Happiness interview: Mark Frauenfelder.
I’m a longtime fan BoingBoing, that hugely popular, wonderful website that’s “mischievous fun for higher primates,” so a few years ago, when I got a link and a nice email from founder Mark Frauenfelder, it was a huge thrill.
Mark has a fascinating book that just came out, Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World. As you can tell from the title alone, this book has a lot to do with happiness, work, DIY, and…handiness, learning to make and do things with your own hands instead of running out to get cheap, mass-produced items that provide no larger meaning or connection. If you’re a Seth Godin fan, it’s interesting to take a look at Seth’s thoughtful, short commentary.
Given that Mark did a “year of” project aimed at boosting his happiness, I was very eager to hear more about what he had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Mark: I have three self-watering garden containers on the deck of my house. I like to get on my hands and knees and closely inspect the vegetable plants I’m growing. Every day I see changes. It’s like taking a trip to another world, one that moves more slowly and rewards observation. I’m usually not a very observant person, so getting into this mental state is like taking a trip. The five minutes I spend there provide a refreshing break from sitting in front of my computer.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was 18 I thought that I had to go out and find things to make me happy. Now I am happiest when I don’t venture past my property line. There is a world of adventure in my house and yard — books, my family, drawing and painting, making yogurt, sauerkraut, and kombucha, beekeeping, raising chickens, making things. I still enjoy going out and seeing the rest of the world, but I also am at the point where I am never bored by staying home. Life gets more interesting as I grow older.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I spend too much time skimming around online, and it leaves me glassy eyed and feeling unsettled. I have a hard time knowing when I’ve had too much.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful?
I’ve gotten better at saying “no” to people’s requests for my participation. My default answer used to be yes, and it often led to unhappiness. Now my first answer is either “no,” or “I’ll think about it.” If the latter, I talk it over with my wife or a friend, which helps me make a decision.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
The best happiness boost for me is hiking along the fire trails in the hills of Los Angeles. There’s nothing better than that. When people want to meet with me for one reason or another, I often tell them I will do it if we can hike together. This is so much more fun than meeting a person in a restaurant or a Starbucks. I think I have a bit of ADD, so walking and talking at the same time is really soothing and keeps me focused.
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?
I like hanging around people who knit. They are usually in a good mood. People who are staring into their iPhones *and* demanding your attention at the same time are not as much fun to be around.
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?
I think I’m the happiest I’ve ever been. Part of it is just learning what makes me happier and doing more of it, and learning what makes me unhappier and doing less of it. When I was in college I drank enough beer to float an aircraft carrier, but after I got out of college my drinking quickly tapered off because I started realizing the state of being buzzed wasn’t pleasurable and hangovers were miserable. Now I have about two or three drinks a year, which is more than enough. Another part of caring less about what other people think and instead focusing on living a life that meets my own standards of kindness and caring.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Yes. I read your book, for one thing, and I thought it had great advice! [Thanks, Mark! That’s so nice to hear.] “Be yourself” is very important. “Pursue passion,” is also a good goal. I have always been interested in drawing but in the last four months I have really been working at teaching myself drawing and it’s one of my favorite things to do. And “Buy Some Happiness” — we hired a person to help us organize our house. Clutter causes stress and getting rid of clutter is liberating!
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I usually don’t expect that dinner parties will make me happy, but they usually do! People are often less boring than I imagine they are going to be (sometimes they are worse, of course).
*Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.