Debora Spar: “Happiness Isn’t Fixed, or Binary. You Can Be…Happy But Still Melancholy, or Not Happy But Somehow Content.”

Debora Spar: “Happiness Isn’t Fixed, or Binary. You Can Be…Happy But Still Melancholy, or Not Happy But Somehow Content.”

Interview: Debora Spar.

Deb Spar and I have been friends for many years, and in that time, she has worn many (impressive) hats.

These days, she's a professor at Harvard Business School and the Senior Associate Dean of Harvard Business School Online. She has also served as President and CEO of Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, and as President of Barnard College.

She's also the author of numerous books, including Ruling the Waves: Cycles of Invention, Chaos, and Wealth from the Compass to the Internet (Amazon, Bookshop), Wonder Women: Sex, Power, and the Quest for Perfection (Amazon, Bookshop) and The Baby Business: How Money, Science, and Politics Drive the Commerce of Conception (Amazon, Bookshop).

Her latest book is Work Mate Marry Love: How Machines Shape Our Human Destiny (Amazon, Bookshop). She examines how technology—from agriculture, to the street light, to the car, to the birth control pill—all changed courtship, sex, and marriage, and she asks how new technology—like robots and artificial intelligence—might lead to further changes in the way we humans engage with each other.

I couldn't wait to talk to Debora about happiness, habits, and human nature.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Debora: It’s a bit embarrassing to admit, but I love any kind of dancing. I’m not any good, but any kind of movement to music—zumba, dance classes, even if I’m desperate just running on the treadmill with something blaring in my ears, helps a lot. And when I can’t dance, I go on long walks (usually again with music!). It clears my head and makes me happier.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

That it’s not fixed, or binary. You can be a little bit happy, or happy but still melancholy, or not happy but somehow content. I used to think it was an either-or state. Now I know, that at least for me, there is a huge range of variation. And often just waiting out a non-happy state will bring me to something better.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

I think what intrigues me most about the work I do is the ability to draw links between and across very disparate fields. In my new book, I’ve loved linking the physical and often implicitly male worlds of technology and invention with the worlds of romance and sex and reproduction. The causal connections are very strong—technological change affects how we form our families and fall in love and so much else—and yet don’t often receive the kind of attention they should. I hope my readers find these connections as fascinating as I have.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?

Email is always a challenge. I try to keep it under control, or at least break from my phone or computer for decent chunks of time, but it’s hard.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

When I was still in high school, I had one of those life-changing conversation with a teacher named Daphne Dewey. She pulled me aside one day, and let me know in no uncertain terms that I was behaving badly, trying way too hard to be popular and part of the partying crowd at my school. She told me I was smart, and that I needed to focus my energies on the kinds of things that really mattered to me. It wasn’t so much a lighting bolt—since I suspect I knew this at some level—but her words woke me up, and I changed. Shortly thereafter, I decided to graduate early from high school, and go to a college that would truly challenge and support me. I have never looked back.

In your field, is there a common misconception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Several decades ago, political scientists took from the economists the concept of “rational man” or “rational choice.” It’s essentially the idea that you can explain behavior by assuming that people behave rationally, and that their decisions will depend on some kind of cost-benefit behavior. Personally, I believe that the concept is not only wrong—especially in the political field—but actually dangerous. Because so many of us make decisions in ways that are distinctly not rational. They are emotional, or ideological, or driven by our specific wants or fears. And if we presume rational behavior, we mistake so much of what actually drives both individuals, and the societies they create.

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