Are We on the Verge of Chatting with Whales? | Hakai Magazine

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“I don’t know much about whales. I have never seen a whale in my life,” says Michael Bronstein. The Israeli computer scientist, teaching at Imperial College London, England, might not seem the ideal candidate for a project involving the communication of sperm whales. But his skills as an expert in machine learning could be key to an ambitious endeavor that officially started in March 2020: an interdisciplinary group of scientists wants to use artificial intelligence (AI) to decode the language of these marine mammals. If Project CETI (for Cetacean Translation Initiative) succeeds, it would be the first time that we actually understand what animals are chatting about—and maybe we could even have a conversation with them.

It started in 2017 when an international group of scientists spent a year together at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, at the Radcliffe Fellowship, a program that promises “an opportunity to step away from usual routines.” One day, Shafi Goldwasser, a computer scientist and cryptography expert also from Israel, came by the office of David Gruber, a marine biologist at City University of New York. Goldwasser, who had just been named the new director of the Simons Institute for the Theory of Computing at the University of California, Berkeley, had heard a series of clicking sounds that reminded her of the noise a faulty electronic circuit makes—or of Morse code. That’s how sperm whales talk to each other, Gruber told her. “I said, ‘Maybe we should do a project where we are translating the whale sounds into something that we as humans can understand,’” Goldwasser recounts. “I really said it as an afterthought. I never thought he was going to take me seriously.”

But the fellowship was an opportunity to take far-out ideas seriously. At a dinner party, they presented the idea to Bronstein, who was following recent advancements in natural language processing (NLP), a branch of AI that deals with the automated analysis of written and spoken speech—so far, just human language. Bronstein was convinced that the codas, as the brief sperm whale utterances are called, have a structure that lends them to this kind of analysis. Fortunately, Gruber knew a biologist named Shane Gero who had been recording a lot of sperm whale codas in the waters around the Caribbean island of Dominica since 2005. Bronstein applied some machine-learning algorithms to the data. “They seemed to be working very well, at least with some relatively simple tasks,” he says. But this was no more than a proof of concept. For a deeper analysis, the algorithms needed more context and more data—millions of whale codas.

But do animals have language at all? The question has been controversial among scientists for a long time. For many, language is one of the last bastions of human exclusivity. Animals communicate, but they do not speak, said Austrian biologist Konrad Lorenz, one of the pioneers of the science of animal behavior, who wrote about his own communications with animals in his 1949 book King Solomon’s Ring . “Animals do not possess a language in the true sense of the word,” Lorenz wrote.

“I rather think that we haven’t looked closely enough yet,” counters Karsten Brensing, a German marine biologist who has written multiple books on animal communication. Brensing is convinced that the utterances of many animals can certainly be called language. This isn’t simply about the barking of dogs: several conditions have to be met. “First of all, language has semantics. That means that certain vocalizations have a fixed meaning that does not change.” Siberian jays, a type of bird, for example, are known to have a vocabulary of about 25 calls, some of which have a fixed meaning.

The second condition is grammar: rules for how to build sentences. For a long time, scientists were convinced that animal communication lacked any sentence structure. But in 2016, Japanese researchers published a study in Nature Communications on the vocalizations of great tits. In certain situations, the birds combine two different calls to warn each other when a predator approaches. They also reacted when the researchers played this sequence to them. However, when the call order was reversed, the birds reacted far less. “That’s grammar,” says Brensing.

The third criterion: you wouldn’t call the vocalizations of an animal species a language if they are completely innate. Lorenz believed that animals were born with a repertoire of expressions and did not learn much in the course of their lives. “All expressions of animal emotions, for instance, the ‘Kia’ and ‘Kiaw’ note of the jackdaw, are therefore not comparable to our spoken language, but only to those expressions such as yawning, wrinkling the brow and smiling, which are expressed unconsciously as innate actions,” Lorenz wrote.

Several animal species have proved to be vocal learners—acquiring new vocabulary, developing dialects, identifying each other by name. Some birds even learn to imitate cellphone ringtones. Dolphins acquire individual whistles that they use as an identifier for themselves, almost like a name.

female sperm whale

Sperm whales dive deep into the ocean and communicate over long distances via a system of clicks. Photo by Amanda Cotton/Project CETI

The clicks of sperm whales are ideal candidates for attempting to decode their meanings—not just because, unlike continuous sounds that other whale species produce, they are easy to translate into ones and zeros. The animals dive down into the deepest ocean depths and communicate over great distances, so they cannot use body language and facial expressions, which are important means of communication for other animals. “It is realistic to assume that whale communication is primarily acoustic,” says Bronstein. Sperm whales have the largest brains in the animal kingdom, six times the size of ours. When two of these animals chatter with each other for an extended period of time, shouldn’t we wonder whether they have something to say to each other? Do they give each other tips on the best fishing grounds? Do whale moms exchange stories about raising their offspring, like their human counterparts? It’s worth trying to find out, say the CETI researchers.

