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The Art of Living: How To Feel Good Without Feeling Good About Yourself

Vincent E. Parr

The following article is from Free Inquiry magazine, Volume 25, Number 2.

A man is walking on the roof of a forty-story building. He accidentally trips and falls off the roof. As he passes the seventeenth floor, a person inside the building yells out a question: “How’s it going?” The man answers back: “So far, so good!”

We may find this story amusing because we know what is coming—the ground. In the meantime, however, the man is having a ball free-falling through space, which can be an exhilarating experience if he does one thing: stay in the moment! If our friend stays in the moment, he will enjoy his trip. One moment, he will be alive, and the next moment, he will be dead.

My point in telling this story is (in case you haven’t already figured it out): we are all falling. The ground is coming for all of us. One moment, we will be alive, and the next moment, we will be dead. This is probably the most sobering fact of conscious existence. The key to happiness in our lives is to learn how to enjoy the trip. To do this, we’d better learn to master the “art of living,” that is, staying in the moment. I can hear you groaning and moaning, saying, “Here we go again, Eastern philosophy.” You are right. I think Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT) is, in a sense, not unlike refined Eastern philosophy—Buddhism without the mysticism—or just a clever way to enjoy life. I further believe that it is practically impossible to achieve inner peace and personal happiness with a concept of self-worth.

There are three major themes that run throughout this article: An expanded version of the activating event—taken from Albert Ellis’s famous ABC theory1—the importance of staying in the moment, and how a concept of self-worth blocks us from obtaining ultimate peace and personal happiness. These three concepts are related and, I think, essential in helping us enjoy the process of living with a minimum of self-induced hassles.

The Three A’s

Here, I have expanded the activating event (A) to include three physical levels of A and three subcategories of each: past, present, and future.2

A1 is the microscopic level of our world, from the cellular and microbial strata down to molecules, atoms, and subatomic particles.

The body of every newborn infant is made up of many trillions of cells, and while those cells are themselves new structures, the atoms that compose them have been circulating through the universe for billions of years. In order to stay alive, our bodies are changing at every moment. Atoms are being replaced as quickly as they are broken down. Every year, a significant portion of the atoms in our bodies is exchanged for new atoms. And physics tells us that the basic fabric of nature lies at the quantum level, far smaller than molecules or atoms. We spend billions on supercolliders that smash atoms into each other to detect and learn about the smallest particles in nature.

A1 can be broken up into three subcategories: Ap (for microscopic events of the past), An (for now, the present), and Af (for the future). So in A1, you have, for example, all the subatomic particles that have existed in the past, that exist at this instant in time, and all that will exist in the future. This includes all of the microscopic events that have taken place on our home planet and throughout the universe.

A2 is the macroscopic level of our universe—asteroids, comets, planets, stars, galaxies, black holes, etc. This is the realm studied by cosmologists and astrophysicists that includes all the extraterrestrial matter that exists outside our world.

I often use this level to help my patients put their lives in proper perspective. I have an oil painting of the Milky Way Galaxy over my office chair. I tell them that this is a representation of our home galaxy, that there are estimated to be between 200 to 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and that our sun and our solar system with its nine planets would be in one of the outer arms of this painting. We are in what Carl Sagan, the popular exobiologist and astronomer, called “the galactic boondocks.”3 I explain that it would take light traveling at 186,000 miles per second 100,000 years to get from one end of our galaxy to the other and that there are estimated to be one hundred billion galaxies with hundreds of billions of stars in each of them. To get a better understanding of what all these billions mean, astronomers tell us that there are more comets, planets, and stars in the universe than there are grains of sand on all the beaches on the earth. I explain: “So the next time you are at the beach, put your finger in the sand and then look at the grains on its tip. Let one of these grains represent the earth. Then brush it off and ask yourself, ‘Is this catastrophic?’ Given this reality, is it really so awful that ketchup went up twenty-seven cents or that your lover did not call last night?”

The three subcategories of A2 are, similarly, Ap (the past), An (the present), and Af (the future).

A3 is the scale that we know best—the scale of human activity—companionship, conversation, and touch. It is the world that we live in on a day-to-day basis. As you know, this is the typical A, the activating events of Ellis’s ABC theory. But even at this level, how many events are we actually aware of? At every moment, we tune out 99 percent of all the sensory stimuli that are bombarding our sense organs. This is good, because we would probably go mad if we did not. The 1 percent that remains is solidified into mental objects that we react to in programmed, habitual ways. A3 can also be broken up into Ap, An, and Af.

