What I Learned about Happiness at the SXSW Conference.

I just got back to New York City; I was out of town for a few days at the SXSW conference in Austin. This is one of the biggest conferences for bloggers, and I’d never been, so I decided to take the plunge this year and go.

It was a lot of fun, and a very valuable experience, and from a happiness-project perspective, it reminded me of several things:

Novelty and challenge boost happiness. Going to a new city, meeting a lot of new people, being in a different environment, all boosted my happiness. Along the same lines…

— An atmosphere of growth brings happiness. I learned a lot at the conference, both from the official panels and from the unofficial conversations I had, and that gave me a feeling of intellectual excitement and growth.

— Taking a break from a common thing can make it seem like a treat. When I got home, just having a kitchen again felt very exciting.

— Used right, technology helps build relationships. Although it might seem that technology pushes people apart, or allows them to avoid interacting, actually people use technology to try to connect. Every single person at the conference was eagerly trying to meet in person the people they already knew well on-line.

Sleep is important to happiness. Away from my children and my usual schedule, I got more sleep than usual, and I could really feel the difference in my energy level — and I make a big effort to get a lot of sleep, as it is.

One of my ongoing happiness-project challenges is to fight my instinct to say dismissively, “Well, doing X or Y might be useful or fun, but it would be a big hassle, and it would take a lot of time, and probably cost a fair amount, and maybe it would be a big waste.” In fact, I’m always glad when I push myself to try something new. I debated a long time about whether to go to the conference, but I’m very HAPPY that I did.

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It was terrific to meet up with a lot of my fellow bloggers and to hear others speak. Some highlights: Communicatrix, Tony Hsieh, The Fluent Self, Chris Brogan, Career Renegade, IttyBix, Work Happy Now, Escape from Cubicle Nation, Wine Library TV/Gary Vaynerchuk, Shama Hyder, Penelope Trunk, David Eckoff.

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If you want to partake in the SXSW vibe even though you’d never go, start using Twitter.

Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish To Try to Be Happier.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for last two weeks, I’ve been debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

Happiness Myth No. 10: The Biggest Myth — It’s Selfish and Self-Centered To Try to Be Happier.

Myth No. 10 is the most pernicious myth about happiness. It comes in a few varieties. One holds that “In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.” Another one is “Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.”

Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.

I’ve certainly noticed this about myself. When I’m feeling happy, I find it easier to notice other people’s problems, I feel that I have more energy to try to take action, I have the emotional wherewithal to tackle sad or difficult issues, and I’m not as preoccupied with myself. I feel more generous and forgiving.

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, one of my biggest intellectual breakthroughs was the identification of my Second Splendid Truth. There’s a circularity to it that confused me for a long time. At last, one June morning, it came clear:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Everyone accepts the first part of the Second Splendid Truth, but the second part is just as important. By making the effort to make yourself happier, you better equip yourself to make other people happier, as well. It’s not selfish to try to be happier. In fact, the epigraph to the book The Happiness Project is a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

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On a positive psychology listserv, I read comments by Professor Todd Kashdan, and I see he did an interesting study on the relationship of gratitude to happiness — and how men are much less likely to feel and express gratitude than are women.

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Happiness Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’m debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

Happiness Myth No. 9: Spending Some Time Alone Will Make You Feel Better.

Wrong. Although it can be tempting to take a “personal day” when you’re feeling blue, or to isolate yourself until you feel better, you’re better off doing just the opposite.

Connecting with other people, even if you don’t feel like it, is more likely to improve your mood – and this is true even for introverts.

In fact, researchers reported that out of fifteen daily activities, such as exercising, commuting, or doing housework, everything is more fun with company. They found only one activity during which people were happier alone rather than with other people — and that was praying. To my mind, that’s no exception; the point of praying is that you’re not talking to yourself!

I’ve certainly found this to be true in my own life. I spend most of my days by myself, reading and writing, and I’ve noticed that I always get a big burst of energy and cheer when I have a chance to be with other people. Even if I leave my desk feeling enraged, annoyed, or insecure, I feel better after talking to someone else – not talking about what’s bothering me, but just talking about anything at all. In fact, I usually feel better if I’m distracted from my concerns, rather than try to discuss them.

So if you just went through a painful break-up so are tempted to not meet your friends after work but instead stay home on the sofa with the remote control, or if you just lost your job so don’t want to deal with going to the the neighborhood BBQ, make the effort to push yourself out the door. Most likely, you’ll feel better if you do.

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Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

As I’ve studied happiness over the past few years, I’ve learned many things that surprised me. Each day for two weeks, I’ve been debunking one “happiness myth” that I believed before I started my happiness project. Yesterday I wrote about Myth No. 7: Doing “Random Acts of Kindness” Brings Happiness.

Happiness Myth No. 8: You’ll Be Happy As Soon As You…

We often imagine that we’ll be happy as soon as we get a job/make partner/get tenure/get married/get that promotion/have a baby/move. As a writer, I often find myself imagining some happy future: “Once I sell this proposal…” or “Once this book comes out…”

In his book Happier, Tal Ben-Shahar calls this the “arrival fallacy,” the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy. (Other fallacies include the “floating world fallacy,” the belief that immediate pleasure, cut off from future purpose, can bring happiness, and the “nihilism fallacy,” the belief that it’s not possible to become happier.) The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because arriving rarely makes you as happy as you expect.

Why? Because usually by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. You quickly become adjusted to the new state of affairs. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals a new goal. There’s another hill to climb.

In fact, working toward a goal can be a more powerful source of happiness than hitting it – which can sometimes be a letdown. It’s important, therefore, to look for happiness in the present, in the atmosphere of growth afforded by making gradual progress toward a goal (technical name: pre-goal attainment positive affect).

When I find myself focusing overmuch on the anticipated future happiness of arriving at a certain goal (as I often do), I remind myself to “Enjoy now.” If I can enjoy the present, I don’t need to count on the happiness that is — or isn’t — waiting for me in the future. The fun part doesn’t come later, now is the fun part.

So the arrival fallacy doesn’t mean that pursuing goals isn’t a route to happiness. To the contrary. The goal is necessary, just as is the process toward the goal. Nietzche explained it: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

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My former boss, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, has launched a wonderful site, Our Courts, a fantastic new resource about civics for students and teachers. There’s a great video of Justice O’Connor explaining the site — I was laughing as I watched, because it so captures her personality. My favorite line: “The Founders of our Constitution and our government created three equal branches of government. Like super heroes, each branch of government has special powers, but each one also has certain weaknesses.”

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