The Happiness Project

Mood Enhancers: Guitar Riffs, Weight-Lifting, and 2-Year-Old Twins

  Todd Kashdan is a positive-psychology professor at George Mason University whose work I follow with special interest. He studies many fascinating subjects—among other things, self-regulation and how personal strengths operate in everyday life—so I’m very eager to get my hands on his new book, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life . It’s exactly the kind of thing I love to read. (Also, we have the same publisher, Harper, which is a little bit like being from the same hometown.)

He just started a blog, Curious? , about “discovering and creating a life that matters,” on the Psychology Today blogs site —which, by the way, has a terrific assortment of blogs, if you haven’t checked it out.

Obviously, given his work, Todd has given a tremendous amount of thought to the subject of happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Todd: There are few things more pleasurable than two people treating conversation as play without the slightest concern of being judged or where the conversation is and where it might head. Not only do I get to enjoy what the other person says and how they react to what I say, I get to enjoy the unexpected words and thoughts from my own brain. This spontaneity is unadulterated pleasure.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Pain and failure are not barriers to happiness. What prevents us from moving in the direction of what we care about and achieving a happy, meaningful existence is our unwillingness to be in contact with anxious thoughts and feelings, situations that caused us tension in the past, and situations that might cause us tension in the future.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
There is a dark side to my desire to become an expert in psychology, knowledgeable about science and literature, skilled as a parent, mountain biker, and weightlifter, and attentive as a husband. When I think I know something, I stop paying attention. It happens far too often, and when it does, opportunities close. I constantly have to remind myself to let go of my ego, let go of my expectations, and stay flexible and profoundly aware of what is right in front of my senses.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Mark Twain said that “you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do,” and Ralph Emerson said, “Life is an experiment” and “The more experiments you make the better.” These are my mantras. I converse with these great thinkers multiple times per day.

I also cherish the image from Island by Aldous Huxley where all the birds are trained to say “attention” as a reminder to be mindful in whatever it is you are doing. It could be your bodily position when you bend down to rake leaves or staying immersed when someone speaks instead of thinking about what you’re going to say or do next.

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.)
First, there are certain songs that can immediately replenish my energy supply. Usually, we are talking about an incendiary experience with dirty electric-guitar riffs, a gravelly vocalist, and grunge recording that ebbs and flows with very subtle vocal harmony. Music has been the backdrop of my existence since childhood and never ceases as a mood enhancer.

Second, there are workout sessions where I lift weights, grunt, and temporarily shed the other layers of my existence. My equanimity hinges on my ability to be a warrior in the gym.

Finally, I tune in fully and completely to whatever captures my kids’ interest. When my twin 2-year-old girls are giddy and intrigued, nothing else matters. This is the newest addition to my repertoire of mood enhancers, but it has quickly become the most profound. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it isn’t about me and I have no control over when these experiences arise. Taken together, there are less than a handful of times in my life when I entered down spells lasting longer than a few minutes or hours.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Far too many people around me are unaware of their deepest values and passions. As a result, they settle on romantic partners, careers, and weekend habits that fail to offer them lasting satisfaction or meaning. It is easy to stay on the treadmill and float in a sea of boredom and apathy. It requires massive cojones (or ovaries) to make changes so that what we do is directly aligned with what we care most about. When people believe their personality and lifestyle are immune to change, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

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?
My frequent, intense bouts of energy and exuberance have been a constant throughout my life. I am fortunate to have an excellent temperament, but I also surround myself with people and activities that I am passionate about. Thus, my happiness rarely wavers.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t—or vice versa?
I am continually surprised by the power of gratitude. There is something deeply moving about being mindfully aware of the people who benefited me, allowing me to discover my strengths and find outlets for them. Reflecting on my benefactors mobilizes me to attempt great feats and feel at home in the universe.

* I’m thrilled by the number of people who have let me know that they’re interested in starting a happiness-project group in their area , where people can get together to talk about their happiness projects. I’ve been working hard on the starter kit to send you and hope to have that ready to go very soon.

If you’d like to receive a starter kit for launching your own group, let me know. E-mail me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com] , and I’ll add your name (Use the usual email format—that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line.