“The Secret Of Happiness Is Something To Do”

This morning I came across this John Burroughs quote, and it really stuck with me: “The secret of happiness is something to do.”

I really believe this.

You don’t become happy by freeing yourself of responsibilities. Everyone needs a purpose in life, and doing nothing is the quickest way to lose sight of that.

I love progress. I love doing. I have a very low tolerance for stagnation.

When I keep myself busy with things that matter to me, happiness is my default state.

Simplifying My Digital Life

One of the downsides of instant, frictionless communication is that everyone and everything is constantly in your face, which leads to reduced productivity and a sense of general sluggishness.

For example, if I’ve got a set of tasks I need to accomplish today, I’d like to focus on those. But it’s really easy for emails, messages, tweets, and other random notifications to get in the way.

Every time you pull out your phone to respond to a message or read a reply or DM on Twitter, you’re allowing other people to manipulate your schedule at will. You’re also robbing yourself of the coveted mental state of flow.

I’ve recently made some changes to deal with this, and as a result I’ve seen a significant increase in my productivity and a greater command of my time.

Social Media Notifications: Off

Social media is the biggest uninvited time-suck in the world. They lure you in with a push notification, hook you with the algorithmically sorted timeline, and before you know it you’ve spent an hour in this damn app you didn’t even plan to open.

The solution? Turn ’em off.

I’ve completely disabled push notifications for the three major social networks—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—and the result is pure serenity.

I used to get bombarded with notifications all day every day, mostly from these three apps. So-and-so liked your post! So-and-so mentioned you! And Twitter’s amazing new feature that everyone totally wanted: So-and-so and So-and-so are tweeting about #SomeStupidFuckingThing.

These notifications are not useful to me. They’re disruptive.

Now, when I want to know what’s happening on Facebook, I’ll open Facebook. When I want to know who’s been liking my tweets or sliding into my DMs, I’ll open Twitter.

Spark Email

Spark (for iOS and Mac) may be the best email app I’ve used this decade. It’s reminiscent of the now-defunct Mailbox in that it allows you to “snooze” messages and deal with them later. Great feature, but not the main attraction.

You see, Spark is smart. It automatically sorts your emails into different visual chunks in its Smart Inbox view. You’ve got newsletters, notifications, personal emails, etc.—and they show up in groups of three, which you can easily dismiss in bulk to plow through your inbox like a pro.

Even better, Spark knows what matters, and it only sends you notifications about important email. Never again will a stupid newsletter buzz my Apple Watch while I’m eating dinner.

Speaking of which…

Unsubscribe!!!

I used to be on hundreds of email lists, some of which I’d opted into, others I was added to by inconsiderate PR people. But I digress…

I decided that after years of struggling with my nightmare of an inbox, it was time to take control. So instead of deleting unwanted newsletters, I made it a habit to open each of them, as they came in, and click the unsubscribe link. Every. Single. One.

I spent about two weeks doing this, and while I still see occasional list emails, I’ve trimmed things down to the point where I can kind of breathe again.

Take Back Your Life

There are three things I know for sure:

  • Technology should be a tool to make my life happier and more productive.
  • Notifications should serve up useful, timely information that matters to me.
  • The time I spend with digital media should always be conscious and intentional.

When these expectations aren’t met, it’s time to simplify.

Will This New Dining Set Fill The Hole In My Heart?

The number of ads I see in a day kind of pisses me off.

Have you noticed? Everywhere you look, somebody’s trying to sell you something. Every second of every day, from signs and billboards to direct mail flyers to the garbage in your Facebook News Feed, everybody wants your attention—and by extension, your money.

We enable this aggressive, nonstop marketing because we respond to it.

We think that buying random shit makes us happy. And it does, briefly. Until the next shiny thing comes along and we just have to have it.

Why do we chase happiness with our wallets?

I think in many cases it stems from a lack of satisfaction with our lives in general.

We think we can buy this cool new thing and our problems will magically melt away. Suddenly our parents will love us or our partners will stop cheating on us or our looming sense of existential dread will dissipate—all thanks to this new kitchen set we got for a great price at IKEA.

Many purchases can indeed be worthwhile, but research continues to suggest that excessive materialism makes us miserable.

It’s time to stop looking for fulfillment in dining sets or 60-inch TVs, and start looking within ourselves to mitigate the problem at its root.

It’s okay to buy stuff and enjoy certain luxuries, but those luxuries should merely complement a strong, independent foundation of happiness and security.

I’ve long been fascinated by Buddhist psychology and its emphasis on mindfulness, gratitude, and compassion:

  • Mindfulness is being present and aware in every moment, not distracting yourself with your phone or stressing about the future.
  • Gratitude is appreciating the beauty of life and being thankful for what you already have, not wishing you had more.
  • Compassion is empathizing with the struggles of others, genuinely wishing them well and helping where you can.

I’m far from perfect, but I’ve found that when I manage to maximize these three principles, it makes a far greater difference in my overall well-being than anything external like money or possessions.

That’s also not to say that money has no impact on happiness—though the evidence suggests the correlation between income and happiness ends somewhere around $75,000. However, I would argue that money’s impact on your happiness depends less on how much you make than on how you spend it.

If you blow every extra dollar on stuff, you’re unlikely to see any meaningful increase in life satisfaction. But, as has been widely reported, spending money on experiences can yield great returns.

As Dr. Thomas Gilovich of Cornell University told Fast Company:

Our experiences are a bigger part of ourselves than our material goods. You can really like your material stuff. You can even think that part of your identity is connected to those things, but nonetheless they remain separate from you. In contrast, your experiences really are part of you. We are the sum total of our experiences.

Other research has found that spending money on others promotes greater happiness than spending money on oneself:

Providing converging evidence for this hypothesis, we found that spending more of one’s income on others predicted greater happiness both cross-sectionally (in a nationally representative survey study) and longitudinally (in a field study of windfall spending). Finally, participants who were randomly assigned to spend money on others experienced greater happiness than those assigned to spend money on themselves.

Materialism will not solve your problems, and browsing Amazon for shit you didn’t know you wanted will not make you happier.

Happiness comes from within. If you seem to be running into internal barriers, please take the time to address those—and don’t be conned by some ad that guarantees you’ll finally be happy for three easy payments of $19.99.

A Simple Way To Increase Your Happiness

In every situation, take a moment to ask yourself, “Am I being drained or energized right now?” It’s not hard. Your body always knows—you just have to listen to your body.

End relationships with people who drain you. Say no to activities and circumstances that drain you. Build relationships with people who energize you. Say yes to activities and circumstances that energize you.

The happiness in your life will increase dramatically as soon as you begin living by this principle.