What Makes You Happy?

Katherine Liu interviewed me for a zine she kickstarted and published this spring.

She asked me:

What makes you happy? 

Here was my in the moment, on the record, lightly edited answer:

I think I’m always surprised when I’m happy. It’s when all the stress and all of the worry and all of the regret fall away, and that’s what I think makes happiness such a wonderful quality of life.

I just got back from three weeks in India for a religious pilgrimage—India is an interesting country, and it’s a complicated country. But even with all the challenging parts of the trip, there were some beautifully serene moments of happiness. It was when all that other stu! fell away. It was slowly walking around one of the temples, being there with 6,000 Tibetan monks who were chanting all day long. There was a surreal moment of ‘There is nothing else but this’, that these people were doing something similar to what I do.

I guess that’s how I’ve come to think a lot about happiness lately. I think I try to move things in a forward direction, but what I really try to do is get rid of the other stu!—the things that stress me out. I think most people think that happiness is joy. That’s a different emotion. Joy is that ultimate high— like, “Oh, my son’s going to be graduating in three months for eighth grade.” That moment that he goes across the stage, that’s a joy moment. But I think happiness has the potential of always being there, if you let it.

And it happens in such unexpected ways—it happens every day. I have three kids, and every day it’s something they say, or some joke that they tell, and you just think—wow, that’s really smart. It clears everything else out of the way, and you’re just in that moment with them.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Getting Happier Is Hard

Let me share the most important thing I have learned so far about happiness.

Getting happier is hard.

I know that might be a little depressing but stay with me for a minute.

The happiness research shows that each person has a baseline.  This is the genetic piece to the happiness equation and accounts for fifty percent of your overall happiness. This baseline varies from person to person, but for an individual does not change much and is a reliable piece of your personality.

Humans, as a species, are also highly adaptable. We have evolved to live on just about every corner of the planet. We have created tools and culture to carry knowledge forward. And contrary to what many of us say and believe, humans are incredibly resilient in recovering from tragedy and pain.

This adaptability has a happiness side-effect: most activities and events do little or nothing to change how happy we are.  There may be a temporary effect but we eventually return back to our happiness baseline.  We adapt to our latest set of circumstances.

Take marriage for example. Partners experience a boost in their overall happiness in the time leading up to the wedding, but within two years, each return to their pre-engagement baseline.

I want to stress that I said most activities do little to make us happier.  To make a real impact, we should careful look at our assumptions about what makes us happy.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Negative Perception, Positive Reality

We have a bias toward negativity, but let’s not interpret that the wrong way. Our brains are designed to sense, signal and remember bad things to protect us from bad things happening again.

Take a moment and roll back through the events of yesterday. You’ll likely recall the arguments, tension. the close calls. As I do that, I see a few situations where I could have been more skillful.

Now, slow down and remember all the other scenes that made up your day. My day had challenging puzzles, laughs over lunch with friends, new writings and Avatar with my son.

Shelly Gable, a researcher at UC-Santa Barbara, does research in the areas of positive psychology and social relationships. In one study, she gave participants a list of sixteen common social interactions.  Eight of the events were positive (e.g. I received a compliment) and eight of the events were negative (e.g. Someone insulted me).  Gable asked participants to record how often these interactions took place over the course of a week.  

The results showed participants experienced on average 5.9 negative interactions in a typical week. I’d say that generally matches my experience and I can remember those pretty clearly.

Participants also recorded 19 positive interactions over the course of the same week, more than three times the number of negative interactions! Think about your own experiences again and how quickly we let those numerous, beautiful moments pass.

6 to 19

Gable says, “[A] key reason for primacy of negative information may be that it violates our expectations. Positive events, information, processes and interactions simply occur more frequently than negative ones.”

So, the negativity that we see and carry with us is tinted by a perception of how we see the world.  The reality is something diferent.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Stacked Against Us

I don’t know anyone who doesn’t feel, at some point, like the deck is stacked against them.

We own a twenty-ish year old house and every time it gets really hot in Portland, our air-conditioning goes out. First, it was the condenser, then a capacitor in our heat pump, and then a pressure sensor. We’ve been doing well this year, but we’ve been on alert each time the temperatures rise. The trouble is that we’ve now conditioned ourselves to believe something is going to go wrong.

Our brains have this built-in tendency . It’s called negativity bias. We are apt to view an input from the outside world as bad and detrimental. Negativity bias has an even stronger effect when something significant happens in our environment.

The first time we lost our air conditioning was the weekend after we moved in to the house.  There were boxes everywhere, we had no idea the problem, and the wait list for repair technicians was over a week. At one point, the fire alarm started going off, because the temperature in the house made the alarm think there was an actual fire.

Our negative bias helps us cautiously assess situations and be ready to quickly flee if necessary. This might be a useful method to assessing danger, but it comes with a side effect: we are more susceptible to negative information. This phenomenon has been heavily researched and the bottom line is that bad is stronger than good.

Roy Baumiester, Ellen Brataslavsky, Catrin Finkeauer and Kathleen Vohs wrote a 48 page paper in 2001 enumerating the ways:

  • Bad events created greater psychology effects than good events.
  • Bad events last longer in our memory.
  • Negative feedback creates stronger reactions.
  • There are more words in the English language for negative emotions.
  • People lament more strongly a monetary loss when compared to the exact same monetary gain.

The researchers concluded this leaning toward the negative allows us to more easily see a need to change and improves our ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment.

But, how can we not feel the deck is stacked against us?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.


A friend wrote me today and said they were surprised by my last post.

They said they’d never associated the words sad or bitter with me.

I get that.

I am not sure I would have strongly associated those emotions with me either.

Brene Brown on her Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice audiobook (see chapter five) asks her audience how many emotions the average person can recognize.

Take a guess.

The answer is three – happy, sad, pissed off.

That was the range of my emotional fluency. Sad and mad captured me more often than glad.

And without vocabulary, talking about what I was feeling was hard. Really hard.

Brene says what we really need is the ability to articulate thirty different emotions if we want to deal effectively with what is going on with our inner selves.

My vocabulary is larger now and there is still more work to do.


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.

Is Happiness The Right Goal?

Before we head too far down the path, I thought it was important to acknowledge that not everyone has agreed that happiness is something to be pursued.

George Bernard Shaw said, “A lifetime of happiness! No man alive could bear it; it would be hell on earth.”

Author Eric Wilson believes melancholy should be embraced as an essential part of human existence, a quality needed to find truth.

“I have the true feeling of myself only when I am unbearably unhappy,” remarked Franz Kafka

Albert Schweitzer, the man upheld for his lifelong missionary work, said, “Happiness is nothing more than good health and a bad memory.”

I have to admit that each of these quotes touches on a part of why I never gave happiness much of my attention. I thought happiness was overrated. It appeared in my life but not under conditions where I had control. I assumed there was something in my unchanging psychologic making that favored sad and bitter.

I don’t believe anymore that happiness is a pointless pursuit or a random mental state, but it took a long time to see that.

As we get started, let me suggest examining your beliefs about happiness.  Happiness is a loaded word that conjures us complicated questions: Does happiness matter? Am I happy? Do I deserve to be happy? Why are everybody else so happy?


I am working on project about happiness, positive psychology, and ways to bring them into your life. You can subscribe for updates here.