Pura Vida: Highlights from a Costa Rican Adventure


At Mistico Hanging Bridges Park in La Fortuna, Costa Rica

From Vision to Reality

Costa Rica had been on my shortlist of places I wanted to visit for some time, mostly due to photos I had seen of its wildlife, its reputation for natural beauty and scenic hikes, and the universal raves from pretty much anyone I had ever talked to who had been there.   When I suggested to Samantha that we go for our next vacation, she was all in.  “But,” she said, “you’ll have to do all of the planning.”  (She being in the midst of an 8-month-long online certification program on top of an already hugely demanding new full-time position at work.)

And so it began.

I had only been out of the country three previous times in my life, and had never actually planned an international trip myself (or taken one with Samantha alone, just the two of us, for that matter).  And I knew next to nothing about Costa Rica or the spots within we might most enjoy visiting, save for a few recommendations from my dental hygienist who had lived there for a time.  So I hopped onto the Internet and proceeded to become…overwhelmed.  Whereas only a couple of decades ago planning an international trip would have been intimidating for entirely opposite reasons, I now found myself inundated by more information than I could ever hope to absorb, a veritable rabbit hole of websites and blogs chock-full of thoughts, opinions, and information readily available at my fingertips – and all in English, needless to say.

So I started off by reading articles and posts that came up in my searches in a somewhat random and haphazard fashion, taking notes and bookmarking pages I thought I would want to refer back to, and continuing for as long as I could at a spell until fatigue set in.  Planning a trip is a process (and voyage of discovery!) in and of itself, and it mirrors the experience of actual travel in the quantity of decisions, large and small, to be made.

When all was said and done, it was a mere two websites that proved the most consistently helpful to me: a blog called MyTanFeet, and the ever stalwart TripAdvisor.

After confirming we each could get the time off from our respective jobs, Samantha and I planned for an 11-day round-trip vacation (10 nights/9 full days in Costa Rica, bookended by air travel).  After extensive reading, I settled on three main destinations – La Fortuna/Arenal, Monteverde, and Manuel Antonio – that we would cover as a loop, flying in and out of the San Jose airport (SJO) and renting a car to get to them:

map of CR

Pura Vida

“Pura vida [pronounced poor-uh vee-duh],” our driver who shuttled us from the airport to the rental car office explained to us in Spanish, “doesn’t just mean one thing.” It is an idiom that is used throughout Costa Rica: as a greeting/salutation, a reply when asked how someone is doing, an expression of thanks, or a response to nearly anything.  Yet, despite its pervasiveness, it’s somehow not generic or empty of meaning.  Quite the contrary – it adds a positive tint to almost any life experience, and reflects both the good-natured vibe and underlying resilience of Ticos (Costa Ricans).

Generally, you could say it equates to “It’s all good.”  But, depending on the context, it could just as easily mean “such is life” or “so it goes”.  It’s a declaration of optimism, a decision to maintain perspective and have a positive attitude towards life.  It’s hard to get too upset when saying it or hearing it.  It can defuse your own irritability or help you forge an instantaneous bond with a stranger.  Talk about a useful two words: “Pura vida!”


Gerald, behind the counter at Yellow Bark – the restaurant he opened with his chef sister in downtown La Fortuna just five weeks before our visit (highly recommended!)

Go with a Guide

In addition to our own explorations, we booked guided tours with several different professional outfits (we used Pura Vida Tours for the Mistico Hanging Bridges in Arenal, Jacamar Naturalist Tours for their “Pure Nature Safari Float” on the Rio Frio, and Costa Rica Jade Tours for Manuel Antonio National Park).  We also booked a guided Night Tour at Curi-Cancha Reserve in Monteverde, after having done a self-guided walk there earlier the same day.  All of the tours were excellent.

The difference between going with a qualified/certified guide versus going on your own is dramatic.  Each of our guides was incredibly knowledgeable about the flora and fauna, ridiculously adept at spotting wildlife invisible to most tourists’ naked eyes, super friendly and engaging, and exceedingly generous about helping everyone get photos and/or videos (often with the assistance of their own spotting scopes).  Whenever possible and practical, I recommend going with a professional guide.


Our guide Carlos, with Pura Vida Tours, pulls the proverbial rabbit out of a hat for us (or, in this case, a tarantula out of an unassuming hole we never would have given a second look to)

A Few Raves

Samantha and I enjoyed all of the places we visited and all of our activities in Costa Rica, planned and unplanned, guided and on our own.  But I’d like to sing the praises of a few places that, in my opinion, richly deserve it:

Hotel El Silencio Del Campo (La Fortuna): We stayed three nights, and I can’t say enough good things about our experience there.  The employees were among the friendliest and most professional we experienced in Costa Rica, we loved our accommodations, and the grounds are magnificent and beautifully maintained.  It was a real pleasure to come back to our hotel at the end of a full day and enjoy the hot springs pools (there are several right on the premises) and magnificent restaurant without having to venture out again.  Their breakfasts were among the best we had (and are included), and always provided great birdwatching opportunities.  If you’re looking for a place that isn’t simply somewhere to rest your head, this hotel will add some relaxation to and greatly heighten your time in La Fortuna.


Our cabin at Hotel El Silencio Del Campo, La Fortuna

Bogarin Trail (La Fortuna): This is an experience not to be missed, and MUST be done with a guide to get the full effect.  The Bogarin Trail has a refreshingly non-commercial feel to it despite being in one of the most touristic areas in all of Costa Rica, and it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it or don’t know about it, even though it’s not far off the main road into town.  If at all possible, book a tour led by Giovanni (Bogarin, the trail’s namesake).  Some eighteen years ago, it was all swamp land, but Giovanni (with no money) convinced the owner of the land to let him take a machete to it, plant some trees, and build a trail/natural sanctuary on it, which he has worked on and maintained ever since.  He takes great pride in his work, and will regale you with tales about it.  He also knows every inch of it and will reveal amazing wildlife lurking within, at times like a magician.  On top of that, he is perhaps the most colorful character we encountered on our trip and a natural-born entertainer (though this may surprise you when you first meet him).  If you want to see a guy completely in his element, sharing his love and knowledge of the natural world joyfully, by all means take a tour with him!


Giovanni Bogarin in his natural habitat


A chestnut-mandibled toucan – one of the many delights we saw on the Bogarin Trail

Monteverde Inn (Monteverde): This place is a major find, and an incredible deal.  We paid only $100/night (a breakfast buffet is included, and the restaurant on the premises is surprisingly good – try their pizza!). The accommodations are simple, but do the job.  But the property on which they are located is a stunning nature preserve (Valle Escondido), and is filled with treats for nature lovers.  Like a lot of places in Costa Rica, they are very eco-conscious, and have sustainable environmental practices that much of the “developed” world could learn from.


Samantha outside the hotel reception area of the Monteverde Inn


A scenic viewpoint from the perimeter trail on the Valle Escondido Preserve, accessible from our room

Also: if you visit Monteverde, book a guided Night Walk. We did ours at Curi-Cancha Reserve (our guide, Jorge, was stellar!), but these are also offered at Valle Escondido, the renowned Monteverde Cloud Forest Biological Reserve, and elsewhere in town.  It’s a unique experience, and one you’ll definitely want an expert guide for.


