Currently biking around the world

Posts will happen significantly less often for a while as I am currently focused on biking around the world.

It could be a few months between posts or it could be a few years. I will almost certainly return to this blog one day. In the meantime, enjoy what's already been posted, or read about my travels here.

Nothing Lasts Forever

Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Zen is not peeling potatoes while thinking about zen. Zen is peeling potatoes.

If you know me at all, you know I like to dance. Among other styles, I take hip-hop which usually culminates in a performance. Right before the performance -- after all the lessons, the practicing in my room, the dress rehearsals and hours of waiting backstage, there’s this moment of peace. I walk onto the stage. The lights are off and all I can see is some colored tape on the stage and the silhouettes of my fellow dancers. I take my pose, breath, and, seconds before the culmination of months of work, time with friends, jokes, laughs, and memories… I smile.
One of the biggest challenges I struggle with when it comes to being happy is that happiness is fleeting. Our emotions are much like the tide of the ocean -- sometimes we’re up, and sometimes we’re down.1 There’s nothing wrong with that. But I think what makes my depression so potent is that when I’m down, I want to be up, and when I’m up, I’m afraid of going down. I’m conscious that I’m up, and somehow, that makes me not as happy.
Finding beauty in the fleeting comes naturally to many of us. Indeed, humans seem to be happier with ends: waiters remember more details about unpaid orders, but forget them once paid;2 we tend to feel about movies how we felt about the end, rather than any sum;3 and couples whose relationships have gone sour “remember” that they were never really happy in the first place.4 When situations such as relationships or jobs end without our knowing why, we seem wired to seek closure.5 But for me, this end is what I fear.
I know realizing a good situation will end is just my brain trying to protect me. I shouldn’t need to cite (but I will anyways) that we try and perpetuate “good” situations we fear are ending.6 But truth be told, I’d rather enjoy the moment. I don’t want to worry about it ending.
A friend recently introduced me to a concept of audiophilia known as “the vanishing point.” The idea is that you get so “into” the music you don’t think about anything else -- you aren’t even conscious you are listening to music. You hear it, of course, but the experience is so raw that you don’t have to think about hearing it. All your energy is going into experiencing the sound and none of your energy is going into thinking about experiencing the sound. In an extended article for the New Yorker, Karl Knausgaard concludes:
...the idiosyncratic, the particular and the singular, [all] are part of the same struggle to keep open our path of access to the world, so that our protections against it may fail and its individual character, its here and now, its you and I, may emerge and become salient.7
It is almost as if having a conscious makes me less happy, as if we were put on this world not to think but to experience. We struggle to grasp that life doesn’t have a happy ending because struggling indicates that it hasn’t ended. Life is about living and being, not remembering or planning.
Remembering and planning, of course, do have the ability to drastically improve your well being.8, 9 It’s just that analyzing situations can make us less happy about them. Consider two scenarios: you live to 60, and are happy your whole life; or, you live to 65, and are happy your whole life, but slightly less happy for the last five years. We know the ending of events tends to influence our opinions about them, so it should come as no surprise that, considered separately, participants in this study chose the shorter life with the happier ending.9 When placed side-by-side though, participants chose the longer life with the less happy (but still happy) ending. After thinking about it, the more appealing option was suddenly less appealing. What if we reach 59, are about to die, and realize we chose wrong (hint: rhetorical question)?
Knowing the antithesis of the vanishing point is thinking about the vanishing point, how do we cope? For now, the best I can come up with is that we should embrace the things that got us there. Remembering and planning make us happy. When I find myself thinking about why I’m enjoying myself, then rather than thinking, this too shall pass, I like to think, I did ___ to get here. For instance, last night one of my friends was celebrating life by sitting on the roof and watching the moon. She texted me about this, and rather than embracing and enjoying the experience vicariously through her, I started thinking about it. But instead of dulling down the experience with overthinking, I chose instead to reminisce on our friendship -- the past few months of sharing our lives together, experiencing the good and the bad, building trust, and just in general what a wonderful person I feel this friend is. I remembered that thoughts are often just unconscious habits and that I can change those habits.
I have made it obvious that I struggle to reach the vanishing point. This may, in fact, be more my problem than yours. So, more for me than for you, I’ll end with this:
One cannot divine nor forecast the conditions that will make happiness; one only stumbles upon them by chance, in a lucky hour, at the world’s end somewhere, and holds fast to the days, as to fortune or fame. Willa Cather, “Le Lavandou,” 1902

