3 Misconceptions About Happiness

I have written and read about happiness a lot in the last seven years since I began my blog. My editor and friend sent me this link to an interview of Laurie Santos on the Megyn Kelly show. Dr. Santos teaches the largest class at Yale University and she has some great insights. Happiness seems even more elusive in our technology-fueled life when we have a powerful PC in our hands and are over committed in all aspects of our lives. You can imagine the stress a Yale student must be under. Just getting into an Ivy League university is a major feat of stamina, tenacity and grit.


As written in the New York Times, Yale had such a demand for this class, with one quarter of the undergraduates enrolled, they had to move the location a few times in order to accommodate all the students. As reported, Dr. Santos speculated that Yale students are interested in the class because, in high school, they had to de-prioritize their happiness to gain admission to the school, adopting harmful life habits that have led to what she called “the mental health crises we’re seeing at places like Yale.” It’s important to understand the misconception around happiness as it can shed light on what to NOT do if happiness is your aim.

Here are the three misconceptions as espoused by Dr. Santos:

You don’t need change to be happy. This is like the carrot in front of the horse spurring forward action. We believe that we will be happy when we lose 10..20..30 pounds. We believe that the next job, promotion or pay increase will suddenly create happiness. We decide that getting engaged, married, buying the house, having a child, or getting that kid out of the house post-graduation, will finally bring happiness. We put off our happiness until we attain this elusive change we imagine will bring that great joy. Weddings and births are landmark moments in your life. They are fleeting. Don’t delay what you have right now. Change will come and it is constant. I believe that being in the moment is where happiness lies. Are you alright, right now? Then feel the warmth in your heart, take a deep breath and be in the moment. Don’t delay happiness for the next hurdle.

Don’t procrastinate and veg out. When we are so over-committed, it’s easy to think…oh wow Tuesday night is free. Let me sit on the couch and veg out. Instead of vegging out, happiness lies in challenging ourselves. Think about using your hands. I am a cook and find satisfaction in trying new recipes and stretching my comfort zone through baking bread and making gnocchi (a two-day process). There is great satisfaction even if the end product is not perfect. As written in Psychology Today by Dr. Carrie Barron, “Research has shown that hand activity from knitting to woodworking to growing vegetables or chopping them are useful for decreasing stress, relieving anxiety, and modifying depression. There is value in the routine action, the mind rest, and the purposeful creative, domestic or practical endeavor. Functioning hands also foster a flow in the mind that leads to spontaneous joyful, creative thought.” So is that guitar gathering dust? When is the last time you picked up those knitting needles? Joy is found in the act of challenging yourself. Don’t get wrapped up in the perfection of it. Just do.

Don’t focus on the hassles. I have worked on this a lot in the last decade. I am impatient by nature so getting in a traffic jam ten years ago would send me in an angry spiral. I re-frame it now. I pray that no one is injured in a car crash and am thankful my car is running. If I am late, I am late. Dr. Santos encourages making a gratitude journal of all the things you are grateful for. I have been writing a gratitude journal for at least a decade and it’s made a tremendous change in my outlook. Dr. Santos recommends something I had never heard of before. She calls it negative visualization. So imagine what it would be like if you didn’t have a roof over your head, or your pet passed away, or you lost a parent. Seems counter intuitive but it makes sense as you now have a new appreciation for what you have in your life. It’s easy to take what is in front of us for granted. You have clean water coming out of your faucet, as well as heat and a device that you are reading this on. Isn’t life just grand?

I work with many clients that have small children, intense travel schedules and financial difficulties. It’s easy to get caught up in the whirlwind. Take stock, challenge yourself, and be grateful. Happiness is here.

Time to Cowboy Up and Turn off That Phone. Lessons in Uni-tasking.

It sucks you in. It captures your attention. Those sly notifications. It’s like a hit of some illicit drug. You just have to pick up that phone and see if someone is reaching out to you with that million dollar deal. That windfall. An old flame trying to rekindle. The rich uncle who left you his Tesla. The reality is that it is nothing but deception. Most of those emails and other sundry notifications are just temptation into nothing but junk. Spam. Some old college friend you half remember liked the photo of a sunrise. And you stopped what you were doing and came to a screeching halt? Do you want to know what that is costing you? The illusion of multitasking is wearing you out.

The answer lies in having the courage (yes courage) to shut that damn phone off. Yes. I said off. To do your best work you need to uni-task. One thing at a time. But I hear you balking. “I can’t give up my phone. There might be an emergency.” Truth is there is no emergency. The phone is just making you believe it is so.

disconnectHere is are the reasons you need to cowboy up and turn off that phone:

1. The cost of context switching is huge.

Check out Gerry Weinberg’s chart of productivity loss. Basically if you focus on one project like writing this blog post; there is 100% productivity and no time lost switching contexts. But if you try to write a blog post while emailing your boss and writing a new marketing project; in other words, working on 3 projects at once you will have 20% productivity and 40% lost to context switching. That’s a huge loss! You’ve been there. You are right in the middle of the flow of creativity and the phone rings. It’s nothing important but it will take you time to get back to where you were. Time lost in trying to get back THERE is huge. And often that ‘next thought’ is lost forever.

2. Multitasking gets you there later.

Roger Brown wrote this article for InfoQ. Brown writes, “We know that simple interruptions like a phone call can cost as much as 15 minutes of recovery time. The more complex the task, the more time it takes to make the shift.” It’s like constantly hitting the pause button. Actually it’s more like hitting the reverse button. One step forward multitasking is taking you two giant steps back. You’ll never win “Mother May I” with that sort of tactic.

3. It’s harmful for you brain.

Brown writes, “There is evidence that multitasking actually degrades short term memory, not just for the topics being multitasked but possibly by impacting areas of the brain.” Your prefrontal cortex requires a lot of energy. It’s where you do your best work. If you are constantly stressing it out by dragging your thoughts into fight or flight (which is what distractions are doing to you) you will not be able to do your best work. Mistakes will happen. And the constant stress is bad for your brain.

4. You are just scattered.

As Jim Benson wrote for Personal Kanban, “The study found that self-identified multi-taskers ended up people who were merely justifying a scattered lifestyle. Perhaps they felt productive because during a day they touched so many different tasks – but when actually tested against people who focused on one thing at a time, the multi-taskers lost and lost big.” I think of Thanksgiving Day. I am multitasking trying to get a meal together that I make once a year. I am not used to making a turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and gravy, salad, veggies and pumpkin pies all in one fell swoop. It’s a one off event. And if you looked at my kitchen, it would most likely be described as a disaster (i.e. very scattered). And that’s not how my kitchen usually looks.

5. It’s really expensive.

As Steve Lohr wrote for the New York Times, “The productivity lost by overtaxed multitaskers cannot be measured precisely, but it is probably a lot. Jonathan B. Spira, chief analyst at Basex, a business-research firm, estimates the cost of interruptions to the American economy at nearly $650 billion a year.” The billion with a B. Companies are spending money on all the unproductive, recovery time to get back on task.

So what do you do? Create time blocks to do your best work and turn off your phone. Complete one project. Complete one phase or one chunk. Then move on. Turn on music without lyrics (i.e. classical). Get present and focus. Think of all the good you will be doing for yourself and others. And think of the free time you’ll have after to just enjoy life.

Originally published on Change Your Thoughts on September 11, 2015.