March 17, 2011
It occurred to me recently that I have developed quite a few tricks for engineering my own happiness. Allow me to share a few. Some are more obvious than others.
Food – Observe your own mood, and that of others, in the context of how recently they have eaten. If there’s a hothead in your circle, notice that his anger is greatest before meals, when hunger is highest, and rarely does he explode during meals or just after. When you feel agitated, try eating some carbs. They’re like a miracle drug. I suspect that anger is evolution’s way of telling you to go kill something so you can eat.
Exercise – When I’ve exercised in the past day, almost nothing bothers me. And I sleep like a pile of moss. If you think of exercise in its usual way, as one component of health, or as a way to lose weight, it’s easy to skip your hour at the gym. If you think of it as the difference between a good day and a bad day, it’s easier to make it a priority.
Goals – I make it a habit to have at least one project brewing at all times that has a non-zero chance of changing the planet, or making a billion dollars, or both. Creating Dilbert was just one out of several dozen projects of that nature. As I write this, I have plans for Dilbert.com that would uncap its potential while helping a number of other people at the same time. That’s a good feeling to wake up to. I’ve also contracted with an Indian company to turn one of my ideas into a website prototype that could change the nature of advertising. Or not. Probably not. The point is that it feels good to know it’s there. When that project doesn’t work, I’ll put another dream into the slot. (I don’t put much time or money into the long shots.)
Meaning – If you’re young and you haven’t yet achieved some level of success by your own standards, by all means make yourself your own first priority. You can’t help others until you first help yourself. If you reach a more comfortable level, you’ll find you need to be useful to others in order to find meaning and feel right in your own skin. That doesn’t mean giving everything away. It’s okay to pick your spots. You don’t need to suffer in the process.
Positivity – The self-help gurus will tell you it’s important to have an ongoing positive dialog with yourself. Lots of books have been written on this topic. All I will add is that you might be completely unaware of how negative you are. Many people make the mistake of incorporating negativity in their humor and thinking the outcome is a net positive. That takes the form of reflexively commenting on what’s wrong with, well, everything. I used to be that guy. It was a habit I picked up from my mother. I thought I was being funny. An ex did me the favor of pointing out that I was actually just being an asshole. All the time.
Luckily, this is one of the easiest habits you can ever break. Now I make it a practice to think or say something positive immediately after I let slip a negative comment. Saying positive things puts your mind into a positive state. And when you become that guy, you attract positive relationships and positive outcomes.
A Little Bit of Danger – I don’t recommend taking physical risks. But you’ll feel more alive if you make it a habit to try new things, even if those things scare you a bit. I’m talking about small risks, such as signing up for an activity you know you will be bad at, or joining Toastmasters International (to give speeches), or sampling the unknown in some other way.
Learn – Feed your brain. The more active your brain is, the more alive you will feel. As a bonus, learning new things can be just the distraction you need to keep your mind from focusing on whatever else in your life is bugging you.
Feel Success – Make it a habit to often do things you do well. It doesn’t matter if your best skill is golf or cooking or business or being a parent. Doing one thing well gives your ego some armor to handle all of the little things that don’t go quite so well during the week.
Relationships – It’s hard to be happy if you don’t have whatever sorts of relationships in your life that work for you. The only advice I have in this area is that following the other tips for happiness will allow you to attract the sort of relationships you want.
That’s a starter list for happiness. I don’t think it contains any surprises. But sometimes it’s nice to remind yourself that your happiness can be engineered, and that luck is a product of good design.