From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.
I’m a huge fan of A.J. Jacobs. After I read The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, I loved it so much that I emailed A.J. a fan letter (we have a mutual friend, or I wouldn’t have had the gumption to write him out of the blue). As a writer, I so much admire that book — not only is it hilariously funny and actually instructive, it has a narrative arc that binds it together. This kind of book is very, very hard to do well. As G.K. Chesterton said, “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”
I’ve loved A.J.’s subsequent books, too — The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible and The Guinea Pig Diaries: My Life as an Experiment. He and I sometimes joke that we should start a union for people doing “year of” books.
And A.J. made me very HAPPY by giving me a blurb for my book: “This book made me happy in the first five pages. And the more I read it, the happier I got. It’s filled with great insights that have changed every part of my life, from love to money, from work to play, from writing to Diet Coke.” Awwwww, thanks A.J.!
We’re interested in many of the same subjects, and write sort of similar books (he is much, much funnier), so I was very eager to see his answers to the happiness interview.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
A.J.: Saying prayers of thanksgiving (even though I’m an agnostic – go figure!) I give thanks at every meal, reminding myself of all the people and things that brought this food to my plate. The farmer who grew the blueberries, the guy who picked the blueberries, the truck driver who drove them to New York, the woman who designed the boxes, the woman at the deli who sold them to me. The list goes on for some time. But gratitude really is like a wonderdrug. It just makes you happier.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
One thing I find helpful is to have a memento mori on my computer desktop. Memento moris are reminders of death, and were popular in the Middle Ages when paintings often included skulls and other symbols. So I have a JPG of a skull on my computer. But I didn’t want it to be gruesome, so it’s a fun, multicolored skull – a design I downloaded from some site. It puts things in perspective. It helps stop the small-stuff-induced sweating. Reminds me to enjoy my life and my family while I’m here.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
This may sound strange, but I find talking quickly gives me a happiness boost. So I speed up my conversations.
When I wrote a book about following the rules of the Bible (The Year of Living Biblically), I learned how much behavior shapes our attitudes. The outer affects the inner. Forcing yourself to smile tricks your mind into thinking you’re happy. Forcing yourself to visit a friend in the hospital makes you more compassionate. So how I talk affects how I feel. If I talk like Droopy Dog, I feel mopey and have low energy. If I talk rapidly, I feel like I’m brimming with optimism. Plus, studies show people perceive you as smarter if you are a fast talker. I’m typing this answer as fast as I can, fyi.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Absolutely. I try to be hyper-aware of what makes me happy. I like to study myself like a lab rat. I’ve noticed, for instance, I feel guilty if I don’t learn some new historical or scientific knowledge every day. It’s crucial to my happiness. So even if I’m running around, I make sure to listen to a history or science podcast on my iPhone. (I like TED Talks and “Stuff You Missed in History Class”) as I take the subway or bus. I listen to them on doublespeed, to make me even happier.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I’m continually surprised at how much my physical state affects my emotions. I used to think the ghost and the machine were separate. But they’re so intertwined. Lack of sleep can really darken your worldview. Even being cold puts me in a worse mood. Did you read that study about how people are more positive when they’re holding a warm cup of coffee? We can’t escape our bodies.
* Last night, I had a great time at a “Happier Hour” hosted by the blogger Ivy League Insecurities, a/k/a/ the author of the forthcoming novel Life After Yes, a/k/a Aidan Donnelley Rowley. How I love the term “Happier Hour”!
* In a book group? If you’d like a copy of the reading-group discussion guide for The Happiness Project, just email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. (Sorry to write in that odd way; trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “reading group guide” in the subject line. I’ll send it right off.