Here are some suggestions about what to put in your shrine: a silk scarf; a smooth rock on which you’ve inscribed a haiku or joke with a felt-tip pen; coconut cookies or ginger candy; pumpkin seeds and an origami crane; a green kite shaped like a dragon; a music CD you love; a photo of your hero; a votive candle carved with your word of power; a rubber ducky; a bouquet of fresh beets; a print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
2. Late at night when there’s no traffic, stride down the middle of an empty road that by day is crawling with cars. Dance, careen, and sing songs that fill you with pleasurable emotions. Splay your arms triumphantly as you extemporize prayers in which you make extravagant demands and promises. Give pet names to the trees you pass, declare your admiration for the workers who made the road, and celebrate your sovereignty over a territory that usually belongs to heavy machines and their operators.
3. Where exactly does happiness come from? That’s the riddle posed by David Meyers and Ed Diener in their article, “The Science of Happiness,” published in The Futurist magazine.
Write your answers to their question. Map out the foundations of your own science of happiness. Get serious about defining what makes you feel good. What specific experiences arouse your deepest gratification? Physical pleasure? Seeking the truth? Being a good person? Contemplating the meaning of life? Enjoying the fruits of your accomplishments? Purging pent-up emotion?
4. Have you ever seen the game called “Playing the Dozens?” Participants compete in the exercise of hurling witty insults at each other. Here are some examples: “You’re so dumb, if you spoke your mind you’d be speechless.” “Your mother is so old, she was a waitress at the Last Supper.” “You’re so ugly, you couldn’t get laid if you were a brick.”
I invite you to rebel against any impulse in you that resonates with the spirit of “Playing the Dozens.” Instead, try a new game, “Paying the Tributes.” Choose worthy targets and ransack your imagination to come up with smart, true, and amusing praise about them. The best stuff will be specific to the person you’re addressing, not generic, but here are some prototypes: “You’re so far-seeing, you can probably catch a glimpse of the back of your own head.” “You’re so ingenious, you could use your nightmares to get rich and famous.” “Your mastery of pronoia is so artful, you could convince me to love my worst enemy.”
5. Salvador Dali once staged a party in which guests were told to come disguised as characters from their nightmares. Do the reverse. Throw a bash in which everyone is invited to arrive dressed as a character from the best dream they remember.
6. “The messiah will come when we don’t need him any more,” wrote Franz Kafka. Give your interpretation of his remark.
7. On a big piece of cardboard, make a sign that says, “I love to help; I need to give; please take some money.” Then go out and stand on a traffic island while wearing your best clothes, and give away money to passing motorists. Offer a little more to drivers in rusty brown Pinto station wagons and 1976 El Camino Classics than those in a late-model Lexus or Jaguar.
8. In response to our culture’s ever-rising levels of noise and frenzy, rites of purification have become more popular. Many people now recognize the value of taking periodic retreats. Withdrawing from their usual compulsions, they go on fasts, avoid mass media, practice celibacy, or even abstain from speaking. While we applaud cleansing ceremonies like this, we recommend balancing them with periodic outbreaks of an equal and opposite custom: the Bliss Blitz.
During this celebration, you tune out the numbing banality of the daily grind. But instead of shrinking into asceticism, you indulge in uninhibited explorations of joy, release, and expansion. Turning away from the mildly stimulating distractions you seek out when you’re bored or worried, you become inexhaustibly resourceful as you search for unsurpassed sources of cathartic pleasure. Try it for a day or a week: the Bliss Blitz.
9. When many people talk about their childhoods, they emphasize the alienating, traumatic experiences they had. It has become fashionable to avoid reporting memories of the good times in one’s past. This seems dishonest—a testament to the popularity of cynicism rather than a reflection of objective truth.
I don’t mean to downplay the way your early encounters with pain demoralized your spirit. But as you reconnoiter the promise of pronoia, it’s crucial for you to extol the gifts you were given in your early years: all the helpful encounters, kind teachings, and simple acts of grace that helped you bloom.
In Homer’s epic tale, The Odyssey, he described nepenthe, a mythical drug that induced the forgetfulness of pain and trouble. Modern culture has turned the myth into reality: There are now many stimuli serving that purpose.
