Category: Happiness

Appearances vs Experiences: What Really Makes Us Happy

In the search for happiness, we often confuse how something looks with how it’s likely to make us feel. This is especially true when it comes to our homes. If we want to maximize happiness, we need to prioritize experiences over appearances.

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Most of us try to make decisions intended to bring us greater happiness. The problem is that we misunderstand how our choices really impact our well-being and end up making ones that have the opposite effect. We buy stuff that purports to inspire happiness and end up feeling depressed instead. Knowing some of the typical pitfalls in the search for happiness—especially the ones that seem to go against common sense—can help us improve quality of life.

It’s an old adage that experiences make us happier than physical things. But knowing is not the same as doing. One area this is all too apparent is when it comes to choosing where to live. You might think that how a home looks is vital to how happy you are living in it. Wrong! The experience of a living space is far more important than its appearance.

The influence of appearance

In Happy City: Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design, Charles Montgomery explores some of the ways in which we misunderstand how our built environment and the ways we move through cities influence our happiness.

Towards the end of their first year at Harvard, freshmen find out which dormitory they will be living in for the rest of their time at university. Places are awarded via a lottery system, so individual students have no control over where they end up. Harvard’s dormitories are many and varied in their design, size, amenities, age, location, and overall prestige. Students take allocation seriously, as the building they’re in inevitably has a big influence on their experience at university. Or does it?

Montgomery points to two Harvard dormitories. Lowell House, a stunning red brick building with a rich history, is considered the most prestigious of them all. Students clamor to live in it. Who could ever be gloomy in such a gorgeous building?

Meanwhile, Mather House is a much-loathed concrete tower. It’s no one’s first choice. Most students pray for a room in the former and hope to be spared the latter, because they think their university experience will be as awful-looking as the building. (It’s worth noting that although the buildings vary in appearance, neither is lacking any of the amenities a student needs to live. Nor is Mather House in any way decrepit.)

The psychologist Elizabeth Dunn asked a group of freshmen to predict how each of the available dormitories might affect their experience of Harvard. In follow-up interviews, she compared their lived experience with those initial predictions. Montgomery writes:

The results would surprise many Harvard freshmen. Students sent to what they were sure would be miserable houses ended up much happier than they had anticipated. And students who landed in the most desirable houses were less happy than they expected to be. Life in Lowell House was fine. But so was life in the reviled Mather House. Overall, Harvard’s choice dormitories just didn’t make anyone much happier than its spurned dormitories.

Why did students make this mistake and waste so much energy worrying about dormitory allocation? Dunn found that they “put far too much weight on obvious differences between residences, such as location and architectural features, and far too little on things that were not so glaringly different, such as the sense of community and the quality of relationships they would develop in their dormitory.”

Asked to guess if relationships or architecture are more important, most of us would, of course, say relationships. Our behavior, however, doesn’t always reflect that. Dunn further states:

This is the standard mis-weighing of extrinsic and intrinsic values: we may tell each other that experiences are more important than things, but we constantly make choices as though we didn’t believe it.

When we think that the way a building looks will dictate our experience living in it, we are mistaking the map for the territory. Architectural flourishes soon fade into the background. What matters is the day-to-day experience of living there, when relationships matter much more than how things look. Proximity to friends is a higher predictor of happiness than charming old brick.

The impact of experience

Some things we can get used to. Some we can’t. We make a major mistake when we think it’s worthwhile to put up with negative experiences that are difficult to grow accustomed to in order to have nice things. Once again, this happens when we forget that our day-to-day experience is paramount in our perception of our happiness.

Take the case of suburbs. Montgomery describes how many people in recent decades moved to suburbs outside of American cities. There, they could enjoy luxuries like big gardens, sprawling front lawns, wide streets with plenty of room between houses, spare bedrooms, and so on. City dwellers imagined themselves and their families spreading out in spacious, safe homes. But American cities ended up being shaped by flawed logic, as Montgomery elaborates:

Neoclassical economics, which dominated the second half of the twentieth century, is based on the premise that we are all perfectly well equipped to make choices that maximize utility. . . . But the more psychologists and economists examine the relationship between decision-making and happiness, the more they realize that this is simply not true. We make bad choices all the time. . . . Our flawed choices have helped shape the modern city—and consequently, the shape of our lives.

