3 happiness principles – a synthesis of 50+ books

A wiser friend asked me an intriguing question – based on everything you’ve read, what are some tips you’d suggest for someone to lead a happier life?

I asked him for some time as I wanted to make sure I gave it thought. Any psychology hobbyist understands that you don’t throw around happiness tips lightly. I then asked myself 1 question – if I had to synthesize everything I’ve learnt about happiness from my readings (60+ relevant books) and experiments over these years, what are 3 principles that I would share? I was keen about 3 principles because I don’t think our mind retains more than 3 principles. Additionally, I was keen on principles over tips because tips are akin to specific advice. I prefer frameworks that we can all apply to our individual context.

So, here goes –

1. Optimize your energy over everything else. It is energy we must care about and not time. Spend your time on things and people that give you good energy. The same applies to resources – spend your money either on experiences or in areas where you spend a lot of your time. Great experiences, e.g.  a legendary trek up Kilimanjaro, give us positive energy that last us a long while. Similarly, if you spend a lot of time on your desk, investing in a standing desk might provide a ton of energy on a daily basis.

A key part of this principles is focusing on “your” energy, i.e., taking care of yourself before you attempt to take care of the world. If you’re burning yourself out in your attempts to do good, your energy is not going to last long. Once our own needs are met, most of us naturally begin to focus our energies on giving back.

This principle has far reaching implications – for example, it is impossible to keep good energy if you don’t work in an environment that suits your personality. You can’t hang out with people who just take energy from you and give little back. You can’t work with co-workers who you don’t learn from. All your decisions soon become decisions that either give you better energy or don’t. The only way to do this well in the long run is to treat yourself as a research subject and keep tabs on what it takes for you to have good energy. The better your energy, the happier you’ll be.

There are very few blanket rules that apply to everyone. However, there are a couple of things that generally work – sleeping enough, eating well, exercising regularly and counting your blessings are as close as you get to blanket “good energy” rules. But, to each their own.

2. Use your willpower to build good habits like exercising, reading, keeping a journal/meditating, and building meaningful relationships with people you care about. If you fight yourself every time you try to do something that you think is good for you, it is a losing cause. The best use of willpower is to use it to build habits. Habits are the infrastructure of your life experience. There’s a reason every developing economy focuses heavily on infrastructure. The better the infrastructure, the more good stuff can thrive. If you’re consistently having power outages (e.g. sickness), for example, you can’t do much with your life.

So, the question then becomes, what infrastructure should you build? A more involved, and, in my opinion, better way to build this infrastructure is to really ask yourself that tough question – how will you measure your life? If you are a person who’ll measure yourself by the number of people you’ll mentor, then part of your infrastructure needs to be include creating consistent space for mentorship. If you aren’t sure of where to start, exercise, reading and meditation are a great place to start.

Once you’ve identified this, there are plenty of great resources on how to hack your brain to do this. There are no generic principles, though – if you feel it is helpful, I’m happy to suggest ideas that’ll help make it easier to break the resistance on these habits. But, before anyone dives into brain hacking, I’d suggest getting really clear on why you want to do something. A lack of clarity is a recipe for internal resistance.

Finally, the best resulting outcome of this is the sort of discipline that inspires integrity. Integrity is simply making and keeping commitments. As we use our willpower to build good habits, it brings with it a tremendous level of confidence in our own word. There are few better things in life than the ability to face ourselves in the mirror.

3. Choose learner questions over judger question. At every moment in our life, we ask ourselves questions. Every decision we make is a product of questions we ask ourselves. For example, we probably asked ourselves – what will make me look good today? And, the result of that is the clothes we wear. Over time, many of these questions become subconscious. And, without realizing it, we default to certain kinds of questions that may or may not have a net positive effect on our lives.