Learning an unknown language is easier if there is something like the famous Rosetta Stone. This stele, discovered in 1799, contains the same text in three languages and was the key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics. Of course, there is no such thing for the animal kingdom. We have neither a human-whale dictionary nor a book with grammatical rules of the sperm whale language.

But there are ways around that. Obviously, children learn their native language without these tools, just by observing the language spoken around them. Researchers have concluded that this kind of learning is basically statistical: the child remembers that the word dog is being uttered a lot when that furry animal enters the room, that certain words are often used in connection with certain others, that a specific sequence of words is more likely than another. In the last 10 years, machine-learning methods have mimicked this type of learning. Researchers fed big neural networks with huge amounts of language data. And those networks could find structures in languages from statistical observations, without being told anything about the content.

One example is the so-called language models, of which the best known is GPT-3, developed by the company OpenAI. Language models are completion machines—GPT-3, for example, is given the beginning of a sentence and completes it word by word, in a similar way to the suggestions that smartphones make when we type text messages, just a lot more sophisticated. By statistically processing huge amounts of text pulled from the internet, language models not only know which words appear together frequently, they also learn the rules of composing sentences. They create correct-sounding sentences, and often ones of strikingly good quality. They are capable of writing fake news articles on a given topic, summarizing complex legal texts in simple terms, and even translating between two languages.

These feats come at a price: huge amounts of data are required. Programmers trained GPT-3’s neural network with about 175 billion words. By comparison, Gero’s Dominica Sperm Whale Project has collected less than 100,000 sperm whale codas. The first job of the new research project will be to vastly expand that collection, with the goal of collecting four billion words—although nobody knows yet what a “word” is in sperm whale language.

If Bronstein’s idea works, it is quite realistic to develop a system analogous to human language models that generates grammatically correct whale utterances. The next step would be an interactive chatbot that tries to engage in a dialogue with free-living whales. Of course, no one can say today whether the animals would accept it as a conversational partner. “Maybe they would just reply, ‘Stop talking such garbage!’” says Bronstein.

diagram of CETI process

Researchers hope artificial intelligence (AI) will give them the key to understanding sperm whale communication. Illustration by Project CETI

But even if the idea works, the downside of all language models is that they don’t know anything about the content of the language in which they are chatting. It would be ironic if the researchers created a bot that could converse fluently with a whale, but then they couldn’t understand a word. That’s why they want to annotate the voice recordings with data on the whales’ behavior right from the start—where were the animals, who spoke to whom, what was the reaction? The challenge is to find an automated way to do at least some of these millions of annotations.

A lot of technology still has to be developed—sensors to record the individual whales and monitor their locations. Those are necessary to clearly assign individual sounds to a specific animal. Project CETI successfully applied for five years of funding from the Audacious Project run by TED, the conference organization. A number of organizations are part of the project, including the National Geographic Society and the Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

The CETI researchers were not the first to come up with the idea of applying machine-learning techniques to animal languages. Aza Raskin, former physicist, designer, and entrepreneur turned critic of technology, had a similar idea back in 2013 when he heard about the complicated language of African gelada monkeys. Could we apply NLP technology that was developed to process human languages to animal vocalizations? He helped found the Earth Species Project with the aim of doing just that. At that time, the technology was in its infancy; it took another four years before it was developed into a working self-learning method for automated translation between languages. The word-embedding technique puts all the words of a language into a multidimensional galaxy where words often used together are close to each other, and those connections are represented by lines. For example, “king” relates to “man” as “queen” relates to “woman.”

It turned out that the maps of two human languages can be made to coincide, even though not every word from one language has an exact counterpart in the other. Today, this technique allows for translation between two human languages in written text, and soon it could be used on audio recordings without text.

But is it conceivable that we could overlay the maps of a human and an animal language? Raskin is convinced that this is possible, at least in principle. “There is almost certainly some kind of shared set of experiences, especially with other mammals. They need to breathe, they need to eat, they grieve their young after they die,” he says. At the same time, Raskin believes, there will be a lot of areas where the maps don’t fit. “I don’t know what is going to be more fascinating—the parts where we can do direct translation, or the parts where there is nothing which is directly translatable to the human experience.” Once animals speak for themselves and we can listen, says Raskin, we could have “really transformational cultural moments.”

sperm whale mother and calf

No doubt this sperm whale mother and calf communicate, but researchers are wondering what they say to each other. Photo by Amanda Cotton/Project CETI

Certainly these hopes are getting a little ahead of the research. Some scientists are very skeptical about whether the collection of CETI data will contain anything interesting. Steven Pinker, the renowned linguist and author of the book The Language Instinct, sees the project with a fair amount of skepticism. “I’ll be curious to see what they find,” he writes in an email. However, he has little hope that we can find rich content and structure in the sperm whale codas. “I suspect it won’t be much beyond what we already know, namely that they are signature calls whose semantics is pretty much restricted to who they are, perhaps together with emotional calls. If whales could communicate complex messages, why don’t we see them using it to do complex things together, as we see in humans?”

