in Books, FS, Psychology

Happier

“Happiness is the meaning and the purpose of life, the whole aim and end of human existence.” — Aristotle

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.

Happier
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.

Happiness Boosters
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.

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79 Comments

  1. Very good article, J.D. One thing I think Ben-Shahar missed competely, it seems, was the happiness one derives from doing things for others. Giving to charity, working at a food bank, visiting the sick in the hospital, providing something small for someone in need, etc. Making a difference in someone elses life always makes me happy. And I have to add this, true joy and sustainable peace only comes from having relationship with Christ.

  2. What a great post to read first thing in the morning!

    To quote Ziggy: “Happiness doesn’t depend on how much you have to enjoy but how much you enjoy what you have”.

    Cheers~

  3. “Money and happiness, however, are mostly unrelated.”

    Maybe somewhat, but they’re definitely related on some level. I was DEFINITELY a LOT happier when I was at least making a living wage.

    These last two years have been the saddest, most depressing years of my life, mostly due to lack of money, caused by the lack of a steady job that provides a real living wage. I’ve had to scrape out a living on poverty level wages and the charity of friends and family. Depressing? YOU BET. Not having enough money to even survive is pretty darn depressing. Worrying about ending up homeless is depressing. I am not happy. When you hardly have enough to pay for the basic necessities of life, it’s hard to even be able to do any “Happiness Boosters”…either time, money or deep depression prevents it.
    If I had money, enough money to be a normal member of society who can afford the basic necessities without having to work three jobs plus rely on parents, then yes, I’d be a LOT happier. :/

    So it kinda bugs me when people say that money can’t buy happiness. Yes, it can. It can buy things or experiences that make you truly happy.

    What money cannot buy is JOY….that deep joy that comes from within you that isn’t affected by outside circumstances. To me, joy and happiness are different.

  4. JD,

    You live in the USA state which has the most depressing weather in the whole country – and consistently rated one of the unhappiest places to live in the world, and has the highest suicide rate on the planet.

    Do you think WEATHER has an impact on happiness? I look at the list of happiest countries on the planet, and virtually all of them lie between the Tropics and have beautiful weather. Places like North America, Europe, and Japan are unhappy because the weather is awful for all for but a few months of the year of the year – very little to be happy about in any of those places except during the summer.

    It’s not a coincidence, at least to me, that it is the SUMMER when you have found yourself happy. If this is true and repeatable, don’t you believe you would be a whole lot happier for 365 days (instead of just for one season) than if you lived in a place where it was beautiful and sunny for 365 days a year? Have you considered moving to a beautiful place in the Tropics in order to improve your happiness? When you live in a place like that you just walk outside any day and it doesn’t matter what’s going on, but you will be happy just because it is beautiful outside.

    If you’re still upbeat after the dark and gray clouds start rolling in, then I will believe something has changed. Until then, it’s just the weather.

  5. Ironically, I just finished reading Julia Baird’s article “Positively Downbeat” in this week’s (October 5th) Newsweek. I found it interesting that there were 4,000 books published last year on the subject of happiness, up from 50 in the year 2000. I won’t summarize the article here, but the pull quote is “That’s the funny thing about the obsession with smiley-faced happiness. The more we study it, the less happy we become.” Happiness is an elusive and subjective state. I am glad you have had the pleasure of soaking in it recently. Great review. Thanks for posting.

    JKC

  6. @ Lydia (post #1),

    I know that the USA is 78.4% Christian (Hard to believe if you live in a major metropolitan area, but true). However I would like to suggest that Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and Atheists (Most of whom have no relationship with Christ) can also be happy.

  7. While outside things can influence our happiness and our situation, in the end, we need to realize that we have a large amount of control over our own happiness. If we keep looking for something else to “make” us happy, it’s going to be a long search.

  8. To me, the issue is more about learning to quantify “enough”. A deficit of anything–money, free time, etc.–is clearly going to lead to unhappiness. But a surfeit can be just as bad, if not worse, than a lack. For example, if you eat too much food, you will either gain weight or have a stomach ache. Or if you leave it sitting around, it goes bad. Any one of those outcomes will cause you to feel guilt and/or dissatisfaction, and because you have the additional belief that you *should* be happy and satisfied because of your excess, the disappointment is going to be magnified and made more profound.

    When we learn to *accurately* define what enough is for us, and stop ourselves from comparing our “enough” to other people’s “enoughs”, then we feel satisfied with our choices and our actions, which ultimately leads to more happiness.

  9. Re: Comics –

    Most people don’t know this, but the public library has comics! They usually only carry the paperback or hardcover collections, so you will get them a while after they are released as a single issue. But it’s free! And you can use Inter-library loan to borrow from other cities if your city only has volumes 1,2,4 & 5 and you need volume 3.

