A psychologist, Vietnam veteran, and father twice bereaved lays out what he has learned from his own struggles and decades of practicing psychotherapy. A treatise on radical ownership (“Hope is more powerful than sympathy”), Livingston shares profound yet practical advice for a well-lived life: don’t ever be a victim, own your problems and work to grow, have high expectations and judge others on their actions, take risks, laugh, and ultimately, learn to find happiness in an imperfect world.
Summary of Takeaways
1- Have high expectations, and judge on actions.
- You tend to get what you expect. Particularly be careful picking a mate. Look for kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment. Don’t let your relationship become a power struggle.
- Look at what people do, not what they say, also in yourself. We do things repetitively that produce some reward… the difficult part is figuring out what that reward is. Identify your subconscious emotional triggers and don’t let them be the autopilot for your life.
- Ideal love isn’t real. We seek it, and simultaneously drive away those who love us for real, albeit imperfectly. We are afraid of dying, and a way to hang on to our youth and desirableness is having that desire validated through sex with a stranger. It allows us to create an illusion that we’re special and unique. An unhealthy way of generating self worth.
2- Own your shit, and work at being better.
- Don’t be a victim. Sympathy < Hope. Always focus on what you can do NOW to improve your life. “Learned helplessness damages irrevocably the self-respect that comes with being a free person on the earth, being able to struggle with and overcome adversity.”
- Your past doesn’t define you. It is mainly a story you tell, you get to decide it. Don’t let it become a prison you construct for yourself. You have to believe you have control over your life in order to be happy.
- Feelings follow behavior. If you do something to help yourself, often it will make you feel better.
- Change takes time and effort. Life has an asymmetry in building vs destroying. Only bad things happen quickly. Be in it for the long haul.
- Every life contains loss- it’s how we respond that defines us. To lose that which is most important to us is to learn humility, helplessness, and survival. It’s that we can respond, survive, that makes us human. We are never out of choices, no matter how dire… we are Not. Dead. Yet.
3- Take risks and let go.
- Perfect is the enemy of good. Control is an illusion- we gain it only by relinquishing it. Obsession is how the world runs, but is insufferable in relationships.
- The shortest path isn’t always optimal. Not all who wander are lost. Be less afraid, particularly of the “sexy risks.” You regret the things you don’t do, and boldness is rewarded by the universe.
- Our strengths are our weaknesses. Moderation in all things, even kindness can be bad at the extreme.
- Micromanage and criticize less. So much of intimate communication is criticism or instructions- up to 90%. Nobody likes to be told what to do. Direct less, love more. Parents can’t shape kids; helicopter parenting has inverse effect- makes kids anxious or oppositional instead of successful.
- Forgive. Blame becomes a distraction from how to fix your life now for the better.
4- Be happy.
- Figure out who you are and what you want. Lying to yourself in the service of temporary comfort is the worst sin of all. So rationalizations are less benign than they seem. Write your own eulogy/epitaph.
- Happiness and love are the ultimate risks worth taking. To be happy, have: something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.
- Life is a series of relinquishments, culminating in death. This process is what creates nostalgia. Don’t fall prey it; the world wasn’t better, we were more naive. Longing for the past robs us of being present. Age gracefully and model hope to young people in this process.
- Being perfect isn’t the goal; it is being happy in an imperfect world. It’s funny we’re not all depressed in a terrible world. But we can use selective attention to enjoy life.
- Laugh. Laughing is therapeutic. Laughing and contemplating death are the two things that separate us from animals. In this way, they are connected… we find ways to laugh in the face of death. Sharing laughter creates unity- we’re in this together.
1- If the map doesn’t agree with the ground, the map is wrong.
We are always trying to get the maps in our heads to agree with the ground, through trial and error.
One of the most critical maps is picking a mate… 50% pick wrong. Kindness, tolerance, capacity for commitment key traits. Avoid people who have personality disorders.
2- We are what we do, and we get what we expect.
Good news is that we have good medications for depression, but bad news is medication won’t make you happy. Happiness is having meaning and pleasure.
You are not what you think, say, intend, or feel- but what we do. Judge other people by what they do, not what they say. Past behavior is the most reliable predictable of future behavior.
We are bored because we lack a “why?”
We get not what we deserve, but what we expect.
Components of happiness are something to do, someone to love, and something to look forward to.
We love someone when the importance of their needs and desires rises to our own.
When someone hurts you, ask: is it possible to intentionally hurt someone who loves you? Many people vacillate between isolation and self-deception.