Diana Reiss, a researcher from Hunter College, City University of New York, disagrees. “If people looked at you and me right now,” she says during a video interview, “I’m not doing much, nor are you, yet we’re communicating a great deal of meaningful things.” In the same manner, she thinks we don’t know much about what the whales might say to each other. “I think we can safely say we’re in a state of ignorance at this point,” she says.

Reiss has been working with dolphins for years and uses a simple underwater keyboard to communicate with them. She cofounded a group, Interspecies Internet, which explores ways to effectively communicate with animals. Among her cofounders are musician Peter Gabriel; Vinton Cerf, one of the developers of the internet; and Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms. Reiss welcomes CETI’s ambitions, especially its interdisciplinary approach.

The CETI researchers admit that their search for meaning in whale codas might not turn up anything interesting. “We understand that one of our greatest risks is that the whales could be incredibly boring,” says Gruber, the program lead. “But we don’t think this is the case. In my experience as a biologist, whenever I really looked at something closely, there has never been a time when I’ve been underwhelmed by animals.”

The name of the CETI project evokes SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence, which has scanned the sky for radio signals of alien civilizations since the 1960s, so far without finding a single message. Since no sign of ET has been found, Bronstein is convinced we should try out our decoding skills on signals that we can detect here on Earth. Instead of pointing our antennas toward space, we can eavesdrop on a culture in the ocean that is at least as alien to us. “I think it is very arrogant to think that Homo sapiens is the only intelligent and sentient creature on Earth,” Bronstein says. “If we discover that there is an entire civilization basically under our nose—maybe it will result in some shift in the way that we treat our environment. And maybe it will result in more respect for the living world.”

An ambitious project is attempting to interpret sperm whale clicks with artificial intelligence, then talk back to them.

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What Happened When I Ate The Best Brain Foods For A Week

But like most people, I have my unhealthy habits. After using the sleep app Sleep Cycle for a few months, I’ve come to realize that my sleep quality and quantity is not as high as I would like it to be. While I try to eat a healthy diet of lean meat and vegetables about 70% of the time, I resort to junk food when I’m stressed and drink way too much coffee when I don’t get enough sleep. Somewhere in the process, my brain slows down and it becomes excruciating to think properly for what seems like a long stretch in the afternoon.

Related:To Improve Your Focus, Just Eat Like A Drone Pilot

I’ve tried adopting “diets” for the sake of my brain and energy levels–but have largely failed due to its all-or-nothing approach. Diets like the Slow- Carb diet, the Ketogenic diet, Whole 30, Paleo, and the Bulletproof Diet all tout amazing brain function as a result, but I hated their restrictive nature. The fact that a slip-up can undo a week of discipline discouraged me from continuing with any of those eating plans for longer than two weeks.

But since I notice a difference in my sleep and clearheadedness when I’m more conscious of what I eat, I was determined to find a plan that works. A lot of Googling led me to the MIND diet, which was designed purely for greater cognitive function, as opposed to weight loss like most of the diets above. The best part of all? it’s not all or nothing, adopting parts of diet supposedly still gives you mental benefits. I was IN.

A Diet For The Brain

The MIND diet, shortened from Mediterranean-DASH Intervention for Neurodegenerative Delay, was created by researchers at Rush University Medical Center and the Harvard School Of Public Health. A hybrid of the popular Mediterranean and the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) diets, the researchers studied eating patterns that reduces the risk Alzheimer’s disease, and conducted cognitive tests of 960 adults over the space of nine years, tracking their dietary habits.

The MIND diet encourages high consumption of 10 “brain-healthy” food groups such as green leafy vegetables, other vegetables, nuts, berries, and fish. It limited (note: not banned) consumption of unhealthy food groups like red meats, butter and stick margarine, cheese, sweets, and processed foods. The findings, published in Alzheimer’s & Dementia: The Journal of the Alzheimer’s Association, revealed that older adults who adhered strictly to the MIND diet faced a 53% lower risk of Alzheimer’s, and those who followed it moderately saw their risk lower by 35%.

I’m 28 years old, so Alzheimer’s isn’t a major concern for me just yet. But I figured that since the diet was designed to optimize cognitive function (and prevent cognitive decline), I thought that following the diet might do my brain and focus some good. There was only one way to find out–try it for a week and see what happens.

Embracing Higher Grocery Bills And Eating The Same Meals

The first thing I had to swallow on this diet was higher grocery bills. Salmon, extra-virgin olive oil, blueberries, and nuts are not cheap items, and these are staples on the MIND diet. I also bought three times as many leafy greens (kale and spinach) than I usually do because I wanted to incorporate more of them in my meals. That week, I was shopping for one because my husband was out of town, and I still ended up with a bill that was $20 more than what I’d usually pay when I shopped for two.