  10. First off, good luck on that marathon this weekend. Which one are you doing? Just remember to stay hydrated.

    Second, the question of should I be happy now or in the future I think is one that plagues a lot of people, but I know it does me for sure. Right now, I am not very happy at my job. There is no room for growth, the hours are very rough, and I am under the gun all the time. But, the money is very good and the job is secure…for now. However, I dread getting up every day. My wife is a teacher and gets up every day, sick or exhausted, and with a smile on her face goes into work EARLY every day. While she doesn’t make as much as me, she is happy, well respected in her field, and truly enjoys her job. I know teaching isn’t for me, but I’m thinking IT isn’t either. I have to find something that will make me happy both in the now and later.

    Third, I think I might pick up that book and see what other little inspriations it offers, cuz right now, I feel like I need that little push to get me moving forward on making the changes I need to.

    Thanks for having such a great blog, I read it every day.

  11. Too early in the day for so many trolls. Blah!

    Thanks for the uplifting post. I’m thinking of my things to be thankful for right now!

  12. P.S. To Mike #10, my husband also works in IT and is completely stressed out daily. He recently switched jobs and promised me that things would be different, but they are the same. I am getting the impression that all of IT is like that. Maybe try something new but try to use your computer skills in the new endeavor? Or maybe all the IT workers of the world should form a union and fight “the man”? 😀

  13. @Lydia (#1)
    Ben-Shahar and most writers on happiness do acknowledge that helping others is a source of happiness. It’s one of the things that keeps appearing in my research.

    @Frugal Bachelor (#4)
    Oregon is ranked as an unhappy place? I didn’t know that. I do know, though, that the weather does affect me. It took me a long time to realize this, but it’s true. I don’t mind the rain, but six months of the stuff can start to drag on a fellow’s spirits! I think it’s clear by now that I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder. Last winter was the first time I’ve taken steps to deal with it, and I’m prepped to do so again this winter.

  14. There is another way in which research shows that happiness is not related to lifestyle (ie money) but about the experiences we have and the memories we make. It has been shown that we all have a base level of happiness (I’m sure we can change it to some degree by following JD’s hints). Large changes in lifestyle give us a temporary boost or fall, but then once we settle into the new lifestyle, we go back to the same level of happiness we had prior.

    For instance, lottery winners experience a short period of elation, while a widower experiences a short period of depression. Then, once that period fades, they go back to their baseline. The caveat is that money does affect happiness for families that live below a certain level of income (at one time taht was $50,000. It may be a little higher now).

    What has also been shown to increase happiness is “moments” of fun. A big trip to Europe, a family reunion. These build memories and often foster relationships.

  15. JD, your blog does make an impact. Personally, I get happier when I do something for others. As for Portland marathon – have the best of times!

  16. Wow. Unhappy IT workers. My husband just quit his IT job yesterday, with no other job lined up, because it had gotten so bad that he wasn’t eating or sleeping much. I was not crazy about the situation, since we have had a very expensive year, so the emergency fund is down. If he doesn’t get a job in a few months, we’ll be in trouble. On the other hand, he was so miserable, I really don’t blame him. When he asked my opinion before making this move, I voiced my worry, but I didn’t say “Absolutely not!” either… I couldn’t. He was suffering too much. And in the end, his performance had slipped enough that there were hints he might be fired at some point, so maybe it is better to quit than be fired.

    On a different subject, related to happiness and climate, I thought the Danes were the happiest people, and they live pretty far north!

  17. I will second the recommendation of this book. I read it last year and really enjoyed it. I need to find a way to incorporate the concepts into my daily life. (I need to invest in the accompanying workbook.)

    Brenda, I am sorry you are having such a difficult time. “Money doesn’t buy happiness” refers to the point on Maslow’s heirarchy of needs above sustenance level, I guess. I wish you better luck soon.

  18. Thanks for this post! If you use the Socratic method when talking to young people about what they want (a Porche, an exciting girlfriend, etc.), then keep asking, “And just why do you want that…”, eventually they tend to come back to, “Because I think it will make me happy.”

    In my book on finances, I spent the last chapter trying to sum up some of the research outcomes on happiness, using the acrostic HAPPIER:

    H: Help Others
    A: Attitude check – Focus on your blessings
    P: Pursue quality relationships
    P: Pardon those who wrong you
    I: Immerse yourself in an interest or strength
    E: Envy Not – forget keeping up w/ the Joneses
    R: Religion can help – research finds sincerely religious people typically happier than the non-religious

    Concerning money, it does help with happiness when it gets you above the poverty line. But once you can afford food and housing, after that, just making $10,000 more dollars doesn’t seem to have much of an affect happiness.

