2015 in review

In keeping with last year’s tradition, albeit a bit belated, here’s what I’ve been up to in the past 12 months:

Greater Good Science Center

Last year, I was writing my first article for the Greater Good Science Center as part of a year-end scientific roundup. This year, I coordinated the production and publication of this roundup as GGSC’s new editor and web producer. (I might have traveled halfway across the globe in 2015, but this journey was definitely my greatest of the year.)

Now, I work full-time with an amazingly warm and thoughtful group of coworkers, who somehow agreed to let me work from Toronto and take quarterly trips to Berkeley. Every day, I get to think up articles, write and edit them, and continue my education in the science of happiness. I consider it a dream job.

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The Year of Happy

Before I started the new job, by far my biggest undertaking this year was to produce and run The Year of Happy, a free online happiness course, on my website The Positive Psychlopedia.

Nearly 1,500 students signed up to receive weekly content – in the end, a full book’s worth that I produced by consuming about 35 psychology books and days’ worth of YouTube videos. It was a massive project that gave a sense of growth and meaning to 2015 for me; I can only hope that I’ll learn so much every year.

Travel

2015 started right in the middle of a big nine-month trip, where we literally circumnavigated the globe (with stops in Europe and Asia). During the 2015 portion, we visited or lived in seven countries: Thailand (2 months in Chiang Mai), Indonesia (3 months in Bali), Hong Kong, the US, Spain (1 month in Madrid), Portugal (1 month in Lisbon), and Canada (4 months in Toronto).

Our travel highlights included:

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Attending the Flower Festival in Chiang Mai

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Chatting with a Thai monk

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Driving up to Mount Batur in Bali

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Seeing the sunset over Tanah Lot Temple in Bali

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Finally going to Ocean Park in Hong Kong

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Eating porras (better than churros!) in Madrid

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Hiking up to São Jorge Castle in Lisbon

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Vising Belem in Portugal

Canada doesn’t quite count as a foreign country for me now, though, because…I’m officially a permanent resident! After about 10 months of waiting and an emergency trip to the Australian embassy in Bali, I can now settle in Canada as long as I like. Nice, eh?

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Fitness

While we were in Bali, we heard about a diet coach who was offering a discounted eight-week fitness coaching program to people who were willing to give feedback and testimonials for his new platform. Fred and I signed up together, a little trepidatious but eager when the amazing Neil suggested we might see enough improvement for before-and-after photos.

So that’s how I found myself performing bench presses, drinking protein shakes, and swearing off carbs (except on Sundays) in Bali. Even though I’ve long been a healthy eater and regular exerciser, the difference was soon noticeable – and I’m still weightlifting now.

Neil also turned us on to the merits of vegetable juicing, and we’ve been drinking a mostly-vegetable concoction almost every day since July.

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Learning

Perhaps because I studied the growth mindset this year, I was bold and brave enough to pick up a bunch of new hobbies and be terrible at them in the beginning. They included:

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Knitting, taught to me by a young Balinese mom

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Motorbiking, with Fred patiently (and perhaps foolishly) serving as my passenger and driving coach

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Surfing, where I had a proud first day out the water and barely got up on my second

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Ballet, including a couple classes in Berkeley and a seven-week beginner class in Toronto

Kitties

It may seem strange to have a whole section on cats, but I think I truly embraced my love of kitties in 2015. When I initially had the idea to volunteer at a cat shelter in Bali, it didn’t seem like “me.” Luckily, a few kitten cuddles and lots of purring changed my mind. Fred and I both ended up going to Villa Kitty in Bali twice a week, and we have lots of warm and fuzzy memories because of that:

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My dad had toyed with the idea of getting a cat this year, but never followed through – so when I arrived home two days before Christmas, I headed straight to the shelter with my brother and picked out a cat for him. Seven-month-old Sinclair may have spent his first afternoon in our closet, but after two days he transformed into the purriest, cuddliest cat I’ve ever met:

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New Year’s resolution

This year, perhaps because I’m happier, perhaps because I’ve fallen under GGSC’s influence, my resolution is all about love. Yes, it sounds cliche, but I want to be better at loving myself, loving Fred, and loving my friends (the old ones and the yet-to-be-made) in 2016. I’ve turned inward for so long, and now it’s time to turn outward.