Related:You Might Not Feel Tired, But Your Brain Needs More Sleep

I also found myself eating almost the same meals every day. Breakfast would be two eggs, spinach, and salmon–with black coffee and a teaspoon of coconut oil. Lunch would be chicken breast salad with kale, spinach, edamame, and sautéed broccoli, with a handful of almonds. Dinner was lentil curry with vegetables and brown rice. The biggest change for me was cutting out dairy and refined sugar, so I substituted my usual afternoon snack of flavored greek yogurt and granola with unsweetened coconut cream “yogurt,” blueberries, and chia seeds. I replaced my milky iced coffee with peppermint green tea. The only time I deviated from this was when I ate out, which happened twice that week, where I devoured greasy carb-laden foods.

I Was Less Hungry Throughout The Day

Cheat meals aside, I was surprised at how quickly the effects kicked in. It only took me about two days to get past the sugar and dairy cravings, and on day one of the diet I fell asleep much quicker and naturally woke up earlier. I only experienced one afternoon crash that week, and I know that was because I’d come home later than I usually do that night, and I got less sleep than I would have liked.

I also noticed that I snacked less, even though my food portions weren’t that much bigger. As a result, food occupied less space in my brain, and I was able to focus for longer stretches of time. Even when unexpected tasks came up and my day was thrown a little bit out of balance, I was surprised at how quickly I was able to resume to my tasks straight away. Is it a placebo effect? I can’t say for sure, but it was definitely refreshing to be on a “diet” where “banned foods” weren’t constantly on my mind.

Unlike other diets, I wasn’t tempted to binge on terrible foods. I suspected that there are two reasons for this. One is that although they discouraged consumption of certain foods, the diet didn’t dictate that I had to cut out certain things. Second, I found eating for my brain much more motivating than eating for my body. Even in the age of body positivity, health, and wellness, I found it extremely difficult to disassociate diets from attaining an (often unrealistic) physical ideal. Somehow, greater productivity was a better motivator for me.

Related:How Giving Up Meat For A Month Improved My Productivity

That said, I definitely felt a positive change in my body. My energy levels increased, and I was able to push through my half marathon training runs without looking at my fitness tracker every five minutes to see if I’d logged enough miles for the evening. I suspected that the elimination of refined sugar probably played a big part. As Fast Company‘s Michael Grothaus discovered when he cut out sugar from his diet, fruit began to taste like candy. My blueberries definitely tasted like sweets.

It’s been two weeks since I started the diet, and for once, I’m actually thinking of sticking to this beyond the experiment. One of the things I really appreciated about this diet was the lack of restrictions. Staying away from dairy and refined sugar will continue to be a challenge, but knowing that I can indulge every once in a while makes this diet bearable. I’ll have to swallow the additional money in my grocery bills, but compared to other diets, the increase isn’t too steep.

I will admit that I’m still hesitant to commit to this long term. The fact that “experts” still can’t seem to agree on what constitutes healthy and unhealthy foods indicate that there’s a lot more we don’t know about how what we eat affect our bodies and our brains. But until research shows otherwise, I’ll probably continue to be a moderate follower of the MIND diet–for the sake of my productivity.

This is what cutting out sugar and dairy and eating lots of fish and blueberries did to my productivity.

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How to Have an Attitude of Gratitude | Adopting an Abundance Mindset

Have you ever been to a nice restaurant, had a delicious dinner in a beautiful environment with great service, then received a bill that nearly made you fall out of your seat? How did that change your mood? Did you walk out of the restaurant raving about the experience or lamenting over the bill?
Instead of practicing an attitude of gratitude, why do we tend to focus on the negative aspects of a situation or experience? Why, in the case of the restaurant, was it easier to hone in on how steep the bill was rather than immerse ourselves in the outstanding food, lovely ambiance or the hospitable service? Because, instead of focusing on how to express gratitude,the human brain is wired for a single purpose – survival. The mind is not designed to make you happy, it’s designed to help you survive. It is always looking for what could hurt you, and it magnifies the bad. We are wired to operate out of a place of scarcity and fear. But here’s the thing – you have the choice of what to focus on. Remember, what’s wrong is always available, but so is what’s right.

Limiting beliefs and cultivating an attitude of gratitude

Limiting beliefs are unconscious beliefs we hold about ourselves and the world which we allow to prevent us from enjoying our lives to the fullest. For example, if you have an unconscious belief that you do not deserve happiness, understanding how to express gratitude will not come easily, even under the best of circumstances. As you embrace the process of cultivating gratitude in your life, keep watch for the limiting beliefs you unconsciously hold and examine how they are preventing you from reaching your full potential. Beginning the hard work of replacing your limiting beliefs with an attitude of gratitude will reveal how your beliefs impact almost every area of life. This is because our beliefs grow from a combination of life experiences: our knowledge base, our environment (past and present), positive and traumatic life events, results of our past actions and how we envision our future. Because our beliefs are multi-faceted, unravelling their origin can be a challenge, and replacing them with healthier beliefs can be even more difficult. However, if existing beliefs are an impediment to the attitude of gratitude you’re committed to developing, it’ll be well worth your time to put in the effort.

