Happiness and Hedonism: Nudging Yourself Toward a Happy Life

| April 15, 2015 | 10 Comments

People ask me why I write about what I write about.  At least one person in my life gives me a hard time for “glorifying hedonism,” as though I’m advocating for naked drunken reveling with the Rockettes in a posh Gold Coast mansion (not that there’s anything wrong with that).

I wonder about it sometimes.  I look around at MY version of hedonism — really great food & drink, joyful experiences, soulful home luxuries, things that matter — and I wonder if “hedonism” is like the famous line from Inigo Montoya in the film The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

So, for the record:  In my world, hedonism = deep, lasting happiness.  For someone, somewhere, it might mean surrounding himself with precious gemstones, Dom Perignon, a wardrobe that needs it’s own wing and a six-figure multimedia system. That’s okay, if that’s what they need to be happy.  But for me, it looks different (as any blog post on this site will tell you).

I’m thinking about this right now because I’ve just re-read Dan Buettner’s book Thrive: Finding Happiness the Blue Zones Way (not an affiliate link; available also used and in libraries).  For those not familiar with Blue Zones, this was a bestselling book wherein Buettner identified, researched, and wrote about places in the world where people live the healthiest, longest lives — which often happened to be where people report being the happiest as well. Coincidence?

Thrive was a 2010 follow-on to that original book, and called out four places where happiness levels are very high — Denmark, Singapore, Northeastern Mexico, and San Luis Obispo, California — and examines traits they share that may contribute to those happiness levels.  I wanted to share some of them with you, because there’s a great deal of crossover between this list and my brand of hedonism: seeking pleasure, yes, but seeking it in places where it creates a lasting, uplifting effect on both your life and the lives of the people you share the neighborhood, country, or planet with.   The game is gradually building up more of what matters, and less of what doesn’t.

Buettner calls these “nudges favoring long term happiness,” and divides his recommendations in the chapter “Lessons in Thriving” into six categories:  Community, Workplace, Social Life, Financial Life, Home, and Self.  And so I will too.  Here’s a small sampling from the book:

Community

More than any other external factor (including education level and income) the place where you live seems to determine your level of happiness.  When choosing where you life, here are some things to keep in mind:

Walkability:  Living in a place where it’s safe (and hopefully pleasant!)  to walk to neighbors, stores, social activities, etc. is shown to increase activity levels as much as 35%, and a body in motion is a healthier happier body.  The web site http://www.walkscore.com can tell you how your home, or the home you’re thinking about moving into, rates.

Quietish surroundings: People don’t adapt well to constant noise they can’t control.  Screaming airplanes, jerk neighbors, constantly barking dogs, it all adds up to a loss of the ability to concentrate and possibly poor sleep as well. Live in a noisy place?  Think about whether it might be eroding your happiness on a gut level, and see if there isn’t a way to alleviate it.

Safety:  A safe place to live means you’re comfortable being outside, walking around (see above), letting your kids out to play.  While it may be hip to live in an up-and-coming neighborhood, if there are still high crime levels, the constant nagging fear of harm can chip away at your sense of wellbeing without your even realizing it.

Workplace

In the economic climate of late, it’s been easy for many folks to convince themselves that they have neither the right nor the ability to look for a job that makes them happier.  (For many, this is an excuse for not doing the hard work of looking, but that’s another topic altogether.)  Many will read the following list and howl “Impossible!  No way!”  But I want to plant the seed anyway: Don’t dismiss these things out-of-hand.  Set the intention, and work slowly toward the ones that resonate with you.  There may be a way to sculpt your current job, look for a different job, or create your OWN job that can keep your employed life from being a huge drain on your happiness.

Avoid long commutes:  Try to work closer to where you live, or live closer to where you work.  Buettner says that people who commute an hour each way say they’d have to make 40 percent more in order to be as satisfied with their lives as people who walk to the office.  If you have to commute — perhaps to reach a VERY satisfying job? — use the time to enrich your life rather than listen to all the partisan yapping and barking on talk radio.  Learn a language.  “Read” a book.  Put on some comedy, and laugh all the way to your workplace.  I can almost guarantee your day will be better.

