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

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Photographs make me happy, but they’re also making me miserable.

CameraOne of my resolutions is to Be a treasure house for happy memories.

As part of this, I’ve been conscientiously maintaining our family photo albums. I use them as a kind of family diary, to capture little family jokes or funny incidences as well as the usual round of birthday party, holiday, and vacation scenes.

Research has shown that depressed people have as many nice experiences as other people, but they don’t remember them as well. And even for people who aren’t depressed, thinking back on happy times elevates mood.

Plus, observing and preserving memories is one of the most satisfying ways of bringing order to life.

So I know that keeping up with family photographs is an important tool in happiness building.

But I’m feeling overwhelmed, guilty, dejected about our photographs! I haven’t finished making the Shutterfly album from this SUMMER.

I haven’t ordered hard copies of photographs in months, and now I can’t remember what I’ve ordered and what I haven’t (I’m sure I can figure it out, it will just be a pain).

The photos that I did order haven’t been put in an album yet. They’re in several disorganized, loose piles.

I also need to go through the pictures on the camera, delete the bad ones, and upload the good ones.

I know I need to get a grip on this photograph issue, because it will just get worse over time—especially because the two girls’ birthdays are coming up, which means lots of photo opps.

I realized that I’ve been making one of the WORST happiness mistakes a person can make. I kept telling myself that I’d deal with the various photo initiatives “in my free time.”

Guess what? I don’t have any free time! Not the kind of free time where I’m wandering around the house, asking, “Gosh, what should I do with myself? Well, I suppose I have nothing better to do than to sort through four months worth of on-line photographs and place my orders.”

This is a common mistake. We tell ourselves, “I’ll clean out my closet when I have a free afternoon” or “We’ll go apple-picking when we have a free weekend.” But the time never does free up.

If I want to get something done, I need to make time for it.

LifeDev is a great resource, with lots of useful advice delivered in a gentle and humorous way.

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I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

This Wednesday: Two easy steps for improving your life.

MazeEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Two easy steps for improving your life.

There are two traps in happiness.

The first trap is deciding to make a tiny change when a big change is needed. If you hate your job, figuring out a way to stop working on the weekends isn’t going to solve the underlying problem.

The second trap – and I think the more common trap – is believing that a small change won’t make a difference, that only radical change can make you happier.

I’m constantly amazed by the big boost in happiness I get from small changes. Sometimes, though, it can be hard to identify the places where a small improvement could yield big happiness benefits.

So try these two steps if you feel like you need a happiness lift.

Step one:
Look for one of these…

…for a drawer or closet that’s packed too full to shut easily

…for an accumulation of objects that don’t have a place to go

…for a subject that fills you with guilt (“I really owe my grandmother a call”)

…for a part of your body that hurts or worries you (“That mole looks funny, but I’m sure it’s nothing”)

…for an object that you keep wishing for (“I wish I had a decent knife”)

…for something that you’d like to do, but don’t think you have time to do

…for a friend you haven’t seen in a while

…for an obligation that you haven’t fulfilled (RSVPing to a wedding, sending a baby gift, sending in an insurance form)

Step two:
Take action! Don’t delay. Just pick one item, that’s all. Take care of it. You’ll be AMAZED by the effect.

These kinds of things weigh us down. They make us feel trapped and overwhelmed. Tackling small, annoying tasks is energizing – and sweeping the small stuff out of the way makes it seem easier to tackle bigger changes.

That’s why the two happiness traps are related. The need for small changes can sometimes make it feel impossible to make a big change – even when a big change is needed.

It seems bizarre to say that you might find it easier to look for a new job if your kitchen isn’t messy, but I really, truly believe that for many people, this is true.

Samuel Butler wrote, “Arrears of small things to be attended to, if allowed to accumulate, worry and depress like unpaid debts…If we attend continually and promptly to the little that we can do, we shall ere long be surprised to find how little remains that we cannot do.”

