Category: Happiness

The Keys to Happiness

“The mental construction of our daily activities, more than the activity itself, defines our reality.”

What if the formula for success is backwards. We’re told that if we work hard, we’ll be successful. And of course, if we’re successful then we’ll be happy. It’s all about the next thing. The next step will make us happy. But it doesn’t really work this way. If we’re always focused on what’s next, we’re never in the present. The present, of course, is where we live.

In his eye-opening book, The Happiness Advantage, Shawn Achor, who spent over a decade living, researching, and lecturing at Harvard University, shows that the formula is backward: Happiness isn’t the result of success but rather it fuels it. “When we are positive, our brains become more engaged, creative, motivated, energetic, resilient, and productive at work.”

Here are some of Achor’s tips for becoming happier.

The first tip, echoing Dan Harris, is to meditate.

Take just five minutes each day to watch your breath go in and out. While you do so, try to remain patient. If you find your mind drifting, just slowly bring it back to focus. Meditation takes practice, but it’s one of the most powerful happiness interventions. Studies show that in the minutes right after meditating, we experience feelings of calm and contentment, as well as heightened awareness and empathy. And, research even shows that regular meditation can permanently rewire the brain to raise levels of happiness, lower stress, even improve immune function.

Do something nice for someone.

A long line of empirical research, including one study of over 2,000 people, has shown that acts of altruism—giving to friends and strangers alike—decrease stress and strongly contribute to enhanced mental health.

You really need to invest in your social relationships.

“Countless studies have found that social relationships are the best guarantee of heightened well-being and lowered stress, both an antidote for depression and a prescription for high performance.”

And you need to get outside. Not only is solitude an important part of the creative process, it improves memory and thinking.

Making time to go outside on a nice day also delivers a huge advantage; one study found that spending 20 minutes outside in good weather not only boosted positive mood, but broadened thinking and improved working memory … studies have shown that the less negative TV we watch, specifically violent media, the happier we are.

Cutting the cord also helps you read more.

It’s about people and relationships.

Turns out, there was one—and only one—characteristic that distinguished the happiest 10 percent from everybody else: the strength of their social relationships. My empirical study of well-being among 1,600 Harvard undergraduates found a similar result—social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender, or race. In fact, the correlation between social support and happiness was 0.7. This may not sound like a big number, but for researchers it’s huge—most psychology findings are considered significant when they hit 0.3. The point is, the more social support you have, the happier you are.

If you’re going to spend money, make sure it’s on experiences and not stuff. Unless it’s a Vitamix, because that’s just awesome.

[W]hen researchers interviewed more than 150 people about their recent purchases, they found that money spent on activities—such as concerts and group dinners out—brought far more pleasure than material purchases like shoes, televisions, or expensive watches.

Spend it on your friends and family or random strangers. “Spending money on other people, called ‘prosocial spending,’ also boosts happiness.”

How to be 10% Happier

Think you had a bad day?

Dan Harris had a panic attack on live TV in front of millions of people.

Something had to change. He knew it. Almost immediately after the panic attack on the air he was assigned to cover religion, which introduced him to meditation, which made him, as he puts it, 10% happier.

He wrote about his on-air panic attack in great detail in his fascinating book 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story.

Harris argues that meditation has a PR problem.

… largely because its most prominent proponents talk as if they have a perpetual pan flute accompaniment. If you can get past the cultural baggage, though, what you’ll find is that meditation is simply exercise for your brain. It’s a proven technique for preventing the voice in your head from leading you around by the nose. To be clear, it’s not a miracle cure. It won’t make you taller or better-looking, nor will it magically solve all of your problems. You should disregard the fancy books and the famous gurus promising immediate enlightenment. In my experience, meditation makes you 10% happier. That’s an absurdly unscientific estimate, of course. But still, not a bad return on investment.

Originally Dan wanted to call his book The Voice in My Head Is an Asshole. We all have that voice.

To be clear, I’m not talking about “hearing voices,” I’m talking about the internal narrator, the most intimate part of our lives. The voice comes braying in as soon as we open our eyes in the morning, and then heckles us all day long with an air horn. It’s a fever swamp of urges, desires, and judgments. It’s fixated on the past and the future, to the detriment of the here and now. It’s what has us reaching into the fridge when we’re not hungry, losing our temper when we know it’s not really in our best interest, and pruning our inboxes when we’re ostensibly engaged in conversation with other human beings. Our inner chatter isn’t all bad, of course. Sometimes it’s creative, generous, or funny. But if we don’t pay close attention —which very few of us are taught how to do— it can be a malevolent puppeteer.

The voice in your head is what takes you out of the present.

Consider Dan on day 9 of a 10-day meditation retreat. In the morning question-and-answer session, the instructor insists that the participants not tune out during the closing hours of the retreat.

