Happiness interview with Zen Habit’s Leo Babauta.

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.

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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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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.
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.

Debate: do pets make us happier?

Growing up, my family had a much-beloved dog, Paddy-Wack (“Knick knack paddy wack, give your dog a bone…”), but we don’t have a pet now. I’m very thankful that our building doesn’t allow them, because the Big Girl would constantly be pestering me about it, if not. I definitely wouldn’t want the responsibility of having a pet – we’re taxed to the uttermost right now, with two children. We can’t even keep a houseplant alive.

Nevertheless, I know that for many people, pets are an enormous source of happiness. The other day, though, I had a fascinating conversation with a friend about the negative happiness consequence of having pets. There are pros and cons I hadn’t considered.

The pros to having pets:
Pets (above the fish/turtle level) provide companionship and unconditional love, both of which are KEY to happiness.

Dog owners, at least, often get more exercise, and exercise is a source of happiness.

Research shows that while we think that receiving support is a key to happiness, actually, providing support is perhaps even more important. Pets require our constant attention and care.

Having a pet contributes to the “atmosphere of growth” because you learn about your pet, learn to take care of it, watch it grow, etc.

Having a pet often contributes to stronger relationships with other people, by giving you something in common and similar concerns. I know many people who have made good friends at the dog-walkers park.

But my friend pointed out some cons:
Pets make it much harder to travel. When I asked him why he couldn’t leave his dogs in a kennel for a week, he said, “How often do you leave your two daughters for a week?” Point taken.

For people who have difficulty expressing affection to people, pets can be an outlet. In some cases, this is a bonus, but it can also mean that such folks are less inclined to direct their outward affection toward other people, who need it. Along the same lines, people who aren’t terribly social feel less need to be sociable, so they end up spending less time with other people.

Pets generate a huge amount of chores, which can be a source of tension and resentment.

Pets are sometimes used to justify decisions that people don’t want to take responsibility for. Instead of saying, “I don’t want to go to Thailand” or “I don’t want to go to your family’s house for Thanksgiving,” they say, “We can’t leave the dogs.”

Obviously, pets are an expense.

Trying to decide whether to get a pet?

In his fascinating book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert argues that people aren’t very good at predicting what will make them happier in the future. He suggests a remedy: To predict what’s likely to make you happy in the future, ask someone who is having that experience at the moment. The more similar such surrogates are to you, the more helpful their information is likely to be.

So if you love to travel, or if you spend most of your time at home, or if you have a lot of kids or no kids, ask similiarly-situated people how they like having a pet.

Gilbert maintains that although we all feel very idiosyncratic, we’re much more alike in our preferences than we imagine—so the experience of other people is the best guide to follow.

Lists of pros and cons aside, from my own experience, pet ownership seems a lot like parenthood: As much as people might explain the disadvantages, and as much of a pain as it might be for long stretches, you’re never sorry you made the decision. There’s a satisfaction there that seems beyond the reach of conventional measure or rational explanation. Why? I think the secret is LOVE. We gladly pay a high, high price for love.

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The folks at AOL Canada very kindly asked me to do an interview, which was a lot of fun. Also, a thoughtful reader posted the link to a very interesting site, arloandjanis.com, a blog that incorporates cartoons. Ever since I read Scott McCloud’s entire brilliant oeuvre, and Dan Pink’s fantastic The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tremendous potential of comics.

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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.
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.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Andy Warhol.

“Actually, I jade very quickly. Once is usually enough. Either once only, or every day. If you do something once it’s exciting, and if you do it every day it’s exciting. But if you do it, say, twice or just almost every day, it’s not good any more.” –Andy Warhol

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I just discovered the Half Full blog, about the science of raising happy kids. If this is a topic that interests you, it’s really worth a visit.

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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.
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.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Stop talking.

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.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is “Stop talking.” I have a tendency to want to talk too much – a tendency that was much exacerbated when I switched careers to being a writer. Because I spend a lot of time working silently, by myself, I’m so exhilarated by the chance to talk to other people that I end up talking too much, interrupting, etc.

But I’ve realized recently that there’s an even more important context in which to remember to “Stop talking”: when I’m trying to convey a mood of sympathy and understanding.

The other day, Big Girl was upset about something that had happened at school, so I pulled her into my lap in a rocking chair. I was desperately trying to think of comforting words, but then I realized that she was feeling better, just rocking in my arms. I decided that it was nicer not to say anything at all.

Sometimes, it’s important to talk things through, but in this case, after she told me what was bothering her, I think that anything that I might have said would have been less effective than my silent sympathy.

