I recently mentioned a new book about happiness: The How of Happiness, by Sonja Lyubomirsky. The premise of the book is that we each have a setpoint for happiness—we are born with a proclivity toward being happy or not. But we can affect that proclivity to become happier. And Lyubomirsky tells us how.
There are snooty quotes in the promotional material from other happiness researchers saying that this book is superior to other self-help books because it’s based on science. They think that if you use scientific data to tell someone how to be happy, then the advice is more effective than if you use nonscientific data to tell people how to be happy.
The problem isn’t whether the advice is based on science or not. The problem is that you need to find self-discipline in order to execute the strategies in the first place. If all anyone needed in order to change was a scientific reason then we’d all be muscular and thin.
To be sure, tucked deep inside Lyubomirsky’s book on page 274, is the admission that we need “motivation, drive and inspiration” to do the stuff that she has scientifically shown will get us to happy. But that’s the hardest part. That’s the part I need to read three hundred pages about. If we each had the self-discipline to accomplish whatever we set out to accomplish, the world would be a very different place. But what we have instead is a world divided into the people who have self-discipline (those with good careers, good bodies, and good mates) and people who don’t.
I’m not talking about the self-discipline just to get dinner on the table every night. I’m talking hard-core self-discipline, where you conduct routine investigations of how you feel and what you’re doing, and then make changes. What Lyubomirsky recommends requires a whole mind overhaul through amazing self-discipline, but I can’t even stop eating two bagels for breakfast. (Cut back just one a day! That’s like losing 1.5 pounds a week!)
So I called my favorite positive psychology coach and asked her how to get more self-discipline.
She asked me if I had read Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness.
I told this coach that I’m annoyed by the assumption that self-discipline is just a side note.
And also, I said that by the way, I’m annoyed that in eight years, when only two people have emailed me to correct data in my column, Lyubomirsky is one of those people. I have already written about how people who correct journalists are annoying and generally off-base, so you can imagine how chirpy I was to receive her corrections.
In fact, I remembered from the last time I talked with Lyubomirsky that she was a difficult interview, so I never quoted her directly, so that she would not have a chance to complain about the post. But she ended up sending overly academic clarifications to information that I didn’t even attribute to her. How can she be a happy person when she is such a nitpicker?
If I had good self-discipline, I’d take out those last two paragraphs. Because saying unpleasant things about people will not increase my happiness. And I risk the wrath of the movers and shakers of the positive psychology movement. Leaving those paragraphs in this post is a career-limiting move for me. But we all have recognized a career-limiting move and then done it anyway. So there’s another moment that calls for developing great self-discipline.
My coach has good self-discipline, of course, because she is in the business of teaching people self-discipline. So she did not bite my bait to dis Lyubomirsky. After all, talking trash about people makes you unhappy.
I told the coach that I am frustrated with happiness research because doing any of it requires tons of self-discipline. And I know I have more self-discipline than most people and I’m still overwhelmed with how much more I need.
I tell the coach I want to change the setpoint of my self-discipline. She likes the idea that people might have a setpoint for self-discipline. She has never heard of it, but she likes it. So I am claiming, now, to have coined the term. This, by the way, will only make me happy if it increases my blog traffic. That’s because authentic compliments right after an action are pleasing to us, and what is more authentic than measurable web stats? (Career Advice: This is why you should give co-workers feedback right away and not wait—right away is twice as meaningful to someone.)
The coach says I can change my setpoint for self-discipline by making small, manageable changes, because small, manageable changes will improve your ability to change other things without trying as hard.
This research is quoted all over Lyubomirsky’s book. I believe it.
The coach asks me what I want more self-discipline for.
I say I want to do the most important thing on my to-do list first, every day.
She asks me why I don’t.
I explain that I write my to-do list the night before. And I star the item that I want to do first. And I block out from 8-9 am for that most important thing. But then I sit down to work at 8am and I answer email. Which is never the most important thing, but it is always the most fun, because a full in-box is like a bucket full of lottery tickets: You never know, but you always hope you’ll hit big.
She says that I should break down the starred task into smaller pieces and just ask myself to do the first, tiny piece at 8am.
This is good advice. Which is why this post got written today. I just wonder if I can keep it up. Or if I’ll have to call the coach again.