Let’s examine this 1 percent, because this is the reality where we spend our lives. The average person will spend 95 percent or more of his time focused on Ap and Af, that is, the past and future. This is the real tragedy of the human condition. Of the 1 percent of A3 that makes up our existence, we spend less than 5 percent of it in the moment. No wonder happiness and inner peace are unattainable for the majority of humankind. We have not learned how to be conscious and aware of the process of life. For many people, when they reach the end of their lives or the doctor tells them the bad news, they hit an existential wall, and they lament, “Where has my life gone? I don’t remember it!” Of course they do not remember their lives; they never really lived them. They were too busy tormenting themselves about the past or worrying about the future to be aware of their lives that were unfolding in the present.

Therefore, to be skilled in the art of living, one had best learn to maximize the ability of staying in the moment. The figure below represent the typical and the ideal:

The gap that exists between the past and the future represents the amount of time you are living in the moment. The ideal would be to spend 75 percent or more of your time in the moment. How many people do this? Probably less than .00001 percent. This is why life is a struggle. We rarely live the process, and life becomes one big hassle of past regrets and future anxieties.

What Do People Do When They Are Out of the Moment?

Average people who dwell on the past beat themselves over the head about past mistakes, incomplete projects, missed opportunities, lost loved ones, and failures. This is why rating ourselves is always doomed to failure. No present rating will ever overcome our past errors. Living in the past, therefore, is a major cause of human suffering. This past does not, in fact, exist. It is only a mental representation that we project in the moment, which distracts us from enjoying our lives in the present. Our mental projections of the past often do not accurately represent what actually happened in the past. All the stimuli that were bombarding our senses at the time were filtered through our own habits and beliefs.

When people think of the future, do they have pleasant thoughts? Not all that often. When people project themselves into the future, they often have dread, worry, apprehension, fear, anxiety, and panic. Welcome to the future! Good luck in building a happy life there. When we think of the future, it does not exist. Just as is the case with the past, it is another mental projection in the moment; but this time, as it is a representation of what has not yet occurred, it is complete fiction and fantasy. People often then scare themselves about the mental mirage that they made up. It is all mental gymnastics.

Staying in the Moment

Now, let’s get out of the moment, for a moment, and project ourselves into the future. Let’s suppose that we have developed a high frustration tolerance (HFT), worked hard, become long in tooth and wisdom, and mastered the art of living. We have obtained the ideal, that is, the ability to spend at least 75 percent of our lives in the moment. What are we going to do with the 25 percent of our lives in which we are out of the moment? Remember, our ideal situation is 25 percent spent equally in the past and the future. If we use the roughly 12.5 percent spent in the past in the following ways, we will never be upset in our thoughts pertaining to the past:

Use the past as a learning experience. For example, I am about to sign a contract on a piece of property. There is an as-is clause in the contract. I remember a time in the past when I signed a contract with such a clause in it, and it cost me dearly. Here, I am not beating myself over the head about some past mistake. I have used the experience as a learning tool to avoid making a similar mistake in the present. We do this thousands of times, often without being aware of it, when selecting a book, movie, restaurant, or even a mate.

Look back at some pleasant time in the past and enjoy the thought. This type of nostalgia can be very pleasant and can enhance our enjoyment of life. But we want to be careful not to spend more than 12.5 percent in daydreaming. Some people spend a major part of their lives collecting memorabilia and antiques and dreaming about the good old days, e.g., the day they ran for a touchdown to win the game in high school or were elected to the homecoming court. This is often because they hate their present lives and pine for that “one brief, shining moment.” Stay in the moment, and most of them will shine.

If we spend an equal amount of time (12.5 percent) in the future—actually, we will rarely spend an equal amount of time in the past or future, but we want the two figures to total approximately 25 percent—there will be two appropriate times to use our thoughts concerning the future:

Use our thoughts about the future to set goals and make plans. Then return to the present to carry through with our plans. For example, if your goal is to graduate from college, then take the courses, study for the exams, write the papers, go to class, and so on. Evaluating the experience—“It’s unfair, too hard, too early, or my friends won’t respect me if I fail”—is not staying in the moment and will not help you accomplish your goal. If you want to ask the woman in the low-cut dress to dance with you, get up out of your chair, walk across the floor, and ask her. Stop thinking about your aftershave, the hole in your sock, or how many women have turned you down in the past. Do it now! Is it easy? Yes—if you have done two things: developed HFT and learned to stay in the moment. In fact, staying in the moment is developing HFT. They are one and the same.

Use your thoughts about the future to think excitedly about some experience that you have planned or may have. Be excited about your vacation, your weekend, your evening, or your lunch. I call this “wonderfulizing,” and few people know what that is, because it is so rarely used. However, we are very familiar with “awfulizing.” This is genetic; it’s human nature. The homework I give to my patients is, if they are going to awfulize, I want them to spend an equal amount of time wonderfulizing. Since we are making it up anyway, that is, the evaluation and the future, we might as well have training in both skills. Later, I can teach them the value of staying in the moment and accepting things as they are as life unfolds.

