Most Impactful Book

“What book has impacted your life the most?” was a question asked of me by Andrew Elsass a while back. I thought about this for some time, because that’s a tough question to answer, and it deserved some honest consideration.

I could say The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien for the love of adventure and epic stories and mountains it imparted on me. It’s not coincidence that I moved to the Front Range of Colorado right after college graduation. But this isn’t the most impactful. I could say Ishmael (and its siblings The Story of B and My Ishmael) by Daniel Quinn for the revealing critique of our culture and way of living that I only really recognized on my second read-through. But this still wasn’t the most impactful.

Indeed, I must say Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. I’ve read it a few times, and, while I don’t have it memorized, it’s stuck with me and transformed me the most. It was first recommended to me during college when I struggled with the stresses of courses, a failed relationship, and depression. The most influential part? That while we can’t control what happens to us, we can control how we react. This resonated with me in ways I cannot express. It is deceptively simple, but is neither what I intuitively think nor how I habitually act. Additionally, it floored me that a positive outlook was literally a difference between life and death in concentration camps of World War II. People who gave up would die. The will to live is a real thing. So the power of the mind – the power of perspective – is brought to light. One more thing… no one can take away the experiences you’ve had. Your past is forever, immutably yours. Relish it.

Combine these realizations with mindfulness practices, and my approach to living each day has changed. There was no instant moment, because it was a gradual process. But I’m a happy person now, because I realize I’m in charge of my happiness. No one can give it to me or take it away from me, unless I let them. I haven’t done the mindfulness practices in some time, but the lessons from Man’s Search for Meaning sank into my bones.

Skeptical? Try it. When your next daily frustration shows up, recognize it for what it is. Be mindful of your initial reaction. But then set it aside, without judging your reaction. You may have a habit to react this way, but you’re not obligated to do that forever. It’s a habit you’ve built over years, without even realizing it. Now, choose how you want to react. From this new perspective, it seems you can let it roll away and not anger you. It’s powerful! Practice this cycle of action-awareness-reaction. You must build this habit and let it override the old one. Soon, most annoyances will seem trite. Our reactions aren’t ingrained, like it’s easy to believe. We’re not as powerless as we may feel. In a year, you can look back and realize you really chose how you lived because you chose how you reacted.

Pioneering Soylent

I’ve never been what you’d call a “foodie”. When I was younger, I felt eating took up time that could be dedicated to something else. In college, this was time away from studying, or reading for fun, or maybe playing Halo. I always wanted to find an alternative to eating. Something fast, yet nutritionally complete. It continues to amaze me with how little our culture knows about food, nutrition, and health. I told myself if there was ever an alternative to eating regular food I would give it a try.

Sometime in 2013, I heard about Soylent. If you don’t know, it’s an open-source mixture of ingredients meant to be a complete replacement for typical means. It’s to be mixed with water and then drunk. This sounded right up my alley. Mixing a powder into water and then drinking my nutrition sounded fast and efficient.

I first came across Soylent when it was doing its initial round of crowdfunding. It was incredibly successful, and brought in over $3.5 million. That is a sign they’re onto something. I considered being one of the initial backers, but then decided to see how things went before purchasing it. For them to actually get a product to market and see what others thought about it. So I held off.

My interest was piqued when it finally started shipping in May of this year. I ended up ordering a 21-meal supply, with the intention of eating it for lunch for 21 meals. I ordered it back on May 27.

The popularity well outpaced their production capabilities, so there was a long back order for the processing and delivery. As a result, my order didn’t actually arrive until October 18. That was a long time to wait; 4 months and 21 days, in fact! But welcome to the world of crowd-funding. I think every thing I’ve crowdfunded has incurred these long delays.

Anyway, once it did arrive I mixed a small batch to see what it was like. I drank it easily. It was neutral in taste and a little gritty in texture. The neutral/bland taste is a good thing. If very sweet, I wouldn’t want to eat it every day or every meal. It’s lack of strong flavor ought to mean it appeals to more people. And it leaves open the possibility of flavoring it to your own taste with extra ingredients.

