Tag Archives: Daniel Gilbert


Slavonic Room, New York Public Library (1919)

I’m a little bemused by my behavior over the last several weeks.

Reality is starting to set in.

As are the migraines – again. But that is another story for another time.

Since I’ve succumbed to the lure of the Library I have made a dent in my non-fiction reading list. Lately it’s been the science of happiness and decision making. I’ve finished “Stumbling on Happiness” by Daniel Gilbert and “How We Decide” by Jonah Lehrer  and have just started on “Nudge” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

I also read “Getting Things Done” which has caused a revolution in how I organize myself. Although I’m still adapting the methodology to my specific project issues. As usual such improvements are ongoing adaptive processes, kind of like Agile Project Management.

But I digress.

I’m reading about decisions and happiness.

What I’ve learned is that we need to recognize the power of our brain to lead us through complicated decisions by absorbing the information – distracting ourselves with something else – then coming back and letting our emotions lead us.

Yes… our emotions not the rational, logical, “thinking” portion of the brain.

The interesting thing is that this works best if we have trained our brain to deal with these types of decisions by deciding things. Like an expert authenticating a work of art who in the first few moments knows that it’s a fake. We thin slice the world and make a gut decision. A decision based on the sum of our life’s work, our experience, and made instantaneous by all the decisions, right and wrong, we’ve made in the past.

But now we are into “Blink” by Malcolm Gladwell.

It isn’t that we are making an “emotional” decision. It is that our brain is processing the information and making an informed decision that it simply can’t put into concrete actionable concepts. So it pushes us by making us feel pleasure – if it’s decided it wants something, or fear – it its decided that we really shouldn’t go into the lion’s den even though mom isn’t around and those cubs look so cute.

The thing that I find most amazing is not what the research is telling us about happiness or decisions. What amazes me, having spent some time in research science, is the elegance of the experiments. People are difficult to experiment on. Plus there are all these nasty rules that keep us from raising children in dark basements to see what impact it has on their development, or deactivating sections of the brain just to find out what would happen.

Kidding aside, behavioral neural science has to work with people, experiment on people, and create experiments that lead to measureable, repeatable, and statistically relevant data.

I now have pages and pages of bibliography from the books I’ve read to sift through and see which ones I can gain access to, to get a better understanding of the methods involved. But if you want a better understanding of what makes us happy and unhappy, or how best to choose strawberry jam vs. an impressionist painting – read up and enjoy.

~ Tess


Leave a comment

Filed under Books, Science & Technology

The Unexpected

I guess I should have expected this… but I have learned to submit my stories without linking an expectation to them.

I signed a contract yesterday!

I sold a story and I signed a contract. The glow of this hard won success still sits inside me making me dance around the house and do silly things. It won’t last. Happy moments like this never do. Thank goodness – because the adrenalin surge that occurred wore me out.

But it made me think about happiness and the decisions that we make.

My guru on happiness isn’t the tenants of religion or the rules of a self-help writer. Rather I turn to science and the work of Daniel Gilbert to help me understand what makes us happy.

Right now I am happy – not surging with bliss by any means – but happier now than last year or the years before that. In reality the last time I felt this content was when I worked at Borders and before that my job at the Vollum taking care of Fruit Fly stocks. At the time I didn’t know how lucky I was. Each time I left chasing money and benefits thinking they would have a positive impact on my life. Each time I got the money and the benefits but they didn’t make me happier.

According to Dr. Gilbert, what we think will make us happy is wrapped up in the desires of our genes to procreate and the need of our society. More money, more things, better jobs, etc. are all part of the push that society gives us in order for it to exist. Thus the lure of the “American Dream”.

Apparently us humans are not able to clearly define what future choices will make us happy. We can play with future events, imagine ourselves in future situations, but are usually really bad at deciding what will make us happy. People tend to overestimate outcomes both negatively and positively.

I have a friend who made a huge life change last year because she imagined it would make her happier. The reality of the situation is very different and at times she is despondent. There were all these things that the new job was supposed to do and I believe not a single one has materialized. It also appears that the stress has eliminated the ability for her to manufacture happiness by making what she has, what she wanted.

I explained that poorly.

One of the things that we do to create happiness is reframe the situation. (This again from Dr. Gilbert) We’ve all done this. Look at the relationships that have imploded in your life, jobs lost, or promotions denied. We mourn then and then we reframe the story. We say things like “we really weren’t a good fit” or “I’m better off now than if I’d gotten that job” or the classic “it wasn’t meant to be”.

An aspect of depression is not being able to reframe. People get locked into the mourning phase and are unable to move on. There is an advantage to depression. It keeps us from acting on our emotions of the moment and gives us time to adjust to the new situation. It is only when it continues beyond its useful period that it becomes a problem.

But I digress.

The reason I was thinking about happiness is that I got lucky. And I’m not sure how or why. Maybe it was just blind luck that I figured out what I wanted to do with my life and that I’m actually enjoying it.

Not all of it – this isn’t easy.