Replacing limiting beliefs with an abundance mindset

To overcome your self-sabotaging beliefs, put yourself in a positive mindset by making a list of things you’re thankful for. Then practice flipping your limiting beliefs to empowering ones . As you uncover each limiting belief, ask yourself: Does this belief take me further along the pursuit of gratitude, or does this belief hold me back? With practice and diligence, you’ll find that adopting an abundance mindset and attitude of gratitude becomes more natural.

An attitude of gratitude: The role of change

Life will never go as planned. There will always be undesirable surprises. Change is inevitable, and we must learn to embrace change . The potential for transformation is present in every change life throws our way, whether or not we choose to embrace it.

Rather than be derailed by unexpected changes in our lives, we must learn to approach change with curiosity. Begin practicing an attitude of gratitude by “softening” to change, letting it in without a fight. Rather than telling yourself that you have either lost something, have less of something orwill never have what it is you want, make the command decision to focus on adopting an abundance mindset and focusing on what you can be grateful for. By learning how to express gratitude under difficult circumstances, you build an abundance mindset into everything you do.

Having an attitude of gratitude doesn’t mean you are repressing your emotions or living in a state of denial. It simply means you are making the overarching decision to live in a beautiful state every single day, no matter what happens. Because if the only time you are happy is when things are going your way, you’re not going to be happy very often. And the more you start to make these subtle shifts, the more you can cultivate an abundance mentality, the more you will begin to experience joy and, eventually, create a new emotional home.

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Stop focusing on the negative sides of life. Begin adopting an abundance mindset and learn to live positive and forward, and increase your success now.

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How to Do More in Less Time

We live in a culture where a number of people are beginning to wake up to the reality that time is a limited resource. We are giving up busyness as a badge of honor and learning how important it is to choose how we spend our time.

How to Do More in Less Time

Like money, if we mindlessly spend our time, we will wake up one day and realize it is gone. Worse than that we won’t know how we spent it. Why is it so hard to choose what commitments to keep and which to leave behind?

Strangely for those of us who live in this daily tension, this is not a universal problem. Our early ancestors, for example, weren’t wrestling with the stress of busyness as they were working to hunt and gather their food. Priorities clarify themselves when you’re fighting for your survival.

Not to mention, consider the generations before smart phones, or even the Internet , when there were fewer choices for where you were going to go, what social events you might attend, or where you might volunteer your time.

The fewer options we have, the easier it is to prioritize. No wonder we feel the weight of this. Our choices today are virtually endless.

In a modern age, with every opportunity and option available to us — every vacation, every friendship, every job opportunity, every volunteer position — these value choices have become our own version of life and death.

Choose what matters most or die the slow, painful, death of overwhelm — a death of your spirit and mind. So yes, this is a first-world problem.

It is a product of our privilege. But it is a problem that matters because it deeply affects our own personal satisfaction and happiness , as well as our ability to share our highest gifts with the rest of the world.

How do we learn to be more frugal with our time? Here are three suggestions.

1. Think of time like money and budget it.

If you think of time the way you think about money — where you have a certain day, month or year you have to make decisions about where to allocate it — this will help you to overcome that tendency of always thinking you can “fit one more thing in.”

Thankfully, budgeting your time also gives you an easy “out” when someone invites you to an opportunity that, while great, isn’t part of the budget. Rather than, “No thanks,” you can say, “That sounds like a great opportunity but I don’t have space for that right now. Maybe next month/year.”

If you don’t control your schedule and your time, it will control you.

2. Don’t just schedule work. Schedule rest.

Most people make the mistake of scheduling work, appointments, commitments, carpools, etc and then use whatever is left over for relaxation or rest. Don’t fall into this trap.

Just like you put a line in your budget for rent, food and entertainment, you should budget for work, leisure and play. As a happy benefit, when “take a nap” is on you calendar, it helps eliminate any guilt you may have otherwise felt taking one. It’s on the calendar! Who can fight that?

3. Err on the side of under-committing.

Did you know those who under-commit have more control over their lives and more to offer to the world than those who over-commit?

When you have margin left at the end of your day, and energy left to give, you have choices about what to do with it. Those who stretch themselves to the very end aren’t left with the same flexibility.

Maybe you’re already on the path to simplifying your life and being frugal with your time. Any improvement is a step in the right direction. You don’t have to live your life stressed and over-worked. There is a better way.

Give yourself the gift of rest — you deserve it.

Additional Reading

In favor of giving up busyness for a more meaningful life? Here’s how to maximize the time you have.

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Living Small in a Big World

“Since my house burnt down, I now own a better view of the rising moon.” — Basho

I’ve been on a quest to make my world small. It all started when I went big.

