My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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“Now I Focus on Fewer Things to a Higher Degree.”

Happiness interview: Dan Ariely.

I just finished reading Dan Ariely’s bestselling new book, The Honest Truth about Dishonesty: Why We Lie to Everyone–Especially Ourselves. It’s a fascinating look at lying, truth-telling, and why it’s much easier to slide into cheating than we realize or admit to ourselves.

Dan studies psychology and behavior economics, and his work explores the question–why do we do what we do? why do we often behave irrationally or in a way that seems inconsistent with our values? His other books, Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality, also investigate these issues.

Because his area of research has so many implications for happiness, I was curious to hear what he had to say on the subject.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Dan: The simplest is probably riding my Segway.  Every time I get on it, I get amazed by the ingenuity of the people who designed it. A less simple activity that consistently feels very rewarding is getting people to think differently about their lives.

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

These days, I get a lot of joy from getting better at what I do (mostly research and writing), even when the rate of progress is slow.  When I was young, I only enjoyed the sense of progress when it was fast – when I was getting much better every day.  I think that this is why I used to switch from activity to activity rather quickly (in order to get the sense of large improvements), whereas now I focus on fewer things to a higher degree.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I have a hard time saying no to all kinds if opportunities that come my way. People call me, ask me to help on projects or give a lecture, and otherwise request my time, and I too often agree when I shouldn’t. I think that my tendency to say yes is the outcome of two factors: The first is that from time to time I agree to doing things that I should not, and they turn out very interesting and exciting. I remember these times when deciding whether to take on each new opportunity, and think about how I might regret missing out. The second is that it is hard for me to think about the opportunity cost of time – what I would give up to take on these new opportunities.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself “Now is now.”)

Maybe it reflects my Jewish heritage, but I regularly think about how things could have been worse.  More seriously, after being in the hospital for many years with third degree burns, it is very natural for me to remember how terrible life used to be, to make the comparison to where I am now, and as a consequence be very happy with anything that is going on in my current life.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

I don’t get to do it too often, but I find that playing squash (in my case, chasing after a little black ball and gulping for oxygen) distracts me completely and renews my happiness.

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 think that people too often take things personally, as if it is their fault, or that the universe is acting against them specifically.  In contrast, I try to remind myself that a lot of things around us are random and out of our control, and therefore there is no reason to get worried or upset about them.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

When I was injured I was very miserable and in a lot of pain.  But my misery actually increased substantially about a year later when I understood the full consequences of my injury.  It was a very difficult time, but I did try to be less miserable by watching movies, reading and generally distracting myself.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

One of the things I love to do when I am at home is to fall asleep hugging my 6-year-old daughter.  She is like a soft and loving hot water bottle, and I sleep amazingly well when I hug her.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

I often talk about my research and life, and I sometimes start by describing my life in hospital and how it got me thinking about irrationality.  It is always emotional for me, but I have cried in public only 3 times – and in all of these instances my father was in the audience.  I did not expect this emotional wave before I began speaking, but having him in the audience made me emotional to such a high degree that was impossible for me to contain. (It is still hard for me to anticipate the feeling of having him in the audience, but I have learned from experience).

Getting married was another thing that surprised me.  Before Sumi (my wife) and I got married I was thinking that this is just a ceremony that we have to do for tradition and legal reasons and that it would not change how I feel about Sumi. But it did. Very quickly after the ceremony I felt more commitment, love and caring. Maybe it is cognitive dissonance (why did we spend so much time and money on this wedding?  It must be that we really really love each other), maybe it is the social commitment of standing before a lot of people and making a promise, maybe it was the promises we made to each other – whatever it was – I did not expect it.