Happiness interview with Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener.

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

Today’s interview is with Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, a father-son duo who teamed up to write a terrific new book about happiness, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.

Father Ed Diener is one of the super-stars of “subjective well-being” (that’s one of the scientific ways of saying “happy”) and was studying it long before it became the hot topic that it is today. He has more than 240 scientific publications on the subject.

Son Robert Biswas-Diener is the more swashbuckling version of a happiness expert. Along with more traditional training, he has travelled to places like Greenland, Kenya, and India, and done things like allow himself to be branded in a Maasai ritual to increase his knowledge of happiness.

Their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, just hit the bookstores this week. If you’re looking for one thoughtful, comprehensive book to help you understand the science of happiness better, this is exactly what you’re looking for. It’s also a good read – accessible, concise, and even funny – which isn’t true of all such books, and there’s a lot of information I hadn’t seen elsewhere.

When I asked Robert why they’d decided to write this book as a team, he told me, “We have often collaborated together on research projects and it seemed natural to team up again on this book. In some ways, we capitalized on both of our respective strengths — tapping my father’s superior understanding of happiness and harnessing my superior writing skills. The end result was better than either of us could have produced alone, and we had fun in the process.”

For the interview, they took turns answering the questions.

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?
Robert: I think people naturally have a tendency to go on autopilot. This is normal because it helps free up our attention and thinking for tasks that we really need to concentrate on. The downside, of course, is that we fall into ruts — taking the same route to work each day, clicking on the TV when we get home. Once you start making the effort to “wake yourself up”– that is, be more mindful in your activities — you suddenly start appreciating life a lot more. Although this is a dramatic example, I always find this kind of vibrancy when I travel overseas. Suddenly, because everything looks or sounds different, I am no longer taking simple things for granted, like mailboxes or elevators. It’s like being a kid all over again, where everything feels a bit new and fresh. The trick is to find that kind of luster in everyday 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?
Robert: I am a firm believer in a tendency toward being generally upbeat or generally negativc. Fortunately, one of our most replicated findings is that most people are mildly happy most of the time. I certainly fall into that category. Although I hate getting speeding tickets, or getting sick, or being late for a meeting, I mostly have a positive attitude toward life and the people around me.

Now, like everyone else, I am susceptible to negative events. Last year my grandfather died, somewhat unexpectedly, and that was a very difficult time. It also, through dumb bad luck, happened to coincide with a setback in my professional life, and I became pretty depressed. I felt listless and unergetic. First, I allowed myself the luxury of feeling bad. After all, my grandfather died! I should feel bad. But once my blues continued to the point where I thought it was “going on too long,” I forced myself to the gym and started working out, even forty-five minutes a day. It was very hard to muster the will, but I was always glad afterward. My wife was also very supportive, being compassionate when she needed to be and telling me to get off the couch occasionally too! After a little while my mood started to perk up and now I’m back to normal.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Ed: Analyzing data always makes me happy. Seriously. Possibly I am a weird person. But when I examine data, I almost always feel that I am discovering something new. And it is a quiet activity that is calm, and I can just think and examine what is going on in the world via the data. I think what this example shows is that the happy activity need not be recreational; it could even be “work,” which might in some cases seem like play. And it shows the tremendous diversity — we don’t need to try “comfort food” just because some magazine recommends that. We need to find our own comfort activities.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Ed: I know about one-gazillion things more now about happiness than I did then. Probably the biggest insight, and I am not sure whether we can learn this from others or we have to actually experience it, is that happiness is not just a place, but also a process. I once thought that when I had my “ducks in a row,” the right wife, kids, house, and job, that I would then be happy from them on. And of course those things all helped a lot. But I learned that happiness is an ongoing process of fresh challenges, and that even when everything is in place it takes the right attitudes and activities to continue to be happy.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Ed: I almost never actually feel blue. So when I am blue, which is so rare, I think it is probably for a good reason, and don’t necessarily think I need to chase it away quickly. I have mostly learned a positive attitude toward life and my life is in good shape, and so I don’t think the rare blue times are detrimental, because they are usually times when I need to deal with some true loss.

I just discovered MomAdvice blog on the site MomAdvice. Lots of great info there.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Following my resolution to “Ask for help.”

One of my most helpful resolutions is to “Ask for help” (no surprise!) I don’t know why I find this so difficult, but I do — whether it’s advice about what to do, or technical support for how to do it, or general explanations about how things work.

