I’m a big fan of Dan Heath and Chip Heath‘s book, Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. My favorite part: the description of the “Don’t Mess with Texas” campaign. For that reason, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on their latest book, which has a direct relevance to happiness: Switch: How to Change Things When Change Is Hard. This challenge — how to think about, and make, changes to your life — is at the heart of a happiness project. I was very curious to hear what Dan had to say about happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Dan: Drinking coffee. In fact, even typing the phrase “drinking coffee” makes me a little happier.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I enjoy writing, but unfortunately, there always seems to be something that’s easier to do than write. Checking my email, for instance, or reading political blogs, or watching funny squirrel videos, or checking my email again. So I guess what I’m saying is that my micro-happiness (Ha! That squirrel jumped into a wall!) tends to conflict with the more enduring happiness of having written something.
This is why I was finally driven to buy an old laptop with no internet capability. Now, whenever I need to write something, I bring it with me to a coffee shop. It’s liberating—it’s amazing how much easier it is to focus when you’ve eliminated your other options.
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 read a brilliant paper recently called “If Money Doesn’t Make You Happy Then You Probably Aren’t Spending It Right” (written by Elizabeth Dunn, Dan Gilbert, and Timothy Wilson). [I have that very paper sitting on my desk right now!] It suggests ways we can spend our money in ways that yield more happiness (which I know is something you’ve also written about). One recommendation is to spend money on experiences rather than things. Here’s a good quote from the piece: “Experiences are good; but why are they better than things? One reason is that we adapt to things so quickly. After devoting days to selecting the perfect hardwood floor to install in a new condo, homebuyers find their once beloved Brazilian cherry floors quickly become nothing more than the unnoticed ground beneath their feet. In contrast, their memory of seeing a baby cheetah at dawn on an African safari continues to provide delight.” That has been a useful idea for me to keep in mind; every time I start thinking about buying a fancy new dining table or something, I think about how quickly I’ll adapt to it. Might as well adapt to the crappy table I’ve got.
Why do people have such a hard time doing things that they know would make them happier?
Psychologists tell us that we’ve got two systems in our brains—the rational system and the emotional system—and, unfortunately, they often disagree about what will make us happy. The rational system thinks that happiness would be losing 15 pounds and looking good in a swimsuit. But the emotional system thinks that happiness would be plowing through an entire bag of Nacho-Cheese Doritos. For most people, the emotional system tends to win these debates because it’s incredibly powerful. The psychologist Jon Haidt has a great analogy: He says that the emotional system is like an elephant, and on its back is a human-scale rider that represents the rational system. The rider thinks he’s the one in charge, but c’mon. If the two ever disagree, who’s your money on? So if you want your rational system to win out, you’ve got to avoid a direct tug-of-war with the elephant. Don’t bet on willpower. If you’re on a diet, don’t assume that your self-control will keep you from raiding the ice cream. That’s foolish. Just throw out the ice cream. Or, in my case, I doubted I’d be strong enough to resist the call of the internet when I was supposed to be focused on writing. My retro laptop helped me avoid that mental tug-of-war.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
That’s funny, my happiness mantra has always been to “Be Gretchen.” Weird.
I like this quote: “It is only possible to live happily ever after on a daily basis.” I just found it cited on Oprah’s site after Googling “happiness quote.” Now I will pass it off as my motto.
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.