Living Small in a Big World

I had a tiny house before they were vogue because it was all I could afford. I lived within my means and my means were often slim. I didn’t label myself a minimalist back then. I favored clean lines aesthetically and by virtue of necessity.

When I got married, I moved into three-story Victorian that could’ve eaten my little house for breakfast. At first it was exhilarating to have so much light and space. Cathedral ceilings! Where have you been all my life?

It didn’t take long for the stuff to come pouring in, filling empty spaces with the domestic label “home.” Along with it, came a sense that I had finally made it. While there is nothing wrong with having house pride, without realizing it, I started allowing it to define me. By turning away from my humble beginnings, I lost touch with an important part of myself.

Our worth is not determined by our belongings , no matter how much Wall Street would like us to belief otherwise. Remembering this, I set out on a quest to make my world small again.

Detaching from stuff requires psychological fortitude. It takes courage to trust that you have enough—that you are enough. But once you feel and accept that, your life will never be the same. Integrity becomes a North Star that shines a guiding light into all aspects of life.

It’s what I like most about the minimalist lifestyle . It’s deceptively simple, yet profoundly impactful. A friend asks if you’ve read that ‘Tidying Up’ book. “You haven’t? Well, here, borrow mine.”

You read it and a light goes off. This is the decisive moment. Some will feel overwhelmed and toss it aside with a wishful sigh. Others react with the zealous of a recent convert, shoving stuff into bags while happily chanting “Do I love it? Is it useful?”

For those who fall into the latter camp, the life-changing art of minimalism is a breath of fresh air after years of tumbling around in the consumer cycle. Embracing it is to give permission to slow down and remember why we are here. And the answer will be different for everyone. That’s the beauty of it. One size does not fit all.

That’s because minimalism is a mindset. It’s about living intentionally . Master therapist Irvin Yalom said that the work of psychotherapy is to remove the obstacles blocking the patient’s path. Minimalism is like that. We remove the extras to make room for what nourishes us.

This lifestyle is not new, nor is it a cult, trend or form of fanaticism. It’s a way of being in the world and its current popularity is simply a sign of the times. We now know that the one who dies with the most toys doesn’t win.

Fact is, the true riches of life cannot be bought. They’re created through experiences and connections with others. Period.

Think about it this way. If you were to disappear off the planet, what would your surroundings say about you? What would your kitchen, closet and computer reveal? Are you living in alignment with your best self? Or have you fallen prey to being who you think you should be?

Minimalism is about clarity. When we turn down the noise on the shoulda-woulda-coulda, the musicality of life comes forth. Conversely, when we feel overwhelmed, it’s hard to appreciate what’s in front of us.

Without a doubt technology has made our life better. We can travel the world from our home and access information at click of a button. On the other hand, a compelling argument can be made that technology has made life more complex and chaotic.

Thankfully, I’m not here to decide. My job is simply to share a few helpful ways to live small in a big world. The following are a few ways I’ve learned do to this:

1. Know there is enough.

Scarcity and comparison are the killjoys of life. They spawn anxiety, doubt and jealousy. More often than not, the thought of “not enough” occurs below the radar—before we have a chance to question it. The first step is noticing your relationship to scarcity. We all feel it. Only by acknowledging it can we make room for compassion, both for self as well as others.

2. Practice gratitude.

My favorite way to cultivate gratitude is to appreciate what I already have. When I do, I am humbly reminded that the real joys in life come from collecting experiences—not things. This has the added benefit of keeping impulse buys in check. When you like what you’ve got you don’t need more. Perhaps the best part about the practice of gratitude is how quickly it moves beyond material things into the soul of our being, filling our hearts with a sense of contentment.

3. Get outside.

There isn’t a better or more cost-effective way to recalibrate than communing with nature. It puts our problems into perspective while nourishing mind, body and spirit . And it needn’t be complicated. A walk around the block will do nicely. The point of getting out is to remind ourselves that we are part of something larger. We humans are unique in that we perpetually try to overcome that which we are inextricably tied to: nature.

4. Be culturally aware.

Not everyone has it as well as us and not all Westerners have it equally well. Remaining conscious of the inordinate freedoms and luxuries we have helps us to appreciate what we already own instead of longing for more. This isn’t meant to induce guilt. The intent is to keep desire in perspective . More often than not, the grass of our neighbor is not any greener.

It takes courage to trust that you have enough, that you are enough. But once you feel and accept that, your life will never be the same.

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Minimalism Kerry Ogden
11 months ago
11 months ago

Compete Less, Appreciate More

In a world of brand names, popular culture, cliques, and the fear of missing out, the habit of comparing ourselves to others really takes hold.

“Comparisons are odious,” states a 15th-century proverb quoted by Cervantes, Marlowe, and others, and humorously misquoted by Shakespeare as “Comparisons are odorous.” In other words, they stink.

And yet I constantly make them.

Either I’m prone to comparing myself to others in a way that helps me feel superior: “Wow, I’d never wear that!” “I’d be a blimp if I ate what she’s eating!” “I would never deal with my kids that way!”

