“For 25 Hours Each week…No Email. No Phone. I Don’t Make Anything.”

Happiness interview: Joshua Foer.

I became intrigued with Josh Foer’s bestselling book, Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything,  because it’s a kind of “memory project.” As a consequence of researching memory, Josh started doing memory training and ended up competing in the finals of the U.S. Memory Championship.

Memory is extraordinarily important to happiness, and I was very interested to read a book about the science and history of the “art of memory,” and to ask Josh about his views on happiness.

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

Josh: Riding my bike. It doesn’t matter where I’m going. Just so long as I’m pedaling.

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

I keep the Jewish Sabbath, which is not something I did when I was 18. For 25 hours each week, everything gets turned off. No email. No phone. I don’t make anything. I don’t destroy anything. No matter how much stress I have in my life, it all evaporates on Friday night.

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

You know that gospel song, “This Little Light of Mine”? I like that one a lot. Not so much the third verse about Jesus and Satan, but the rest of it. When I’m feeling really lousy, I try to remind myself that I’ve got a responsibility to allow whatever little light there is inside of me to shine.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?

I talk to my wife. Somehow saying things out loud and hearing how silly they sound makes all the difference.

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?

As a kid, life felt like it moved in one direction. You’re always getting more privileges, more responsibilities, moving up in the world. What a revelation it was when, as a grownup, I discovered that real life isn’t like that. There are good months, and there are bad months. Better years and worse years. But there’s always regression to the mean. I think I’m still only just beginning to appreciate that.

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

My garage woodshop. I have yet to find a sadness that cannot be forgotten with a few strokes of a well-tuned hand-plane.

  • http://www.facebook.com/mrs.michelle.langley Michelle Langley

    Oh wow, “This Little Light of Mine” is also my happy song. I deliberately sing it when I feel my mood sinking. 

    I’ve also been thinking about the Sabbath. God gave it to us for our benefit, and we’re not really taking advantage of it. Reading this makes me think that at the very least, turning stuff off and not working for a day could really reduce my stress levels. 

    Thanks for this interview! 

    • Alissa Ripley

      I keep the Sabbath day every Sunday, I don’t turn on my laptop, answer the phone, or do dishes. I go to church and get fed spiritually. That definitely makes me happy and not stressed. I loved this interview!

  • Indonesiangirl98

    When I was a kid, I hated the Sabbath, found it boring. But now… I crave it. Can’t imagine life without it. There’s been scientific studies that show we work at an optimum level if we work six out of seven days a week.

    Take a Sabbath, even if it’s not for religious reasons.

  • Susan Jablow

    Joshua and his brothers, Franklin and Jonathan, are amazing thinkers and writers. I have long thought that someone should write about their family. (Whatever their parents did in their formative years sure did work!) I just found the following link about them:

    http://www.washingtonian.com/blogs/capitalcomment/reads/the-foer-brothers-a-complete-guide.php

  • zal yey (saleh)

    I started reading that book too. Half way done. I love it! It’s a great feeling remembering things u couldn’t remember before. I still remember the list Ed made Josh remember in central park haha

  • Nneka, Working Mystic

    “For 25 hours each week, everything gets turned off. No email. No phone. I
    don’t make anything. I don’t destroy anything. No matter how much
    stress I have in my life, it all evaporates on Friday night.”

    Oh Joshua! I need a Sabbath like that. It sounds like heaven :-)

    • DLinBham

      Around our house, Saturdays are generally no-computer days. No email, no Facebook (not even on the smartphone!) A time to connect as a family. As a society, I think we make ourselves crazy feeling like we have to check our email all the time, especially checking work email when we’re not at work.

  • Al

    What exactly does he mean by “there’s always regression to the mean” — I know what the words mean, but can’t quite make sense of the sentence and want to understand that chunk of wisdom. Thanks.

    • Chris Witt

      It means that 99% of the time, things in your life are going to be pretty normal. Status quo. However you want to put it.
      So if things seem horribly awful and desperate, you know that eventually it will swing back towards just being “normal” again. (Regression to the mean.)
      Ditto for when things are ridiculously blissful, of course. Things eventually level out.
      Best way to take that fact is to not dwell on the negatives (they will change) and enjoy the positives (they too will change).

      • Al

        Thanks. I was getting caught up on the word regression and assigning it a negative connotation. Makes sense now. Thanks for taking the time to answer.

  • Teresa

    Oh how I wish my marriage were like that, so that talking to my husband could help when I’m blue. As it is, I try to keep any negative feelings to myself, since he gets upset by my “whining” and never fails to point out that I put myself in whatever situation I’m in by virtue of my own conscious choices. Our relationship is great as long as I’m a good soldier, cheerful and able to cope.

    • Natalie

      Have you ever mentioned to him that you are not looking for him to join in with your feeling blue but justing looking for him to acknowledge you feel down and to sympathize? Sometimes people soar into problem solving mode instead of realizing that the person they are speaking to simply needs to talk and have their feelings acknowledged. My husband was raised in a home where no negativity was acknowledged and everything had to be fine or is mom got nervous. When we were first together he would perceive my feeling blue as some kind of failure on his part or as being simply negative. Once I explained to him I just wanted a sympathetic ear and to have my feelings acknowledged he was great.

    • DLinBham

      Teresa, maybe you can find a friend who is good at listening. Not every marriage is alike.

  • Kathy

    Interestingly… the spiritual does not have the Jesus/Satan versus:
    http://www.negrospirituals.com/news-song/this_little_light_of_mine.htm
    Better, by far.