23 March 2010

A Few Simple Steps: comments regarding my own "happiness project"

For the last month or two, I have been considerably happier. This was due to a few decisions and small behavioral changes that I made, a few environmental things that are mostly out of my control, and perhaps also the natural ebb-and-flow of... what might I call them... biorhythms?

"Turning it up to 11"

Set aside huge changes. What small, achievable micro-steps can we take towards feeling consistently happier, setting the stage for getting all that we can out of life?

This post is inspired by Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project, a blog-book that documents 12 months of little experiments towards improving her happiness. It's also inspired by how... well, happy... a handful of my friends and family seem to consistently be. Is their biochemistry different? Were they raised differently? Do they keep their negativity bottled up? Heck, I don't know, but there is even a class during MIT's IAP, run by the Handel Group, that helps students live extraordinary lives. There's gotta be something here to try.

Motivation? Optimization.

I feel like I owe a little preamble. We all have our ups-and-downs, but I'm a contented dude at home and at work. I love my family, I have a lot of fun professionally, and might be described as equal measures goofy and serious. So what gives? Why am I yapping about this?

Well, I suppose time feels like it is zipping by faster than it ever had for me. Our schedules are different, now, with young children at home - in a way, there are 14 hours of fairly "pre-programmed" schedule every day.

Maybe it's my engineering mindset talking, but this begged the questions: What to do with the remaining 3 hours before continuing the cycle tomorrow? What to modify in my own habitual thinking in order to get the most out of the 14?

Simple Changes

  • (Sleep) Go to bed at 11.30pm, even if you don't fall asleep right away. Our kids wake up at 6 or 7.00 am, and our parenting-day ends at 9.00pm, so there's great temptation to stay up until 1am, but we always regret it.
  • (Snacking) No more snacking after 10pm.
  • (Reading, 1) Read a book about happiness. Rubin's book has flaws, but it does bring the topic of happiness to the foreground in my consciousness. Maybe I'm happier because I think about it more. Who knows.
  • (Friends) Stay in real touch with your friends. Facebook is fun, but I think it only gives an illusion of staying-in-touch-ness. Have coffee with a buddy!

Slightly harder simple changes

  • (Productivity) I am busy. Over-committed! I bet you are too. One simple change is that I try not to leave the office for the day unless I've plotted out how I'll spend each hour (or half-hour, if it's one of those weeks...) for the next day in my Outlook calendar. Also, try quitting Outlook or your browser when it's time to get stuff done. Makes it easier to avoid 2-minute interruptions every three minutes.
  • (Bye, bye, Internet) Tell your cable modem router to shut off Internet access at 11.30pm. Hey, wow, now Jenn and I don't have our noses in our glowing computer screens at midnight! (Look on the back of the thing with blinking lights and type the numbers into your browser, e.g.
  • (Dynamic optimism) Act like you control the outcome of the situations you're in. Whine less. Try to not vocalize negative thoughts (this is hard for me! I'm a cynic...).
  • (Reading, 2) Read books or news-magazines instead of the internet. I think the Web fosters a sort of "attention deficit syndrome," where we're clicking on tidbit after tidbit, never really encouraging the patience to learn anything in depth.
  • (Thinking skills: memory, strategy / planning, self-control) The ancient board game go is the best tool I'm aware of for sharpening a multitude of mental skills. It is pretty easy to learn (7 year olds play it routinely in Korea) but, goodness, it is hard to master. There's even an iPhone / iPod app with great practice problems. I am trying to do 10 a night, when I remember. (SmartGo Pro.) If you're really into it, there are local clubs and web-servers.
  • (Listen to your body) If you're an introvert, make the time to recharge your batteries if solitary time makes you feel energized. If you're an extrovert, put group activities on your calendar. If your mood is out of whack before mealtimes, maybe you need to graze on a little snack at 11am and 4pm (I keep a bag of Snickers at my desk).
  • (Give!) Seek out opportunities to give: e..g, volunteering for a cause, or volunteering for professional societies, or write articles, or give advice, or give talks, or cook a meal for a friend who just became a new parent, or... These things are nice to do, they make you feel good, and they have the added bonus of bringing more friends into your life, which increases your happiness!

Changes of circumstance
  • Parenting: My children are now 1 1/2 and nearly 4, and they get along really well. The eldest engages himself in a variety of projects (and "experiments, daddy!") with us and my himself, and the youngest continues to be unflappably cheerful even though he's nearing 2.
  • Career: I very much enjoy my job and have a terrific boss. I always knew, intellectually, that career-satisfaction is a big factor in happiness, but, wow, I underestimated it. There is also great contrast between this and my former job, which, though I was the founder, had lengthy periods of nearly unbearable emotional stress. But why is this a change of circumstance? Well, I would never have guessed that my role (in sales-and-engineering leadership for a consulting company) would make me happy. But it does! I suppose my inability to have made this prediction is in alignment with current thinking in happiness theory, e.g.:

    People aren't too good at guessing what will make them happy.
Changes I'd like to make, but haven't
  • (health) Join a gym and go 3 days/week
  • (money) Plan out a week of meals that include dinners large enough to provide next-day lunches. I spend too much money every day.
  • (creative outlet) Identify a new after-hours project that I can noodle on at night. Previous ones included techie forms of self-portraits, or doing software projects in optics.

Related References

Happiness Project (Gretchen Rubin) - A collection of little steps you can take, though I am distracted by the author's undercurrent of digs against her husband and friends.

Dynamic Optimism - I'm not an extropian, but I like the idea of dynamic optimism.

Samantha Sutton's blog - A personal coach from the Handel Group shares her thoughts on these and other topics

Seth Godin's blog - Marketing advice with a get-off-your-butt-and-do-it bent

SmartGo Pro - iPod / iPhone app... and this is a great book to learn the rules.

The Week magazine - My favorite news-magazine, which compiles news clippings from around the world, and explains the big issues in a "for beginners" format. We give subscriptions as holiday gifts. (I.e. as an alternative to visiting your five favorite webpages over and over and over.)

Please, comment away! It's tough to post this note, because it's such a personal topic, and I have some reluctance because the "small changes" are really quite small and obvious. But they're working for me so far!



sheryl k said...

That is a great post Gregg and I love that what will be on that list will be different for everyone. I have my book blog which brings me joy as a personal project that I can feel achievement around. We're also getting a puppy and if the happiness of having her is even a fraction of the anticipation, we will be upping our happiness that way.

We should get together. I agree that FB is just providing the illusion of connection.

baxissimo said...

Nice article!

Another ref -- Daniel Gilbert, the "we aren't good at guessing what will make us happy" guy: http://www.wjh.harvard.edu/~dtg/gilbert.htm