Friday, August 28, 2009

Adjusting the Happiness Thermostat

My last book, Happy at Last, borrowed from psychology, economics, brain science, and social research to identify how we can be happier. It turns out that each of us has our own set point for happiness, like on a thermostat. Some of us are constitutionally bubbly, others seem to be natural grumps. When good things happen to us, those who are on the grumpy side can feel good for a while, but they usually return to their previous set point. If we want to stay happier, we have to put in focused attention and practice. The good news is that it really works. Both brain research and the social sciences have shown that we can make a permanent adjustment in our happiness quotient by making a few changes in how we think and what we pay attention to.

With that in mind, here are some suggestions that will add both joy and satisfaction to your life:

1. Happiness is a skill. It’s not an innate gift. It requires that we pay close attention to our experience and see objectively what makes us happy. Our minds and our culture tell us a lot of lies about what might make us happy (getting rich, beating out the competition, acquiring a lot of things). We have to get past those assumptions and systematically learn what makes us happy.

2. Practice mindfulness meditation at least four days a week for a half hour. Just sit, clear your head, focus on your breath, and listen to the noise your brain makes while you're trying to disengage from it. Your brain really doesn’t want to give up control. But as you practice this, you will become healthier, calmer, less stressed, more aware of hidden meanings and patterns in your life, and less subject to anxiety running away with you. By some measures, experienced meditators are the happiest people in the world.

3. Practice mindful thinking and observation. Because we’re under so much stress, we feel we have to quickly categorize our experience into simple, black and white categories. This makes us miss out on the rich details of life. If you practice noticing how you judge, slowly you’ll begin to stop. View yourself and the world with compassionate curiosity, the desire to understand and the belief in your own worth. Learn to be noncategorical, detached, willing to let go, willing to think independently, willing to take responsibility. Cultivating mindfulness will make you more aware of opportunities for joy, help you make better decisions so you’ll reduce unnecessary misery and experience greater satisfaction and meaning.

4. Exercise aerobically for a half hour, three to four times a week. There’s an enormous body of research out there to prove a very simple point: the more you exercise, the better you feel.

5. Don’t fall for the belief that you’ll be happy when you get what you want. Inevitably, when you get what you want, you’ll quickly get used to it and start wanting something else. And while you’ve been waiting, you’ve missed out on a lot of opportunities for joy.

6. Work on wanting what you have. Look around you and try to appreciate your possessions and possibilities as if you were Ben Franklin popped into the 21st century. Central heating, air conditioning, indoor plumbing, a stove and refrigerator. A vehicle that will take you 600 miles in a day, in comfort, on paved roads. An orchestra you can carry in your pocket. If Franklin doesn’t do it for you, simply look carefully at your surroundings. Your furniture, books, possessions. There’s beauty and memories there. Savor them.

7. Contemporary living conditions are not what our bodies and minds were designed for. We’re designed to live in small cooperative groups; to work no more than four hours a day; and to spend the rest of the time communing with each other, making music, making art. So don’t assume there’s something wrong with you if you’re not happy. Being happy in today’s world takes effort.

8. Most unhappy people have an Inner Critic in their brains. The Inner Critic is the voice that blames you whenever things go wrong and is never satisfied no matter how well you do. It’s your brain looking for someone to blame for your stress and disappointment, and settling on the most convenient suspect—you. You can’t argue with this Inner Critic, because it doesn’t play by the rules of logic. It’s a result of crossed wires in your nervous system. Imagine that you have a volume control for it. When you hear the voice of your Inner Critic, turn the volume down a little and distract yourself with other things. The more you practice this, the easier it will get to ignore the Inner Critic.

9. Happiness is smaller than you think. Cultivate small pleasures. Learn to cook. Eat well. Cook for friends. Expose yourself to awe and beauty; get out in nature, and pay attention. Watch less television. Play more. Get a dog. Join a laughter club. Get more touching into your life.