Limit your workweek to 40 hours max:  I would personally say much less, myself, but I’m biased.  Nothing erodes a balanced, happy life like being constantly at, or attached, to your job.  Even if you love it, make sure you reserve plenty of time for interests, hobbies, family, community.

Seek out the right boss, if you have a boss.  A Gallup-Healthways poll showed that having the right boss — one who’s approachable, responsive, clear about your duties, trustworthy, and who cares about your best interests — is the single biggest factor in workplace satisfaction.

Be your own boss.  Self employed people report seriously high average levels of happiness and well-being.  Whether it’s an issue of being able to control your time more, or whether self-employed folks tend to be doing work they like already, I can tell you from personal experience that we are a pretty happy lot for the most part,  and there is endless possibility for finding a niche that pays the bills AND makes you happy.

Social Life

As an introvert, I sometimes bristle at the constant societal nagging to “get out more, be more social,” with the implication that there’s something wrong with doing things I like to do solo (gardening, projects, reading, etc.)  But the research doesn’t lie: People who make an effort to socialize tend to be happier people.  This doesn’t mean I want to go out to a party every other night, but it does mean that when I’m faced with a comfortable opportunity to be with kindred spirits — such as drinking beer in the shade with the other community gardeners — I don’t always follow my kneejerk introvert tendency to say no.

Take a hard, honest look at your social network:  Did you know that a study showed that for each additional happy friend in our lives, our happiness can go up as much as 9%, while each unhappy friend drags it down by 7%?   Moods and behaviors are contagious; if your social circle is composed of people with never-ending problems, depression, anger about politics, substance abuse, or chronic criticism issues, these things easily bleed over into YOUR behaviors as well.  Think about the ten people you spend the most time with.  Do you come away from time with them feeling lighter/happier/more full, or do you come away feeling like you need a nap or a stiff drink?  Gradually build more upbeat, well-adjusted, socially stable people into your life, and you will move further and further in the direction of happiness.

Join a group or club:  Think about your interests and skills and values, and find an organization that can use them, or that grows them.  One study showed that participating in a group that meets regularly can give the same long-term gain in happiness levels as doubling your income.  It could be as simple as a private Facebook group where your neighbors can chat with each other.  We have such a board here in my town, and we trade restaurant reviews, news of upcoming fun events, sightings of interesting wildlife, etc.  It pulls us out of our isolation to talk with each other, which feels great.

Create your own group of mutually supportive friends:  In Blue Zones, Buettner learned about the concept of a “moai,” a group of friends who travel through life together, see each other frequently, and help one another when needed.  Try working toward a moai of your own, if you don’t already have one.  As with everything else, tiny little moves in the right direction, like feeding a valuable long-term friendship with a little TLC or nurturing a new one, can add up to a big difference in how you feel.

Financial Life

The best overall plan for your financial life in terms of happiness is to put in place lots of little nudges that help you save mindlessly and spend thoughtfully.

Do some automatic saving:  No matter how much money you make, unless you’re living under a bridge somewhere, you can afford to have a few dollars automatically transferred into a savings account by the miracle of electronic transfer.  Remember the numbers: If you can save just sixteen dollars a week beginning at age 18, and invest in something with a halfway decent and reliable interest rate, you could retire a millionaire by age 65.  If your employer has a retirement plan, get involved in it.

Avoid credit cards: The average American household still carries thousands of dollars in revolving debt, and the worst part of it is that it’s becoming normal behavior….as though bleeding money to pay interest on non-essential purchases is just a part of life.  It’s not.  Buettner advises having one credit card, and not carrying it with you — keeping it in an accessible but not mindlessly-accessible place, like a hidden, zippered pocket in your purse or a glove box.  So you have to think about it before you use it.  If you do use credit cards for various reasons, pay them off every month. And if you have a huge balance, find a plan online for getting rid of it, a bite at a time. There are plenty of plans . . . find one that works for you.  And you’ll be much, much happier.

