Interview: Daniel Lerner.
Dan Lerner teaches the most popular elective at New York University, “The Science of Happiness.” One of my favorite subjects!
His new book just hit the shelves. U Thrive: How to Succeed in College (and Life) is a fun, comprehensive guide to staying happy and productive in college — and beyond. It’s a mix of science, tips, and example from real life.
Obviously, with a daughter going off to college in a few months, this title caught my interest. I hope that she’ll go forth unafraid, and thrive once she arrives.
Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?
Dan: While there are many influential components of effective habit formation, one that is not only among the most powerful is may also be the most pleasurable: positive, supportive relationships can turn a chore into a welcome challenge, and pain into pleasure (well…almost). You are more likely to drag yourself for a run when you know that you have committed to do it with a pal. People regulate their study or work habits study more effectively when scheduling it with others. And, hey, none of us quit smoking because the body just stops craving nicotine – we do it because we want to see our kids grow up, and not just live longer lives, but do so longer with friends and loved ones. You’ve got to have a darn good reason to develop (or quit) a habit, and other people can help get you (and you can help get them) over the hump. [Dan, I’m guessing that you’re an Obliger.]
Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?
Cell phones, email, and surfing the web. OMG, make it stop. I did a boys’ week last summer with my buddy, his sons and my son. We were in the wilds of Colorado, an hour away from any and all connectivity. Once I stopped jonesing for wifi, life was old school awesome. Even the boys –- whose ages range from 7-10 — were over the moon happy with board games and slingshots. Here in the city when I hang with my boy I often leave the phone at home, and for work I am constantly on the lookout for wifi free cafes. I think that my work is important, but it’s not like I am needed to save lives at any given moment. I mean really…what is so important that I can’t go for an undistracted game of catch or focus on some quality writing time?
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
If I haven’t worked out in over 48 hours I am a different person – and by that I don’t mean a better one. Just ask my family – they have actually kicked me out of the apartment with a stern “Maybe you should go to the gym. Now.” Two hours later I have gone from rabid pit bull to playful puppy dog. Oh, and every night since he was born 9 and a half years ago, the last thing that I do before I go to sleep is tiptoe into my son’s room as he sleeps, kiss his forehead, and whisper to him that I love him more than anything in the world. It is such a lovely way to remind myself of what’s important, and a regular reminder that no matter how the day went, I am truly blessed.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)
When I am in New York City, I won’t let anything get in the way of physical exercise, because I know how much better I am for my family, friend, and work when I am able to move. On the road though it can get tough to maintain as I generally fly into a city and spend time with colleagues and students from wheels down to wheels up. That said, my sleep habits when I travel get a major boost. As the saying goes, early to bed (that’s been freshly made, where I am alone, without two dogs, and no chance of an early morning surprise superfly full body leap from the nine-year-old animal that is my son), early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy, and…you know the rest.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I used to enjoy the occasional cigarette – a social smoker if you will. After my dad passed away I never lit one up again. It wasn’t that he died of cancer related illness – he lived a happy, full 88 years — but I remember the moment that it happened thinking that I didn’t want my son to have to go through that kind of sadness any sooner then he absolutely needed to. I have changed many habits as a result of my son, getting more sleep (to be a better dad), cutting back on the work obsession (to be a more present dad) and meditating (to be more present when I am present). Kids? Wha-BAM! They are a walking, talking source of lightning energy anytime that we choose to tap in. [Yup, Obliger.]