As he presses his case, he says something that bugs me. He urges us not to spend too much time thinking about the stuff we have to do when the retreat is over. It’s a waste of time, he says; they’re just thoughts.

This provokes me to raise my hand for the first time. From the back of the echoey hall, in full-on reporter mode, with my overloud voice apparently not atrophied one bit from disuse, I ask, “How can you advise us not to worry about the things we have to do when we reenter the world? If I miss my plane, that’s a genuine problem. These are not just irrelevant thoughts.”

Fair enough, he concedes. “But when you find yourself running through your trip to the airport for the seventeenth time, perhaps ask yourself the following question: ‘Is this useful’?”

His answer is so smart I involuntarily jolt back in my chair and smile.

“Is this useful?” It’s a simple, elegant corrective to my “price of security” motto. It’s okay to worry, plot, and plan, he’s saying— but only until it’s not useful anymore. I’ve spent the better part of my life trying to balance my penchant for maniacal overthinking with the desire for peace of mind.

At some point, you just have to move on. Mediation helped him draw the line.

How do you stop thinking? How do you stop the voice in your head? Dan asked Eckhart Tolle, who simply replied that “You create little spaces in your daily life where you are aware but not thinking,” he said. “For example, you take one conscious breath.”

As for how to meditate, Dan’s instructions are simple. Simple but not easy.

1. Sit comfortably. You don’t have to be cross-legged. Plop yourself in a chair, on a cushion, on the floor —wherever. Just make sure your spine is reasonably straight.

2. Feel the sensations of your breath as it goes in and out. Pick a spot: nostrils, chest, or gut. Focus your attention there and really try to feel the breath. If it helps to direct your attention, you can use a soft mental note, like “in” and “out.”

3. This one, according to all of the books I’d read, was the biggie. Whenever your attention wanders, just forgive yourself and gently come back to the breath. You don’t need to clear the mind of all thinking; that’s pretty much impossible. (True, when you are focused on the feeling of the breath, the chatter will momentarily cease, but this won’t last too long.) The whole game is to catch your mind wandering and then come back to the breath, over and over again.

After a while of daily forced practice, Dan started to notice big changes.

Pretty quickly, my efforts began to bear fruit “off the cushion,” to use a Buddhist term of art. I started to be able to use the breath to jolt myself back to the present moment— in airport security lines, waiting for elevators, you name it. I found it to be a surprisingly satisfying exercise. Life became a little bit like walking into a familiar room where all the furniture had been rearranged. And I was much better at forgiving myself out in the real world than while actually meditating. …

Meditation was radically altering my relationship to boredom, something I’d spent my whole life scrambling to avoid. The only advice I ever got from my college adviser, a novelist of minor renown named James Boylan (who later had a sex change operation, changed his name to Jenny, wrote a bestselling book, and appeared on Oprah) was to never go anywhere without something to read. I diligently heeded that guidance, taking elaborate precautions to make sure every spare moment was filled with distraction. I scanned my BlackBerry at stoplights, brought reams of work research to read in the doctor’s waiting room, and watched videos on my iPhone while riding in taxicabs.

He started to see more of life.

The net effect of meditation, plus trying to stay present during my daily life, was striking. It was like anchoring myself to an underground aquifer of calm. It became a way to steel myself as I moved through the world.

This was great but it wasn’t the point. The point was mindfulness — the key to thinking like Sherlock Holmes. Mindfulness, as Harris discovered, is Buddhism’s secret sauce.

In a nutshell, mindfulness is the ability to recognize what is happening in your mind right now— anger, jealousy, sadness, the pain of a stubbed toe, whatever—without getting carried away by it. According to the Buddha, we have three habitual responses to everything we experience. We want it, reject it, or we zone out.

[…]

On the cushion, the best opportunities to learn mindfulness are when you experience itches or pain. Instead of scratching or shifting position, you’re supposed to just sit there and impartially witness the discomfort. The instruction is simply to employ what the teachers call “noting,” applying a soft mental label: itching, itching or throbbing, throbbing.

[…]

The idea is that, once you’ve mastered things like itches, eventually you’ll be able to apply mindfulness to thoughts and emotions. This nonjudgmental noting—Oh, that’s a blast of self-pity . . . Oh, that’s me ruminating about work—is supposed to sap much of the power, the emotional charge, out of the contents of consciousness.

[…]

Once I started thinking about how this whole system of seemingly spontaneous psychological combustion worked, I realized how blindly impelled—impaled, even— I was by my ego. I spent so much time, as one Buddhist writer put it, “drifting unaware on a surge of habitual impulses.” This is what led me on the misadventures of war, drugs, and panic. It’s what propelled me to eat when I wasn’t hungry or get snippy with (my wife) because I was stewing about something that happened in the office. Mindfulness represented an alternative to living reactively.