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Happy New Year,
Kira

 

38 days in Italy

Prego.

I had heard that Italians were nice, but I didn’t know how nice until I lived for a month in Rome. I remember the lady at the market who weighed my carrots, imitating the way I said “okay” in English. The baker who gave me a free loaf of bread rather than make change for my clumsy bills. Our Airbnb host who insisted he come over before our departure, wishing us well.

Fred had to get used to the idle chit-chat of cashiers, chattering away with customers instead of being bastions of ruthless grocery efficiency. But I liked it from the very beginning – I, who can’t stand to waste a moment’s time, because these people seemed happy.

I learned a little Italian during the trip, and other times just tried to speak French with an Italian accent, adding o’s and a’s on the ends of words. But the most Italian of all Italian words that I learned was “prego” – please – because Italians say it all the time.

Letting you pass them on the sidewalk? “Prego,” and a wave of the arm. Offering you a seat on the bus? “Prego,” and a little smile. The expectant waiter arriving at your table to take an order: “Prego.” The word on their lips every time you say thank you, without fail: “Prego.”

Why does this word mean so much? Why has it been glorified into a tomato sauce brand? In my philosopher’s mind, it’s more than a “please.” It’s a “don’t trouble yourself, dear; we’re happy here and your taking this chair or passing us by won’t disturb us.” It’s a “you are welcome in this country, even if your Italian sounds like bad French.” It’s a “Don’t be so bashful or hesitant, we’re all family here.”

Italy charmed me with its beauty, its history so rich that everywhere you look is something you’ve seen in the movies. It charmed me with its food, carby and rich and exquisite. But most of all, it charmed me with its happy people, happier than anywhere I’ve ever been.

Here’s a little taste:

Peppers at a street stall in Venice

Peppers at a street stall in Venice

Pizza in its hometown, Naples

Pizza in its hometown, Naples

One of many delicious cappuccinos

One of many delicious cappuccinos

Pesto and meatballs at our favorite restaurant

Pesto and meatballs at our favorite restaurant

A ride in a Venetian gondola

A ride in a Venetian gondola

Mt. Vesuvius from the ruins of Pompeii

Mount Vesuvius from the ruins of Pompeii

"The School of Athens" in the Vatican

“The School of Athens” in the Vatican

The leaning tower, leaning less in a panoramic shot

The Leaning Tower of Pisa, leaning less in a panoramic shot

Promises of love in Florence

Promises of love in Florence

2014 in review

I’ve never done a year in review before – not because I’m not reflective (which I am, overly) but because I’m not one to pat myself on the back for all my accomplishments. But so much has happened this year in my work, my personal life, and my plans for the future that I don’t want to forget how far I’ve come:

Tech Cocktail

Startup MixologyIn my primary job, I wrote over 270 articles about startups and tech and started developing beats around the psychology and harsh reality of entrepreneurship, happiness at work, work-life balance, digital nomadism, and women in tech. Close to my heart, I finished helping our CEO Frank Gruber write and launch the book Startup Mixology: Tech Cocktail’s Guide to Building, Growing, and Celebrating Startup Success.

I didn’t make it to our big annual event, Tech Cocktail Celebrate, but I do have awesome coworkers who Photoshop me into pictures – thank you Ronald, Camila, and Will!

2014 year in review TC team

The Positive Psychlopedia

positive psychlopediaAfter struggling to find information on the basics of positive psychology and cobbling together my own autodidactical curriculum, I started The Positive Psychlopedia as a guide to the science of happiness with lists of experts, books, and terms.

I also created The Year of Happy, a free online happiness course for 2015. It’s designed to be simple, fun, and low-commitment – two hours a week or less of readings, videos, and discussions around themes like gratitude, optimism, meaning, and goals. I’m delighted to have hundreds of students signed up to participate.

CaféHappy

Sitting in a cafe in Toronto, I was struck with an idea for how to combine some of my favorite things – cafes and discussing happiness. I started the CaféHappy meetup in April and, thanks to Meetup’s amazing automated promotion, we now have over 130 members. We’ve held nine events and are still going strong even though I’m not in Toronto – thank you Rob!