Lots of great information lately at Dumb Little Man.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

A fact of life that makes me HAPPY every day. Especially today.

InternetHow happy the Internet makes me! I try never to take it for granted.

Last night, for example, I had a moment of profound satisfaction, courtesy of the Internet.

When I was doing my research for Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I came across an anecdote in a diary related to World War II. I loved it — but I lost it.

I’d read so many wartime diaries — from where did this story come? I was sure that I’d copied the passage into my huge trove of notes and quotations, but somehow it had vanished. It flitted through my mind every once in a while, but last week I became determined to find it again. It seemed relevant to my happiness research.

I thought that I remembered that it was in Jock Colville’s wonderful Fringes of Power, and I actually paged through the whole book looking for this story, but I couldn’t find it.

Finally, it occurred to me: the story seemed obscure, but maybe I could find it and its source on the Internet (why it took me so long to have this thought, I don’t know).

Now, I couldn’t remember the story exactly. I hadn’t read it in five or six years. But I searched for the terms “Englishman” “fine vessel” and “sinking.” And search, search, search…Eureka! I found the story that had eluded me for so long.

Here it is.

It wasn’t Jock Colville, it was Harold Nicolson. In June 1941 he was working at the wartime Ministry of Information, and he wrote in his diary for June 10:

The Middle East have no sense of publicity. The Admiralty is even worse. We complain that there are no photographs of the sinking of the Bismarck. Tripp says that the official photographer was in the Suffolk and that the Suffolk was too far away.

We say, ‘But why didn’t one of our reconnaissance machines fly over the ship and take photographs?’

He replies, ‘Well you see, you must see, well upon my word, well after all, an Englishman would not like to take snapshots of a fine vessel sinking.’

Is he right? I felt abashed when he said it. I think he is right.

Oh my goodness, what immense satisfaction I feel at having this story safely typed in my notes. I love it. It ties into one of the themes that I feel circling around the edges of happiness: the happiness of work well done, the instinct for workmanship. I’m not ready to tackle it yet, but I’m getting closer.

The Think Simple Now blog covers “Creativity, clarity, and happiness” so naturally I was thrilled to find it.

I was hit by a HUGE wave of spam that has messed with my email, so if you’ve emailed me in the last few days, and haven’t heard back, please email me again. Sorry!

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

I keep reading the argument that “Money can’t buy happiness.” It’s not that simple! Read on for the Epiphany of the Back Spasm.

Money2The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most interesting, most complicated, and most sensitive questions in the study of happiness.

I’ve read a lot about the subject that strikes me as incomplete, and I feel like I need to get my own views down on (virtual) paper.

So…brace yourself for a long post.

Americans are loaded with indulgences like big-screen TVs and extra-virgin olive oil; at the same time, we struggle to be happy. A paradox? Nope. Despite worries like international conflict, climate change, and trans fats, we enjoy an extraordinary degree of affluence and security. This prosperity allows us to turn our attention to more transcendent matters—to yearn for lives not just of material comfort, but of meaning, balance, and joy.

This isn’t just true of the United States. As countries become richer, studies show, citizens become less focused on physical and economic security, and more concerned with goals like happiness and self-realization.

I wrote about money in my first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, so I’ve grappled with the mysterious element of money before.

Gertrude Stein’s observation frequently floats through my mind: “Everyone has to make up their mind if money is money or money isn’t money and sooner or later they always do decide that money is money.”

Money satisfies basic material needs. It’s a way to keep score, to win security, and to earn recognition. It symbolizes status and success. It can bring comfort and a sense of identity. It can be renounced, sacrificed, or dedicated. It’s a means and an end. It creates power in relationships and in the world. It can bring change. It often stands for the things that we feel are lacking—if only we had the money, we’d be adventurous, or thin, or cultured, or respected, or generous. It’s a symbol of everything we dream of earning.

I’ve been trying hard to clarify my thinking about money and happiness. I was skeptical of much of what I read.

In particular, I kept reading the argument, “Money can’t buy happiness,” but it certainly seems that, whatever any economist or social scientist might claim, people act pretty convinced about the significance of money. It’s not without its benefits, and the opposite case, though frequently made, has never proved widely persuasive.

I wanted to look carefully at these arguments being made about the irrelevance of money to happiness.

For example, I repeatedly encountered the assertion that, because in the last three decades, Americans’ average per capita income has more than doubled (accounting for inflation), and yet the level of happiness hasn’t budge much, therefore, money doesn’t buy happiness.

But drawing that conclusion from those statistics doesn’t make sense.

First, during that same time period, many aspects of American society changed—not just buying power. Research shows that Americans have a third fewer intimate friends than they had two decades ago; and a larger number of people can only confide in family members. Because having close relationships has been shown to be a key to happiness, that drop surely affected happiness.

Lots of other things changed, too. The health of millions of Americans was compromised, as the obesity rate skyrocketed. Across the board—in all age groups, all income and education levels, and male and female alike—the obesity rate has risen dramatically. Maybe that change affected happiness levels.

And over the last few decades, the rate of violent crime and property crime has dropped sharply, but without a corresponding rise in happiness levels. Should we conclude that people are no better off with less crime, because happiness levels didn’t budge?

That was one problem I saw with that argument. Also, if we want to compare periods of relative wealth, why make a comparison between thirty years ago and today—other than the convenience of data? Why not make the comparison to the Middle Ages? Or a century ago? The fact is, people aren’t made deliriously happy by the luxuries of salt and cinnamon, or electricity and running water, or cell phones or the Internet, because they come to accept these once-luxury goods as part of ordinary existence. People become accustomed to a rising standard of living, and that standard does not, in itself, act as an enormous source of happiness. As prosperity increases, longed-for luxuries turn into barely-noticed basics.

Furthermore, in fact, studies show that people in wealthier countries do report being happier than people in poorer countries, and within a given society, richer people, on average, are indeed happier than poorer people.

Within the United States, according to one study, 49% of people with an annual family income of more than $100,000 said they were “very happy,” in contrast to only 24% of those with an annual family income of less than $30,000. (Now, it’s also true that there may be some reverse correlation: happy people become earn more money because they’re more appealing to other people and because their happiness helps them succeed.)

People in richer countries are happier than people in poorer countries. Also, it turns out, while the absolute level of wealth matters to people, relative ranking also matters. And relative ranking isn’t affected when an entire society grows more prosperous.

People take the measure of their circumstances relative to the people around them and their own previous experiences.

For instance, one study shows that people measure themselves against their age-peers, and their wealth relative to their age-peers matters more than their absolute wealth. Along the same lines, research shows that people who live in neighborhoods with richer people tend to be less happy than those in neighborhoods where neighbors make about as much money as they do. A study of workers in different industries showed that their job satisfaction was less tied to their salaries than to how their salaries compared to their co-workers’ salaries. Absolute dollar figures do matter, but comparison matters a lot.

People understand quite well that relative money matters: a majority of people said they’d rather earn $50,000 where others earned $25,000, rather than earn $100,000 where others made $250,000.

My mother grew up feeling quite well-to-do in the little Nebraska town of North Platte, because her father had a highly coveted union job as an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad. On the other hand, a friend told me he felt poor growing up in New York City, because he lived on Fifth Avenue above 96th Street.

Now, I’m not arguing that people OUGHT to feel this way – that they should evaluate their own experience according to what other people have, or that they should be happier when they have more money. But the truth is, most people DO. And in the field of happiness, as in all endeavors, it’s important to understand the facts, even when you want to change them.

So am I arguing that “Money can buy happiness”?

The answer: absolutely not. Money, alone, can’t buy happiness.

But, as a follow-up, am I arguing that, “Can money help buy happiness”?

The answer: it depends.

I think the happiness experts make a big mistake when they assume that money affects everyone the same way, or that looking at statistical averages tells you a lot about each individual’s case.