    J. Steve Miller
    Author of Enjoy Your Money! How to Make It, Save It, Invest It and Give It
    “the money book for people who hate money books”
    http://www.amazon.com/Enjoy-Your-Money-Make-Invest/dp/098187567X/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1237211789&sr=8-2

  19. Nice post JD. Loved the Little House in the Big Woods reference, as it’s been an influence in my life since I could read.

  20. One of my favorite quotes from Emerson: “The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well… To know that even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.”

    Timeless advice. A previous comment was made that pursuing it often leads to further unhappiness. I don’t think we are meant to be happy all of the time. We have to allow for periods of unhappiness as a fact of life. I think the above advice leads to optimism, production, fulfillment and, as an end-product, happiness.

    I see a huge correlation between doing what we consider “meaningful” work and happiness. If you don’t feel like you are making a difference in your daily work, sustained happiness will be tough to come by. I can vouch for this first-hand!

  21. I posted this on my Facebook page and a friend already remarked that she’s going to start a gratitude journal. 🙂

  22. Great post JD! I agree that it’s important for each person to focus on being happy with the life they have right now, today. You can’t live life saying I’ll be happy after x happens, or y occurs. You have to live in the now to truly enjoy and appreciate life.

  23. Good post! I really agree with you. When I finished university last year and was going in a different direction in my life (job, moving out, etc.), I wasn’t very happy. I had a lot of debt too.. some student, some consumer, and all I did was look to the future, but in the past year or so I have learned that hinging your entire life on future hopes does not make for happiness. I have been happier as I have set goals and paid down the bulk of my debt (should be debt free before next April!), but I know that when I do finally get out of debt, I won’t suddenly be happier in every area.

    I’ve been learning to enjoy simple things more, and not to deprive myself of everything in the name of paying down debt (potential future happiness). The occasional treat is fine, as long as I stick to my big goals, and I am happier for it. I’m also learning to appreciate what I have a lot more, and to be grateful. And not everything that makes me happy has to cost money, and I am a lot happier having realized that!

    I definitely do think though, that once I am out of debt and can really focus on what I want to do (start a company) I will also feel more fulfilled. And debt is one of my biggest worries (if not the biggest), so I will be happier for having that particular worry gone, at least, but I think happiness evolves… what makes you happy at one point may not make you happy years down the road. I think though that having some direction and working towards it, and feeling like you are making progress in any of your goals (personal, professional, etc.) is a big element of happiness.

  24. I just read the comments on the weather and I agree that weather is HUGE. I live in Canada, and it gets COLD and we have snow for about 7 months of the year. I was born in Europe, but long story short, we ended up staying here. It’s a goal of mine to move to either a warmer part of the country (like Victoria) or back to Europe. Ideally I’d like to split my time between England and Canada, but I need money to do that. I really think I suffer from seasonal affective disorder… it’s kinda hard not to when going outside actually physically HURTS for the cold. It’s not pleasant at ALL. Oregon has rain? Give me rain any day over snow! *sigh*

  25. @Brenda
    I understand completely how you feel. In the early 90s I was going through a divorce, hyperthyroidism,(I lost down to 125 pounds and I’m over 6 foot tall) was unemployed and living with my father, who was constantly undermining the little self-esteem I had left. Yes, that caused depression and also a form of mild mental illness. I received $400 from an income tax return and used that to move into a boarding house in downtown Atlanta. I rented a room for $250, for the month, in a house that actually had raccoons living in the walls. It took me the entire month to find a job and I got evicted because I had not received my first paycheck yet. But during that month, I used the public library to get books to help me deal with my perception problems. (“pulling your own strings” by Dr. Wayne Dyer was most beneficial)

    I’m sharing all this because what happened next was so surprising. I started working for Greenpeace, literally homeless. I had duffel bag that had all of my clothing and a sleeping bag in it. My only bills were $200 a month child support, the cost of food and laundry. Of course, I was also paying for a hotel room every other weekend to I have a place for visitation with my daughter. Instead of becoming more depressed, I realized I was actually getting happier every day! Once I stopped worrying about money and focused on the little bit of good I was doing and making new friends, it felt like a huge burden had been lifted from me. It was at that point in time that it dawned on me that happiness is more of a mindset and only marginally affected by outside circumstances. In the intervening years, I still made plenty of mistakes. One of which resulted in me spending five years in prison. Even during those prison years, I was usually able to find happiness. I tutored for the GED program, wrote cheerful and often humorous letters to my family(to reduce their worry about me) read about 1200 books and spent time talking to some of the younger inmates helping them cope with their incarceration.

