Happiness interview with Tony Hsieh.

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. 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 or her, than by any other kind of argument.

I met Tony Hsieh through the brilliant journalist Helen Coster. I was very excited to have dinner with him – I’d been hearing about him for a long time.

Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, a company best known for selling shoes, but now branching out into many other products. Zappos has rocketed to success under Tony Hsieh’s leadership, in large part because of Tony’s tireless work to build its legendary customer service. In addition to being a world-recognized leader in building customer satisfaction, Tony is also on the cutting edge of harnessing the power of technology and social media – for example, on the account zappos, he’s active on Twitter, where he has 21,234 followers (including me), and he has a Zappos blog.

I had dinner with Tony, and was fascinated to learn that he’s done a lot of research into the science of happiness, which he’s applying to Zappos. For example, they’ve changed their promotion system in a way that’s intended to make people happier.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Tony: I don’t know if there’s anything simple that consistently makes me happier. I get bored easily, so it’s hard for me to find one thing that I can do over and over again. I’ve found that building and creating something makes me happy, and I think part of that is because it’s always about building or creating something different. Helping build Zappos.com is both challenging and rewarding because the challenges are different every day.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Tony: When I was 18, I thought happiness came as a result of accomplishing a goal. Both from personal experience and research, I’ve learned that it’s really more about making continual progress at a fast enough pace towards the goal that brings happiness.

I’m reminded of a quote about Alexander the Great: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”

I remember when I crossed the finish line at my first marathon, I realized that it wasn’t just about that one moment or one day. It was meaningful because it represented the culmination of all the training that I had done leading up to that final moment of crossing the finish line.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a book that you
found particularly helpful?

Tony: I really enjoyed reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis because the book wasn’t just philosophizing about happiness. The book looks at actual scientific research. [Note from Gretchen: I also think this book is terrific.]

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Tony: I’ve found that changing my environment can really help change my mood. So if I’m at home, then I try to get out of the house. Taking a nap or doing a quick workout can make a big difference as well.

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?
Tony: I’ve found that the people you surround yourself with and the language that you use can really affect your perspective on the world. Negative people can really bring you down.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Tony: For the past year, I’ve read a lot of books about happiness because I think it’s interesting to think about how it can be applied to both my personal life and to business. From a business perspective, the more I can learn about how to make customers, employees, and vendors happy, the better it will be for Zappos.com.

I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned from the research I’ve done is that people think they know what will make them happy, but in reality people are actually very bad at predicting what will make them happy [Gretchen again: this argument is set forth in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness]. This is a really hard concept for most people to grasp because by default people assume that they should just instinctually know what will make them happy.

There’s been a lot of research done on how to properly train for a marathon. Even though everyone knows how to run, most people today understand that to train for a marathon, you should at least do some research or get a coach to tell you how far and how fast to run during the training.

If you’ve never trained for a marathon before, when you learn about the best way to train you’re actually doing something that’s very counter-intuitive: you’re supposed to do long, slow runs, where you are running almost uncomfortably slower than you would normally run. I won’t get into all the physiological reasons for why this is here, but suffice to say that there is a science to training for a marathon that generally runs counter to your natural instincts.

I think the same thing is true in maximizing your happiness. You need to either do the research yourself or have someone tell you what the research says, and then do things that you may not instinctually do in order to be happier in the long run. I think The Happiness Hypothesis does a great job of talking about a lot of the research that has been done.

For the first time, I’m planning to go to the blogger (among other things) conference, SXSW, this year. I was looking at the panels, and I see that one is being headed by Pamela Slim, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed her blog, Escape From Cubicle Nation. Lots of great information there, and so clearly presented.

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Happiness requires that I stick to this new resolution, from now on…but I’m not very happy about it.

Well, I’ve delayed as long as I could, and I’ve pretended that it wasn’t necessary, but this morning I faced the fact: I must start getting out of bed at 6:15 am instead of 6:30 am. Ouch. That’s a big, big difference.

This morning, we had a cranky morning – an unpleasant combination of dawdling and rushing — and that kind of morning has become all too common. If everything goes perfectly, we can ALMOST get to the Big Girl’s school by the time I want to get her there. But the fact is, the morning never goes perfectly.

Two things combined to force me to recognize that I wasn’t getting up early enough. First, this morning I behaved particularly badly. I nagged, I snapped, I “talked in a mean voice.” And behaving badly just makes me more crabby, and then I act worse, and so on.

Also, a few days ago the Big Girl told me, “You know how some people arrive at school when everyone else is already sitting at their seats? That’s what I do.” My heart sank. I’m a big believer in the importance of having time to get yourself organized before school or work, so I did NOT like hearing that.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.” I’d been telling myself that we ran late every once in a while, but in fact, we were almost always a little late.