If Homer were alive today, we wonder if he’d write about a potion that stirs up memories of delight, serenity, and fulfillment? Imagine that you have taken such a tonic. Spend an hour or two remembering the glorious moments from your past.
10. Become a rapturist, which is the opposite of a terrorist: Conspire to unleash blessings on unsuspecting recipients, causing them to feel good.
Before bringing your work as a rapturist to strangers, practice with two close companions. Offer them each a gift that fires up their ambitions. It should not be a practical necessity or consumer fetish, but rather a provocative tool or toy. Give them an imaginative boon they’ve been hesitant to ask for, a beautiful thing that expands their self-image, a surprising intervention that says, “I love the way you move me.”
11. “There are two ways for a person to look for adventure,” said the Lone Ranger, a TV character. “By tearing everything down, or building everything up.” Give an example of each from your own life.
12. To many people, “sacrifice” is a demoralizing word that connotes deprivation. Is that how you feel? Do you make sacrifices because you’re forced to, or maybe because your generosity prompts you to incur a loss in order to further a good cause?
Originally, “sacrifice” had a different meaning: to give up something valuable in order that something even more valuable might be obtained. Carry out an action that embodies this definition. For instance, sacrifice a mediocre pleasure so as to free yourself to pursue a more exalted pleasure.
13. Are other people luckier than you? If so, psychologist Richard Wiseman says you can do something about it. His book The Luck Factor presents research that proves you can learn to be lucky. It’s not a mystical force you’re born with, he says, but a habit you can develop. How? For starters, be open to new experiences, trust your gut wisdom, expect good fortune, see the bright side of challenging events, and master the art of maximizing serendipitous opportunities.
Name three specific actions you’d like to try in order to improve your luck.
14. Conjure up an imaginary friend and have an intimate conversation with him and her for at least 10 minutes. Bear in mind that this talk can be a rational creative act, not an excursion into lunacy. Composer Robert Schuman had long dialogues with his imaginary friends, Florestan and Eusebius, who provided valuable ideas for his musical scores. W.S. Merwyn wrote a poem in which he recounted the surprising counsel of his teacher John Berryman: “He suggested I pray to the Muse/ get down on my knees and pray/ right there in the corner and he/ said he meant it literally.”
15. Some scholars believe the original Garden of Eden was where Iraq stands today. Though remnants of that ancient paradise survived into modern times, many were obliterated during the American war on Iraq in 2003. A Beauty and Truth Laboratory researcher who lives near the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers kept us posted on the fate of the most famous remnant: the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. Until the invasion, it was a gnarled stump near Nasiriyah. But today it’s gone; only a crater remains.
Let this serve as an evocative symbol for you as you demolish your old ideas about paradise, freeing you up to conjure a fresh vision of your ideal realm.
16. The primary meaning of the word “healing” is “to cure what’s diseased or broken.” Medical practitioners focus on sick people. Psychotherapists wrestle with their clients’ traumas and neuroses. Philanthropists donate their money and social workers contribute their time to helping the underprivileged. I am in awe of them all. The level of one’s spiritual enlightenment, I believe, is more accurately measured by helping people in need than by meditation skills, shamanic shape shifting, supernatural powers, or religious knowledge.
But I also believe in a second kind of healing that is largely unrecognized: to supercharge what is already healthy; to lift up what’s merely sufficient to a sublime state. Using this definition, describe two acts of healing: one you would enjoy performing on yourself and another you’d like to provide for someone you love.
17. Is the world a dangerous, chaotic place with no inherent purpose, running on automatic like a malfunctioning machine and fundamentally inimical to your happiness? Or are you surrounded by helpers in a friendly universe that gives you challenges in order to make you smarter and wilder and kinder? Trick questions! The answers may depend, at least to some degree, on what you believe is true.
Formulate a series of experiments that will allow you to objectively test the hypothesis that the universe is conspiring to help you.
18. Those who explore pronoia often find they have a growing capacity to help people laugh at themselves. While few arbiters of morality recognize this skill as a mark of high character, I put it near the top of my list. In my view, inducing people to take themselves less seriously is a supreme virtue. Do you have any interest in cultivating it? How might you go about it?
19. “God offers to every mind its choice between truth and repose,” wrote Ralph Waldo Emerson. “Take which you please; you can never have both.” Give an example from your own life that refutes or proves Emerson’s assertion.
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