[…]

By way of example: you can be mindful of hunger pangs, but you think about where to get your next meal and whether it will involve pork products. You can be mindful of the pressure in your bladder telling you it’s time to pee, but you think about whether the frequency of your urination means you’re getting old and need a prostate exam. There’s a difference between the raw sensations we experience and the mental spinning we do in reaction to said stimuli.

The Buddhists had a helpful analogy here. Picture the mind like a waterfall, they said: the water is the torrent of thoughts and emotions; mindfulness is the space behind the waterfall. Again, elegant theory— but, easier said than done.

The book is a great read that just may make you happier. Complement with this short video of Dan on the science of meditation.

What Is Meditation?

I’ve been putting this off for years. Now is a perfect time.

Meditation offers a path toward increased happiness, creativity and mindfulness. Steve Jobs was a lifelong practitioner, reading deeply on the subject and taking meditation retreats. Each year he’d re-read his copy of Autobiography of a Yogi.

I’ve always put off exploring meditation until later. I convinced myself I was too busy. That I’d explore it when things were less hectic. But I was wrong for two reasons. First, logically, if meditation is beneficial enough to practice at some point, it is probably valuable enough to practice now. That is if I think it will add value to my life, choosing to start becomes a matter of opportunity costs. What would I do with the time I’m spending meditating versus the benefits of meditation. The only way to really evaluate that is to do it and see the results. Second, and somewhat less logically, is that I’ve met some amazing – and incredibly busy people – in the past year and one thing that seems to keep coming up is meditation. None of these people “makes time for meditation.” Rather they all see meditation as an enabler of everything else they do.

As I reflect on my life, my priorities, my friendships, and my place in the world, there is no better time than now to start exploring meditation.

Dan Harris has the best practical advice on how to meditate but I wanted to explore it a bit more. In Buddhism for Beginners, Thubten Chodron does a good job looking at meditation.

Let’s start with what meditation is not.

Nowadays meditation is sometimes confused with other activities. Meditation is not simply relaxing the body and mind. Nor is it imagining being a successful person with wonderful possessions, good relationships, appreciation from others, and fame. This is merely daydreaming about objects of attachment. Meditation is not sitting in the full vajra position, with an arrow-straight back and a holy expression on our face.

[…]

Meditation is a mental activity. Even if the body is in perfect position, if our mind is running wild thinking about objects of attachment or anger, we’re not meditating. Meditation is also not a concentrated state, such as we may have when painting, reading, or doing any activity that interests us. Nor is it simply being aware of what we are doing at any particular moment.

Why do we meditate? What are the benefits?

The Tibetan word for meditation is gom. This has the same verbal root as “to habituate” or “to familiarize.” Meditation means habituating ourselves to constructive, realistic, and beneficial emotions and attitudes. It builds up good habits of the mind. Meditation is used to transform our thoughts and views so that they are more compassionate and correspond to reality.

[…]

By building up good habits of the mind in meditation, our behavior in daily life gradually changes. Our anger decreases, we are better able to make decisions, and we become less dissatisfied and restless.

What is meditation? How do we learn to meditate?

Some people think they can invent their own way to meditate and don’t need to learn from a skilled teacher. This is very unwise. If we wish to meditate, we must first receive instruction from a qualified teacher.

[…]

First, we listen to teachings and deepen our understanding by thinking about them. Then, through meditation we integrate what we have learned with our mind. For example, we hear teachings on how to develop impartial love for all beings. Next, we check up and investigate whether that is possible. We come to understand each step in the practice. Then, we build up this good habit of the mind by integrating it with our being and training ourselves in the various steps leading to the experience of impartial love. That is meditation.

Meditation is of two general types: stabilizing and analytical. The former is designed to develop concentration and the latter to develop understanding and insight. Within these two broad categories, the Buddha taught a wide variety of meditation techniques and the lineages of these are extant today. An example of stabilizing mediation is focusing our mind on our breath and observing all the sensations that occur as we breathe. This calms our mind and frees it from its usual chatter, enabling us to be more peaceful in our daily life and not to worry so much. The visualized image of the Buddha may also be used as the object upon which we stabilize our mind and develop concentration. While some non-Buddhist traditions suggest looking at a flower or candle to develop concentration, this is generally not recommended by Buddhist traditions because meditation is an activity of our mental consciousness, not our sense consciousness.

Other meditations help us to control anger, attachment, and jealously by developing positive and realistic attitudes towards other people. These are instances of analytical or “checking” meditation. Other examples are reflecting on our precious human life, impermanence, and the emptiness of inherent existence. Here we practice thinking in constructive ways in order to gain proper understanding and eventually go beyond conceptual thought.

Buddhism for Beginners is a great place to start and offers “a manual for living a more peaceful, mindful, and satisfying Life.”

How To Be Happy

If I were to ask you if you wanted to be happy, 100% of you would say yes. But how many us live our lives in a way that makes us happy?