Tarantula seen on our Night Walk at Curi-Cancha Reserve


Scorpion seen with the help of our guide Jorge’s blacklight

The People

One of my favorite parts of the travel experience is the people you encounter you otherwise would never meet, and this trip was no exception in that regard.  Be it fellow travelers from all over the world, tour guides and others in the hospitality industry, or locals – the conversations had with such a wide variety of people outside of my usual circle was, for me, a big highlight of the overall experience.

While it’s generally very easy to get around in Costa Rica as an English-speaker (the tourism industry is a major part of their economy, and caters to a majority of visitors from the U.S. and Canada), I never felt so grateful for my high school Spanish teacher (muchas gracias a Señor Sauber!).  While not highly proficient, I can speak Spanish well enough to get by, which gave me a degree of confidence I absolutely would not have had traveling on our own in a country where I spoke nary a word of the native tongue.  Being able to practice my Spanish constantly (however imperfectly), and actually accomplishing things at times solely relying on doing so, was immensely satisfying.

As was, of course, seeing:

The Monkeys!


Spider monkey sighting at Mistico Hanging Bridges Park


A howler monkey (guess which sex?) at Manuel Antonio National Park

A few from a troop of capuchin (aka “white-faced”) monkeys we followed right to our room at the Monteverde Inn:




And some additional animal photos to close out the post:






Keel-billed toucan


Sleeping red-eyed tree frog


Crocodiles seen from the Tarcoles Bridge


Three-toed sloth (in motion!)


Common basilisk, aka “Jesus Christ lizard” (for its ability to run on the surface of water)

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Two-toed sloth


Three-toed sloth

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Blogger (at rest)


The people of Costa Rica – warm, gracious, sincere, hospitable, kind, and helpful – for showing us around and making us feel welcome.

Samantha: for being my lovely wife, traveling companion, and best friend, and for taking most of the photos included here.

Eric (yours truly): for driving the two of us back in our rental car to the San Jose airport for our return flight, without working WiFi and in morning rush hour traffic – a more adrenaline-pumping adventure than ziplining, rappelling down canyons, bungee jumping, or white-water rafting could ever hope to be.

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What I Learned from Spending Three Days with Al Gore…

Image result for earthrise

“Earthrise”  Image Credit: NASA (photo by William Anders, December 24, 1968)

“People have three budgets: a time budget, a complexity budget, and a hope budget,” Al Gore explained to us during a three-day Climate Reality Leadership Corps training last week in Los Angeles.  When you are conveying the difficult message of climate change and what needs to be done about it, you must keep in mind that audiences have limited bandwidth in these three areas:

Time: you will have their ear for a relatively short amount of time.

Complexity: this issue is so far-reaching, with so much information to absorb and so many facets to it, you will have to be selective and judicious about what, and how much, data to include (as well as how to present it in a digestible way).

Hope: most important of all, you must not max out your audience’s “hope budget” before getting to the solutions to the problem!  You want people to feel empowered and moved to take action, not beaten down by despair.

Simple, perhaps, but not easy.

Because climate change is very, very serious.  As in “existential crisis for humanity” serious.  If we continue on as we have been, releasing – as Gore pointedly told us – 110 million tons of heat-trapping global warming pollution into our atmosphere DAILY (the equivalent of exploding 400,000 Hiroshima atomic bombs every single day), our ecosystem will be so brutally savaged as to render the planet uninhabitable for up to 50% of land-based species in this century.  Which, needless to say, would not bode well for our own.  Certainly, we are putting our survival on Earth at incredible risk just by maintaining the status quo.

A certain amount of damage has already been done, with impacts that will continue to be felt indefinitely even if we were to magically stop our CO2 emissions entirely overnight.

What we need now is to do everything in our power to prevent a global catastrophe.  It really doesn’t get more serious than that.

The Slideshow

I was among the approximately 2,200 trainees from over 40 countries who participated in the Climate Reality Project‘s training which took place at the Los Angeles Convention Center August 28th – 30th.  It was the 39th (and largest) such training helmed by former U.S. Vice President Gore – who has arguably done more than any other individual to raise global awareness about the pressing issue of climate change.

Being immersed in this topic for the bulk of three consecutive days was intense.  For me, it was a bit of an emotional roller coaster.  There were some inspiring speakers and panelists, to be sure, and an incredible performance by the first-ever “Youth Poet Laureate of the U.S.A.” Amanda Gorman, who recited a poem she wrote specifically for this occasion which knocked me out with its complex rhyme schemes and steadfast spirit of optimism (“Pale blue dot, we will FAIL YOU NOT!”).

But immediately after lunch on the first day, Mr. Gore delivered the “two-hour” (plus) version of his legendary slideshow – the one he has been presenting (and constantly updating and honing) for many years, and which was featured in his groundbreaking film of 2006, An Inconvenient Truth.  He warned us ahead of time that there was going to be some difficult and disturbing content ahead.  “Hang in there, hope is coming,” he insisted, “but you need to know how serious this is…”

He then proceeded with an hour and forty minutes of unrelenting REALITY: a thorough description of the scenario we now find ourselves in and how we got to this point.  How we humans are responsible for a shift in temperatures worldwide, mostly via our burning of fossil fuels and releasing vast amounts of carbon into the air, in effect treating the atmosphere that sustains us like an “open sewer”.  Charts and graphs detailing the increasing frequency and magnitude of extreme weather events across the globe.  An explanation of how “all storms are different now” given the context of the warmer oceans and hotter air temperatures through which they are taking shape.  A seemingly endless barrage of photos and video clips from recent floods, heatwaves, droughts, wildfires, hurricanes, mudslides, and storms the world over, accompanied by statistics on the massive tolls these have taken in terms of the loss of human lives and livelihoods, the destruction of buildings and infrastructures, the political instability caused by the creation of “climate refugees”, the depletion of essential resources such as food and clean water, the spread of infectious diseases, ocean acidification, and the horrifying implications of all of the above continuing to worsen.

As he played tour guide through extreme weather event after extreme weather event, I found myself waiting for him to mention the ones fresh in my mind, while also acknowledging internally, “Oh, yeah, I forgot about that one….and THAT one….and THAT one…”

In a rare moment of semi-comic relief, Gore referred to the nightly news as a “nature hike through the Book of Revelation”, but he also pointed out that in reporting these individual disasters news outlets rarely connect the dots and talk about the bigger picture issue facilitating them: climate change.

Finally, he got to the “solutions” portion of the presentation.

It turns out, while we cannot undo what we have already done, we have the solutions to curb this massive problem RIGHT NOW.  Technologically speaking, the answer lies in tapping into renewable energy sources, namely wind and solar, which can more than supply our collective energy needs.  Economically speaking, grid parity has practically arrived, meaning that the cost of these clean sources of energy is equal to, or even less than, the cost of the power created by traditional “dirty” sources of energy in most cases (with costs continuing to come down as technologies are improved upon).

WHAT IS NEEDED IS THE POLITICAL WILL to make these changes a matter of public policy.  Obviously, the big oil companies have a vested interest in keeping things as they are (they are using the same PR companies, incidentally, that Big Tobacco did back in the day to deny the scientific evidence linking smoking to lung cancer).  In a stunning recent example of their desire to profit at the expense of human well-being, they are even seeking government funding to physically protect their facilities from the effects of the climate change they have invested substantial amounts in trying to convince the public is a “hoax”!

The good news is, despite misinformation campaigns and a flock of so-called climate deniers, there are already cities and towns going 100% renewable.  Case in point near me – Culver City, CA.   Additional good news is that the solutions already at our disposal (clean, renewable energy sources) create changes that are actually good for us as well as the planet.  The experience of communities moving toward 100% renewable energy is that it is a lot easier than they thought it would be, AND their bills are going down.  A compelling example of this is presented in a segment toward the end of last year’s An Inconvenient Sequel in which Gore visits the town of Georgetown, TX:

The Emotional Arc Over Three Days

To be perfectly honest, by the end of Day One of the training, I was fried.

I have tremendous respect for self-proclaimed “recovering politician” Al Gore, but 100 minutes straight of gloom and doom was hard to take.  By the time he got to the solutions/hopeful part of his presentation (which lasted roughly 35 minutes), my own “hope budget” had already been overtaxed, and it was hard for me to receive the “good” news.  Add to that a full day’s worth of events, including competing with a roomful of noise when carrying on conversations with partners in breakout sessions among hundreds of others, and I was left feeling overwhelmed and fatigued.  I went to bed early that night and slept long.

Day Two was a bit better, but I still felt a little let down afterwards.  Sure, the panels were relevant and informative, but only one hour of the day (a breakout session on “Mastering the Presentation”) was devoted to what I thought was the main purpose of the event: to guide us on how to make our own public presentations (a la Gore’s slideshow, albeit much shorter!) to raise public awareness about climate change and encourage people to take action on it.

Day Three was, for me, the redemptive one.  Finally I heard my concerns about how to get involved and how to give presentations of our own being addressed (Gore moderated a fantastic panel of previous trainees, and their relatable stories and inspiring examples were helpful and reassuring).  And, as promised, Gore himself delivered his “Truth in 10” – the 10-minute (-ish) version of the same slideshow we had witnessed on Day One, which would much more closely mirror the presentations we might give out in the world, depending on our audiences.  See below for an example (presentation begins at 2:18 into the below video).  I must say that the presentation he gave to us in Los Angeles was much higher-energy, but the content is still great and very digestible here:

There was also an incredible panel on Day Three entitled “Ensuring Climate Equity” which featured young activists calling attention to how the poor tend to be on the front lines and often feel the deleterious effects of industrial pollution before the rest of us (such as by living and going to school a stone’s throw from an oil refinery).  They were passionate, smart, determined, and already making a difference in their communities.

Hope crept back in.

Change Happens

In the days following the Climate Reality Leadership Corps training, I am finding that the experience continues to ripple through me, permeating my thoughts and staking a claim in my consciousness.  I feel changed by it, and not in an entirely warm-and-fuzzy way.  It is a burden to really take in the magnitude of this crisis, and the havoc that we humans have been and are continuing to wreak on this one beautiful planet that is our home.  I am observing things somewhat differently and am more sensitive, more attuned to this issue.  Daily work tasks seem especially insignificant.  Yet, it is still easy to get lost in or numbed by them.

One of the more interesting things unfolding within me is my assessment of the experience after just a little bit of distance from it.  While in the thick of it, I questioned – and judged – it. (This feels more like a conference than a training.)  But as I’ve been processing it, and reflecting on it, everything seems to make more sense.  It seems like it was perfectly designed, in fact!

1)  It made sense to first “subject” us to the long version of the slideshow, before presenting the short one a couple of days later.  For one, I experienced firsthand what it felt like to have my hope budget depleted, and what effect this had on my ability to feel optimistic about the solutions and empowered to take action in their direction.  Also, by the time we saw the short version, the long one was still fresh enough in my mind to make me feel that I had a deeper understanding of the material and how this might shine through my own (short) presentation without my having to expound upon everything in great and morbid detail.  I can touch on important topics without inundating my audience, and still get the message across.

2) This couldn’t have been planned, but we had a chance to witness, and experience for ourselves, progress on the political front in real time!  California’s SB (Senate Bill) 100 calls for the entire state to generate 50% of its electricity from clean sources by 2026, 60% by 2030, and 100% by 2045.  It’s an ambitious (necessarily so) goal that also would serve as a shining example to the rest of the world if passed (especially given that the state of California by itself boasts the fifth largest economy worldwide).  The bill had already passed through the California State Senate and was on the floor of the State Assembly during our training.  People were following its progress and at one point it was announced that the vote was about to close but that four (Democratic) assemblymembers still had not cast their votes in favor of it.  In an instant, the names and phone numbers of these folks were called out, and en masse the climate reality trainees FLOODED them with calls.  The following day we got word that, sure enough, the bill moved through the State Assembly and was on its way to Governor Brown’s desk!  THAT is how it’s done!

3) It turns out I learned a lot from all of those panel discussions and, more importantly, they have spurred me to further educate myself and better understand the issues at hand.  Listening to Hal Harvey talk about “The Four Zeroes” (zero carbon grid, zero emissions vehicles, zero net energy buildings, and zero waste manufacturing), for instance, as a comprehensive solution for addressing climate change in the most impactful way, was one thing.  But it sunk in further when I read an op-ed piece by Tom Friedman (whose name I heard mentioned several times during the course of the training) while working on this blog post at home, in which he references those very same four zeroes:

“Clean power, clean cars, clean manufacturing and efficient buildings make everything we want to achieve in our society easier. They can lower our health care costs, cut heating bills for the poor, drive 21st-century innovation, foster decent jobs, mitigate climate change, create more competitive export industries, weaken petro-dictators — and enhance U.S. national security and moral leadership.”

My awareness has been raised, my curiosity and interest have opened up, and I’ve already achieved my first promised (in return for having been given the privilege of acceptance into the training) “Act of Leadership” within a week of attending: the writing and publishing of this post (my first blog post in over a year, as it happens).  Not bad for a three-day training!


Al Gore likes to quote the economist Rudi Dornbusch, who said: “[In economics] things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.”  He is convinced that the necessary changes will be made.  The issue at hand, however, is WHEN.  Timing is of the essence.  We are pushing Mother Nature to the absolute limit and ourselves to the edge of a precarious cliff, and we need to make radical changes NOW if we are to have any chance of securing our own future on Earth.

As with all past social movements progressing us forward, change will only come about through public will.  It is up to us (as in you and me, not just some hoped for motivated, faceless, abstract others) to insist on switching over to renewable sources of energy – in fact, to demand it.  Fortunately, as Gore likes to put it: “POLITICAL WILL IS ITSELF A RENEWABLE RESOURCE.”

So: What can you, one individual, do to combat climate change?

Gore told us:

At the individual level, it’s about personal choices, and conscious consuming.

At the community level: we must change laws/policies!  We need TOP DOWN action and policy to address this.  There’s simply not enough time for changes to bubble up only from the bottom.

“It took me a long time to realize that the scientists had won the argument but were going to lose the fight, because it isn’t about data and science, it’s about power. The most powerful industry is fossil fuel, because it is the richest. At a certain point, it became clear that our only hope of matching that money was with the currencies of movement: passion, spirit, creativity—and warm bodies.” – Bill McKibben

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How to Find the Love of Your Life

My advice to single people looking for a great partner is, and always has been, as follows:

Do the things you love to do (and, obviously, out in public and with – or at least around – other people some of the time, if you want to meet someone).  This is a much better approach than doing things – especially things you don’t particularly like to do – with the sole purpose of trying to meet someone.

Think of it like this: if you do something you love, you’re pretty much guaranteed to have a good time whether you end up meeting someone or not.  And, if you do end up meeting someone, you are likely to already have at least one key interest in common.  Whereas if you do something you don’t particularly like (or something you even hate) just in the hopes of meeting someone, and you don’t meet someone, then the whole experience is likely to be a bust.  Even if you do meet someone in this context, that person may already love to do that very thing you have no interest in or even hate doing.

Here’s a diagram to illustrate (in my case, hiking is something I love, and going to bars something I hate – for you, the specifics might be different):

Diagram 1

Of course, when it comes to relationships, there are no hard and fast rules…and certainly no guarantees.  People can and do meet and successfully pair up in just about any and every imaginable way, including randomly.  For some entertaining examples, just watch the segments of older couples telling the stories of how they met that are interspersed throughout the 1989 classic When Harry Met Sally… Though the movie uses actors for these scenes, the stories were taken from interviews that director Rob Reiner conducted with real-life couples prior to filming:

After many years and (trust me) many efforts, I ended up meeting the woman who would become my wife, Samantha, on a Sierra Club hike.  This was a weekly hike I did regularly (or at least semi-regularly) for almost five years before we met.  But every Friday night that I did this hike, regardless of whomever I did or did not meet in terms of appealing single women, I had a fantastic time.  AND I made some great friends on the hike over the years.  I still do the same hike to this day, in fact, because I love it (and I’ve known some of the other regulars for as many as the nearly 17 years I’ve been doing it).

So, my personal experience bears out my go-to advice to others.

wedding photo

Samantha and me on our wedding day (11/4/12)

Even if you meet someone online, what ultimately matters is your in-person rapport.  And long-term rapport requires compatibility.  And an important aspect of compatibility, in my opinion, is some degree (preferably a high one) of shared interests and values.  And the more you behave in accordance with your true interests and values – such as by doing things you love – the more likely you are to meet people with similar ones.  Hence, the above advice.

The Goal of Engagement

The above advice, though, presumes that you already know what you love and love to do.  What if you don’t?  Then your task is still the same: to find the love (or, perhaps, loves) of your life.  If you are at a genuine loss for things you love and love to do, you need to go out and find some!  Because life is – to make perhaps the biggest understatement I’ve ever put down in writing – interesting.  Life offers an endless supply of opportunities, possibilities, situations, and activities through which you might experience growth, fascination, fun, joy, wonder, connection, even bliss – not to mention through which you might, at some point, meet the human love of your life.

The goal here is engagement.  To find, and maintain, love in our lives, we need to be engaged in what we are doing as often as possible.  We must discover things that light us up, and make a point of returning to those things frequently.

If you don’t have anything in your life right now that truly excites you, make it your imperative to find such a thing.  It could be something you were once interested in but got sidetracked from, or it could be something entirely new.  It might even be something you are not even yet aware you could be interested in, but which simply awaits the tipping point of your discovering it for all hell to break loose (in a good way!).

I have many times over had the experience of becoming captivated by something a younger version of myself would never have imagined or guessed would ever interest me.  A few examples:

  • Taking a class in biological anthropology my last semester of college (to fulfill my final general education requirement that I had delayed till the bitter end) and being absolutely enthralled twice a week for 75 minutes at a time (thanks in large part to my brilliant and dynamic professor, Jeffrey Kurland), sparking an interest I’ve had ever since.
  • Discovering a love of Indian food despite never having tried it until…post-college? (I’d eventually have my wedding reception at Samantha’s and my favorite Indian restaurant that we discovered together when it first opened.)
  • Discovering a love of camping and backpacking at age 27 when I had never previously spent a night in the great outdoors!
  • Buying a mountain bike (after not having ridden a bike for many years) and rediscovering the joy of riding at age 30, which led to attempting my first triathlon, which led to running a marathon, which led to learning how to swim a whole lot better when I wanted to try another triathlon, which led to longer bike rides than I would have previously ever thought myself capable of or interested in, which led to longer-distance triathlons and eventually the completion of an Ironman (to which my younger – and not all that much younger – self would have said, “You’ve GOT to be kidding!”).
  • Giving vegetarianism a try when I had been raised as a meat-eater.

By the way: I love when this happens!  One of my favorite parts of being alive is discovering some new interest (or rediscovering an old one) and just diving into it.  I am heartened by the fact that I can continue to have this experience in my mid-forties, and don’t see any reason why it should not be possible at any age.  Last year, I (finally, after many years of wanting to and thinking about doing it, but never acting upon it) started taking classical piano lessons.  I LOVE IT!  I have also been binging on Beethoven’s piano sonatas (specifically, Daniel Barenboim’s recordings of all 32 of them, both audio and video) and Robert Greenberg’s utterly brilliant Great Courses on this specific subject as well as others.  Beethoven’s, Barenboim’s, and Greenberg’s works all fall into the category of among the greatest things that have ever happened as far as I am concerned!  🙂

All of the above-mentioned loves of my life (and all of the others), by the way, were discovered by following and acting upon curiosities. 

If you are lacking engagement in your life, wanting for things that give you a real charge, the answer to your dilemma is simple: TRY THINGS.  Start with those that you are naturally curious about, even slightly.  You just never know what might grow and blossom into a true love.  Sometimes the thing that does may come as a genuine surprise to you, and defy your own predictions or expectations.

Some things you investigate will be dead-end paths.  Maybe even a lot of them.  That’s perfectly okay.  It is par for the course of life, and very much part of the process (ditto when it comes to dating!).  This is how you clarify what is and isn’t right for you.  You learn from these experiences, and move on.  And, incidentally, not all loves have to be lifelong.

KEEP TRYING THINGS.  One discovery or path very often quite naturally leads to another.  If you continue following your curiosities and acting upon them, you will eventually hit pay dirt (and perhaps even have a whole host of things you find engaging).

Diagram #2And engagement in some interest/activity/hobby/cause/passion/pursuit just might lead, directly or indirectly, to an engagement of another kind.  It did for me.

But even if it doesn’t, it’s far better to live a life of engagement than not.  (That’s essentially the message of every post on this entire blog! 🙂 )

The Role of Luck

There’s no denying the luck factor when it comes to so many things in life, romantic relationships very much included.  The fact is that, death and taxes aside, there simply are no guarantees.  Life does not promise any of us that we will get what we want, that our dreams will be realized, or that we will even live another day.  And there is no guarantee – whatever we do or don’t do, or no matter how good or deserving a person we are – that we will find a loving and lasting life partnership.  Not everyone does.  There is a degree of luck involved.

Not only is there luck in finding a suitable and compatible partner when both of you are available, ready for, and interested in such a partnership, but no one person can sustain any kind of relationship, romantic or otherwise.  It always takes two to participate, and to continue participating, and the simple fact is that we cannot control or direct the actions or hearts of others.  Not to mention the fact that our significant other, no matter how committed to us, can be separated from us at any time through death.  I say this not to be morbid or discouraging, but rather as a grounded reminder that life is not a Disney movie.

This is why it is important to not simply expend all of our energy in a search for love.  Rather, we ought to do all that we can to create love or allow love into our lives.  After all, love is not something that just happens to us or doesn’t.  We play a part.  We have to be a conduit for it.

How do we do that?

We create/allow love by saying YES to something.  And then doing so over and over again.

We create/allow love by sharing ourselves – our knowledge/expertise, our wisdom, our creativity, our compassionate hearts, our enthusiasm for things, our kindness, our energy, our contacts, our resources – generously with others.

We create/allow love by accepting the generosity and goodwill of others.

We create/allow love by being curious, and acting upon our curiosities.  And then, at some point, an interest overtakes us, and pursuing it feels effortless because we become so drawn to it.

We create/allow love by connecting with others, and learning to care for people and things outside of ourselves.  By giving for its own sake, without an expectation for something in return, and receiving joy from the giving itself.

The Beatles famously sang: “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make.”  I’m not sure about the math, but the sentiment sounds about right.

It is said that “luck” happens when preparation meets opportunity.  Perhaps the same can be said for finding the love of your life.  You prepare yourself for it by practicing love – by participating in its expression yourself, such as in the ways listed above.  And when opportunity appears, you recognize it and are ready for it.


In the end, the “love of your life” could be found, in a very clinical sense, by examining what you’ve dedicated yourself to over the course of your lifetime: what you gave yourself fully to, what you really put your heart and energy into, what you were committed to.  Simply put: whatever and whomever you’ve most cared about, as demonstrated concretely through your actions and behavior – this will have been, ultimately and unmistakably, the love of your life.

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The Parable of the Hummingbird in the Stairwell

Yesterday as I was nearing the top of the stairs to my second-floor apartment, laundry basket in hand, I heard a buzzing sound from above.  Expecting it to be a large moth, I looked up and saw a hummingbird flying around in the square opening just below our building’s skylight.  I opened the front door of the apartment and quietly, so as not to frighten the little guy off, called to my wife for her to come check it out.

When she came out to take a look, she immediately observed, “He’s trapped up there.  He keeps moving toward the window since that’s where the light is coming from.  He doesn’t understand that’s not the way out.”

I had not even noticed the bird was struggling, but upon watching it further, her theory seemed to be correct.  The hummingbird wasn’t going anywhere.  It kept expending its energy moving toward the ceiling, expecting to penetrate it, without success.

If the bird continued like this, we figured, it would eventually exhaust itself, possibly fall to the ground, and possibly even suffer an untimely death.

I was immediately struck by the metaphor implicit in this situation.  It seemed ridiculous.  This bird was 100% capable of escaping.  All it had to do was fly downward a notch to below the opening in the ceiling where the skylight was, dart down the stairwell (where abundant light awaited it at the bottom) and then take off into the open air.  Yet it did not seem capable of realizing this.  It was convinced that up was the only way out.

Before you judge this bird’s intelligence, stop for a moment.


Convinced we know the way out of a particular problem, whatever it may be, we wear ourselves out trying repeatedly to solve the problem with a very limited worldview.  And so we remain stuck.  For years.  Maybe even a lifetime.  We are prisoners of our own assumptions, our own narrow ways of looking at things.

What made the scenario with the hummingbird especially profound to me was how easy it would have been for the bird to escape if it only knew what to do, or was at least open to trying a vastly different approach.  To the bird, this problem must have seemed confounding and insurmountable.  It was, after all, doing its absolute best effort-wise to free itself.  Yet, the solution would have been effortless in actuality and taken no time at all.  Freedom was within its immediate grasp, if it only had the capacity to realize this.

Fortunately for the hummingbird, this story has a happy ending.  My wife, our downstairs neighbor, and I put our heads (and household supplies) together and helped our little friend out.  We devised a makeshift butterfly net out of a broom, a wire hanger, a cloth drawstring bag, and some packing tape.  I was able to gently guide the hummingbird into the net.  We covered it, took it down to the bottom of the stairs, and released it.  It took off at lightning speed into the sky.

Sometimes in life we are lucky enough to receive magical assistance, and a problem is solved for us through the kindness of a stranger or some other bit of good fortune.  But it’s probably not wise to count on this.

The next time you find yourself in the midst of a distressing problem or difficulty, I invite you (as I do myself!) to remember the parable of the hummingbird in the stairwell.

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Achieving the Impossible

“All truth passes through three stages. First, it is ridiculed. Second, it is violently opposed. Third, it is accepted as being self-evident.”

—Arthur Schopenhauer, German philosopher (1788 – 1860)

I am willing to bet that at some point in your life you have already achieved the impossible.  How am I so sure?  One simple reason: the concept of impossibility tends to be both subjective and malleable. 

If you were sent back in time (I know, that’s “impossible”, but humor me) a mere 120 years and told anyone you encountered that during your lifetime you had traveled in an “airplane” and that this kind of thing is routine and happens all the time where you’re from, you would probably be dismissed as a nutcase.  Human flight, not so long ago, was widely considered “impossible”.

Go back 400 years – not even a perceptible blink in geologic time – and try explaining to the powers that be that it is a provable fact that the earth revolves around the sun, and not the other way around, and you might very well be putting your life in jeopardy.

Or, if you’re a Generation Xer like myself (or older), just imagine your childhood self’s reaction to the reality of finding any piece of existing information you are curious about within seconds…on your phone…which, incidentally, isn’t even plugged into a wall!

Sure, these are examples of huge breakthroughs that for most of human history seemed impossible to the collective yet are now taken for granted every day by many of us. 

But the same idea applies on an individual level, as well. 

If you’ve been around for even a decade (let alone two or more), what once seemed impossible for you, personally, eventually became not just possible but something you actually achieved.  This is because you changed physically, you developed some skills, and/or something in your environment changed.  As a result, your concept of what was possible also changed.  Maybe it happened incidentally, or even accidentally, but you somehow were able to achieve something that earlier in life you never imagined you would or could.

You became tall, or nimble, enough to reach the cookie jar.  Someone showed you how to throw a ball, read, write, send an e-mail, cook something, ride a bike, drive a car, or play a particular song on a particular musical instrument, and you practiced doing it until it became automatic.  The Internet became available to you and you learned how to navigate it.  You developed the capacity to teach yourself things.  You explored: your neighborhood, a part of the world far away from your neighborhood, a growing interest, an aspect of your own potential.  You read a particular book or were introduced to a particular person and this blew open your worldview and forever changed you.

And now, looking back, you can see that your prior worldview, which you once were convinced was The Truth, turned out to be seriously flawed and severely limiting. 

I’m here to tell you that your worldview is still seriously flawed and severely limiting. 

So is mine!!!

The tricky part – I find – is in dropping my egoic defenses long enough for my current belief systems to be punctured so that a more expansive sense of possibility can seep in. 

We often have plenty of conditioning to overcome, as well, before we can accept the reality of greater possibilities for ourselves. 

Once we are able to break through these barriers, however, all kinds of “impossible” things suddenly become possible.

From Impossible to Possible: Step by Step

In his book Be Iron Fit, Don Fink describes the process of achieving the impossible as having four distinct psychological stages or phases.  These phases are progressive and predictable.  Using the example of an ordinary person considering the prospect of completing an Ironman triathlon, he describes this process as follows (the underlining is mine):

The first phase is Nonbelief.  For most of us, the first triathlon we see is the Hawaii Ironman on television…And the first thought that comes to your mind as you stare at the screen is, “That’s impossible.”

You learn the exact distances: a 2.4-mile ocean swim, followed by a 112-mile bike race, and then a full 26.2-mile marathon – back-to-back and all in the same day…

The second phase is Realization.  You watch more of the race…You get pulled into it.  “Wow, there are people who can actually do this!”  The impossible starts to become possible…at least it becomes possible for these people.

The third phase is Curiosity.  You start asking questions.  Why do these people do this?  What motivates them?  How do they do it?  How do they train?

Then comes the final stage, The Dream.  You ask yourself the big question: I wonder if I could ever do it?  I wonder if I could ever be an Ironman?