CafeHappy 1

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Greater Good Science Center

In the fall, I took UC Berkeley’s edX course “The Science of Happiness,” created by their Greater Good Science Center. A self-paced version of the course relaunched and I’m now a course assistant for it until the end of May, moderating discussions and coordinating all the volunteer TAs. I wrote my first article for GGSC in December called “Variety Is the Spice of Emotional Life.”

Travel

I visited or lived in 10 foreign countries this year: Hong Kong, Thailand, Indonesia, Singapore (does a night at the airport count?), Canada, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, and Greece. The majority of that time was spent in Bali (6 weeks), Toronto (6 months), Berlin (1 month), and Rome (1 month).

Highlights included:

Bali rice field

Lots of views like this in Bali

Discovering Toronto

A cruise around Toronto

Seeing the Berlin wall

Seeing the Berlin wall

Colorful buildings in Prague

Colorful buildings in Prague

A gondola ride in Venice

A gondola ride in Venice

Seeing the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Visiting the Leaning Tower of Pisa

Seeing the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and (here) Raphael's "School of Athens"

Seeing the Colosseum, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, and (here) Raphael’s “School of Athens” in Rome

A long hike on the coasts of Santorini

A long hike on the coasts of Santorini

Climbing up to the Acropolis in Athens

Climbing up to the Acropolis in Athens

We loved Toronto so much that I applied for Canadian residency in September, and I’m patiently waiting for the results. If I’m accepted, I may finally settle down somewhere this summer!

Social

Fred and I managed not to kill each other on countless plane rides and in apartments of varying small sizes. We celebrated our 7th anniversary this December:

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I made some new friends in Toronto that I can’t wait to reunite with:

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I also connected with some old friends around the globe:

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New Year’s resolution

My 2014 New Year’s resolution, “Pursue truth and beauty,” has a lot in common with my 2015 resolution, “Practice acceptance.” Even 12 months later, I still struggle with many of the same things – uncertainty, worry, control. I did think about many of these themes last year, and gratitude journaling did help me become more aware of the beauty around me. But I didn’t have a concrete plan to put my New Year’s resolution into practice. Although my 2015 resolution is still a bit intangible, I think I’m better prepared this time.

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I also broke my arm, discovered the most awesome fitness class ever, went to lots of cafes, read more than one book a month, made friends with countless cats, tracked my mood every hour for a month, ate lots of yummy food, and got happier. I’m excited for 2015!

Naples pizza

cat parthenon

Venice

My 2015 New Year’s resolution: Practice acceptance

santorini

One of my most pivotal moments of 2014 was on June 2010, just before 1 pm. I was sprawled in the middle of the street in Toronto, scraped up, bike by my side, arm broken.

I did some life experiments in 2014 – in optimism and vulnerability – but this was an uninvited experiment in acceptance. Could I take my broken arm for granted and go from there? Or would I repeatedly replay the scene and curse the streetcar tracks that brought my bike to the ground?

Well, let’s just say my 2015 New Year’s resolution is “practice acceptance” for a reason.

The more I thought about acceptance during my month of invalidity, the more it seemed key to happiness. The more I think about it now, the more connections I see between non-acceptance and many of my challenges in life.

Accept the self – increase confidence 

I am who I am.
I am what I am.
I am where I am.
I did what I did.
I can do what I can do.
I like what I like.
I feel what I feel.

One of the bits of self-insight I gained in 2014 was how much of a workaholic I am. Every minute must be productive; trips to the grocery store feel like a waste of time; sleeping to heal your broken arm is overrated (boy, was I wrong about that).

At the very root of it, if I dig down all the way and sift through things, I believe I feel this way because of a lack of self-confidence. Who I am today isn’t enough. I haven’t achieved what I see as my potential. I have to always be moving toward the person I want to be. In essence, I’m not accepting who I am today.

Accept circumstances – reduce worry and grumpiness

It is what it is.
It was what it was.
It will be what it will be.
It takes as long as it takes.

It certainly does take as long as it takes – almost 7 months later, my once-broken arm still needs stretching to recover full mobility. I’m okay with that, but the hassles of life still grate on my mood more than they should. Too-hot weather, long lines, slow Internet, and unfulfilled expectations bring me down. And worrying about the future – my career, my health, and whether my favorite Survivor contestant will win – is just another form of non-acceptance. Que sera sera.