“The days are long, but the years are short. Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” — Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project.

At the Berkshire Hathaway shareholders meeting in Omaha this past weekend, a 30-year old asked what advice the 82-year-old Warren Buffett and his 89-year-old business partner, Charlie Munger, would give if they could communicate with their 30-year-old selves.

Their response might surprise you.

First let’s recap a little be about what we think we know about happiness.

Happiness refers to two different phenomena:

The problem begins with language. We use the word happiness, Kahneman says, to refer to two very different and often mutually contradictory phenomena: the mood of the moment and our overall life-satisfaction. The former is an evanescent and notoriously unreliable gauge of the latter. Example: the joy of buying a new car vs. the subsequent, ongoing annoyance of paying the monthly bills.

A lot of people think happiness is about money. But according to Daniel Kahneman:

millions of dollars won’t buy you happiness, but a job that pays $60,000 a year might help. Happiness levels increase up to the $60K mark.

Other people think that if you live a long time you’ll be happy. But Alan Watts offers this tidbit of wisdom:

What would you do if money were no object? You do that, and forget the money. Because if you say that getting the money is the most important part then you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living, that is to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way.

To some extent experts feel that happiness involves being busy, but not rushed.

We know that moving to California won’t make you happy. Kahneman explains:

Kahneman’s decades of cognitive research, much of it done in collaboration with longtime colleague Amos Tversky, has shown that humans are subject to what he calls a “focusing illusion.” We focus on the moment, overestimating the importance of certain factors in determining our future happiness and ignoring the factors that really matter.

For this reason, people commonly assume that moving to a warmer climate will make them significantly happier.

Steve Jobs, never one to follow the path, says often what we get told should make us happy results in a very limited life.

When you grow up, you tend to get told that the world is the way it is and your life is just to live your life inside the world, try not to bash into the walls too much, try to have a nice family life, have fun, save a little money.

That’s a very limited life. Life can be much broader, once you discover one simple fact, and that is that everything around you that you call life was made up by people that were no smarter than you. And you can change it, you can influence it, you can build your own things that other people can use. Once you learn that, you’ll never be the same again.

Maybe we’d have more luck if instead of trying to be happy we inverted the problem and avoided the things that make us unhappy.

That brings us back to Buffett and Munger. What they say about life is equally important as what they say about investing.

MUNGER: We’re basically so old-fashioned that we’re boringly trite. We think you ought to keep plugging along, and stay rational, and stay energetic. Just all the old virtues still work.

BUFFETT: But find what turns you on.

MUNGER: Yeah, you have to work where you’re turned on. I don’t know about Warren, but I’ve never succeeded to any great extent in something I didn’t like doing.

Oliver Burkeman: The Power of Negative Thinking

“Think Positive.”

That’s what magazines and friends advise us to do in order to cope with the stress of the holiday season.

That’s the same advice that Norman Vincent Peale, author of The Power of Positive Thinking, was dispensing six decades ago. It turns out that thinking positive might not be the best way to cope with our stress.

In The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman argues that we should explore an alternative to the “think positive” mantra: a counterintuitive approach that might be termed “the negative path to happiness.” The heart of this approach is to embrace uncertainty.

Burkeman writes in the WSJ:

This approach helps to explain some puzzles, such as the fact that citizens of more economically insecure countries often report greater happiness than citizens of wealthier ones. Or that many successful businesspeople reject the idea of setting firm goals.

Albert Ellis, who died in 2007, rediscovered a key insight of the Stoic philosophers: sometimes the best way to address the future is to focus on the worst-case scenario, not on the best.

Seneca the Stoic was a radical on this matter. If you feared losing your wealth, he once advised, “set aside a certain number of days, during which you shall be content with the scantiest and cheapest fare, with coarse and rough dress, saying to yourself the while: ‘Is this the condition that I feared?’ ”

To overcome a fear of embarrassment, Ellis told me, he advised his clients to travel on the New York subway, speaking the names of stations out loud as they passed. I’m an easily embarrassed person, so in the interest of journalistic research, I took his advice, on the Central Line of the London Underground. It was agonizing. But my overblown fears were cut down to size: I wasn’t verbally harangued or physically attacked. A few people looked at me strangely.

Just thinking in sober detail about worst-case scenarios—a technique the Stoics called “the premeditation of evils”—can help to sap the future of its anxiety-producing power. The psychologist Julie Norem estimates that about one-third of Americans instinctively use this strategy, which she terms “defensive pessimism.” Positive thinking, by contrast, is the effort to convince yourself that things will turn out fine, which can reinforce the belief that it would be absolutely terrible if they didn’t.

The Antidote is a series of journeys among people who share a single, surprising way of thinking about life. What they have in common is a hunch about human psychology: that it’s our constant effort to eliminate the negative that causes us to feel so anxious, insecure, and unhappy.