3- It is hard to remove by logic a thought not placed there by logic
We operate mostly on autopilot; most of our behavior is based on emotion. It seems like we play out: “if it doesn’t work, double it.” We need to be able to identify our emotional needs of we want to be happy.
Often suppressed by parents who impose their expectations. Your children owe you nothing- let them go.
4- The statute of limitations has expired on all of our childhood traumas
Your history is a story you tell yourself. Learn from it, but don’t let it define you. Owning your future is the first step in a slow process of discovering what’s next. At the end of the day, we are responsible for most of what happens to us.
Learned helplessness is a hardest for him, as is similarity to someone in his life.
Sympathy < Hope.
5- Any relationship is under the control of the person who cares the least
Marriages are power struggles.
6- Feelings follow behavior
You are obligated to do something to help yourself, and often it will make you feel better, instead of waiting to feel better before acting.
There is a fine line between expressing empathy and solidarity for those who suffer, and endorsing a passive dependency. The disease model infantilizes people, removing their responsibility to help themselves. Even worse, it damages irrevocably the self-respect that comes with being a free person on the earth, being able to struggle with and overcome adversity. This is counter-productive, creating a self-fulfilling and reinforcing affirmation of dependency and hopelessness.
7- Be bold, and powerful forces will come to your aid
Went to Vietnam to see if he was brave, and because of a death wish. Lost faith in the war… Took a big risk embarrassing the command.
8- Perfect is the enemy of good
We are taught security through the form of material acquisition. We get put on the track for success early - education primarily.
This turns the world into a zero-sum game.
The “paradox of perfection.” Obsessiveness is how everything gets done, but is insufferable in everyday life. We gain control only by relinquishing it.
9- The most important questions in life are “why?” And “why not?” The trick is knowing which to ask.
Most of what we do is sub-conscious. We need to examine our underlying motives.
However we use “why” a lot to allow ourselves to be risk-averse. We should really ask “why not” more.
Life is a gamble where we don’t get to deal the cards but have to play them. Risk is how we learn, and the cost is pain. To take risk in the face of consequences is an act of courage; to fail to do so, an act of despair.
10- Our strengths are our weaknesses
Moderation in all things; anything at the extremes can be bad, even kindness.
The traits that succeed at work, fail at home. Common pattern: relationship between obsessive man and theatrical, impulsive woman. Initially drawn together due to complementary needs- he entertainment, she, structure. But outcome is usually bad: he wants her to be more responsible, she wants him to be more fun.
People with obsessive tendencies in an imperfect world have predisposition to depression. Control causes anxiety and so-forth.
Life is a paradox. Everything is a good-news, bad-news story. We forget why we fell in love with people. The things that we think make us happy, don’t. The pursuit of pleasure brings pain. The greatest risk is not taking any. The promotion brings more money and more headaches. Experience teaches us well, but we are too old to apply it. Impermanence is the final and controlling paradox… everything will be gone one day.
11- The most secure prisons are the ones we construct for ourselves
Most loss of freedom is voluntary constraints, usually from fear of failure. Broken promises to ourselves; we fail to do the things required to be the people we want to be. Low expectations protects us from disappointment.
Why don’t we change? No lack of suggestions. We need to imagine what we want first, and then put in the effort. Marketing tells us happiness is for sale, but in reality it takes hard work.
People want excuses for changing- disease, etc. People confuse their thoughts and words for actually change.
12- The problems of the elderly are serious but boring.
We are youth-obsessed. Elderly are stigmatized; useless in society. They have a lot to teach us.
Because of that, elderly fall into the role of complaining. This creates a cycle of self-absorption and discomfort that perpetuates the view that they are a burden and useless. Then they segregate themselves from society.
It doesn’t need to be this way. We need to model optimism and grace as we grow old.
13- Happiness is the ultimate risk
Advantages to being depressed and/or pessimism- it is safe. To be happy is to risk losing that happiness.
Psychotherapy is goal-directed conversation in the service of change.
Suicide - is a kind of curse forever on those left behind, and the ultimate statement of hopelessness. Statement that our caring for them was not enough to live another day. Very self-absorbed, as all those in pain are.
Lost his son of 22 to suicide for bipolar. Words cannot contain the grief; parents should not bury their children.
Words of Tom Paxton song in memory of son: “Are you going away with no word of farewell, will there be not a trace left behind? I could have loved you better, didn’t mean to be unkind. You know, that was the last thing on my mind.”