Living in the suburbs comes at a price: long commutes. Many people spend hours a day behind the wheel, getting to and from work. On top of that, the dispersed nature of suburbs means that everything from the grocery store to the gym requires more extended periods of time driving. It’s easy for an individual to spend almost all of their non-work, non-sleep time in their car.

Commuting is, in just about every sense, terrible for us. The more time people spend driving each day, the less happy they are with their life in general. This unhappiness even extends to the partners of people with long commutes, who also experience a decline in well-being. Commuters see their health suffer due to long periods of inactivity and the stress of being stuck in traffic. It’s hard to find the time and energy for things like exercise or seeing friends if you’re always on the road. Gas and car-related expenses can eat up the savings from living outside of the city. That’s not to mention the environmental toll. Commuting is generally awful for mental health, which Montgomery illustrates:

A person with a one-hour commute has to earn 40 percent more money to be as satisfied with life as someone who walks to the office. On the other hand, for a single person, exchanging a long commute for a short walk to work has the same effect on happiness as finding a new love.

So why do we make this mistake? Drawing on the work of psychologist Daniel Gilbert, Montgomery explains that it’s a matter of us thinking we’ll get used to commuting (an experience) and won’t get used to the nicer living environment (a thing.)

The opposite is true. While a bigger garden and spare bedroom soon cease to be novel, every day’s commute is a little bit different, meaning we can never get quite used to it. There is a direct linear downwards relationship between commute time and life satisfaction, but there’s no linear upwards correlation between house size and life satisfaction. As Montgomery says, “The problem is, we consistently make decisions that suggest we are not so good at distinguishing between ephemeral and lasting pleasures. We keep getting it wrong.”

Happy City teems with insights about the link between the design of where we live and our quality of life. In particular, it explores how cities are often shaped by mistaken ideas about what brings us happiness. We maximize our chances at happiness when we prioritize our experience of life instead of acquiring things to fill it with.

What You Truly Value

Our devotion to our values gets tested in the face of a true crisis. But it’s also an opportunity to reconnect, recommit, and sometimes, bake some bread.

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The recent outbreak of the coronavirus is impacting people all over the world — not just in terms of physical health, but financially, emotionally, and even socially. As we struggle to adapt to our new circumstances, it can be tempting to bury our head and wait for it all to blow over so we can just get back to normal. Or we can see this as an incredible opportunity to figure out who we are.

What many of us are discovering right now is that the things we valued a few months ago don’t actually matter: our cars, the titles on our business cards, our privileged neighborhoods. Rather, what is coming to the forefront is a shift to figuring out what we find intrinsically rewarding

When everything is easy, it can seem like you have life figured out. When things change and you’re called to put it into practice, it’s a different level. It’s one thing to say you are stoic when your coffee spills and another entirely when you’re watching your community collapse. When life changes and gets hard, you realize you’ve never had to put into practice what you thought you knew about coping with disaster.

But when a crisis hits, everything is put to the real test.

The challenge then becomes wrapping our struggles into our values, because what we value only has meaning if it’s important when life is hard. To know if they have worth, your values need to help you move forward when you can barely crawl and the obstacles in your way seem insurmountable.

In the face of a crisis, what is important to us becomes evident when we give ourselves the space to reflect on what is going to get us through the hard times. And so we find renewed commitment to get back to core priorities. What seemed important before falls apart to reveal what really matters: family, love, community, health.

“I was 32 when I started cooking; up until then, I just ate.” 

— Julia Child

One unexpected activity that many people are turning to now that they have time and are more introspective is baking. In fact, this week Google searches for bread recipes hit a noticeable high.


Baking is a very physical experience: kneading dough, tasting batter, smelling the results of the ingredients coming together. It’s an activity that requires patience. Bread has to rise. Pies have to cook. Cakes have to cool before they can be covered with icing. And, as prescriptive as baking seems on its surface, it’s something that facilitates creativity as we improvise our ingredients based on what we have in the cupboard. We discover new flavors, and we comfort ourselves and others with the results. Baked goods are often something we share, and in doing so we are providing for those we care about.

