The Happiness Curriculum

If I’m honest, I was never a big reader. That might surprise some folks that know me because my undergraduate degree is in English Literature which, by definition, requires a great deal of reading.

College made me appreciate it, I guess, and it stuck, though I rarely prioritized it. That was the case until I took a job years later that involved a 30-45 minute commute. Every good multitasker will tell you that you can make good use of that time even if you’re driving. For me, it was to sneak a few good books in with my subscription to Audible.

That’s what started the consumption of great titles, but it doesn’t explain the subject matter. I, of course, had read a self-help book on occasion. Clearly, nonfiction is not nearly as exciting as something fictional on the drive to a day packed with meetings and onerous tasks. But something lit a fire one day as I was trying to make sense of stories in my own life and wondering why, despite all of the relatively good circumstances I enjoyed, I wasn’t happier.

My first clue began back in 2004 when I first read the Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle. It was a difficult read, and I’m not sure I finished it, truthfully. But in 2012, I watched an interview with him on Oprah’s Super Soul Sunday, and I was mesmerized. I decided that he had to be the happiest person in the world, and I determined to read the book again. This led me down a road that crossed paths with many of the same authors that would appear on Oprah’s series. And some of the authors I found while listening to interviews on podcasts I subscribed to — Rob Bell’s Robcast, for example, or Dan Harris’s 10% Happier podcast. Others came out of Ted Talks or Twitter follows. At times, I felt like the universe was conspiring to make me happy or at least lead me to people who could show me the way.

Before I explain further, take a look at the list of titles that helped me get acquainted with happiness:

  1. The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment by Eckhart Tolle
  2. Moments of Forever: Discovering the True Power and Importance of Your Life by Bill R. Path
  3. The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor
  4. Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace You Who Are by Brene Brown
  5. The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun by Gretchen Rubin
  6. Thrive: The Third Metric to Redefining Success and Creating a Life of Well-Being, Wisdom, and Wonder by Arianna Huffington
  7. You Are a Badass: How to Stop Doubting Your Greatness and Start Living an Awesome Life by Jen Sincero
  8. Discovering Your Soul Signature: A 33-Day Path to Purpose, Passion & Joy by Panache Desai
  9. 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works–A True Story by Dan Harris
  10. Rising Strong by Brene Brown
  11. How to Be Here: A Guide to Creating a Life Worth Living by Rob Bell
  12. Present Over Perfect: Leaving Behind Frantic for a Simpler, More Soulful Way of Living by Shauna Niequist
  13. Real Happiness at Work: Meditations for Accomplishment, Achievement, and Peace by Sharon Salzberg
  14. Be Happy! Release the Power of Happiness in YOU by Robert Holden
  15. Better Than Before: What I Learned About Making and Breaking Habits–to Sleep More, Quit Sugar, Procrastinate Less, and Generally Build a Happier Life by Gretchen Rubin
  16. Essential Zen Habits: Mastering the Art of Change, Briefly by Leo Babauta
  17. Lovingkindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness by Sharon Salzberg
  18. The Happiness Track: How to Apply the Science of Happiness to Accelerate Your Success
  19. Real Love: The Art of Mindful Connection by Sharon Salzberg
  20. The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative by Florence Williams
  21. Peak Performance: Elevate Your Game, Avoid Burnout, and Thrive with the New Science of Success by Brad Stulberg and Steve Magness
  22. Unwind! 7 Principles for a Stress-Free Life by Michael Olpin and Sam Bracken
  23. Wherever You Go, There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life by Jon Kabat-Zinn

[Note: Can we talk about subtitles? I’m looking at you, Gretchen Rubin. :)]

[Second note: Can we talk about exclamation points in titles? The imperative here seems unnecessarily judgy or preachy. If I could do what you’re exclaiming, I wouldn’t be reading your book!]

In my future posts about each of these, I intend to offer an explanation for their inclusion. In my curriculum, I’ve blended a few ideas — as I started looking into happiness, mindfulness showed up on the reg. These two things are well connected through research. Good habits are also a prevailing theme. You might notice repeated authors because if they’ve written one successful book on the subject, they have probably found an area of expertise in the happiness realm. Or, as in the case of Sharon Salzberg, she’s just a rock star, and you should probably read anything she has written.

There are a few duds, too, as I will explain later. Whether it came to me as a recommendation or I stumbled upon it in my partner’s library, I still included it as a guidepost if nothing else.