A friend asked me the other day if I got up excited every morning. I don’t. I still love my bed and hate getting up. But I do and I write almost every day – we all need days off – and I just did the numbers and found that I write more than 5 days a week. This is my job after all.

But I was thinking about my friend and her inability to forgive herself for her decision and start reframing the situation so she can be happy again. It is a different life but it isn’t a bad one and she’s had some tremendous successes. She just can’t seem them.

In the end, we make our own happiness. No matter how bad things get we bounce back and move forward. Nothing in our lives will bring us as much pain or as much joy as we think it will.

And even that is transitory.   

~ Tess

Leave a comment

Filed under Science & Technology, Writing

Happiness –

So I’m going to be self-indulgent for a moment.

Below is a poem that I wrote after a lovely day with my new beau. I have a point – so if you react to poetry the way my friend Brian does, please just skip the poem (Brian this means you) and move down to where the words are in paragraph form again. You will be happier and so will I.

Ever had one of those moments?
A moment of sheer uncomplicated happiness?
Where somehow
all sorts of pedestrian things line up
and become magical?
I had one of those moments today.
Just a day. A Fall day
in Oregon. Rain and cloud breaks…
driving I-5…
an adventure…
and a man.
There was nothing exceptional about it
except for the confluence of events
and the company.
I don’t want to over state it –
I don’t know where this is going.
All I can say is today was perfect
in its own way
and that I wouldn’t have missed it
for anything.
It isn’t like I have expectations
– I don’t.
I have lived long enough to know
how fleeting things can be.
But I thank the universe for today
because if I had the choice
of how my life would go
it would be filled with this.


So my point – I’ve been thinking a lot about happiness lately. Nine months ago I’m not sure I could have had a day like the one described above. As my doctor pointed out, corporate life was killing me. My friends put up with me and the broken record of my observations of all the things that were wrong and that I wanted to fix – but only because often they were in a similar space. Trapped on the treadmill of too much work, too little time, poor direction, and blurred lines of responsibility. All the things that makes Dilbert so comical and corporate life so unbearable.

But I wasn’t going to talk about my ex-job – except to say that even with the great people I worked with and the good product we had most days I felt like a failure. I was Sisyphus. Working every day without making any progress – trapped in my own personal Hell.

I don’t mind hard work, if it goes somewhere.

Recently a friend sent a link to an article about how uncertainty in your work life is an indicator of health. It made me think of all the uncertainty out there – the rounds of layoffs my friends have been through (both as survivors and those cut). I’ve been both. I was so grateful to be cut this time rather than be one of the survivors with the extra workload and the increased hours and the uncertainty. Once I survived three rounds of layoffs in eighteen months – everything got harder, everyone more unhappy and resentful.

Now just so that everyone doesn’t think I’m anti-corporate life – my best friend loves her job! She works for a global company and has found a niche. Other friends have too – so it is out there. But how do we get there?  

Dr. Daniel Gilbert – in his work on happiness – found that our “future selves” did not always agree with our assessment that being “richer/slimmer/married/divorced/employed/retired” would make us happier. His studies suggest that most of us trip over it – but we don’t make it. 

Four years ago, when I started reimagining my life, I didn’t think of happiness. I started with trying to figure out what I valued and how to stay true to those values. Since then, every decision I’ve made (with the exception of a brief stint that I someday hope to get enough distance on so I can write about it) is based on those values. It has taken me four years and some help from the economy to find this place. Amazing that you can imagine something, plan it, and achieve it.

I have to take a moment and thank the three people who inadvertently gave me the tools to start on this path four years ago. Funny enough – they were teaching project management classes Tonia McConnell, Jeff Crow, and Paul Spindel.

I’ve found a place I like – work I like – a pattern of ebb and flow to my life that I like and that I’m desperate to keep.

Gilbert also defined four rules of happiness, and after rereading them for this post I’m amazed at the ongoing truth I find in them 😉

  1. Bingeing is bad, except when it isn’t.
  2. Happiness often comes from what you don’t know.
  3. Keeping your options open won’t necessarily make you happier.
  4. The things you fear are not as bad as you think.

Bingeing! Well nothing could be more of a binge than writing a novel in three days! It still leaves me breathless. I don’t know who that person was or where she came from but I keep hoping she will visit again soon. 

What you don’t know! Who would have thought that I would like doing a blog? I wouldn’t have… every day I get to research things I don’t know, write things I’m thinking and learning about, and explore the world of the internet as it continues to impact us.

Keeping options open. This is one of my greatest problems. I like to keep my options open. My mind is usually brimming with ideas and possibilities. But I’m finding that constraints can actually increase creativity and narrowing your focus can bring delight.

The things you fear! Well for all my planning and work on my exit strategy I was unable to make myself leave my job because of its security. The economy went bad and pushed me out – like a chick leaving the nest. It was fortuitous. And then the job market was so limited that I had to find things to fill my days with – since there just aren’t many jobs out there – so I continued my plan. Because what I had feared – leaving – happened.

I wasn’t looking for happiness – I was looking for solvency, autonomy, and creativity.

What I’ve found is bliss.

~ Tess

Leave a comment

Filed under Science & Technology