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How to Live Artfully

How to Live Artfully

Live Artfully

    I met someone recently who knows how to live.

    You know the type: self-possessed, confident, the kind of person who energizes a room. The kind of person who is alive to everything around them, who makes everyone they focus their attention on feel they could do more, they could be more. A natural-born leader who brings out the best in everyone without any apparent effort. Apparently fearless, they inspire by example, making our deepest concerns seem petty in the face of sheer living.

    There is, I believe, an art to living. An art of living. Like a great painter, some people approach life as their canvas, pulling together deliberate action and tight attention to detail here with a carefree sloppiness over there, creating a balanced and, in the end, entirely pleasing composition. Like the sculptor, they are always looking for potential form hidden under the seemingly shapeless mass of lived experience. And like a musician, they find ways of merging perfectly their own self-expression with forms that have been handed down to them and to others might seem formulaic and routine.

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    I don’t know if the sheer talent for living can be learned; it takes more than a few painting classes to develop the kind of spark we find in the work of Picasso, Vermeer, or Chagall. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn anything from them, just as the beginning artist learns from studying the work of the great masters.

    Here’s what I learned from this recent encounter with a true artiste of life, and what might help us all bring a touch of artfulness to our own living.

    1. Pay attention.

    Curiosity kills cats, they say, but in people, it is what makes us truly alive. Look deeply at the world of everyday things around you, and wonder. When you face the world with open eyes, you discover mysteries everywhere.

    Most importantly, pay attention to people. This is my hardest lesson, actually – as a college instructor, I meet so many new people every semester, and I have such a hard time keeping them all straight in my head. The outward manifestation of this is that I struggle to learn names, even after 15 weeks of classes; the deeper concern is that I don’t learn all I could from my students, and in the end that’s the first job of a teacher.

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    When we pay attention to people, really pay attention, it brings forth something in them that’s amazing. This is something I learned as an anthropologist – people love to tell their stories. All they need is someone to really listen to them. And when people give you their stories, it enriches your own story.

    2. Surround yourself with inspiring people and inspiring things.

    An artful life is a life that embraces creativity, and creativity doesn’t emanate pure and whole from within but emerges from our engagement with the world around us. The poet Ezra Pound said “the artist is the antenna of the race”, meaning that the “stuff” of art is not what is inborn in the artist but what they pick up from the society around them, the “waves” that emanate from their culture in going about its business.

    There is a common saying that if you want to be the best at anything, surround yourself with people who are better than you. It is the constant challenge of striving to reach their heights that drives us to innovate, to create, and ultimately to master our field, whether that be art, invention, business, love, or anything else.

    I know ‘tis the season to decry all things materialistic, but just as we’re inspired by people we are also inspired by things. For some, it’s fine art; for others, folk or indigenous art; for still others, the simple lines of modern design or of a Zen garden. In my case, it’s books – the sheer physical presence of them. I respond in an almost physical way to books, feeling in their tight bindings and crisp pages a kind of calmness that is, I suppose, the clean channel the artist gets his orher ideas on.

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    3. Capture your dreams.

    I wonder how many of us go through life without ever reaching any of our dreams solely because we’ve never made an effort to figure out exactly what they are.  That is, we avoid the kind of self-examination and purposeful imagining needed to pinpoint the things we want most out of life – and so we can never really chase after them.

    I was chatting with a writer recently who, among other things, helps clients write profiles for personals sites. (That’s a niche I’d never even imagined existing, but apparently there’s quite a demand for it!) Writing profiles is, for most part, the most significant barrier to finding a good match, and if you think about it, that’s true all over the web, not just on dating sites. Take a look at the “People I’d Like to Meet” section of most people’s MySpace profiles – people just don’t know. “Cool, interesting people.” Well, of course, but what makes someone cool and interesting to you?

    When this kind of ignorance of self infects even a person’s dating profile, you have to wonder. I mean, the choice of a mate is arguably one of the most important choices you’ll ever make in your life – can it really be true that the average person has absolutely no idea of what they’d like that person to be like?

    Knowing what you want to attain is the first step to attaining it. That’s not to say you can’t be flexible, but if you can’t tie your goals to deep-rooted dreams and desires, you’ll never have the energy to attain them or, if you do manage to accomplish them, for them to have much meaning. And meaning is the fuel of the artful life.

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    4. Be appreciative.

    In his later years, Kurt Vonnegut was fond of describing  his Uncle Alex who, after a particularly fine meal or while watching an especially lovely sunset, would sit back and exclaim, “If this isn’t nice, what is?”

    That kind of conscious recognition of the comforting, pleasing, or otherwise satisfying moments in life goes a long way. It is, I think, what gives prayer its power for those who thank the powers that be, whatever they happen to believe in, for the little bounties that make up their day-to-day lives. (I say this as an entirely non-religious person – you don’t have to be religious to recognize the positivity that prayer brings to the lives of its adherents.)

    Appreciating the world around you is the key to dwelling comfortably within it, even as you strive to attain your wildest dreams. Recognizing the value around you now is, in a way, the engine that drives our dream-chasing – for what is a dream except a desire to have more of the goodness we recognize around us? Which is perhaps why those who are driven by dissatisfaction with their everyday lives rarely find happiness no matter how outwardly successful they manage to become – they’re always running away from something worse instead of towards something better.

    Towards artful living

    I haven’t lived my life as artfully as I might have wished. But I want to. The lessons above are thoughts I’ve pulled from observing the people around me who seem to live their lives with a flair I’ve only experienced in snatches.

    Who have you known who has lived their lives with the panache of an artist attacking his or her canvas or a musician calling forth a melody from a chaotic flurry of noises? What lessons have you learned from them? Let’s talk about the art of living in the comments!

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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