You know why you’re not happy? It’s because you only think of yourself.
Sorry, I don’t mean to be cruel – maybe you are happy, and if you are, then there’s also the very real likelihood that it’s because you can think of someone else. It’s been shown that service is one path that leads people to satisfaction with their life (as noted previously, this is not the same as “being useful“). It’s also true that for a quick fix, doing things for other people will often increase the oxytocin in your bloodstream, which feels gooooooood.
But even in those situations, you’re still often thinking about things from your own perspective. My family and I have a useful phrase we like: being helpy. That’s when someone has all of the intention of being helpful, but doesn’t quite achieve that – and in fact usually ends up getting in the way. It’s a good way to check in on people who may share the Midwest custom of not bothering to speak up for fear of being impolite, especially when someone is putatively doing something “for” you.
“Ah. You’re being so helpy.” Try it out. It’s kind of like “truthiness“.
What does this have to do with being happy? Bear with me, I’ll get there. Being helpy comes from a lack of finding out what the other person actually needs. Instead, you try to imagine what they need, and provide that. Sometimes you’re right – and you’ve achieved “helpful”! Sometimes you’re wrong, though, especially if you don’t know the person very well, because you are limited by the fact that you can only think of things from your own perspective.
Some people think of empathy as the answer to that, and don’t get me wrong – I’m a big fan of empathy. But there’s a danger of relying on empathy: what happens when it doesn’t work?
What happens when you want to imagine what someone else is feeling, what they are needing, how they are hurting…but you just can’t? Does that simply mean you ignore them? Does that simply mean you are justified in trying something, anything, because at least you “made the effort?”
Nope. Because there’s something even better for understanding other people.
What’s Better Than Empathy?
Brace yourself: the answer is communication.
You ask the other person what they are feeling. What is hurting them. What they need.
I know what you’re thinking: Oh, that’s easy! I do that all the time! I’m a great listener!
Ah, but many people – more and more in this time of internet outrage – forget the other step:
You need to also believe what they tell you.
Yep. That’s right. You need to cultivate the attitude that, like a friend of mine tweeted a while back,
I don’t need to be able to empathize with someone or understand how they could feel a certain something in order to believe them when they tell me.
That means you cultivate the habit of watching for the warning phrases of deliberate ignorance coming out of your mouth or others:
That’s funny. I don’t feel that way.
Well, I don’t see why they don’t just….
You know, if it were me, I would…
Because it’s not your feeling. You can’t see it. And it’s not you.
And there’s a really good reason to cultivate that habit: as noted above, it’s the secret to happiness.
Shooting Yourself In Your Special Snowflake
Statistically, the surest way to be happy is to a) find someone who is similar to you who is happy, and b) do what they do. That’s right: there is no “three.” It’s really as simple as that.
Yet people are still unhappy. Why?
Because they don’t believe the other people.
All of us are conditioned to think – especially when something doesn’t make sense – that we are more different than we really are. Sure, they did that and they are happy – but that wouldn’t work for me. The reality, of course, is that the odds are good that we would be happier if we tried those things…but instead, we allow ourselves to be distracted by shiny outliers and statistical anomalies. “I can be Elon Musk! I can be Kim Kardashian! I can be John Scalzi!“
Sure, you could, if along with the ton of work all those people do you were also incredibly lucky.
Or you could set your sights on doing something that may not make intuitive sense, but based on the evidence before you, is worth trying.
Putting My Money Where My Blog Is
Want to come along with me on an experiment? I’m in the process of doing exactly what I’m describing.
See, in looking at various career options recently, I had considered the advice of a friend who said I would make a good “Scrum Master” (I know, even the title sounds strange, go ahead and google it and maybe you’ll understand it better than I did then. Here’s a hint: it has nothing to do with rugby).
I researched it, and thought about it, but in the end I decided that no, I am not the kind of person that would make a good Scrum Master. I decided to start a different kind of training, for graphic recording and graphic facilitation.
The first training I went to, I loved. I was interested, I liked the people, there was resonance and serendipity and connection…and 60% of them were Scrum Masters.
Another 20% of them were Certified Scrum Master Trainers.
And all of them were pretty happy in what they were doing.
Now: I still have my doubts about whether that’s the job path for me. But that’s a failure of my own imagination. The fact is, I don’t know enough about what it’s like to be a Scrum Master to really make an informed decision.
But I have seen a bunch of people who love what I love who seem to be happy doing exactly that thing.
So: in a month, I’ll be starting some Scrum Master training, and you, dear reader, will get to learn whether or not doing the thing that feels wrong but is probably right actually works.
And maybe, just maybe, it’ll help you figure out your own next steps…
Hey there! This is the first in what will be an occasional series of posts that are directed at you, the children of my children. We’ll let other people read them, too, because that’s kind of the age I live in now, and they might enjoy or benefit from what I’m writing now.
I also don’t necessarily expect you to read them now; you may not even read it ever. But that’s ok too; one of the nice things about journaling and writing like this is that it benefits both the writer and the reader, and so consider this to be me leading by example.