This is, by no means, an exhaustive list. I’m sure to find more and will add accordingly. I will gladly consider additions to the list. I am certain to be criticized for leaving off seminal works that are obvious to all. I get it. Also note that these are more practical works which incorporate science but are not academic. There were definitely points along the way that turned me on to some of the research, but I was satisfied by the author’s incorporation of the data without sliding into yet another rabbit hole.

But listen, there are tons of self-help books out there, and apparently the pursuit of happiness is more than just an inalienable right declared in our independence from British tyranny. It’s a real thing with which Americans still struggle even through they are usually the ones sabotaging themselves in mediocre servitude. This list of resources is what I stumbled upon which helped me gain some sort of clarity or inspired a level of introspection that I couldn’t unlock before. I hope it’s helpful as I read them again and post my key takeaways that may inspire others to do the same.



Nonfiction Review: Love Wins

Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever LivedLove Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived by Rob Bell

My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this at a time when I was having a struggle with organized religion. My faith and the so-called “Christian values” did not seem to align. I was increasingly troubled by the incongruent philosophies espoused by the religious right (e.g. pro-war, anti-climate change, ultra-capitalistic rhetoric). Love Wins is an eye-opening, if not downright shocking, reframing of what heaven and hell might be.

Best take away for me is that God is a constant redeemer, making it possible for you to be forgiven and forgiven without end. We sometimes choose to live in a hell of our own making because we run from the grace He extends. Another takeaway: If we are too focused on the the after-life, we may actually miss out on one of God’s best gifts.

“Often times when I meet atheists and we talk about the god they don’t believe in, we quickly discover that I don’t believe in that god either.”

View all my reviews

Nonfiction Review: Bossypants

BossypantsBossypants by Tina Fey

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Typical Tina Fey… hilarious.

The Mother’s Prayer for Its Daughter is spot on without being all preachy.

May she be Beautiful but not Damaged, for it’s the Damage that draws the creepy soccer coach’s eye, not the Beauty.

More great quotes:

Being a good boss means hiring talented people and then getting out of their way.

‘Blorft’ is an adjective I just made up that means ‘Completely overwhelmed but proceeding as if everything is fine and reacting to the stress with the torpor of a possum.’ I have been blorft every day for the past seven years.

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I was thinking earlier about how privileged we are to be able to travel. We’re exposed to a lot of things, a lot of ways to live. And sometimes we witness beauty in ways we could have never imagined until seeing it for the very first time.

We as humans are self-limiting. Until we actually get a vision for ourselves (figuratively and literally) of what we’re after, it’s nearly impossible to attain. How do we know that we want something until we know it exists?

For ages, mankind has also defined God by his own limited perceptions. Denominations grew out of these various interpretations. Our beliefs are based on what we collectively know or accept to be true. But what we don’t know– the things we’ve never witnessed or experienced– those are the variables I’m interested in.

Our knowledge of God and Heaven is based on very limited information. Thus we ascribe a lot of human characteristics to a supernatural being that defies those limitations. Just as someone describes Heaven as having streets of gold because that opulence is what they want Heaven to be like, it could just as well be a peaceful boat ride down the river.

pompano beach 155

My idea of Heaven might be radically different from yours, and that’s ok. Yet there are many folks who believe in absolutes – I wonder why that is. After all, we confront new realities everyday, and very few constants.

The bottom line is that when I see something new for the first time as we travel, it reminds me that I must not limit God to my own human experience nor limit Heaven to what I’ve already seen.

This post is heavily influenced by the book I’m currently reading – Love Wins by Rob Bell. Requires a separate post. 

No Prerequisite for worthiness

They say admitting you have a problem is the first step, so there you have it. Lately, a series of events have forced me to realize that being busy isn’t the same as being productive. The harder realization has been this:

  • My work is not my life.
  • My life is not my work.
  • Who I am has greater value than what I do.
  • My performance does not determine my worth.

It’s funny how one “ah-ha” moment can turn into an avalanche of change. It’s like when you discover a new word that you never heard of before and then suddenly you start seeing it everywhere, and you wonder how you missed it before.

It started a few months ago when I read The Now Habit at Work. I guess you could describe it as a self-help book, but I really expected it to be a book about productivity. Instead, the author starts out diagnosing my problems, and while he called me out on my procrastination, he really told me why I was dysfunctional– because I am a fraud.

Yep, you read that right. I’m not a workaholic at all, I’m just not who everyone thinks I am. I’m not as smart as you think, and I’m not as capable as I once was, and I’m afraid that everyone is about to discover my ineptitude. I should be fired.