    It’s easy to give advice but I sincerely hope you’ll take mine. It takes some practice, and I’ll be the first to admit it’s not easy, but whenever you find yourself with negative thoughts, try to find a nugget of good in the situation. I focused on the exercise I was getting. And even though it wasn’t much, I was doing my part to help leave the planet in a little better shape for my daughter. Try to focus on what you can do for others. Try to find the most positive aspects in the most negative situations. And remember these problems are only temporary, they will eventually be replaced by other problems! The mind cannot tell the difference between a real and an imagined scene. Try to spend some time each day visualizing yourself living the life you really want. This won’t cure your problems, but it will make them a little easier to deal with. I really hope this helps you. It has truly made a major difference in my life!!

  26. J.D., this was a great article. Thanks. I enjoy your personal finance writing, but I LOVE IT when you hit more explicitly on the psychological side of things, and this definitely did.

  27. Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” is another great book that deals with the idea that there really is no point in hoping for happiness in the “future”, because the concept of the future is just a construct of the imagination. “Now” is all we have…

  28. @ Frugal Bachelor #4

    *Actually* Denmark and Iceland (and even Switzerland) rank as some of the happiest places on Earth. There is snow and NO SUN for a large portion of the year in Iceland. While I think weather can affect your *mood* I don’t think it affects your happiness and satisfaction with life.

    I grew up in Panama, and did my undergraduate in South Bend, IN (GO IRISH!)–HUGE difference in weather. I hate winter. But it never really made me unhappy, just grumpy. I still had my school work (which I enjoy, weird, I know) my friends, my health and my family.

    Read “The Geography of Bliss” by Weiner. It’s all about happy places on Earth.

    @ Brenda #3

    The studies show that once your basic needs are met (comfortable living, not worrying about how you’re going to pay rent or buy food), there is very little correlation between wealth and happiness. Between the ranges of comfort level and moderate upper-class, happiness levels are fairly consistent. In fact, the uber rich are actually the most unhappy–as they don’t even have the non-material sources of happiness that most people without money have (like you have the support of your parents).

  29. Well written Grasshopper.

    There is a similar mentality among the overweight that once they are down to a “normal” size, life will be better for them. More often than not – it isn’t.

    Happiness has to come from within – divorced of the outside environment. Acceptance of yourself and your life just as it is right now brings happiness. The need to buy or eat things to mask your unhappiness will no longer be necessary. Happiness comes first and the rest follows.

    Cheers!
    Brigid

  30. RE: playing to your strengths – there is a quote I love:

    “Too many people overvalue what they are not and undervalue what they are.”
    — Malcolm Forbes

  31. I think that Brenda’s point needs to be underlined — as a culture, wouldn’t we all be happier if we knew that there was a real “safety net” that would ensure that no one has to have those feelings of desperation and despair about their economic situation?!
    This year, I found out that a cancer I thought had been cured in 2005 was back — metastasized, which means that it can’t be cured. But, it can be controlled, at least at the moment, and after a few bad months, I find I have come back to my baseline of happiness. This was actually a surprise — when I first got the diagnosis I thought I might be unable to feel anything but dread and dismay for the rest of my life.
    But, instead, I’ve come to realize all the ways my situation is so good — the treatments are working so that most days I don’t feel anything from the cancer, and I have great insurance, great doctors, and a truly wonderful husband! As I told the psychotherapist at our last meeting (I’ve put her on “furlough” until I need help again), my sense of the situation as changed: most days I’m really happy.
    And she said she wasn’t surprised that I’d found a way back to where I’d been before the diagnosis. She said that research shows that most of us (especially if we’re not suffering from depression) are happy more days than we’re not — that’s one reason that we notice and get concerned when we’re unhappy, because it’s not our “natural” situation, and at the same time it’s one reason that sometimes we don’t notice that things ARE really OK and we are happy — maybe not experiencing peak joy every moment of every day, but feeling positive and capable, doing our work, and loving/sharing with others.

  32. To all the miserable IT people: if you have reached a point where you are ready to simply quit, I suggest you try setting firm boundaries instead. After all, if you are willing to simply walk away, then start drawing lines in the sand with abandon. What’s the worst that can happen, you will be fired? You will then be in the same place as if you had walked away. So, start saying “no” to new responsiblities, demands for overtime, etc. If you are burdened with too many projects, tell your manager “I have too much on my plate, please tell me the 2 or 3 that you want me to focus on right now.”

    Just some ideas that I have used with success in the past when pushed to the edge…

  33. After I paid off my consumer debt, I was still unhappy

    same here!

    Happiness is a condition it comes and goes

    Same as sickness and anything else

  34. JD Roth, you just made me cry. But you didn’t make me sad. 🙂

    For those who say weather can make one miserable: my husband and I crave snow and cold. It makes us both feel alive, and I love coming home to our cozy place after a run out in the cold, and snuggling on the couch with hot drinks, good books and our purring kitty. Weather does affect us – but it affects us all differently. (And Vitamin D supplements help if you live in a place with little sun!)