This first one is both the easiest one and also possibly the most useless.
I’m going to tell you the secret of happiness.
Dan Gilbert Was Right
There’s this cool book called Stumbling on Happiness by a pretty fun scientist guy named Dan Gilbert. He played all kinds of games and tests and things to try and figure out what made people happy, and then he wrote a book about it.
In the book, he made a pretty weird promise. He said “At the end of this book, I’ll tell you how you can be happy. And then you won’t do it.
There’s a thing that you may have gotten this from me; I’m pretty sure I got it from my parents, and I see it in your Moms. It’s a reaction to anyone telling me You won’t do this, and it basically is me growling and saying Oh, yeah? I’ll show you! I decided to read the book, and at the end, no matter what, I was going to do what it was that would make me happy.
Now, I should tell you, at the time I was living in Seattle, which is a really neat city with some of the most amazing ideas and companies and inventors going on. It’s also beautiful, with mountains and ocean, and some of my best friends in the world lived there. It’s right near Canada, which is a great place to visit.
I was working hard on things that were important to me — but I wasn’t happy, and that’s why I was reading the book.
Also, I wasn’t seeing my family much — my parents, my kids, you all lived in the Midwest. Seattle is way out west.
People Are Bad at Being Happy
Anyway, I started reading the book. And it was great, because Dan Gilbert is a great storyteller. Over and over he showed how people are really, really bad at figuring out what made them happy. They’d look for things that other folks said would make them happy, or they’d imagine things that would solve all their problems. Kind of like if you say Man, I really wish I had a million dollars!
Dan Gilbert went to find people who had done things like actually win a million dollars! And you’d expect that would make them happy! But turns out, it didn’t. In fact, it usually made them less happy.
It’s not like he was saying being poor made you happy. It was more like…money wasn’t the thing that made people happy or unhappy. Because it turned out he also talked to people who had horrible things happen to them. They’d had accidents, they’d lost everything, they might have almost no money at all…and it turned out that they could be happy. In fact, they were often happier than the people who had everything.
Even people who lived in Seattle.
The Simple Secret
Finally, he gave two secrets to happiness. I won’t tell you the first one, yet, because I want to write more about it later. But I’ll tell you the second. He said that people who spend their time trying to be closer to family and friends are, in general, happier than people who don’t.
When I read that, in Seattle, it was hard to read at first. I had worked hard to be there, and that’s where all this exciting stuff was happening! I had spent a lot of time there in Wisconsin, and really didn’t feel that it was a place where I could do the work and find the cool projects and chances to make a difference in the world.
But Dan Gilbert made me remember one thing, the one thing that Madison WI had that Seattle didn’t:
I realized one of the great truths of being a Grandpa: you don’t get a second chance to see your grandkids grow up.
And besides, like I said, I wasn’t happy there in Seattle, even with all those cool people and cool projects. So if I wasn’t happy, and this smart guy tells me that this is the way to be happy, it would be pretty dumb for me not to do it, right?
I moved back to Madison. I started spending more time with you and your moms and my parents. I missed my Seattle friends, of course, but it turned out that I could still talk with them through the internet and even see them. It also turned out that I could still work on cool projects – even cooler projects than I had in Seattle.
And best of all: I have never been happier.
So there’s the secret to happiness — well, at least, to my happiness. Ignore all the pressure for fame and money and fancy cities, and just try to spend more time with your family and friend and connect with them.
I’m not promising it will make you happy. But it’s got a better chance than most things.
In my research into the art of cigar smoking (yes, I do lead an interesting life; cigars are tax-deductible) there was one particular conclusion that I came to in regards to the portrayal of cigars as tokens of power.
I mean, that is part of the allure of cigars, as portrayed in popular culture: they portray power. Most of the time people think this is related directly to the idea of money, and it’s true: cigar smoking is not a cheap hobby, especially nowadays.
But there’s a problem with that simplistic correlation: it falls apart pretty quickly when you look at it. Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” uses cigars as a measure of power, but he’s certainly not rich. Wolverine classically is portrayed as having a stogie in his mouth, but he’s not a wealthy character. In reality, for every Rush Limbaugh smoking a stogie there’s a Ché Guevara.
So why are cigars about power, if it’s not about wealth?
Attention: The True Currency of Power
It’s not about money, I realized. It’s about the ability to pay attention. See, that’s one of the biggest differences between cigars and cigarettes: cigarettes tend to feed a mindless addiction, whereas a cigar requires attention to enjoy it. So if you have a cigar, you are saying: Regardless of whether I’m about to have a gunfight, storm the beaches of Normandy, whatever, I’ve still got enough attention to spare that I can enjoy this luxury.
Money is mistaken for power because it can sometimes purchase you enough slack in your life to be able to pay more attention to the things you enjoy – if you’re smart enough to use that slack for that purpose.
The problem is that people (myself included) often mistake the appearance of “more time” as an opportunity for “more productivity” rather than “time to enjoy life.” When I was in London once I commented on how intense and angry people seemed. A friend who was there said “Yes, it’s a trap: people who want to live in London are always stressed because they have to work so hard to be able to afford to live in London.”
