It’s a season of joy, right? You are probably thinking that you can count on my blog posts to be a respite from seasonal joy. But still, I’m susceptible to peer pressure. Mostly because I think it’s an obligation of a friend to be sort of cheery. Because cheeriness is contagious. And on some level, I want to be your friend.

I have always thought a good mood is contagious, but now there’s more proof, in a study published last week in the British Medical Journal, (and in the Los Angeles Times, for those of us who like our research sliced in candy-sized bites.) The researchers followed 5000 people for decades and found that if you hang out with people who say they are happy then you are more likely to report that you are happy, too.

This might be a peer pressure thing, except it’s really a moot point. Because if you say you are happy, you get all the health benefits of being happy (image hosting). And, of course, those benefits are huge. It doesn’t really matter that it is irrational to be happy—you will mentally and physically in better shape if you go down that irrational path.

So even though I tend to choose rational discourse over cheery conversation, today we can have both. Here are three places where I found happiness and work intersecting.

1. This is my favorite time of year for news. Because there isn’t any.
We are entering the slowest news time of the year, yet the December 8 issue of Time magazine is great. When the world would stops generating big, huge, overwhelming news like world peace, world hunger, and world war, then Time magazine reporters spend their time finding the workplace angle on stories I care about.

One article that is great is How to Fix America’s Schools. Michelle Rhee came to DC to overhaul the school system and in eighteen months she fired 270 teachers. Surely we can each pick out the worst teacher of our lives and fantasize that she is one of the ones. But that’s not the happy part of this story.

The happy part is that the Rhee got offered the job when she was separated from her husband, sharing joint custody of two grade-school girls, in Colorado. And here’s what I love. Her sort-of-not-husband relocated so that she could take the job. Of course I love that she has a sort-of-not-husband, because so do I. And it seems so hard to explain to someone I want to date, but it seems so straightforward the way Time magazine reports it. So that makes me happy.

2. Even former spouses can work together to change the world.
But here’s really what makes me happy. The sort-of-not-husband said, “Moving did not seem like a whole lot of fun. But I genuinely believed that she had the potential to be the best superintendent in the country. Michelle will compromise with no one when it comes to making sure kids get what they deserve.”

Here is a marriage falling apart, but the people are so much bigger than the failing marriage. They are staying together, in an odd sort of way, for the kids—not even their own children—and thus are supporting a career to change the world. That a spouse in a failed marriage will relocate to support the other’s career seems big to me. Maybe this happens all the time, but I think this must be rare. Because so many things have to line up: two people that understand how a divorce can destroy kids, a man who can be secondary to a woman’s career, and a woman who can risk a lot for her career. And not get killed for it in the media. This all makes me happy.

3. Telling people what makes you happy is a high form of generosity.
And here’s another thing plucked from that issue of Time magazine: Joel Stein’s column on The Cupcake Kings. He writes about how he gave money to kiva.org, a web site that allows everyone to participate in microfinance. It’s a good way to assuage a heart that’s guilty of wanting to help more people make change in their life, but not doing so. Or, it’s a good way for the greedy who have been bounced off Wall Street to think they are still making investment decisions by sending $50 to the Ivory Coast to launch a pottery barn.

In Joel’s case, he chose to send the startup costs—$25—to a baker in Nicaragua. And then, because Joel is not only a columnist but a nut case, he called the guy—with a Kiva.org translator—to bug him about how to run his business. (Which, by the way, is how US investors function as well, though the stakes are higher—more money and more annoying phone calls.)

Here’s a great quote: “My first suggestion was to change the name of the place from the Little Mango Bakery to the far more compelling Joel and Freddy’s Extreme Cupcakery.” And, “Before I got off the phone, I asked the translator to quietly try one of Freddy’s pastries to make sure I didn’t have to bring in a new head chef.” (They were delicious.)

The things that make me happy are that Joel’s writing is so exuberant, and also that he’s plugging a great cause. Which is what we can all do to spread a little happiness: Tell people the stuff that makes you happy. Because happiness is contagious.

