If you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy?

The title of the post is taken from the title of a book (and online course, etc). The book is interesting enough, is well-written, and is similar in general content to other compilations of similar material from other sources, though with a little more discussion of tangentially-relevant experiments run by the author on students from years past. “Happiness” has had a publishing boom over the past few years, and generally the push has been toward a less ephemeral understanding of happiness as being more in line with contentment, satisfaction, and lack of discord than with “being happy” in the moment. All to the good.

My issue with the book is that, like many others of this ilk, it recommends a number of things that are not compatible. I’ll give one example, because it’s something that has come up a number of times in my own reading, as well as being an example of a situation where I would like to “fix” both things, but can’t.

The author does a good job of summarizing some 40-year-old research on flow (and the research that has followed from it), basically concluding that engaging in activities where you can achieve a flow state is conductive to happiness. For me, I’m lucky enough to work at a job where that is easy to do – I regularly sit down to code, and later find myself having missed lunch or dinner (or both) without ever noticing the hours had passed. So, I’m lucky in my work, and this “flowy” lost-in-the-work state is very productive. Standard advice to help achieve and prolong this state of flow is to reduce interruptions (phone off the hook, email notifiers muted, etc). Many people advise only answering email (or texts, or whatever) at specific times of day (like the last hour of work so you’re set for tomorrow), and keeping the door closed if and when you can.

The catch comes on the health side of things. The book recommends eating healthier, moving more, and sleeping well as the cornerstones of health. Pretty hard to disagree with that, providing that definitions of each of these things make sense, which they do, in general. The author does refer to what has now become standard advice, that sitting is like smoking, and that sitting for more than 6 hours a day is incredibly unhealthy. One piece of advice, therefore, is to set an alarm so that you’re reminded to get up and move around every 20 minutes. The research on all this is quite new, so it’s had the usual journalistic over-hype for the past couple of years.

Still, did anybody catch the conflict there? Flow is good (even necessary, and certainly beneficial), so minimize interruptions. Sitting for long periods is unhealthy, so interrupt yourself every 20 minutes. Brilliant! Tough for those of us whose flow experiences are sedentary, though.

People commonly recommend a standing or even walking desk as a way around this problem. I’ve tried a standing desk for a few days, and it sucked. There are studies showing that standing has a positive effect on performance (easily googleable) but other reviews showing that these studies were mostly poorly designed and/or run. And as I say, for me, this was a no-go; couldn’t get anything done at all. It might be that it’s like learning to type properly (which I don’t at all – fast but ugly) and that it would just take some low-productivity adjustment time after which my stand-and-work ability (or my typing speed) would magically kick in.

Or, it’s possible that standing desks are better for some tasks. Anecdotal evidence (like comments sections on articles on this subject) certainly give mixed responses, and it’s possible that some of these standing fans aren’t doing any deep/flow work in the first place.

I would have to prioritize flow over debatable health benefits both in terms of happiness generation and generally living my life successfully. My ability to zone in (as opposed to zoning out) is much more important to me in the short to medium term than possible health risks. I’d like to think that I can alleviate those by being active in the usually recommended way (X number of hours per week, and so on).

Of course, I can also bear the whole “not sitting” thing in mind, and use times when I’m interrupted anyway as an excuse/reminder to get up and move.

Anyhow, back to my original issue, with the advice to prioritize flow and then to interrupt yourself every 20 minutes, within a few pages of each other. While I can come up with ways to make this information useful, it feels like I’m doing a lot of justifying and/or filling in for the author. On the other hand, maybe this is inevitable when your book covers such a wide swath of what anyone would be doing in their lives.


Post-printing book editors

I just read two great novels by Brad Smith (a Canadian, even Ontarioan, author): All Hat (which was made into an enjoyable movie as well), and Busted Flush. Two interesting novels with good stories, interesting characters, and some humour. Quite enjoyable reads.

The only distraction from this, and the motivation for this posting, was the penciled-in comments from one of my fellow library patrons. I didn’t think to write them down, which is unfortunate, but anybody who’s in Halifax can check these books out and experience the erudition (or lack thereof) for themselves.

Now, just to set the stage, I do notice printing, spelling and grammatical errors in books I read. I have seen homonym errors (using “sail” instead of “sale” for example) in real live books, bought with real live money. I have wondered (sometimes aloud) who might have been the cause of these mistakes – whether it’s the author or editor, or if the printers just like to mess with text for fun. I have noticed and wondered about all these things, so I can empathize with my fellow library patron to a certain extent.

I didn’t, though, in any of these cases, write and circle and draw lines in a book that didn’t belong to me. I didn’t inflict my observations on a disinterested third. I didn’t start a dialogue which had no chance of going anywhere (since the writer is unlikely to check the books out again, unless they’re curious to see if anyone responded).

This patron, you see, circled things that they though were errors, often adding questions or comments in the margin. Maybe it’s just me, but I was unable not to read these, even after the general quality and tenor of them was established to be low (quality) and shrill (tenor). For example:

  • Smith used the word “pedestrian” in the sense of “normal, average” (my thought), or “commonplace“. Our patron wrote “Does he mean plebian?”. You will, no doubt, note that this should have been “plebeian”. Anyhow, what we have here is someone who knows some off-the-stack words, but not less common meanings for common ones.
  • Smith used the US spelling of “cesarean,” as in a “cesarean section”. Our patron wrote something along the lines of “What the hell kind of editor can’t spell Caesar?” A better question would be, “What the hell kind of reader doesn’t realize that US spellings have been taking over everything since the invention of spell-check?” The patron never made similar comments about “color,” for example, so maybe they don’t know the “proper” Canadian spelling.

You get the idea. These were not isolated incidents, but rather a comment every few pages, mostly ill-founded and all irritating. They did, of course, find a couple of legitimate spelling/typing/printing errors as well, in amongst the ill-educated ranting. Well done, I suppose. Ultimately, these comments and notations were far more distracting and disturbing than the actual errors in the text (which were few and inconsequential).

I have been planning to get back to using the library after spending a ridiculous amount of money, over the past few years, on a lot of books I will never read again. As it happens, Smith is someone I may well return to with enjoyment, so I will probably pick up my own copies. Still, if I have to wade through the ramblings if very many more disturbed minds, I may have to give up this approach to the wild world of literature. There’s something about knowing that you’re dealing with a new book, soiled only by yourself. There’s something, too, about knowing that you won’t have to shake off the slime from the shallow end of the gene pool as you wade through a new book.