3 Ways to Build Happiness

The concert started. We had been waiting for this all year. The band came on stage, and all of a sudden all the cell phones went up to filming the band. I thought, “Why on earth can’t we just enjoy this moment?”

But I was wrong. And it has major implications for what makes us happy. This is why:

We don’t live our experiences; we live the memories of our experiences.

For a long time, I have been a fan of being present in the moment. But the idea that we are happiest if we live in every single moment is not supported by brain science.

Nobel Laureate, Daniel Kahneman in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow asked this question: What if I offered you the most amazing vacation with everything that you could want – the location, the food, the experiences, the people that you would go with? It is a once-in-a-lifetime, no-experience-spared vacation customized for you,

BUT you could not remember any of it once you left. How much would you pay for that vacation?

If you are like ninety percent of people, you would not pay very much for it. Many answered that they would pay nothing.

Let me ask you that same question from the opposite perspective: If you knew you had to have an incredibly painful surgery, but you could be assured that once it was over you wouldn’t remember any of it, how would you feel about the surgery?

A few years ago, my dad had to have a bone marrow biopsy, which is incredibly painful. They drilled into his hip and there was no pain medication. My dad said he screamed during the entire procedure. So I asked my dad if he had to go through that procedure again, but this time they had to drill into both hips, what would he decide? His face winced at the very thought of it and he said, “I don’t think I would do it again.” But then I asked him how he would feel if he was assured not to remember anything after going through the experience. His face lightened up and he said, “Oh. No, okay. I’d be okay with that.”

I was actually shocked to hear his answer, but it underscored what Kahneman found in his research: we don’t live our experiences. We live the memories of our experiences. That is why Kahneman says you see so many people going on vacation taking pictures, taking videos at events and putting them on websites. We are trying to maintain those memories. Somehow intuitively, we know we don’t live the experience but we live the memory of the experience. And we can live that memory long after.

There are three ways to use this reality from neuroscience to build happiness into our lives.

1. Keep two separate journals.

There are benefits to writing down both your darkest thoughts and brightest joys – but you write them for very different reasons.  There is good evidence that the very act of writing out your darkest thoughts relieves the stress of them.  But you don’t want to review these constantly.  By contrast, recording the wonderful things that you see every day creates a log that you can return to often and relive the beautiful landscape of your life.  Win the victory again.  Laugh hard again.  Make love again.  It is this second journal we want to live with.  It is the story of our happy life.

2. Upload lots of photos to Flickr.

The more we see them, the more we relive them.

3. Ask yourself, “What is the best thing that could possibly come from this day or situation?”

Our brains love puzzles. If we give our brains a puzzle to solve, it will search until it finds a solution.  So even in the worst of days or the most negative of circumstances, our brains can be tasked with finding the best possible purpose, and it will produce one.  All we have to do is ask.

This builds happiness because it becomes the filter through which we relive our memories.  Neuroscience also shows that every time we retrieve a memory, we view it through the filter of how we feel in that moment. Our memories change over time; there is nothing we can do about it. What we can affect is HOW our memories change. By using the filter of simply asking what is the best that could possibly come from every memory, we positively affect how we remember our past. And that positively affects our own happiness.

Now, this is not easy in the middle of tragedy; trust me, I know. I have heard a doctor tell me my daughter had a stroke. I have stood there as we discovered a child was deaf. I watched my dad die. Life is not delicious in every moment and sometimes the very best that can possibly come from a situation is that we get stronger. But if we task our minds with finding some possible growth that might come from a challenging situation, we will find it.

And then we can write about it. Or take a picture of it. And the building of those memories will build our happiness.

Why Leaders Don’t Listen

I was sitting with a front-line employee of a friend’s company recently. This is the type of employee we all want to hear from – he interacts with clients on a daily basis, is creative, engaging, and cares about the company’s customers. He was sharing good ideas about the strategy of the company and what it could do to better serve its end-users. This was quality feedback.

Then he said something that made me pause. He zeroed in on one idea, one he had shared with leadership multiple times. “It is clear,” he said as his voice rose. He got animated, “Why don’t they do this? Aren’t leaders supposed to listen to us? Aren’t they supposed to heed our advice?” And it hit me…

“Because they don’t agree,” I said flatly. He looked at me dumbfounded.

Leaders who listen hear lots of great ideas over time. They still have to pick one to move the organization forward, and it might not be yours. When we are listened to, we have to be fine if the decision does not go as we suggested. We need to be as enthusiastic implementing the plan that was not our idea as we would have our idea.

A healthy listening culture is a symbiotic relationship; those of us who report to someone also have a responsibility – to not get so emotionally tied to our own suggestions that we go sulk if our suggestion is not chosen. The leader usually has a different perspective than we do; sometimes one from higher up the mountain.

One leader I consulted with settled on some language that worked for her with her team. She had a passionate, intelligent team who cared deeply about the business – again, exactly the type of team any leader would want. She, rightly, sought ideas from them constantly about the next direction of the firm. And sometimes, a team member would get married to an idea that the leader decided against. The team member would keep making his case, showing more evidence, arguing, and not letting it go. As she and I brainstormed options about how to handle this, the leader started saying to her team, “Look, as people, we are all on the same plane and no one’s idea is better than anyone else’s. But for the organization to move forward, a direction has to be chosen. Right or wrong, the mantle of leadership was placed on me so I’ve got to make the call.”

If we are part of a team and we want to be listened to, we have a responsibility to pull the wagon just as hard if the decision is to pull in a different direction than we suggested. Otherwise, we teach leaders that listening carries too much complication.