Invest in experiences, not stuff:  I’ll quote Dan Buettner verbatim on this: “Spending your money on family vacations, dance classes, ongoing education, music lessons…and so forth is more likely to provide you with a lasting sense of well-being than buying the latest fashions or splurging on a new car.”

Home

Many of us have habits that are counterintuitive when it comes to making ourselves happy at home: We think they will make us more content, but they really don’t.  Here are some gentle nudges toward what the research tells us will actually make us happier people:

Fewer TV screens:  Have one TV.  Just one.  Keep it in an out of the way room, where you’re likely to mindlessly flip it on to self-medicate.  And get the TV out of your kids’ rooms — this has been proven to make kids more active, even reduce their body fat index.

Cancel cable:  With ten zillion channels to choose from (probably eating a $200 hole in your budget every month, which we ALSO have come to see as normal somehow) our TV watching is likely to increase, increasing isolation, worries about children, guilt, and (my addition) an unrealistic view of what the world is really like.  People who watch a lot of TV are much more likely to see the world as a dark, dangerous, unfair, crime-ridden place where our only pleasures come from the consumer goods the advertisers are kind enough to tell us about .

Have a pet:  If you like having an animal, research shows people with pets to have lower blood pressure and fewer stress hormones in their bloodstream.  It could be the companionship, the ability to focus on something other than our problems and needs, or just the tactile calm of stroking an animal.  Whatever it is, if your situation is right and you can truly take care of a pet, consider it.

Create a meditation space:  Create a space in your home where you can be quiet.  And if you want to go ahead and develop a meditation practice, it’s been shown to activate pleasure centers in the brain and inhibit pain centers . . . just by sitting there and quieting your mind.  Incredible, huh?

Get some sunshine (in your home):  Sunlight makes your body manufacture endorphins, those lovely chemicals that make you feel great (like runners get, with their “high”).  Make sure there’s enough light in your life by creating an outdoor sitting place of some kind, and opening up the windows to welcome in the sun.

Get good sleep, no matter what it takes:  Show me someone who is chronically stressed out or sick, and I’ll show you someone who doesn’t get good quality sleep, or enough of it.  So many people sabotage their own ability to sleep with TVs and computers in the bedroom, stress-inducing books and shows right before bed, noise, light, a too-hot bedroom, and so many more factors.  My doctor has a wealth of research about how bad sleep can invite a plethora of illnesses and disease into your life.  Look at this page and see if you can invite better sleep, better health, and  a better day instead:  http://umm.edu/programs/sleep/patients/sleep-hygiene

Self

Do you know yourself?  What’s your reason for getting out of bed in the morning?  Do you know what your values, strengths, talents, interests, and gifts are?  Without knowledge of what’s important to you, what you’re good at, and how you might want to leave the world different when you’re gone, you’re like a ship without a rudder, just moving through space at the whims of whatever happens around you.

Give some thought to why you get up in the morning:  What makes life worth living for you?  What’s your mission?  Or what would you like it to be?  It might be to raise amazing children, or be the best spouse/sister/brother/mom/dad in the world, or learn as much as possible, or eradicate something you see as terrible and unjust, or make people laugh so we’re all happier together.  Whatever it is, think about it, journal about it if you’re of a mind to.  Attach your rudder.  Start heading somewhere.

Find a hobby, or develop your interests:  In Buettner’s research in Denmark, what he calls “the world’s happiness all-stars,” he learned that 95% of Danes belong to a club of some kind, many organized around common interests like model trains or chess.  Here in America, we tend to put our interests on the back burner, to get to after we take our kids to a dozen different activities or after the 80-hour work week.  But immersing yourself often in the things you love to do is as important as any aspect of your life in terms of finding lasting happiness.  Take the time; you matter too.

