I’m a big fan of John Tierney’s science column, Findings, in the New York Times. And I’m even a bigger fan of his new book, Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. This book, co-written with Roy Baumeister, who is one of the most prominent researchers of self-control, is fascinating. For anyone who wants to be happier, self-command and self-knowledge are crucial areas of study.
As a long-time reader of John’s work, I knew that he and I are interested in many of the same subjects, so I was curious to hear what he had to say on the subject of happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
John: Exercising, which I do by commuting by bike from Brooklyn to Manhattan. Crossing the East River is especially joyful, but just getting outside and moving is enough to raise my spirits.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
How much joy you get from doing things for your children—and doing things for other people, too.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Surfing the Web. I’ve tried to cut back by using some of the techniques we describe in the book. I use RescueTime software that keeps track of how I spend my computer time. It doesn’t actually stop me from doing it, but it does discourage me because I know I’ll get a report emailed to me detailing exactly how much time I wasted.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Years ago, when I was researching an article on research into stress, one social scientist passed on a simple tip: “At some point every day, you have to say, ‘No more work.’” No matter how many tasks remain undone, you have to relax at some point and enjoy the evening.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I play one turn of “Wordfeud” (a Scrabble-like game) with my wife. (We keep a game going on our smartphones.) If I have more time available, I’ll read a chapter in whatever novel I’ve got on my Kindle.
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?
I see a couple of things that consistently interfere with happiness. One is dieting. In the book we devote a chapter to strategies for controlling weight, but we advise against dieting, and we don’t think people should beat themselves up for not being thin enough. People often think of controlling weight as the prime example of strong willpower, but it’s actually not. Self-control correlates with success in just about every other endeavor in life: doing better in school and at work, being healthier and wealthier and happier, having more satisfying personal relationships. But the correlation between self-control and weight-control isn’t nearly so strong—it’s there, but it’s much weaker. We call it the Oprah Paradox: someone with phenomenal willpower in the rest of her life can still have a hard time losing weight. There are tricks for dealing with the temptations of food—for outsourcing self-control, as we call it—but just because you’re not thin doesn’t mean you have no willpower.
Another thing that consistently interferes with happiness is procrastination, a universal vice that that I know very well. I’ve been a terribly disorganized procrastinator my whole life. I always turned in papers and articles and columns at the last minute or later. Every weekend there was an overdue project bothering me. But to my amazement, Roy and I turned in this manuscript for Willpower two months ahead of the deadline by using the strategies and principles in the book. I learned to make doable to-do lists and found new ways to keep track of progress (and use tools to do the monitoring for me—much easier!). In the book, we describe the state of bliss that Drew Carey attained by “getting to zero”—clearing his desk and his In-Box—and I went through the same experience myself. It really does free your mind for happiness and creativity.
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.