Accept others – improve relationships

He is who he is.
She is who she is.
They are who they are.

I’ve always been someone with a strong sense of morality and justice, which is another way of saying I have lots of ideas about how things should be done. When people do things “wrong,” I itch to tell them (or someone else). But I want to learn to be more understanding and empathic, particularly for the people I care about. I want to love them as they are, because they are wonderful.


As I’ve said before, I don’t think this advice is for everyone. Some people need a bit more righteous indignation and dissatisfaction to get things going; for them, their acceptance may have reached the level of passivity. But not for me. My pendulum has swung in the other direction, and what I need is a hefty dose of acceptance to balance out my tendencies to resist, regret, and judge.

In some meditations, you learn to label your thoughts as “thinking” or “feeling,” which is supposed to create some distance from them. If you can be a third-party observer to what’s going on in your head, you don’t get so caught up in it. I’m hoping the same thing works for acceptance. My resolution is to be aware of the times when I’m not accepting, and soothe myself with the balm of the trivially-true-but-so-profound statements above. Is this awareness and reframing enough to make a difference to the way I feel? I’m not sure yet, but it will be a great experiment. 

30 days in Berlin

Berlin wall kissing

One of Europe’s coolest cities. Big. English-friendly. Historical.

These were my impressions of Berlin before I arrived. And they all turned out to be true. Berlin is cool, hipster and alternative and multicultural.

Berlin wall

It’s definitely huge, with a winding metro map more confusing than Paris’s:

Berlin metro

And it’s English-friendly (sort of). Everyone says they speak “a little English” and actually speaks a lot, but not necessarily with a smile.

But the vibe of Berlin is not what I expected. I thought all that would add up to something trendy and modern, but I felt stuck in the past there.

Many buildings are plain and square, reconstructed quickly after bombings during WWII. Grand, wide boulevards sport names like Karl-Marx Allee. Vendors in the streets sell communist hats and gas masks.Berlin border crossing American sector

Berlin Strausberger PlatzMaybe it was because I spent so much time in East Berlin. But it wasn’t until my last few nights that I started to glimpse Berlin’s lively, modern side. It was the Festival of Lights, and historic buildings – from the Brandenburg Gate to the Berlin Cathedral Church – were transformed into art canvases with projections of light. It was the new juxtaposed with the old, and tourists and locals alike poured onto the streets to see it. Vendors sold beer and pretzels, and the city felt more alive.

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Berlin festival of lights

Here are some more things to expect when you make the trip to Berlin:

In addition to beer and pretzels, you’ll find many vendors selling hot dogs and currywurst throughout the city.

grillrunner berlin

currywurst berlin

Restaurants usually won’t serve you tap water – apparently locals don’t really drink it because the German word means “plumbing water” and you’re supposed to be able to afford bottled. However, restaurants are nice enough to give you a blanket when you’re sitting outside and some menus even note which items have alcohol, caffeine, preservatives, gluten, and more in them.

Groceries are cheap; a half-gallon of milk might cost $1, while a bag of oatmeal costs 50 cents.

You have lots of transportation options in Berlin. If you take the metro, make sure to stamp your ticket and watch out for plain-clothes police if you don’t. You can hop on trams, or even grab a pedi-cab. If you have a bike, you’ll get to benefit from Berlin’s extensive bike lanes – just don’t imitate the Germans and skip the helmet. Or, get some exercise and explore Berlin on foot with some sturdy sneakers, while hopscotching around the broken glass on the sidewalks.

Berlin bike lanes

We arrived in Germany during Oktoberfest and headed to Munich, where we discovered that some German stereotypes are true – everyone (at least in Munich) does wear those colorful costumes. And Germans are the third highest beer consumers in the world. If you go to a traditional brewery with a live band, you’ll be interrupted every 20 minutes or so with a drinking song, where you’re obliged to raise your glass, sway back and forth, and clink glasses at the end.

oktoberfest

We sat at communal tables in two different breweries with locals, said “cheers” to them (in Bavarian, of course), and got advice on what to order. And it was here, of all stereotypical places, where we felt most welcome in Germany.

germany hofbrau haus

10 commandments for perfectionists

10 commandments for perfectionists

I’ve known for awhile that I’m a perfectionist, but this summer was the time when my perfectionism and I finally had a standoff.

