Two mental models for a better quality of life

Two Mental Models for a Better Quality of Life

Every morning I sit in my bedroom chair for 10 minutes, staring at the back of my eyelids, without moving a limb, focusing on my breath… Sounds kinda strange for a normal human being to do during their first waking minutes, but there is a rational intention behind my odd behavior: I’m working on a Mental Model. 

Let me elaborate. 

First things first: What do I exactly mean with a Mental Model? 

Mental Models are the overarching frameworks that you carry around in your mind to perceive and understand the world. They are the ‘thinking tools’ that you wield to attack everyday decisions and solve problems. 

A mental model is the specific thought process you use to examine a problem. There are many types of know mental models, and each one takes a unique view of a foreign concept in order to reduce its complexity. In short, it is the mind’s way of making sense of something.”

– Aja Frost

So, a mental model does two things: 1) It helps you analyze how complex systems work by reducing its complexity 2) It helps you make better decisions.

For example: How does a car engine work? In order to make sense of its complexity, you have to analyze all its different components that depend on each other, and how they interact. Then a decision could be: What fuel should you use? That’s a choice you make, based on the mental model of the engine that you created.

In my opinion, the human mind is one of the most interesting phenomena there is. And also quite an important complex system to understand. After all, your mind is what influences your everyday behavior, the choices you make, and your attitude towards life’s events. So, the big question I’ve asked myself to solve: How can we subjectively experience a better quality of life?

In order to answer this question, I’ve picked two mental models that have been able to reduce the complexity of the mind’s systems. But not just some randomly picked models! After all, they’ve both already been used and applied for thousands of years and can be traced back to who many consider the greatest philosophical thinkers in human history. It is these mental models that have helped these thinkers make better decisions, in order to increase their quality of life. 

So, without further ado:

Mental Model 1: Mindfulness 

Mindfulness – now an important theme in modern positive psychology – was originally introduced in the ancient teachings of Buddha between 400 and 500 BC as one of the seven factors of enlightenment.  

No, there’s nothing woolly and mystical about Mindfulness – it is actually a really useful and practical state of mind. Being mindful simply means that you focus your attention on the present moment, rather than obsessing about either the past or future. This mindset allows awareness of your thoughts, emotions, but also your behavior, as if you observe them from a distance. 

The classic mistake people make is seeing the term “mindfulness” as a synonym for “meditation”. However, meditation is just the umbrella term for many types of meditation practices. Mindfulness is something you can practice and cultivate by means of “Mindfulness meditation”. 

Fascinating about this specific type of meditation is the result of studies in the field of neuroscience. Research from Harvard University shows that short daily practice of mindfulness meditation induces growth in the areas of your brain having to do with self-awareness and compassion, and shrinks the areas having to do with stress. 

Another study, out of Yale University, looked at what’s called the ‘Default Mode Network’ (DMN) of the brain. This is a series of neural connections that are most active when we’re thinking about the past, thinking about the future, or doing anything but being focused on the present moment. Here’s what they found after analyzing the brain activity of regular meditators: 

“Meditators not only turn off the Default Mode Network of their brain, while they’re meditating but even when they’re not meditating. In other words, meditators are setting a new default mode. And what’s that default mode? They’re focused on what’s happening right now.”

– Dan Harris

To swipe yet another misconception off the table: Mindfulness is not about being in some sort of special trance. You won’t become “one with the universe” removed from all thoughts. On the contrary, having thoughts is key to the mindfulness practice. Just like it is impossible for your heart to stop beating (while still being alive), it is similarly impossible to stop having thoughts.

This misconception is exactly the reason why a lot of people try and fail to adopt a daily meditation practice. 

“My mind always keeps raging on during my meditation practice. I am never able to concentrate on my breath and its frustrating. I guess Meditation is not for me. ”

– frustrated meditator

This train of thought creates a negative connotation with the practice and you will then have to rely on willpower – which is a very scarce mental resource. The fact that you punish yourself for not being able to concentrate on your breath is just another thought passing through the mind. Having no thoughts is a battle you’ll never win. You have to accept that thoughts itself are part of the game you’re playing.

So how is the game played?

Well, the mindfulness mental model can be broken down into three repetitive phases:

  1. Observe your breath
  2. Lost in thoughts (inevitably)
  3. Noticing you’re lost and returning to your breath

That’s it. Every completion of the cycle is a win.

And the crux is: the more you practice this cycle of returning to your breath – the better you become at observing your own mind during the rest of your day. It is very similar to going to the gym and lifting weights. It strengthens your mental muscle, and thus your ability to let go of stress and negativity.

As a result, you will be able to enjoy life more in the present moment. Then, you can really appreciate the small things you otherwise wouldn’t notice. Like enjoying the taste of diner your spouse made for you, the warmth of the sun in your face when you cycle to work, or the beautiful shape of a tree on the side of the road. Things that seem insignificant, but can actually really be appreciated, just by noticing.

Let’s throw in another metaphor: Mindfulness is the noticing of negative thoughts and emotions that are being displayed on the ‘thought theater’ in our heads. If you realize that you are in the theater, you can actually shorten their playtime, and pick a better movie.