The Wisdom of My Daughter
My oldest daughter fell into a similar trap last year. She was trying to afford an apartment for her and her son, and it meant working two jobs – which of course also meant that she didn’t have time to enjoy either the apartment or time with my grandson, and when she did have time at home she was often trying to catch up with sleep.
This year, though, she has one job, and is relying on help from friends and relatives to provide a living space. The result is that she gets more time with her son, and as she told me recently, “Sure, we don’t have much money to do stuff – but we have time, and we hang out at playgrounds and stuff. We’re just happier this way.”
I don’t know if I’ve ever been prouder, because she’s figured out something that it took me decades longer to figure out. Especially when it comes to kids, attention is the irreplaceable currency, but that’s only because their growth and change is so much easier to see.
The reality is that it applies to every moment of our lives: there are no do-overs. The luxury to choose where you give your attention is one of the most precious gifts we have, whether we choose to spend it on ourselves or others.
And by spending her attention wisely, my daughter has found a greater measure of contentment in her life. She’s helped me remember something, too, and that’s what I want to share with you as this weekend starts off:
What can you pay attention to that brings you joy? That makes you happy? Where is that thing that you love that you can give a bit more attention to?
And what do you think will happen when you do?
Maybe this should be the weekend where you find out…
A few weeks ago Natasha and I were sitting with several friends enjoying the last of an unseasonably warm November outside at a pool hall (that location is only relevant for the readers of the blog who know that I once was Harold Hill, which number now includes you). A lot of the discussion was in regards to the recent election, especially the many difficulties that the new administration would likely cause marginalized people.
“It’s just so frustrating,” said one of our friends, a brilliant adult sexuality educator who recently returned to school for an advanced degree. “I hear these cis het white male types complaining about how their parent’s check might come a little late this year, and I want to scream ‘This is your only problem?’” She continued to describe how blind to privilege many of her classmates were, and how they really had no reason to complain at all.
The conversation went on for quite a while before we bid our fond farewells – I told that friend specifically that I am extremely glad I know her, because she brings interesting and thoughtful ideas to the table. When we got in the car, though, Natasha and I both expressed the same thought: “She has never had to worry about health insurance.” Our friend is Canadian, you see, and they figured out this stuff a while ago.
There is No Misery Olympics.
Well, there might be, if you’re Monty Python. But the idea that someone’s suffering is less or more is false, because suffering is both subjective and optional. And it’s not just that you can’t know how much someone is suffering – you also do not understand their backstory. Many people who appear to have the most “perfect” lives deal with psychological or physical abuse, neglect, or even just the constant stress of having to maintain that particular level of affluence.
On the other hand, according to happiness researchers,
“Subjective well-being encompasses three different aspects: cognitive evaluations of one’s life, positive emotions (joy, pride), and negative ones (pain, anger, worry). While these aspects of subjective well-being have different determinants, in all cases these determinants go well beyond people’s income and material conditions… – The World Happiness Report, emphasis added
Instead, they ask the “Cantril Ladder” question:
“Please imagine a ladder, with steps numbered from 0 at the bottom to 10 at the top. The top of the ladder represents the best possible life for you and the bottom of the ladder represents the worst possible life for you. On which step of the ladder would you say you personally feel you stand at this time?
Obviously, two people could both say they felt they were at rung 7, while being in completely different life circumstances.
Most of the time people use these kinds of studies to prove that “money can’t buy happiness” or somesuch. Another way to look at it, though, is that you can’t know how much a person is suffering based on their external appearances.
Of course, what my friend was really frustrated by was at the lack of understanding those young affluent types were showing of all of the advantages and fortune they enjoyed. In other words, they were blind to their privilege – as are we all. Privilege is something that everyone enjoys in some way, and it’s hard to recognize because it’s literally built into the world around you, like air.
“But I can see and feel air!” you might say, to which I say: No you can’t. You can see the effects of air (wind), you can see air when it has something floating in it (smoke), you can feel it when you do something to it (breathing). Aside from that, though, you don’t spend much time thinking about air in your day – unless perhaps you suffer from asthma, at which point the lack of air makes it pretty important.
Privilege is the same way. You only tend to notice it when it is floating in front of you (such as the people our friend was talking about) or when your access to it suddenly changes (such as the shift of racial demographics in the U.S.).
Which means that if you are complaining about someone else not being aware of their privilege, the odds are that you are also ignoring a pretty huge chunk of your own.
That’s not a fault. It’s human nature! My friend was describing how people just like me had few, if any, problems that needed addressing. She was mostly right, except where she wasn’t: many people who look just like me are discovering that their access to health care is likely to be vastly reduced. It’s the literal definition of life-threatening, but she never considered it, because it’s not something she has to worry about.
In this world of everybody putting out their highlight reels – both of how great things are and also how awful they are – I’m going to put out a suggestion that we all try and remember that we don’t really know jack about how much or how little others suffer. And maybe practicing a little compassion, even just on the level of “Well, I guess it’s important to them, even if I don’t understand it” can go a long way towards working on the things that actually improve lives.