For years, when I just dropped the Big Girl off at school, we always ran early. Somehow, this year, I’ve been thinking that we were still early arrivers, when in fact, the need to get the Little Girl ready for school, too, has meant that we’ve been running late.

Samuel Johnson, still interesting after all these years, made a related observation:

One sophism by which men persuade themselves that they have those virtues which they really want, is formed by the substitution of single acts for habits. A miser who once relieved a friend from the danger of a prison, suffers his imagination to dwell for ever upon his own heroick generosity…so vices are extenuated by the inversion of that fallacy…Those faults which we cannot conceal from our own notice, are considered, however frequent, not as habitual corruptions, or settled practices, but as casual failures, and single lapses.

There’s a very simple solution: get up earlier. If I can get myself organized earlier, which includes time to fix my own breakfast and check my email, I can get my daughters organized earlier. Also, the Big Man usually goes to work very early, so if we’re getting ready earlier, he’ll be able to help more.

But boy, it’s going to be hard to lose those last fifteen minutes of sleep. And it also means that, because I think it’s so important to be well-rested, I’m going to have to go to sleep fifteen minutes earlier, which means just that much less time in that precious interval between my children’s bedtime and my bedtime.

Nevertheless, I have to switch to 6:15. Having a peaceful, cheery morning is just too important to happiness (here are some other tips).

Have you found any good strategies for keeping your morning serene?

My friend, Allison Gilbert, is an Emmy award-winning journalist and author of Always Too Soon: Voices of Support for Those Who Have Lost Both Parents. She needs your help with research she’s doing for her next book, Parentless Parents: How the Deaths of Our Mothers and Fathers Impact the Way We Parent Our Own Children (Hyperion).

Parentless parents face challenges other parents don’t. They can’t to turn to their own parents for advice and guidance and they struggle to keep the memory of their parents alive for their children. As part of her research, Allison is conducting an online survey. If you’re a parent who has lost your own parents, please click below and take the survey. You can also just send it to people you know, who they can pass the link on to people they know, and so on and so on…Think of it as a Breck commercial for the survey set.

Allison is trying to get 1,000+ respondents and she needs our help!

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Happiness Project: Enter into the Spirit of the Season.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

We’re entering the holiday season. People approach this in different ways.

My mother, for example, loves to collect and present beautiful things. Her Christmas decorations are breathtaking. Also, along with three decorated trees and many beautiful arrangements, she gets seasonal plants like paper-white narcissus flowers, poinsettas, and evergreens.

I’m an under-buyer (as opposed to an over-buyer), so I never get around to buying decorations, and I can never bring myself to buy flowers or plants. Also, I’m always looking for ways to be efficient and get a lot done, so I begrudge the time it takes to put up decorations.

But I realized – even before my happiness project – that I had to push against my inclinations in this area. Entering into the spirit (whether of a holiday or a season of the year) is a resolution that’s a struggle for me to keep, each time, but I also know that it gives a major boost of happiness.

So I figured out how to enter into the spirit in my way. My mother bequeathed me some of her decorations – Halloween and Christmas – so I didn’t have to assemble them. Once when she was in New York during the holiday season, I had her arrange the decorations; I took photos; and now I arrange them EXACTLY the way she did. I still don’t buy plants. That’s all I can manage, but that’s enough.

Samuel Johnson observed, “There is, indeed, something expressibly pleasing, in the annual renovation of the world, and the new display of the treasures of nature.” Entering into the spirit of a holiday or season, in whatever way works for you, is a powerful source of happiness. Maybe it’s spring, maybe it’s the end of school, maybe it’s the Fourth of July, maybe it’s Ground Hog Day…every holiday or season doesn’t suit everyone, but look for ways to celebrate a particular time of year.

Like many things that boost happiness (unfortunately), this resolution can be a pain. It takes time, it takes energy, it takes money, it takes planning. But in the end, it’s fun.

If you don’t have money to spend on decorations, look for ways to enter into the spirit that don’t cost anything. Seasonal food is a good way, and seasonal activities, like ice-skating or pumpkin-picking. If you’re craft-y, or if you have kids, it’s fun to make your own decorations.

One challenge to entering into the spirit is that some people get a kick out of making fun of what you’re doing, and some people think it’s a waste of time. The Big Man doesn’t enter into the spirit, much – he doesn’t oppose it, but he doesn’t get into it. He didn’t even know that blue and white are the colors of Hanukkah until I told him. Oh well.