    I found this summer that, though my personal life and leisure time was fulfilling, my job had taken a (fortunately temporary) turn for the stressful and meaningless. I had two anxiety attacks this summer, both of them on my morning walk to work (on beautiful, sunny mornings). I had never experienced out-of-control anxiety like that before. I was getting long walks, sunshine, pleasure reading, and time with my family, but my job was an endless list of thankless tasks and other people’s complaints. It really made me reflect on how much of myself I invest in work. The answer? Possibly too much. Something I’m working on.

    Incidentally, the change back to normal for my job coincided with the change of seasons to the cooler autumn… which only reinforces my love of cool weather. 🙂

  35. @elisabeth – I don’t think a safety net makes us any happier. It probably does make us less anxious but not really happier. I have a family safety net I’ve never used (my family could and would lend money or a bed if needed) and my guy does not. He grew up quite poor and as an adult he’s always known that no one else could bail him out of a jam. Of the two of us, he is by far happier, more able to live in the now and enjoy what he’s got without worrying about what comes next. He works at something he loves, he understands viscerally what “enough” means because he often has not had it, and he seems to have a deeper sense of self-reliance than I do. For me, self-reliance is a goal or an achievement; for him, it’s survival. I think his accomplishments gives him a deep-seated confidence that he’ll be able to handle the future and so is able to enjoy the moment. I’ve always valued my safety net, don’t get me wrong, but at least in this limited sample of two it hasn’t correlated with happiness.

    On another note, I wish you well in your fight against cancer. It seems like you’ve got a good sense of enjoying what you’ve got rather than focusing on what you haven’t.

  36. I love Rubin’s Happiness project and her Happiness project toolkit. I agree with her mantra that happiness is made up of little steps in the right direction, working on controlling yourself, your response to events and not everyone else and its a project a quest, a habit.

    Certainly, paying off all our non-mortgage debt increased my happpiness levels because I had a lot less bills to pay every month and reduced debt gave us more comfort.

  37. Great article! Being happy is just doing what you love to do and accepting what you have.

    Progress is happiness for me, whatever I do.

  38. JD, thanks again for the wonderful blog.

    Today’s entry about Shahar’s book Happier really hits home with me. I spent the past year studying with the leading positive psychologists and earning a master’s degree in positive psychology from Penn. I had lunch with Shahar one day, and what struck me most about him is his sense of humor. He is a very funny man!

    I think that you truly understand the “science of human flourishing” better than just about any blogger in the universe – you summarize the important points well.

    I can tell you from literally thousands of hours of reading, listening, and writing in positive psychology that our knowledge about real happiness is in its infancy. The nuggets I took home from my experience with Dr. Seligman and others is as follows:

    1) Health and exercise are critical to happiness (this is the leading edge of positive psychology work right now – expect many more books to come out on the subject).

    2) Mindfulness (living in the now) is critical as well. Meditation is getting some real serious attention from science, despite its reputation.

    3) Social capital and relationships are key. Did you know that happy people attract other happy people, leaving the less happy people with less happy people?

    4) Flow is important. You talk about this relative to your work and hobbies. Flow and mindfulness are synergistic.

    There are many others areas where considerable good work is being done in positive psychology. One other point I would like to make is that our economic model is often at odds with our happiness. This is, in a way, the 800 pound gorilla that many experts in positive psychology have trouble contending with. Our free market system is often at odds with well-being. For what it’s worth, my advice is to avoid social comparison as much as possible. This is a flash point where what we seek and do conflicts most with our long term happiness.

  39. Thanks so much for this post. What Ben-Shahar said about trying to succeed but not being happy really spoke to me. I’m in grad school and feel like there is a lot of pressure to succeed because the job market is so competitive. So it does feel like this constant rat race to just add stuff to your CV–the need to be constantly publishing, presenting at conferences, applying for prestigious fellowships, scholarships, and on and on and on. I find that I keep telling myself that I’ll be happy in the future when I have a career, more money, success, etc. etc… Lately though I’ve been realizing that I am not really living in the present, so I think this book could be really useful to me.

  40. This is the type of stuff I crave! I need all the reinforcement I can get, because it seems that so few people in the world realize that life can be as great or mundane as we want it to be, it’s all what we make it and what we do with our time…

    Not fifteen minutes ago I spent $216 on my Miata. This is something that’s been a long time coming, the replacement of her 12 year old catalytic converter. It’s also what I hope will fix a rattling issue that popped up. (I believe, when the car was bottomed out a few weeks back, the outside of the cat was damaged and has since rattled. Which drives me crazy!)