Why might baking be useful in times of stress? In Overcoming Anxiety, Dennis Tirch explains “research has demonstrated that when people engage more fully in behaviors that give them a sense of pleasure and mastery, they can begin to overcome negative emotions.”

At home with their loved ones people can reconsider what they value one muffin at a time. Creating with the people we love instead of consuming on our own allows us to focus on what we value as the world changes around us. With more time, slow, seemingly unproductive pursuits have new appeal because they help us reorient to the qualities in life that matter most.

Giving yourself the space to tune in to your values doesn’t have to come through baking. What’s important is that you find an activity that lets you move past fear and panic, to reconnect with what gives your life meaning. When you engage with an activity that gives you pleasure and releases negative emotions, it allows you to rediscover what is important to you.

Change is stressful. But neither stress nor change have to be scary. If you think about it, you undergo moments of change every day because nothing in life is ever static. Our lives are a constant adaptation to a world that is always in motion.

All change brings opportunity. Some change gives us the opportunity to pause and ask what we can do better. How can we better connect to what has proven to be important? Connection is not an abstract intellectual exercise, but an experience that orients us to the values that provide us direction. If you look for opportunities in line with your values, you will be able to see a path through the fear and uncertainty guided by the light that is hope.

A Journey of Self Discovery

“Beautiful people do not just happen.”

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In her bestseller Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert told her story of self discovery in which she spent a year journeying through Italy, India, and Indonesia. On how people can go on a journey of self discovery she notes:

The last thing I ever wanted to become is the Poster Child for “Everyone Must Leave Their Husband and Move to India In Order to Find God.” … It was my path—that is all it ever was. I drew up my journey as a personal prescription for solving my life. Transformative journeys come in many forms, though, and often happen without people ever leaving home.

As Scott Kaufman and Carolyn Gregoire note in Wired to Create: Unraveling the Mysteries of the Creative Mind, “knowing loss, struggle, suffering, and defeat is crucial to the positive disintegration process and acts as a catalyst for personal growth, creativity, and deep transformation.” He continues:

Rather than something to be avoided or denied, it is the hardships and challenges both internal and external — that make us beautiful.

As Nietzsche said, “One must still have chaos in oneself to be able to give birth to a dancing star.”

Making the best out of difficult experiences, something Marcus Aurelius advised, is the key to turning adversity into advantage.

As Elisabeth Kübler-Ross famously wrote in On Death and Dying: What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families:

The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known suffering, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity and an understanding of life that fills them with compassion, gentleness and deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.

To Sacrifice the Joy of Life is to Miss the Point

Your ability to get things done and be productive is not always a function of hours.

Working more doesn’t always mean you’re working better or harder. It doesn’t mean you’re doing your best. And it certainly doesn’t mean that you’re going to live a more meaningful life. Heck, it doesn’t even mean you’re going to finish your project faster.

In The Four Agreements, Don Miguel Ruiz tells the story of a man who wanted to transcend his suffering. So he goes to a Buddhist temple to find a Master to help. He asks the master “Master, if I meditate four hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate four hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in ten years.”

Thinking he could do better, the man then said, “Oh Master, what if I meditated eight hours a day, how long will it take me to transcend?”

The Master looked at him and said, “If you meditate eight hours a day, perhaps you will transcend in twenty years.”

“But why will it take me longer if I meditate more?” the man asked.

The Master replied, “You are not here to sacrifice your joy or your life. You are here to live, to be happy and to love. If you can do your best in two hours of meditation, but you spend eight hours instead, you will only grow tired, miss the point, and you won’t enjoy your life.”

Working harder often misses the point.

When interviewed, those nearing the end of their lives did not say they wished they’d worked harder. Rather, they encouraged being willing to make sacrifices to spend time doing things that bring enjoyment.

Just to be clear, I’m not in the The 4-Hour Workweek camp. Farnam Street Media is 60+ a week.

However, it’s not a simple ask coming up with work life balance. As David Whyte argues, that is a flawed lens.

