Happiness Becomes More and More About Being Content in Our Current Circumstances


Happiness interview: Heidi Grant Halvorson.

For a long time, I've been fascinated by Heidi Grant Halvorson's work: she studies the science of motivation.

She has a new book out: Focus: Use Different Ways of Seeing the World for Success and Influence. It's about how to understand yourself and others better, so you can use that information to motivate yourself and the people around you. It's grounded in science, and very practical as well.

Motivation is an issue that comes up frequently when you're trying to make your life happier. How do you stick to the resolutions that you've decided to make? I was very curious to hear how Heidi would answer these questions about happiness.

Gretchen: What's a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Heidi: I like to take little breaks throughout the day to find something to laugh about - fortunately, the internet has made this very easy for me to do. I'll be in the middle of writing and begin to feel tired or frustrated, and I'll just take a quick break to watch a funny little video or read something amusing. I immediately feel both happier and replenished, like I've filled up the gas tank when it was getting low. Twitter is a goldmine for quick moments of laughter- Steve Martin's Twitterfeed alone has brightened my day countless times. I should send him a fruit basket.

What's something you know now about happiness that you didn't know when you were 18 years old?

I am just shy of 40 years old. I spent last Saturday night at home, in a t-shirt and pajama pants, rereading a favorite novel and listening to the sounds of my husband and children playing video games in the next room. It was wonderful.

If you could talk to my 18 year old self, and describe this evening that awaits her 20+ years into her future, she would be utterly devastated to learn that her life turned out to be so boring. That a Saturday night spent reading a book - not even a new book - would qualify as great time. "What the hell happens to me?" she would wonder.

Research suggests (and my own experience has shown me) that what it means to be "happy" slowly evolves into something very different from our youthful idea of happiness. Happiness for the young is largely about anticipating the joys of new accomplishments - finding love, getting ahead at work, and buying your first home.

As we grow older, we find that happiness becomes more and more about being content in our current circumstances, and hanging on to what we've already got - working things out with your spouse, staying healthy, and being able to make your mortgage payments.

Another way to think of this change is as a gradual shifting from the promotion mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of what you can gain and how you can advance) to the prevention mindset (i.e., seeing your goals in terms of avoiding loss and keeping things running smoothly.) For promotion-focused people, happiness feels like excitement, elation, cheerfulness. For the prevention-focused, happiness is more about serenity, relaxation, and contentment. These days, I'm much more the latter than the former. [If you want to find out whether you're promotion or prevention-focused, you can take a free online assessment on Heidi's website.]

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

I expect to be able to to "do it all" - and then I get angry and disappointed with myself when I feel I'm falling short. For example, when it comes to being a parent, I'm very prevention-focused. I'm constantly on the look out for what could go wrong, and striving to keep my kids healthy and safe. When you are prevention-focused, avoiding mistakes and careful planning are your strengths. Having fun, being creative, and taking chances are not your strengths. (Those are promotion-focused strengths). So my husband (who is a promotion-focused Dad) is the popular one, because he's all about adventure and good times, and I'm all about clean underwear and flu shots.

I get frustrated with myself for not being able to "lighten up" and have fun with the kids more, but the truth is we really can't be good at everything - every way of looking at your goals at work and in life has it's upside and downside. And I'm giving my children something they need just as much as they need fun and adventure - whether they realize it or not.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you've found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Enjoy the fun of failure.")

I like to say "Don't visualize success - visualize the steps you will take to make success happen." But I think that applies to happiness equally well. It's tempting to spend a lot of time imagining what it would be like to be happy, but we don't spend nearly enough time thinking about what we can do to create more happiness in our lives. This is why I'm such a fan of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home - both are guides to making happiness happen in your own life. [Aww, thanks Heidi!]

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).

I'm a mystery novel junkie - it's my brain candy. It all started when I was 10 years old with Encyclopedia Brown, and I've been hooked ever since. I like the old fashioned kind of mystery - Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, P.D. James. They give me a chance to disappear for a while into another world, but still be puzzle-solving. And since I'm a scientist, puzzle-solving is pretty much my thing.

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 that there are so many of us who are hard on ourselves, who don't understand why they are good at some things but not others, who are convinced that they can't improve, and who wonder why the things that motivate other people don't seem to work for them. A big part of why I wanted to write Focus was to help people understand that we don't in fact all "tick" the same way.

There are reasons why some things come more easily to you than others, reasons why being optimistic and upbeat doesn't "work" for everyone, reasons why some of us are creative and risk-taking, and others are thorough and reliable, but it's very hard to be both. Knowing how promotion and prevention motivation work, and being able to identify our own dominant motivation, helps us to not only be more effective and happy, but to be more understanding of both ourselves and others.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Almost all the furniture in my home came from the home that I grew up in. I eat dinner at the same table where I shared Christmas and Thanksgiving with my family as a child. My books fill my mother's bookshelves. I curl up in my office in the old leather chair that my grandmother gave my parents thirty years ago. It gives me a wonderful sense of continuity and tradition, and it feels like a hug every time I walk in the door.

Also ...

  • Mothers' Day is coming up. If you need a gift for a mother in your life--or for yourself--may I self-promotingly suggest my New York Times bestseller, Happier at Home? I love all my books equally, but my sister says it's my best book. Or perhaps The Happiness Project--more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list.