1Shephard, Roy J. “Sleep, Biorhythms and Human Performance.” Sports Medicine, Jan 1984. Vol 1, Issue 1, 11-37.
2Zeigarnik, Bluma. “Das Behalten erledigter und unerledigter Handlungen.” Psychologische Forschung, 1927. 9, 1-85.
3Fredrickson, B.L. and Kahneman, D. “Duration Neglect in Retrospective Evaluations of Affective Episodes.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1993. 65, 45-55.
4Holmberg, D. and Holmes, J.G. “Reconstruction of Relationship Memories: A Mental Models Approach.” Autobiographical Memory and the Validity of Retrospective Reports, 1994. Ed. N.Schwarz nad N. Sudman, 267-88.
5Van Hiel, A., and Mervielde, I. “The Need for closure and the Spontaneous Use of Complex and Simple Cognitive Structures.” Journal of Social Psychology, 2003. 14, 559-568.
6Labroo, A., and Mukhopadhyay, A. “Lay Theories of Emotion Transience and the Search for Happiness: A Fresh Perspective on Affect Regulation.”Journal of Consumer Research, Inc. Aug 2009. 242-252.
7Knuasgaard, K. “Vanishing Point.” The New Yorker, Nov 2015.
8Lepore, S., and Smyth, J. The writing cure: How expressive writing promotes health and emotional well-being. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. 2002.
9Wiseman, R. 59 Seconds: Change Your Life in Under a Minute. Anchor Books, New York. 2009. 83-87 and 225-226.

My Life in Quotes

Monday, May 16, 2016

Later that night I held an atlas in my lap ran my fingers across the whole world and whispered, “Where does it hurt?”
It answered, “Everywhere... everywhere... everywhere.”
Warsan Shire

I’ve written three posts and skipped a fourth but I think that in order to proceed wholeheartedly with the blog, I need to do this one a bit differently. I need to tell you about myself. I need to take a post to explore myself a little bit and where I come from instead of just proselytizing my ideas about how I hope to live my future.
I’ll start by prefacing with a bit of Brene Brown (further cited as “BB”):

What’s the greater risk? Letting go of what people think or letting go of how I feel, what I believe, and who I am?

I’m 26 years old. I guess you could say I’ve been around the block a few times as far as hardships go -- bullied throughout my childhood, divorced parents, abusive father, a few bad relationships -- though I know by no means my life is as bad as it gets. I am still a white, middle-class male, with a stable job in a safe city, with the right to vote and… well, countless other privileges I’m sure I’m not even aware of.
I sometimes think I struggle with knowledge: maybe if I wasn’t so aware of the world, I would be happier. For instance, I am not religious. There is an argument to be had that religious people are happier1 (with evidence for both sides -- I could have cited any number of sources here). And I don’t want to have the religion debate here. I am simply saying that for me, there isn’t enough evidence to substantiate such a belief. Maybe you see things differently. That’s okay.
For me, my struggle is seeing that how I feel and how I believe others feel controverts how we, as a people and a society, seem to expect each other to act.
Sometimes I tell people about this blog and the reaction is a little adverse. One time someone immediately started talking about another blog that “wasn’t as heavy.” That’s fair. Mental illness can be a tough topic. But for my part, I always wish to choose honesty. I don’t think that pain has to be something we run from. It can be something we embrace. I think we’re doing ourselves a disservice by pretending that we are all normal.

Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.