26 replies
  1. Marsha Keeffer
    Marsha Keeffer says:

    People working as a team makes me very happy – I like the shared insights and feeling of helping one another. There’s a lot of joy in pulling together no matter what to make that launch happen. Getting help from others – including feedback that makes me better – is another ‘happy dance’ producer at work. Being in the flow when I write definitely brings a huge amount of satisfaction, too. And call me crazy, but I get a lift from new office supplies.

  2. Natalie
    Natalie says:

    OK — I recently quit the news business so I’m thrilled to be out of the newsroom for slow news season where editors scream at you to make news out of nothing, I am appreciating this study and all of the hype that’s being made out of it. I think anyone could have told you it’s true, but it’s nice to know it’s “scientifically true”

  3. Katybeth
    Katybeth says:

    This post made me smile, I loved the stories, especially the one about Joel and Kiva. So American. The one about couples supporting each other gave me a quiet moment,reflecting on how one, sort of use to be married, couple will make a difference in countless lives by living generously.

  4. Joselle Palacios
    Joselle Palacios says:

    I like the name Little Mango Bakery way better.

    I’m reading a book about reconciliation, I Thought We’d Never Speak Again by Laura Davis. I’ve always felt like I’ve been abandoned by people but reading this is making me realize how many people I’ve left and how I don’t want to do that anymore. Reading about the sort-of-not husband relocating for his kids and wife makes me think of this book, how making peace on a microlevel, like in a relationship, is the world’s only hope. And when I was fighting with my boyfriend this weekend and all I wanted to do was run, I stayed and we got through it. This book helped. Anyways, kinda off topic but I thought of you while reading this book. I thought it might be something you’d want to check out.

  5. Paige
    Paige says:

    Great stuff! I always enjoy your blog, but this point in particular is one that I’ve been thinking about a lot lately- what makes me happy?

    The research you found couldn’t be more correct. Reading your post about what makes you happy made me smile. Happiness really is contagious.

    Thanks so much for sharing so many great things. Enjoy your week!

  6. Steve Errey
    Steve Errey says:

    It’s a great example of how us humans are affected by our environments – spend time surrounded by miserable people and you’ll end up as miserable as a 10 month Winter. Surround yourself with the right kinds of people and suddenly you’re full of the joys of Spring.

    The thing is, you can’t wait for it to happen around you before it infects you. That’s like waiting for the kettle to boil when you haven’t got a plug socket. Or a kettle.

    It starts with making a simple choice to confidently embrace the things that matter to you and the things that make you feel like you.

  7. John
    John says:

    > It’s a great example of how us humans are affected by
    > our environments

    True. Every time I’m around Penelope, I feel stupider.

  8. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    I think telling people that what makes you happy is not only a high form of generosity but also a way of making yourself more vulnerable. What made me happy last night was watching Hallmark’s “Front of the Class” movie on CBS even though I only caught the last half hour of the show. It’s a great true story about someone with Tourette’s Syndrome that learned to hate school since he was ridiculed by teachers and classmates alike. After finally being diagnosed, he decided to become the teacher he never had by overcoming his disability through sheer determination and resiliency. It’s a great success story that carried a message much further than the details of his particular story. It would be nice to see more of these stories during the rest of the year also.

  9. Don B.
    Don B. says:

    I’m infected with happiness now thanks. Loved the bakery story. Really impressed with the “ex to be” moving to DC for the sake of the ex. Guy ought to get a vote for something.

  10. Allie Osmar
    Allie Osmar says:

    I originally subscribed to Time for one irrational reason: my parents always had it growing up, and it made me feel more at home now that I live in another state (strange?). Joel Stein is my favorite – he always does a great job of summing up the American mindset with his (not-so-subtle) facetious tone.

  11. principalspage
    principalspage says:

    Wonderful post.

    Nice to see that you finally came around to working education into a blog.

    Michelle Rhee is impressive, but her husband sounds just as impressive.

    One of the best sets of parents I have known were married-divorced-remarried each other-and divorced again. Yet, after all of this they always sat together at their kids games.

    I asked them once why they did that and they said “Kids should be able to glance into the stands and see both their parents at once. They shouldn’t have to search for them”

    About a year after that their oldest son told me “Mom doesn’t always like her ex-husband, but she loves my dad.”

    Needless to say they are still divorced, still love/hate each other, and both their boys are succesfull in life.