Perfectionism: I think it’s a great idea to feel stressed, pressured, and overwhelmed all the time. K?

Me: Uh, wait, no, but…

Perfectionism: Also, seriously, you’ve been on this planet for 25 years and you’ve yet to achieve anything extraordinary. Aren’t you paying attention to what I’m saying?

And so on. We wrestled for awhile. We’re still wrestling. And as the summer draws to a close, I decided to sit down and hash out all the things we’ve been arguing over. So here they are – the rules that the mean voice in my head keeps trying to enforce, and the thoughts I want to cultivate.

Perfectionism: Don’t waste time.

Me: Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.

Perfectionism: I wish things were different.

Me: Life is a game of “Yes, and…”[1]

Perfectionism: I need to plan in order to control the future.

Me: I’m curious what will happen today and I know I can handle it.

Perfectionism: Must. Be. Serious.

Me: What would kitty do?[2]

Perfectionism: This is such a big deal.

Me: Will this matter in a year?

Perfectionism: I have to be careful.

Me: Life’s great dare is: Am I all in?[3]

Perfectionism: What will the future look like?

Me: What does the present feel like?

Perfectionism: I have to be maximally productive.

Me: I want to explore my whole self.

Perfectionism: I must get everything done.

Me: I can only do my best.

Perfectionism: I have to accomplish something extraordinary.

Me: I want to be happy and serene.

My hope is that articulating these in words will become a useful tool in my day-to-day life. I was doing a chore the other day, wishing for it to be over, when I thought, “Life takes time. Time is only wasted if I’m waiting for it to be over.” Perfectionism will still try to do battle with me, but at least I have some weapons in my arsenal now.

[1] The organizer of the Toronto Happy Healthy Women meetup, Natalie Colalillo, came up with this idea at an improv comedy workshop. Improv comedy requires a “yes, and” approach – you take whatever the other performers give you and run with it, rather than trying to contradict them or go in a different direction. Life is like this, too – you have to accept what happens to you before you can move on and have positive experiences.

[2] In other words, be silly! Cats and cat videos are a reminder for me to keep things fun, silly, and lighthearted.

[3] This is from Brené Brown, and the full quote is: “Vulnerability is life’s great dare. It is life asking, ‘are you all in?’” Living wholeheartedly means not holding back.

Photo by Flickr user Digitalnative

5 signs of a habit you’ll stick to

Lyubomirsky - good habits
Why are we able to stick to some habits and not others?

Some of it has to do with how we execute a habit – getting support from friends, giving ourselves breaks when we need them, and building on momentum. But some of it happens way before that: when we feel compelled to form a habit in the first place.

In The How of Happiness, psychology researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky offers a test to help determine which happiness habits are best for you. For optimum fit, a habit should have these characteristics:

  • Natural: It feels normal, and easy to stick to. Maybe it’s a habit we’re already doing most days, like going for an after-dinner walk or brushing our teeth in the morning.
  • Enjoyable: We find it interesting and challenging, like learning a new language.
  • Valuable: We believe it’s important and identify with it. We’ll do it even if it’s not enjoyable. Exercise might fall into this category for some people.

Ideally, a habit shouldn’t have these characteristics:

  • Guilt: We force ourselves to do it because we feel guilty, anxious, or ashamed if we don’t. For example, some people might do volunteer work because they feel guilty about their privilege or new money.
  • Situational: We’re forced to do it by someone else or by our situation. Maybe our spouse is making us attend counseling or pressuring us to do a weight-loss program.

In the end, Lyubomirsky explains, these five aspects are largely measuring something called “self-determined motivation,” a drive to achieve goals based on our genuine interests and values.

“Research suggests that if you have this kind of motivation . . . you will continue to put effort into the endeavor and be ultimately more likely to succeed. In other words, where there is a good fit, you will try harder and feel right about what you’re doing,” she writes.