See, the truth is, I’m my own worst enemy. If you know me at all, I’ve probably already convinced you by now that I’m a bit of an overachiever, a people-pleaser, and a perfectionist. And the world places a high value on these things, especially because I’m a woman. That’s not the tragedy though. The sad part of the story is that since 9 years old (I remember vividly the very day that this kicked in), I believed that I had to do something to earn love from my parents. I was trained to believe that performance equalled love. And that belief influenced every relationship after.

So while I’ve worked hard to do more, do better, and make everyone happy, in my head, I’m not doing enough, not doing it right, and ultimately not feeling loved.

Now keep in mind that I wasn’t conscious of this before reading The Now Habit, it just was. Then a few weeks ago, a second confirmation came in the form of a random channel selection that brought me to Dr. Brene Brown on PBS. It’s worth noting I do not watch public television, so my stumble on channel 2 was a mistake that I was trying to correct before I heard a few words on perfectionism. So I stopped and listened. And. was. sucked. in. For the next hour and half I stood in my kitchen and watched this program on her book The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown gave me permission to be flawed. In fact, she encouraged it– when you are a perfectionist, you limit yourself because you’re too afraid to do something you might not be perfect at doing.

For the second time in my life, in a span of a few months, I was reminded that I don’t have to do something in order to earn the love of others. “There is no prerequisite for worthiness.”

The Now Habit even has a chapter on me titled “Procrastinators Use Ineffective Self-Talk.” So here comes Brown connecting all of those things I’m telling myself– that I’m a fraud, I’m not good enough or smart enough, yada yada– to that place of shame I’m stuck in.

And she had a better definition of shame than I did:

Shame is really understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me that, if other people know it or see it, makes me unworthy of connection?

And the other thing that’s striking about her research is that the only difference between people who feel love and accepted and the people who don’t is that the former believe they are worthy.

Belief. That’s all. They have the courage to be imperfect, and they have connection because of their authenticity.

It takes some courage to be vulnerable, to find comfort in the imperfection. To let go of work as the source of your identity, and find connection and belonging because you are worthy of it. There’s a theme unraveling in my life right now, and the pattern will probably get clearer the more that I write about these random insights that are threading together. It’s a little unnerving, but I’m convinced that something within me has been unlocked. One thing’s for certain: I’m closer to the destination than I’ve ever been.

A “Bit” Overwhelmed

When I first started reading Bit Literacy, I’ll admit to having low expectations. I don’t know why, but I’m skeptical that anyone can really give advice about information management without really experiencing it exactly the way I do.

Lately (and by lately, I mean over the last five years — the last two overwhelmingly so), I have been so inundated with streams of data that it’s affected my overall productivity. I think it’s even contributed to what my doctor says is Adult Attention Deficit Disorder. When he suggested prescribing a daily pill, I decided it was time for me to get a handle on this. But how? I’ve lost control of the multiple inboxes, social media streams, RSS feeds, oh, and the actual non-digital conversations that are infiltrating my consciousness.

But I suspended my skepticism about the book mostly because it was a free download in iBooks, and what better book to test the new iPad app, right? I hope you see the irony in this.

Some of what author Mark Hurst says makes sense. His description of “busy man” syndrome speaks to a core problem I’ve long struggled with, that busy-ness equates to importance. In effect, we do this to ourselves by not setting boundaries between work and life. Suddenly our identity, our value is what we do, no longer who we are. As we become busier and busier, we adopt a lifestyle that is no longer sustainable.

Hurst, to his credit, doesn’t try to talk you into eliminating the sources of “bits.” Instead, he favors a policy of managing the data, which is to say, act on and erase.

So I adopted one of the strategies he suggests: inbox zero. This means emptying all email inboxes daily, and instead of storing email as your to-do list, use another system to prioritize tasks. Cluttering your inbox just doesn’t work. It’s a psychological thing. I can honestly say I agree with him, and Google has gone a long way in making this work through their task list integration. It’s not perfect, but it allows me to move email to a task list, prioritize, and add to my calendar rather than seeing it pile up in the black hole that was my inbox.

Hurst compares email to Chinese take-out. You can keep in the fridge for a few while, but soon enough, it’s going to get pretty funky. I’ve also started using Voo2Do to manage multiple to-do lists.