Each pouch of Soylent makes the equivalent of 3 meals. So, since I’d eat it for 3 meals, I could make it for lunch Monday and then have lunch for Tuesday and Wednesday. This meant I could also consume it within the 48-hour window they claim it stays good for once prepared

I ate Soylent for the next week and a half or so. But then I got sick on October 30th. First, I felt bloating, which progressed to severe body chills and aches, and, finally, to vomiting and diarrhea. At first, I was worried the Soylent had caused it. It was Wednesday and I was eating the last meal of the batch I’d made on Monday. But this was within the 48-hour window. So the Soylent spoiling didn’t seem to make sense. I vomited 5 or so times at about 9pm and then roughly 5 more times at 11:30pm that Wednesday night, but my gastrointestinal issues lasted many days longer. What with the other symptoms, and it lasting long enough to cause me to miss work on Thursday, a more likely answer is that I contracted a norovirus.

A week or so later, I decided to try Soylent again. I was nervous, asI wasn’t 100% certain whether it was a norovirus or Soylent. I also had a small mental association between Soylent and puking. But I gave it a shot, and didn’t have any issues. My fears were put to bed. A few days later, I decided to double my next order of Soylent to 14 bags. Their customer service helped with this quite easily.

Fast forward another week or so, and I eat Soylent on Wednesday, November 12. How’d I prepare it this time? Well, at lunch time on that Monday I made the mixture and put it in the freezer to cool down quickly. I forgot about it until it had frozen through. I moved it to the refrigerator and let it thaw. It was finally thawed enough to drink by Wednesday morning. I had some for breakfast.

A few hours later, I began to feel bloated, and then, shortly after, had the sensation I was about to loose my cookies. So I ended up vomiting again, and felt awful. I violently vomited between 15 and 20 times within half an hour. A touch of gastrointestinal issues later on as well. Overall, the symptoms passed within a few hours. Being sick this time was a lot swifter and more violent than the previous time. Later that night, I was able to drink water and eat a normal meal.

Only thing that would make sense is Soylent causing it. Some kind of food poisoning? It was hard to tell at first. The first few times I vomited I thought maybe the Soylent spoiled early and all I’d have to do was prepare it a single meal at a time and consume it immediately. But after the twentieth time of getting sick and subsequent dry heaving, I decided I couldn’t do it. The mental association between Soylent and getting sick had solidified.

I’d had enough of Soylent. I can’t stand the idea of getting sick every few weeks from anything I’m eating. And there’s also the uncertainty about what caused it. Could it have spoiled? The Soylent never smelled or tasted off that I could tell. Could my stomach still be messed up from the norovirus? Well, nothing else I’d eaten since getting sick October 30th caused a bad reaction. Am I allergic to something in the Soylent? I wouldn’t even know where to begin to find that out. Did the freezing and thawing in the fridge cause the Soylent to expire early? 48 hours is already a very short amount of time for it to spoil, let alone 24-36 hours if it depended on the style of prep.

Now that the outcome of eating Soylent includes some chance of violently puking my stomach up, and the uncertainty of why it happens, I decided to cancel my next order. This was also the same day my credit card had been charged for the next order, but I hoped I could reach them before the order shipped. Soylent does have fantastic customer service, I must say. The following day they cancelled my subscription and shipment, and refunded me for the charge.

I’m pretty disappointed in how my experience turned out. I don’t know whether to blame Soylent or to blame the way I prepared or stored it. In the end, it doesn’t need to be blamed on anyone. I just had a negative experience and have decided to prevent that experience from happening again. A coworker of mine hasn’t had any negative experiences with it, and it sounds like many others would say the same, so I could be in a small minority who have negative side effects. It just seems strange I could eat it for a while and be just fine, yet eat it another time and get so very, very sick.

Maybe the mental association will pass in the future and I could give it a try again. I’m sure they’ll continue to tweak the ingredients, which might help it keep longer. I just hope it’s not something I’m allergic to, because I’d have to have that same outcome again. Fortunately, it didn’t last more than a few hours. But it was still an awful feeling.

I’m finished pioneering Soylent for now, but I’m encouraged that some day I might have an option for fast, nutritious, inexpensive meals. It’s exciting to know there’s some work being done in the field at least!

Natural Design Cues

I’m going to further explore the idea of using nature as inspiration for technology, over the course of several posts. This idea has grown tendrils and will take more than one piece to examine. However, I’ve got to start somewhere, so here we go!

The major quality setting human invention apart from nature’s machinery is that humans use non-living materials and nature uses living materials.