There are two kinds of questions – learning questions or judging questions. When you ask learning questions, you spend more time in learning mode and judging questions means time spent in judging mode. There are many psychology terms that illustrate the same idea – fixed vs. growth mindset, “be good” goals vs. “get better” goals. They all say the same thing. The best illustration I’ve seen is a concept called the choice map (thanks to Marilee Adams’ Inquiry Institute).

Choice Map

Here’s why it is incredibly powerful – people who ask learning questions focus on learning (duh) while those who spend time asking judging questions focus on performance. As a result, learning questions force us to focus on process vs. results. And, that, in turn, means we spend most of our time focusing on situations that are in our control. It also means we put in effort without attaching ourselves to the outcomes. Outcomes and results are the judger’s way of life. Interacting with the world with non-attachment is the one of the most tell tale signs of happiness. It enables us to give our heart, mind and soul into the projects we work on without worrying about short term pay offs. It is all about the long game. It is all about the process. In the long run, good results follow good processes.

So, that’s that – energy, habits and learning questions sum up the three principles that I’ve gleaned from all my readings and experiments.

If you’re wondering about common threads among the three (I was), the thread I spotted was that they require us to make our daily decisions based on consistent and constant self awareness. Self awareness drives the production of data that helps us make better decisions (that’s why meditation/journaling are key habits).

So, if there’s a ‘one last thing’ idea here, it is that all this data is useless if we don’t use it to make better decisions. The Latin root of decision translates into ‘to cut’ or ‘to kill’. So, learning to say no, and in the process, deciding what we effectively say ‘yes’ to may be the single most important skill that affects our happiness. The quality of our lives are directly proportional to the quality of our daily decisions.

And, as we live our days, so we live our lives.

Things that will not change

Amazon founder Jeff Bezos was recently asked about what Amazon might look ten years from now given all the changes sweeping through the world thanks to technology.

His response was that, instead of looking at what would change in the next decade, Amazon preferred to look at what would not change. So, there may be big shifts in the devices customers use to shop, for example, but customers will always favor low prices. A focus on things that will not change helps anchor Amazon to its objectives.

News websites and blogs called described this line as “Jeff Bezos’ advice to entrepreneurs.”

I think of it as advice for life. As we think about our lives in the coming years and decades, it should be clear that a lot of what we think will happen will not actually take place and that there will be more change in the way we do things than you and I can probably imagine. Instead of focusing on that, we’re better off focusing on what won’t change – our values and principles. It is worth thinking intentionally about these values and principles as we adapt to all that happens around us.

Despite its focus to lower prices and deliver a customer-centric experience, Amazon does make the odd misstep. We will, too. Change demands a relentless focus on what really matters.

It won’t be easy… but, boy, will it be worth it.

Small problems and big problems

Life throws small problems at us every day. They’re more than enough to keep us busy. However, it isn’t optimal to spend all our time solving small problems. When Toyota’s legendary thinker Taiichi Ono came to the same conclusion, he decided he would train the organization to look for the big problems using the five why approach.

Taiichi Ono isn’t alone in his approach to problem solving. Great thinkers over time have approached the world with a determination to understand the principles that govern it. That’s how Taiichi Ono and Henry Ford changed manufacturing. They dug deep into the hundreds of small problems in a manufacturing plant, understood the key principles, and developed frameworks that they then applied rigorously and tweaked with more feedback.

This is hard to do – no surprise there. So, how do you go about doing it? Albert Einstein’s approach was to just stay with problems longer. And he probably knows a thing or two about difficult problems.

The good news is that this approach can then be applied to every aspect of life. You can understand people better by understanding the principles that govern them. You can understand financial markets by understanding the principles that govern them. Ray Dalio’s Bridgewater Associates have made billions of dollars by doing this with unerring consistency.

Like any approach, this one has its downsides. When you begin applying this approach to understand people or when you help people through their problems, you can come across as very intimidating. That’s because digging deep requires you to ask tough questions and tough questions never fail to intimidate people. Additionally, a commitment to attempting to get to the big problems requires you to be open to consistently revisit your assumptions and approach to life. Most find that too overwhelming.

