Read - March

What I Read Last Month :: March

One of the most effective ways of boosting our enjoyment of any activity is to share it with someone else. By telling others about our good news or bringing our friends along to barre with us, or sharing a good meal with someone else, the best things in life are just better when they also involve our loved ones. And so, because I love reading so much, over the past year or so, Jon and I have started to read one book at time together. So far, they have mostly been focused on marriage (current book: Happy Together by Suzann Pileggi Pawelski and James O. Pawelski), but they could technically cover any topic. We don’t actually read the book together, preferring instead to each read the next chapter on our own throughout the week and then setting aside some time one evening or over the weekend to discuss questions, thoughts, and any activities or actions which may have been outlined. It’s been a very successful activity thus far and one that (I think!) we both really enjoy. We are learning new things and ideas which should hypothetically benefit our relationship and since we are doing it together, its all the more fun. I have never really been part of an organized book club per se, but given this experience I think I would really enjoy it. And for those who would like to read more, but struggle to make time or find the motivation, it might be the extra bit of accountability to help create such a habit.

My year long Happiness Project is in its final months already and although I feel between my own resolutions and experiments I have gained tremendous insight into how to build more experiences of positive emotions (joy, gratitude, serenity, interest, hope, pride, amusement, inspiration, awe, love, altruism, satisfaction, and relief), reading on the topic extensively has helped me to really understand what will make a difference. By now, I have read most of the most prominent books positive psychology has birthed over the past 10-15 years and have loved nearly all of them. And March was no exception – here’s what I read last month:

Stumbling on Happiness
Daniel Gilbert

Lest the title mislead you, this book was not about strategies and tips which promote happiness. It was actually about “affective forecasting,” or our ability to predict how something will make us feel in the future. Gilbert achieved a litany of awards and accolades for his witty and (sometimes scathing) writing style as he describes some of the fundamental factors that influence our projection of what our future self will enjoy and how that often leads to errors in making decisions in the present. He argues that although “we treat our future selves as though they were our children, spending most of the hours of most of our days constructing tomorrows that we hope will make them happy…like the fruits of our loins, our temporal progeny are often thankless. We toil and sweat to give them just what we think they will like, and they quit their jobs, grow their hair, move to or from San Francisco and wonder how we could ever have been stupid enough to think they’d like that.” Gilbert likens this phenomenon to what we experience when we look at optical illusions which cause us to regularly make the same systematic errors in our assessment of a particular image. Often even when we know that the Muller-Lyer lines are identical in length, it is hard for us to be convinced otherwise. The same thing, as Gilbert describes in detail throughout the book, happen swhen we imagine our own future selves – very often that which we thought would make us “complete” and happy falls flat or we tend to overestimate the negative effects of a potential personal tragedy. The book was interesting and provocative and in the same vein as Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow which I also really enjoyed. Although overcoming the systematic errors we encounter in affective forecasting is not easily done by following some three step process, I do find it quite insightful to increase my own understanding of such effects and it really does help me to understand better how I could have ever been so stupid as to think that I’d like that. All in all, although perhaps completely overcoming these cognitive biases is not possible, I think the book strengthen the argument for knowing oneself better which I has helped throughout my ongoing project. Without this introspection, we are even more likely to make mistakes in predicting what will actually truly make us happier.

The Power of Moments
Chip Heath & Dan Heath

Just as evidence consistently highlights the significance of social connections as a major contributor to our subjective wellbeing, a lot of recent research (and common experience) shows that particular points in time can be tremendously impactful. As Chip and Dan Health say we certainly can all recall a few defining moments “or meaningful experiences that define our lives,” but we often tend to think that they just happen and can’t necessarily be controlled. The premise of this book, on the contrary, is that we don’t have to wait passively for defining moments to happen to us, but rather we can help to create them in our own lives and those around us by better understanding common traits of such experiences and what specifically makes them memorable and meaningful and then learning how to build those common elements into the activities we engage in, the relationships we foster, the projects we undertake, and the jobs that we perform. By examining several different types of experiences on the job, on vacation, in our day-to-day, and amongst our friends and family, the authors outline four elements which can lead to these defining moments either on their own or in combination with one another:

Elevation – An extraordinary event, which transcends or rises above the everyday and normal
Insight – “defining moments [which] rewire our understanding of ourselves or the world,” an epiphany
Pride – moment of achievement, accomplishment or display of courage or valor
Connection – social events which are significant because they are shared with others

For me this book was as the Irish would say “grand.” I thought the principles it shared were interesting and worthy of further consideration, but the writing style was slightly superficial and lacked meatiness. It was informative, but not thought-provoking or transformative for me.