Cities are a prime example of this difference. We build our shelters and living spaces using glass, concrete, metal, wood, brick, and asphalt. But this gives rise to the urban heat island – “a metropolitan area that is significantly warmer than its surrounding rural areas due to human activities”. What’s the cause? “The main cause of the urban heat island effect is from the modification of land surfaces, which use materials that effectively store short-wave radiation.” Think of an asphalt road. It sits and bakes in the sun all day, absorbing the sun’s energy, only to slowly emit it later as wasted heat.

Rural areas have more vegetation and other physical characteristics that make it cool more easily. It’s sensible to expect we engineer our cities to be more organic and cooler. We live in nature and its proven technology – billions of years and generations in the making. So we ought to build like we’re a part of it. Luckily, we mustn’t look far for inspiration. We simply need to take our design cues from the living world.

Forests and jungles are good source material. Around the world, they house trillions of individual animals. The forest canopy absorbs sunlight and, through photosynthesis, produces the fuel which the trees use to live. Imagine our buildings productively using the sunlight that falls upon them. Instead of uselessly warming up and later radiating away the heat, we could harness that energy and turn it into fuel. Does this sound like solar panels? Let’s take it a step further: a sunlight-harvesting system which is an integral part of the building’s structure and exterior. Taking in the sunlight’s energy, converting it to some other form, and then transporting it for use in another area. This is exactly what trees have perfected over eons.

The plants in a forest are later fuel for fungi, animals, and other plants. They’re organic and are recycled by the environment when they die. Most of our buildings are nothing like this now. When they become dilapidated or are demolished, they may take many hundred of years to be reclaimed by nature. Investing in organic building materials would make it easier to extract, process, and refine those substances. Organic materials are abundant on the earth’s surface. Metal ore and oils are buried deep underneath it. Renewable components would help reduce worries about waste and pollution, although not eliminate them completely.

And now, what about that heat which accumulates in our urban areas? Forests, again, have an interesting design to consider. Through evaporation and transpiration, vegetation cools the environment and encourages the formation of clouds and rain. Additionally, the canopy provides shade for anything underneath it. The materials in and the processes going on within a forest are naturally aligned to keeping that area cool. Imagine the amount of money and energy we’d save on climate control if we had an environment which both provided shade and actively worked to stay cool. It’s not necessary that our constructions passively absorb massive amounts of heat!

I shouldn’t forget to mention that vegetation produces the oxygen we breathe by consuming the carbon dioxide we emit and exhale. We should be intensely investigating technology which takes in carbon dioxide and releases oxygen. This would go a long way toward correcting the effect we’re having on the global climate.

An organic city based on vegetation-inspired buildings and roadways which releases oxygen and cools the environment isn’t an impossibility. It’s just different from anything we’ve ever made before. We’ve not yet taken our design cues from nature, and it shows.

There’s an enormous amount of effort and money invested in our current foundation, making it difficult to step back and re-imagine our technology. Fortunately, human spirit, will, and curiosity are powerful motivators. We can study nature’s design now, and build a more sustainable foundation for our civilization and the other creatures we share this planet with.

Nature as Technology

In my last post, I talked about how lawns are odd. But grass is nice. It can take wear of travel, is soft to the touch, and keeps mud and dirt off one’s feet. Dirt and other items fall through the blades of grass, which keeps the walking surface clean. And it helps make a home more comfortable.

But the inside of a dwelling doesn’t get much direct sunlight and water, so we invented something artificial to simulate grass – carpet.

Carpeted homes which are closed to the outside environment miss out on some natural benefits of grass. Sunlight, rain, and the plant’s regular living functions keep it clean. Dirt and other debris can be carried away by the wind, or by other animals. Nature doesn’t need a vacuum cleaner because the system cleans itself. Instead, in our closed, non-living systems, we have to keep the carpets clean.

Grass (and vegetation in general) can make an area cooler. Through a process called transpiration, a plant releases water into the air around it, which cools the plants, and, as a result, its surroundings. Transpiration works similarly to how sweating keeps us cool. Because the materials we use in carpets don’t actively cool themselves, we have to resort to other methods, like fans or air conditioning.

