Don’t be shackled by stuff

Plus: Bill Gates likes this book so much, he's giving a copy to every college graduate

If someone had given you a horse in 1915 you would have been ecstatic. Horses were the primary means of transportation and were used extensively in agriculture. There were 26 million horses in America; one horse to every four people. The average annual salary was $680; horses sold for around $100. No wonder there were severe penalties for stealing horses. 

Before the mechanization of agriculture and transportation, horses were indispensable. 

But if someone tried to give you a horse today, you’d graciously decline. Because, what would you do with a horse? Where would you put it? How much would it cost to feed it? Who would take care of it? Why bother? 

But let’s not just talk about horses. Let’s talk about furniture, clothes, cars, and other stuff. Most items depreciate in value as soon as they are purchased. When they become unnecessary, outdated, or broken they become a burden. 

Do we really need so much stuff?

I once read of a nomadic tribe in Africa whose members refuse to accept gifts because if they accept a gift they’ll have to carry it wherever they go for the rest of their lives. That might be a good standard by which we should judge the wisdom of buying something: Do I really want to be responsible for this thing for the rest of my life? 

Before you buy something, ask yourself “Two years from now, will I be glad I bought this item? How about 10 years from now?” Also ask, “Will I have to paint it? Change the oil in it? Find space for it? Worry about it? Will it be used? Is it merely a status symbol? Who initiated this conversation? Have I seriously considered the pros and cons of owning this thing? Am I yielding to consumerism, materialism, or vanity? Will this object distract me from more important life-issues?”

Many years ago I committed to live with 100 or fewer possessions. The decision has simplified my life and allowed me to focus on more important issues. 

The artist and philanthropist John Ruskin once said, “Every increased possession loads us with a new weariness.” Let’s get rid of the horses.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Bill Gates calls Hans Rosling’s bestseller, Factfulness, “one of the most important books I’ve ever read–an indispensable guide to thinking clearly about the world.” Gates is so impressed with the book that he is giving an online copy to every college graduate in the United States.

I read the book last week and I’m equally impressed. Rosling discusses eight fallacies that lead us to misinterpret the world. Here are three of the eight:

  • The gap instinct: we tend to focus on extremes rather than on the large majority in the middle.
  • The negativity instinct: information about bad events is far more likely to reach us than good news.
  • The straight-line instinct: we tend to assume that current trends will continue as they are.

Get a daily DOSE of these four “happy” chemicals

There are four major chemicals in your brain that influence how happy you are. Our bodies produce these chemicals naturally, but in some people, the body doesn’t produce enough. This deficiency can make us sad, anxious, negative, hopeless, and depressed.

Fortunately, there are things we can do to increase these chemicals. 

Use the acrostic DOSE to remember these four hormones. 

Dopamine motivates us to take action toward goals, desires, and needs, and gives a surge of reinforcing pleasure when achieving them. Procrastination, self-doubt, and lack of enthusiasm are linked with low levels of dopamine. 

Oxytocin both motivates us to establish intimate relationships and helps us sustain them. It is the “cuddle hormone” responsible for humans being social creatures.

Serotonin flows when you feel significant or important. Loneliness and depression appear when serotonin is absent. It helps regulate mood and social behavior, appetite and digestion, sleep, memory, and sexual desire and function. 

Endorphins are released in response to pain and stress and help to alleviate anxiety and depression. The surging “second wind” and euphoric “runner’s high” during and after a vigorous run are a result of endorphins.

If your body is not producing enough of these four chemicals, don’t be passive about it. Take the initiative in three areas.

  1. Prescription drugs can help. For instance, most antidepressants are designed to increase oxytocin and serotonin levels.
  2. Natural products can help. For instance, L-tyrosine, Rhodiola, Mucuna, and L-theanine (available as over-the-counter supplements) can boost dopamine levels. 
  3. Engaging in some simple, daily functions can increase levels of the four chemicals. 

I’ll focus on the third area. I’ll identify the key need that is associated with each chemical, give some practical steps we can take to increase them, and make suggestions on how we can help others.


    • Need – that our lives have meaning; we are not sleep-walking through life; we are making progress toward meaningful goals.
    • Solutions – Set goals and diligently pursue them. When you achieve a goal, celebrate-literally—pop open a bottle of champagne or treat yourself to a personal splurge. Break down big goals into smaller ones and celebrate when you achieve each step. Dopamine is also produced as we anticipate meaningful activities, so always have something you’re looking forward to.
    • We can help others by encouraging them to set goals and celebrating their achievements. 


    • Need – emotional and physical intimacy and trust in relationships.
    • Solution – Develop close, intimate relationships. In a survey that has been taken annually for many years, Americans are asked, “How many close friends do you have?” As recently as ten years ago the average answer was, five. In a recent survey the average answer was, none. No wonder depression and anxiety are rampant in our society.
    • Here’s a short-term solution: oxytocin is nicknamed the “cuddle hormone”; a simple way to keep oxytocin flowing is to give someone a hug. Psychologists suggest that eight hugs a day will make a big difference. 
    • We can help others by committing to be a close friend.