Or I compare in ways that denigrate and belittle myself. I watch a decorating show on TV and decide that my home is comparatively ugly and outdated. I glance at a fashion magazine and decide that I’m hopelessly fat, unattractive, and unchic. I follow someone’s Instagram feed and feel stupid and uncreative compared with their perfect-looking posts.

These comparisons leave me feeling needy and unworthy, and our culture steps right into that emptiness to sell me a solution. That’s right, all of us are constantly being told that we can buy our way out of such negative feelings.

The right clothes, shoes, hairstyle, car, fitness equipment, or furniture and housewares will make up for the ways in which we’re lacking, and all credit cards are accepted!

Comparison is fine if I’m trying to make a choice between two or more options. And sometimes comparison inspires me toward self-improvement. But the habit of comparing myself with others is almost never productive. It usually leads to jealousy, dissatisfaction, and dislike.

If I want to be happy, dropping this habit of comparison is a step in the right direction. Far better to accept differences and learn to make the best of what I have, to find my strengths and build on those.

I don’t know anything about video, and would have no idea how to go about creating a podcast (besides, I don’t like to look at myself on camera). I don’t come close to measuring up in that way. This could make me feel hopeless or depressed, like a failure as a blogger. But if I look at my strengths, I see that I’m a pretty good writer, and I regularly produce useful, honest posts. I actually have a lot to offer, and plenty to be happy about.

Comparisons usually make me unhappy, even if I have enough and should be happy with what I have.

More Negative Effects of Comparison

• Most often, when I look at others’ strengths and achievements, I lose, because there is always someone who is doing “better” than I am.

• When I compare myself with someone who has less than I do (fewer possessions, less personal attractiveness, less career success, etc.), I get a short-term ego boost that is easily knocked down as soon as I look at someone “above” me on the competition ladder.

• I end up resenting others for doing well or disdaining those who don’t look successful by my standards, even though I don’t know those people. I’m judging and ranking people without real evidence.

• I may openly criticize people (maybe not to their faces, but to my companions) or brag about my own accomplishments. Neither behavior is attractive.

So how can any of us break this cycle of comparing ourselves with others? I have a few thoughts.

8 Ways to Stop Comparing and Competing

1. Become aware.

When any behavior is a habit , we do it without thinking. So to overcome the habit of comparison, we have to be on the lookout for this behavior. We have to acknowledge that we have this tendency, and pay attention when it occurs.

2. Stop yourself.

Once we realize we’re making a comparison, we must choose to stop it. Don’t beat yourself up; simply take a pause and change your focus.

3. Remember your limited perspective.

On TV or social media, we only see the tip of the iceberg. We see the best versions of people’s lives, not the details. As Steven Furtick reminds us, “The reason why we struggle with insecurity is because we compare our behind-the-scenes with everyone else’s highlight reel.”

4. Count your blessings.

Gratitude really is a life-changer! I try to remember to count what I have, not what I don’t. I think about how many benefits and opportunities I have, and give thanks.

5. Turn comparison to inspiration.

If looking up to someone, admiring who they are and what they’ve accomplished, inspires us to set goals and work to achieve them, then that’s beneficial. Striving to emulate a mentor or an idol can help us do our best.

6. Pay attention to your strengths.

All of us have gifts and talents which we need to discover, develop, and practice using to make our own and others’ lives better. Without bragging, we can feel pride and satisfaction about our God-given abilities.

7. Accept imperfection.

Imperfection is another trait we all share. We won’t reach perfection, but we can achieve self-improvement. We can compare ourselves to where we were yesterday, last week, or last year. If we stop making life a competition, but rather see it as a journey, we can appreciate how far we’ve come.

8. Be happy with enough.

If I always want what others have, I will never have enough. I’ll always feel a lack, and I will never be happy. No matter how many clothes I buy, how big my house is, or how fancy my car, I’ll never be satisfied. I need to realize that I have enough. I have shelter, food, clothing, education, medical care, people who love me – it’s definitely enough. More than that – and most of us can admit that we have more than that – is abundance.

I know I’ll find more joy when I stop comparing my life to everyone else’s. I think you will too.

About the Author: Karen Trefzger is a writer, singer, teacher, wife, mother, and grandmother who has been choosing a simpler life for over 20 years. She is the author of Minimalism A to Z, and blogs at MaximumGratitudeMinimalStuff.


In a world of brand names, popular culture, cliques, and the fear of missing out, the habit of comparing ourselves to others really takes hold. “Comparisons are odious,” states a 15th-century proverb quoted by Cervantes, Marlowe, and others, and humorously misquoted by Shakespeare as “Comparisons are odorous.” In other words, they stink. And yet I […]

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Minimalism Karen Trefzger
11 months ago
11 months ago

Balancing Busy with Being

It appears as if the world has woken up from its pandemic slumber.

A few months ago the streets were empty.