Grass is self-healing. It repairs itself as it gets injured. Carpet just wears and frays. Grass also replenishes and spreads itself through seeds. Carpeting must be replaced occasionally and you can’t grow more carpet from your existing floor.

There can be downsides to grass, however. Bugs and creatures live in grass and we find some of them annoying. Especially if they bite! Carpet can host pests, but it’s less likely since the carpet isn’t much of a food source or habitat. And grass can be worn down quickly, if the same path is followed. This is how trails in forests are established – just walking them a lot.

A popular architectural theme these days is that homes and buildings are more open and allow in more light. We incorporate an increasing number of natural elements within our homes. I see homes of the future using grass instead of carpeting. They’ll’ve been engineered to let in light and breezes, water the ground, provide nutrients in the soil, and reduce the incidence of pests. We’ll take advantage of the benefits of grass, particularly the natural cleaning and local area cooling, and still have a comfy living space.

Humans have a lot of technology, but we can’t emulate the most basic features of living organisms. We need to learn how to take existing, proven technology (living things) and adapt them to fit our specific needs.

How many times have humans spent years working toward ideas like home-cooling-carpet or self-healing-carpet, only to later realize they’ve just reinvented something that already exists in nature? Instead of reinventing the wheel, let’s use the ones we’ve got and build a vehicle on top of them already. We’ll get a lot further, faster.

Odd Lawn

I watched someone spread grass seed on their lawn recently. It made me realize how odd lawns are. A green lawn has been considered a staple of American homeownership. People spend significant amounts of time and money each year on their lawn’s upkeep. Including things like spreading grass seed. But wait, isn’t grass a plant? Won’t it produce its own seeds which could fall on the ground to grow yet more grass? Yes! Except we don’t let grasses grow tall enough to produce seed, so instead we purchase grass seed at a store and spread it by hand.

We take a plant that could grow and reproduce on its own and chop it short to have an aesthetic appeal, even when there are muddy patches nearby. This idea is a strange relic from an age when lawns signified wealth and the ability to use land for nothing productive. Equally perplexing is that, here in Denver, we use a plant type which is not designed for the semi-arid climate of Colorado.

I’m not the first person to think these thoughts. That’s encouraging though, because there are a good number of resources on alternatives for lawns.

If I decide to one day be a home owner, I’ll take these alternatives into consideration. I remember back to the days of being a kid when I would often mow the family lawn. I hated that chore. There’s no way I want to do that myself now or suffer some young kid the same fate I dreaded.

Creativity

Lately, I’ve had the good fortune to do some traveling.

From March into April, I spent three weeks in Paris. While there, I explored the city, and took in an enormous amount of the new culture, sights, and cuisines. This wonderful city saturated my senses in nearly every way, and I absolutely loved my time there. Each day was full of fresh and invigorating activities. Fortunately, I was able to enjoy things at a slower pace than vacations I’ve been on, and even fit in a fair amount of reading time.

Shortly after I got back to the States, I traveled to Florida for two weeks for work. This trip involved a lot of work hours, but also checking out local restaurants and beaches with my coworkers. Once more, the day’s hours were filled and there was little down time.

These recent weeks of travel have brought about a realization: when I’m busy – be it socially, traveling, or with work – my creativity slows down. I absorb so much new material that my mind is completely devoted to processing this incoming stimulation. There’s less time for the brain to wander and think and drive that creative urge.

In contrast, when I’m in a familiar environment and working in a routine, I’m more on autopilot. My mind has more free capacity and can work on ideas in the background. One of the best manifestations of this is the shower eureka.

My creativity doesn’t happen with the same intensity and regularity when I am learning or socializing or adventuring.

I’ve read an article which mentions that time slows down as the brain takes longer to process the situation. I’ve noticed this to be true for things like vacations. But I’ll go one step further and say that, as the brain takes longer to process new information, it has less time for creative endeavors.

Creativity comes from a routine where my body and brain are on cruise control, where my mind is left to think on other things in the background. Creativity happens on the cusp of boredom.

As much as I enjoyed my recent travels, I’m also looking forward to being back home, settling back into a routine, and finding that creativity again.

Clouds

Tonight, as I took a walk, I looked up and watched the clouds and the sky. While I watched, the clouds seemed static. Sure, a couple clouds raced across the sky, but they were the exception.