Not all goals will have all these characteristics, and that’s okay. In fact, we can reframe goals so they check more of the right boxes. I might be driven by guilt to avoid sugar and carbs, but I should strive to focus on being creative and challenging myself to come up with tasty treats (enjoyability). Your boss may force you to take a training course in marketing, but you can focus on how the new skills will be valuable for your career.

How do your goals stack up?

Photo by Flickr user .melanie

I’ve officially gone off the deep end

deep end

This is day 31 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the questions “What does it mean to be courageous and “show up”?,” “What does it mean to be authentic?” and “How can you play, laugh, sing, and dance more?” More info here.

I never thought I’d be the one writing about “fluffy,” “sentimental” stuff like vulnerability, acceptance, authenticity, and worthiness. But here I am, on day 31 of (whoops) #30daysofvulnerability, and that’s all that’s on my mind.

If you look back at my writing from college, I’m talking about productivity and rationality and success. I even had a blog once called Joie d’Achieve (that should have been a clue).

Turns out that everything works until it doesn’t work. Being over-focused on achievement worked for me (sort of) for 25 years. But it’s not working anymore.

It makes a lot of sense to me now why self-improvement content is so personal. Gretchen Rubin discovered this when she asked readers what their personal commandments were, and got a ton of contradictory answers: Do more. Do less. Say yes. Say no. Let go. Hold on.

It’s like a pendulum – I’ve been swinging so far to the side of productivity and achievement that I’ve swung all the way to the top and the pendulum is upside down, and I have all the stability of an upside-down pendulum. What I need now isn’t what I needed then – or at least, not what I thought I needed. Maybe if I had encountered these ideas earlier, I wouldn’t be so unbalanced now. But I doubt I would have listened.     

What I learned is the value of being open-minded. Today, I’ve read books that I wouldn’t have touched four years ago. I’ve entertained ideas and concepts and exercises that I would have seen as silly, irrational, or weak. But guess what? It works now. It’ll work until it doesn’t work.

So I’m here on day 31 to tell you about my new three goals. I wrote about how productivity is not a useful happiness proxy, at least not for me. Maybe I’ll fare better with these:

Courage, not success. Focusing on success often means I’m hesitant to try new things and get discouraged in the face of discomfort and stress. Courage means attempting and persisting even when things are hard. Even if I don’t get every single thing on my to-do list done with the patience and peace of a Buddhist, I can still decide to persevere and stay engaged and not give up. I love how Brené Brown says that vulnerability is life’s great dare, asking if you’re all in. I so want to be all in, living with my whole heart, not holding back.

Authenticity, not perfection. Who knew? Turns out I’m not perfect. Or the smartest. Or the best. I want to find out who I am besides an intelligent, productive person. I want to learn about and value my other traits, like being kind and good and curious. I want to listen to my feelings (God, I never thought I’d write this) and not be constantly telling myself how I “should” feel.

Play, not productivity. For a long time, I had this feeling that people who acted silly were dumb, unintelligent. Turns out silly people are very, very smart. I want to smile enough that no one on the street can joke that I dropped my smile (not funny, people!). I want to laugh enough so I get wrinkles and don’t care. I want to play and do nothing and take breaks and cut myself some slack.

So there you have it. None of this is going to be easy, because I still haven’t kicked out the little gremlin inside of me that’s constantly jumping up and down shouting, “Work! Work! Work!” He’s such a jerk, I should totally evict him, but we’re good friends and I’m not quite sure where I’d be without him. I’m not even sure I’m ready to get friendly with a flowery, emotional, Zen fairy, but I know she’s a lot nicer and she won’t call me names. And if she makes me happier, that’s all I’m asking for.

Photo by Flickr user Sarah Ross photography

Most of your to-do list is irrelevant

joy machine

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability: “Make a “joy and meaning” list: List the ingredients that you need in your life to feel like things are going well, and compare it to your to-do list.” More info here.

One of the little tips in Brené Brown’s The Gift’s of Imperfection caught my eye:

“One of the best things that we’ve ever done in our family is making the ‘ingredients for joy and meaning’ list. I encourage you to sit down and make a list of the specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life. Then check that list against your to-do list and your to-accomplish list. It might surprise you,” she writes.

