David is a huge proponent of better living through mindfulness and he has just released a wonderful e-book called You Are Here, A Modern Person’s Guide to Living in the Present. David led off by differentiating between “happiness” and “well-being”. We often say that we want to be happy (an emotion) but what we really want is to experience well-being (a state of being).
According to David, to experience well-being, a person needs to do several things: (1) she needs to have a sense of individual vitality, (2) she needs to engage in activities that are meaningful to her, (3) she needs to have a sense of independence and purpose, and (4) she needs to have a stock of internal resources that will give her the resilience to cope with things that do not go according to plan. Well-being is arguably the ultimate goal of human endeavor. Experiencing well-being means experiencing an excellent life—serene, useful, and worth living. You can test your current state of well-being here.
Learning to be in the present moment (mindfulness) is generally recognized as one of the key requirements for achieving a state of well-being. Mindfulness is often equated with meditation. While meditation is certainly one way to achieve mindfulness it is by no means limited to it.
I like Jon Kavat-Zin’s definition: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way; on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”
After David’s talk we had a brief break and then we had the privilege of participating in in something I’d never done before, a Cleansing Ceremony led by a shaman of the Tsachila tribe. The shaman “cleaned” our bodies and spirits by combining the power of tobacco, medicinal plants, herbs, and scented alcohols to invoke the healing energies of nature. I found it completely engrossing and uplifting and I was totally in the moment!
Mindfulness is also one of the first steps a person should take to achieve peak human experience, what Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi defined as being in a state of flow. A flow experience includes intense concentration on the present moment by focusing on an activity that is intrinsically rewarding. You get lost in the action even to the point of forgetting to eat or sleep. In flow, you feel that you are working at the bleeding edge, though not beyond your abilities, and you become completely unaware of the passage of time.
Three conditions have to be met to achieve a flow state: (1) the activity must have clearly defined goals and structure, (2) you must be able to obtain clear and immediate feedback, and (3) you must have confidence that you can complete the task even if it is a big stretch.
Here are a few suggestions for enjoying a state of flow:
- Choose hobbies that create something rather than simply entertain you.
- Make a plan—articulate what you want and write it down, set goals and monitor them.
- Seriously think about the kind of life you want to lead and choose activities and pursuits that move you closer to the things you desire rather than those activities that just move you away from the things you would like to avoid.
Understanding our moods and emotions is another key to achieving a state of well-being. All emotions are fleeting—they come, they go. This, I decided, is an important thing to remember. Happiness (being in a good mood) can be fleeting but so too can be all the negative emotions—sadness, anger, envy. The problem is that when we are in a negative emotional state, we tend to “catastrophize” and think that the negative thing is going to last forever!
Cultivating gratitude is also key to achieving well-being. Gratitude has been shown to improve human function on a number of different levels: biological, how we experience the world, our relationships with family and friends, how we get along in our careers, and even how successful we are at navigating our own culture. It’s not something that necessarily comes easily or instinctively to us (that’s probably why it’s considered a virtue) but a daily gratitude practice has been shown, time and time again, to dramatically improve a person’s life.