Fear of change creates a comfort trap

Studies have shown that people who become paraplegics after an accident are only slightly less happy a year later than they were before the accident. By the same token, big lotto winners are back to their previous happiness level within a year. When something big happens, good or bad, people soon become accustomed to it. Yet we often act as though we can’t face the prospect of change.

Think of all the people in history, and all who are living now. Such a huge disparity in living circumstances. We can’t imagine living without running water or electricity, yet most people on this earth have lived that way. Nevertheless, we are filled with horror at the thought of personally having to go without our wide screen TV, or our morning coffee or any of a host of luxuries we enjoy every day.

We seem to be wired to hold on to what have, to the point that we can be terrified of losing it.

This fear of losing our financial security or material possessions can keep us trapped in demoralising situations. Probably more people stay in unsatisfying jobs and relationships than take the chance to be free, if it means a risk of financial loss.

Yet those who do take that chance discover two things. First, you can get used to having less money and be just as happy as before. And second, it’s the inner changes that you make – the ones that change how you feel about yourself and your place in the world – that create lasting change in your happiness level.


Everything is relative. To answer a question like: “How happy are you with your life?” we cannot answer without comparing our situation with some point of reference. If that point of reference is how much poorer we were three years ago, or our unfortunate friend who has just had heart attack, or the plight of refugees in Syria, we are likely to say we are, and actually feel, very happy with our lot.

However, if we compare our situation with someone who has more money, looks or status than we do, or how much more we think we should have achieved by our particular age, we are likely to feel dissatisfied.

Many of the most miserable and unconfident people I have worked with in counselling were beautiful young women at university who, by most people’s standards, had everything going for them. Their problem was that they constantly compared themselves unfavourably with others. This destructive mental habit caused them to focus only on other beautiful young women and to fail to notice anyone who wasn’t in their league. If on a rare occasion a classmate had put on weight or said something silly, they felt temporarily superior to that person – a rather ugly response.

Making comparisons that assess people into better or worse than yourself stops you from being the genuinely beautiful person you could be and is a recipe for dissatisfaction.

Instead, cultivate compassion for yourself and for others. We are all human, fallible and prone to suffering. A non-judgmental approach helps you understand other people and promotes kindness towards them.

And practice gratitude for all that you have. Nothing is to be taken for granted. If you remember that things could be so much worse than they are, you will feel far happier.

Why me?

When something bad happens, many people’s first reaction is “Why me?” This is not a genuine question but a rhetorical one; it’s a statement that what happened was unfair and undeserved. As long as we stay in this place of complaining that things are not as they should be, we remain stuck and unhappy.

However, happiness researchers once did an experiment in which they asked people to write about a painful experience in their past. Those who were asked to write about how the event happened reported feeling more miserable after recalling the event. Not surprising – they had dredged up and re-experienced the whole thing.

But those who were asked to explain why the incident happened felt better afterwards. The reason seems to be that they approached the task with a different thought process. Rather than emotionally re-experiencing the event, they used their intellect to try to understand what the causes were. This had the effects of: a) making the event more specific to a set of circumstances rather than something that could happen any time; and b) gave them ideas about how to avoid it happening again. In effect, the exercise helped people learn the lessons inherent in the experience.

There is never a definitive answer to the question ‘why?’ An event has thousands of antecedents, any of which can be deemed as a cause. But often we can point to specific factors that might make sense of why something happened. If these factors are within our sphere of influence, we can determine not to let them happen again; if not, we can decide to simply accept them.

So next time you find yourself asking, “why me?” try seriously attempting to answer the question.

Problem dog

“I’ve really had it with my dog,” said the first guy to his neighbor. “He’ll chase anyone on a bicycle”

“Hmmm, that is a problem,” said the neighbor. “What are you thinking of doing about it?”

“Guess the only answer is to confiscate his bike!”

Striving for perfection

Humans strive for perfection in so many ways; we want the perfect house, body, partner. A mental picture of how something should or could be gives us something to work towards. Yet we all know that perfection is impossible.

The word ‘perfect’ comes from Latin roots, meaning ‘completed’ or ‘finished’ (like the perfect tense). Perfection is impossible for the simple reason that life involves constant change.