So, the sky at any given moment, even though I watched, appeared static. But I’d look away – for just a minute – and, I could tell, once I looked back, that the clouds weren’t static at all. They had moved and grown and morphed.

The clouds are always there. But they’re also always changing.

It’s hard to watch clouds in the sky and say, “Aha, right there. That’s when they changed.” But it’s easy to say, “Yes, the sky has definitely changed since a minute ago.” The rate of change for clouds is below my threshold for noticing. So I have an inability to see change as it happens, but have the ability to notice change after it has occurred.

Colors are similar in this regard. Look at a gradient of black to white. At any given point in the gradient, it’s hard to say the color on the left is different from the color on the right. But I can compare the left-most edge to the right-most and see they are clearly different. I have a hard time perceiving the change at any given point, but to contrast the two ends is easy. You can see a live demo of a page slowly fading from black to white that illustrates this effect.

This reminds me of the “heap of sand paradox”. Start with a heap of sand. I can take away one grain of sand and it’s still a heap. But if I apply this same step many, many times, I eventually have only one sand grain left. And a single grain isn’t a heap, is it? But when did the heap become a not-a-heap? This is called the sorites paradox. The sorites paradox, though, stems from the ambiguity of natural language. Whereas the “static sky paradox”, as I’ll call it, stems from my inability to perceive a change below a certain threshold.

Wikipedia again has an interesting article about the just-noticeable difference. It’s “the smallest detectable difference between a starting and secondary level of a particular sensory stimulus”. It’s quite interesting to see these clouds as a real-world way to notice this phenomenon, outside of a controlled test environment.

This observation makes me wonder in what other ways, particularly mental or psychological, am I unable to witness a change (for good or ill) while it happens? Even when I look back, can I see only that something has changed, but not the point at which that change occurred?

Most individual days sit below the difference threshold, such that I can’t pick out on which day something changed… only notice later that it has. Can I become more aware of this fact and lower the threshold so that I can be aware of, observe, and potentially act to affect change as it happens? The alternative is to submit to a force that is inevitable, inescapable, and invisible. And that is hard to swallow.

Deep Each in Ruby

I’ve got a project where I’m using a multidimensional array to represent a grid. It’s conceptually simple. The grid would look something like this:

--------------------------
|  1 |  2 |  3 |  4 |  5 |
|  6 |  7 |  8 |  9 | 10 |
| 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 |
--------------------------

Effectively, the single outer array has three inner arrays.

two_d_grid =
  [
    [ 1,   2,   3,   4,    5 ],
    [ 6,   7,   8,   9,  10 ],
    [ 11, 12, 13, 14, 15]
  ]

My goal is to iterate through each cell in this 2D grid and process the cell. And that could be done like so:

two_d_grid.each do |row|
  row.each do |cell|
    puts "Cell: #{cell}"
  end
end

But what about a 3D grid?

three_d_grid =
  [
    [
      [ 1,  2,  3],
      [ 4,  5,  6]
    ],
    [
      [ 7,  8,  9],
      [10, 11, 12]
    ],
    [
      [13, 14, 15],
      [16, 17, 18]
    ]
  ]

You could think of this as stacking three planes, one behind the other.

The first plane is closest toward you.

----------------
|  1 |  2 |  3 |
|  4 |  5 |  6 |
----------------

With the next plane right behind it.

----------------
|  7 |  8 |  9 |
| 10 | 11 | 12 |
----------------

and the last plane is the one that’s furthest back.

----------------
| 13 | 14 | 15 |
| 16 | 17 | 18 |
----------------

To traverse this array and get each cell, you have to do things a bit differently.

three_d_grid.each do |plane|
  plane.each do |row|
    row.each do |cell|
      puts "Cell: #{cell}"
    end
  end
end

For every dimension you add to the array, you have to add another nested each call. This isn’t very extensible. Not to mention, this approach doesn’t work at all for a data structure that’s unevenly nested.

uneven_dimensional_grid =
  [
    1,
    [2, 3, 4],
    [
      [5, 6, 7],
      [8, 9, 10]
    ],
    11,
    [
      [
        [12],
        13
      ],
      14
    ],
    15
  ]

What I’d really like in an extensible way to iterate through any array and return each cell, regardless of how deeply nested it is.

