Happiness interview with Tyler Cowen.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness.

During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him, than by any other kind of argument.

Tyler Cowen is one of my blogland friends – I’ve never met him.

Some people argue that the internet/Facebook/email/texting/etc. have a bad impact on our social relationships, because they distract us from face-to-face contact, which is more satisfying. That may be true, but these tools also permit us to have relationships with people we would have otherwise have never known – and that’s very satisfying.

I got to know Tyler through his provocative economics blog, Marginal Revolution. How do economics and happiness overlap? In lots of interesting ways.

He also recently published a fascinating book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. Although his book wasn’t about happiness, I found it quite relevant to the Happiness Project.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Tyler: Why don’t we start with food, sleep, and sex? There’s writing, blogging, and reading too, not to mention consuming artificially created stories. In fact most of life seems to fit under #1.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Tyler: I wasn’t so wise at 18 but I’m still not so wise today. I have the same basic temperament, which is the main thing.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Tyler: Not that I can think of. Being grudge-free is very important and I’ve done OK on that score.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Tyler: Kids change people, but most people don’t change so much otherwise. Acceptance is therefore important.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Tyler: Think of me as a liar if you wish, but (short of witnessing the decay or death of loved ones) I don’t really get depressed. See #2.

Gretchen: Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Tyler: Grudges and blaming other people are very harmful, in my view. Their actions really are determined by forces outside their control and it is time to accept that. Don’t blame them for what is wrong in your life.

Gretchen: Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
Tyler: Same, same, same. Same!

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Tyler: I don’t believe in working on being happy, I think it produces anxiety. I’m pretty happy but I also don’t see happiness as an all-important value. We pursue values other than happiness all the time, and for the better.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Tyler: Marriage is good for the happiness of men, but I had expected that. Travel is an interesting issue. It makes people deeper, and makes their internal mental stream much richer, but I’m not sure it ever makes them *happier* per se. It can be a lot of hard work and also some frustration. Still it is worth doing as much as you can.

Check out my new one-minute internet movie, Secrets of Adulthood.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • “…these tools also permit us to have relationships with people we would have otherwise have never known – and that’s very satisfying.”
    That is a great way to look at it. I feel the same way. How great is it we get to learn from so many people’s unique perspectives?
    BTW…great interview!

  • laura

    Dear Gretchen,
    I’m visiting your web site for the first time today and feel it’s quite a gift. Thank you!

  • Thanks so much for your kind words — you made me very HAPPY!

  • Tyler: “I don’t believe in working on being happy, I think it produces anxiety. I’m pretty happy but I also don’t see happiness as an all-important value.”
    Well, he has always been happy, so of course he takes it for granted. For those of us who have often been unhappy, or suffer from chronic depression (which is a chemical disorder in the brain), we place a much higher premium on trying to attain happiness, because we do not have it. We may never have felt it. And we want to experience it, because we are miserably unhappy.
    So good for him that his life has been mostly happy. That is great. He has been very lucky. But please realize that for some of us, happiness is something we desperately seek, and is a high priority in our life to achieve.

  • that ‘s very intersting!

  • that ‘s very intersting!

  • Tzu

    when persued – happiness seems illusive.
    the only zen you find on the mountaintop is the zen you bring there.”
    – pirsig (ZMM)
    there is no way to happiness, happiness is the way.” Buddha
    begin with happiness -choose happiness.

  • Great interview, a tribute to the relationships we form in the blogsphere and the value of them

  • Interesting interview–I was particularly struck by how he said that travel makes people “deeper” but not necessarily happier. I wonder if (especially for Americans) this might be because travel (particularly abroad) can often expose us to our own affluence and make us question social-generosity in terms of meaning and purpose in ways that we might not when isolated in our own society?

  • DT

    I think I agree on the travel issue. The first time I traveled alone I discovered the feeling of contentment. It’s quieter than happiness but no less satisfying in it’s own way.
    I also learned that in my case, what I sometimes think is unhappiness or anxiousness is actually hunger. It was hard to see that until I was traveling alone and realized that I had to make time to eat at regular intervals.

  • A tip on happiness that’s been missed.