A stunning sunset or a blooming lily can be perfect for a moment, but their very impermanence is part of their beauty. A talented photographer or artist might capture that beauty but it does not make them the perfect artist or photographer; their career keeps evolving.

Conscious or not, we usually have a mental picture of our ideal self and life. We work towards these, often without taking into account two important factors:

First, life is not finished until we die. Once we have created our ideal home, found our perfect job, reached our goal weight, life will soon feel meaningless and unsatisfactory unless we find something else to strive towards.

Second, our mental picture of perfection is not the only one possible. The world is filled with people aiming to be the perfect Christian, atheist, scientist, mystic, artist, investor, wise person, adventurer, fun-lover, athlete, laid-back person. Some people’s idea of perfection is the exact opposite of our own.

What this means for me is that I cannot judge myself or others for not having achieved a particular thing. Instead of setting a specific external goal and striving to achieve it, I am challenging myself to experience as many ways of being as possible. To understand different points of view and why people don’t understand each other. To try to broaden my own and other’s tolerance and peacefulness. And of course, to accept my own imperfections because, like everyone else, I am only doing my best.

Compassion and challenge

For years I cultivated compassion, not wanting to become desensitised to the suffering in the world. At times I felt overwhelmed by all the suffering around me and wanted to alleviate it wherever possible.

A couple of years ago I attended a seminar with Caroline Myss, a spiritual leader whose books I had been reading. I was prepared to be enchanted by wonderful truths pouring from her lips, but the biggest impact came from a minor incident during the day.

Caroline asked the audience whether there was anything they thought they deserved. One young woman stood up and said she deserved to be loved. In a scathing tone, Caroline answered, “No, you don’t! Who should love you? Why should they?” Then she carried on with her talk. A few moments later she stopped and looked at the woman, now sitting down again. “Why are you wearing sunglasses?” she asked. “Because I’m crying!” “Oh,” said Caroline and turned back to her talk, never to mention it again.

I was horrified. That poor woman! She had been set up to be humiliated in front of a crowd of people. She was crying and this supposedly compassionate person didn’t even care. I would never have done something like that.

But further reflection showed me what had gone on there. Caroline was exposing a basic spiritual truth: that we do not deserve anything and should be grateful for whatever we are fortunate enough to receive. Most likely the woman in the audience felt unloved by her husband or mother and felt sorry for herself. Caroline was telling her that her sense of entitlement was making her unhappy; not the other person. And the irony is that if she had shown compassion at that moment, it would only have confirmed the woman’s sense of being hard done by.

I realised then that we all have our own journey and that it is necessarily a hard road. Sometimes cushioning someone’s pain can prevent them from learning to deal with things themselves. This incident also released me from a sense of duty to carry other people’s pain. I still believe compassion is very important but I now know that I am not responsible for easing all the suffering I see.

As well as teaching me these important lessons, Caroline Myss gave that woman an amazing gift that day. I fully trust that after the initial humiliation, she emerged stronger and happier for the experience.

Power and humility

In our daily lives there are people who have a certain amount of power over us (our employer, landlady, teacher) and people over whom we hold positions of relative power (our children, employees, students). To maximise social happiness, power must be used wisely and with humility.

I remember one work situation where my boss started giving me advice about how to live my life. Her advice was kind and well meant, but totally inappropriate for me. Having authority over me in the workplace, she had crossed the line into thinking she had authority over my life decisions and finances. Because of her position, it was difficult to challenge her without compromising our working relationship. This was a valuable lesson for me when I became a manager myself. No matter how I much might think I know better than a member of staff, I need to be careful not to put them in a position where they feel they have to agree with me.

In an even more dramatic situation, I once worked in a large organisation where the boss had so much power that she seemed to think she was godlike. She once took me aside for a private talk in which she told me that my first loyalty should be to my employer (meaning that I shouldn’t speak up if I disagreed with her). My personal belief was that my first loyalties should be to myself, my values, my professional code of ethics and my clients, before my employer. I think any decent employer would agree with that list of priorities. My sense was that this person saw herself as a cult leader and anyone who didn’t idolise her was perceived as dangerous. This is at odds with good employment practice, which should welcome healthy debate and actively recruit the opinions of professionals and workers.

