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Moe R.I.P. 2012 to 2021, The Greatest Dog Ever & My Greatest Teacher.

Moe passed away last week and my family is still grieving. There is a game I loved to play with Moe, and the nature of the game is surprising. As a blue heeler, it was in his nature to always attach to your hip, no matter what. The moment he heard the beep of my watch or saw me getting dressed, he would start “herding” me to go outside. He never, ever, wanted to “stay”, when I was leaving. So, we created the “stay” game... It went like this:

Moe is resting on his bed in the living room, chewing on a bone. I would stand at a distance in the kitchen and extend my arm and show him my palm. With this cue, he would start a low growl because he knew what I was about to say. I held this hand gesture for a few moments and then I would say with excitement, “stay boy!” As soon as I uttered those words, he would start barking and come charging at me in a full sprint. Naturally, when a 55 lb dog comes charging and barking, you turn and run. Moe would always bring his back up, Jackieo, our 7 pound affenpinscher, for reinforcements. I would run around the staircase until they could not see me. While hiding, I would then peep my head around to see them both patiently waiting and I would say, “stay!”. They would, “bark, bark” and come charging after me. We continued this special game of “stay-run-hide & seek” until they finally caught me. At which point, they both smothered me with kisses and Moe’s stub of a tail wagging vigorously. Moe knew it was a game that I only played when I was staying home with him. Perhaps that's why he was so energized to play the game. Moe was happy and free.

Do you remember the last time you felt truly happy and free? Think about it for a moment. It comes so easily for our companion animals, but for us humans we have to work hard. Let me share a few snapshots in my life with you...

As a small boy in Cuba, I remember snatching my grandfather's Cuban cigar and running away laughing. I felt happy and free.

As a teenager in the inner city of Miami, I would play dominos with my family and eat rice and black beans. I felt happy and free.

As a college student, I was living off of government aid without a penny to my name. I felt happy and free.

Then something very strange happened. What I am about to reveal will surprise you. In my twenties I got married and rapidly became unhappy and felt bound sometimes. Since my wife never reads my blog, it feels safe to share this information with you. If, by chance, my wife reads this blog you may never hear from me again…

All jokes aside, it is because the human brain takes 25 years to fully develop, that I postulate that many people have more mental suffering as adults. Adults experience anguish, stress, anxiety, depression, dissatisfaction with life as we get older. As I mentioned in my previous blog, the general unsatisfactoriness and pain that comes with existence is known as “dukkha”. We rarely see this suffering in a small child or our companion animals.    

We can all agree that small children, in a safe household, easily experience happiness. However, as we get older, the experience of dukkha becomes clear with the burdens of adult responsibility.

In the new year, many, many people are searching for happiness in all the wrong places. Everyone is searching for a treasure that brings happiness, peace, and freedom. With the help of modern science and ancient wisdom, we can discover our treasure. Your treasure, that brings true happiness and freedom, lies within.

In this blog I promise to share several powerful tools that will skyrocket your feelings of joy, happiness and well-being. With regular practice, you will transform the monotony of the mundane to the magical.

One of the greatest scientific minds, Albert Einstein, said it best:

“There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Let us explore this profound quote with a story that makes the message come to life.

Once upon a time, an enlightened farmer was working in the field. He lived in a very peaceful serene village and he wanted to keep it that way. He reflected on his life and realized that he had shaped his reality through his attitude and positive thinking. At that moment, a traveler from a nearby village came walking down the long dirt path. The traveler had intentions to move to the farmer’s village. 

Once he got close enough he asked the farmer, “How are the people in this village?”

The farmer replied, “How were the people from where you lived before?”

The traveler said, “Oh, they were generous, grateful, kind, loving people. I will miss them dearly.”

The farmer said, “That is exactly how the people are here. You are welcome here anytime.”

Shortly thereafter, another traveler came down the dirt path who was from the same village as the previous traveler, and asked the farmer, “How are the people in this village?”

The farmer replied, “How were the people from where you lived before?”

The second traveler said, “Oh, they were mean, rude, disrespectful, stingy, and so ungrateful. I am happy to leave them.”

The farmer said, “That is exactly how the people are in this village. You will not like it here.”

The two travelers were given different answers to the same question. Their individual subjective experiences colored their opinions. This story illustrates the power of our minds to create reality. Indeed, we can transform our lives if we cultivate positive thoughts and feelings of gratitude. Even the simple things in life can generate joy and happiness. 

Get a blank sheet of paper. Write all the things for which you are grateful for. If starting this exercise is difficult for you, imagine you have recovered from being a quadriplegic for the past year. If you could use your body again for the first time in a long time, what would you be thankful for? For example, you can start with your body. I am grateful for my eyes that allow me to see a burst of colors and myriad shapes. I am grateful for my hearing that allows me to hear children playing and birds chirping. I am grateful for my nose that allows me to smell spring flowers and home cooking. I am grateful for my legs that allow me to walk. I am grateful for my tongue that allows me to taste delicious food and say sweet words. 

What about the times that you feel really miserable? Those days in which nothing is going your way. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I want to hear when venting to a friend, loved one, or trusted co-worker is that I should “get over it”, “let it go”, or worse, start a gratitude journal.

But they’re right.

Now, that doesn’t mean that this was what you wanted to hear at that moment. Sometimes we just need to tell someone that something shitty happened. Not in the vein of gossip or bad-mouthing someone. Just in the vein that it happened, and it sucks.

But our brains are hard-wired to attune to negative events and experiences.