Arguing about how full or empty the glass is doesn’t quench anyone’s thirst.
I hate to break it to you, but I haven’t got it figured out. I know you come to this blog to read pearls of wisdom to help you find your way to happiness and contentedness and better, whiter, teeth or at least wider smiles, but I’m afraid there’s very little of that here.
You may be making the same mistake I almost made yesterday as I sat across from my Middle Daughter at the coffee shop. At the time I was writing a blog post for a client, against a deadline. I’d already tuned up my bike and ridden a few miles; the day before I’d laid out a book, ridden several miles, had a meeting with an app developer, and more, and yet by the end of the day I felt that I hadn’t really accomplished anything. It wasn’t FOMO – Fear of Missing Out – it was FOSO: Fear of Slacking Off.
I realize, on a rational level, that I had been extremely productive. That in fact I was likely doing more than I should, that simplifying my life would probably benefit everyone. But I couldn’t internalize it; I couldn’t actually believe my rational self when it said “OK, enough! Take a break!”
And I was about to ask my daughter her opinion on it. Maybe she had some idea for how to not push yourself beyond reasonable limits. Yes, that’s it – I would ask my daughter – my cross-fit enthusiastic studying-for-her-medical-boards daughter what the secret to personal leisure might be.
Then again, maybe not. And it was equally unlikely that my oldest daughter, whose son boasts of her three jobs, could help me. Or my youngest daughter, with two jobs (and four new job offers, apparently) and another of my grandsons to deal with day-to-day. Her twin, living and building a career as a performer in dance and the fire arts in Atlanta was also unlikely to really get the idea of “taking it easy.” Of “you’ve done enough.”
It occurred to me that maybe I owed those young women an apology for how I raised them. Well, as the Constable of Penzance would put it, too late now!
Maybe, instead, James Kavanaugh understands the issue – and lets us know it’s not, actually, a problem:
“I am one of the searchers. There are, I believe, millions of us. We are not unhappy, but neither are we really content. We continue to explore life, hoping to uncover its ultimate secret. We continue to explore ourselves, hoping to understand. We like to walk along the beach, we are drawn by the ocean, taken by its power, its unceasing motion, its mystery and unspeakable beauty. We like forests and mountains,, deserts and hidden rivers, and the lonely cities as well. Our sadness is as much a part of our lives as is our laughter. To share our sadness with one we love is perhaps as great a joy as we can know – unless it be to share our laughter.
Because my partners and I are conscientious of each others’ moods, one of the common questions that we have for each other is “Are you alright?” That, or some other variation on the theme, because we want to be both aware of our states of mind and also not miss any opportunities to help each other work through the hard times.
Sometimes, though, that question might be asked a little too much. For example, one day I was especially concerned with finances, and Natasha knew it. The next morning I got a text from her: How are you feeling?
My response was good coffee, bike tuning, and cereal.
Her response was, of course, ??? . Because she’d been asking about my mood from the previous day. But that question hadn’t made sense to me, because nothing had changed in my financial situation overnight. Why would my mood be different?
Here’s the secret, though – I’m pretty sure my mood would have been the same if I was making a six-figure salary, worrying about whether to sink money into a new house in that other neighborhood or not. It’s not the amounts of money, it’s the attitude around it.
That’s money, and I’m very aware I have issues with it. But the same thing applies to the rest of life.
“Are You Done with Work?“
There’s another question that just doesn’t make sense to me. How could I ever be done? There’s outlines of books to write, stacks of books to read, songs to learn, new income streams to generate, friends to re-connect with, dances to perform, grandsons to spoil, lovers to nibble, videos to stream, cigars to enjoy, and so much to do. How can I say that I am done?
I can’t. What’s more is that I can be ok with that. Back to you, James:
We searchers are ambitious only for life itself, for everything beautiful it can provide. Most of all we love and want to be loved. We want to live in a relationship that will not impede our wandering, nor prevent our search, nor lock us in prison walls; that will take us for what little we have to give. We do not want to prove ourselves to another or compete for love.
For wanderers, dreamers, and lovers, for lonely men and women who dare to ask of life everything good and beautiful. It is for those who are too gentle to live among wolves.”
Practical tools to make hard times happier. That's the goal of this blog, and this is one of those rare moments where I feel I can offer some hard evidence for ways to improve the happiness of your life.
(That is, as far as the social/psychological studies can be considered to be “hard” evidence of anything, as my Middle Daughter has pointed out.)
Buy Experience, Get Happiness
Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University has spent a couple of decades trying to figure out exactly what it is that makes people happy. Statistically speaking it turns out it is not what you have, but what you do.
At first this might not make much sense; wouldn't this $300 iPad, which I'm going to enjoy for years, give me more happiness than the 20 minutes or so that I would have if I spent the same amount of money skydiving?