I’ve lost the original link, and this code is a bit different, but I came across a way to do this using a lamba.

def deep_each(object, &block)
  traverser = lambda do |obj|
    if obj.respond_to?(:each)
      obj.each(&traverser)
    else
      block.call obj
    end
  end

  traverser.call object
end

This method sets up a lambda. This lambda checks whether the object it’s called with responds to each. If that object does, the lambda calls each, passing in the outer block. If the object doesn’t, the lambda calls the block with that object itself.

Now you can deeply iterate over any any object, if it supports it. And if it doesn’t, nothing blows up.

This will iterate over the 2D grid:

deep_each(two_d_grid) do |cell|
  puts "Cell: #{cell}"
end

As well as the 3D grid:

deep_each(three_d_grid) do |cell|
  puts "Cell: #{cell}"
end

And even that uneven multidimensional array:

deep_each(uneven_dimensional_grid) do |cell|
  puts "Cell: #{cell}"
end

If you wanted to monkey-patch Enumerable(be careful!), you can do that too.

module Enumerable
  def deep_each(&block)
    traverser = lambda do |obj|
      if obj.respond_to?(:each)
        obj.each(&traverser)
      else
        block.call obj
      end
    end

    traverser.call self
  end
end

Then you could call it like so

uneven_dimensional_grid.deep_each do |cell|
  puts "Cell: #{cell}"
end

Use this method to iterate over a data structure and process each of the objects contained within it.

Grab the code and give it a test yourself.

Have any feedback about this? Let me know!

Hack on!

The Future Goals Question

Since my last article, a few people have asked a question that’s phrased different ways, but comes back to a central idea.

“What about working toward a goal in the future? I eventually want to do X with my life.”
“Do we need to be unhappy to challenge ourselves for future growth?”
“Are you saying I should be content with where I am and never do anything else?”

The underlying idea is: Can I be happy now, while still wanting something different in the future?

The Future Happiness Myth is a realization that I have much to be happy about and thankful for now. My happiness does not lie in the future. My happiness is always and can only be had now. It’s not meant to make me content to live the rest of my life as I am today.

I’ll jump back to my school experience. Yes, school is a stressful period, but I’d tell myself to better appreciate the experience instead of dreading it, hating it, rushing through it, and only looking forward to being done with it. Of course I had the goal to graduate and become a developer professionally. College is a short amount of time, being meant only to prepare you for the workforce. Of course it would never last indefinitely. It’s necessary to have a goal for once it’s finished. But there’s an infinite difference between hating where you are because you’ll only be happy once it’s passed, and appreciating your phase in life but having a goal once it’s over.

If you’re ever to be happy, you must be happy now. That’s not to say you’ll be happy in this same way forever. The world is changing and we are changing. To ignore that is folly.

Said another way, you must prepare to change and think ahead. Life is a series of indefinite phases. You need an idea of where you’re going. Just remember to appreciate the mile marker you’re currently on.

Unhappiness needn’t be the driving force here. Be happy presently, and take a guess at what will make you happy going forward. Work toward it. Precious little is permanent and unchangeable, so don’t be afraid to take risks.

However, if you are unhappy, figure out why. Unhappiness is a calling to change. It’s not a forever, not if looked at in the right way. Decide what’s literally the next and smallest action you can take to put yourself closer to where you want to be. What will make you happier? It might be part of a larger goal, but a goal is a thousand small actions strung together. Take that first step forward. And that’s immediate. The immediacy is important. It shows you’re already on your way. It shows that your happiness is now and not only at the conclusion of your thousand actions.

Keep on dreaming and work toward your goals. But you won’t appreciate your life later unless you appreciate it now. Take a deep, deep breath and notice your surroundings this moment. Really notice them. That’s one small action toward the goal of appreciating your now.

The Future Happiness Myth

Published on December 26, 2013.

tl;dr: Placing your happiness in the future is dangerous; the future never truly arrives. How can we learn to be happy presently?

Today, I read an article that echoes my thoughts and wanted to finally put them into words.

I’ve had the fortune to read several interesting books this year. Snow Crash, Ishmael , The Selfish Gene, My Ishmael, and The Story of B top the list. They’ve all provided insights into what we are as humans, our nature, and the story of how we came to be. They have jumpstarted my thinking in many areas.

