How to be self reliant and why
People tend to think that they are different. And they are. But there are many things that we share, as humans. We all have two legs and two hands, a head, two eyes, a brain.. Are we different? Yes. Are we similar? Yes. Let’s understand together some things that we have in common, in a pragmatic, practical way that can help us be self reliant and empowers us to live a richer life.
Life is a chain of chemical reactions
Have you ever noticed that some things make us have different thoughts when we ingest them? A bit of alcohol at a party makes some of our thoughts disappear. Our logic is distorted, as a consequence. We are still ourselves, but we take different decisions. Unsurprisingly alcohol is made from sugar. No wonder that we feel more optimistic after having something sweet. This optimism makes us process a rather bad event in a different way than if we were starving when it happened. Science tells us that we will have a so called “sugar low” after the sweetie, which is a state of our body that is rather not favorable to happiness, even when there are reasons to be happy during that “low”. We tend to think that life is made of all the experiences that we have. This is true, but it is important to understand that these experiences are actually chemical reactions.
There are several neurotransmitters who give us pleasurable, “good” sensations. That’s what a good life is about, isn’t it? You may have heard of dopamine, endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. This is not a medical crash course into neuroscience, but it is important to observe that happiness is achieved, from a pragmatic standpoint, whenever the cocktail of chemicals in our bodies and brains includes those pleasurable hormones. We are, ultimately, complex chemical reactors, and we can define the experience of living as the combined response of this reactor to the stimuli to whom we have exposed it. In other words, achieving a happy life is simple. Choose the actions and environments that stimulate the happiness hormones and there you have it. A happy life. Did I say ‘choose’? Let’s look a little bit at how we do that.
Logic and intuition
Daniel Kahneman is a prominent psychologist and winner of a Nobel prize in Economics. In 2011, Mr. Kahneman published an interesting book for people who don’t have a master in psychology. The book talks about a conceptual, pragmatic view of what he identified as the two main decision making systems in our brain: the logic and the intuition. Intuition is fast and rather effortless. Logic takes conscious effort, which makes it harder to use in decision making. Despite its qualities, the main drawback of the intuition system is its amazing ability to take fast decisions that are ‘almost right’. It is worth noting that a decision that is almost right is wrong, in the same way a plane that ‘almost flies’ does actually not fly.
Unsurprisingly, many people proudly claim that they ‘trust their intuition’ simply because intuition is effortless, therefore it is very easy to fall in love with it. We cannot live without intuition though and that’s a fact. We don’t want to spend 24 hours a day processing with our logic every little tiny decision, out of the thousands of decisions that we take in a normal day. Picture yourself spending two hours on the pros and cons of having an extra sip of milk. Or not having it. Or having two extra sips. Is it better to wash the cup right afterwards or to leave it to soak until you come back? Should we add dishwashing liquid to it? One squirt of liquid? Two squirts? Is it better to leave the cup on the table, in the sink or spend some effort to open the dishwashing machine and put it there now? It’s crazy.. That is why we need both systems, as each one can handle best certain types of decisions. Read the book, you will love it! Did I say ‘read’? Ah, reading takes effort. Which brings us to the next point.
The path of least resistance
Our beautiful chemical brain has limited processing power. Science tells us again that although it weighs only 2% of the body weight, it consumes around 20% of the total calories and 20% of the oxygen from the bloodstream. It may go up to 25%, or even 25.3%, but there is a physiological limit to the amount of resources it can absorb. And it is limited in size too. As we evolved over hundreds of thousands of years, as humans, the brain learned to optimize the energy consumption required to process a practically infinite amount of stimuli. How does it do it? Let’s look a little bit at how water flows.
Water is an inert substance, in the sense that it cannot move on its own. In nature, it moves due to gravity and when it flows downhill, it follows certain paths on the surface of that hill. Streams of water simply “choose” to flow by avoiding in every point the gravitational resistance from rocks and other protuberances. The more water in a stream, the deeper the stream’s bed becomes in time. The deeper the stream’s bed, the more water is “atracted” from the surroundings to flow through it. A river bed becomes the path of least resistance for water under the constraints of gravity. Similarly, our brain is tempted to process stimuli (the water), through pre-existing chains of micro-thoughts (the river beds).
Jane is supervising her young daughter Mary in the park when one of the other parents tells her “hey, it seems cold, maybe your daughter needs a thicker jacket”. There are high chances that Jane has the following common micro-thoughts pre-processed in her mind
- a good parent takes good care of his child
- caring includes protecting from cold
- protecting from cold means good jacket
What is the quickest response to the stimulus that came from the other parent suggesting that the jacket is not thick enough? Let’s go backwards in the succession of the chained micro-thoughts above:
- not good jacket means no protection from cold
- no protection from cold means no care
- no care means bad parent
- bad parent means pain
- whenever in pain, remove source of pain
- source = remark from other parent
- remove source = negate remark
All these micro thoughts formed in Jane’s brain during her previous life experiences. They only got activated by the intuition. The “whenever in pain, remove source of pain” micro thought helped us survive as a species and is a “fight or flight” reaction. “no care means bad parent” is instinctual too.
And this is how Jane may be very tempted to respond intuitively to the situation with a “she is ok, she doesn’t need a thicker jacket”, even though Mary may indeed need it. This is a very good example of how pure intuition, when following the path of least resistance (especially in the last step) gives a very fast but quite credible irrational answer. And there are tons of similar examples in our life.