10. At bedtime, let yourself go to sleep thinking about three things to be grateful for, things that made you happy, or simply the best memories of the day. As you do this, pay attention to the feelings in your body: the smiling reflex, a warmness in your heart, the flow of tension out of your neck and shoulders. Whenever you feel good, let your body express it. Just doing this exercise every night has been proven to raise your happiness quotient as long as you keep it up.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

In the garden

One of my great joys of middle age has been perennial gardening. In addition to other benefits, it has proven to be a great stress reducer. I freely acknowledge having no conception whatever of garden design. I buy one of any plant I like and stick it in where I have room, with just a little thought to color combinations and space. As a result my garden from afar looks like a crazy quilt.

But I like to look at it from up close, to see the growth of individual plants that interest me, how their leaves and stems spring up from the earth, how they blossom and flourish in the summer heat. There is something about the rebirth of the world in spring, the cycle through summer and even into the fall, when I can see the plants preparing themselves for the winter to come, that I find deeply satisfying and calming. It seems to me to have to do with the cycle of death and rebirth, something about how I experience my own body aging but my children coming into full maturity, that gives me a sense of continuity and some degree of acceptance of my own mortality. And it's more than just a state of mind. I get up early in the morning and go out to see what I see new in the garden. I come home from work and can't wait to go weeding or transplanting. I feel energy throughout my body.

But the Zen-like peace that I find in the garden only lasts through the waning days of fall. By February I'm bored, grouchy, sorry for myself, withdrawn, a bear who can't get to sleep. The intensity of the change certainly feels to me as if it comes from something more than being deprived of my favorite leisure activity. It feels qualitatively different. There are plenty of other things I can do besides gardening, but I don't want to do them; and I have trouble enjoying the other things I normally enjoy. I can usually force myself out of this mood, but it requires a deliberate act of will.

My little meltdown in winter is a microcosm, I think, for the situation far too many of us face today. We're deprived of the opportunity to be in touch with nature, and that is a very real stress, and stress hurts us in ways science is just beginning to understand. Humans were designed to live in harmony with the cycles of the day and night and seasons. We were surrounded with reminders to be humble—that earth and the universe were much bigger than us, that birth and death were all around us, that hunger was always just around the corner. We had a lot of quiet time when we could let our minds shift into a contemplative state—watching the sun rise, waiting for the fish to bite, hauling water, tending the garden.

It turns out that contemplative state is necessary for our mental health. When we have the opportunity to lean on the hoe and just be, we're letting our left brains—the creative, impressionistic, coherent side—take over and giving the right brain time to rest. The right brain is terribly overworked by all the decisions we face every day, the busy schedules we keep, the overstimulation of traffic and television. When we can use the left brain, we can see ourselves in our own mind's eye—consider the self as a whole person, connected with the real world—and get our priorities back on track. Scientists who have been studying the effects of regular meditation have found it has wonderful effects on the mind and body: it helps us with major depression, chronic pain, anxiety and panic; it makes our mood more positive and our immune systems stronger. I think it won't be long before science proves that activities like walking in the sunshine, petting the dog, and planting, watering, weeding and just viewing the garden, have the same kind of healthful benefits. They make us slow down, be patient, pay attention; stop striving so hard all the time and get in harmony with the world.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Getting Organized

There is a simple tool that can be used for organizing our lives so that more time is available for the things we like to do. It also helps us focus on our own goals, and planning how to achieve them. We can classify all tasks and activities on two dimensions, importance and urgency.

1. urgent

but unimportant

2. urgent

and important

3. not urgent

and not important

4. not urgent

but important

When people do this, they generally find that they are spending most of their time in cells 1 and 2, activities that seem urgent but may or may not be important. If we fall behind the pace of contemporary life, we have to spend far too much time in Cell 1, “Urgent but Unimportant”—paying the bills just before they come due, rushing a deposit to the bank to cover them. On a broader scale, if you neglect your child’s emotional needs now, you may have to spend a lot of time later in family therapy or family court.

It’s especially dismaying to recognize how little of our time is spent in cell 4, on activities that may be very important but carry little urgency. Most people realize that, if they were able to address the important but nonurgent items, many of the urgent but unimportant things would take care of themselves. Cell 4 is preventive maintenance: getting the car in for oil changes, having our teeth cleaned, setting up an automatic deduction to pay the mortgage so you don't have to scramble at the end of the month to get the payment in on time, and paying attention to your relationships.