If you have heard of Mo Gawdat, you know that sometimes the best answers in life come from the simplest questions.
Just yesterday I was reading an article about Mo, in which he shared a simple technique he practices to pursue happiness.
Every day on his walk to work, Mo snaps a photo of something beautiful. Sometimes it’s a butterfly; sometimes it’s a stranger’s face. But “it’s not about the picture,” Gawdat said. “It’s about the process of searching for it.”
And it really works.
So what's going on here? Here's what I think.
As crazy simple as this seems, look at what's happening inside of Mo's head. Every day, Mo is "programming" his supercomputer brain with a question.
What do I see today that's beautiful to me?
His brain responds by diligently pursuing this task, searching the world around him, and noticing all of the "beautiful" things, while largely ignoring the rest.
Asking himself that question was a simple choice, with a profound impact on Mo's life.
Why does this work?
At the core, I believe Mo's approach follows the same principle as gratitude journaling. In gratitude journaling, the questions is "what am I grateful for?", and, like Mo's technique, asking that question-
- Presents a tidy "problem" to your brain to work on. Your brain, after all, is a problem-solving machine. It is always hungry for problems to solve. Why not give it useful ones?
- Working on that "problem" focuses your mind & your attention on finding the answer. "What is beautiful?" and "What am I grateful for?" are richly rewarding answers to keep finding all day.
Your mind is easy to train this way, in fact, you can't help but train it this way. Whatever "problems" your mind perceives are in front of you, your brain gives them priority.
If you've ever played video games, you've probably noticed that you start "seeing" the things from the game in your real world. It's an uncanny experience, almost like someone is playing tricks on you, creating in-game objects in your real world just to see how you react.
I used to play Deus Ex, in which you could make great use of air ventilation shafts to gain entry to guarded buildings. While playing that, I noticed that I could walk anywhere in my town, and I'd see air ventilation grates everywhere. I also noticed red oil drums, a specific colour of red, which you can explode to take out enemies. It felt like someone had snuck out overnight, and populated my town with red oil barrels and ventilation grates. Yet, they had always been there, I had just never seen them before.
When I started playing Oblivion as a mage / alchemist, that same town appeared to have changed. The oil barrels and grates disappeared, and now the town was filled with plants and flowers that look identical to the alchemy ingredients in the game. It was uncanny how far away my brain could notice these things, and how strongly they invaded my awareness - when these things had absolutely zero significance to me before.
All of this mental-calibration and attention-focus was 100% automatic, without me even being aware of it.
Your brain is highly, highly impressionable.
Training your Mind, 101
So how can we apply this?
Once in awhile, I like to think of my mind as a separate thing. Like, a horse. It's powerful, it's playful, it seems to have its own personality.
And it's completely un-trained. It spooks at every loud noise. It gets distracted easily by tasty berries and soothing watering holes. I rarely get to choose whether we're galloping, or standing still, or even which direction we go.
To complicate matters, for most of my life, I've been trying to ride the horse without holding the reins. The result? I was completely at the mercy of what my mind wanted to do at every moment. My life felt much more reactive, than proactive. I rarely got where I wanted to go, and I was exhausted when I arrived... nowhere useful.
Why is my Mind like this?
As we can see in the video games example, and in the horse analogy, your mind is always solving problems. When you don't give your mind a specific problem to solve, it finds its own.
From an evolutionary standpoint, your mind has default questions that are deeply programmed in. They are the reason your many generations of ancestors survived to create you. They are the reason you are still here today, reading my scribbles.
Your default questions are designed to keep you alive.
What around me right now can kill me?
How do I stay absolutely as safe as possible, with no risk?
What do I need or want that I don't have?
How do I get someone to reproduce with me, for survival of the species?
How do I get my community to accept me?
If you aren't choosing your questions, you see the answers to these questions in exclusion of everything else in your life.
Stop and think about that. What types of answers do those questions give you?
In this default-question mode, I notice my mind always looking for things that I perceive as bad, unwelcome, threatening or worrisome. I give things like rejection and failure far more significance in my life, than I do things like appreciation, contentment, peace, success, victory, connection, purpose and happiness.