Maybe you’re thinking, “Hey, this just isn’t my style. I’m not going to get into the spirit.” Okay, some people just don’t enjoy it. But if that’s true, at least try not to dampen other people’s pleasure. Remember to shield your joyous ones; don’t make it harder for them to enter into the spirit. Admit it: even if you think it’s a waste of time and energy, don’t you get a kick out of seeing seasonal decorations?

Have you found any good ways to enter into the spirit of the season?

Lots of interesting material on On Simplicity.

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, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Holidays: 7 Tips for Getting Along with Your Difficult Relatives Over Thanksgiving.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips for getting along with your difficult relatives over Thanksgiving.

For many people, Thanksgiving is a joyous holiday; for many people, Thanksgiving is a dreaded holiday. One factor that can make it tough is spending time with difficult relatives. Here are some strategies for keeping Thanksgiving dinner pleasant:

1. Before you join the group, spend a few minutes thinking about how you want to behave. Don’t just react in the moment; consider how you want to act. If you’ve had unpleasant experiences in the past, think about WHY they were unpleasant and what YOU could do to change the dynamics of the situation. You may tell yourself that you want everyone to get along – but if so, you need to do your part to contribute to a harmonious atmosphere. In particular…

2. Think about how topics that seem innocuous to you might upset someone else. You may think you’re showing a polite interest, but some questions will rub a person the wrong way: “So do you have a boyfriend yet?” “When are you two going to get married/start a family?” “Didn’t you give up smoking?” “Can you afford that?” “When are you going to get a real job?” Show an interest with more open-ended questions, like “What are you up to these days?” or “What’s keeping you busy?” Also…

3. Avoid strife. Some families enjoy arguing passionately amongst themselves; however, most don’t handle arguments very well. If you know Uncle Bob’s views on Sarah Palin are going to drive you crazy, don’t bring it up! And if he brings it up, you don’t have to engage. Try to make a joke of it, and say something like, “Let’s agree to disagree,” “Let’s not talk about that, and give the rest of the family something to be thankful for,” etc. There is a time and a place for everything.

4. Don’t drink much alcohol. It can seem festive and fun to fill up your glass, but it’s easy to lose track of how much you’re drinking. Alcohol makes some people feel merry, but it also makes some people feel combative, or self-pitying, or lowers their inhibitions in a destructive way. I basically had to give up drinking because alcohol makes me so belligerent.

5. Play your part in the tradition. For some people, traditions are very, very important; for others, no. You may feel irritated by your brother’s insistence on having exactly the same food every Thanksgiving, or by your mother’s extreme reaction to the possibility that you might not come home for the day. Try to be patient and play your part. In the long run, traditions and rituals tend to help sustain happiness and family bonds. If you’re the one who wants everything to be perfect, try to ease up on yourself and everyone else, so that you can enjoy the day, whatever happens.

6. Don’t stuff yourself. Research shows that in fact, most people add just one pound during the holidays – but then they never lose it. You’ll have more fun if you’re not feeling uncomfortably full and then guilty about having eaten too much. Think about strategies for staying in control of holiday eating; feeling bad about having eaten too much can make you feel irritable and angry, which spills over into your interactions with other people.

7. Remember it’s THANKSGIVING. Be thankful that you get to cook, or that you don’t have to cook. Be thankful that you get to travel, or that you don’t have to travel. Be thankful for your family or your friends. Find something. Studes show that gratitude is a major happiness booster.

Wait, you might be thinking, these strategies don’t tell you how to deal with your difficult relatives — they tell you how to behave yourself. Well, guess what! You can’t do anything to change what your difficult relatives are going to do; you can only change yourself. Also, in many situations, people behave a difficult way in reaction to something else. So you may think your niece flies off the handle without any reason, but she’s furious because she thinks you’re needling her about her appearance. If you behave differently, she will too.

Have you found any helpful strategies for dealing with a difficult Thanksgiving situation? What more would you add?

I was astonished to see that the New York Times decided to stop running my friend Marci Alboher’s blog, Shifting Careers. If there’s ever been a time when a lot of people were facing the issue of how to shift careers, it’s now!

Marci decided to tackle the issue head-on in her blog, and her discussion of Laid Off From My Non-Job, about how she’s dealing with this career shift, herself, is fascinating. Her reactions, her thought processes, her analysis — all this is helpful to her readers. Marci’s ability to be generous and thoughtful at a difficult time is a reminder that even when we can’t control what happens, we can control how we behave.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Happiness Interview with Therese Borchard.

Today’s interview is with Therese Borchard. As happens so often with friends from blogland (practically none of whom I’ve actually met in person), I can’t remember exactly how we got to know each other. Her terrific blog Beyond Blue about managing depression is stationed on beliefnet, a site that I really like – so maybe it was through that channel.

