How to be happier

January 25, 2010

Last week we talked a bit about activist burnout, and I want to continue with that theme for a little while. Today’s newsletter has more on the subject, but I realize I missed something in my post about the matrix of activist burnout.

Remember the beautiful grid I made?

matrix of activist burnout

Here’s how it works: your risk of burnout is a direct function of how productive and how happy you are – if you’re scoring low on both, you’re in the red zone, and you’re not going to last long, especially because productivity and happiness feed on each other.

Of course, as I pointed out in that post, the matrix also works as a matrix of activist effectiveness, because if you’re happy and productive, you get more done, AND you feel better about what you’re doing, which creates an amazing feedback loop.

There are a ton of resources out there on productivity, and I might give some tips on how to leverage some of them specifically towards activism, but today I want to talk about happiness, because it’s a subject that often gets overlooked.

The good news is that there’s a great book on the topic called Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out by Marci Shimoff. That’s an affiliate link, because we have bills to pay, but I want give full disclosure here: I haven’t actually read the book (it’s on hold for me at the library.) I have, however, listened to an hour long interview with the author and read Brian’s excellent summary at Philosopher’s Notes (which I don’t recieve a kickback on, but it’s an amazing service that I urge you to check out.) Anyway, my points here are from the interview and Brian’s summary, which I wouldn’t normally do but I really needed to talk about happiness today. Moving on…

First, the bad news: your happiness is based on your genetics.

Second, the worse news: the average person has 45 THOUSAND negative thoughts A DAY.

So is being happier hopeless? Of course not!

It turns out that genetics are only about 50% of the puzzle when it comes to happiness. Then there’s 10% or so that’s based on your circumstances like your job, marital status, etc., and the rest – 40% of your happiness – is determined by you. How? That’s where that “worse news” comes in.

OK, so those 45,000 negative thoughts per day – that’s based on research that suggests we have one thought per second when we’re awake, which is about 60,000 thoughts total, and most of them are negative.

Here’s the thing though – 60,000 thoughts is a lot of thoughts, and we’re just not creative enough to make them all beautiful and unique snowflakes, so we have a lot of repeats – about 95% of these thoughts are the same as the ones we had yesterday, and the day before that, and the day before that…

If you can change some of these thoughts from negative to postive ones, it’ll pay off every day from now onwards because they repeat. Now, you do need to change a lot of them, because our brains are wired up to place more “weight” on the negative ones, so it takes several postive thoughts to offset one negative thought.

This isn’t as simple as waking up and deciding you’re going to be happier, unfortunately; it comes down to a change of habits, and Marci claims there are 21 habits you can change or develop. While I’m told the book has several exercises to help change or develop these habits, I haven’t read it yet, so that’ll have to wait for a future post.

Just so I don’t leave you hanging here, because that could seriously impact your happiness, and I don’t want to be the one who pushed you to burnout, here’s one exercise I picked up from Brian: you can’t simply decide to be happier, but you can decide that you’re going to notice positive things more, which is going to cause more of those bazillion thoughts you have each day to trend towards the positive.

This act of deciding what to notice involves a piece of your head called the Reticular Activating System (RAS,) which I could write whole chapters about, because it’s that fascinating. The most common example that’s used to explain it is the case where you buy a new car (or coat, if you prefer,) and right after you do that you start seeing the same design everywhere you look. These things were always out there, but your brain didn’t have a reason to look for them until your RAS got triggered.

By the same mechanism, setting an intention to notice positive things isn’t going to magically bring more positive things into your life, but it is going to help your brain notice the stuff that’s already out there, and noticing more positive things is going to bring about more positive thoughts, which is going to have a direct impact on your happiness – for no reason! I’ve done this before (and try to do it all the time) and it really does make a difference.

Happy for No Reason: 7 Steps to Being Happy from the Inside Out might push you a little outside of your comfort zone. Frankly, it does that for me! It’s a little on the “woo-woo” new age side of things, whereas I tend towards non-fiction how-to books from the business and marketing section. Personally, it just got to the point where the book kept getting recommended by mentors of mine that I trust, which is especially important today: as I said, normally I’d read a book before talking about it here, but the timing after the burnout matrix post was too important to pass up. I’ll have more information later, but I hope this helps in the meantime!

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post: