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

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In which I have a MAJOR EPIPHANY about the nature of happiness.

LightbulbThis weekend, while reading Frey and Stutzer’s Happiness and Economics, I read one line that led to an enormous break-through in my thinking: “It has been shown that pleasant affect, unpleasant affect, and life satisfaction are separable constructs.”

When I read that, a huge lightbulb went off in my head.

I’d been fiddling with the idea that, to be happy, I had to think about the “upside” and the “downside”—that is, I needed to think of how to have more fun, more love, more good things in life, and also how to eliminate bad feelings, like guilt and anger.

And I’d also been trying to figure out something I’d been calling “Level III,” the deep, inner sense of satisfaction or dissatisfaction with life.

I’d been intrigued by recent research that shows that happiness and unhappiness aren’t opposite sides of the same emotion. They’re distinct, and rise and fall independently. This insight seemed very important.

But last night, it hit me—how to combine all these ideas in a simpler, richer way.

To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right.

I need to generate more positive emotions, so that I increase the amount of joy, pleasure, satisfaction, approval, gratitude, intimacy, friendship, etc. in my life.

I also need to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffer less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, etc.

And apart from feeling more “good” and feeling less “bad,” I also need to thing about feeing right. That’s the feeling that I’m living the life I’m supposed to lead. So, for example, although I had a great experience as a lawyer, and got a lot of satisfaction from my work clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and being a chief advisor to FCC Chairman Reed Hundt, I was haunted by an odd feeling—one that I can only described as feeling that I was always off on a tangent, that I wasn’t doing what I was “supposed” to be doing.

Here’s another example. Bowing to her husband’s wishes, a friend of mine, an art consultant who grew up in New York, has ended up living in a midsized midwestern city. And she’s tried and tried to like it, but she just doesn’t. She says it just doesn’t “feel right” to her, that she’s living there. And someone else might not “feel right” if her family was living in a little apartment in New York City, instead of in a house with a yard and a garden and a basketball hoop.

I think “feeling right” is one way that considerations like money, family expectations, ambition, and social comparison come into play. “Living right” means finding flow and being spiritual and following your bliss; I think it often also means achieving a certain status and material standard of living. And “feeling right” is also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself, doing the right thing.

Sometimes “feeling right” might be a source of “feeling bad.” Your long commute might make you “feel bad,” but sending your children to a great public school is important for you to “feel right.”

This formula—“think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right”—sounds so banal, so obvious, so copied-from-the-cover-of-a-glossy-magazine, that I’m almost embarrassed to admit that it has taken me years of hard thinking and research to devise it.

I remember having the same feeling when I had my epiphany that Winston Churchill’s life satisfied the stringent requirements of classical tragedy. It was so hard for me to accomplish this thought, but then once I did, I felt a bit ridiculous, belaboring a point that was so perfectly clear.

But, I console myself, the obvious things are probably true.

I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

This Saturday: a quote from Bertrand Russell.

“Man needs, for his happiness, not only the enjoyment of this or that, but hope and enterprise and change.” –Bertrand Russell

Do you sometimes find it hard to be happy when your friends succeed?

When I talk about happiness with people (and I’m a bit of a bore on the subject, I fear), one question that often comes up is: is it really possible for a person to boost happiness through attitude change, without a change in his or her external circumstances?

Sure, Milton wrote, “The mind can make a heaven out of hell or a hell out of heaven,” and Abraham Lincoln said, “Most folks are about as happy as they make up their minds to be,” but how true is that, day-to-day? If a situation is making me unhappy for some reason, can I just change my mind and, all of a sudden, be happier about it?

Well, I think you often can. Not in every situation, of course, but more than you might think.

Beliefs, attitudes, expectations have a big impact on happiness. Sudies show that while people are born with genetic predispositions toward particular temperaments, their cognitive strategies also influence their happiness.

Here’s a good example. My sister always says, “People succeed in groups.” Now, my sister works in a notoriously competitive, jealous, back-biting industry: she’s a TV writer in Los Angeles.

It happened that a few years ago, a friend of hers scored a major success.

“Do you have the funny feeling?” I asked her. The “funny feeling” is the term the Big Man and I use to describe the uncomfortable feeling you get when a friend or peer has a major accomplishment. You feel happy for that person, but also envious, and also insecure and anxious about your own success.

She answered, “Maybe a little bit, but I remind myself that people succeed in groups. It’s great for him, and it’s also good for me.”

By contrast, I have a friend who describes her brother as having a zero-sum attitude toward good fortune: if something good happens to someone else, he feels like something good is less likely to happen to him. As a result, he can’t be happy for anyone else.

Now, you might argue about whether it’s true that people succeed in groups. I happen to think it is true, but it’s debatable. But whether or not it’s objectively true, it’s an attitude that will make a person much happier. After all, your friend doesn’t get the promotion, or not, depending on whether it makes you happy or unhappy, but your attitude about that promotion will affect your happiness.