I have a theory of vicarious pleasures, that is, why people love movies and watch so much television. It impels them to stay in the moment. In a movie, it is dark, all the seats face forward, the sound is loud and comes from all directions, and the film is flashing on a huge screen at twenty-four frames per second. You are literally being carried along with the action. You are in the moment. That’s why we love it. When the lights come on and it’s time to leave, we often experience a letdown. Why? Because then you’re back to future thinking and past thinking.

Something very similar happens while watching television at home. Bigger and bigger screens, surround sound, and high-definition TV will soon make staying at home almost comparable to going to the movies. Virtual reality will probably eventually make movies passé and perfect staying in the moment to an even greater extent. People are not really zoning (or tuning) out when they watch television; they are zoning into the moment in the only way they know how to block out past and future thinking. This has a twofold effect: they truly enjoy the experience and they avoid the pain that is associated with Ap and Af. This process can become very addictive, since the goal of all human life is to seek pleasure and avoid pain, that is, to seek happiness and inner peace.

The same can be said about most things that we enjoy. If we read a novel and are really enjoying it, we keep turning the pages and lose track of time. Once again, we are living in the moment. The love of art, literature, theater, sports, music, a mate, sex, and so on are further examples of literally losing ourselves in the moment. Any of our hobbies or creative absorptions gives us an escape from past and future thinking and, therefore, give our lives meaning. Walt Whitman suggested the Latin phrase carpe diem (“seize the day”) as a dictum to live by. Actually, a better dictum would be carpe momentum—“seize the moment.” If you cannot enjoy the moment, right here, right now, then you probably cannot and won’t enjoy life.

There are 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, or 31,536,000 seconds in one year. You have nearly 31.6 million chances to practice staying in the moment every year. In an average lifetime of 75.5 years, you will have 2,380,968,000, or approximately 2.4 billion, seconds—and that’s it! Use them well. The best definition of “mental health” that I am aware of is: infinite flexibility in the face of constant change. What is changing? Everything at every moment. Therefore, rigidity in the face of constant change results in disturbance.


In the summer of 1967, in my first quarter in graduate school, I took a course at Auburn University called “Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy.” We used C.H. Patterson’s book of the same title (1966) as a text. I was relatively unimpressed until I came to chapter four. It was called “Rational-emotive Therapy” and was written by someone I had never heard of—Albert Ellis. I read the chapter, put the book down, picked it back up, and then read it again. After the second reading, I remember thinking, “This makes more sense than anything I have ever read!”

I looked for more books on this intriguing topic and devoured Ellis’s A Guide to Rational Living (1961) and Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (1962). When I read chapter 8 of the latter book, “Reason and Personal Worth,” I was hooked, literally for life. I believed at the time (and still do) that this was some of the finest and sanest writing I had ever read. This chapter, in my opinion, states the essence of REBT. It was rewarding to see in the revised and updated 1994 edition of Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy that Ellis himself thinks it is “one of the best essays I have ever written because it outlines a theory of personal worth that is one of the most distinctive features of REBT. And, I prejudicedly feel, one of its finest.” I also enjoyed his latest two books, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behavior (2003) and Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (2004).

Rating the individual’s behavior and not the individual is what makes REBT unique as a therapy and a philosophy. This famous B≠S (behavior does not equal self) equation is the hallmark of REBT. When the future tally for Ellis’s influence on society is assessed, I feel that this contribution will stand out above all the rest.

As I stated earlier, in my opinion, it is not possible to reach personal happiness and inner peace with a concept of self-worth. Therefore, all “feel goods” are merely temporary, but we keep trying to string them together to be happy in our lives. The reality is that this does not work. I think we know this at some level, and our lives become a struggle to keep the facade alive. We develop elaborate concepts of dignity, pride, ego, self-worth, and self-esteem to cover the rating most of us inflict on ourselves and others around us on a daily basis. We feel insulted when others do not “respect” us.4 We exclaim that we do not “deserve” to be treated this or that way and that we are “entitled” to better treatment. These concepts are a result of rating individual worth. Most forms of human cruelty are also rooted in a concept of self-worth (e.g., murder, rape, physical and sexual abuse, wars, and genocide).

