I’m starting something new: from time to time, I’ll 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.
There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. 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, than by any other kind of argument. I ask the same set of questions in each interview, the better to compare different people’s experiences.
Today’s interview is with Leo Babauta of the fantastically interesting and useful blog, Zen Habits. Along with Zen Habits, he recently finished the e-book, Zen to Done, is writing another book, and has a blog about writing, Write to Done. He’s married, has six kids, lives on Guam, and has done a lot of thinking about the nature of happiness and how to live a happy life.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Leo: Exercise, undoubtedly. It’s one of my favorite things to do — even if I don’t feel like exercising at the moment, once I get started I invariably feel great. And it leaves me feeling amazing all day long.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Leo: For most people, happiness is a choice (unless you have clinical depression or something like that). This isn’t immediately obvious to most of us, especially just starting out in life, because we think we need a good job or a good spouse or a good income or a nice house and car or world travel in order to be happy. But happiness isn’t about any of that. It’s about wanting to be happy, and living your life so that you’re happy. It’s about staying positive and seeing the good things in everything.
Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Leo: Probably just taking on too much. When I overload myself with projects, I get stressed out and life and work aren’t as fun anymore. So when this happens, I take a time out, and I decide what’s most important. Then I get out of all the other commitments or postpone them to when I have more time. Simplifying my life like this always makes me happier.
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Leo: There are many. “Stay positive” is one. But my all-time favorite is five words of life advice from Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” I think of it almost daily. It’s the wisest and most practical advice I’ve ever heard.
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?
Leo: I find that negativity detracts from many people’s happiness. The worst part is, they don’t realize they’re doing it, and they don’t want to hear it from you either. I try to make positive suggestions, or share what’s worked for me, and sometimes that helps. People wallow in self-pity, complain, get discouraged from failure, get depressed by their jobs and their health … all human emotions, of course, but if you allow this kind of negativity to stay in your life, you’ll be dominated by it.
I see people go from unhappiness to happiness simply by taking positive steps in their lives. They might start exercising, or waking early, or simplifying their lives. Many people on my blog who try some of my suggestions along these lines report some amazing transformations from simple little steps like these.
Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Leo: When I was younger, I always wanted a promotion. I worked hard at getting it. Then I got the promotion, and I wasn’t any happier. I made more money, but somehow my expenses expanded to meet my new income. I had a higher position of authority, but along with that position came more responsibilities, more hours worked, more stress. This happened a few times, and then I made the choice to step down to a position of lower responsibility, so I could shed all the stress and long hours and focus on doing something I loved. It turned out to be an amazing decision, and ever since then, I’ve focused more on doing what I love than on getting more money or more authority. Every step of the way in my journey in the last 10 years, I’ve chosen passion over power and money, and it’s worked out very well.
Speaking of websites that are a great resource for life hacks, productivity tips, and just generally how to live life in a more effective and serene way, check out Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders. It’s packed full of great stuff.
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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.