The final and most important pitfall is to do with ourselves. A commitment to constantly finding the underlying principles requires an assumption that most small problems are symptoms of a bigger problem. While that is largely true, it completely negates coincidences and outliers. In our desire to find patterns, we can end up falling prey to all sorts of false assumptions to explain a pattern that doesn’t exist. And, if we don’t guard against insularity and over-confidence, we might lose the ability to distinguish between reality and our perception of it. We will fail miserably without self awareness.

That said, the beauty of a principle-based approach is that when we put in the effort, we begin to understand and appreciate the inter-connectedness of this world and thus, begin to appreciate the beauty of this life. It is only when you learn the principles behind tennis do you really appreciate Roger Federer’s genius.

I’ve said this before and will say again – habitually ignoring the small problems and finding the big problems is very hard. Try the five why approach if you will and you will realize very quickly that the questions only get tougher as you make your way along the process.

And therein lies the tough part about digging deep and attempting to understand the principles – it doesn’t feel like a very rewarding process.

Until it does.

Understanding management debt

Ben Horowitz, the former CEO of Opsware and now-successful venture capitalist, has a great post on management debt. He offers a slightly deeper explanation in his excellent book – The Hard Thing About Hard Things.

I have been thinking about management debt over the past few months but didn’t have a term for it. I am now able to put the word into context and would like to share some of my lessons.

Management debt is when a leader or manager (I will stick to “leader” for simplicity) takes a call that works better for the short term than for the long term. Any such decision is equivalent to the leader taking a loan for a short term pleasure and will require the leader to pay it back with interest. The rates of interest on certain kinds of management debt are really high. In his blog post, Ben details 3 situations where he’s seen management debt –

1. Putting two in a box – Trying to keep two talented folks in his company during a reorganization by making them co-heads.
2. Over compensating a key employee when she has a better job offer because she is key to a current project.
3. No performance management or feedback process – leading to surprises when things don’t work well.

I haven’t managed a billion dollar company and, while I am sure my experiences don’t compare to those of Ben Horowitz, I have found myself guilty of using management debt multiple times without realizing it on multiple projects. And my lessons are as follows.

I. Define culture early – it is hard to change. Culture is set by a set of principles that defines your approach to work. This needs to be defined really early or things get really messed up down the line. One such example is a project I’ve lead for nearly 3 years – when we started, we took a scrappy approach towards getting things done. I figured that the focus ought to be to just get results and we’d find time later to define how we’d like to do it better. So, we took nearly a year to define our values, ways of working, etc., and just kept the habit going. And, you know what? 1.5 years later, we still haven’t gotten past our scrappiness. Heck, we don’t even know what our values are.

The extent of the damage is evident because another member this team and I are also part of 3 other project teams and we behave differently in those. Culture is powerful and is hard to change once it is set. I am still not clear how to solve the problem with the culture issues in this project – clearly, I’m still paying the interest on my management debt.

2. Create a 6 month feedback process. I’ve worked on projects where there was an attempt at weekly performance management and then run projects with no performance management. I find that a 6 month feedback process is reasonable and important. 1-3 month feedback can work okay on short engagements but feedback systems shorter than that become carrot-and-stick systems in my view and don’t give people enough time to get comfortable. If you think this is hard to do in a busy day job, I can assure this is harder when you are working on a project(s) in addition to your day job on weekends with limited time. That said, it is important. Else, you are just taking on more debt. And, I have learnt that the interest on this one is costly.

3. Create a list of management principles. As I’ve been thinking about 1 and 2, I’ve realized that what I am missing is a list of management principles. I have an implicit list but it’s clearly not been enough to provide clarity. These management principles will help you stay true to your goals and will ensure you are firm and insistent on the right things. Once you have these principles defined, don’t compromise.

I am going to explore this topic in greater depth over the next few months. More to follow on setting culture, designing feedback processes, developing management principles, and the like.