I love podcasts. I particularly love podcasts hosted by academics with a gift for communicating their ideas in an accessible way. So, given my interests in positive psychology and behaviour design, it's not surprising that The Art of Happiness with Arthur Brooks, has become one of my favourite podcasts. Brooks, a social scientist by training, is currently a professor at both the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Business School. The podcast draws on social science research to offer insights into how individuals can lead happier lives.
The most recent episode tackles a widespread issue, our fear of failure. Brooks suggests that a huge component of the fear of failure is really our discomfort with uncertainty. He quotes the advice that one of his friends, a senior oncologist, routinely gives to stage IV cancer patients. The advice basically amounts to a mantra of mindfulness. The oncologist teaches his newly diagnosed patients to say this to themselves every day: “I don’t know what’s going to happen in a month, I certainly don’t know what is going to happen in a year or five years; but here’s one thing I do know – I am alive today; today is a blessing for which I am grateful and I refuse to squander the blessing that is this day.”
Brooks generalizes this. Whatever the stakes of the thing we are afraid of, whether it’s an exam, a public speaking engagement, or defusing a bomb, we need to wake up in the morning and say “I am alive and I am well today. I don’t know what’s going to happen today but at this very moment I am grateful to be alive.” Brooks explains that gratitude for the present moment anaesthetises the fear of failure, because it puts us in a mindful state. It also shifts our focus from uncertainty to certainty.
During the last year, we have all been living with a huge amount of uncertainty, and since we will continue to do so for some time, the mantra should come in handy. I might even adopt it as one of my Tiny Habits. But I'm also fascinated by the more general idea of shifting our focus from uncertainty to certainty. One of the ways I have tried to remain upbeat during the winter lockdown has been to look forward to spring. As the nights grew longer, the weather got colder, and my adult children returned to their homes overseas, leaving us empty-nesters once again, I repeatedly reminded myself that winter is a temporary condition. The days were growing shorter, but soon they would start getting longer again. The weather was getting worse, but it would get better.
I found a wonderful website that displays a real-time countdown to the spring equinox (currently 2 days, 14 hours, 59 minutes and 35 seconds). During my daily permitted outdoor exercise slot, I would walk around the nearby duck pond and remind myself that the crocuses would be up in February or late January. (My philosopher friends might raise an eyebrow here, but I ignored the problem of induction and was happy to feel certain that these natural phenomena would occur as expected.) I kept a watchful eye on the progress of the crocuses and was delighted to see that, after reaching full bloom during a brief February thaw, they survived the subsequent snow.
Crocuses at Brent Park 26.01.2021
Crocuses at Brent Park 02.02.2021
Crocus season, always short-lived, is now over, but the daffodils are in full bloom. The sun will not set over London until after 6 pm tomorrow. Yesterday I ditched my winter boots and ventured out for my walk wearing trainers. Spring is (nearly) here. Whoohoo!
Sunset over Brent Park 03.02.2021