Then I noticed the same thing with the Big Man. He seemed preoccupied, and I was about to try to start a “What’s on your mind?” “Is everything okay?” “You seem preoccupied” kind of conversation. Then I thought – “You know, the Big Man really doesn’t enjoy that kind of talk,” and instead, I sat right next to him on the sofa, put my head on his shoulder, and reached over to hold his hand. That seemed to chirk him up.

Philosophers and scientists agree: the KEY to happiness is close relationships with other people, and we need to have a person in whom we can confide our intimate thoughts. Silence isn’t golden in every situation, because sometimes conversation is what a person needs. But now I think that silent communion can be better, in some situations.

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According to a new study, older people are happier than younger people: 33 percent of all 88-year-olds proclaimed themselves to be “very happy,” as opposed to 24 percent of people under 25. Interesting material.

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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.
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.

This Wednesday: 9 tips to make TV-watching a source of happiness.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine tips to make TV-watching a source of happiness.

In terms of hours, watching TV is probably the world’s most popular pastime. Among Americans, it’s the most common free-time activity – for an average of about five hours a day. It’s a source of relaxing fun.

But while television is a good servant, it’s a bad master. It can swallow up huge quantities of people’s lives, without much happiness bang for the buck.

Here are nine tips for keeping TV-watching a source of happiness:

1. Watch TV with someone else. We enjoy all activities more when we’re with other people, and we tend to find things funnier when we’re with other people. Use TV as an excuse to get together. Sports TV, awards TV (the Oscars), and competition TV (American Idol, Survivor), in particular, are a lot more fun to watch with other people. In fact, you can even…

2. Use TV as a bridge. If you’re having trouble connecting with someone – your sweetheart or your teenager, say — try joining that person when he or she is watching TV (even if football or Project Runway isn’t necessarily your favorite). Watching TV is companionable, you share an experience, you can comment on the action here and there for a bit of conversation…it’s a way of showing someone that you want his or her company and engaging in a low-key, pleasant, undemanding way.

3. Use TiVo. Recording shows allows you to use your time more efficiently. You can skip the commercials and watch a particular show according to your own schedule and mood. Also, interaction with actual real live people is the most important element to happiness, so you don’t want to leave your friend’s house early because you need to get home to catch a show.

4. Don’t use TiVo. Anticipation is an important aspect of happiness. Looking forward to a certain day and time so will heighten the pleasure you’ll take in your favorite show. And it’s fun to think that you’re sitting down at the same time with people across the country to see what’s next for the folks on Lost. Also, you’ll be able to enjoy reading about it right away (see #5), without worrying about spoilers.

5. Enjoy the commercials. This is particularly easy if you rarely watch TV. An enormous amount of ingenuity and creativity goes into commercials, and they can be fascinating if you pay attention.

6. Learn about TV. The more you know about anything, the more interesting it becomes. Read some TV criticism, read some interviews with the creative people involved in the show, become more knowledgeable.

7. Don’t surf. Especially if you’re feeling frazzled and overwhelmed with multi-tasking, sit down, start watching, sink into the experience, and stay on one channel. Let the show unfold in its time slot, don’t keep switching around to catch bits and pieces of other shows. Be a satisficer, not a maximizer.

8. Do surf. One of the joys of watching cable TV is the cornucopia of shows on display. As is oft remarked, “So many channels, yet so little to watch” — but nevertheless I love seeing the variety of sports, music, pop culture, dance, movies of all sorts, old TV shows, religious programs, history…it’s fascinating. (Btw, surfing is so addictive because of the phenomenon of “intermittent reinforcement”: activities that sometimes, unpredictably, do yield a big, juicy reward – “Look, Tootsie is on! — and sometimes don’t – “Is Antiques Roadshow really the best thing on TV right now?” — tend to have an addictive quality.)

9. Choose to watch TV. This sounds obvious, but often, we don’t really choose TV, it’s just the easy default activity. Make the effort to ask yourself, “What would I like to do for the next hour?” before you plop down with the remote control.

Bottom line: if you watch TV mindfully and purposefully, it can be a source of happiness, especially if you use it to connect with other people. If you watch it passively, automatically, and for want of anything better to do, it can be a drain on happiness.

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Lifehacker never fails to instruct and entertain. I used to feel intimidated by the number of hacks that were utter gibberish to me, because I’m just not tech-savvy enough to understand them, but now I just glide over those and read the posts that resonate with me.

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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.
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.