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“Honestly, I don’t remember what honest signals are,” I confessed to Neal on a follow-up call regarding our boozy conversation. “No, actually… I don’t even remember talking about honest signals.”

Chubby Noodle’s menu makes it clear that bottomless pear mimosas are only served for 90 minutes, and that you shouldn’t go H.A.M., with friendly reminders: “CHUGGING = ELSEWHERE” and “WE RESERVE THE RIGHT TO SLOW YOUR ROLL.”

Sure, I was a little bit disappointed. I wanted, like, 15 mimosas. However, towards Minute #79 our server began delivering them so fast one would think the champagne inventory would expire if not consumed immediately. Our entire table could hardly keep up which inevitably led to stoner-level status, i.e. “Annie the Philosopher.”

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It’s that point in the conversation where it inevitably switches from the real reason I hate horses to the inner workings of the Universe. A year ago I could be found quoting The Timekeeper at 2 a.m. like clockwork, talking about Father Time as if he were my gay best friend. Now it seemed that I had moved onto the intricacies of human language and comparisons between sex and Japanese tea ceremonies.

Meet Neal

I partially blame being seated next to a Computational Sociologist slash researcher at Google who shares the same fascination with emotions as I do – but way more legitimately. When Neal Patel isn’t downing mimosas and dim sum in the Marina, he’s teaching people all over the world about how to extract meaning from data. Meaning that includes what the hell is behind our text and verbal interaction online: “The Internet is super emotional.”

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When I later emailed him to fill in the blurred lines of those Chubby Noodle iPhone notes, the intention was to discuss dating linguistics: What were girls and guys not saying in their online dating interactions?

However, as I laid on my friend’s couch in Santa Monica, suffering from a severe hangover, and Neal made the trek back to SF from Sacramento with a newly purchased pinball machine in the trunk, the conversation steered. Recent life events had led me to anxiety so severe that Xanax had no effect while he confessed details of a not-so-distant breakup.

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There was no reading between the lines; the emotions were expressed in explicit detail. My breathing was shallow and chest was tight. He felt sluggish, slightly lethargic. It was far from the drunken laughter we had experienced only weeks before. Had our feelings now driven us to that dreaded emotion: unhappiness?

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Why Simply Seeking Happiness is Dumb

“The goal of mental health should not be to be happy. That’s bullshit.”

It was like music to my ears. Over the preceding weeks I had noticed the change in my response to the question: “How are you?” What was once an unwavering “Wonderful!” had now somehow took a nose-dive to “Okay.” When I became consciously aware of it, a feeling of guilt set in. Shouldn’t I be wonderful despite job insecurities, loneliness and last-minute L.A. apartment hunting?

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“It’s just positive psychology,” Neal said as he enlightened me on the basic principles of Martin Seligman‘s philosophy documented in Flourish.

“I mean, what the fuck is ‘happy’? Shit is going to happen. You go through grief,” Neal went on. He experienced this type of emotion when dealing with the death of his father.

“When you think, ‘I should be happy right now’ you feel really fucked up,” Neal explained. “’Is it okay for me to feel okay again? Do I have to just walk around with a big smile on my face? But if I don’t, will I feel like this for my entire life? Now I feel guilty for trying to feel happy.'”

Though it was on an infinitely smaller scale, I understood. But if the goal of mental health wasn’t happiness, what was it?

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3 Parts of Well-Being

“’The purpose of life is to be happy.’ This is a stupid and simplistic way to look at life,” Neal said as he made his way back into San Francisco, pinball machine still in one piece. “The real goal of mental health should be well-being.”

Well, what comprises well-being?

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1. Mood

Hormones, ACG and mysterious neurological connections are all causing us to feel something right now, whether that be anxiety, empathy or excitement – and oftentimes happiness. What’s so wrong with seeking happiness then?

“Your mood is not you.” Neal repeated this to me multiple times. We must separate ourselves from our moods and remind ourselves that the destiny of our day is not hinged on the intersections of neurotransmitters. Similar to Eckhart Tolle’s teachings in the Power of Now, if we can be aware enough to observe the feelings, we can then detach ourselves from them.

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A tactical approach includes saying positive things to oneself, including what you learned from an experience, and allowing yourself to enjoy compliments from others. In my case, it meant Neal showering me with praise for 5 minutes. How did I feel after? A tad more anxious but admittedly better. Additionally, he advises, “Don’t let your mood starve yourself of activities that give you meaning.”

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2. Meaning

“The fact that you’re working on your blog right now is super important,” he said at the conclusion of the 5 minute praise/pep talk. And he was right.

I might not have known my address for the next week or where my job would lead, but at least I didn’t have to question who Annie is. As backwards as it might seem, my hangover had caused me to push back an apartment showing while the interview with Neal remained firmly in my calendar in order to produce next week’s content. I needed it.

In the same way that Neal needed to purchase his pinball machine. Or you need your relationship. Or kids. Or job. While mood might seem fleeting, meaning offers concrete connections that neurotransmitters just quite can’t.

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3. Flow

You pull back on the nob and as you release, the ball shoots into the machine, bringing it to life. Your eyes dart from light to light and sounds signal points that are racking up. Your heart skips a beat as the ball drops down towards the flippers and you instinctively squeeze the buttons on its sides to keep it in the game. There is no time to think about what your ex is doing. Or parking tickets. Or what’s for dinner.

You’re in the flow, which Neal describes as “The state in which we are conscious but not thinking. We are present but not engaged.” It’s why people do yoga or meditation or have sex or camp out in an arcade – a necessary brain break for our well-being.

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As he neared home, Neal anticipated this feeling of flow that his new machine was sure to bring and described to me his life goal: “I want to measure these. What if we had technology that could measure our mood or flow? What if we could identify sources of meaning? That’s where it should be going.”

“Uh huh.” I took a deep breath as I jotted down the address for the next pricey Los Angeles apartment listing, consciously dismissing the hormones that tried trapping it in my throat.

“And the real reason it’s my personal ambition,” Neal said, “is because we have a chance to create an awesome society – one where people are happy.”

Truly happy.


Emoji Mirrors: By Cupcakes and Cartwheels at Kitson
To learn more about Neal: Neal Patel LinkedIn