Seth Stephens-Davidowitz worked as a data scientist at Google and is currently a contributing op-ed writer for the New York Times. His first book, Everybody Lies: Big Data, New Data, and What the Internet Can Tell Us about Who We Really Are (Amazon, Bookshop), was a New York Times bestseller and an Economist Book of the Year. I loved his first book, and was very happy when I happened to meet Seth at an event here in New York.
His new book is Don’t Trust Your Gut: Using Data to Get What You Really Want in Life (Amazon, Bookshop). If you’d like to get a sense of his approach, he recently published the article “The One Parenting Decision That Really Matters: Almost none of the choices you make are as fraught as you think they are” in the Atlantic.
I couldn’t wait to read his new book and to ask him about happiness, habits, and the human psyche.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Seth: I started giving myself a Life Report Card. At the end of every month, I grade myself on 15 categories for that month, including “relationships with friends, relationships with family, financial performance, fitness, fun, career advancement, giving back, and learning. “When I tell people this, they say it sounds nerdy, high-pressure and insane. And maybe it is. But I find it helps me achieve balance. If, for a few months in a row, I get a very low grade in, say, fun, I make sure to schedule more fun things the next month. Also, discussing the report card with others has allowed me to learn of new areas for growth that I hadn’t realized. My girlfriend suggested I add a category for “emotional openness” and hinted that my grade in that category is very low. Now I am working on turning those Fs into Ds.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Happiness is more of a choice than I realized. My brilliant, life-changing therapist Rick told me I was choosing to be depressed. It was a somewhat shocking thing to say, and a lot of people would recoil at the suggestion. But it immediately registered with me. And my mood has improved by telling myself I can choose how I feel.
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you – or your readers – most?
In researching Don’t Trust Your Gut, I became obsessed with the Mappiness project founded by George MacKerron and Susana Mourato. They pinged people on iPhones and asked them some simple questions: What are you doing? Who are you with? How happy are you? From this, they created a dataset containing more than 3 million data points. The major lesson I took from their ground-breaking research is that the things that make people happy are really simple and obvious. As I summed up the research, the answer to happiness is “to be with your love, on an 80 degree and sunny day, overlooking a beautiful body of water, having sex.” The key to happiness, I concluded, is ignoring the noise from the world that over-complicates things.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit – or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
On my Life Report Card, I noticed the only category I was consistently getting A’s in was fitness. And that’s because I hired an awesome personal trainer, John. From this, I concluded the only way I can really stick to difficult habits is external pressure. I’m working on setting up systems that pressure me to do the (many) things I don’t want to do but should do.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
I’m a questioner and a rebel, which gave me a proud smile upon writing. Makes me seem like a badass. [Gretchen: Hmmm…from the way you answered the question above, I’m wondering about that.]
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
My job is really isolating, which is not good for happiness. Research shows that both introverts and extroverts get a big mood boost from being around people.
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.?
I get hit by lightning bolts like once a week. I have strong emotional responses to things I read; pretty much every time I read a book, I am tempted to make some massive change based on the content. Like yesterday, I read the book The Simple Path to Wealth by JL Collins (Amazon, Bookshop). It included the parable of The Monk and the Minister, which goes as follows:
Two close boyhood friends grow up and go their separate ways. One becomes a humble monk, the other a rich and powerful minister to the king. Years later they meet. As they catch up, the portly minister (in his fine robes) takes pity on the thin and shabby monk.
Seeking to help, he says: “You know, if you could learn to cater to the king, you wouldn’t have to live on rice and beans.”
To which the monk replies: “If you could learn to live on rice and beans, you wouldn’t have to cater to the king.”
That was a major lightning bolt and tempted me to quit the consulting work I do. But I think making big, dramatic decisions based on something you read or hear isn’t a great life strategy. I try to talk things over with people and be more deliberate.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“This too shall pass” has gotten me through some rough times.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
I thought Four Thousand Weeks by Oliver Burkeman (Amazon, Bookshop) was profound.
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
My entire book is about correcting misconceptions. Here are some: that successful entrepreneurs tend to be young; that the average rich person works in tech; that joy and smiles are the way to sell products; that work makes people happy; that great businesses are due to luck; that lacrosse is a better path than baseball for getting a college scholarship; that it’s crazy to try to be a celebrity; that parents have a big impact on their kids; that lounging around makes people happy; and that marital happiness can be predicted.