Angela Duckworth

March kicked off the first of several spring bank holidays here in Ireland, and I found myself deliriously excited about the fact that I had one full day off from absolutely any responsibilities or plans. It was bizarre! But I would argue I made the most of it by reading this book from cover to cover in just that one day. GRIT is a fascinating topic to me – I have read about it many times over the past year, but had yet to read the full book. Just last week, I shared some background details of Angela Duckworth’s theory of grit and I had also written about how I personally have experienced growth in this area throughout my time spent at the barre. By studying the commonalities of exceptional performance across a wide variety of disciplines, Duckworth has powerfully demonstrated the impact of how “what goes through your head when you fall down… not talent or luck – makes all the difference.” Consistently the most successful people, no matter their area of expertise, demonstrate high levels of what Duckworth calls grit, which is comprised of two components – passion and perservance. Rather than just enthusiasm or an intense emotional state, Duckworth defines passion as endurance; a serious and consistent commitment over time which serves as a “compass [that] takes you some time to build, tinker with, and finally get right, and that then guides you on your long and winding road to where, ultimately, you want to be.” Perservance is the “degree of strength of will or perservance.. Quiet determination to stick to course once decided upon [and a]tendency not abandon tasks in the face of obstacles.” Aside from building the case for why someone would aspire to be “gritty,” Duckworth also argues that “like every aspect of your psychological character, grit is more plastic than you think [and that] you can learn to discover, develop, and deepen your interests. You can acquire the habit of discipline. You can cultivate a sense of purpose and meaning. And you can teach yourself to hop. You can grow your grit from the inside out.” And this is an endeavor well worth every ounce of effort required. I could not recommend this book more highly.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi

I read this book many years ago, but to be honest, it was a bit lost on me at the time. However, it is one of the most important concepts of positive psychology and one of the most impactful ways often cited to achieve a happier and more worthwhile life. And I know that for me personally, although there are many things I love about it, flow is the reason that I am so utterly addicted to barre. So I decided to reread it. And to be honest, the first few chapters in, I kind of remembered why I wasn’t overly enamored by the book before – Csikszentmihalyi is excessively post-modernistic and depressing at points and seems to often proclaim his perspective and worldview as fact rather than opinion. However, once I got into the heart of the book I was absolutely hooked. It was exciting to learn, in more depth, why and how what I experience is working to create an “optimal experience.” Flow is a just that – it’s an optimal experience or intense state of concentration and complete absorption and immersion in particular pursuit. It is, as Csikzentmihalyi writes, the “control of consciousness… the ability to focus attention at will, to be oblivious to distractions, to concentrate for as long as it takes to achieve a goal [which happens when] we confront tasks we have a chance of completing [and are] able to concentrate on what we are doing…the concentration is usually possible because the task undertaken has clear goals and provides immediate feedback…One acts with a deep but effortless involvement that removes from awareness the worries and frustrations of everyday life…[and allows] people to exercise a sense of control over their actions… concern for the self disappears, yet paradoxically the sense of self emerges stronger after the flow experiences is over. Finally, the sense of duration of time is altered; hours pass by in minutes, and minutes can stretch out to seem like hours. The combination of all these elements causes a sense of deep enjoyment that is so rewarding people feel that expending a great deal of energy is worthwhile simply to be able to feel it.” Throughout the book, Csikszentmihalyi expands on each of these components to describe the flow, which many people might describe as being “in the zone,” and discusses why and how we can structure our lives to include more flow ultimately leading to a greater sense of fulfillment. It’s a lot less woo woo than it may sound, and totally worth a read. Whether it comes to the things that we do for work or for leisure, our relationships or our alone time, finding opportunities for flow and building intrinsic motivation matters profoundly. According to Sonja Lyubomirsky’s Person Activity Fit Diagnostic, this is the number one “Happiness Strategy” for me personally and for that reason, so you can bet you’ll continue to find me on my highest tip toes at the barre deep in flow. Or, with my nose buried in a book – another commonly flow-inducing endeavor.

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