Also, like me, she’s an ardent devotee of St. Therese of Lisieux – in fact, she was named for St. Therese. It’s hugely gratifying, and fairly rare, for me to connect with someone who loves St. Therese’s spiritual memoir Story of a Soul as much as I do. So maybe we “met” through that interest.

Therese Borchard has a book coming out soon, Beyond Blue: Surviving Depression and Anxiety, and Making the Most of Bad Genes. She’s also the editor of I Like Being Catholic, I Like Being Married, I Love Being a Mom, and The Imperfect Mom. She’s done a lot of thinking about the nature of happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Therese: Exercise is crucial for me. Bad things happen to my brain without it. Even more powerful is exercise outside. I almost always think better when I’m running, biking, hiking, or kayaking in nature. Especially when I get to my favorite stretch of my run—where the campus of the Unites States Naval Academy follows the Severn River—I can help but breathe a prayer of gratitude.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Therese: That success doesn’t guarantee happiness. In fact, it can often times get in the way. I think my real “happiness breakthrough” came the morning I cried to my mentor and good friend Mike over the phone as I sat in a room at Johns Hopkins Psych Unit. I bemoaned to him how I went from a success to a failure within a year, and that I didn’t know how to get back my accolades. He told me they didn’t matter. Success didn’t matter. Writing didn’t matter. None of it. And the miracle of that moment was that I could hear his sincerity and believe him. I imagined the worst—my never being able to work again, to function like I used to—and there I was … okay, and loved by my husband, mom, and a few friends. And that was more than enough.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Therese: Comparing! I try to remember the wisdom in “compare and despair,” or to not compare my insides with another person’s outsides. But I do it over and over and over again. And I always seem to come up short. Which is why, if I really HAVE to compare, I should take Helen Keller’s advice: “Instead of comparing our lot with that of those who are more fortunate than we are, we should compare it with the lot of the great majority of our fellow men. It then appears that we are among the privileged.”

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Therese: Three words: God, take it. It’s a reminder of the third step (of most 12-step programs): “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood God,” and a summary of the Third Step Prayer, which I say constantly during the day: “God, I offer myself to Thee–to build with me and to do with me as Thou wilt. Relieve me of the bondage of self, that I may better do Thy will. Take away my difficulties, that victory over them may bear witness to those I would help of Thy Power, Thy Love, and Thy Way of life. May I do Thy will always!”

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Therese: I hold on to my blankie: a medal of St. Therese. I squeeze it and I pray with it, and I let it remind me that even though I thought I had control at one point, I don’t. It’s in God’s hands.

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?
Therese: I’ve found that folks with a good sense of humor tend to be happier. People who can laugh at life’s frustrations and hurdles. Studies have showed how humor can actually heal … both physically and emotionally. I love G. K. Chesterton’s quote: “Angels can fly because they take themselves lightly.”

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Therese: I work very hard at being happier, or at least staying out of the black hole of depression! I work at changing my thought patterns: at identifying the forms of distorted thinking (like all or nothing thinking, jumping to conclusions, mind-reading, and so forth), and using different cognitive-behavioral techniques to untwist the thoughts: examining a situation more realistically, getting my friends to help me snap out of obsessive thinking, recording all of my blessings so that I can see, on one sheet of paper, all of my gifts. And I have to remind myself many times a day that happiness doesn’t come with high page views (blog traffic) numbers or an appearance on Oprah.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Therese: I used to think all I had to do to be happy was to publish a book. So I published a book and I still wasn’t happy. So I published another. And another. With each publication, the stakes were higher, next time it had to sell at least 10,000 copies for me to be happy. Then it had to be a Publishers Weekly bestseller. Of course this kind of accomplishment never brought happiness. Ironically, it was that day inside the psych ward crying to Mike, when I had fallen apart at the seams, that I experienced true peace.

A friend of mine who wrote a New York Times bestseller made into a movie (and a whole movement) told me the other day that the best years of his life were those when he was homeless and practically penniless. He said that his success was a total nightmare. Friends and relatives (family members he never knew he had!) came to him asking for money. He was immediately hit with all this responsibility that he resented.

I try to remember that when I’m in the midst of a networking craze (as I am lately with Facebook and LinkedIn): that 550 important connections and contacts won’t bring happiness. In fact, chances are greater that they will bring me a headache.

Speaking of friends from the internet, I met – face to face – with terrific print journalist and blogger Nancy Rommelman, who has a great eponymous blog. We were introduced by another internet friend, the indefatigable Jackie Danicki. The world is small, and getting smaller, in a way that makes me very happy.

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