    But… My car makes me so happy! I’ll use it in the future, but I get to enjoy it as soon as it gets here, too. Money is great, when we can use it to get things that make us happy, be it stuff, experiences, or stuff useful for experiences.

    Paying off consumer debt was more of a let down than I thought. For just over a year, we had intense focus on a goal…. Something that just dissipated after it was paid off. And the money? Got ate up by the budget, funny enough. It’s a struggle now to regain control, but having a tiny car loan is helping me feel a sense of accomplishment… Just hope I don’t need debt to keep doing this sort of thing! (But I already have plans for this money after the loan is gone, so that shouldn’t happen again I hope! Lesson learned.)

  41. I think Elizabeth (@32) has a valuable point. It’s interesting that according to research, the countries with the ‘happiest’ populations are also the countries whose governments provide a ‘safety net’ for their most disadvantaged citizens. The fact that these countries happen to be in colder climates would indicate that it is social policies that contribute to the overall ‘happiness’ of a society and not the climate. By and large, people who don’t have to worry about whether they will be able to eat, find shelter or have access to a doctor when they need one are ‘happier’ than those who live with this anxiety daily.
    I have experienced both of these environments and was a lot happier when I knew that my sick baby would be cared for without insurance and I’d still be able to feed her if I lost my job.

  42. I think that the tip re expressing gratitude is a great one.

    Happiness is not a “what” question, it is a “how” question. What I mean is that there is no “x” that makes us happy, it is how we feel about “x” that does the trick. When we express gratitude for “x,” we really start to feel good about having it.

    That’ the opposite of how we intuitively expect it to work. But my experience is that, once you express gratitude for something, you start really feeling thankful for it.

    So don’t forget to say grace before meals! In the days when people did that more often they were happier than a lot of us are today when we have a whole big bunch more good stuff to eat available to us.

    Rob

  43. “Upon the whole, therefore, she found, what has been sometimes found before, that an event to which she had looked forward with impatient desire, did not in taking place, bring all the satisfaction she had promised herself. It was consequently necessary to name some other period for the commencement of actual felicity; to have some other point on which her wishes and hopes might be fixed, and by again enjoying the pleasure of anticipation, console herself for the present, and prepare for another disappointment.”
    – Jane Austen (Pride and Prejudice)

  44. Tell this to all the delayed gratification “I eat ramen every day! At 8% annual return, each dinner I replace with ramen will turn into $7,000 when I’m 65!” people.

    You only live once. Why save all your enjoyment for when you’re 65-80 (after which you’ll probably be dead). That’s a waste of *65 years* of your life doing nothing but preparation for being old, so that when you’re old you can talk about “financial independence” smugly.

  45. Great post, I’m going to check this book out.

    I second Eckhart Tolle books. I like the “Power of Now”, but even more, “New Earth”. He also has some good videos on youtube. He was suicidal for many years and then just woke up and realized living in the present was the key. He goes into more detail explaining it, talking about the ego. Personally, I have a hard time balancing it, but am coming around.

    I also think taking anything too seriously leads to misery. It seems the more unmeaningful a job is the more people try to act like they’re saving the world (investment bankers). If you’re actually doing something meaningful, you don’t have to fake it.

  46. JD,

    Ecclesiastes 2:26 says:
    “To the man who pleases him, God gives wisdom, knowledge and happiness, but to the sinner he gives the task of gathering and storing up wealth to hand it over to the one who pleases God. This too is meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

    Sounds like it fits your situation. Learn to live for God.

  47. Terrific post, and terrific conversation! You’ve obviously touched a button for a lot of people here. I do believe that each of us has to define happiness for ourselves, and often times that involves unraveling those “prescriptions for happiness” that have been ingrained in us – lots of money, success, etc.

  48. Today is the first day of a eight week paid sabbatical from my main job. Things have been beyond stressful for the last eight months, so the break is a great gift. My objective for the sabbatical is simple: revel. In everything. All the time. I don’t know how well I’ll do, but it’s the best antidote I can think of to the events of the past year!

  49. @Brenda #3: Thank you for your perspective. I find that many people who say money can’t buy happiness forget that money makes one affrod experiences that may bring happiness. I, too, have discovered that money can purchase experiences that may make you happy. I love travelling and it makes me happy. I need money to travel. Last night my cousin was in town for a conference. I haven’t seen him in five years and my brother and I decided to go out for dinner with him. We had a great time and were happy. Guess what made it possible – money. On the other hand, I could have cooked at home but still money would buy the ingredients etc. Folks, money can bring you happiness or sadness, it all depends on how you use it. But let’s stop playing this game of “money can’t buy/bring happiness”.