But today I’m going to “Ask for help” in getting the word out about my blog. Word of mouth is the most persuasive form of recommendation. If you could spare the time and energy, I’d so appreciate it if you’d email the link to The Happiness Project to people you think would be likely to enjoy it.

Or if you subscribe to my monthly newsletter, please consider forwarding them the newsletter.

I hesitated to ask for this help, with the thought, “Of course, people can always forward the link to their friends, whenever they want. Why bug them about something they can already do?”

But I realized that, in my own life, I often need someone to remind me of a helpful task I can perform. I’m willing to do it, it just wouldn’t occur to me unless someone suggested it.

I remember once, after I told a friend that I’d loved his new book, he asked, very delicately, if I’d consider writing an Amazon review. I was thrilled to write the review, but I wouldn’t have thought of it myself, so I was very pleased that he mentioned it.

So…I’m asking! Please help me spread the word about The Happiness Project. Thank you!

I always like to check out Get Rich Slowly.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Happiness quotation from Samuel Johnson.

Johnson: “As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him,’ so it is with travelling, –-a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.”
–Boswell, Life of Johnson

Not a day goes by that I don’t think about this line from Johnson.

I love 43 Folders.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Happiness Project: Dig deep.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should 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.

It took me many months to come up with my personal Twelve Commandments, and I think about them all the time – whether because I’m living up to them, or failing to live up to them.

I love hearing what other people have chosen for their commandments. A good friend of mine had an excellent list of her own four commandments, and the one that stuck in my head was “Dig deep.” One of the interesting things about commandments is that I usually don’t have to ask someone to explain what it means. It means something to me, even if that might be different from what the creator meant.

The minute I heard “Dig deep,” I knew what it meant for me. I needed to dig deep with my children.

Take this morning. It started out well, and I kept my resolution to Sing in the morning.

Then the Big Girl started fussing, telling me that she didn’t have anything to wear – and we went shopping for school clothes less than a week ago! Eventually she got dressed, and we left the house to walk to school. The Big Girl had cheered up, but the Little Girl was crying in her stroller, because – why? I don’t know, she wouldn’t explain. It was obvious from the way that she was crying that she wasn’t hurt or really upset, she was just fretful. For block after block. Then the Big Girl started wailing, “Why can’t you make her stop crying?” etc.

I did NOT handle this well. I feel like my fuse is especially short in the morning; it also seems like my children are at their least charming in the morning.

I kept reminding myself, “Dig deep, dig deep!” I’d take a deep breath, and say something cheerful, but then I’d snap again. But everything worked out eventually. We dropped the Big Girl off at school, the Little Girl got tired of crying, I stopped the stroller and said lovingly, “Would you like a drink from the water bottle?” and she was perfectly cheery.

But it was rough there for a while. Controlling my quick irritation and my sharp tongue is something I struggle to do every day – but I know that if can’t yell and snap my way toward the loving, peaceful, tender atmosphere that I want. Dig deep, dig deep.

A thoughtful reader sent me the link to a very nice blog, Thursday Drive.

Thinking about starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Exercise and happiness: A new study surprised me.

I was very surprised to read in the New York Times that recent research, studying twins, indicated that, despite studies that seemed to suggest that exercise was almost as effective in relieving depression as anti-depressants, in fact, the “association of exercise with reduced anxious and depressive symptoms could be explained genetically: people disinclined to exercise also tend to be depressed. One does not cause the other.”

The study was looking at the effect of exercise on symptoms of depression and anxiety. I wonder if exercise might help non-depressed or anxious people with keep more positive moods. In other words, what is the effect of exercise on the moods of non-depressed/anxious people?

It sure seems to me that exercise has a big effect on my mood, and I’ve heard that from many other people, as well.

When I’m feeling blue, exercise helps a lot. Perhaps that’s because when I’m exercising, I’m distracted and not ruminating on anything that might be upsetting me. Maybe it’s because exercise boosts energy, and feeling energetic helps people feel cheerier. Maybe it’s because I know that exercising will help keep me healthy, so I feel good about doing something that’s good for me. Maybe it’s because just the sheer ticking-an-item-off-the-to-do-list is satisfying. Or maybe it’s just that I expect that exercise will make me feel better, and so it does.

The relationship between exercise and happiness is fascinating, so I’m eager to see what studies follow.

I was thrilled to see that along with Three Beautiful Things, I inspired someone to take on her own happiness project — check it out at Gleeful.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed.
Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.