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Maximising Happiness: Experimenting with meditation

maxhap meditation.001Several years ago I was in a taxi caught in traffic, running late to get my flight from Sydney to Melbourne. There was really nothing I could do. When I finally made it to the airport, I rushed all the way to the gate only to see my plane pulling away. I’d missed the last flight for the day so I had to wait for the early flight the following morning. I was incredibly stressed during the whole “ordeal”: stressed out in the cab anticipating missing my flight; stressed out when I arrived at the airport and was told I had missed my flight; and I barely slept that night afterwards as I replayed over and over again in my head the episode of missing the flight, and as a result I felt terrible the next morning when I had to get up early for my new flight. I’m sure many people can relate to a scenario like this in one way or another.

However, I realise now that the unhappiness I felt was entirely my choice. I could have chosen to remain calm during the entire situation knowing that having to get the next flight would have an immaterial impact on my life. By doing so, I would have felt considerably better. Of course there are higher stake situations that can create stress (e.g. related to health or safety), but even then the degree of unhappiness and defeatedness you feel is still a choice. Choosing to be happy (or to not be unhappy) is easier said than done. When we feel stressed it’s hard to simply decide to be happy. What we need are tools that help us in these kinds of situations. Our initial search for such a tool has led Christine and me to meditation.

The promise of meditation
Meditation means many different things to many different people. The way I define it is as a practice of focusing your concentration on an object (e.g. your breath, feeling your body sensations, a mantra etc.) and observing it in a neutral and passive way. There are many reasons why people meditate. For some people it is spiritual and often heavily tied to Buddhism. For Christine and me, the reason to meditate is less spiritual and more practical. Specifically, we see two potential ways this practice can make us happier in life:

  • The first is turning off the voice in your head. This is the voice that unnecessarily creates anxiety either anticipating something or even stewing on something that has already happened. Many a sleepless night has resulted from this form of stress. Meditation is a practice of dealing differently with your thoughts (aka the voice in your head). Rather than allowing yourself to get lost in your thoughts, you learn to turn down the volume of chatter in your head and as a result reduce this form of anxiety.
  • The second way meditation may help is in dealing with a stressful situation in the moment. All too often we find ourselves in a situation that doesn’t go the way we want it to and we react in a negative way. In doing so, we make ourselves feel unhappy and generate unhappiness for all others involved. However, we can choose to respond more gracefully, not allowing ourselves to react in a knee jerk fashion, and as a result not generate the same degree of unhappiness. The way meditation is said to help with this is that through practice you learn to assert a level of control over you mind that in the moment you can more effectively control your reactions.

Our journey with meditation so far
Meditation first came up as a topic of conversation on a rooftop restaurant in Istanbul in early August. It took us until mid-September when we found ourselves with a lot of time and not much to do due to a plane delay in Jiuzhaigou, China to start proactively learning what meditation is by reading books and asking friends. Shortly afterwards we started doing 5-minutes of meditation per day, building up to 20-minutes per day by the end of October (with the occassional 45-minute session). And then we jumped in the deep-end: a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Malaysia where we meditated for 10.5 hours every day. But more on that later. Right now we’re doing between 1-2 hours every day.

Results from meditation so far
At this point I’d say it’s too early to tell. As we are right now experiencing one of the happiest periods of our lives, there isn’t a ton of anxiety floating around in our heads nor do we face many stressful situations. But on the odd occasion that we have faced some kind of stress I don’t know if I’ve yet seen a major difference in how we’ve reacted in the moment. A few weeks back we found ourselves getting frustrated with each other when we were lost looking for our hotel in Kuala Lumpur, lugging our suitcases around in the sweltering humidity. Ironically, we were in KL to go to our meditation retreat. Although it wasn’t a big deal, afterwards we had to laugh because it didn’t seem very “zen” to let such a little thing annoy us.

However, if there has been any progress, it’s probably more at the intellectual level than the visceral level. While I still may be falling for the same knee jerk reactions, once I have time to think, I have been able to respond differently. The other day, I was playing with my wonderful nephew, Jayden, pretending to be scuba divers for literally the 12th time that day. I found myself getting kind of bored with the repetitiveness of the game. However, I then realised I could either choose to be bored by the game, or choose to enjoy the moment of playing with a great kid with such a wild imagination. I chose the latter.

Our next steps with meditation
Based on the advice from our teachers at the meditation retreat, we’re trying to do 2 hours of meditation every day. We’ll pull up in the new year to re-evaluate this level of commitment but for now, we’re all in. We’ll report back soon on how this journey plays out.

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Maximising Happiness

MaxHap paper

Right now Christine and I are experiencing one of the happiest periods in our lives. Just married, traveling the world… what could be better? One of the many great benefits of our current circumstances is that we have the time to think through the important questions we face as we plan out our lives together. As we’ve been discussing many of these questions they all seem to bubble up to an ultimate overarching question: How can we set ourselves up for lives full of happiness? How can we maximise happiness?

In tackling this question, there have been 3 topics we’ve started exploring:

1. Understanding what makes us happy.
We have a reasonable idea of what makes us happy at a high-level (e.g. being healthy, spending time with friends, success in our career, having a family etc.) but the devil is in the details. For example, I really enjoyed my career at LinkedIn but what exactly did I enjoy? Working at a consumer internet company? Working at a fast growing company? Leading a large team? Ownership over a large business line?… Only by understanding what makes me happy at this detailed level will I be able to properly determine the right next step in my career. Furthermore, another interesting component of understanding happiness is knowing how happy each aspect of life makes us (and over the longer term) so that we can appropriately balance the many competing priorities in our lives.

2. Making the right life decisions.
Understanding what makes us happy is the starting point but then we must also make the right life decisions if we are to maximise happiness. And I can tell you that right now it feels like we have a bunch of important life decisions to make. At the top of the list: Where do we want to live after our travels? What career moves do we want to make? When do we start a family? Not a day goes by when Christine and I don’t discuss these questions. The exploration of them will no doubt be a big part of our journey to maximise happiness.

3. Better dealing with things that can make us unhappy
No matter how well we do in making the right decisions to make us happy, there will inevitably be times when we feel less than happy. Things don’t always play out as expected, and furthermore, many of the happiest things in life require hard work that in the moment can feel difficult. While we consider ourselves to be people that generally have a positive outlook on things (in fact, I’d say Christine is one of the most positive people I know) one can always do better in this regard. Our initial exploration on ways to better deal with unpleasant things has led us to explore meditation. We already have thoughts to share on this topic but we’ll save that for future posts.

Exploring each of these 3 topics will no doubt be a dynamic and lifelong process. What makes us happy today may not be what we find to be important further down the road. And the set of decisions we have to face now will be very different to those even a few years from now.

Our plan is to make this an open exploration and to write on these topics regularly. By doing so we hope that we can share in this journey with our friends, family and all other readers of our blog. We look forward to hearing your thoughts and perspectives on this topic too.

More to come…