For a long time, I was unhappy. I used to think that this was because of my overwhelming debt. I believed that if I were debt-free, happiness would come to me. It didn’t.
After I paid off my consumer debt, I was still unhappy. “Maybe it’s my job,” I thought. I’d always hated working for the family box factory; it had been a job of last resort, and I’d never shaken free of it.
But even after I quit my day job, happiness remained elusive. I now know that some of this was due to low-level depression. I’ve also come to understand that part of the problem was that I expected money to solve my problems. I expected money to make me happy. Money and happiness, however, are mostly unrelated. That’s just not how it works.
While beginning to research for my own book, I recently read Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar. Happier is a great book. Derived from Ben-Shahar’s Harvard course on positive psychology, this slim volume summarizes research into the subject of human happiness — and offers exercises to help readers live happier, more fulfilling lives.
Ben-Shahar rejects certain artificial dichotomies our culture clings to. He writes, for example:
One of my students at Harvard came to talk to me after receiving a job offer from a prestigious consulting firm. She told me that she was uninterested in the work she would be doing but felt she could not turn down this opportunity…She asked me at what point in life — at what age — she could stop thinking about the future and start being happy.
I did not accept her question with its implicit either-or approach to happiness. I told her that instead of asking, “Should I be happy now or in the future?” she should ask, “How can I be happy now and in the future?”
This is brilliant. I, too, used to think that my choice was either now or then. I didn’t realize I could have both. I believed that in order to have happiness (or wealth) in the future, I had to sacrifice happiness (or wealth) in the present. This isn’t the case. Ben-Shahar elaborates:
Some people might be concerned that pursuing meaning and pleasure over accolades and wealth could come at the price of success…I had similar concerns about my own success as I contemplated the shift toward the happiness archetype. The “no pain, no gain” formula had served me well, in terms of quantifiable success, and I feared that my resolve would weaken — that the next milestone would lose its appeal and no longer sustain me as it did when I was a rat racer. What happened, however, was the exact opposite.
The shift from being a rat racer to pursuing happiness is not about working less or with less fervor but about working as hard or harder at the right activities — those that are a source of both present and future benefit.
Ben-Shahar advocates balance. We find happiness when we consider tomorrow and today. People are happy who perform meaningful work that challenges them. They have goals — and the freedom to pursue them.
Throughout the book, Ben-Shahar offers a series of exercises designed to boost the reader’s happiness. I’m the sort who usually loathes activities and exercises in self-help and personal-finance books, but I liked these. In fact, I’ve briefly summarized a handful of them below:
- Create rituals. Ben-Shahar urges readers to do the things they love: reading, walking, gaming, knitting, whatever. But because it can be difficult to make time for these activities, he argues that we should create rituals around them. At a specific time every day, do the thing you love. For example, I’ve recently made it a ritual to walk a couple of miles to have lunch most afternoons. This makes me happy.
- Express gratitude. I don’t do this enough. Research indicates that you can enjoy a heightened sense of well being by keeping a daily gratitude journal. Just jot down five things you’re grateful for every day. It’s okay to repeat yourself from one day to the next. This exercise forces you to become conscious of the good things in your life.
- Set meaningful goals. When I was younger, I set goals that had little relation to who I was or what I wanted. I set goals based on what I felt was expected of me. For a goal to be worthwhile, it has to be related to your own interests. And it has to add something to your life. Pursuing meaningful goals can bring happiness to your life. (And note that it’s the pursuit of the goals that brings happiness, not the attainment of them.)
- Play to your strengths. Ben-Shahar is a fan of Appreciative Inquiry. (That website is awful, by the way — it’s written in jargon.) Appreciative Inquiry ignores the things that do not work and looks instead what has been successful. By focusing on past positive outcomes, you can build upon your strengths. Do what you’re good at. (This reminds me of Tim Ferriss’ philosophy in The 4-Hour Workweek: “Emphasize your strengths, not your weaknesses.”)
- Simplify. Ben-Shahar writes: “To raise our levels of well-being, there is no way around simplifying our lives. This means safeguarding our time, learning to say ‘no’ more often — to people as well as opportunities — which is not easy. It means prioritizing, choosing activities that we really, really want to do, while letting go of others.” As Derek Sivers recently wrote on his blog, if an opportunity doesn’t make you say “hell yeah!”, you’re better off saying “no”.
Happier provides plenty of other practical tips. It’s a goldmine of useful information.
Best Summer Ever
As I shared a couple of weeks ago, this has been one of the best summers of my life. I feel fulfilled. I am happy. Why? There are a number of reasons:
- I’m doing meaningful work that challenges me.
- I feel like I’m helping other people. I get e-mail every day that tells me I’m making a difference in people’s lives.
- I’m making time for exercise. I’ve been walking five or six or ten miles every day. (This Sunday, I plan to walk 26.2!)
- I’m reading more. I’ve always been a voracious reader. Pop fiction, personal finance, Proust — you name it. But for the past three years, I haven’t been able to read as much as I’d like. This summer, I’ve changed that.
- I’m spending more time with family and friends.
- I’m allowing myself to indulge in my hobbies once again. As you know, I cut back on comic book spending while working my way out of debt. I still have a budget for comics, but it’s not nearly as restrictive as it once was.
In short, I’m balancing the present with the future. I’m still looking out for tomorrow, but I’m not overlooking today. All of this reminds me of the end of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House in the Big Woods. It’s a cold winter evening and young Laura is listening while Pa plays “Auld Lang Syne” on his fiddle.
When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”
“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”
But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the fire-light gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.
She thought to herself, “This is now.”
She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the fire-light and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.
At the end of Happier, Ben-Shahar writes that we often imagine that something or someone in the future will bring us happiness. Or we find ourselves stuck in the past. But the key to happiness, he says, is to live in the now. “Rather than allowing ourselves to remain enslaved by our past or future,” he writes, “we must learn to make the most of what is presently in front of us and all around us.”
Go forth, my friends, and be happy.
For more reading on happiness, check out Gretch Rubin’s excellent blog, The Happiness Project.