A Certain Softness

The word optimization seems to be dominating my life lately. Optimize your omnichannel strategy to see the greatest ROI. Optimize your supplement and protein intake to repair muscles faster. Optimize your peanut butter to jelly ratio for the perfect sandwich. You get the idea. For a while, I used this buzzword frequently, thinking I sounded knowledgeable when I did so. Now, I find the whole concept dizzying. While optimization isn’t perfection, it is striving for it, in a sense — and that’s why it feels unattainable at times.

Optimization is at the forefront of your energy if you’re a very intrinsically motivated person; if you’re a person constantly striving for improvement; if you’re always trying to maximize efficiency. I see these qualities in myself, but I also see them in my friends, which heightens this need to eschew mediocrity at all times. I love that my friends help me grow and improve in areas of my life, whether it be running and climbing or having hard conversations and building emotional intelligence. The beauty and curse of not only the dialogue I have with my friends but also my own media consumption is that I am inundated by resources on how I can be a better human. On my own, I’m scheduling appointments with life coaches, therapists, physical trainers, and nutritionists, reading articles, watching videos, and listening to podcasts. With friends, I’m talking diet, mental health, and recovery best practices. I feel my knowledge expanding in a variety of ways on a constant basis, but I also feel lost on how to make it all work for me.

Based on all of the information I’m absorbing, an ideal day would go something like this:

Wake up well-rested, because you went to bed between 10:00 and 11:00 (the lowest risk for heart disease), didn’t look at screens, took some melatonin and magnesium, didn’t drink alcohol, and journaled your thoughts prior to sleep. Spend the beginning of your morning further journaling or meditating, ignoring your phone. But then grab your phone and read up on the news, because you need to be informed. Eat a protein-rich breakfast that avoids carbs or sugar. Have some coffee, but not too much coffee. Take your daily supplements so that you’re sure they’re digested. You need to optimize your fuel prior to run. Go run. Once you’re back, you’ve got to eat a filling protein and carbohydrate within 30 minutes. Now you can settle down. Block time on your work calendar so you can really focus. But also, the key to happiness at work is collaboration and connection, so make sure you’re still available for your colleagues. Zoom fatigue is real, but also, are you really not going to turn your camera on when everyone else’s is? Go for walks, take a lunch break! But make sure you get all your work done. Did you get outside today? Did you do something creative to stretch your brain today? Did you talk to a loved one today? You know, cooking is very meditative. But also going out and socializing is important too. What are you going to do between work and bed?

I could keep going, but I’m exhausted just from writing that last paragraph. This type of day is of course an exaggeration, but it doesn’t feel that far from the truth. It’s made me realize the stark contrast I felt when I was at home for Christmas — when I more heavily relied on intuition.

While home, I didn’t think too hard about my diet nor exercise. I ate when I wanted to, what I wanted to. I ran when I wanted to, for however long I wanted to. Running felt particularly good; I felt like I could go for miles, endorphins absolutely flooding my body each day. In my free time, I did whatever felt right at the time, whether it be read, watch TV, play music with my dad, or cook. Just as I navigated the roads by car or on my own two feet, I relied on intuition, rather than resources. I didn’t reference anything. I just existed.

I don’t mean to dismiss the value of optimization, nor advocate for intuition over optimization. In many ways, living with an optimization mindset has improved me physically, mentally, and emotionally. I am solely aiming to bring more intuition back into my life — getting more in touch with my own thoughts and feelings, rather than always doing what I’ve heard or read that I should do.

I recently learned about two concepts that relate to this goal: the default mode network and soft fascination. The default mode network is composed of a few areas of the brain, though scientists have debated exactly which. They tend to agree that the prefrontal cortex is one of them. Regardless, this area is active specifically when we aren’t focusing on anything. You know how you have the best thoughts when you’re in the shower? (For me, it’s usually running or driving.) In those moments, your brain’s attention is not trained on a difficult or specific task, so it kicks into default mode — which allows your thoughts to wander and take shape.

In a similar vein, soft fascination occurs when your brain is not as actively engaged in activity. It allows room for introspection and sense-making. It’s why when you go for a stroll or a hike, you can sort through the things that are troubling you more easily.

I listened to a couple episodes of The Happiness Lab podcast this last weekend, and they only affirmed my desire to embrace the default mode network and soft fascination — to simply stop constantly doing and start paying attention to my emotions. I’ve certainly used distraction to avoid my emotions in the past, but I don’t recall ever doing it so subconsciously. The episodes taught me that I’ve got to stop distracting myself from emotions, because discerning them will allow me to control and understand them. Before listening, I don’t think I truly knew the difference between envy and jealousy, but now I do (envy = wanting to have something another has, in a malicious way; jealousy = fear that someone will take something valuable from you). Nor did I really consider the difference between anxiety and rumination (anxiety = worry about the future; rumination = dwelling on the past). These emotions are distinct and should be treated as such. As Harvard Medical School psychologist Susan David explains, as we try to make these distinctions, we need to ask ourselves “what the func?” — what’s the function of our emotions? I found it quite compelling and saddening when she described loneliness as a function of lacking intimacy and love in your life; the same for grief being a function of your heart trying to find its way home.

“Happiness and well-being are actually best regarded as skills,” says psychologist Richard Davidson. I’ll admit I heard this quote for the first time today and I wish I’d heard it sooner. If happiness and well-being are indeed skills, then I definitely have a ways to go to sharpen them. Writing about it is at least a start.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

I've Got a Feeling

January 12, 2022