  50. J.D., GOOD LUCK on the marathon. Have fun with it! If you could randomly call out “go Rachel!” a few times that would be great. I’ve got a friend running it – since I can’t be there to cheer her on, I told her I’d stay in bed all morning so she can have my extra energy
    😀

    Oregon is awesome, and Portland is my favorite place. A little sun lamp may help, but there is a lot to love about the Pacific Northwest.

  51. @ Tyler K #45:
    Hey, if it makes them happy, why not?
    😉

    I also love the PNW weather. Rain gives me a cozy feeling; cold is refreshing and invigorating. I do know a lot of people who hate it; those people should move to Arizona, where the heat and endless baking sun would make me miserable. 😉
    I do think there’s a higher correlation between social services and happiness than there is between weather and happiness. There’s a lot more happiness in frigid Denmark and Iceland than in Mediterranean North Africa, for example.

  52. I’ve heard the happiness of the Danes attributed to low expectations. Certainly, it seems to me that Americans are prone to the mindset that if everything is not going wonderfully in your life, it’s somehow your fault, whereas I think a lot of cultures are more fatalistic.

  53. Beautiful post. I just discovered your blog and it’s a voice of reason in a crazy world. Thank you!

  54. Too touchy-feely for me! And journaling? A complete waste of time and resources.

    Congrats on recognizing and addressing the low grade depression, JD. That alone can make a huge difference. Just stay away from the Rx anti-depressants – they cause more trouble than they cure.

  55. Seasonal Affective Disorder: When I moved to Vancouver from Montreal, I used tanning lamps in the winter to get over the SAD. I used them sparingly so as not to damage my skin, but the light, and the warmth, sure made me feel good. Something to try out?

    I’m more of a two-marshmallow person (cf New Yorker article) and I find it difficult to find joy *now*, preferring to work hard now and enjoy later. But I do take time out every weekend to enjoy life. Switch off the computer, shut off the TV and other media, and just live for two days. It’s wonderful.

  56. I read Shahar’s book and thought it really was a cut above most self-help books, and the title “Happier” is a clue.

    He is talking about being Happier… not being happy. It seemed to be about making small adjustments in our daily lives that allow us to function better. Also the book was actually intelligent, not touchy feely.

    I feel for the IT guy. I’m in the midst of my own freelancing hell and I agree that setting boundaries is the most important thing to learn. As someone else said, if you are so miserable that you are willing to walk away, first start by saying no. You will be really surprised at the response. Often people lean hardest on those they think are the strongest.

  57. Wow, JD, this is an awesome post. It’s 7am in Mongolia where we have lived for a year and have two more to go. It’s been a tough year for me and I’ve been wanting to pull myself out of my slump. I read your post this morning before heading off to work and just sat there thinking, ‘wow, wow, wow!’ Sounds corny, but for me this is very timely, and the push that I need to make that little mental turn. Also reminded me of one of my favorite movies, The Pursuit of Happyness. Thanks, and have a great day!

  58. Great post! I didn’t read all the comments so this may have mentioned, but have any SAD sufferers tried light therapy? I’m very interested in getting a light therapy lamp, but it’s a pretty big price! It may be worth trying though.

  59. For those asking about light therapy: I bought a lamp last winter despite the shocking price. It was worth every penny. Your experience may be different, of course, but for me 30 minutes in the morning helped my mood all day.

  60. To the unhappily employed (IT and others), I would second what #33mjukr says, because usually if you are fired, you will be able to collect unemployment and perhaps severance while you are looking for new employment (check your state laws; I know that in GA you are ineleigible for benefits if you are terminated for poor performance, for example). However, most states consider you ineligible if you voluntarily quit your job.
    This was a great post; I appreciate the reminder that now is all we really have, and we need to balance responsibility for our future with enjoyment of our present. I’ve found that adopting a more frugal mindset actually makes me more appreciative of the good things I already have in my life, which are many.
    On the religious perspective, I read a great article recently citing a study showing that the certainty of our beliefs is what correlates with happiness, not the specifics of what we do or do not believe. So true atheists are generally as happy as fervent christians; it’s the more uncertain among us who are less happy. Feeling like we understand what’s going on and our place in the world makes us happier.

  61. WOW!!! What a great post! Thank you so much for sharing such an uplifting post with inspiration. This one was just … WOW. Good luck this Sunday!

  62. Great sutff.

    I found happiness once I found a job that I truly loved doing–regardless of the money it paid me. higher paying jobs had less an effect on my happiness than this.