One popular argument is that while happiness levels increase dramatically as poor countries become wealthier, once income levels reach a certain threshold in advanced industrial societies—I’ve seen the number $15,000 thrown out—there’s practically no relationship between a person’s happiness level and income level. This assertion seems preposterous to me.

That statistical average doesn’t mean that a particular individual in that country might not be made happier by more money—depending on that individual’s circumstances. And indeed, studies show that within any particular country, people with more money do tend to be happier than those with less.

After long consideration, I decided that three factors shape the significance of money to individuals:

* It depends on what kind of person you are. Money means different things to different people. You might love to collect modern art, or you might love to rent old movies. You might have six children and ailing, dependent parents, or you might have no children and robust parents.

* It depends on how you spend your money. Some purchases are more likely to contribute to your happiness than others. You might buy cocaine, or you might buy a dog. You might splurge on a new dining room table, or you might splurge on a personal trainer.

* It depends on how much money you have relative to the people around you, and relative to your own experience. One person’s fortune is another person’s misfortune.

Developing this three-factor test gave me pleasant memories of law school, and it was helpful, but it was complex. I was looking for a more cogent way to convey the relationship between money and happiness.

Then I had what I’ll call the Epiphany of the Back Spasm. One afternoon, I picked up the Little Girl the wrong way, and the next morning, I woke up in agony. I was beside myself with pain. I couldn’t sit for long, I had a hard time typing, I had trouble sleeping, and of course, I couldn’t stop picking up the Little Girl, so I kept re-aggravating the injury.

My father-in-law, who has long suffered from back problems, kept urging me to go to his physical therapist. I kept insisting, “I’m sure my back will improve on its own.”

Then, one night, as I struggled painfully to turn over in bed, I thought, “Remember my own Secret of Adulthood: It’s okay to ask for help! He says physical therapy works; why am I resisting?”

I made an appointment, and two days and two visits later, I was 100% better. It felt like a miracle. And one day after my pain was gone, I took my pain-free existence for granted again.

I realized an analogy: money doesn’t buy happiness the way good health doesn’t buy happiness.

When money or health is a problem, you think about it all the time; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness. One of the greatest luxuries that money and health provide is the freedom from having to think about them.

Being healthy doesn’t guarantee happiness. Lots of healthy people are very unhappy. Many of them squander their health, or use it in harmful ways. They take it for granted. They don’t spend any time thinking about it or feeling grateful for it. In fact, they might even be better off with some physical limitation that would prevent them from making destructive choices. Ditto, money.

I remember once, in law school, the Big Man and I went on vacation with some friends. One guy was the friend of a friend, whom we didn’t know well except to know that he was renowned for his wild, reckless antics. I was relieved when he broke his ankle the first morning (doing something stupid) and was stuck on crutches. I’m positive that this injury kept him from doing a lot of crazy, dangerous stunts that might have caused great unhappiness.

But just because good health doesn’t guarantee happiness doesn’t meant that good health doesn’t matter to happiness. Ditto, money.

The First Splendid Truth holds that to think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Money is most important for happiness in the “feeling bad” category. People’s biggest worries include financial anxiety, health concerns, job insecurity, and having to do tiring and boring chores. Spent correctly, money can go a long way to solving these problems.

I’ve written before about how money, SPENT WISELY, can help buy happiness in the “feeling good,” “feeling right,” and “atmosphere of growth” categories – because it can help support the aspects of life that build happiness: social bonds, energy, having fun, doing good.

I welcome any responses to this. I’m still thinking through the issue.

New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Whoops, I forgot to mention the secret of the video I mentioned on Friday.

On Friday, I posted about a fascinating experiment demonstrating “inattentional blindness.” Go to this site, by the University of Illinois’s Visual Cognition Lab, and watch the video. As you watch, count the number of times the white-shirted team passes the basketball. Now that you’ve done it — did you notice the guy in the gorilla suit who walks through the game? Crazy!