I remind myself of this. I’m so competitive and ambitious, with an unattractive grudging streak, that I often suffer from the funny feeling. It help to remind myself that the fact that something good happened to someone else doesn’t mean that it’s less likely that something good will happen to me–in fact, it might make it more likely.

Of course, it would be more admirable for me to be happy for other people’s successes, purely for their own sakes, rather than having to remind myself that there’s some possible benefit for me, but this catchphrase helps when I’m feeling small-minded.

This is one quality I really admire about the Big Man. He is truly magnanimous, and takes genuine pleasure in other people’s good fortune. I’ve realized that this virtue is pretty rare.

Speaking of the Big Man, we’re in Miami now for his office “off-site.” I’m completely mesmerized by the view from our hotel room; it’s a lucky thing I don’t have a view at home. I’d never get any work done.

Remember to cut people slack: a reminder about the fundamental attribution error.

Recently I’ve read two memoirs written by people I know. Whenever I do this, I’m reminded of the fact that people’s lives are always far more complicated than they seem from the outside. And I vow, once again, to cut people slack. You jut never know what other people are going through.

The “fundamental attribution error” is a psychological phenomenon in which we tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters, and to overlook the power of the situation to influence their actions: I assume that the guy in the drugstore is a jerk who is trying to cut in line, when in fact, he’s a considerate guy who’s rushing to get home with the medicine for his sick, miserable girlfriend.

With ourselves, however, we acknowledge the pressures of the situation. So when other people’s cell phones ring during a movie, it’s because they’re inconsiderate boors. If my cell phone rings during a movie, it’s because I’m a conscientious mother who needs to be able to get a call from a babysitter.

I’m trying to remember not to judge people, especially on the first or second encounter. Their actions may well not reveal their enduring character, but instead, reflect some situation they find themselves in.

I thought of this the other day. I went to pick up the Big Girl after school, but for some reason, pick-up wasn’t in the usual place. I ran into a friend I hadn’t seen in a while, who has a child in the same grade, and instead of saying a friendly hello, I grabbed her arm and blurted out,”‘Where’s pick-up today?” And after she told me, I rushed off, barely remembering to yell “Thanks!” over my shoulder.

Once I’d found the Big Girl, I realized how rude I’d been. I sent my friend an email (like yesterday, another apology; I’m trying to behave myself better so I apologize less). I explained that the Big Girl PANICS if the person picking her up is even five minutes late. I was afraid that if I didn’t get to her soon, she’d be a wreck.

It’s one of Life’s True Rules, and one of my catchphrases for the month: Cut people slack.

This Wednesday: Tips for getting more reading done.

Bookstack_1Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Tips for getting more reading done.

One of my resolutions is to “read more.”

Reading is essential to my work. It’s an important part to my social life. And far more important, reading is my favorite thing to do, by a long shot. I’m not a well-rounded person.

A friend once told me, “My idea of a good weekend day is when I’m outside with my kids for two hours before lunch and two hours after lunch.” I answered, “My idea of a good weekend day is when we all lie around reading in our pajamas until the mid-afternoon.”

But reading takes time, and there aren’t many days when I can loll around with a book for hours. Here are some tips for getting more reading done.

1. Quit reading. I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started. No more. Life is short.

2. Use TiVO. It’s amazing how much more efficient it is to watch TV shows on TiVO. You skip the commercials and control when you watch.

3. Skim. Especially when reading newspapers and magazines, often I get as much from skimming as I do by a leisurely reading. And I skip almost all stories about crime or celebrities (though I must confess I read every word written about the Brooke Astor scandal).

4. Read books you enjoy. When I’m reading a book I love—for example, I just re-read Muriel Spark’s brilliant The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie—I’m astonished by how much time I find to read during my day. Which is another reason to stop reading a book I dislike.

5. Get calm. I have a sticky note posted in our bedroom that says, “Quiet mind.” It’s sometimes hard for me to settle down with a book; I keep wanting to jump up and take care of some nagging task. But that’s no way to read.

6. Any book is better than no book. Sometimes I feel like I should be reading one book when I actually feel like reading something entirely different. Say, Frances Hodgson Burnett’s T. Tembarom instead of Kahneman, Diener, and Schwartz’s Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology. But now I let myself read what I want, within reason, because otherwise I end up reading much less.

7. Limit time spent watching televised sports. Reclaim some of these hours.

8. Always have something to read. Never go anywhere empty-handed.

9. Maintain a big stack. I find that I read much more when I have a pile waiting for me.

And here are some thoughts on readings from a few great readers from the past:

Randall Jarrell: “Read at whim! Read at whim!”

Henry David Thoreau: “Read the best books first, otherwise you’ll find you do not have time.”

Samuel Johnson: “What we read with inclination makes a much stronger impression. If we read without inclination, half the mind is employed in fixing the attention; so there is but one half to be employed on what we read.”

Aargh, my email was hijacked today by some spammer. I only know because I keep getting “message undeliverable” notices. If you recently got an email from me about a weight-loss drug, I’m sorry!