This the crux of meditation; to shorten the half-life of negative thoughts, by observing their presence, and making the conscious decision to move on to the present moment – and enjoy it. By cultivating this self-awareness, you develop the mental flexibility to choose a state of mind. You become the driver in charge of your train of thought.

Or as American psychology professor Stephen Hayes put it:

“The goal is to see our thoughts with enough distance that we can choose what we do next, regardless of our mind’s chatter.”

– Stephen Hayes

But what do we do next? That’s where our second mental model can be of service…

Mental Model 2: Stoicism

Stoicism is a school of philosophy originating from Athens by Zeno of Citium in the early third century BC. However, what is now understood as the comprehensive stoic philosophy, is the combined wisdom found in ancient documents written by famous historical figures like Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus and Seneca – a Roman Emperor, a former slave who became an influential lecturer, and political adviser of Roman emperor Hadrian.

A big misconception about Stoicism is that the stoic mindset is a state of “emotionlessness”. Make no mistake, Stoicism is not about removing emotions (which is quite impossible for the human mind) – It is all about changing your relationship to your thoughts and emotions.

To be precise, the stoics mainly wheeled the mental tools for fighting negative thoughts and emotions. And if you’re skilled at dealing with the negative, you have more time for the positive.
Ryan Holiday, author of The Daily Stoic, provides the following description for what is at the core of Stoicism:

“Stoicism teaches that we can’t control or rely on anything outside what Epictetus called our “reasoned choice” – our ability to use our reason to choose how we categorize, respond, and reorient ourselves to external forces”

– Ryan Holiday

Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT)

Today, Stoicism is mainly seen as a school of philosophy, but not many know that the Greeks and Romans conceived philosophy itself as a medicine for the soul – or put in modern terms: a type of psychological therapy.

After all, Stoicism was one of the main inspirations for behavioral psychologist Albert Ellis, as he developed what is now know as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). This form of therapy is mainly focused on teaching patients that they do not have control over every aspect of their lives and the world around them, while they do have the power to control how they interpret and deal with things that life puts in front of them… sounds familiar?

And the CBT has proven to be quite effective. In fact, a long list of studies has pointed out CBT to be the most effective treatment for numerous mental health issues. Also, CBT patients have the lowest relapse rates. (Source)

When you think about it, it’s quite impressive how such ancient knowledge can still be applicable in the 21st century. Or as the Swiss psychiatrist Paul Dubois put it:

“If we eliminate from ancient writings a few allusions that gave them local color, we shall find the ideas of Socrates, Epictetus, Seneca, and Marcus Aurelius absolutely modern and applicable to our times.”

– Paul Dubois

But this school of thought is not only a useful tool for the psychologically deeply troubled. Anyone at whatever point in their lives can practice the way of the stoics to mentally strengthen themselves, cultivate resilience, purpose and even joy – a better quality of life.

So let’s get into the details of how to do that.

The Three Stoic Disciplines

Ultimately, the Stoics build their mental models from three fundamental disciplines.

  1. The discipline of Perception
  2. The discipline of Action
  3. The discipline of Will.

The Discipline of Perception

The discipline of Perception is about how we see and perceive the world around us. The way we perceive the world around us can be two things: a source of strength or a source of weakness.

We can namely decide ourselves what we think about anything that triggers an initial subjective thought. Emotional reactions like anger, prejudice, expectation, regret, and fear are so often deceptive signals that are not helpful and almost always make a situation worse – these perceptions are a source of weakness.

Instead, take a step back. Look at these feelings from above and ask yourself: Does this actually make me feel better? Is this helping the situation? Is my initial reaction justified? By consciously thinking through our emotional reactions objectively, we can manage and mitigate the triggers that cause them, instead of being controlled by them. By applying the discipline of Perception, you can objectively question the accuracy of your initial judgement, and only follow through with the positive and constructive ones – these perceptions then become a source of strength.

Say, you are feeling jealous. Jealousy stems from comparing yourself with someone that has something you don’t. But is that justified? You have no idea how much this person has worked for it, and whether they’re actually happy with what they’ve got. It’s simply not reasonable to be jealous as you have no idea about his/her personal circumstances and history. And even if you did, does it matter? It only makes sense to compare yourself to yourself. Your former self, yesterday. That’s constructive judgement.

The Discipline of Action

The discipline of Action is about the decisions and actions we take – but more importantly: To what end. Mere action is no discipline at all, but directed action is. It is about being goal-oriented in your actions, with the goal of doing the right thing.

But now the billion-dollar question: what is doing the right thing?

According to the stoics, it all starts with understanding that we are made for others, and not ourselves. Inherently, the goal of an individual should be to act in a way that benefits humanity – the collective good.
And the individual can most effectively do this by living according to the 4 virtues of stoicism:

  1. Courage: To stand up for what you believe and think, and for others.
  2. Justice: How you treat other people and yourself, with fairness.
  3. Temperance: To be balanced. To do the right amount of things the right way, and nothing in excess.
  4. Wisdom: The pursuit of knowledge and understanding of the world. And more importantly: The ability to let go of former believes when they turn out to be false.

