Too positive?

A friend told me that she finds my writing “too positive”, and the moment she said that, I kind of got what she meant.

Looking back at the articles I have written, I get how there just might be a tad too much “life is good and everything is going to be alright” sort of vibe to my writing.

So I feel the need to put out a disclaimer today: I am not happy all the time, and life is not all rainbow and fluffy clouds for me 24/7 (and no, I am emphathically not a unicorn).

Perhaps I just need to be a better writer so I can more fully express not just the brightness of life, but also its shadows and its dark corners.

But my friend’s comment made me think.

While it is true that I have bad days and sometimes horrible days, it is also true that generally, I see the world in a positive light.

I have my fears and worries and insecurities and sadness, but at my deepest core, I know that there is always a way out of my suffering.

It’s this conviction that has led me to work at trying to understand what it takes to be “truly happy”. If I didn’t believe that such a thing were possible, I would not have continued to search for it.

And yet I don’t know where this faith or confidence comes from.

Could it be that I was born positive? And if it were only a matter of genetics, then aren’t those who are born negative doomed to a life of darkness?

I don’t have answers to these questions, but maybe science can offer us some insight.

Matthieu Ricard is a Tibetan Buddhist monk who is known as “the world’s happiest man” (although he dislikes the title). He earned this title after a 12-year scientific study, during which he was hooked up to fMRI machines while he meditated.

His brain scans showed that whenever he was meditating, areas of his brain would light up with excessive activity, as compared to a normal person. These areas are usually linked to happiness “and a reduced propensity towards negativity”.

Years of skillful meditation have altered his brain and made him experience greater happiness.

In “The Joy of Living”, Buddhist monk Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche describes what it takes for our brains to create thoughts or memories: Neurons (a specialized nerve cell in our brain) transmitting electro-chemical signals to one another. Every time neurons connect, they form “a bond very much like old friendships”. The more they connect, the stronger the bond.

So if I grew up in a broken family where my parents were always quarrelling, everytime they fought, the same signals would be passed from one neuron to the other. Over time, the bonds between these neurons would be so strong that any small thing would trigger these bad memories of my childhood. It is very likely then that I would grow up with a propensity towards more negative thoughts.

This is basically what is known as neuroplasticity, which is the scientific consensus that our brains are not static, and that they can change over our lifetime.

What this implicates is huge.

If our brains have the plasticity to change for the worse (i.e. childhood experiences leading to a more negative personality), then it means our brains also have the plasticity to grow towards greater happiness.

Maybe it is an uphill task by the time we try to change our brains as adults, but I still think it is worth a try.

To end this article, I must say, I do get sick of saying/typing the word “happiness” over and over again. I don’t even like that word much, because it’s so vague. What does it mean when someone says she is happy? Can we be sure that what she is feeling is true happiness?

“Happiness” as a word has lost its meaning because we have over-used it, or we have misunderstood it.

For me, happiness is not just a mood, but a kind of peace and non-resistance that sometimes has nothing to do with merely pleasant feelings. Happiness, to me, is also the full acceptance of all my emotions, whether good or bad. It is the result of constant honest self-reflection, constant self-discovery, and the growing ability to see life for what it truly is. It is, finally, the taking off of my mask that I have put on all my life, and now, in my nakedness, I am finally free to be myself, warts and all.

It is truly a life-long journey of self-education.

So what is happiness to you? What have you done to achieve it? And are you happy now?

I would love to hear from you.

Downsizing

My life keeps getting smaller these days. Just today I got rid of a calendar, a photo-holder and a book whose author I no longer hold in high regard. Every day I feel the urge to get rid of a few more things in my life.

In fact, I want to do it until I am left with only the things I need. The essential things. It’s a high ideal, and one that requires constant mindfulness. After all, it’s easy to think that we need an extra pair of scissors at home, when the truth is we can survive just as well on one (true story: I have two pairs of scissors in my kitchen and I can’t make myself get rid of one of them. Yet.)

But I have been getting better at getting rid of a whole bunch of other things – clothes I don’t like, decorative pieces around the home that don’t quite spark joy, random things I bought from my travels overseas.

I’m not quite a minimalist yet but you can definitely say that I aspire towards being one, or at least have the inclination of one.

Although, I have to say, I used to really enjoy buying things.

I have tasted what I thought was true happiness when I walked into a store and bought an iPad mini on the spot. Or when I was buying a $1,000 bicycle just one day after the thought of buying a bicycle drifted into my head. (I have barely used both the iPad mini and the bicycle since. The joy of buying both of them wore off in less than a few days after the purchase.)

It used to be that I would walk into a mall and think of things to buy (not that I needed anything in particular). I’d feel my body awash with the pleasure of the anticipation of spending money on something, anything. It was almost primal. Nowadays, sometimes, when I have had a long day, I find myself dropping back naturally into the habit of wanting to walk into a mall and look for things to buy, but I have learned to dismiss the thought.

(Actually, now I sometimes feel not just zero urge to buy things but a slight discomfort at the number of things that are on sale in a mall. Imagine the amount of resources it must take to produce all these things.)

As time went by, I began slowly to suspect that my things were a barrier towards more happiness in my life. Firstly, I was spending so much money on them, money I could have invested or saved. Secondly, even though I owned all these things, I never did learn to savour each of them. I would buy something and move on to the next thing or gadget I wanted to buy (I was always looking out for the next version of Kindle, for example).

So I began the process of wanting not just to buy fewer things and save more money, but also to look deeply into why I wanted to do this. And I realized it was because I wanted to have the opportunity to see clearly, for myself, what are the truly important things in my life.

These days I make myself own one pair of sandals, one pair of sneakers, and one pair of track shoes. One for every possible occasion. I like all of them, and I don’t question any more if my footwear fits my outfit – my sandals are black and my sneakers are white, so they fit almost anything!

I also got rid of my Spotify and New York Times subscriptions (and a bunch of other superfluous subscriptions I signed up for on a whim), deleted Uber off my phone (saving Grab for the really dire moments when I absolutely need to pay $20 to get a ride home, as opposed to less than $3 if I take the train home), trimmed down my insurance policies, cut my spending on books by 90%, stopped buying new clothes, etc.

In the last year I have managed to save quite a lot of money, way more than I have ever saved throughout my entire life. Having saved this much money means I now have the freedom to ride out the tough times of my freelance career if it ever comes to that, start a side business, or even better, not work for awhile if I want to, without having to worry about money issues at all.

Also, I don’t spend precious time battling my craving to shop online anymore, nor do I waste time researching on the best, for example, wallet or bag to buy. I’m happy enough with the wallet and the bag that I already own.

That’s the beauty of being a more minimalist lifestyle – you learn to enjoy and savour what you already have.

Freedom and time – now those are things that are truly important to me.

As I said, I am merely an aspiring minimalist. I don’t live in a clutter-free home yet (although I try to keep my living room neat, my store-room and study room are still piled with clutter that I hope to clear some day).

But I don’t think there’s any turning back. I have enjoyed the benefits of buying and owning fewer things too much to morph back into a maximalist again.

And I certainly hope to one day live in a home as cool and awesomely minimalist as this guy’s 😉