. That will take you further in the end. Imagine the things that could get in the way of achieving your goal. Understand the tendencies you have that could lead you to break your resolution.

Know your limits, and plan for them. Says McGonigal, “People who think they have the most self-control are the most likely to fail at their resolutions; they put themselves in tempting situations, don’t get help, give up at setbacks. You need to know how you fail; how you are tempted; how you procrastinate.”

Pay attention to small choices that add up. “One study found that the average person thinks they make 14 food choices a day; they actually make over 200. When you aren’t aware that you’re making a choice, you’ll almost always default to habit/temptation.” It’s important to figure out when you have opportunities to make a choice consistent with your goals.

Be specific but flexible. It’s good to know your goal and how you’ll get there. But, she cautions, “you should leave room to revise these steps if they turn out to be unsustainable or don’t lead to the benefits you expected.”

Give yourself small, healthy rewards along the way. Research shows that the mind responds well to it. (If you’re trying to quite smoking, the reward shouldn’t be a cigarette, by the way.)

Finally, if you experience a setback, don’t be hard on yourself. Although it seems counter-intuitive, studies show that people who experience shame/guilt are much more likely to break their resolutions than ones who cut themselves some slack. In a nutshell, you should “Give up guilt.”

To put all of these tips into a bigger framework, you can get a copy of Kelly McGonigal’s book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It.


The virus behind the common cold is much happier in a cold nose, US researchers suggest.

Their study showed the human immune system was weaker in cooler temperatures, allowing the virus to thrive.

The researchers suggested keeping your nose warm and avoiding cold air while infected.

Ending on beauty

Be like the fox.
Make more tracks than necessary —
some in the wrong direction.
Practice resurrection.
~ Wendell Berry

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