  12. Vera Dela Cruz
    Vera Dela Cruz says:

    This is my first visit courtesy of my hubby. I just started blogging recently and love it. Your topic on happiness is just in time. We’re very blessed and I often worry about those less fortunated.

    I will definitely share some happiness and subscribe to your blog. Thanks!

    • John
      John says:

      Vera Dela Cruz writes:

      > I often worry about those less fortunated.

      I often worry about those who say they are bloggers and then use words like fortunated.

  13. Cinthia
    Cinthia says:

    I work at Biltmore House in Asheville, NC. My whole big impressive job is taking people on tours, standing post in the house and answering ten million questions about the house, the current owner (grandson of builder, George), etc. They want to know the gossip and the architecture. I’m a City Planner by trade but would rather work at Biltmore. And, the reason is as your article stated. I’m a pretty dour person by nature and I figured out that working in a City where diversity is touted as the be all end all only made me more dour (ever try to please two completing opposing groups?). So, I chose Biltmore where everyone is goofily(?) happy. The tourists, the workers (our guest surveys show something like 97% satisfaction), the housekeeping staff, floral. Its like a big happy pill. I go to work not happy, but I leave happy. My fmaily is happier as well.

  14. Seth
    Seth says:

    As I read your post, the little accountant in the back of my mind said “yep, Penelope was able to stuff comments about her marriage into yet another blog entry.”

    Then I arrived at the last section and was reminded of why I find you so compelling at times: Here’s a brilliant woman with valuable insight, an irreverent sense of humor, and the ability to convey thoughts in bright words…who still feels the need to create a false sense of community by thrashing perfectly legitimate topics with facts about her failed relationships? When do we get to hear from the business professional who no longer needs to feel like the prettiest girl at the water cooler?

    You might find even more reasons to be happy that way. The highly-medicated and married guys won’t chase you as much. It sucks, I know. But the quality you’ll be in a position to interact with should make up for it!

    Seth

  15. Lane
    Lane says:

    The great thing about the article with the not-quite husband is that it appears that both individuals are behaving as adults dealing with divorce. No need to undermine each other, no need to bash the other. I am so tired of the perception of divorce=failure as a person. Most of the time, it’s two people who no longer work well together, despite really trying. Why is it still viewed so negatively? Why is it better to remain in a loveless, unhappy situation that is good for neither the parents nor the children?

    I agree we should be happy about that article. I’m happy too, and happy you shared it!

    Here are some more resources regarding anger/happiness: angry/negative people make you even more unhappy, and being happy helps you think more logically. Kathy Sierra’s post on this, containing a LOT of good linkage about happiness as well:
    http://headrush.typepad.com/creating_passionate_users/2006/04/angrynegative_p.html

    Jill Bolte Taylor (TED) saying you can choose happiness (throught the manufactured experience of spirituality) by using the right side of your brain. http://exponential.steelbuddha.net/2008/05/28/spirituality-is-it-all-in-your-head/

    And then the balance of it all – is there a point at which we become happier by embracing our pain and sadness? http://exponential.steelbuddha.net/2008/06/19/is-this-too-emo-for-you/

    (and on how to fix America’s schools – I think Ken Robinson has some good points/questions to consider in his TED talk: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/ken_robinson_says_schools_kill_creativity.html)

  16. Sara
    Sara says:

    That’s funny — I read both those articles when I was at my parents’ house over Thanksgiving since they subscribe to TIME. I thought the Michelle Rhee article was really interesting, and I LOOOOOOOVE Joel Stein. This article was a happy ending to my day, so thanks.

  17. jenx67
    jenx67 says:

    Work stuff that makes me happy – it would have to be having that productive connection with creative, brilliant minds. All egos are checked at the door and everyone sitting at the big table is genuinely equally amazed by everyone else. More listening going on than talking over people. It’s difficult to build such a team. I’ve witnessed this only a handful of times in my career, and once was during the worst of situations – a newspaper staff scrapping an entire weekly paper and rebuilding it the day and day after the Oklahoma bombing.

  18. Steve
    Steve says:

    It is not surprising that hanging out with happy people makes you happy.It carries over in to all aspects of life.Ask successful people who they hang out with and the answer will be other successful people.

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