Develop your people skills:  So many people feel as though they don’t know how to solve problems without stress, have a difficult conversation, or maintain healthy boundaries.  This lands us in sooo much stress and unhappiness, and we can end up feeling trapped and angry.  Take an adult education course on communication skills, read a book on setting healthy limits for yourself, take baby steps toward feeling comfortable in your own skin no matter what the social circumstances happening around you.

Volunteer:  Twenty years ago, I rarely volunteered.  Maybe once a year a special event would come up that would pique my interest, but I resisted it, pleading no time, I had nothing to contribute, and so on.  When we moved to our new town, there was a local nonprofit that I was really tickled with, and so I started to give an hour here, an hour there, no heavy pressure, and careful to watch my time boundaries.  It has made me (the introvert!) new friends, I’m in better shape, there are more people in the grocery store who smile and say “hi” to me . . . so many benefits.  Studies show volunteers tend to weigh less, feel healthier, have reduced heart attack risk, and score higher in happiness ratings.  And you’re doing good work in the world.

Buettner’s book says so much more, and I’d really advise reading it if you’re interested in why some people/populations are happy and some aren’t, and how you can gradually nudge your life into the former category.  Next week I’ll write my own addendum, from a green hedonist’s perspective.

What do you do in your life to keep yourself on the track to happiness?

 

 

 

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Category: Celebrations, Fun, Home, Leisure, Local, Mental Health, Money Saving, Pets, Useful Stuff

Comments (10)

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  1. Sharon says:

    Best blog yet! The Princess Bride is my favorite movie and I love that quote. We’re doing our best to figure our how to live in a way that our words mean what we think they mean! I will print this blog and tuck it in my journal for further reflection. Many thanks!

  2. Stacy says:

    Beautifully put!

  3. amy says:

    I also have a hard time with the social thing; I feel like I get enough people-time at work and with other obligations. But I should probably make some time for FUN socializing. Though I’d usually rather be with a book.

    Hedonism – Inconceivable!?

    • greenhedonist says:

      I would almost always rather be with a book, but when I DO ease my way out there, more often than not I find something that is good for my mood or mind or spirits. But I totally understand getting burned out on socializing.

  4. Kay in K-town says:

    Great blog, GH!

  5. Gardenarian says:

    Great post, and timely for me. Sometimes the solution IS geography.
    I just moved to Ashland, Oregon and my quality of life has soared. Walkability is key – I can walk to shops, library, parks, museums, and get to the Pacific Crest Trail from the end of my street. No stress from driving, and wilderness right next to all the opportunities of a city – bliss.

    I’m working fewer hours (only 2 days per week) and have a lovely 10 minute walking commute to work.

    It’s so quiet! I was previously living under the flight path of a major airport – what a relief not to have that anger all the time at the noise.

    There is always so much going on here in this small city that it is sometimes difficult to decide what to do – yoga, theater, contra dancing, birding, kayaking, lectures, clubs, hiking – though I have not made any strong friendships (yet) I am enjoying interacting with people at all these different activities. And my daughter is loving her new high school as well – she wanted to move on from homeschooling, and it has been a purely positive experience for her, too,

    What I love most about Ashland is it’s beauty; the enormous old trees, the ever-changing skies, the lovely gardens and broad views. It is a joy.

    We miss you over at SLF, but it sounds like you are thriving!

    • greenhedonist says:

      Gardenarian! I miss you!! And Ashland sounds absolutely divine. Though my city is smaller than Ashland, it makes such a huge difference in my happiness to be in a place where I can walk to the store, coffee shop, post office, forest trails, a lake – and public transportation to Denver should I need to go there. It took a leap of faith to move here (for many years I convinced myself it just wasn’t possible) but now my happiness quotient is so much higher, I can’t imagine going back to that other life. Sending you my best.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Whoa! Thanks for this!

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