Not if you take into account both our ability to adapt and our personal narrative, says the research. While there is a lot of joy when you first open up some product (especially those Apple designs) once you have the object for a while you get used to it. In the case of an iPad that might manifest as filling up the memory capacity, tapping your fingers as you wait for web pages to load. It also makes you vulnerable to comparison; you maybe see the person over there with the higher-resolution screen or maybe even a watch.
In fact, the object that brought you joy is almost certain to become a source of pain as time goes on and it becomes more obsolete, wears out, or simply fades into the background of your life. The initial rush, like a hit of any addictive drug, wears off, only replenished by the purchase of a new thing.
Hence, capitalism! (just kidding. I LOVE capitalism!).
On the other hand, even if you hate skydiving, once you do it it becomes part of your story: I am someone who jumped out of a perfectly good airplane and (hopefully) lived! Like any memory, we tend to focus on the good parts (or at least the parts that make a good story) and forget about the rest. As time goes on the actual memory becomes less vivid and so we compensate by embellishing details (such as Bryan Williams recently demonstrated).
Dr. Gilovich explains that “…experiences become an ingrained part of our identity” which is something that most objects don't do. In fact, often it is the experience of acquiring of the object that becomes the value, rather than the actual possession of it. My father owns a Navy Colt revolver, the kind that Clint Eastwood uses in The Outlaw Josey Wales. I haven't ever fired it, I haven't even seen it in years – but I vividly remember being with him in the gun shop when he saw it, and sharing his excitement as he decided to purchase it. I'm sure if I asked he'd let me hold it or even fire it – but I'm also sure it wouldn't come close to making me as happy as being there with him did.
Life is Cheap
…and that's a good thing. The other reason, not backed up scientifically but rather simply by my own reasoning, is that while you often need money in order to acquire objects of value, you don't necessarily need money to have good experiences.
Certainly for some – skydiving, for example – cost is a barrier to entry. But every moment of every day is an experience of some kind, and your experience of it is at least partially in your control. I can choose to stop and savor the coffee I'm drinking now instead of simply gulping it down between typing words; I can make my walk home an observation of the wondrous phenomenon that is Spring in Wisconsin rather than simply getting from point A to point B. Neither experience will cost me anything – but it can increase my happiness immediately.
If your initial objection to this idea is “there is not enough time I completely concur. Though it's not so much that there's not enough – since we all have exactly the same amount – it's rather the allocation of time. A large portion of most people's time is spent trying to earn the money to get the things that the marketers say will make us happy.
Up to a certain fiscal level (about $75K) that actually works. You can buy happiness. But at any fiscal level (presuming basic human needs are met) experience is probably going to make you happier than objects. Perhaps an even better strategy would combine the two – associate the object with an experience, so that it becomes a talisman. Increasing the subjective value of an object can certainly prolong the duration of your joy in possessing it.
Dr. Gilovich ends the Fast Company article by asking: “As a society, shouldn't we be making experiences easier for people to have?”. It's a question worth asking not only as a society (even Constitutionally relevant, right after life and liberty) but also as individuals, parents, partners, and citizens of the world.
p style=”margin-bottom: 1.5em;”>What experience are you going to make possible today?
Over the weekend I had one of those epiphanies. One of those moments that changes your perspective on things, that makes you suddenly see the elephant in the room.
Specifically, it’s the metaphor of the elephant as being the bulk of our subconscious psyche – our emotions, our habits, our desires. It’s an example used by Jonathan Haidt in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. He also posits a rider perched on top of the elephant symbolizing the conscious mind, riding this massive, powerful animal. If it were a contest of strength, the elephant obviously wins, right? The rider can’t use force to make the elephant go somewhere. The entire process of self-improvement is figuring out ways to persuade, trick, distract, or train the elephant to do what the rider wants.
Enter social media. Suddenly the rider becomes just another voice in the maelstrom of sensory inputs. The poor, harried, distracted elephant suffering the slings and arrows of outrageous updates. The elephant wants to go where the rider directs, but there are just so many confusing directions possible to go, and many of them seem like innocuous detours but end up in miresome swamps of time-guzzling clickbait.
But this isn’t just another “We should all focus better” post. No, this one is different.
The Value of Me
A friend of mine recently shut down his Google apps. No more Gmail, no more Drive, no more Docs. Instead he’s switching to Apple’s cloud-based apps – iCloud, etc – which offer much of the same functionality.
Still, it seemed rather strange to me. When I asked him why he was doing it, he said it was because he objected to the way Google used the data of his online activities to target advertising, etc. It’s the argument that your data belongs to you, and if you’re using something for free it means that you are the product.
I’m familiar with that argument, and I still use Google, mainly because I find their apps convenient. As for the data they gather on my website usage, that’s ok with me too – I’m not using it, after all. To me giving them knowledge of what kind of things I look for on Amazon, what kind of articles I like reading, even what kind of movies I love is not a big deal.
The Value of Attention
However, there was one sentence in an article on Medium that changed everything. The article had the relatively unwieldy title of “Why I Just Asked My Students to Put Their Laptops Away” It’s well-worth a read, not the least to keep yourself up-to-date on some of the studies of this brave new information age.
