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


8 happiness hacks you can do in 5 minutes 

Find Happiness NowShortcuts to happiness don’t exist, right?

Wrong, says author Jonathan Robinson. He’s the author of Find Happiness Now: 50 Shortcuts for Bringing More Love, Balance, and Joy into Your Life

I’ve read my fair share of “tricks” to be happier, and most of them fall flat. Not so with this book. If Robinson were younger, he might have called his tips “happiness hacks” – simple, genius, colorful ways to boost your mood in just a few minutes. 

The challenge is actually doing them and – for me at least – the easiest way to start is to do a one-month experiment to create the habit. So here are 8 happiness hacks you could try every day: 

1. Set your priorities before breakfast

I’m obsessed with the topic of work-life balance lately, and this tactic gets to the heart of it. Before breakfast, Robinson recommends, think of the seven things you want to do today and prioritize them. This includes work stuff, but also personal activities. Ask yourself, “What’s really important to do today in order to create a balanced, happy life?”

“Asking myself what’s important helps remind me that the bottom line in life is not how much I do or make. Instead, it’s how much of my dreams of creating joy, love, and contribution I can integrate into my day-to-day life,” he says. 

2. Write down 3 good things 

According to Robinson, even if you do this technique for just a week, you’ll be 25 percent happier even six months later. There’s a ton of research about gratitude journaling, and it actually works. 

According to Marty Seligman, who invented “Three Good Things,” the key is what you do after you write them down: pause for a moment and reflect on how you and your personality traits helped bring them about. Then, positivity becomes part of your identity. 

“You start to understand that no matter how difficult a situation you’re in, your ability to laugh, or connect with others, or learn something new or whatever is good about you can help create a special moment. The power is within you,” explains Robinson.  

Some people journal at the end of the day, and others write down happy moments as they come along. I’m in the midst of trying this out for a month, using Happier.

3. Do a “thank you” mantra 

Like “Three Good Things,” the thank you technique is about appreciating the things in your life. But this one goes even further: to do it, you simply start saying thank you for everything you see around you – good and bad:

“Thank you for my car, thank you for my iPhone, thank you for this beautiful music, thank you for this nicely paved road, thank you for the man that just cut me off, thank you for the anger that stirred up in me, thank you for the opportunity to practice forgiveness,” writes Robinson. 

The idea is to train yourself to stop taking things for granted, and even start appreciating the silver lining in the “bad” things. 

4. Belt a song in your head

It might seem crazy what I’m about to say, but Robinson recommends that you silently belt out songs that fire you up when you need a confidence boost. To top it off, adopt the facial expression and swagger of your favorite superhero, and you’ll be ready to conquer the world. 

“If you really allow yourself to let go and pretend, you’ll soon find that it no longer feels like an act. You will feel totally self-assured. You will be unstoppable,” explains Robinson. 

It’s not such a crazy idea – just watch Amy Cuddy’s TED talk on power postures, and you’ll learn how certain positions release different hormones into our bodies, making us feel stressed or invigorated. 

5. Listen to a magical song 

Songs can give us confidence, but they can also give us peace and inspiration. Robinson recommends that you create a magical playlist with your favorite uplifting songs. When you feel the stress coming on – or maybe for an afternoon break – you can pause for 5 or 10 minutes to soothe your soul. 

“Your mind will be clearer and your soul more soothed,” he writes. “With hardly any effort at all, you’ll find that you’re more centered in your heart and better able to handle whatever life throws your way.” 

6. Get rejected 

The problem with rejection, Robinson explains, is that we see it as a failure – and fear it. But if you create a rejection goal – say, one rejection per day – getting rejected becomes a success! That means you’ll have to ask for what you want more often, and you may get some unexpected yes’s along the way. 

If you’re so inclined, you can actually do a 30-day Rejection Therapy experiment. It comes with iPhone and Android apps, and there’s even an Entrepreneur edition. 

7. Meditate 

If you’ve been reading the news at all lately, you’ve probably heard that meditation is like a miracle drug with no side effects. It makes you more focused and creative, reduces anxiety, improves your memory, makes you more compassionate, and much more. In his book, Robinson suggests two meditations that you could practice: 

The pure love meditation: After getting comfortable, picture someone you love giving you a heart-melting look and think about why you appreciate them. Imagine hugging them and your souls being connected. “The Pure Love Meditation is a practical way to build a bridge to the ‘kingdom of heaven within,’” he explains. 

The jaw-dropping meditation: Take about 5 minutes to be aware of the tension in your jaw and face and let it all go, letting your jaw drop wide. When you open your eyes, imagine that you just arrived in your body and are seeing the world through new eyes. 

8. Journal 

We have 50,000 thoughts a day, Robinson says, and the enlightened ones often slip away and are forgotten. To catch them before they fade, get in the habit of writing down your best ideas and goals right away. 

“I have found that since my brain now realizes I take its insights seriously, over the years I’ve had many more important realizations than I used to have,” he says. 

Every week or month, read through your journal and feel the inspiration.  

I love the idea of life experiments, and I plan to do more in the future. Would you try any of these techniques, just for a month? 

I tracked my mood every hour for a month. Here’s what I learned about happiness

Ubud rice terrace

On a plane somewhere between Hong Kong and Toronto, my iPhone timer buzzed for the 431st time in February. It was February 28, 11:16 pm Hong Kong time, and this would be my last moment of self-reflection for the month. I recorded the emotion that I’m sure a few of the other passengers shared: “Hoping for a meal.”

At the beginning of February, I had embarked on an experiment in self-knowledge. I believe strongly that knowing yourself is a major component of happiness, but how do you go about doing that? Understanding my feelings and emotions sounded like a good place to start.

So (nearly) every hour in February, I stopped to jot down my current emotion, then set a timer for another hour. Sometimes I forgot, and I went a few hours ignorantly un-self-aware. But I never missed more than a few. In addition, I used a service called AskMeEvery to record my daily level of stress and happiness. I kept track of my sleep, and I could also see how many happy moments I shared on Happier (acting like a gratitude journal).

Looking back, February was a packed month. I spent three weeks in Bali, devoting my daytime energies to helping my boss write a book and immersing myself in Bali’s beauty and warm weather on nights and weekends. I spent the last week in February in Hong Kong in the tiniest hotel room you could possibly imagine, hurrying to finish the book manuscript and prepare for another big SXSW conference. When all was said and done, I had recorded a total of 176 positive emotions, 216 negative, and 39 neutral. I had 14 days that were a 7 out of 10 on the happiness scale, eight days that were an 8, and six days that were a 6. And only five times during the month (approximately) did I yell at my phone for its constant buzzing.

Read the rest of this post on Medium