Oliver Burkeman’s work caught my eye because I loved the title of his column, “This Column Will Change Your Life.” He’s English, and writes for the English newspaper, The Guardian, but he lives here in New York City. We’ve met for coffee a few times; because he writes about “social psychology, self-help culture, productivity and the science of happiness,” we have a lot of interests in common.
I’m a big fan, so I was pleased to hear that a compilation of his columns was published as a book: HELP! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. I just started reading it, and I love it.
Oliver writes about happiness all the time, but I was curious to hear how he’d answer these questions.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Oliver: Spending time in wild nature, and spending time with close (and old) friends. I realize that’s not staggeringly original, but I sometimes think we invest far too much time and energy looking for staggeringly original happiness strategies. I’m a huge sucker for “lifehacks”, clever new time management tricks, and all that stuff — but it’s crucial to remember that the only sensible measure of their value is this: do they cause you to actually spend more time engaged in the small number of fundamental activities that you already know make you happy?
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Among many, many other things: I no longer think of perfectionism as one of those traits you should be secretly quite proud to possess (“Oh, I’m a perfectionist, yes, I’m just not happy unless I’m producing brilliant work!”). Perfectionism is 100% bad and evil. As Anne Lamott says, it’s “the voice of the oppressor, the enemy of the people; it will keep you cramped and insane your whole life”. Working as a newspaper journalist on deadline has drummed much of it out of me — there’s nothing like a screaming editor to make you abandon all hope of a perfect opening sentence — but it’s an ongoing challenge. I guess I shouldn’t be perfectionistic about getting rid of perfectionism, though.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Stressing out about potential problems that haven’t actually happened yet. Eckhart Tolle recommends asking yourself “Do you have a problem now?” — as in, right this very moment? The answer is almost always no. I need to get this tattooed somewhere prominent on my body.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Identify the problem.”)
I love the late Japanese psychotherapist Shoma Morita’s advice to stop trying to fix yourself and start living instead: “Give up on yourself. Begin taking action now, while being neurotic or imperfect, or a procrastinator, or unhealthy, or lazy, or any other label by which you inaccurately describe yourself. Go ahead and be the best imperfect person you can be and get started on those things you want to accomplish before you die.” To some people this sounds depressing, but to me it’s the exact opposite: utterly freeing.
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).
Honestly? Really good beer, in modest quantities. Perhaps with some good cheese. I know I should say meditation or volunteer work, but as often as not, it’s the beer and cheese.
Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that detracts a lot from their happiness?
Positive thinking. I’m certainly not an advocate of pessimism and negativity, but the fixation on achieving exactly the right frame of mind is usually a big distraction from doing what matters, and frequently hugely counterproductive. And don’t get me started on the notion that you can “attract” things just by thinking the right thoughts. All these efforts at thought control are the exact opposite of the wonderful Buddhist notion of becoming less attached to thoughts, of “grasping” them less and thus being grasped by them less.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Keeping a gratitude diary. I’m *so* not the kind of person who does corny stuff like that, and I only grudgingly tried it out so that I could write about it and honestly say that I’d given it a shot. Turns out, though, that it’s an incredibly effective way to step off the “hedonic treadmill” and re-appreciate things that have become so familiar they’ve stopped giving pleasure. I never thought I’d feel so happy again about a morning cup of coffee or a meal with a friend. It’s annoying, but sometimes the cheesiest advice is actually the best.
* If your book group is reading The Happiness Project — or considering it — I’ve prepared a one-page discussion guide for book groups, as well as a guide tailored for church groups, spirituality book groups, and the like. If you’d like either discussion guide (or both), email me at grubin at gretchenrubin dot com.