For example, there’s the usual “multitasking is an illusion!” diatribe. But it includes a link to a study that showed that multitasking is not only bad for the person doing it – it actually takes away from the capabilities of people around the multitasker:
…participants who were in direct view of a multitasking peer scored lower on a test compared to those who were not. The results demonstrate that multitasking on a laptop poses a significant distraction to both users and fellow students…
But we knew that already, right? But how about this: since the studies prove that attention is a limited resource, what are these social media venues doing? They are taking that resource away from you, with the help of every new “update”:
…the designers of operating systems have every incentive to be arms dealers to the social media firms. Beeps and pings and pop-ups and icons, contemporary interfaces provide an extraordinary array of attention-getting devices, emphasis on “getting.” Humans are incapable of ignoring surprising new information in our visual field…
That’s what caught my attention (sic). That “emphasis on “getting””. Suddenly I realize that while I don’t care about the corporations making use of the trail of digital detritus I leave behind, I resent the hell out of them stealing a non-renewable resource that is more valuable to me than anything: my time.
Attention on FULL
There are many, many articles on how to focus, how to eliminate distractions. I’ve written some myself. There are also many apps that can help, with names like “FocusFree”. But I’ll tell you right now the singular practice that I started directly after reading that article: FULL SCREEN MODE.
No more windows. If I’m in my browser, that web page is the only thing there on the screen. If I’m writing (as shown here) there’s only my wonderful Ulysses app here in front of me. I haven’t yet tracked down all the screen alerts, so it’s not perfect yet, but when I can I shut them down. Ad-free is worth the cost, and the tweets can wait until the blog post is written.
It’s changed the way I work. What do you use to focus? Or what do you wish you could change?
Love & Other Disasters
In episode 30 of the “You Are Not So Smart” podcast there is an interview with sports writer David Epstein, in which they talk extensively about that infamous “10,000 hour” rule. It was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers and is based heavily on the work of a Dr. Ericsson from Princeton.
Basically, it posits that in order to reach mastery of any cognitively-demanding occupation it requires, on average, 10,000 hours (usually about a decade) of deliberate practice. It’s kind of funny watching the way academics, trainers, personal development writers (mea culpa) and others have argued back and forth about what this really signifies. There’s lots of “But what about X situation?” rebutted with “We never said X! You’re building a straw man!” and more.
Which is fine for academics and writers, but Mr. Epstein’s objection is less theoretical and more direct. The untempered belief in this “rule” has caused it to be applied in situations it was never intended for. What is more, it is actually having the opposite of its intended effect.
Early specialization cuts short a period when young athletes would otherwise sample a wide variety of sports and robs them of the opportunity to stumble upon their best fit, Epstein says. “Though narrowly focused child prodigies fascinate us and garner media attention, it turns out that later specializers are more the norm than the exception,” – The Washington Post
Stumbling Upon Happiness
While it’s also the title of one of my favorite books, it caught my eye when the same verb was used in Epstein’s interview. How many of us give ourselves the chance to “stumble upon our best fit”? Instead, we are often paralyzed by the fear of doing the wrong thing.
Our parents and teachers and mentors often help us in this paralysis by stressing how important it is to choose the right college, the right major, the right partner, sometimes even the right haircut for the school yearbook!
While it’s true that small changes and decisions can have far-reaching implications in our lives, it is the essence of hubris to assume that we know what those decisions are. As Dan Gilbert’s work, among others, has shown we are ridiculously inept at predicting what will make us happy. So what’s a hopeful happy person to do? How can we choose?
Cloudy, with a Chance of Luck
There are very convincing arguments against doing what you love as a career. Cal Newport’s So Good They Can’t Ignore You is one of many personal development folks who will tell you that it’s entirely wrong to assume that the thing you love is going to make you happy. His argument is that it’s much better to use strategies to learn to love what it is you do.
Passion comes after you put in the hard work to become excellent at something valuable, not before. In other words, what you do for a living is much less important than how you do it.
Personally, I think that idea has some merit – certainly mindfulness practice can turn the most mundane thing into a joy. There are some flaws to that argument, though. I had a job that was fairly lucrative working in web marketing – but we were selling things that were actually detrimental to the lives of the people who bought them. My job was to hide this fact in the advertisement so that we could sell them as fast as possible. Could I ever have learned to love that job? I doubt it.
When it comes to following your passion, though, why does it have to be one or the other?
“The key to strategy… is not to choose a path to victory, but to choose so that all paths lead to a victory.” — Cavilo, The Vor Game
I like the idea of combining this old TV trope (also known as the Xanatos Gambit, with a principle of Zen archery:
Loose the arrow, and what it strikes you call “the target.”
A good example of this is Edison’s response when someone talked about how he’d failed 10,000 times to find a working filament for his lightbulbs. “I have not failed,” he famously replied. “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”
I’ve commented a few times that I’m currently at a place in my life where I’m happier than I’ve ever been, especially in terms of my work. Let’s take a moment and look at some of the paths I took to reach this point:
dancer became marine became cook became preschool teacher became multimedia designer became TV engineer became video editor became web content specialist became public speaker became writer.