That’s it! …In a short period, you go from believing that something is definitely not possible to believing that it is possible.  In fact, you begin to think that it might even be possible for you.

Having experienced this process for myself, in the specific context of becoming an “Ironman” and otherwise, I can attest to its truth. 

Yet, I still personally struggle with applying the lessons learned to certain other aspects of my life.  Chalk it up to one of the challenges of being human (i.e., it never stops being challenging!).  Certainly, practice with moving through this process in any realm is of great benefit, and a success in one area can bolster one’s confidence and help facilitate breakthroughs in other ones.  But because the notion of impossibility can be so subjective, and learned helplessness can be so pervasive, it is clear to me that the psychological hold our subconscious beliefs have on us can be treacherous regardless of who we are, what we may already have accomplished, and where we might be in our particular life’s journey. 

I therefore write this post as much for myself as for you – as a reminder that our ideas about impossibility must be systematically and deliberately and consciously and persistently challenged if they are ever to be conquered. 

How to Dislodge Stubborn (Unhelpful) Beliefs

We are typically only motivated to bother taking initiative in a particular direction when we believe that it is (or might be) possible for us to achieve a desired result.  If we are convinced that the desired result is impossible, we most likely will not take any action at all.  If we are not sure about the possibility of achieving something but are curious about it, we may take a few tentative, exploratory steps.  The stronger our conviction and confidence about the achievability of something we aspire to, the more likely we are to take action, especially massive action.  And massive action is usually what it takes to achieve the impossible.

Whether or not we are conscious of what our beliefs about what is possible even are, it is those beliefs that dictate our behavior.  Therefore, if we want to carve inroads towards expanding our sense of the possible, we must confuse our subconscious by taking action where and when we normally would not.  We need to act as if something were possible, even if we don’t fully believe it yet.  This is how we chip away at what is potentially merely an illusion (even if a compelling one) of impossibility.

Think of it as reverse engineering an incredible accomplishment so that the perceived-to-be-impossible goal is transformed into something you soon enough believe might be possible (and therefore worth taking action towards).  This is commonly known as the “fake it ‘til you make it” strategy, and it can be very effective.  To this day when I am nervous, say, before performing onstage, I simply act as if I am perfectly calm and at ease.  Before long, it becomes the truth.  And, of course, repeated experiences of successfully implementing this technique only serve to reinforce its usefulness.

The fact is you undoubtedly already have achieved something you previously believed was impossible (for you, if not in general) once before.  Maybe it was a degree that you earned.  A desired relationship you found/fostered/co-created.  An addiction or bad habit you overcame.  Some overwhelming emotional pain you survived.  Debt you climbed out of.  A skill you acquired.  A fear you conquered or abated.  A problem or challenge you met.  A place of contentment or well-being you reached.  Search your personal history thoroughly and honestly and you are bound to encounter examples of this.  You may not be able to recall many of them (or you may discount them) if you are, say, in a very depressed state, but I can all but guarantee you they are there.

So, let yourself dream about those things you desire most.  Relax your insistence on their impossibility, just for a moment (you can always reinstate your nonbelief at a later time!).  Do this regularly.  Daily, at least.

Think of something you strongly desire but that currently seems, or feels, impossible for you, personally, to realize.  How would someone else – someone who was in your position but believed without a doubt that achieving this goal was totally possible – behave?  What kinds of things might (s)he do?  Make a list.  Pick the easiest one.  Do it.  See where it leads.  Then repeat this process until you die.  What do you have to lose?  You might just amaze yourself – and others – by shaking the realm of the impossible at its core and blasting open the realm of the possible.

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Why Are We Here?

If you watch any number of nature documentaries – or, perhaps, simply observe the world around you – it becomes readily apparent that we exist in both a nurturing and an incredibly harsh environment. The earth is supportive of our being here (to a point), but is also a notoriously dangerous place. For example, living beings eat and are eaten by each other all the time, often under violent circumstances. The cycle of life is such that each species is impelled to preserve and perpetuate itself, inevitably at the expense of other living things. There is no more dramatic an example of this than with a species known as Homo sapiens (Latin for, believe it or not, “wise man” – but then…who named us?).

If you are among the planet’s bipeds, equipped with a large-ish brain and the ability to ponder the vicissitudes of daily existence, you have probably at some point (if not regularly) asked yourself a question that has confounded even the most brilliant minds of all time:

Why are we here?

Life, on this planet alone, and speaking just to the degree that we hominids have acquired knowledge about it, is incredibly and spectacularly diverse. A stunning array of creatures of all shapes, sizes, and dispositions cohabitates here – all part of a vast, intricate, and ever changing eco-system.

But if every life form that exists does so (at least, in part) in order to sustain those life forms that subsist off of it, while simultaneously trying to avoid becoming food itself, what is the point of any of it? Why is anything here at all? (Including us?)

Before I explore this Big Question any further (and so as not to disappoint the reader any more than absolutely necessary), I must provide a SPOILER ALERT:

I have no idea.

I am also inherently wary of anyone who claims, with absolute and unwavering certainty, to know the Answer.

That said, I don’t believe it best to flat-out ignore the question. Since we are here, it seems to me worth spending some time and energy periodically thinking about why this might be. Even if we never arrive at a completely satisfying, comprehensive, confidence-inducing Answer, keeping the Question alive at the very least keeps us engaged and curious, rather than resigned or mentally checked out.

Perhaps, in the exploration, we might arrive at a philosophy of life that works for us, even if it requires that we revisit and revise it from time to time (which it likely will).

A Reason, or No Reason at All?

First off, we must acknowledge that maybe there is a reason for our being here, but maybe there is not. Maybe we simply happen to be. This, of course, runs counter to our tendency toward self-importance, but it is as legitimate a possibility as any. (The real question, then, is how should this possibility affect – if at all – how we go about living? But more on that in the final section of this post.)

Next, even if there is a preordained reason for our existence, how are we supposed to know exactly what that is?

There are, of course, plenty of people – especially within organizations and institutions that are also interested in self-preservation (if not world dominance – or, at the very least, accruing an insane amount of monetary wealth) – who are more than willing to give you an authoritative Answer to this question.

This, understandably, might provide you with some sense of relief. If you swallow a given Answer whole, you don’t have to think about it anymore, and don’t have to deal with the inherent anxiety that accompanies uncertainty like a pesky younger sibling that won’t stop following you around.

The only problem here is: what if the Answer you are given (and accept) as Truth happens to be wrong, or incomplete? There is, it turns out, much debate and contradiction among many people and institutions (and even within given institutions) who all claim absolute certainty on the matter. What makes any one of them any more credible an authority than any other? People are capable of believing a wide variety of things with intense conviction, even without substantial proof (or even when substantial proof actually falsifies their convictions).

There will always be someone out there more than willing to provide (or “sell”) you an Answer. But only you can determine for yourself whether or not it is a satisfactory one. Does it ring true for you all the time, in light of and in spite of everything you have experienced for yourself?

Despite our advances in technology (and, sometimes, because of them), life is ultimately unpredictable, and much remains a mystery to us. The greater wisdom seems to be not in our claiming to know things, but rather in our having the humility to acknowledge when we do not. And, perhaps even more, to be okay with that.

John Lennon, in his song “Instant Karma”, sang: “Why on earth are we here? Surely not to live in pain and fear.”

I love this lyric, because it doesn’t make any definitive claim. He simply says, in so many words: I have no idea why we are here. But of all possible reasons, it hardly seems likely that the Answer is just to suffer.

