The Happiness Project Is the Fast Track to Envy and Misery

During my study of happiness, 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. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories.

Laura Rowley has written extensively on one of the most fascinating, complex issues within the large subject of happiness: the relationship between money and happiness. Her book, Money and Happiness , examines the relationship between the two and how to spend money to reflect your values. On her popular, engaging Yahoo Finance column, Money and Happiness , she writes frequently about money and how you can use it to build a happier life—or not. Not only that, she has a Masters of Divinity from New York Theological Seminary and teaches a class on Contemporary Moral Values at Seton Hall University.

When a friend offered to introduce us, I couldn’t wait to meet Laura. I also asked her to do a happiness interview, because I was very curious to learn even more about her views.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Laura: Eavesdropping on my kids in the back of the car. You can’t be unhappy listening to a debate about how Santa actually circumnavigates the planet in 24 hours; whether, if you had a superpower, it would be better to be able to fly or turn invisible, or who has kissed who in the kindergarten class. Also, hitting the “send” key when I e-mail a column to my editor before the deadline does wonders for my well-being.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it’s both a marathon and a sprint—a long-term investment in your values and a daily discipline. That you may not have control over what happens to you, but you have complete control over your attitude about what happens to you and that can make or break your happiness.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Surfing . Real estate voyeurism is the fast track to envy and misery.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I read and reread a textbook called Well-Being: The Foundations of Hedonic Psychology by Daniel Kahneman, Ed Diener, and Norbert Schwarz. But then I am a total science geek. I also keep a couple mantras taped to my office wall:

“Nothing can stop a man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal. Nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong attitude.”—Thomas Jefferson

“Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”—Viktor Frankl

“Be who you are and say what you feel because those who mind don’t matter and those who matter don’t mind.”—Dr. Seuss

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?

I try to create a diversion: Call my sisters, go running, read, go to Carvel with my husband and the kids and order a sundae (followed by more running). Or I’ll dive into a simple chore with a quick payoff—preparing for an interview, cleaning off my desk or even folding a basket of laundry gives me a minor sense of accomplishment, (I may not feel happy, but at least I feel productive.)

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 recommend not watching the money porn channels when the Dow is plummeting, although many people do the opposite. Ditto on selling stocks low and buying high.

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 junior year in college my doctor prescribed Accutane, the powerful medication for acne, which had just come on the market. I tumbled into a severe depression that finally lifted after I stopped taking the drug; years later the research came out linking Accutane to depression. In his book The Heart of the Buddha’s Teaching , the monk Thich Nhat Hanh writes: “When I have a toothache, I discover that not having a toothache is a wonderful thing. I had to have a toothache in order to be enlightened, to know that not having one is wonderful. My nontoothache is peace, is joy. But when I do not have a toothache, I do not seem to be happy. Therefore, I look deeply in the present moment and see that I have a nontoothache; that can make me very happy already.” That experience gave me a lot of empathy for people experiencing depression and helps realize how lucky I am—it’s my “nontoothache.”

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
All the time; I’m lucky to have a job where I get to interview psychologists, behavioral economists, and authors about well-being (mainly in relation to money and work). I always experiment with what I learn. I am currently employing strategies from Winifred Gallagher’s new book, Rapt: Attention and the Focused Life . Choosing what to pay attention to really can have a powerful effect on your well-being.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t—or vice versa?
When my oldest daughter, Anne, was 5, I promised she could have a dog when she turned 11 (assuming that pledge would be forgotten and float away in the parental-promise ether). She reminded me every year on her birthday. Having never owned a dog, I envisioned an onerous responsibility, an extra expense, a nuisance, a mess. When Anne turned 11, we adopted a year-old spaniel named Sammy from a family who had to give her up. I have never been more wrong about anything in my life. I am absolutely crazy about that dog. She makes us all better people.

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