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.

Happier – A New Project

Today I turn 46 years old.

I am starting something new today.

I have gotten very interested in what makes people happy and what role happiness plays in our lives.

I started really thinking about my own happiness about six years ago. I am not sure I would have even said that is what I was doing. I just knew I was in a bad place and that something needed to change.

I don’t have foolproof plan or a twelve step process to share. I can only say that I have learned a lot about myself.

What I want to do is get more deliberate about being happier. From the work I have done to this point, I know it takes practice.

So, for the next year, I am going to share the deliberateness – the research I find that helps and the daily practices I use.

If that sounds interesting or you feel that same need to change something, I hope you’ll join me.

I am setting up an email newsletter for those who want a simple to keep up with the project.  You can sign up here.

smile emoji

What I Read – May 2017


The Crowdsourceress by Alex Daly – I’ve supported over 140 crowdfunded projects. I love everything about kickstarting stuff and is what lead me to this book. Alex has built a creative services agency for creators needing help launching projects.  The book is the collection of her knowledge having launched 60+ projects. The case studies focus on a handful of her most successful ones. This book is a Should for creators just getting started with crowdfunding and with building skills in the world of marketing. The appendix has everything from sample email newsletters and questions to expect in press interviews. For the rest, this is probably a Skip.


Startup of You by Reid Hoffman and Ben Casnocha – I remember when this book came out in 2012. I liked the concept of bringing startup principles to managing career.  The book does a good job on that front. It pushes a little too much on LinkedIn specifically and some strategies that I think are only available to set of people with substantial resources. Could if you know startups, Should if you don’t.
Three things I learned:
  1. Brian Uzzi’s research into Broadway musicals showed creative teams with both people who have worked together before AND new members are more successful. That group with strong and weak ties boosted creativity and has enough existing trust to support the work.
  2. Neuropsychologist Rick Hanson sums up our flaws in decision-making with three mistakes: we overestimate threats, underestimating opportunities, and underestimate resources. A study of 700 executives showed that it boiled down to one yes-or no question: Can I tolerate the outcome if the worst-case scenario happens?
  3. “The fastest way to change yourself is to hangout with people who are already the way you want to be.” They draw on the research of Nicholas Christakis snd James Fowler (see Connected) that shows how easily you can catch the emotional states of your friends, imitate their actions, and literally absorb their values.
How to Be Everything by Emilie Wapnick – I am a multipotentialite. I knew it from the first time I heard Emile talk about it. Her book is a exploration of what is it like to work with the desire to explore many things – the problems, work models, and how to be productive. The book was helpful in describing the condition but I left wanting a little more surprise. I feel like I still have the same amount of uncertainty around working with lots of interests. Help! Could.
Three things I learned:
  1. Do any of these labels resonate with you? -> multipotentialite, polymath, renaissance person, jack-of-all-trades, generalist, scanner, puttylike
  2. Multipotentialite superpowers include idea synthesis, rapid learning, adaptability, big-picture thinking, and relating & translating. This reminds of the Symphony skill from Dan Pin’s A Whole New Mind.
  3. Emile suggests four work models:
    • Group Hug (one multifaceted job)
    • Slash (job/job/job)
    • Einsten (one job to enable other passions)
    • Phoenix (Career->Career->Career…)
The Captain Class by Sam Walker – Walker went through an elaborate process to determine the best sports teams of all time. He wanted teams that dominated over the course of years and his follow-on efforts where to find out what made the difference. He ruled out great players, great teams of players, great management, great coaches, and big bags of money. Walker thinks it is great captains. That makes it an interesting book because only the most stalwart sports fans are going to know these figures. This also creates an interesting question about whether individuals with these qualities have perceived value in today’s major sports. Could.
Walker’s Seven Traits of Elite Captains
  1. Extreme doggedness and focus on competition
  2. Aggressive play that tests the limits of the rules
  3. A  willingness to do thankless jobs in the shadows
  4. A low-key, practical , and democratic communication style
  5. Motivates others with passionate nonverbal displays
  6. Strong convictions and the courage to stand apart
  7. Ironclad emotional control

Graphic Novels

Black Panther Volume 3 by Ta-Nehisi Coates and company- Great and real end to the story arc. Must.

Mockingbird Volume 1 by Chelsea Cain and Kate Niemczyk – This was fun. I like the attitude throughout. Must.

What I Read – April 2017


So you want to publish a magazine? by Angharad Lewis – I love this sorts of books. You could read a Dummies How-To but this is written by a fan for a fan.  Lewis gathered wonderful interviews with indie magazine publishers. The book has a strong European flavor, but it doesn’t take away from the lessons taught. If you are interested in the magazine business, this book is a Should.

TED Talks by Chris Anderson – No one knows how to do compelling presentations better than TED. Somehow, that knowledge got mangled and the book ended up confusing and kind of boring. So many strange decisions about what Anderson thought the reader would want to hear – what to wear? traps to avoid? Make eye contact? This should have been a master’s class in public speaking and feels more like a basic “Presentations for Dummies” title instead. Skip.

Designing Your Life by Bill Burnett and Dave Evans – Design is the key word.  The authors believe there is huge value in bringing design principles to finding your life’s work.  Try stuff. Be curious. These are antidotes to how fixed we get in our mindset when we want to move or need to move to something else. The book is well done and provides exactly what is needed to deliver on the promise. I’d point you to this one if you need some help figure out what is next. Should.


