The Pie of Life

There’s an old saying that goes, “How you spend your day is how you spend your life.” And researchers have shown (try Dan Gilbert) that we, predictably, are poor predictors of what will make us happy. The world is full of miserable lottery winners and yet we still think if only we have the house, the car, the spouse, the job, the vacation – whatever – we’ll be soo happy. And yet consistently many of these dreams fail to deliver joy upon arrival – or at least sustainable joy.

Turns out we aren’t very good at remembering how happy we were either. We fairly consistently recollect memories as joyful, when in fact the majority of the actual time spent was of a more mundane variety.   We have the experiencing self in real time that has opinions and emotions, and we have a remembering self that recollects events and provides us with advice about the quality of that experience and how to make future choices.

So to figure out how happy we really are on a moment to moment basis, researchers Alan Krueger and Daniel Kahnman conducted a study in which they asked 4,000 participants to categorize their days into 15 minute increments and value them based on how they felt at those moments. The slide here represents those findings. Ouch – we really only spend less than 30% of our day engaged in activities we characterize as either enjoyable or meaningful? And yikes – almost a third of our day is spent wandering through the “conveyer belt” of life, which to the average of those 4,000 interviewed meant work or school.

Todd Kashdan, author of Curious?, suggests it doesn’t have to be this way. The world over, people say they want happiness, health, and wealth – in that order. Todd is making a strong argument for the power of curiosity to be the sustaining key to happiness, joy and lifelong fulfillment. He reminds us that not only can we learn new things, open our minds, build more positive mood states, and generally find novelty in the world, but that it takes work. We have to apply ourselves to the game of learning curiousity, and the results can be profound – not only greater happiness, but closer and more fulfilling relationships, and even healthier bodies.

Try this for just five minutes.  When engaging in an activity you regularly do (walking to the mailbox, washing dishes, whatever) look for something new in the experience.  Slow down and be present for something you have never noticed before.  For example, Todd has a great story of a guy he interviewed whose job was to spot irregular potato chips on a moving conveyor belt and remove them to ensure product consistency.  I mean, that’s GOT to be up there with tollbooth operator on the boredom factor.  The guy said he loves his job.  Loves it.  He plays a game in which he tries to spot famous faces in the potato chips (Hey, there’s Ernest Borgnine!). OK, maybe not your idea of fun but it was for him. Find something new in each experience. Sometimes it’s only a slight turn of the head.