Hurst also recommends a “media diet.” You must constantly re-evaluate the information you’re consuming, recognizing that your time is a limited resource. It requires questioning what’s useful to you and getting rid of what’s not. I’ve had to do this. I’m a big fan of tennis, so I subscribed to tons of tennis news feeds. But I never had time to read them, and they would just stack up in my RSS reader, reminding me that I was a loser for getting so behind. Hurst gives you permission to eliminate the stuff you don’t have time for. “The bit-literate user is forever on a media diet and has to be in the habit of saying ‘no’… Every possible source is a ‘no’ unless it’s proven otherwise in a disciplined tryout.”

I’ve been trying some of the tools I’ve learned in Bit Literacy and combining them with similar book that I’ll talk about in a future post, The Now Habit at Work.

The 4-Hour Workweek

Re-reading this book but in a new context. The first time I read it, I was looking for an exit strategy. This time around, I’m looking at from a time management perspective: how to achieve more in less time and how to balance life with work.

“‘Someday’ is a disease that will take your dreams to the grave with you.” You can’t put things off waiting for the perfect conditions. I need to remember this and not put off doing what I want to do. I have a lot of things sucking up my time that don’t benefit me at all– most of it is information overload.

Two things I’ve long struggled with:

1. Doing something unimportant well does not make it important.

2. Requiring a lot of time does not make a task important.

“Being busy is a form of laziness– lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being overwhelmed is often as unproductive as doing nothing, and is far more unpleasant. Being selective– doing less– is the path of the productive.” -pg. 73

Pareto’s Law aka the 80/20 Principle: 80% of the outputs result from 20% of the inputs. -pg. 68

“Parkinson’s Law dictates that a task will swell in (perceived) importance and complexity in relation to the time allotted for its completion. It is the magic of the imminent deadline. If I gave you 24 hours to complete a project, the time pressure forces you to focus on execution, and you have no choice but to do only the bare essentials.” -pg. 75

I’m going to start applying this idea and create false deadlines for projects just to get them out the door. This may compromise quality, but it will actually allow me to get the essentials complete and then fine-tune. Requires some testing.

More Clues

Here are more notes from Cluetrain Manifesto:

“The Net was a powerful multiplier for intellectual capital.” (Talking about the beginnings of the internet.) -pg.5

There’s a difference between passive viewing (TV) and ROTFL -pg.7

“We are alternately the workers who create products and services, and the customers who purchase them.” -pg.9

Many large companies are still doing broadcast model on the web. Broadcast is the few dictating the behaviors of the many. New landscape does not equal mass– subtle nuances explode -pg.15

“Make mistakes. Debug on the fly. It’s fast, it’s furious. It’s fun!” “rock n roll” philosophy -pg.20 “Be shunned, be hated, be ridiculed, be scared, be in doubt, but don’t be gagged.” John Jay Chapman commencement address -pg. 45

***Positioning is not about a creating a tagline! “Positioning is about discovering who you, as a business, are–discovering your identity, not inventing a new one willy-nilly.” -pg.99

People are already talking about your business on the web, and you can’t control it. Why not join in the conversation. Your absence is of greater risk than your employees’ participation. “The web liberates business from the fear of being exposed as human, even against its will.” -pg.122

“Increasingly, a useful expert is not someone with all the answers but someone who knows where to find answers.” -pg.128

The Cluetrain Manifesto

A while back, Drew brought me a book from his office that he thought I should read. I looked it over, saw that it was written in 1999 and set it aside. A few weeks went by. Then by some strange coincidence, one of my university friends on Twitter decided that since he was buying the 10th anniversary edition of Cluetrain, that he was going to give his old copy away in a Twitter contest. Days later I saw a reference to it again. Suddenly, it was as though I was seeing it everywhere. So, I moved Drew’s copy into the “must read” pile.

Cluetrain is rude and confrontational in a way typical  marketing books are not. Kind of refreshing actually, albeit sometimes smug. It’s about empowering employees to speak for you so your company will sound human again instead of relying on happy talk. Open, natural, uncontrolled– not the usual adjectives for business. Here are a few notes from it I’d like to hold on to:

From the 95 theses, I like #16: “Already, companies that speaking in the language of the pitch, the dog-and-pony show, are no longer speaking to anyone.”

#21: “Companies need to lighten up and take themselves less seriously. They need to get a sense of humor.”

#22: “Getting a sense of humor does not mean putting some jokes on the corporate web site. Rather, it requires big values, a little humility, straight talk, and a genuine point of view.”