Along the way I earned a degree in Inter-Arts Technology (Dance), learned Tagalog, gained expertise in some specialized performing arts, led a church choir, traveled to Europe, performed in community theaters, and took up cigars. Apparently, that was my path to happiness. Why didn’t my guidance counselor have a pamphlet for that? What if I had picked one thing – say, preschool teacher – and devoted the 10,000 hours to becoming an expert. Would I be as happy?
It’s a trick question. The answer is “unknown”; we can never actually know the destinations to which the roads not traveled led. The thing is, it doesn’t matter, because we can’t change the past; all we can do is choose what to do next.
The Burden of Choice
That’s where we freeze up. Especially if we’re not happy where we are, then the thought of choosing wrong again and possibly ending up somewhere even worse keeps us from taking steps in any direction other than the one we’re heading. The status quo is always easier than change.
The problem is that the idea of “right or wrong” in terms of choices suffers from an imperfect metaphor. As Sean West put it in a recent podcast (well worth checking out!),
People see it as 360º of options and if they pick the wrong one then they’re heading in the wrong direction. But it’s not really 360º of options, it’s more like a starting line with a bunch of arrows pointing forward. You’re going to find that one thing leads to the next. Pick one and start.
So yes, you should do what you love. You should also do what you don’t love in a different way to see if you can learn to love it. You should do that thing you never thought you’d like on the off chance you’re wrong. You should do that thing you did when you were little to see if you still like it, and you should do that thing you have to do in both mindful and mindless ways to see if it changes have to to want to. Do all the things. Or as many as you feel like.
Every one, even the ones that seem like a waste of time, will have taught you something. If you fail, you’re being given a chance to practice losing gracefully and building resilience and keeping on. You’re becoming a Renaissance person! Go you!
I’ll close with a quote from one of the most influential writers I’ve ever read. I cringe at that, sometimes, but this particular quote has served me well, and perhaps it will inspire you as it inspired me:
“A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.” – Robert A. Heinlein
The Wrong Toolbox
Fair warning: this is going to be one of those posts where I bring up a need, something that’s missing from the bulk of personal development blogs. In a nutshell, it’s our inability to cultivate synthetic happiness. I’ll go into what that is, but I feel the need to explain in advance that I don’t have a solution for the problem. But maybe, just maybe, if I lay out what I’m seeing, you’ll have a better grasp than me for what needs to be done.
The realization came as I was watching a colleague who specializes in relationship counseling for alternative relationships. She was outlining her suggestions to help people find the right partner, and I found myself nodding along with her as she talked. She said very important things that we all-to-often forget, such as maintaining our own identities and knowing our own boundaries and insisting on a partner who respects them. All very important, very good stuff.
Then she went on to suggest that you have a list of the things that you need in a relationship, the things that make you happy. If you are looking for a traditional domestic bliss type living situation, for example, you shouldn’t hook up with the person who is traveling the world from rave to rave. If your idea of a lovely day is hiking through the mountains, then the woman who spends the majority of her recreational time playing Skyrim is probably not the right person for you. Those are the gross exaggerations, of course, but you can get much more personal. What are your views on sexuality? Jealousy? Politics? History? All of these things can make or break relationships, and my colleague insisted that you should know what you need to be happy in a relationship before you start screening potential partners.
And that’s where my brain did a scooby-doo Ruh-Roh!
Find Natural Happiness or Cultivate Synthetic Happiness?
Happiness is like a box of chocolates. That is, you can try and go with the guide that’s written on the top of the box, but the odds are that somebody’s been there before and rearranged the pieces. Or that the description of the Toffee-Butterscotch-Wasabi-Pimento-Nougat won’t taste quite the way you expect.
The thing that’s strange, though, is that if I tell you that you only get one piece of chocolate, the odds are that even if you make a funny face at the first bite you will eventually tell somebody else “Oh, you should try that TBWPN chocolate – you’ll be surprised!” Dan Gilbert defines this as the difference between “natural” and “synthetic” happiness – that is, the difference between being happy because you stumbled on exactly what you wanted vs. the happiness you create when you don’t get what you want.
He explains it in detail, with bar graphs, in his TED talk. Part of Dr. Gilbert’s premise is that synthetic happiness is just as valuable and enduring as natural happiness, which is counter-intuitive to a lot of “authentic self” theories. He also points out briefly (and more extensively in his excellent book) that we are notoriously bad at predicting what will make us happy, and even worse at predicting how happy we’ll be whether we get what we want or not. This isn’t a hypothetical model; study after study has shown that our prefrontal cortex (i.e., imagination) is as wildly inaccurate as it is wonderfully entertaining.
And that’s where I suddenly had a problem with my colleague’s suggestion. If you make a list of the things you want, then the odds are that list is not going to actually be accurate. It’s going to be filled with the things you think you want, or the things you’re told you should want, or the things you wish you wanted (for example, I want to like doing yoga, but the best I can do is like having done yoga). Worse, if you take that list and apply it to a series of “candidates”, you are faced with choices. “Freedom is the enemy of synthetic happiness,” Dr. Gilbert says, and I’m afraid he has the bar-graphs to back it up.
