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,
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?”
three subcategories of A2 are, similarly, Ap (the past), An (the present), and Af
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 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
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
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
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
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
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.
Charlotte J. Beck, Nothing Special: Living Zen (New York: HarperCollins,
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,
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.