Questions about work and its interaction with the joy of living are personal and significant. We often only think about them toward the end of our life, when it’s too late to make changes.

Start asking yourself these questions today. And if you need a break, join me for a thinking/reading week in Hawaii this March.

Emilie Wapnick: Why Some of us Don’t Have One True Calling

What do you want to be when you grow up? Well, if you’re not sure you want to do just one thing for the rest of your life, you’re not alone. In this illuminating talk, writer and artist Emilie Wapnick describes the kind of people she calls “multipotentialites” — who have a range of interests and jobs over one lifetime. Are you one?

See, the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any interests — it’s that I had too many. In high school, I liked English and math and art and I built websites and I played guitar in a punk band called Frustrated Telephone Operator. Maybe you’ve heard of us.

This continued after high school, and at a certain point, I began to notice this pattern in myself where I would become interested in an area and I would dive in, become all-consumed, and I’d get to be pretty good at whatever it was, and then I would hit this point where I’d start to get bored. And usually I would try and persist anyway, because I had already devoted so much time and energy and sometimes money into this field. But eventually this sense of boredom, this feeling of, like, yeah, I got this, this isn’t challenging anymore — it would get to be too much. And I would have to let it go.

But then I would become interested in something else, something totally unrelated, and I would dive into that, and become all-consumed, and I’d be like, “Yes! I found my thing,” and then I would hit this point again where I’d start to get bored. And eventually, I would let it go. But then I would discover something new and totally different, and I would dive into that.

This pattern caused me a lot of anxiety, for two reasons. The first was that I wasn’t sure how I was going to turn any of this into a career. I thought that I would eventually have to pick one thing, deny all of my other passions, and just resign myself to being bored. The other reason it caused me so much anxiety was a little bit more personal. I worried that there was something wrong with this, and something wrong with me for being unable to stick with anything. I worried that I was afraid of commitment, or that I was scattered, or that I was self-sabotaging, afraid of my own success.

If you can relate to my story and to these feelings, I’d like you to ask yourself a question that I wish I had asked myself back then. Ask yourself where you learned to assign the meaning of wrong or abnormal to doing many things. I’ll tell you where you learned it: you learned it from the culture.

The 11 Essential Attitudes for Meditation

This comes courtesy of Mindfulness in Plain English, one of the best books on meditation and mindfulness that I’ve ever come across.

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The very process of observation changes what we observe.

For example, an electron is an extremely tiny item. It cannot be viewed without instrumentation, and that apparatus dictates what the observer will see. If you look at an electron in one particular way, it appears to be a particle, a hard little ball that bounces around in nice straight paths. When you view it another way, an electron appears to be a wave form, glowing and wiggling all over the place, with nothing solid about it at all. An electron is an event more than a thing, and the observer participates in that event by the very act of his or her observation. There is no way to avoid this interaction.

Meditation is no different. What you are looking at responds to you looking at it.

Thus, the process of meditation is extremely delicate, and the result depends absolutely on the state of mind of the meditator.

Here are the essential attitudes to success in the practice of meditation.

1) Don’t expect anything. Just sit back and see what happens. Treat the whole thing as an experiment. Take an active interest in the test itself, but don’t get distracted by your expectations about the results. For that matter, don’t be anxious for any result whatsoever. Let the meditation move along at its own speed and in its own direction. Let the meditation teach you. Meditative awareness seeks to see reality exactly as it is. Whether that corresponds to our expectations or not, it does require a temporary suspension of all of our preconceptions and ideas. We must store our images, opinions, and interpretations out of the way for the duration of the session. Otherwise we will stumble over them.

2) Don’t strain. Don’t force anything or make grand, exaggerated efforts. Meditation is not aggressive. There is no place or need for violent striving. Just let your effort be relaxed and steady.

3) Don’t rush. There is no hurry, so take your time. Settle yourself on a cushion and sit as though you have the whole day. Anything really valuable takes time to develop. Patience, patience, patience.

4) Don’t cling to anything, and don’t reject anything. Let come what comes, and accommodate yourself to that, whatever it is. If good mental images arise, that is fine. If bad mental images arise, that is fine, too. Look on all of it as equal, and make yourself comfortable with whatever happens. Don’t fight with what you experience, just observe it all mindfully.