Okay, okay, I get the idea. We have to focus on the essentials. But it didn’t hit home until one evening when I was stressing about my to-do list and forced myself to follow her suggestion: 

Joy and meaning list:

  • A career I love
  • A happy relationship
  • Friends and family
  • Low stress
  • Health

To-do list

  • Be #1 on the writer’s leaderboard for Tech Cocktail
  • Get my work inbox to 0
  • Get my personal inbox to 0, and answer all my dad’s emails
  • Impress the people at the talent agency I have a (totally random) appointment with tomorrow
  • Never make my boyfriend upset
  • Go to gym class three times a week
  • Read one book a week
  • Work on my blog for 10 hours a week
  • Meditate every day

…you get the idea.

You may find related items on your lists – for example, “go to gym class three times a week” and “health.” Health is my real goal, so I need to cut myself some slack when I miss a class (which hasn’t even happened, except when my arm was broken). All my work-related to-do’s should be in service of “a career I love,” not the need to be perfect or hyper-efficient or inhumanely productive. Just because I don’t reply to one of my dad’s emails or say something when I’m hangry that I later regret doesn’t make me a bad daughter or a bad girlfriend.

These lists remind me of Shawn Achor’s concept of meaning markers, the symbolic goalposts in life that guide our actions. Sometimes, we forget about our real meaning markers and get distracted by “hijackers,” false sources of meaning that end up making us frustrated and unhappy.

In other words, most of our to-do lists have been “hijacked” – and if we want our sanity back, we need to find our way to what’s really meaningful.

Photo by Flickr user atomicity

What’s your happiness proxy?

happiness proxy

This is day 28 of #30DaysofVulnerability, answering the question “Why should accomplishment not be your main priority?” More info here.

Ever since I was 7 years old, I thought productivity was a magical thing. I had just started playing violin, and I made a nice little chart with dates that I taped on my wall. Every day when I practiced for 20 minutes, I put a little check mark in the appropriate box.

Some nights, lying in bed, I would jolt awake realizing that I hadn’t practiced, and hop out of bed to put in my 20 minutes in my pajamas. Apparently my 7-year-old self hadn’t read up on the science of sleep yet.

These days, I still act like productivity is a magical thing – and by “magical thing,” I mean a proxy for happiness.

You can’t wake up and try to be happy, so most of us wake up and try to be something else. I try to be productive; Fred tries to achieve freedom; other people probably try to be good parents, altruistic, or healthy.

I suspect productivity is one of the most common happiness proxies. As Shawn Achor explains in The Happiness Advantage, “Most individuals follow a formula that has been subtly or not so subtly taught to them by their schools, their company, their parents, or society. That is: if you work hard, you will become successful, and once you become successful, then you’ll be happy.” He spends the rest of the book explaining why this formula is “broken,” and it’s actually happiness that leads to success.

But if science isn’t enough to dethrone productivity, we can just look at our own lives. Lately, I’ve been hyper-aware of the negative consequences of deifying productivity: I begrudge a weekday trip to the grocery store because I “should” be working; I get irritated at Fred because he’s not getting out the door fast enough, wasting time; I ignore stress and persist, which makes my stress worse.

The problem with productivity as a happiness proxy is that – at least as I conceptualize is – it’s not a trait but an action. When I’m working, I’m (usually) productive; when I stop working, I cease being productive and start itching to be productive again. That’s probably one of the reasons why people become workaholics: because productivity is their self-worth and their supposed path to happiness, so being at home makes them feel lost and frivolous.

A workable happiness proxy should be some kind of trait that we have all the time, or at least more of the time. Productivity is hard (not impossible) to apply to leisure time, and to do so you have to fight the cultural stigmas against play, self-indulgence, and doing nothing. Goals like being authentic, brave, or grateful might be easier to apply.

It’s not enough to say, “Authenticity is my new goal” and be cured. As Gretchen Rubin points out, we all have “True Rules” for behavior, or rules of thumb that we unconsciously follow. Mine include “If you have free time, work”; “To-do’s must be finished, no matter what”; and “TV is a waste of time.” We have habitual emotional patterns that won’t disappear with the snap of a magician’s fingers. The only way to change our happiness proxy is to put in the hard, introspective, emotional, honest work – but remember to cut ourselves some slack along the way. We’re not productivity monsters, after all.

Photo by Flickr user mikerastiello