Does this sound familiar?
Change the Question
Simply choosing the questions you give your mind to work on, is taking the reins, and training the horse.
All this means is deciding what question you want to ask yourself, which will focus your attention, awareness, and effort, on things that grow & benefit you.
You, the rider - your life and your ability to reach your dreams, are determined by how well you can train that horse.
Or else, plan B, which is pure luck. Maybe your horse will accidentally wander some place nice. Good luck.
What makes a Good Question?
Different questions give different answers. Better questions give better answers.
Since I've been practicing this, I notice that useful questions seem to have a few common characteristics;
- Good questions can be answered. This is important, even though searching for that answer is far more important than finding it.
- Good questions have useful answers, which benefit you in some way. You're giving your mind a problem to solve- make that answer benefit you.
- Specific questions are better than vague questions.
- Real questions with answers that you don't know, lead to discovery and growth.
- Questions about the present moment are much more meaningful, because they be continually asked and answered without "getting stuck."
- Questions framed positively are more fun, and therefore more effective in training your horse. "How can I..." rather than "How do I avoid..."
- Good questions are focused on your own behavior and thoughts. "How do I... ?" "What can I do now to... ?" "How can I improve... ?" "What can I learn from this?" "What can I do better next time?" This is because you can find the answer to these questions, and that answer will improve you.
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Incidentally, this section was created when I asked the question How do I make my article concise, without tossing all of the extra ideas I wanted to discuss?
Knowing how impressionable my mind is gives me pause. What does this mean for violence in gaming? What does it mean for watching porn? Soap operas? You are feeding and programming your brain, with every choice you make, even when you're not aware that you're doing it.
This simple psychological reality is the foundation of advertising.
This also goes a long way toward explaining emotional spirals, winning streaks, and similar phenomena. Let's take depression as an example.
- Something makes you feel sad.
- You notice and pay a lot of attention to the sadness, "dwelling on" that feeling.
- Your mind now calibrates to look for it.
- Now, you notice sadness everywhere, to the exclusion of everything else.
- The cycle repeats, and deepens.
Another analogy I like, regarding the dynamics between control, attention, and results - is driving a car. In drivers training I remember my instructor teaching "always watch at the road. The car goes where you are looking. If you are looking to the side of the road, the car will change lanes without you noticing."
I've also begun noticing how "asking questions" regularly, to change one's attention, changes a person. One of the best example here is the interesting phenomenon where comedians often become highly philosophical about life. Jim Carrey. Bill Burr. Louis CK. Gallagher. These are comedians who ask every day "What do I notice about life that is true, that is silly, that everyone experiences, and that no one talks about?" Those questions can actually result in some deep observations about humanity, our choices, the suffering we create, and the objective silliness of those choices we make.
In my first writing of this article, I initially thought that affirmations are similar to gratitude journaling in terms of how they focus your attention. However I see that a bit differently now. Affirmations, or repeated "statements of belief" can focus your attention on an idea, and have some use in that regard- however they seem more like self-hypnosis. Programming your brain through repetition.
Gratitude journaling is based on a different concept, which is the question - "what am I grateful for?" I prefer the question-based approach for several reasons
- It engages the rational parts of the mind, and there is no point at which you need to "suspend disbelief"
- Your brain, at the core, is a problem-solving machine. That question is a problem to solve. An idea, looking for an answer.
Tips on choosing your questions
How do I get someone to love me?How long will I have to wait until I find my soul mate?Why do I not feel loved?Why do I feel lonely?Why do I feel so jealous or envious of others?
How can I make myself a better boyfriend or girlfriend in a relationships?What do I find most attractive about someone I'd want to date?What do I appreciate most about my friends, and my family?
Meeting someone new
I wonder if I can get this person to like me?Or go on a date with me?
I wonder what this person is like? I wonder what will happen if I say hello to this person?
Career and Work
Un-helpful questions, that most people ask include...
How do I get more money? How do I get more fun projects? Why is my boss such a jerk? How do I keep from being fired? When will I get a vacation?
How can I be more useful to my company? Where can I develop myself the most on my job?