Everywhere we see people abusing what little power they have as a way of making themselves feel big. But with humility we can instead see positions of authority as a chance to serve our fellow human beings. People love being treated with respect and a good boss or teacher provides a wonderful role model to keep the circle of happiness going.

Whose story are you living out?

As a narrative counsellor, I am very aware that we make sense of our experiences in terms of stories. A bad experience, such as giving a presentation that doesn’t go well, might be interpreted as a turning point in a story of failure – “That was the day my career fell to pieces” – or as an obstacle on a heroic journey –“I had to pick myself up and keep going”.

Often we give a lot of credence to other people’s stories about us, even though they can never know all the facts concerning our lives. We also carry a private story, which might be in counterpoint to other people’s – “Nobody knows how hard I’ve had to struggle”. A lot of our energy might go into trying to get our private story heard, a lonely and frustrating quest if we can’t find people who ‘get’ us.

Something changed for me when I met a psychic who talked about my ‘angel line’. The idea that there were a number of angels who knew me well and understood my purpose on this earth better than I did made me look at myself differently. Their story of my life would be very different from the private story I had been carrying.

Whether or not you believe in angels, you can imagine how they might see you. Angels know the greatness within you that is waiting to find expression in the world. If your life is a journey towards releasing that greatness, then your difficulties can be seen as obstacles on the way. With an audience of angels you no longer need validation from other people; instead you can concentrate on fulfilling the potential that the angels see in you. I have found this a useful way to let go of past baggage and find positive meaning in difficult times.

A few jokes

Paddy texts his wife.
“Mary, I’m just having one more pint with the lads.
If I’m not back in 20 minutes, read this message again.”

* * * * *

We were celebrating the 100th anniversary of our church, and several former pastors and the bishop were in attendance. At one point, our minister had the children gather at the altar for a talk about the importance of the day. He began by asking, “Does anyone know what the bishop does?” There was silence. Finally, one little boy answered gravely, “He’s the one you can move diagonally.”

* * * * *

One day our professor was discussing a particularly complicated concept. A pre-med student rudely interrupted to ask, “Why do we have to learn this pointless information.”

“To save lives.” the professor responded quickly and continued the lecture.

A few minutes later, the same student spoke up again. “So how does physics save lives?” he persisted.

“It keeps the ignoramuses like you out of medical school,” replied the professor.

*        *         *         *

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Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics

We say that actions speak louder than words – and indeed they should. But in actual fact we have to be extremely vigilant in order to avoid simply accepting what we are told.

Our human brains seem to be wired to process information quickly and efficiently by slotting it into pre-existing sets of beliefs. Something we are told can provide a quick frame of reference, through which we process our future experiences and observations For example, if someone tells you, perhaps more than once, that they are a firm believer in giving to charity, it’s likely you will take them for a generous person and completely fail to notice when they repeatedly dodge the office whip-round, or walk past the street seller on Daffodil Day. Their words will have had more impact (in your mind) than their actions. I’m guessing this is because it takes only a second to passively accept what they say, but a bit of time, effort and suspended judgement to take in the truth for yourself.

Most of the time I think we live in a kind of virtual reality, where our mental picture of the world bears little relation to what is actually going on. This phenomenon has more than one layer:
– Words are given more credibility than actions
– Written words are given more credibility than spoken ones
– Numbers are imbued with even more credibility still

Good lawyers win more court cases, not because their clients are more often right, but because they use words convincingly. In most workplaces it’s not the quality of your work that will get you a promotion, but how well you’ve documented what you’ve (supposedly) done. And coloured graphs showing percentages and success rates will often be taken as the ‘facts that speak for themselves,’ when really they indicate only what can be measured and quantified – a tiny fraction of the overall experience. (Around 7%, actually, since, as 48% of people know, 65.3% of statistics are just made up on the spot.)

How can we release ourselves from these false mental representations of the world? The answer lies in simplicity. Stillness. Awareness. Slowing down. Just being. Let go of mental clutter and the truth will shine through.

I believe it will take a lot of us to make this a daily practice before our society stops rewarding spin above true contribution. Meanwhile as individuals we can choose to opt out of society’s shared delusions and begin to live more deeply and honestly. All it takes is the courage to value the truth above other people’s representations of it.