Think how the history of the world would have been different if we were genetically predisposed to rate only our behavior and not our worth. Wars of all kinds would probably not have happened. Religion would be radically different. We would not have (much less worship) a God who would reward “good” people with heaven and punish “bad” folks with hell. My religion, if any, would not be better than yours, only my preference. Therefore, religious wars might never have occurred. Slavery and racial hatred might not have been possible. We would not have to waste our time with politically correct labels so no one would get their feelings hurt. Politicians would concentrate on issues instead of personally attacking each other to “prove” who is the better man or woman. (Who knows, we might even have learned to enjoy the political process, but then let’s not push this too far.) Legal documents, including lawsuits and divorce filings, would not read like indictments of individuals but would instead concentrate on individual behavior and decisions. We would seek out relationships for mutual enhancement and enjoyment rather than status and improving our own personal worth. Blaming each other would be replaced by individual responsibility and problem solving. Children would be raised without competing to have more polo shirts than their classmates. There would be no war between the sexes. The women’s-rights movement, black or gay pride, the Gray Panthers, and the equal opportunity movement would be unnecessary. Job layoffs, lack of advancement, and retirement would not be marked by depression and feelings of worthlessness and shame. Old people would not be looked on as burdensome and useless. Compassion, tolerance, patience, and understanding would stand out as human traits. We would never take anything personally, and yes, life would be much better.

Two Equations for Happiness

I saw a play a few summers ago by Neil Simon called The Cry of the Peacock. In it, one of the characters is giving advice to a troubled friend, and he says, “No one has an equation for happiness.” I thought, yes, they do—REBT is a clever way to enjoy life, and the two equations below will yield happiness today and tomorrow.

100% A=0% D

“One hundred percent acceptance (A) equals 0 percent disturbance (D).” 

You can take the percentage of time in which you don’t accept things in your life, and this will equal the amount of time during which you are emotionally disturbed. For example, if you don’t accept every passing moment 25 percent of the time, then you will be disturbed 25 percent of your life.


“Happiness equals unconditional self-acceptance plus unconditional acceptance of others and the world plus staying now (or in the moment).”

The great human predicament is that we do not know where we came from, and we do not know where we are going. This is great just as it is. You have the choice to see it as a comedy or a tragedy. I much prefer the former. We are the only species on Earth that laughs and the only species that knows that its members are mortal. This is like whistling past the cemetery; we know that we are mortal, and laughter lightens this knowledge. Stay in the moment with unconditional acceptance of the self, others, and the world, and you will never suffer. In the final analysis, practically all mental suffering is a result of rating ourselves and others. Don’t do it!

If we train ourselves to stay in the moment with unconditional self-acceptance as well as unconditional acceptance of others and the world, just the way they are and not the way we want them to be, we will probably be much less emotionally upset. We will have learned the art of living, that is, how to feel good without feeling good about yourself.


1. Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper, A Guide to Rational Living (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Melvin Powers Wilshire Book Company, 1961).

2. Two books from the Scientific American Library, Philip and Phylis Morrison’s Powers of Ten: A Book about the Relative Size of Things in the Universe and the Effect of Adding Another Zero (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1982) and Leon M. Lederman and David N. Schramm’s From Quarks to the Cosmos: Tools of Discovery (New York: W.H. Freeman and Company, 1989) offer excellent explanations of the first two levels of A.

3. Carl Sagan, “The Burden of Skepticism,” Skeptical Inquirer 12, no. 1 (Fall 1987), 38–46.

4. Robert Whitford and Vincent E. Parr, “Uses of Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy with Juvenile Sex Offenders,” The Journal of Rational-Emotive and Cognitive-Behavior Therapy 13, pp. 273–82.


Further Reading

Charlotte J. Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen (New York: HarperCollins, 1993).

Albert Einstein, Ideas and Opinions (New York: Crown Publishers, 1954).

Albert Ellis and Robert A. Harper, A Guide to Rational Living (Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Melvin Powers Wilshire Book Company, 1961).

Albert Ellis, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy (Secaucus, New Jersey: The Citadel Press, 1962).

———, Reason and Emotion in Psychotherapy: Revised and Updated Edition (Secaucus, New Jersey: Carol Publishing Group, 1994).

———, Better, Deeper, and More Enduring Brief Therapy: The Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy Approach (New York: Brunner/Mazel Publishers, 1996).

———, Overcoming Destructive Beliefs, Feelings, and Behavior (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2003).

———, Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (Amherst, New York: Prometheus Books, 2004).
William Hart, The Art of Living: Vipassana Meditation as Taught by S.N. Goenka (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1987).

Joseph Goldstein and Jack Kornfeld, Seeking the Heart of Wisdom (Boston and London: Shambhala Publications, 1987).

Leo Lederman, The God Particle: If the Universe Is the Answer, What Is the Question? (New York: Dell Publishing, 1993).

The Venerable Henepola Gunaratana, Mindfulness in Plain English (Taipei, Taiwan: Buddha Educational Foundation, 1991).

C.H. Patterson, Theories of Counseling and Psychotherapy (New York: Harper and Row, 1966).

Carl Sagan, Cosmos (New York: Random House, 1980).

———, The Demon-haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark (New York: Random House, 1995.

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