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.