How to be self reliant then?
Well, this is a good question, now that we understand just how irrational we are and how little control do we have over our minds. At this point in the article you may be tempted to stop reading. I was tempted a dozen of times to stop writing this article, too. You and I know now that your mind will think “little control = miserable, miserable = pain, when in pain = remove source, remove source = close page”. If this is the case, go ahead and close it. You may come back here later though, once you will get used to the idea, because you do not want to miss the answer to the question that brought you here in the first place.
The concepts that we have discussed above should not tell us that we are doomed and powerless. This is not the ultimate conclusion of this article. They are a simple and pragmatic approach to our life experience, that is supposed to empower. We discussed them briefly because when we understand the mechanisms of a process, we have a huge opportunity to influence it effectively, as opposed to reading motivational quotes all day long and hoping for the best. We understand that life is not only black or white, but a long chain of shades of grey. So instead of aiming for an absolutely bright happiness that cannot be achieved, we should aim at getting a better grip of the mechanisms that can dilute the grey to make it a better nuance. We should aim to maximize what we can control, and to accept that we will never be able to control it completely.
Let’s aim at maximizing our “feeling good” neurotransmitters and processing out the “bad ones”. They cannot be eliminated or ignored completely, because they are not “completely black” either. Sometimes a little bit of fear makes you run faster towards your goal, after all.
It is pretty easy to maximize serotonin, for example. We already know quite a bunch of activities that can trigger it. So whenever you will find yourself in the situation to choose how to spend your time next, you can just pick from a list of activities that are serotonin inducing. There are similar lists of activities and foods who stimulate the other “feeling good” neurotransmitters. The challenge here is that there are high chances that your senses have already been overstimulated a lot. Facebook, Instagram or YouTube can offer dopamine at a touch of a button, and Amazon can deliver more dopamine in just a couple of hours while you are recovering on your couch from the effort of tapping on (yet another) button. It is hard to consume modest amounts of dopamine from a more “natural” activity that requires way more effort than the effort of just moving your finger. But we’ll talk about challenges and how to overcome them later. For the time being, it is important to accept that changes takes time. Patience = effort, effort = pain, remove pain = close this page? Not yet.
1. Make a list of your values in life
How is this helping? A list of values is actually a list of micro-thoughts that will get implanted into your mind’s paths of least resistance in time as you start to know your list by heart and as you simply start referring to it from time to time. Don’t worry, we are talking about days or weeks here, not months or years. The fast process of intuition will then be tempted to use them, once they become effortless. In other words, your intuition will effortlessly help you to become more self reliant. Is it too difficult to write down such a list? How about putting health at the top of it, followed by family, financial means, professional status, social life in this order? This is how a common decision such as to buy or not to buy an expensive piece of cloth become easy to make, since you will start to realize that you are actually choosing between financial means and social status, and these values are ordered already in your list of values. So the decision should be simple..
2. Make a list with what makes you happy
We tend to think that we know what makes us happy. Why should I write it down into a list then? Science shows that knowing and having the impression of knowing are two different things. That is why when asked to make a list, people tend to get stuck. Some say that they like everything, which actually means a big lack of awareness disguised under the illusion of a generalized optimism. If you know what makes you happy, writing them down should be easy, so why not doing it? I like riding my motorbike, talking to my daughter about her problems, I like swimming in the sea at dusk, I enjoy cooking simple healthy meals, and photo processing. My list goes on. Can you write down yours?
Knowing what makes you happy helps with getting through the inevitable lows of the day, thus maximizing the moments of happiness of your life. Feeling low? Pick an activity from your own list and do it. When you are low, it is much easier to just pick from a list than to brainstorm about what to do. Or tapping that button again for some quick dose of cheap dopamine.
3. Know what you are aiming for
You’ve heard that one before: have goals. Again, many people will say that they know their goals. They have them in their heads. Or they will claim that they “live their life to the maximum” and don’t need “goals”. That is because goals mean expectations, and expectations can easily build up to form internal pressure to achieve. Goals mean pressure. Pressure is pain. Eliminate pain. Eliminate goals. Sounds familiar? But it does not have to be this way. Having a list of goals in life does not mean that you can not adjust that list to your means. And to your abilities. And to your chemical reactor. Have goals and be flexible about them. Goals don’t have to be stressful.
4. Finally: remember that you are surrounded by people..
A self reliant person can understand, can offer help, can forgive and can be generous. But not everyone who is generous, can forgive, can offer help or can understand is self reliant. Oftentimes we are generous because we cannot say ‘no’. Or we offer to help because we were taught that we ‘have’ do that. Or we offer help that we cannot afford to give. Self reliance is about giving for a good reason. It is about giving because we can. We have to fully understand what we give and why we give it. We know when it is important to give help. We know to whom to give it. And how to give it. A self reliant person knows who gets their energy and why.
It doesn’t have to be overwhelming..
..even though it might feel so. Don’t think that all these have to be achieved until tomorrow. Becoming self reliant is in itself a way of living. In time you will start to know yourself better. And you will realize one day that the more you know about yourself, the better you will understand others. We all have fears, biases, needs, limits. If you are able to recognize them in yourself, you will start to see them clearly in people around you. This is how confidence is built. This is how you will become good at handling conflicts. Self reliance is about being able to manage yourself. It is about being able to build relationships with others. And living a very rich life.