From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, 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.
Today’s interview is with Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener, a father-son duo who teamed up to write a terrific new book about happiness, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth.
Father Ed Diener is one of the super-stars of “subjective well-being” (that’s one of the scientific ways of saying “happy”) and was studying it long before it became the hot topic that it is today. He has more than 240 scientific publications on the subject.
Son Robert Biswas-Diener is the more swashbuckling version of a happiness expert. Along with more traditional training, he has travelled to places like Greenland, Kenya, and India, and done things like allow himself to be branded in a Maasai ritual to increase his knowledge of happiness.
Their book, Happiness: Unlocking the Mysteries of Psychological Wealth, just hit the bookstores this week. If you’re looking for one thoughtful, comprehensive book to help you understand the science of happiness better, this is exactly what you’re looking for. It’s also a good read – accessible, concise, and even funny – which isn’t true of all such books, and there’s a lot of information I hadn’t seen elsewhere.
When I asked Robert why they’d decided to write this book as a team, he told me, “We have often collaborated together on research projects and it seemed natural to team up again on this book. In some ways, we capitalized on both of our respective strengths — tapping my father’s superior understanding of happiness and harnessing my superior writing skills. The end result was better than either of us could have produced alone, and we had fun in the process.”
For the interview, they took turns answering the questions.
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?
Robert: I think people naturally have a tendency to go on autopilot. This is normal because it helps free up our attention and thinking for tasks that we really need to concentrate on. The downside, of course, is that we fall into ruts — taking the same route to work each day, clicking on the TV when we get home. Once you start making the effort to “wake yourself up”– that is, be more mindful in your activities — you suddenly start appreciating life a lot more. Although this is a dramatic example, I always find this kind of vibrancy when I travel overseas. Suddenly, because everything looks or sounds different, I am no longer taking simple things for granted, like mailboxes or elevators. It’s like being a kid all over again, where everything feels a bit new and fresh. The trick is to find that kind of luster in everyday life.
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?
Robert: I am a firm believer in a tendency toward being generally upbeat or generally negativc. Fortunately, one of our most replicated findings is that most people are mildly happy most of the time. I certainly fall into that category. Although I hate getting speeding tickets, or getting sick, or being late for a meeting, I mostly have a positive attitude toward life and the people around me.
Now, like everyone else, I am susceptible to negative events. Last year my grandfather died, somewhat unexpectedly, and that was a very difficult time. It also, through dumb bad luck, happened to coincide with a setback in my professional life, and I became pretty depressed. I felt listless and unergetic. First, I allowed myself the luxury of feeling bad. After all, my grandfather died! I should feel bad. But once my blues continued to the point where I thought it was “going on too long,” I forced myself to the gym and started working out, even forty-five minutes a day. It was very hard to muster the will, but I was always glad afterward. My wife was also very supportive, being compassionate when she needed to be and telling me to get off the couch occasionally too! After a little while my mood started to perk up and now I’m back to normal.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Ed: Analyzing data always makes me happy. Seriously. Possibly I am a weird person. But when I examine data, I almost always feel that I am discovering something new. And it is a quiet activity that is calm, and I can just think and examine what is going on in the world via the data. I think what this example shows is that the happy activity need not be recreational; it could even be “work,” which might in some cases seem like play. And it shows the tremendous diversity — we don’t need to try “comfort food” just because some magazine recommends that. We need to find our own comfort activities.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Ed: I know about one-gazillion things more now about happiness than I did then. Probably the biggest insight, and I am not sure whether we can learn this from others or we have to actually experience it, is that happiness is not just a place, but also a process. I once thought that when I had my “ducks in a row,” the right wife, kids, house, and job, that I would then be happy from them on. And of course those things all helped a lot. But I learned that happiness is an ongoing process of fresh challenges, and that even when everything is in place it takes the right attitudes and activities to continue to be happy.
Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Ed: I almost never actually feel blue. So when I am blue, which is so rare, I think it is probably for a good reason, and don’t necessarily think I need to chase it away quickly. I have mostly learned a positive attitude toward life and my life is in good shape, and so I don’t think the rare blue times are detrimental, because they are usually times when I need to deal with some true loss.
Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.