The Affective Hedonic Aesthetic Screwdriver
What I’m suggesting is that lists and speculation are not what we need to increase the odds of being happy. The last thing we need is another version of the Meyers-Briggs personality test. If you’re a fan, then I apologize, and if you’re unfamiliar with it, let me explain:
The idea behind the test is that people can measure various aspects of their character by answering questions about their attitude, perception, adjustment, and lifestyle. This gives you a four-letter category (“I’m INTJ!“) which you can then match up to jobs, social events, and even other people to figure out how compatible you are.
There are several problems with this, rather eloquently laid out by The Skeptoid. In particular, there is this: ” It’s been found that 50% of test takers who retake it score differently the second time…depending on their mood that day or other factors, may answer enough questions differently to push them over… This makes it possible for two people who are very similar to actually end up with completely opposite scores.“
So not only are we bad at predicting what will make us happy: so is everybody else. There’s the problem: we concentrate so much on figuring out how to get what we want, when what we really need is a way to adjust to the things that we have – an “Affective Hedonic Aesthetic Screwdriver”, to steal a beat from Dr. Who. It should be noted, it’s not about rationalizing things: we do that already. It’s as ancient as Aesop and the tale of the “Sour Grapes.” I don’t know about you, but I never thought the Fox actually believed that he didn’t want the grapes. Rationalizing “I didn’t really want that anyway“, like affirmations, doesn’t seem to work terribly well, at least on their own.
Rather, we should be developing strategies for irrational situations like being happy with the things we didn’t expect. For example: the sudden gut-wrenching attraction to the person who doesn’t match our list.
Sounds like a good topic for Friday, yes? Any other ideas for the creation of your own personal “AHA Screwdriver”?
SitRep: Project Friends & Family
It was about six months ago that I made the decision to stop focusing on my career and my romantic pursuits. I was in a place where I’d followed a lot of the wisest advice I could find in both categories, and nothing seemed to be giving me much joy. I was struggling with where I was living, I was no closer to a stable relationship than I’d ever been, despite a lot of effort. I was getting disillusioned with the idea that love makes you happier, at least the kind of love I was experiencing. It seemed to be that I was stressing myself working really hard on things that didn’t make me happy at all.
About that time I was also exploring some of Dan Gilbert’s research on what makes people happy, and one particular aspect came to light:
We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends. – Stumbling on Happiness
At the time I had some great friends. I still miss them, every day, and the conversations we have had. But I was also quite aware of how fast my grandsons were growing up, and that they didn’t know their grandpa. I knew that my daughters were facing challenges in their lives, and while they have all grown into strong and capable young women, it seemed possible that having Dad around occasionally could help.
So I packed everything – well, as much as I could – into my Saturn and drove through the early winter storms back to Madison, WI, in time to enjoy Thanksgiving with a large part of my extended family.
Dan’s Right: Love Makes You Happier
The motto of this blog is “Practical tips to make hard times happier.” If you’ve been reading it for any length of time, you know that I shy away from absolute declarations: If you do X, then Y is the result! I’m a firm believer in the Gray area, that there are many dimensions to any problem and that solutions are packed with unintended consequences.
So when I tell you that I am completely positive that focusing on my friends and family makes my life better, happier, and has no unfortunate side effects, you should be surprised.
Or not; some people may be sitting here going Duh! We knew that! That’s fine, though I suspect it’s not nearly so obvious. There’s a lot of focus on careers, on family, on recreational activities. And there’s nothing wrong with that – we need our alone time. We need to have the time to focus on ourselves. I simply think that perhaps the focus is too much on the glamorous roller-coaster of romantic love, rather than the more subtle love of family and friends.
It’s been astonishingly simple to improve the quality of my life: just prioritize, family first, then friends, then everything else. For example, I’m writing this post a few hours earlier than intended because my daughter called and asked if I could watch Harvey for a few hours today. The other night we canceled dinner plans to give my nephew a ride to school. Rather than go to a geeky Meetup yesterday, I went to have margaritas with a personal friend who will not be in the area for long.
What surprises me about this is that it’s not hard. It’s simply saying “yes” whenever someone who falls in the circle of family or friends asks me to do something with them. And the rewards are enormous – I can’t think of any decision I’ve made in the last forty-odd years that has been so unequivocally positive in result. I’ve been able to help just a little here and there in the lives of my friends and family, and that tiny bit has made the general happiness of my life higher than just about any time.
I’m well aware that it may not last – Harvey’s out of diapers already, and little Victor isn’t even drinking his bottle! In five years, my niece will be out of high school! The time seems to just fly by. And it’s not like life is one long blissful experience.
Love doesn’t make you happy. It’s not supposed to; you’re not supposed to be happy all the time. But love makes you happier, that’s for sure. Can you really ask for anything more?