Happiness interview: J.D. Roth.
J.D. Roth is another member of LifeRemix network — “Great writing about great lives” — because he runs the popular blog, Get Rich Slowly, “personal finance that makes cents.” He has a new book out, Your Money: The Missing Manual
that also helps people get control of their personal finances. The relationship between money and happiness is one of the most complicated and emotional sub-issues within the larger subject of happiness, so I was interested to hear what J.D.’s thoughts on happiness.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
J.D.: There are lots of them: Reading (books or comic books). Writing. Eating a good meal with good friends. Learning. Solving a problem. Mowing the lawn. Walking to lunch.
It also makes me happy when I can help my friends achieve their goals. There’s something awesome about being part of another person’s dream, you know?
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
When I was younger, I believed I would be happy if I had X, Y, and Z: a house, a nice car, a loving wife, and so on. These things do contribute to happiness, but they’re not happiness themselves. I found that once I had these things, I wanted more.
I’ve come to realize that I can be happier if I manage my expectations. Happiness comes from being satisfied with what I have, and from working toward meaningful goals. And as a wise woman once said, it’s not so much about achieving happiness as it is about becoming happier.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Oh yes. I’m a perfectionist. And if there’s one thing in this world guaranteed to hinder happiness, it’s perfectionism.
For a long time, I’ve been trying to remember the proverb, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” I preach this at Get Rich Slowly, and I apply it to my financial life, but I have a hard time remembering it in other areas. I’m preparing a talk for the coming week, for example, and I think I’d be much happier if I would accept “good enough”, but it’s tough. I want it to be perfect.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I’m fond of the Hafiz poem about dropping keys, which goes something like this: “The small man builds cages for everyone he knows, while the sage, who has to duck his head when the moon is low, keeps dropping keys all night long for the beautiful, rowdy prisoners.”
The world is filled with small men building cages for other people. I’ve decided that I want to be one of those who drops keys, and whenever I think of this, I feel happy and motivated to continue the work I do at my personal finance blog. I think it helps people, and that’s very edifying. It makes others happy, and it makes me happy, too.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
When I’m feeling blue, one sure cure is cathartic dance music: driving club anthems, and that sort of thing. I’ve never been clubbing in my life, and I’m the world’s worst dancer, but there’s something about those techno beats that really lifts my spirits. If I’m in shape, running or biking to the music just adds to the effect.
Of course, a plate full of warm chocolate chip cookies always lifts my spirits, too.
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?
The happiest people I know have close-knit families. On one level, this makes me sad. My family gets along okay, but it’s not tight. When I see what these other people have, I can’t help but feel a little jealous.
On the other hand, I do notice that some of my friends set themselves up for unhappiness. These folks don’t do anything. They sit inside, watch TV, don’t have hobbies, never spend time with friends, and generally grouse about how awful life is. It’s almost like a self-fulfilling prophecy. They have no goals, so they have no direction, so they’re unhappy. I’ve struggled with this some in my past, but I’ve learned that the only way to overcome this sort of depression is to actually force yourself to get outside and do stuff. When you’re blue, this can be tough, but it’s well worth the effort.
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?
I’m a pretty happy guy, in general. I love life. But there have been times when I was especially unhappy, and times when I was especially happy.
In general, the unhappy times are caused by one of three things:
- A lack of goals. There are times in my life during which I have no direction. I come home at night and play video games or watch television. I feel like I’m not contributing to the world. This makes me unhappy.
- Feeling trapped. I was unhappy at my former job because I felt like I had no escape. I had no skills. There was nothing else I could do. I was unhappy while I was writing Your Money: The Missing Manual because I had to produce a chapter a week, and didn’t have time to do anything else. (I’m happy with the final product, though!)
- Striving for perfection. As I mentioned above, perfection is a sure path to despair. By learning to let go of “the best” and accept “good enough”, I’ve become a lot happier.
And, of course, there are times when I’m exceptionally happy. The last of these occurred for three weeks last September, just before I started my book project. Why was I happy? I was exercising every day, I was doing meaningful work, I was spending times with friends, and I was challenging myself in a variety of ways (reading books, learning French). Life was humming on all cylinders!
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I do, actually. Over the past year, I’ve spent a lot of time reading the happiness literature, including The Happiness Project. [Awww, thanks, J.D.!] Doing this has reaffirmed some of my beliefs and challenged others. Plus, all of this reading reinforced something I already knew but do a poor job of following through on.
I spend a lot of time writing about money, and as a result I can suffer from tunnel vision. Sometimes I focus too much on money, and not enough on the other stuff. But true wealth is built from friends and family, from experiences and relationships. It is derived from a life filled with meaning. Without these things, money means nothing.
So, one of my secret goals for this year (not so secret anymore, I guess) is to actively spend more time with my friends. So far, so good. And you know what? I’m happier because of it.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I struggled for years to get out of debt (which I finally managed in 2007). Doing this did make me happy. But over the past three years, as I’ve built a bigger and bigger balance in my savings account, my happiness hasn’t increased at the same rate. And to be honest, I thought it would. I thought more money would make me happier.
Of course, now that I’ve read through the happiness literature, I understand what’s going on. In fact, I chose to open Your Money: The Missing Manual with an exploration of this topic. Basically, if you’re broke, money can help buy you happiness — a lot of it. And as you become wealthier, more money will continue to buy you happiness, but at a vastly reduced rate. So, for example, if you’re scraping buy on $20,000 a year, a $5,000 windfall can have a huge impact to your life. But if you make $200,000 a year, that $5,000 bonus isn’t nearly as big of a deal.
In a way, though, learning this has been liberating. It’s allowed me to focus less on money and more on other things, things that can really bring me happiness.
* I was thrilled to be the #1 pick of “Best Mother’s Day books of 2010″ by the Christian Science Monitor. Yay!
It might not arrive by May 9, but remember, if you’d like a personalized, signed bookplate for your Mothers’ Day gift of The Happiness Project, or just for yourself, email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. Feel free to ask for as many as you like.