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 met Tony Hsieh through the brilliant journalist Helen Coster. I was very excited to have dinner with him – I’d been hearing about him for a long time.
Tony Hsieh is the CEO of Zappos, a company best known for selling shoes, but now branching out into many other products. Zappos has rocketed to success under Tony Hsieh’s leadership, in large part because of Tony’s tireless work to build its legendary customer service. In addition to being a world-recognized leader in building customer satisfaction, Tony is also on the cutting edge of harnessing the power of technology and social media – for example, on the account zappos, he’s active on Twitter, where he has 21,234 followers (including me), and he has a Zappos blog.
I had dinner with Tony, and was fascinated to learn that he’s done a lot of research into the science of happiness, which he’s applying to Zappos. For example, they’ve changed their promotion system in a way that’s intended to make people happier.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Tony: I don’t know if there’s anything simple that consistently makes me happier. I get bored easily, so it’s hard for me to find one thing that I can do over and over again. I’ve found that building and creating something makes me happy, and I think part of that is because it’s always about building or creating something different. Helping build Zappos.com is both challenging and rewarding because the challenges are different every day.
Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Tony: When I was 18, I thought happiness came as a result of accomplishing a goal. Both from personal experience and research, I’ve learned that it’s really more about making continual progress at a fast enough pace towards the goal that brings happiness.
I’m reminded of a quote about Alexander the Great: “When Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept for there were no more worlds to conquer.”
I remember when I crossed the finish line at my first marathon, I realized that it wasn’t just about that one moment or one day. It was meaningful because it represented the culmination of all the training that I had done leading up to that final moment of crossing the finish line.
Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a book that you
found particularly helpful?
Tony: I really enjoyed reading Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis because the book wasn’t just philosophizing about happiness. The book looks at actual scientific research. [Note from Gretchen: I also think this book is terrific.]
Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Tony: I’ve found that changing my environment can really help change my mood. So if I’m at home, then I try to get out of the house. Taking a nap or doing a quick workout can make a big difference as well.
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?
Tony: I’ve found that the people you surround yourself with and the language that you use can really affect your perspective on the world. Negative people can really bring you down.
Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Tony: For the past year, I’ve read a lot of books about happiness because I think it’s interesting to think about how it can be applied to both my personal life and to business. From a business perspective, the more I can learn about how to make customers, employees, and vendors happy, the better it will be for Zappos.com.
I think one of the most interesting things I’ve learned from the research I’ve done is that people think they know what will make them happy, but in reality people are actually very bad at predicting what will make them happy [Gretchen again: this argument is set forth in Daniel Gilbert’s Stumbling on Happiness]. This is a really hard concept for most people to grasp because by default people assume that they should just instinctually know what will make them happy.
There’s been a lot of research done on how to properly train for a marathon. Even though everyone knows how to run, most people today understand that to train for a marathon, you should at least do some research or get a coach to tell you how far and how fast to run during the training.
If you’ve never trained for a marathon before, when you learn about the best way to train you’re actually doing something that’s very counter-intuitive: you’re supposed to do long, slow runs, where you are running almost uncomfortably slower than you would normally run. I won’t get into all the physiological reasons for why this is here, but suffice to say that there is a science to training for a marathon that generally runs counter to your natural instincts.
I think the same thing is true in maximizing your happiness. You need to either do the research yourself or have someone tell you what the research says, and then do things that you may not instinctually do in order to be happier in the long run. I think The Happiness Hypothesis does a great job of talking about a lot of the research that has been done.
For the first time, I’m planning to go to the blogger (among other things) conference, SXSW, this year. I was looking at the panels, and I see that one is being headed by Pamela Slim, which reminded me of how much I enjoyed her blog, Escape From Cubicle Nation. Lots of great information there, and so clearly presented.
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