    • Need – This need is summed up in Viktor Frankl’s book Man’s Search for Meaning. Frankl taught that our primary drive in life is not pleasure, but the discovery and pursuit of what we personally find meaningful.
    • Solution – discover what “makes your boat float.” What energizes your core? Also, good diet and exposure to sunlight will help. As much as 95 percent of the serotonin in your body is produced in your gut so proper diet is important.
    • Help others by coaching them toward meaningful activity.


    • Stress and pain are the two most common factors leading to the release of endorphins. Endorphins interact with the opiate receptors in the brain to reduce our perception of pain and act similarly to drugs such as morphine and codeine.
    • Solution – Don’t avoid stress and pain; in moderation, they are good for you so don’t pursue a stress-free, pain-free life. Exercise is the main thing way to produce endorphins.
    • Help others maintain a proper balance of stress in their lives: not too much or too little. I recently led a group of friends on a vigorous tour through Europe. Our pace was unrelenting; we walked at least six miles a day, so at the end of each day we were exhausted but somewhat euphoric. Laughter also helps release endorphins.

This post is a brief attempt by a non-scientist to help us understand how certain brain chemicals affect how happy we are. The bottom line for me is: 

  1. If you’re consistently unhappy:
    • Exercise, eat a balanced diet, spend time outside. 
    • Develop deep friendships.
    • Engage in meaningful work.
    • Set goals and measure your progress.
    • Take natural supplements
  1. If you’re still unhappy, talk to your physician about taking medication.

I get impatient with people who complain of being unhappy but they don’t take the initiative to do what they can to improve. Get out of the passenger seat and into the drivers’s seat; there are steps you can take to feel happier.

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


Three phrases that will greatly enhance your relationships

Plus - AI is getting out of control

We are reluctant to say them, but when spoken honestly and appropriately, three simple phrases can help maintain our personal integrity and sustain peace in relationships.

“I don’t know.”

Often, when we don’t know something, we make stuff up. When we don’t know the answer to a question, we attempt to answer it anyway. Instead, we should just say, “I don’t know.”

In his must-read-book, In The Kingdom of Ice, Hampton Sides writes that in the late 1800s no one knew what the North Pole was like because no one had ever been there. The most famous cartographer of the day was a German professor named August Petermann. He was, supposedly, the world’s foremost authority on world geography. The world wanted to know what the Arctic was like, so Petermann wrote, “It is a well-known fact that there exists to the north of the Siberian coast, and, at a comparatively short distance from it, a sea open at all seasons.” He firmly believed that when a team of explorers finally reached the North Pole, they would find a tropical environment, complete with palm trees and perhaps a new race of humans.

Huh? Why didn’t he just say, “I don’t know”?

When was the last time you said, “I don’t know.”? I admire people who use the phrase; I have little regard for people who should but don’t. There’s no shame in admitting that you simply don’t know.

“I made a mistake.”

When I hear someone say, “I made a mistake,” my admiration for that person escalates. My regard is diminished when there is stubborn refusal to admit the obvious. Politicians and leaders, in particular, are reluctant to admit mistakes, but it’s nearly impossible not to make mistakes when you’re leading aggressively and making a lot of decisions. To err is human.

Even when we do admit that a mistake was made, we have a hard time using the personal pronoun “I.” When Richard Nixon commented on Watergate, when Ronald Reagan talked about the Iran-Contra affair, and when Hillary Clinton spoke about Whitewater, they used the phrase, “Mistakes were made.” That doesn’t quite hit the nail on the head, does it?

Compare these responses to the most famous unsent message in history. General Eisenhower penned the following memo before the Normandy Invasion. Fortunately, it was never posted because the invasion was successful. 

“Our landings…have failed..and I have withdrawn the troops. My decision to attack at this time and place was based upon the best information available. The troops, the air and the Navy did all that bravery and devotion could do. If any blame or fault attaches to the attempt it is mine alone.” 

When was the last time you said, “I made a mistake”?

“I was wrong; please forgive me.”

Only an infallible person can avoid saying this phrase, and you and I don’t qualify. Speaking this phrase doesn’t make you a bad person; it simply means that you messed up and want to make it right.

I once counseled a couple struggling in their marriage. In one of the sessions I asked the husband, “How long has it been since you’ve spoken these words to your wife: ‘I was wrong; please forgive me.’” Awkward silence ensued. At least he was honest when he replied, “Never.” They had been married 22 years.

I appealed to his logic: “What is the probability that in 22 years of marriage, you have never hurt or offended your wife?” Again, he was honest in saying, “The chances are slim.” Their homework assignment was rather obvious: identify ways in which you have hurt your spouse; admit it; and ask forgiveness.