Those are the virtues that you want to apply in every situation in how you act.

With these virtues in mind, Marcus Aurelius talks in his meditations about the use of reason to judge the relative value, or “Axia”, of different outcomes to determine the right course of action. Of course, this all sounds easier than it really is, but it is all about using our reasoned choice to the best of our ability with these moral values in mind.

The Discipline of Will

The discipline of Will is all about how we deal with the things we cannot control or change, and realize our limited influence over the external world. A practitioner of this discipline is aware of the fact that only his thoughts and direct actions (Perceptions and Actions) are truly within his sphere of control – everything else is out of his hands.

By means of the discipline of Perception we can objectively judge whether our initial judgement of a situation is correct or helpful, but sometimes a situation is just unchangeable and undeniably negative. For example, when your house burns to the ground, you become paralyzed and may never walk again, or a friend or close relative passes away.

To practice the Discipline of will, you must realize that suffering is inevitable and instead change your relationship with it. Instead of feeling sorry for yourself, you are much better off accepting negative events – no matter how hard that may be. That has nothing to do with trying not to feel bad, which is impossible, but by seeing the bad things that happen to us as a humbling learning experience that is part of the journey of life.

“Don’t hope that events will turn out the way you want, welcome events in whichever way they happen. This is the path to peace.”

– Epictitus

In other words; stop fighting against these inevitable events, and instead come to terms with it. To accept them as a part of life requires mental toughness, but is the most effective way to deal with them.

Connecting The Dots

Alright, it time to connect all the dots. Let’s see how mindfulness and the three stoic disciplines can melt together and form a powerful mental model for a better quality of life.

Mindfulness is a method of strengthening your attention muscle and improve your ability to observe your own thoughts and be more in the present moment. This perfectly ties in with the first stoic Discipline of Perception, which is all about detaching from unhelpful negative thought patterns. To judge a situation objectively, so you can turn and refocus your attention towards a helpful and constructive way of thinking.

Mindfulness generates the awareness that we can control our perceptions, which in turn creates the mental clarity to more effectively judge the relative value of outcomes and act properly according to the 4 stoic virtues. Then, we can find the perspective to accept the negative things that the world puts before us as we realize we’ve done everything within our sphere of control – And know that suffering is an inevitable part of life.

Marcus Aurelius perfectly summarized these mental models in one single sentence:

“Objective judgment, now at this very moment. Unselfish action, now at this very moment. Willing acceptance—now at this very moment—of all external events. That’s all you need.”

— Marcus Aurelius

“Drop the mic”

Mindfulness and Stoicism in Modern Society

Now, if you ask me, it is obvious that these mental models can have an incredibly positive influence on anyone adopting its practices. Therefore, I’m really excited to see that these ancient schools of philosophy are making a comeback into modern society.

During the past two decades, the mindfulness meditation practice has been turning into a real hype. When people used to frown upon someone practicing meditation – as if you were some floaty hipster – now people are adopting mindfulness at a mind-blowing rate, turning into a real mainstream habit. You only have to look up “meditation” in the app store to see the market is adapting to this development.

And businesses are not lagging behind: In 2018, an astounding 44% of the Fortune 100 companies offer a mindfulness meditation program tor their employees. Also, quite interesting is that the US military is now experimenting with a daily mindful breathing practice in the training regiment of their troops for increasing focus under chaotic circumstances.

But people operating on a very high level were already early to the party, as they recognized the huge benefits. For his book “Tribe of Mentors”, best-selling author Tim Ferris sent 11 questions to 140 high-performers at the top of their fields – including athletes, managers, entrepreneurs, and artists. What he learned: The vast majority (90%) of these successful people, regardless of profession, practice mindfulness meditation daily.

“Your mind is the basis of everything you experience and of every contribution you make to the lives of others. Given this fact, it makes sense to train it”

– Sam Harris

Seems like a fair deal to me.

Jumping back to Stoicism, we turn to Tim Ferris again, who talks about the ancient philosophy as his “Operating system for life”. He has adopted stoicism as a way of making better decisions, and to simplify and streamline everything in both his personal and professional life.

Just like meditation, stoicism has also found a new modern audience, including professional athletes, CEOs, executives, and many public men and women. Who many regards as history’s greatest minds also admired the original ancient stoics such as George Washington, Adam Smith, Immanuel Kant, and Theodore Roosevelt. Not the least people to have on your list…

Let’s wrap this up!

So, by now, I hope I’ve clearly elaborated why I’m staring at my eyelids in my bedroom chair for 10 minutes every morning… With this mindfulness practice, I aim to cultivate the awareness and presence that I need to more effectively use the Stoic Disciplines in my daily life. To build mental toughness, resilience, and be better at dealing with negative thoughts and emotions so I can focus more on the positive. 

It is with these mental models that I want to build a better quality of life. Because of the mental models, we adopt to determine our state of mind at any given moment. And in the end, the state of our mind is the single thing that determines how we perceive, how we act, and how we deal with the obstacles in our lives.

“Everything can be taken from a man but one thing: The last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way”

– Victor Frankl

I invite you to do so as well.

Thanks for reading!


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