The Negativity Bias

The psychological term for this tendency to focus more on the negative than the positive is referred to as the negativity bias. One reason cited for this tendency is biological. Negative events cause the amygdala to set off an alarm in the brain, warning that there is a threat. Negative events, like pain, lead us to pay attention to what may be harmful in our environment, and this is a good thing because we learn how to stay safe, and well, alive.

We have found other evidence to suggest that the negativity bias is part of human development. But the downside to this (no pun intended) is that negative events also get stored more in memory than positive ones, and this can lead to an unhelpful expression of the negativity bias - the one that causes us to dwell on a negative incident or remark waaaaay longer than a positive experience or compliment. In fact, when our negativity bias is active, it can make us find fault everywhere. We complain about everything. We find grievances at every opportunity. We see the glass as half empty (or half full of poison). This produces unhappiness and yes, leads to increased levels of stress. 

The Solution? Five to One.

Psychology Today reports that because of our innate negativity bias, we need a ratio of five positive experiences to counterbalance each negative one.

So, for example, if you want to stay in that job that has been causing you to rant every evening to your family at dinner, you need to find five things that make it worth staying in that position every single time a negative thing happens. Or else? Let’s just say you’re in for a pretty miserable ride.

Another example is how you feel when exposed to the news media. If exposure to the news overwhelms you, fills you with despair, and does not provide new or helpful information, consider limiting the amount of news you consume and/or the sources you choose.

A research article published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) explores how the negativity bias plays out in news coverage:

Insofar as our results make clear the pervasiveness of negativity biases on average, they help account for the tendency for audience-seeking news around the world to be predominantly negative. Insofar as our results highlight individual-level variation, however, they highlight the potential for more positive content, and suggest that there may be reason to reconsider the conventional journalistic wisdom that “if it bleeds, it leads.”

Good news anyone?

Grabbing a Hold of the Reigns

My personal go-to’s for dealing with my negativity bias is my gratitude practice. Although I mentioned my slight disdain for the gratitude journal when you're having an awful day.

BUT, choosing a gratitude practice differs from someone telling you to do it. And I’m “just sayin’” that it works for me. The key is a regular practice and it will be transformative.

Having a gratitude practice is my attempt to “train my brain to enjoy the mundane.” Studies have even shown that a daily gratitude practice can dramatically increase our happiness and wellbeing, even amid difficulty. And that’s without changing anything else in our lives. Just cultivating, in any way that resonates, a sense of gratitude for whatever you cherish.

Just as with mediation, there are many many ways to practice gratitude. Positive Psychology offers 13 exercises for individuals and ideas for teachers and parents wishing to cultivate gratitude with their students and children. I’ve adapted this simple exercise from their list below.

How to Develop Your Own Gratitude Ritual (Rodrigues, 2017)

1) Sit comfortably, close your eyes, and take several slow, deep breaths.

2) Think of a person, place, or thing that you love.

3) Think of something good that has happened to you recently.

4) Think of an occasion when you were honored or appreciated by others.

5) Think about something that is going well in your life.

Notice what happens when you bring to mind one of these things at a later time. If helpful, do so whenever you’d like to shift towards a more positive mindset.

Here are a few more resources:

How to Practice Gratitude

25 Simple Ways to Practice Gratitude

How to Start a Gratitude Practice and Change Your Life

Your Treasure Lies Within You

There are three very simple ways to become unhappy. If you consume material things that are unnecessary that will put you on the hedonic treadmill and lead to unhappiness and dissatisfaction. If so, limit consumption of material things unless absolutely necessary and experience a powerful increase in happiness as explained in the documentary Minimalist. Are you concerned with your image on social media and preoccupied by the opinion of others? Preoccupation with the good or bad opinion of others or name and fame is bondage and robs you of your treasure. One simple strategy to help with this is to unplug from social media. This will help promote well-being in your life, as explored in the provocative film The Social Dilemma. Do you struggle with your social economic status? Is your job title important to you but yet you hate your job? Then it's a good time to discover an occupation that brings you happiness. By doing so, you transform your vocation into a vacation!

There are three powerful things you can focus on every day that will promote happiness and well-being. One of the most powerful stories was highlighted in the documentary Happy, in which a very poor rickshaw driver who lived in an overcrowded tent in the ghettos was extremely happy. How is this possible you may wonder for an impoverished individual who does back breaking labor everyday generate happiness? The answer lies in nourishing your relationships. Another element that nourishes happiness is self-less service in one's community. When we give of ourselves to the community, it engenders happiness. Engaging in activities that foster personal growth promotes happiness. Some examples include learning a new language, playing chess, adopting a new hobby, meditating, awakening your artistic side, or learning to dance salsa.

A Final Note 

If the negative pattern of thinking you’re experiencing involves a trauma, a gratitude practice can be a supportive tool but cannot replace treatment. Please seek help from a qualified mental health professional. Some resources that may be of use to trauma survivors include the book, The Body Keeps the Score and the film, The Biology of Stress and The Science of Hope.

However, if your complaints are not trauma-based but bad enough to cause you significant preocupacion and distress, this is a clue that for your own wellbeing and the wellbeing of your relationships, you gotta take this horse by the reins.

And the simple act of thinking about what you love and what has made you happy (ever) is one way to start.

I like to think about Moe and how happy he made our family. He wagged his tail and smiled with the simple pleasures of life, like playing the “stay” hide and seek game. He was always content and happy with what is and accepted the present moment. Even as his disease progressed and he couldn't walk up the steps and he couldn't play games anymore, he accepted the situation and he was happy until the very end. That is the secret to happiness, discovering the treasure that lies without you. 

That man is poor, not he who has little, 

but he who hankers after more.