14- True love is the apple of Eden
Curiosity, weakness, lust are human traits. Life is a fall from grace.
“Cleave” means to unify and to split.
We choose mates poorly, because we are shallow and stupid, and have bad models from our parents. We aren’t taught how to pick lovers in school.
15- Only bad things happen quickly
Habits make us, good and bad.
Destroying is so much easier than building.
16- Not all who wander are lost
Americans are linear and goal-directed. But doing what should be done leads to an inhibited life that causes mid-life crises.
The shortest path is not always optimal. Wander.
17- Unrequited love is painful but not romantic
We all want love, and sometimes that goes off the rails. One step over stalking.
18- There is nothing more pointless or common than making the same mistakes over again
Particularly common when picking partners.
“How will doing X make me feel about myself?”
Why would I live with someone I don’t trust?
19- We flee from the truth in vain
Found out he was adopted.
20- It’s a bad idea to lie to yourself
Authenticity is a virtue. We need to figure out who we are and what we want. Lying to yourself in the service of temporary comfort is the worst sin of all. So rationalizations are less benign than they seem.
21- We are all prone to the myth of the perfect stranger
Most common myth is having chosen the wrong partner in our youth. The story of the perfect stranger come to save us with their love is the driving force behind sky-high infidelity rates (50-65% by age 40).
We are afraid of dying, and a way to hang on to our youth and desirableness is having that desire validated through sex with a stranger. It allows us to create an illusion that we’re special and unique. An unhealthy way of generating self worth.
Ideal love isn’t real. We seek it, and simultaneously drive away those who love us for real, albeit imperfectly.
22- Love is never lost, not even in death.
To lose that which is most important to us is to learn humility, helplessness, and survival. Control is an illusion. In the face of this, what questions are really worth asking? Why go on?
Not “why me?” or any other appeal to fairness. No such thing as closure. You are never the same. But what is left?
There is no way around grief- you just go through it. You are not alone. But your life still has meaning.
Forsaken belief in an orderly universe and just god, but not relinquished love for his sons. That is what passes for hope. The meaning of your life going forward is to transfer that love on to others.
23- Nobody likes to be told what to do
So much of intimate communication is criticism or instructions- up to 90%.
The idea that relaxation of vigilance or standards will result in disaster is awfulizing. Helicopter parents produce maladaptive children. Let kids be kids.
Stop telling everyone what to do.
24- The major advantage of illness is that it provides relief from accountability
We do things repetitively that produce some reward… the difficult part is figuring out what that reward is.
We need to own our shit.
25- We are afraid of the wrong things.
Society runs on fear/anxiety- our bodies, our lives, etc.
Sexy risks (natural disasters, terrorism) are not as likely as more mundane things to hurt us (overeating, car accidents).
26- Parents have a limited ability to shape children, except for the worse.
It’s narcissistic to believe we control our kids.
Anxiety is contagious.
Convey to children that the world is imperfect but it is possible to be happy nonetheless. We do this by example.
It’s funny we’re not all depressed in a terrible world. But we can use selective attention to enjoy life.
27- The only real paradises have been lost.
Nostalgia is bullshit.
Life is a series of disenchantments. The world wasn’t better, we were more naive. Life and people are imperfect.
Being perfect isn’t the goal; it is being happy and an imperfect world.
Memory is not a chronology- it is a story we tell ourselves about what we think of ourselves, and how we became who we are. Reunions show how much memory can creep… different people remember same events super differently.
Longing for the past robs us of being present. We have a choice of how we remember the past and how it impacts our future.
28- If all the forms of courage, laughing is the most therapeutic
Humor = surprise
Laughing and contemplating death are the two things that separate us from animals. In this way, they are connected… we find ways to laugh in the face of death.
Sharing laughter creates unity. We’re in this together.
29- Mental health requires freedom of choice.
Common thread in all emotional disorders is that they constrain you- depression, anxiety, etc.
Every life contains loss- it’s how we respond that defines us. It’s that we can respond, survive, that makes us human. We are never out of choices, no matter how dire… we are not. Dead. Yet.
Having more options will make us happier. Constraints make us unhappy.
30- Forgiveness is a form of letting go, but they are not the same thing
Life is a series of relinquishments, practice for the final one.
Forgiveness is a gift to oneself. It is not forgetting or reconciling. An act of will and an act of surrender.
Blame becomes a distraction from how to fix your life now for the better.
Write your own eulogy/epitaph.