However, today, in my neighborhood, the restaurants have their windows and doors wide open and appear to be full of mostly happy, young, and vibrant people, excitedly reuniting with one another.

While acknowledging the very real hardships experienced by many—loss of loved ones, the uptick in teen anxiety, loneliness and depression, and pandemic-induced job uncertainty—many of my friends have quietly told me that they’ve actually enjoyed what was for them, “time off.”

They tell me that the slow down was a welcome reprieve from their never-ending busy schedules. That they don’t miss spending hours in traffic going to and coming home from work. That it’s been a relief not having to fill their calendars with never-ending social obligations.

They tell me that they now feel much more refreshed. That they have more time for tennis, their pelotons, and for doing nothing at all if they so choose. That because of the social pause, going out for a night on the town now no longer sounds like work. That soon they’ll happily get out of their yoga pants to do this, with the caveat that at some point, they might miss the easy excuse to stay home and chill, if they prefer to, instead.

Each time I hear them say “chill,” I immediately feel a pang of jealousy.

Maybe this is because, personally, when I look back at my year I don’t see much of that particular action. And I wonder… did I miss out? Did I miss out on chilling out? Did I spend any time just be-ing instead of doing doing doing all the time?

Flipping through last year’s day planner and what I do see is a lot of busyness.

But I smile when I look at the actions that filled my days—I took on new clients, did a lot of ghostwriting on topics dear to my heart, created new online courses, wrote chapters for two different Amazon bestsellers, recorded webinars for my alma mater as a guest expert, got a new health certification, and the list goes on and on.

Sure, I was busy.

But I wasn’t busy just for the sake of being busy.

I was busy being the person I want to be. And I was busy doing the work I love to do.

Frankly, looking back and deep down, I didn’t want any “time off.”

I didn’t want to hit pause.

After tuning in, within, I came to the conclusion that while I may not have slowed down, I didn’t miss out on anything that I didn’t want to miss out on.

And that because of this I actually feel more reinvigorated than ever.

How did this happen?

Over the last year, I’ve gained a deeper sense of connection, worth, and presence. Here’s how:


Prior to the pandemic, family walks were infrequent and met with groans. Today, my oldest son eagerly joins me each evening. He tells me about the books he’s reading and relives his past soccer matches while we walk through neighborhoods that still smell like spring. He knows where my favorite garden is and I know exactly where he’s going to ask me to get on my tiptoes to reach a few mulberries for him. Often, my youngest son and husband will join us on their bicycles, riding in circles around us, laughing and chatting and reveling in connection.


For years my husband and I bought organic blueberries and saved them for our kids. Organic blueberries are full of vitamins, nutrients, and minerals and are great for brain health. They’re not drenched in pesticides like conventionally-grown blueberries. My husband and I had an unspoken agreement that due to their higher cost we should deprive ourselves of these blueberries in the name of self-sacrifice. During the pandemic, it hit me that my husband’s and my health are not any less or more important than our kids. Today, I buy two or three large Costco-size containers each week with a large smile on my face knowing that we’ll have enough blueberries for anyone who wants them. Regardless of age, we are all worthy of quality food!


During the week I can be found sitting at my desk, the camera on, engaged in deep conversation with my clients. I turn off my phone, my notifications, and if I’m concerned about interruptions, I’ve occasionally locked my home-office door. During their sessions, my clients share their humanness with me. Nothing feels missing during these moments and time with them is tremendously fulfilling for me and uplifting for them. I don’t get distracted, my mind doesn’t wander and there’s nothing I’d rather do than be present with them.

When I look back over the last year, I’m grateful.

I filled my days with the people and things that mattered most to me.

Sure I’m aware that I may have missed most of Netflix. And that I didn’t spend hours staying up to date on all of the twists and turns of politics and evening news.

But I realize that I’m more than fine with this.

(If you filled your days with those things, please know that I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it (unless you wish you hadn’t spent your time that way, and if so, then that’s where your potential lives moving forward.))

When I look at how full my days were, no question I was busy.

But I was busy being and feeling connected, worthy and present.

So I’m no longer harboring thoughts of possibly missing out on the global pause. I didn’t miss out. I was plugged in exactly where I wanted to be. And I was balancing busy with being in a way that worked for me.

Now, it’s your turn.

When you look back, regardless of whether you had ‘time off” or not, were you able to balance busy with being in a way that felt good to you? And today, can you give yourself the gift of being busy being the person you want to be, however it looks?

About the Author: Heather Aardema is a National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coach living in Colorado with her husband and two grade-school boys. You can find more of her essays focused on growing healthy and living fully at .

It appears as if the world has woken up from its pandemic slumber. A few months ago the streets were empty. However, today, in my neighborhood, the restaurants have their windows and doors wide open and appear to be full of mostly happy, young, and vibrant people, excitedly reuniting with one another. While acknowledging the […]

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Minimalism Heather Aardema
11 months ago
11 months ago