When was the last time you said, “I was wrong; please forgive me.”?

In this coming year, make a goal of speaking one of these three phrases at least once a week. Okay…how about once a month?

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Last year I wrote a post titled I’m worried about Artificial Intelligence.  Here’s an article about Facebook shutting off one of their AI projects because their AI computers developed their own language.

List your regrets

At the beginning of each new year we’re encouraged to set goals for the coming year. I’m a big fan of that. It might also be beneficial to periodically list regrets: things we regret about the previous year and even regrets from the distant past that have come into focus. 

Here’s my truncated list of regrets from the past. 

  • Not learning a second language. In high school I studied Spanish for three years; to get my PhD I learned German, but neither language “took”; I viewed both pursuits as “got to” instead of “get to.” My four-year-old grandson, Benjamin, attends a Spanish immersion school where only Spanish is spoken. I hope he keeps it up. 
  • All three of my college degrees are in music. I should have pursued a broader education.
  • I didn’t understand until later in life, the impact my dysfunctional family had on my life. 
  • I didn’t understand the value of reading books until later in life. For the first 55 years of my life I only read books under compulsion. I didn’t understand that “reading allows us the benefit and pleasure of thinking another person’s thoughts” (Harris).
  • I didn’t drink wine until I was 40 years old. My conservative, Protestant upbringing taught that drinking wine is sin. It isn’t. (I need to write a blog post on this topic.)
  • I haven’t loved my wife as I should. 
  • I didn’t understand the joy and wonder of “prefer one another.” For most of my life I have focused on me—my interests and well-being. Two thousand years ago the apostle Paul encouraged us to focus on others (Philippians 2:4). Adam Grant recently wrote a book on the topic—Give and Take. 

…and the list goes on

Some regrets are fixed and the loss unrecoverable. Name them and learn from them, but then drop them—there’s no value in crying over spilt milk. But most of our regrets can be minimized through change. In a wonderful, redemptive manner, naming a regret and then vowing to make things different, works. Of the seven regrets I listed above, none are immutable.

The word “regret” normally carries a negative, fatalistic meaning. Why not reimagine the term to mean “catalyst for course correction”?

Question: What are your thoughts about this essay? You can leave a comment by clicking here.

Don’s “best of 2018”

Here are some highlights of my life in 2018 A.D.

BookLost Connections – Johann Hari – This book will only benefit individuals who have or are suffering from depression and/or anxiety, know of someone who is struggling with depression and/or anxiety, and those who want to adopt a healthy lifestyle and help other people do the same. In other words, everyone should read this book. Very accessible; hard to put down; very informative; potentially life-changing. One sentence summarizes the book: “An antidepressant isn’t just a pill. It’s anything that lifts your depression.”

Meal – On the Tale of Three Cities trip I hosted in October, one night we ate at Giovanni’s restaurant in the theater district of London. The place only seats about 35 so we were in tight quarters. A family from Sicily has run the restaurant for decades. The two hour meal was delicious and the conversation was memorable. I was reminded of the wonderful things that can happen around a meal.

Concert – On the Tale of Three Cities trip, I wanted to end the trip with a memorable moment that no one would ever forget, so I hired an Italian opera singer to present a concert just for our group, in the chapel in Santa Brigida. We thought we had died and gone to heaven.

Person of the yearJason Webb. Jason is the director of media at SCC. He is competent, multi-talented (professional trumpet player, mathematician), hard worker, low-maintenance, great emotional and social skills. Clone Jason and the world will be a better place.

Travel experience – In July Mary and I went to Peru to visit the Sacred Valley. The highlight of the trip was Machu Picchu. It was one of the most enjoyable trips we have ever taken. I encourage you to travel extensively. I’ll probably host a trip to Peru for friends in 2020.  

Best friend – Here’s a picture of my best friend (my granddaughter, Marin, is also in the picture). All joking aside, I’ve had Buddy for 14 months and he has become my therapy dog-we visit about important and trivial issues every night before I go to bed.

Bottle of wine – Instead of highlighting the best wine I had this year (Hentley Farms, The Beast, 2012 Shiraz) I want to recommend two satisfactory table wines. Chateau St. Michelle Riesling is made in Washington and sells for around $8; Alamos is a Cabernet Sauvignon from Argentina that sells for around $9. You don’t have to spend a lot of money to get a decent wine for every day consumption.  

New space in my mind – I enjoy learning things that I have never thought of before. In November I started studying the four “happy chemicals” (dopamine, oxytocin, serotonin, endorphins) and the ways we can increase these chemicals in our brains other than by taking prescription drugs. I’ll post an essay on this topic next year.

Hobby – I love working in my vineyard. It’s therapeutic to get dirt under my fingernails; I often work myself to exhaustion; I have a new appreciation for the cycle of life. I planted in March; here’s a picture of the vineyard in November.