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. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. 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, than by any other kind of argument.
Today’s interview is with Gina Trapani of the wildly popular megablog, Lifehacker. Lifehacker is crammed with all sorts of tips and hacks for getting things done more efficiently and with more fun; it has a tech flavor, but not so much that a non-techy person like me can’t get a lot out of it. It has contributed to a huge number of readers’ happiness, including mine.
Gina Trapani also just came out with a great new book, Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better, that pulls together the best material from Lifehacker — check out the book’s website if you want a preview.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Gina: Talking with and spending time with people I love and admire always lifts my mood–even if it’s just a phone call. I work from home alone every day, so non-computer screen social time and that feeling of connection really helps me.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Gina: That getting that job/relationship/paycheck/grade/degree/recognition wouldn’t make me happy long-term. It would give me a shot of happiness around the time it happened, but that long term happiness is about the attitude I choose to have every day regardless of the circumstances of my life.
Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Gina: I’ve got a bad case of perfectionism, and I put pressure on myself to do too much, and that stress can kill happiness pretty quick. I also compare what I’ve done to what others have done and find ways that I come up short. That kind of self-criticism is natural and normal–especially for over-achievers–but it can be deadly, too.
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Gina: Forgive me for this nerdy reference from The Matrix, but: “It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”
That’s my inner call to stop waiting around for something to happen (“because THEN I’ll be happy!”) and change my own mind about where I am and what I have right now.
Gretchen: Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Gina: I think words are more powerful than we realize. Our lives are the stories we tell ourselves, so saying self-defeating things turns into negative experiences. You know what things I’m talking about: “I can’t do it. That’s too hard. I’ll never be that successful/get out of debt/resolve this problem/impress my boss. Everyone else gets everything they want but I always get the short end of the stick.”
On the opposite side of the coin, I love hearing people cast a positive spell over themselves and say things like “This is going to be great. I am so lucky. What a beautiful day. I’m so looking forward to this. I’m ready to kick ass on this project. Look at how cool this is!”
You can tell a lot about people by the casual remarks they make. I avoid Negative Nancies for the sake of my own happiness–I’ve actually ended friendships because I couldn’t handle the constant negativity.
Gretchen: Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
Gina: Like most people, my high school years were exceptionally unhappy, because I hadn’t developed the self-confidence to not worry about what other people thought of me. A year or two after September 11th–when I lived in NYC and worked near the Towers–was also incredibly difficult, though that was probably more a city-wide case of PTSD than anything else. Even after crazy traumatic events like that, I found my natural happiness level resumed its former self, but it did take time.
There’s a great post on the Freakonomics blog about modern proverbs — that is, not traditional proverbs, like “A stitch in time save nine” (I was twenty years old before I figured that out), but new proverbs, like “It takes a village,” or “Fake it ’till you feel it.”
It was nice, too, to see that the question was posed by Fred Shapiro, the Yale quotation-master whom I saw in the Yale Law School library practically every day when I was in law school.
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