5) Let go. Learn to flow with all the changes that come up. Loosen up and relax.

6) Accept everything that arises. Accept your feelings, even the ones you wish you did not have. Accept your experiences, even the ones you hate. Don’t condemn yourself for having human flaws and failings. Learn to see all the phenomena in the mind as being perfectly natural and understandable. Try to exercise a disinterested acceptance at all times with respect to everything you experience.

7) Be gentle with yourself. Be kind to yourself. You may not be perfect, but you are all you’ve got to work with. The process of becoming who you will be begins first with the total acceptance of who you are.

8) Investigate yourself. Question everything. Take nothing for granted. Don’t believe anything because it sounds wise and pious and some holy man said it. See for yourself. That does not mean that you should be cynical, impudent, or irreverent. It means you should be empirical. Subject all statements to the actual test of your own experience, and let the results be your guide to truth. Insight meditation evolves out of an inner longing to wake up to what is real and to gain liberating insight into the true structure of existence. The entire practice hinges upon this desire to be awake to the truth. Without it, the practice is superficial.

9) View all problems as challenges. Look upon negativities that arise as opportunities to learn and to grow. Don’t run from them, condemn yourself, or bury your burden in saintly silence. You have a problem? Great. More grist for the mill. Rejoice, dive in, and investigate.

10) Don’t ponder. You don’t need to figure everything out. Discursive thinking won’t free you from the trap. In meditation, the mind is purified naturally by mindfulness, by wordless bare attention. Habitual deliberation is not necessary to eliminate those things that are keeping you in bondage. All that is necessary is a clear, nonconceptual perception of what they are and how they work. That alone is sufficient to dissolve them. Concepts and reasoning just get in the way. Don’t think. See.

11) Don’t dwell upon contrasts. Differences do exist between people, but dwelling upon them is a dangerous process. Unless carefully handled, this leads directly to egotism. Ordinary human thinking is full of greed, jealousy, and pride. A man seeing another man on the street may immediately think, “He is better looking than I am.” The instant result is envy or shame. A girl seeing another girl may think, “I am prettier than she is.” The instant result is pride. This sort of comparison is a mental habit, and it leads directly to ill feeling of one sort or another: greed, envy, pride, jealousy, or hatred. It is an unskillful mental state, but we do it all the time. We compare our looks with others, our success, accomplishments, wealth, possessions, or IQ, and all of this leads to the same state— estrangement, barriers between people, and ill feeling.

The meditator’s job is to cancel this unskillful habit by examining it thoroughly, and then replacing it with another. Rather than noticing the differences between oneself and others, the meditator trains him- or herself to notice the similarities. She centers her attention on those factors that are universal to all life, things that will move her closer to others. Then her comparisons, if any, lead to feelings of kinship rather than of estrangement.

Explore your breath.

All living things exchange gases with their environment in some way or other. This is one of the reasons that breathing has been chosen as a focus of meditation. The meditator is advised to explore the process of his or her own breathing as a vehicle for realizing our inherent connectedness with the rest of life. This does not mean that we shut our eyes to all the differences around us. Differences do exist. It means simply that we de-emphasize contrasts and emphasize the universal factors that we have in common.

The recommended procedure is as follows: When we as meditators perceive any sensory object, we are not to dwell upon it in the ordinary egoistic way. We should rather examine the very process of perception itself. We should watch what that object does to our senses and our perception. We should watch the feelings that arise and the mental activities that follow. We should note the changes that occur in our own consciousness as a result. In watching all these phenomena, we must be aware of the universality of what we are seeing. The initial perception will spark pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral feelings. That is a universal phenomenon, occurring in the minds of others just as it does in our own, and we should see that clearly. By following these feelings various reactions may arise. We may feel greed, lust, or jealousy. We may feel fear, worry, restlessness, or boredom. These reactions are also universal. We should simply note them and then generalize. We should realize that these reactions are normal human responses, and can arise in anybody.

If you’re interested in meditation, I highly recommend you pick up a copy of Mindfulness in Plain English.