The Best Answer I Can Come Up With at Age 43

On a most basic level, it seems to me that we are here (if for no other reason than) to have experiences.

It’s hard to say what the nature of capital “R” Reality is – for instance, what is “real” versus what is a “dream” (our dreams that occur while sleeping often feel just as real to us as does everyday reality, when we are supposedly not).

But, here’s what most of us (believe we) know for sure:

We exist in bodies, in a physical world in which there is continuity (even if, also, constant and rapid change). Our bodies do much of the work of keeping us alive automatically. An incredibly complex system of interconnected subsystems keeps us afloat, unassisted, in any given moment.

We also have instincts, drives, and the capacity to reason – all of which serve to help keep us alive and have still more experiences.

As for our experiences themselves, we take in information about our environment via (up to) five senses. Depending on the functionality of our bodies (which itself is subject to change), we see and/or hear and/or smell and/or touch and/or taste things. These experiences, as well as our internal thoughts and emotions connected to them, appear to be very real, if only to our individual selves. (We tend to believe that we are, in fact, individuals, separate from all other things – which may or may not, ultimately, even be the case…but I digress!)

Life, then, might best be described in a single word: experience. (Presumably, the end of a life means the end of experience, at least for/within that particular form of life.)

Our biological impulses to survive and procreate (so that we, and our progeny, may continue having experience, or “life”) aside, are we here for something more than that? To learn and “grow” from our experiences, for instance? To use them toward some higher purpose(s), aim(s), goal(s), or end(s)? Or just, simply, to have them? The former would seem a more interesting scenario than the latter, but who’s to say?

Comedian and social critic George Carlin, in a commentary on the earth and man’s relationship to it, offered this speculation:

“Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it in the first place: it wanted plastic for itself. Didn’t know how to make it. Needed us.”

Whether or not Mr. Carlin stumbled onto our Ultimate Purpose, his comment speaks to the fact that we are here under certain conditions and without any regard to how we might feel about them (we age, as just one example). Like other living things, we are “programmed” by our genetics to exist and behave in certain ways, both individually and collectively. And our environment dictates to a large degree what we can and cannot do, as well. There is much debate among philosophers, in fact, as to how much free will human beings even have (if any!) versus what is predetermined, either by genes or by simply a chain of causalities.

Either way, though, with a measure of free will or not, it is hard to deny that what we are doing when we are alive is having experiences.

To recap:

We cannot say for sure if we are here for a specific reason(s) other than happenstance.

Even if there is a preordained reason for our being here, we may or may not be capable of assessing what that is (or what they are, if there are multiple ones). We collectively have many opinions on the matter, many beliefs, but no certainty.

We cannot say for sure how much control we have, individually or collectively, in shaping our (individual or collective) destinies. We cannot even say for sure whether or not free will exists – and exactly what its limitations might be, if it does. It is possible that we cannot not fulfill our purpose for being here, even if that purpose is never revealed to us or is never fully understood by us.

We cannot even say for sure whether what we perceive to be reality IS reality. What we take to be reality might be a dream, or a simulation of some kind. At the very least, a mere five senses (with limited ranges of each) with which to perceive everything that is going on around us at any given time can probably only ever give us a tiny glimpse of the “whole story”.

About all we can say with anything even approximating certainty is that we are here (wherever and whatever “here” is). And being here – for some grand purpose or not, and with any significant control over our destiny or not – means having experiences.

So, my best answer to the age-old Question is that we are here to have experiences. We know this because we are here, and being here means having experiences.

Anything beyond this, it seems to me, is mere conjecture.

A Philosophy Created Out of Much Uncertainty

An obvious question, then, in consideration of the above is: what can we do with such information/lack of information about why we exist? What is the best way to live our lives amid such uncertainty, if all we know is that being alive means having experiences, with or without any greater point?

A few things, it seems to me:

1) We can increase our mindfulness or “presence” to whatever degree we can. In other words, while we are here having experiences, we can pay close (or closer) attention to them. We can savor them. Really take them in. We can do our best to actually be present to our experience, as opposed to just being lost in our thoughts and obsessing about the past or the future while missing out on what is actually happening in this moment. (Note: this takes practice!) We can pay attention to our experiences and, as much as possible, enjoy them (or, at least, appreciate them).

2) In seeming contradiction to #1 above – but, I would counter, in addition to it – we can make observations about our experiences and reflect on them. We can take actions after careful, measured, thinking that is in accordance with our best reasoning abilities and deeply considered values. We can comprehend that our actions – that all actions, in fact – have consequences, whether or not they are the ones we are hoping for or intending to produce. Through reflection (and practice), maybe we can improve at certain things. We can reflect on our experiences.

3) We can create our own purpose. We can decide, from our perspective (even if ultimately to the indifference of the Universe at Large), what our lives are to be about. For example, we can decide that our lives are about creating things, recognizing/seeking/appreciating beauty, being kind simply for the sake of increasing kindness in the world, etc. We can assign our own meaning to our experiences, and create our own life purpose(s) for ourselves.

4) We can exert the control that we (appear to) have to (attempt to) make the world in which we have our experiences a “better place”. We can make efforts to improve the quality of life for ourselves and others. In fact, one of the best ways to improve our own life experiences is to improve the quality of the experiences of others around us. This is both practically true, in terms of cause and effect (people tend to be friendlier to you when you behave in friendly ways toward them) and true in terms of how it makes us feel to be useful/helpful/of service.

The writer Kurt Vonnegut once asked his son, Mark, what the point of our lives is.

Mark replied to his dad, “We are here to help each other get through this thing, whatever it is.”

This is as good an answer as any I have heard. Whether or not the Universe has a plan for us (and whether or not it even cares about our fate), helping each other makes for a better experience for all of us while we’re here, in a number of ways.

We are here, now, for whatever reason or lack thereof. So we might as well make the best of it. We might as well make the most of it. We might as well take the best care of ourselves and the best care of each other that we can, while we can. One might even say that these two things are really one and the same.

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Prescription for a Bad Mood

The Problem

As a hominid (if you are reading this, you probably are one), you – like the rest of us – are subject to bad moods. Our moods are in a constant state of flux, and can be affected by many factors, including:

– Whether or not we’ve eaten
– What, and how much, we’ve eaten
– How much sleep we have (or have not) gotten
– The quality (or lack thereof) of the sleep we did get
– Any physical pain or discomfort we may be suffering from
– The behavior of other hominids (!)
– A million or so other things, some of which we may have some degree of control over, but many, or most, of which we probably do not.

It’s easy to get down on ourselves – even if it’s unfair, unreasonable, or unhelpful to do so. It’s easy to be frustrated by our circumstances, the state of the world, or simply not getting what we (think we) want at any given moment. This is very much part of the bipedal experience (if not also the quadrupedal, or any-other-pedal [or lack-of-pedal] experience). As far as I can tell, no one is immune.

While it occasionally may come in handy to be in a bad mood (such as when we use it to elicit sympathy from others, or to excuse ourselves from some unappealing task, chore, or prior commitment), for the most part, none of us would consciously choose this state.

Yet, it shows up. And, by definition, we are none too happy about it.

So, if bad moods are inevitable, and we can agree that they suck, what – if anything – can we do about them?

I like this question. Tackling it puts me in a better mood. 🙂

The Solution

Here is the good news about bad moods:

1) Like everything else in the known world, they don’t last. They are temporary. They will pass. Thank goodness.