And maybe at a subconscious level we all know that everybody is screwed up. Maybe we just perpetuate the stereotype of being perfect unknowingly and unwillingly, like participants in a traffic jam: none of us want to be there, but for a seemingly uncontrollable reason it’s something we collectively force one another to do.2
Often the first thought that passes my mind when thinking of a solution to a social problem is, if everybody would just…. This seems to be the source of an irreconciliable disagreement between my friends and me about whether or not communism would work. If everybody would just share, and not take more than they need, communism would work (I don’t have to tell you my friends’ counter-argument is, “Yea, but as soon as one person takes more than they need -- and one person would take more than they need…”).
Bear with me here. If everybody would just be completely open and honest, maybe, just maybe, we wouldn’t have such a stigma around mental disorder. And I really think the world would be a better place. Sure, at first it would be extremely uncomfortable, like ripping off a band-aid. But then the pain would subside, and maybe we’d all realize we’ve got the same wounds. We are all hiding for the same reason: we are afraid. And since everybody’s doing it, it must be cool.
Somehow we’ve created a norm of hiding behind faux invincibility, like being aloof and insouciant is somehow healthy and attractive. Look deep enough, though, and you will see that this is only a self-perpetuating stereotype (which are actual phenomenona substantiated almost a ridiculous number of times3). Someone started it once, and now we are too afraid to make it stop. In my opinion that’s the cause of most social self-perpetuation: doing something creates fear of not doing it which perpetuates doing it.
Frankly, it’s idiotic. I wish I had a wider vocabulary so I could tell you just how idiotic it was.

Seems like everybody's got a price, I wonder how they sleep at night when the sale comes first and the truth comes second -- Just stop for a minute and smile!
Why is everybody so serious? Acting so damn mysterious? Got your shades on your eyes and your heels so high that you can't even have a good time.

Jessie J, ”Price Tag”

And if everybody would just take off their sunglasses, it would all be better, right? This is idealism. I am definitely an idealist. Some will say that idealism is “what happens before one experiences reality,” then queue laughter and, “How could you be so stupid?”
I think those people are using denigration as a defense mechanism because they are afraid to be vulnerable. For me, idealism doesn’t mean things are perfect. It doesn’t mean they will ever be perfect.

Idealism is having a vision of what is possible and wanting to make a difference. It is caring passionately about what is meaningful in life. Idealists see things as they could be and they have faith in the power of change. We put our principles into practice. We don’t just accept the way things are. We dare to have big dreams and then act as if they are possible.
Idealism doesn’t mean that we are idle dreamers. Idle dreamers just wish things were better. Idealists do something to make things better.

Linda Kavelin Popov

Since some of the people I’ve talked to struggle so hard with this concept, let me say it again: For me, idealism is not thinking things are perfect or that they can ever be completely, one-hundred percent perfect. Idealism is believing that better is out there, acting like it’s possible, and having faith that those actions can create change. Some change. Not perfection. Just some change.

What bothers me is the people I run into who are content to accept things as they are. I struggle to connect with people who simply sit and wish and do not try. Yes, most of our efforts will fail. I can promise that if you try, you will fail. But I can also promise you that if you do not try, you will not succeed. Trying is scary, but fear is telling you something.

Daring greatly is being brave and afraid every minute of the day at the exact same time.


How can you be seen when you’ve armored up your entire life?

So in light of my idealism, my wish to make the world a more vulnerable place, this post is my part in being open and honest about my struggles. Here’s my part in ripping off the band-aid. In trying to break the stigma we seem to have created for ourselves that it’s not okay to be not okay. In trying to remind you that what we hide from the most -- our fragility, our vulnerability, our pain -- is the thing that connects us the most. And in my mind, there is nothing more meaningful to our lives than sharing the human experience.

Connection, along with love and belonging, is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.

This is arguably why some of the most popular movies and TV shows are about people who are brazenly honest (because we wish we were) or people who save others (because we resonate with both wanting to be the hero who makes people feel safe and wanting to be the rescue-ee who is made to feel safe). Maybe if we spent more time being honest ourselves, we’d watch less TV.
To be fair, vulnerability is hard work. All these stereotypes and stigmas make it exhausting. It seems that’s the way things are for now. This is why we see and resonate with expressions of pain. Pain is nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary, I find nothing more beautiful in life than the result of chasing after what you want the most. Yes, I truly believe that failure can be beautiful. We can and should discuss pain just like we can and should discuss fear.