  63. There is an old Peanuts cartoon where Charlie Brown and Sally are on the sofa and Charlie Brown is wondering about the secret to happiness; Snoopy walks in with a plate of warm cookies and his thought bubble reads ‘learn to make your own cookies.’ Which I thought was pretty wise. You make your own happiness. I like the idea to make happiness rituals, too. I need to think about that more. I do have one habit already; I often read the last bit of Chapter 5 from The Wind in the Willows at night, in which Mole finds his long forgotten home, which puts me in the best possible mood.

  64. Thanks for the great post, JD. The post couldn’t have come at a better time! I have already requested “Happier” from my local library, and one of Ben-Shahar’s other books, “The Pursuit of Perfect.” Has anyone read it and is it as good as “Happier?”

  65. I know several people have posted quotes, and they all are great, but this post strongly reminded me of my favorite quote (and one I try to live by):

    “For a long time it seemed to me that life was about to begin – real life. But there was always something to be gotten through first, some unfinished business, time still to be served, a debt to be paid. At last it dawned on me that these obstacles were my life. This perspective has helped me to see there is no way to happiness. Happiness is the way. So treasure every moment you have and remember that time waits for no one. Happiness is a journey, not a destination…” — Souza

  66. On being fired vs. quitting:

    I’m the wife of the IT guy who just quit his job. I could be wrong, but it is my understanding that in our state, you cannot collect unemployment if you fired, only if you are laid off. His company had had three rounds of layoffs (one reason he was so miserable — he was doing LOTS more with LOTS less — the other reason was very poison office politics, and he was on the losing end). It didn’t look like there would be more layoffs anytime soon (they don’t have enough people to lay off!), so he couldn’t just hope that by drawing lines in the sand, he would be labeled a poor performer and make the next round of layoffs. Instead, he’d be a poor performer, fired, without unemployment, and he’d have the firing to explain to future employers. He still has an explanation to make, but hopefully it will be a tad easier than explaining why he was fired. And, while I am anxious (and have to keep reminding myself that, not only do we have enough for today, but we have enough for a few months of todays), I am glad to see how much happier he is.

  67. Personally I feel that we focus too much on ourselves in this society nowadays and that this can lead to unhappiness. Thinking too much about our own situations leads us to not think about the situations of others. I think doing for others leads to fulfillment and happiness and takes the focus off of me, me, me. I know this has been true in my case. Helping others helps me to see what I’m capable and it can also be a way to build my life skills. Also, by helping others, I may have delivered or given a little happiness to their lives, thus spreading it around.

  68. Thank you for this excellent post. I will read this book. I absolutely agree with the need to find a combination of simplicity and happiness in everyday rituals, as well as finding meaning and satisfaction in one’s work. An unhappy work life now, with a view to future happiness is, I agree, an unhealthy approach.

    As you say, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books – which are among my favourites, too – are paint a very good picture of a wholesome, balanced, and contented life, and I think can teach us much.

  69. Great post! I definitely have some people in mind that I can recommend the book to. I myself have always thought that you must “sacrifice” in the present to get what you want in the future. In a sense that’s true, but I’m finding that if I focus on “balance” that paradigm shift is able to take place much easier, and I do become happier. I’ve also recently embarked on that long road to financial independence, and honestly it does seem a “long and daunting task” and I know that sacrifices must be made along the way which will make me “less” happy BUT I’ve found the joys of giving back to be an invaluable tool! It is both addicting and is great at staving off thoughts of fear and sadness that I might experience along the way.

    The article on Warren Buffett was also great! And I also agree that the best investment a person can make is on themselves, but I think that the 2nd most important investment one can make is on another human being! This is the philosophy that me and my brother are trying to live by as we build a community that focuses on this.

    Anyway, been a fan for a while, so I thought I’d drop a line. Good luck on the marathon!

  70. When you mentioned that it was based on positive psychology, it reminded me of “How Full is Your Bucket” by Tom Rath and Donald Clifton. This book was also written with the positive psychology concept in mind. It has changed the way I try and interact with those around me on a day to day basis.

    Thanks for the book review, I am going to put this on my To Be Read list at paperbackswap.com.

  71. Thanks for reminding me of the importance of making time for rituals surrounding things we really enjoy. I love reading, and yet I don’t seem to make enough time for it in my life. Why is this? Same thing with learning languages… clearly I need to keep this in mind when I’m deciding what goals are important to me in the new year.

  72. Thanks, J.D. for the great post. It reminded me to keep on doing what makes me happy.

    Maddie, No. 29 said: “While I think weather can affect your *mood* I don’t think it affects your happiness and satisfaction with life.”

    I agree wholeheartedly. I used to live in Florida where it is mostly sunny and warm and I was very unhappy there. The weather had little to do with this. I was working a lot, but my career was going nowhere.

    Having said that, I have also realized that my mood actually improves during autumn and winter months. Go figure! I think I would do very well in Oregon.