2) It is possible, at least sometimes, to disrupt or even dismantle a bad mood through taking some deliberate action to counter it.

3) It is also possible, at least sometimes, to use a bad mood as a catalyst for positive action.

My recommendations for tackling bad moods all boil down to this: be prepared for them.

Do this by creating your own personalized menu of mood-lifting activities. Like any chef/restaurateur, you can add or subtract items from your menu as you see fit. The idea, though, is to assemble a list of go-to positive things to do that you know, from experience, will help you feel better.

Then, keep this menu close at hand.

And make sure, as is the case with any good menu, that it contains enough variety. Sometimes not all of the ingredients for a particular item will be available, or in season. You might also get tired of always ordering the same thing, no matter how good it is.

One of the notorious aspects of a bad mood is that our decision-making skills are compromised when we are in one. This is the purpose of having a menu. You won’t have to dream up solutions on the spot. You’ll have already done so, from a much better frame of mind. Of course, as delectable as its offerings may be, no menu can deliver a satisfying meal on its own. A selection must be made, and action in that direction taken.

Getting started – overcoming inertia – is the hardest part. It can be challenging enough to motivate ourselves under the best of conditions, let alone when we are cranky, irritable, or downright depressed. But if you can get past that hurdle and initiate action, you can then ride the glorious wave of momentum and very likely transform your mood as a result. The more you build experiential knowledge of things you find genuinely helpful, the more you can draw (and act) upon this, even when you are feeling really lousy:

“I don’t feel like doing ANYTHING right now, but I KNOW (from experience) that I will feel better if I do this.” And, so, you do.

Taking action based on this deeper understanding of yourself, rather than succumbing to or even wallowing in misery, is the embodiment of wisdom and maturity. When you do this, you are utilizing your capacity to respond rather than simply react. It’s a skill that, like any other, is developed, and strengthened, through practice.

Important note: You don’t want to beat yourself up on those occasions when you find yourself unable to muster up the resolve or the wherewithal to do this. Welcome to humanity! (Self-compassion is what’s called for in these instances – another skill that may require a good bit of practice). But you do want to acknowledge yourself each time you are able to pull this (pretty incredible) feat off. After all, you are building fortitude, character…perhaps even destiny-shaping self-determination. You are reinforcing highly desirable neural pathways with each “rep”. Each success in this regard, however seemingly small, is a triumph of the will, a victory for the soul (however you care to define that). It is a proclamation of power over circumstance.

Guidelines for Your Menu

Here are some general recommendations for things to include on your menu:

1. Take Care of the Basics: Nutrition & Sleep. Sometimes something as simple as eating well, hydrating, or getting sufficient sleep is all that is required to subjugate irritability. Be sure to make regular self-care a top priority.

2. Exercise/Move Your Body: Just begin. Your mood will likely change for the better before you’re even aware of it. As for specifics, find what you like. Experiment. It could be yoga stretches, stair-climbing, dancing, weight-lifting, gymnastics, or just getting outside and going for a walk. In my opinion, exercise is the easiest/quickest/most sure-fire way to overcome a bad mood (assuming #1 above has been addressed). It is something you can do alone, with a partner, or in a group setting. Best to have a bunch of options on your menu from this category, to suit every conceivable occasion (such as access [or lack thereof] to workout equipment, other people or classes; varying weather conditions, etc.). In a mere twenty minutes, a miracle can sometimes transpire mood-wise.

3. Connect: We hominids are social creatures. We crave connection. So, connect. Call a friend. Visit a friend. Exercise with a friend. Talk to someone new and make a friend. There are few gifts in life like friendship. A friendship need not be lifelong, either. A daylong (or even shorter) kinship, created solely through shared circumstance, can be immensely valuable. Also, connections need not be limited to other hominids. Connect with a pet (yours or someone else’s). Visit an animal shelter. Befriend a member of another species, if only for an hour. Let your mood be transformed through beneficent interaction.

4. Lift Someone Else: One of the most effective things on my personal menu for overcoming a bad mood is to volunteer. Specifically: I play music for hospital patients (and their families and friends, hospital staff, etc.). It’s an awesome gig and privilege. I don’t even have to adhere to a schedule. I can pretty much just show up with my guitar and do my thing, wandering from room to room as I please (and, of course, as people are receptive). The hardest part, hands down, is getting my ass into the car and getting myself there. But each and every time I do this, I end up having a fantastic time. By brightening someone else’s day (not to mention playing and singing, which in and of themselves are mood-bolstering),*I* feel better. It’s a win/win scenario. There are countless ways to lift other people, limited only by your imagination. If you’re at a loss for ideas, Google “random acts of kindness”.

5. Spend Some Time in Nature. (Self-explanatory.)

6. Lighten Up/Laugh: Laughter alters your body chemistry. It feels good. Norman Cousins claimed to have actually healed himself from illness through, in large part, laughter therapy. Watch Groundhog Day or The Big Lebowski, or go to YouTube and find videos suited to your particular funny bone. 🙂

7. Listen to Music, While Doing Nothing Else: I have a distinct memory from my teenage years of being utterly miserable over who-knows-what (okay, I have many such distinct memories, but I’m thinking of one in particular). I was in my room, and I sat up on my bed wearing a pair of headphones, and put on The Beatles’ White Album (probably at a pretty high volume). By the time the first side (of the vinyl record) was over, I was cured. It felt like I had taken some kind of miracle drug. I’m not sure why this particular listening experience was so powerful, but it probably had something to do with the quality of my attention (and the fact that it was the White Album couldn’t have hurt). The music wasn’t simply on in the background, though; I was immersed in it. I remember feeling invigorated by the sheer creativity, exuberance, inventiveness, and spirit of these ridiculously talented lads from Liverpool. I had gone from a “1” to a “10” mood-wise in almost no time. Great music has, over the years, moved me so deeply on so many occasions. It is perhaps the ultimate means of human expression and communication. Without question, it has healing properties. It’s powerful, powerful stuff.

8. Write Something. It could be a journal entry, a poem, a song, a letter, or a blog post. Sort out your your thoughts. Redirect your attention toward solving some kind of problem or tackling some creative challenge. (Alternatively: bake something, draw something, paint something, repair something, organize something.)

9. Get Some Perspective. To paraphrase something a friend said to me recently: We’re on a rock circling a ball of fire that doesn’t even register as visible if you get far enough away from it (not far, really, by the scale of outer space), and which itself is only here for a short while in the bigger scheme of things. In other words: Relax. And enjoy the ride!


I am by no means infallible at putting all of this into practice, but I find that the more experiences I accumulate doing the above kinds of things – and feeling better as a result – the more likely I am able to use them as self-prescribed interventions when I am grumpy or ornery.

And, of course, a bad mood is not a prerequisite for doing any of these things. Make your own menu items staples of your life and you might drastically reduce the frequency of bad moods to begin with. As Ben Franklin famously put it: “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”


Nothing I’ve mentioned above is all that revolutionary. You probably already know all of this stuff. But sometimes a reminder is helpful. That is the whole point of having a readily accessible menu. The mere power of suggestion is often our tipping point into action. Advertisers count on this fact, so why not use the same psychology on yourself (but in your own best interest)?

In short, by attending to your body and refocusing your attention you can improve your mood, sometimes rapidly and sometimes profoundly.

I’m always interested in hearing what works for other people, and adding items to my own menu if I find that they work for me. So, feel free to share what you find to be effective in combating your own bad moods in the Comments section below.

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