Your Ice Cream is Melting

“It’s always amazing how people are so willing to believe whatever it is that keeps their paycheck flowing.”  – Barry Ritholtz on Bloomberg


I was going for ice cream. Summers in Central Texas are scorchers and this summer was right in line – well over 100 degrees on this particular day.

Standing outside the ice cream shop was a little boy looking aghast at his beautiful, double-dip, chocolate ice cream cone melting so quickly that it had now stained his entire right forearm and was running off the end of his elbow in a thin stream. It was creating a warm chocolate milk shake on the pavement below. As I approached, his dad was trying not to laugh and was cajoling the little boy, “Just lick it! Just start licking it!” barely getting the words out because of the scene’s humor. His son looked up at him incredulous and almost screamed, “My tongue’s hot too – it will just make it melt faster!”

Your world is changing. So is mine. That is just our reality.

The ice that most of our careers were built on is turning into water. And then into steam. We keep thinking that after this change will come something solid again, but those thoughts only lead to stress and anxiety and worry and disappointment; we cannot create like we need to create in such a state. The best thing for us all is to make a plan for the future based on reality: there is no more solid. It is time to learn to surf.

And that is actually good news.

Because as ice cream melts, we also have the opportunity to realize that we now have another wonderful thing – a milk shake.

Different. Not what we went out for. But still wonderful on its own.

So we have this choice: we can scramble to salvage what we can of this loved treat (this career, this idea, this business,) that is fading away and before it is gone. OR, we can get curious about what glorious things could be done with a warm milk shake (the opportunities that are created whenever change happens – which is always) and get to work on that. We could, of course, work on both solutions at the same time. OR, maybe worst of all, we could continue to stand stuck, incredulous that the sun is taking away our ice cream and jabbering on about how we hate warm milk shakes and watch the whole thing turn into a brown, sticky mess on the concrete.

We get nothing if we spend this precious time complaining about how our ice cream is melting.

Goals Without Routines

Goals are meant to keep us on track. Goals without routines, though, can still have us lurching from one thing to another, feeling like we are playing whack-a-mole or trying to spin too many plates in the air. But when routines are in place, it fills up the day or week to the point where we can tell a request for a commitment, “I’m sorry, I’m full.”

What are the Pareto activities – those activities that drive 80% of the results – in any objective? Those are the activities to build routines around.

What to do When Time-Management Doesn’t Work

Years ago, when I was still working in politics, I decided to start transitioning to the private sector by starting a small business. The problem was that there was not enough time in the day – or so I thought. So I built a crude spreadsheet on Microsoft Word and began tracking my time in 5 minute increments. I tracked everything; I was uber-hard on myself. And thus began my love/hate relationship with time-management.

Years later, I read an article in Harvard Business Review that made the case that time-management is a myth. When I read those words, I realized I had always known that to be true – and I bet so do you. We’ve just not known any other way.

But now we do.

Maura Nevel Thomas, the same author who wrote that HBR article revealing the myth that is “time-management,” has a new book out that tells what is real:

We cannot manage time; the only thing we can manage is our own attention.

The “how-to” of attention-management is an elegant walk to self-discovery and self-control. Learning to manage my attention rather than the constant Sisyphic effort to control time has made such a difference in my own productivity and peace in the process.

Your sane self inside you is begging you to read this book. It comes out today.

Why Listening Makes Better Leaders

It was 15 degrees below zero and Ron was standing there soaking wet. A car pulled up in front of him. He took a deep, painful breath of frozen air all the way to the bottom of his stomach, looked up into the clear blue, sunny Chicago day, and turned on the water hose.

Ron Williams had grown up and lived on the South Side of Chicago as long as he had memory. And he had always worked hard. The summers were easier because summer in Chicago is better than anywhere else, but he really made his money in the winter. Most of the Chicago winter was full of snow and slush and salt and dirt on cars. And so, when there was any clear sunny day, everyone wanted to get their cars washed. That’s what Ron was doing on this clear, sunny, 15-degree-below day – standing at a car wash washing down cars in frigid temperatures. This was his 30th car today and it was only 8:30 in the morning. He would wash another 870 vehicles before the day was done.

If you had pulled up to that car wash in 1964 you might have thought, “Poor kid. He’s got to be freezing.” You most certainly would never have ever thought, “That kid is going to help make sure my grandchildren have adequate healthcare.” But that is what is true.

When no one else could, Ron Williams engineered the impossible turnaround of healthcare giant Aetna and today consults companies small to large to the US government on how to create our best next iteration of a healthcare system.

His leadership results are better than most because his leadership approach is different than most.

When he was recently asked on Bloomberg’s “Masters in Business” podcast what advice he would give someone aspiring to improve their leadership skills, Ron said one word:


In that podcast and in his book “Learning to Lead: The Journey to Leading Yourself, Leading Others, and Leading an Organization,” Williams gives multiple examples of how he made a difference by first listening – and really hearing – people he was called to lead. He made the statement in the podcast that some of the major strategies that were the cause of the massive turnaround at Aetna came from frontline employees who had never been truly heard before. He said, “I got better ideas from those who were on the front line than from hours with teams of strategists.”

Leaders mistakenly believe that they have to show up with the answers. Too many too often first yell, “I know the way! Follow me!” No one leader can always know the way. The best leaders have always drawn from the wisdom of the crowd by listening closely, first, to the wisdom that exists in individual members of the crowd.