The Happiness Project

Happiness: Seth Godin on Paddling a Canoe, Not Biting the Hook

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

One of the most consistently fascinating and provocative writers—online and in print—is Seth Godin. I love his blog, Seth Godin’s Blog , and I’ve read several of his many books. Seth’s field is marketing, but marketing understood very broadly—he often discusses subjects like authenticity, communication, community, entrepreneurship, fulfillment, the future of media, and happiness.

He’s written many interesting books—my personal favorites are Tribes and Permission Marketing .

Because I’m such a fan of his thinking, I was very intrigued to hear what Seth Godin had to say on the subject of happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Seth: I honestly believe that external events are a poor predictor (or causer) of happiness. There are certainly things I can do to prompt some short-term happiness, but in general, it’s a decision more than an act. For example, every time (every time!) that I go to visit Acumen Fund and my friend Jacqueline Novogratz , I leave happier than I came in.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Don’t try so hard.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I used to be able to make myself unhappy by reading anonymous criticism of my work online. No middle ground to the attacks, no way to respond, no happiness. So I stopped.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I think Pema Chodron’s suggestion, “Don’t bite the hook,” is a really easy way to avoid the dead ends that can so easily get me caught up. One of the easiest mantras I have is flashing back to paddling a wooden and canvas canoe, solo, across Teepee Lake in Algonquin Park. The sun is setting, the water is calm and there’s a loon on one side of my boat and a beaver on the other. That works every time.

As for books, the work of Zig Ziglar, Pema Chodron and Ben Zander never fail to work.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I write. I ride my bicycle or strap on my cross-country skis. Forward motion, no wallowing.

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?
I think it’s possible to eat your way unhappy. I also believe that whining and complaining never (not once) increases someone’s happiness level. On the other hand, sending someone a thank-you note or a small present benefits you far more than it does the recipient.

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?
I spent some unhappy years in my early 20s, and again when my mom died. On the other hand, I’ve been insanely, positively happy almost every single day for the last thirty years, mostly because I just decided I liked things better that way.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
“Working” is not as good a word as “choosing.” I don’t think happiness is a project as much as it is a habit. [I would suggest: For many people, it takes a project to build a habit !]

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Finishing projects almost never makes me happy. It creates a void. I don’t much like milestones either. Any event where you’re supposed to be a happy is a challenge!

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 23,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.