And often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory so much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.

I do struggle to maintain vulnerability. Because I am sickened by people who perpetuate untrue stereotypes. We all have the ability to do a thorough, fact-based investigation before making sweeping statements about groups of other people. Judging me for what I wear or what I say by the actions of people who came before me is the surest way to anger me.
It angers me because it’s untrue, but it also angers me because I have my own stereotypes. I pressure myself to be happy. I pressure myself to fit in. I can bear my soul to the internet (apparently) but one of my most personal struggles is the struggle to accept being unhappy. For some reason, somewhere in my brain there is a switch that hasn’t flipped yet that’s keeping me thinking, “You must be happy at all times.” Of course, I’m not. I’m unhappy most of the time. And being unhappy makes me more unhappy. I have yet to accept or find a way to substantiate that it’s okay to be unhappy sometimes. I know it’s true, of course. I just haven’t accepted it. So sometimes I am angry with myself because I am not happy. And trying to “let that in” is something I struggle with on a daily basis.

You are terrifying and strange and beautiful, someone not everyone knows how to love.
Warshan Shire

I am sickened by people who perpetuate untruths because I know how much damage perpetuating my own untruths has done to me. Lying to me is the surest way to gain my apathy. My deepest regrets are that I let people who are incapable of honesty so far into my life. Yes, we have to make ourselves vulnerable to allow others to do the same. But our vulnerabilities must increase in tandem. I have struggled in the past -- in romantic relationships especially -- to hold myself back when, though she may be blatantly lying about it, it is self-evident that the other participant is not interested in going any further. My biggest fear is not that I will never be happy. My biggest fear is that I will never be understood.
And yea, screw people who don’t make themselves as vulnerable as we make ourselves. But those people are out there. There will probably always be people who are afraid to rip off the band-aid.

Vulnerability is not about fear and grief and disappointment. It is the birthplace of everything we’re hungry for. Vulnerability is the birthplace of creativity, innovation, and change. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is perhaps the greatest single act of daring greatly.

On the contrary, there is nothing wrong with protecting yourself. We’ve all been hurt and we are all afraid to be hurt again. Sometimes it is all we can do to keep from hurting ourselves -- either physically or mentally -- but I don’t think having been hurt means we should give up. I think having been hurt means we took a risk, and we should be proud of having taken that risk. If you have ever taken that risk, then know this: I am proud of you. You did the right thing. Don’t ever be embarrassed about being yourself. If you find yourself among people who constantly make you feel that way, then find new people. Yes, have patience. Yes, be forgiving. The world needs more of both of those things. But the world does not need you to stay in unhealthy relationships, romantic or otherwise. The world needs you to brazenly be yourself.

It is not the critic who counts: not the man who points how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood: who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming.
Teddy Roosevelt

So this is the promise I make to the world. I will always do my absolute best to be honest. To make myself vulnerable for you, so you can see the real me, so you won’t be quite so afraid of being the real you.

If he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. His place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.
Teddy Roosevelt

I will do my best to accept you and love you for who you are. I know we probably come from different backgrounds, maybe we have different opinions, maybe some of our differences are irreconcilable. Maybe we will fight, break up, and have to decide who gets the dog and who gets the house. With vulnerability there is inevitably pain. But I think that pain is worth it. I think what we get at the end of the day, when we are honest to each other, when we expose our true selves to the world and make every effort to love and accept one another, is much better than what we get from living in fear, behind shields and walls built by the ignorance of groupthink, using bitterness, fear-mongering, retaliation, and retribution to hide from our true selves, the fear of loving others, and the fear of asking to be loved ourselves.

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
Margaret Mead

My psychologist would probably ask me where this comes from: why to me, it’s not a choice, but a compulsion, to believe that people are basically good. I have a few friends who think it’s crazy. And truth be told, I’m not really sure why I believe that. It’s not something I can substantiate with facts or studies like I make every effort to do with other parts of this blog and my life. Maybe I would be happier if I was more ignorant. I think that a lot. But I also think that a life without vulnerability isn’t a life worth living. I think the correlation between increased diagnosis of mental disorders and the decrease in vulnerability technology and other modern conveniences permit us (to be further discussed in a future post) is not entirely spurious.
I may never know why it seems an irrevocable part of my conscious is idealistic in this way. Right now, all I know is that it’s a part of me I have to fight for. The best way I can think of to fight for vulnerability is by making myself vulnerable and doing my best to accept and love others who do the same. Right now, all I have to substantiate these actions are the quotes of famous people. So if you don’t listen to me, listen to them. Because the most popular people in our lives -- authors, poets, musicians, humanitarians, and philosophers, for instance -- are telling you the same.

After the war we said we'd fight together. I guess we thought that's just what humans do: letting darkness grow, as if we need its palette as if we need its colour.
But now I've seen it through, and now I know the truth.
That anything could happen... anything could happen.

Ellie Goulding, ”Anything Could Happen”

1Barber, N. “Are Religious People Happer?” Psychology Today, November 20th, 2012.
2Kreider, T. “The ‘Busy’ Trap.” The New York Times, Opinionator, June 30th, 2012.
3Plous, S. “The psychology of prejudice, stereotyping, and discrimination: An overview.” In S. Plous (Ed.), Understanding Prejudice and Discrimination, pp. 3-48. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2003.

Why We Do What We Do

Monday, May 2, 2016

Imagine for a moment you are hiking through the woods. Far from home, your only friends are a pair of hiking boots, a walking stick, and a bottle of water. You take a breath of the fresh forest air, look up at the sun as it shines through the leaves and... what was that? To one side you hear a rustle in the bushes. Something is there! Something big. Your breathing and heart rate quicken, your muscles tense, your pupils dilate, and you begin to sweat.1 A bear rises before you. You freeze in place. You are afraid.
Fear is a temporary reaction to an immediate threat (like a bear), while anxiety is an anticipatory reaction to a future threat (like going out in public).2 We can rarely talk or reason away fear, just as we can rarely talk or reason away anxiety. There is no telling someone with anxiety to simply “get over it.” That’s an unfair request and expectation. Like other bodily functions, resolving it often requires medication, behavioral changes, or simply time.
Fear and anxiety are fairly unique emotions: They intensify whatever one is feeling at the time.3 This is one possible explanation why you’ll have better luck asking someone out on a rickety bridge than on solid ground4 and why riding a roller coaster makes you find a date more attractive.5 Like most behaviors, fear and anxiety have evolutionary purposes: the fight or flight response keeps us alive, while fear of rejection kept our ancestors together in packs.6 After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, fear levels increased in the US, but so did certain positive character traits, such as gratitude, kindness, leadership, and teamwork, increased measurably.7 Fear bonded us.
What does this tell us? Fear and anxiety are not bad. In fact, they can be incredibly useful. If you find yourself in the woods with the bear, maybe it’s all you can do to stand still and pray. Just don’t forget that anxiety is your body’s way of telling you something. By itself, anxiety can be petrifying. But identifying specific interventions in fearful situations is more likely to make you change your behavior in those situations8 -- and changing your behavior can be effective in ameliorating fear.9 Again: feeling fear is not enough. One has to identify and act upon interventions in order to stop being afraid.
Many interventions are simple, such as deliberate deep breathing10 or prescription medication. Some studies indicate that even just acknowledging fear can cause it to stop, or at least lessen it.11 The day after I published my first post on this blog, I had a mild panic attack. I reached out to a good friend of mine and this is what happened:
Me: “(Friend)?”
Friend: “Yes?”
M: “I’m scared.”
F: “Why?”
M: “People know things about me. Because of the blog.”
F: “Yea? And?”
M: “...ok.”
F: “Like what is different now?”

This conversation highlights a few things: First, that sometimes just acknowledging fear is enough to make it go away. Second, that analyzing fear can make it harmless. Lastly, that reaching out to others is good for your health. Yes, it could be that your friend helps you confront your fear; but, just being with people who care about you can help reduce stress.12 Don’t happen to be around people? Pets work too, especially dogs.13
After confronting my fear, I realized that starting this blog was one of the best things I could have done for my anxiety. At a basic level, I identified a specific intervention and acted on it. But more importantly, I have discovered what is in my opinion the most important thing any of us can have: the knowledge that I’m not alone. We are not alone. Family and friends expressed excitement and encouragement. There’s an entire community of people on Twitter living with anxiety, depression, bipolar disorder, and many more mental illnesses. Hashtags like #breakthestigma, #fighterfriday, #selfcaresunday, and #iamnotashamed (there’s even t-shirts) get used hundreds, perhaps thousand of times every day. There’s #thankfulthursday, a nod to the gratitude list idea I mentioned in my previous post.
There is nothing wrong with having a mental illness, just like there is nothing wrong with having a sore throat or the common cold. And pretending we are not afraid can unnecessarily increase the stigma around these feelings. We need to make ourselves heard. We need to #breakthestigma. Reaching out is the single most important thing I’ve done because it’s reminded me that fear is normal.
Thousands refuse to let fear control them. Instead, they choose to let fear motivate them. When you’re ready, you can make this choice, too. Talk to your friends and family. Talk to me, start a blog or a twitter account, guest post here or at twloha. Remember that fear is your body telling you something. You don't run have to run from that. You can embrace it.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m still in the woods with the bear. I’m sure we have our differences to resolve. For now though, I’ve offered him my hand, and no real consequences have come of it. Who knows? Maybe one day we’ll become good friends.

1Edmundson, L.D. “The Neurobiology of Fear.” Serendip. Retrieved 5/1/2016.
2American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (Fifth ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing. p. 189. ISBN 978-0-89042-555-8.
3 Brown, J.S., Alfred, J. “The role of fear in the motivation and acquisition of responses.” Journal of Experimental Psychology, Volume 39(6), Dec 1949. 747-59.
4Dutton, D.G., and Aron, A.P. “Some evidence for heightened sexual attraction on condition of high anxiety. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 30, 1974. 510-17.
5Meston, C.M., & Frohlich, P.F. Love at first fright: Partner salience moderates roller coaster-induced excitation transfer. Archives of Sexual Behavior, Volume 32, 2003. 537-44.
6Kozlowska K, Walker P, McLean L, and Carrive P Fear and the Defense Cascade: Clinical Implications and Management. Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2015 Jul; 23(4), 2015. 263–287.
7Peterson, C., & Seligman, M.E.P. Character strengths before and after September 11. Psychological Science, 14. 2006. 887-97.
8Levnthal, H., et al. “Effects of fear and instructions on how to cope with danger.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 6 (3), July 1967. 313-21.
9Lambert MJ, Bergin AE, Garfield SL. "Introduction and Historical Overview". In Lambert MJ. Bergin and Garfield's Handbook of Psychotherapy and Behavior Change (5th ed.). New York: John Wiley & Sons, 2004. 3–15. ISBN 0-471-37755-4.
10Hibbert, G.A., Chan, M. “Respiratory control: its contribution to the treatment of panic attacks. A controlled study.” The British Journal of Psychiatry, Volume 154 (2), Feb 1989. 232-36.
11Gilbert, D.T., et al. “Immune Neglect: A Source of Durability Bias in Affective Forecasting.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Volume 75, 1998. 617-38.
12McGonigal, K. The Upside of Stress: Why Stress is Good for you, and How to Get Good at it. Penguin Random House, New York, New York. 2015. 13Wells, D.L. Domestic dogs and human health: An overview. British Journal of Health Psychology, Volume 12, 2007. 145-56.