The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines Translated by Edward Conze – This is the text that established Mahayana Buddhism and is foundational to Zen. I read it as a part of a class  Must for Mahayana Buddhists.

Graphic Novels

Saga Vol 4, 5, and 6 – Yes. Yes. Yes. Must.

Old Man Logan Volume 3 by Jeff Lemire and Andrea Sorrentino- I am sucker for Wolverine playing the Ronin in Japan. This book seems to best storytelling the combination of his past and present from the new series. Still just a Should for me.

Three Images – Part I


If we use iterative strategies, we need to make sure our product is helpful from the start and gets more helpful over time.

complex change chart

This is the most effective chart I have ever seen for how to effectively address problems around change.



This is a poster from a series we created in 2009 to promote The 100 Best Business Books of All Time.

What I Read – March 2017


Search Inside Yourself by Chande-Meng Tan – Tan created a mindfulness based program at Google based on the Emotional Intelligence framework.  His approach takes the teachings one step passed Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction and bring in some stories and practices from Buddhism. Tan also brings the science and research that has been conducted on these practices, which gives the strict business applications more justification. I liked alot about the book, but the structure made it hard for me to moved easily through the book and tie it all back together. That also makes it hard for me to describe why you might like it…because you might. Could.

Unshakeable by Tony Robbins with Peter Mallouk – This is the shorter version his 2014 book Money: Master The Game. If you need convincing on index funds, the right kind of financial advisor, and allocation diversity, read the book. If you are looking for the next level of detail or advice, get the other book. Could.

Let Your Life Speak by Parker Palmer – This is a beautiful book, written with deep care and deep thought for both word and idea. Palmer writes about the work to find our life’s work. After reading the first essay, my wife handed the book back to me and said, “This is heavy.” She’s right. He asks you to take care and look deeply at your life. Find the threads, honor the limits and work in a vocation that expresses your true self. Should.

Graphic Novels

Old Man Logan Volume 0, Volume 1 and Volume 2 – After the original eight issue run in 2008, Marvel brought the story line into an ongoing series in 2015 and those have been released in four collected editions. I read the first three volume and they are good. The storyline quickly uses time travel to move Wolverine back into the current Marvel time line. He starts to track down all of his past enemies, only to find they may not be his enemies. The whole series has this feel of looking again at common Wolverine tropes from another angle. As I said it is good, but it never captures the originality or quentessial nature of the original run of Old Man Logan. Could.

Black Widow Volume 1 by Mark Waid and Chris Samee – This reboot is kind of interesting. New villian, return to the Red Room, and lots of spycraft. The art for me to was rough and tough to follow, made me want to skip through the story. Wished for me, won’t be continuing on with the series. Could.

The Lazy Bodhisattva

5706748040_3d26489fe3_oTHE LAZY BODHISATTVA

By Chade-Meng Tan

With deep inner peace,
And great compassion,
Aspire daily to save the world.
But do not strive to achieve it.
Just do whatever comes naturally.
Because when aspiration is strong
And compassion blossoms,
Whatever comes most naturally,
Is also the right thing to do.


Note: I made a small edit to Tan’s original poem which can be found in the final pages of his book Search Inside YourselfI omitted the last three lines, feeling that the poem ends more naturally this way.

What I Read – February 2017


Whiplash: How To Survive Our Faster Future by Joi Ito and Jeff Howe – Not sure. The authors lay out nine concepts that define the age we live in. The concepts are set up to be provocative with a “this vs. that” format. All of the concepts are good. Pull over Push. Systems over Objects. Some of the stories are interesting, but it is not always clear how they support the main concept.  I am not sure the main concepts are always compellingly explained as important. The book is certainly a nod to the MIT Media Lab and I like hearing about the Lab more than I expected. The book though was a mixed bag for me. Could.

Dear Data: A Friendship in 52 Weeks of Postcards by Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec – This book collects the mail interchange of two data designers over the course of a year. Each week, they asked a question, collected data and created a representation to send to the other.  The postcards feel more artistic than graphic. Watching the project evolve and seeing their follow-up commentary adds the right amount of context. The book is fun and inspiring. Should.


The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga, Narrated by John Lee – I was looking for a book to match with my trip to India in January. The title won the Booker Prize in 2008 and it kept showing up on my radar around books about India and books about entrepreneurship. I chose to go with the audiobook edition, which worked very well given the book is written in first person (and that I can’t read in cars). The protagonist, Balram Halwai, is writing a letter to the Premier of China about his life story and what the Premier could learn from an entrepreneur like himself. The 21st century description of the caste system, bribery, loyalty, and globalization in India resonated with him. I could see glimmers of what Adiga describes. Strangely, the core of the story felt a little hollow to me but the circumstances that drove the story forward were fascinating. Should. 


Life of the Buddha by Ashvaghosha, Translated by Patrick Olivelle – This is an epic poem of the Buddha’s life that was likely written in the first century CE. The official translation runs from his birth through the enlightenment. It is a good, but formal version of the story. Should.

Graphic Novels

Black Panther: A Nation Under Our Feet  – Book Two by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Chris Sprouse, Karl Story, and Laura Martin – The story continue and T’Challa fights to see what is going on in his crumbling country and starts to see what must be done to save it. Must.

Wolverine: Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven – I needed to read the original run to be ready for the movie. It’s dark and sad, but it’s Wolverine and it suits him. Must.