The subtleties of my personality interact in interesting ways. Occasionally, I glimpse behaviors I’ve learned and see how they do not contribute to my happiness. Here, I want to explore one behavior in particular. The tendency to think I’ll be happy, but only at some time in the future.

Our species has the advantage that we can see the present and use it to infer the past and the future. A simple example is a hunter coming across tracks in a forest’s floor. He can observe these prints, deduce the animal’s species, where it came from, and where it has likely gone. This ability to imagine the story of the past and how it continues into the future is uniquely human. While limited in scope, to glimpse the world in this way is to sample the power of the gods with their vast, unlimited knowledge.

This ability powered the success of our ancestors and lead us to where we are today. It can however also go awry. While growing up, I placed a lot of pressure on my self scholastically. I hated learning in the fashion that schools use, but I feared how I did in school reflected on my character. Not doing well in school, meant something was wrong with me. This self-imposed pressure to do well meant I spent a lot of time studying, doing homework, and attending classes. The fear of failing as a person drove me to succeed as a student. I thought the reverse of the fear was true too. If I succeeded as a student, I’d succeed as a person. This fear and the pressure did not make me happy. To the contrary, it made me quite unhappy and angry. “But”, I thought, “I will be so much happier when I am done with high school. When I’ve graduated high school, I will have made it.”

Enter college. Though college was a voluntary choice (however influenced by societal and familial norms), I felt it a necessary evil to pursue my career in software. College was much like high school in the departments of the fears and the pressures I felt, only amplified. I slept little (thinking it a waste of time) and studied my little heart out. I didn’t do much of the socialization others did, because not studying would stress me further. I had to study to get good grades. Without those perfect grades, I was a failure. Again, I was miserable in the present. The only thing that got me through was thinking, “It’ll all be better in the future. Once you graduate and get a job, you will be happy.”

This mode of thinking is tricky though. I’m coining this the Future Happiness Myth. It allowed me to live in the present, however miserably, because I hoped the future would be better. Except, I only live in the present. I never arrive in the future. There’s always a future relative to my present. Even when I get to a time where, in the past, I thought I’d be happy, my viewpoint has shifted, and happiness lies further ahead yet. The future holding that happiness is a long-distant one with no clear path to it.

Even these days, I struggle with this same mentality. I’ve graduated college and entered industry as a Software Engineer. While in school, that’s what I thought would make me happy. But then, I wasn’t happy at that company. So I learned a new technology stack and got a job that suits me better. Now, it’s easy to think I’d be happy after I’ve started my own company. Or I’ll be happy once I’ve written a book. The difference is that I now see how those things won’t lead to me being happy if I don’t know how to be happy. Or if I don’t allow myself to be happy presently.

The largest obstacle to my happiness is my mind. I have literally nothing to complain about right now. I am on vacation, from a dream job, in my parents’ home, with food abundant, spending time with my loving family, and was just given some cool gifts for Christmas. So why am I not elated? Why am I not supremely relaxed? Because I have difficulty appreciating the present. I don’t know how to be happy now. I only know how I’ll be happy in the future.

To date, I can say that I’ve identified an issue. Seen a part of me that I need to work on (one of many). I’m not exactly sure of the steps I need to take to appreciate the present more, but I have identified my Future Happiness Myth. I won’t ever be happy if I keep this same mindset, because the future never arrives. This post is meant to explore the problem. Solving it is another matter all together, and an ongoing project. I hope to unlearn these habits of thought and replace them with new ones which allow me to appreciate my life more.

I have a lot to be thankful for, I can see that. But actually feeling that thankfulness can be challenging. Of the things I’ve tried so far, talking with counselors, meditation/mindfulness, and yoga have made the largest impact on my life. As I enter into the new year, I’m going to give a resolution a try. I will begin practicing yoga again. It’s an activity to center yourself on the now. To recognize and appreciate how you are mentally and physically. This seems like a perfect habit to cultivate if I want to live more in the now.

I know others who have the same symptoms. Maybe they focus on level of physical fitness, or they put up with unhappiness now because they believe they’ll get their true reward in heaven. Our culture perpetuates the Future Happiness Myth by advertising products and services that purport to make you happier. I’ve noticed those fixes aren’t lasting ones. I’m working to be more presently-focused and happy with where I am. To allow myself happiness now. I’m excited and already feel my mood changing for the better.