Happiness interview: Jonah Lehrer.
I'm a huge fan of Jonah Lehrer's work—and there's a lot of it, because he's insanely prolific—and I'm tremendously interested in the subjects he covers both in his books and in his writings for periodicals like the Wall Street Journal. I rushed out to read How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist, and I just got my hands on his brand-new book, Imagine: How Creativity Works (an instant New York Times bestseller).
His writing often touches on the issue of happiness, so I wanted to hear what he had to say.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Jonah: I'm a walker. When I feel stuck or stumped or stressed, I go for a stroll, the longer the better. The actual location doesn't really matter. I can derive equal satisfaction from the crush of pedestrians in Manhattan and the desolate landscape of the California desert. I like the beach and the hills, the cities and exurbs.
One of the pleasures of researching Imagine was getting scientific justification for this habit. The research suggests then when we are stumped by a problem, we should step away from the desk and caffeine and instead find a way to relax. The answer will only arrive after we stop searching for it. So while I used to assume that my walks were a form of procrastination, I now see them as part of my work day. They make me happy, which is an ideal mental state for moments of insight.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I've learned that happiness isn't just a hedonic state, that the happiness I'm chasing after transcends those squirts of dopamine that come from ice cream and fleeting pleasures. In fact, my favorite metaphor for happiness comes from marathons. (I don't run marathons, but I admire people who do!) If we surveyed a marathoner in the midst of the race, they'd almost certainly look miserable. They would complain about their legs and that nipple rash and how the route seems endless. But when the running is over, that same runner will be incredibly proud of their accomplishment—the ordeal has become a rich source of meaning. I'm a new parent and I sometimes wonder if having a kid works the same way. When people are quizzed about their moment-by-moment happiness, child-rearing is roughly equivalent to house cleaning, at least in terms of subjective pleasure. But our kids instantly become a profound source of happiness, even if that joy is hard to measure. (Having kids is a bit like a marathon that lasts 18 years.) So I guess I've learned that happiness is a richer, more complicated and ultimately more important subject that I used to assume. It's not just about chasing after pleasure. It's about finding ways to lead a meaningful life, even if that meaning sometimes involves moments of pain or challenge. [This from Gretchen: I agree, and I summarize this point with my Secret of Adulthood: Happy doesn't always make you feel happy.]
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Googling myself. I'm very jealous of writers who got to exist in a world before self-searching.
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?
My happiness goes through natural swings, which are often connected to my work. When I'm in the midst of editing a draft—and it doesn't matter if I'm editing a book chapter or a magazine article—I'll feel my mood start to fall; a fog of melancholy sets in. Sometimes, I like to wallow in this state, so I'll actually turn on an iTunes playlist called "Depressing Love Songs." (In Imagine, I explore the surprising benefits of such moods, as numerous studies have shown that negative emotions can make people more attentive, persistent and vigilant.) However, when I'm beginning a new project, I'll often go through this period of mild elation, in which I'm embarrassingly excited to begin my work day. I love writing the first draft, feeling those connections click into place. What's interesting is that such positive moods comes with real cognitive benefits, which is why showing people a short video of Robin Williams doing stand-up can lead to a 20 percent boost in performance on a set of difficult creative problems.
Of course, it's only a matter of time before that first draft enters the editing cycle, at which point the mild sadness returns. Instead of enjoying the connections, I fixate on my mistakes. Such are the vicissitudes of my writing life.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t—or vice versa?
I think I used to assume that my happiness was largely shaped by outside forces, by my performance on a test or a line of praise in a book review or whatever form of feedback I was most interested in. But time has taught me that the pleasure of such things is incredibly ephemeral. (Sadly, the sting of criticism and failure lasts longer, which is bad for my happiness and good for my education.) And this has led me to conclude that the only kind of happiness worth pursuing comes from intrinsic motivation, from seeking out pursuits that will make me happy regardless of how they turn out. It's a cliche, but that doesn't mean it's not true: If you're focused on the imagined destination, you're probably in the wrong business. Life is about the journey, the process, the day-to-day. The only kind of happiness that lasts, at least in my little life, comes from the mundane pleasures of doing.
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