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Ambient anxiety and the pursuit of happiness
Everything is awful, and I’m aware of every awful thing all the time. There’s the pandemic, and climate change. The threat of social unrest, and the uncertainty of the economy. And if I forget this for five minutes, my phone reminds me. Even when I make an effort not to, I find myself scrolling through alerts about stock market volatility and the fires in California.
I’ve come to think of this as ambient anxiety. It’s what wakes me up at 3am, my mind spinning, and what causes me to check on my sleeping children compulsively in the middle of the night. And it’d be easy to think this anxiety is endemic.
So recently, I’ve become obsessed with happiness, not as a state, but as a practice. During this summer, which presents so many reasons to be anxious, the pursuit of happiness is revolutionary. And it is contagious. Settle into moments of happiness, and the people around you will settle as well. That’s not to say it’s easy.
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Yesterday, I recorded with Dr. Laurie Santos. Laurie is the cognitive scientist who teaches a course called Psychology and the Good Life at Yale. From the day she announced the class, it became Yale’s most popular course, and it’s now also offered for free on Coursera, in case you want to check it out. (More than 4 million people have.) If I’m honest, I had her in the studio because I wanted a playbook for my own happiness. And she readily had it to offer. But like any exercise plan or diet regimen, a commitment to happiness takes effort.
I won’t spoil the episode, which will also be richly focused on what happiness means to us and how different this is from our grandparents’ ideas about their lives. But I’ll share two takeaways. First, we’re happier when we don’t compare ourselves to others. Duh, but really. Do a quick inventory of your technology use—how much time do you spend scrolling any platform, unconsciously asking yourself: why wasn’t I invited? Why aren’t I on that vacation?
Second, we’re happier when we are social, when we spend time IRL with others. This takes effort. Many of us work from home now, and our social interactions are mediated by a screen. Many of us are working so hard we don’t feel we have time to call a friend or join a cousin for dinner. But these interactions force us into the world in a way that leaves us quantifiably happier, according to Laurie.
This makes sense to me. Over the weekend, my wife and I visited friends in the country. It was a long drive to get up there, and they put a lot of work into hosting us. Five minutes before we arrived, I panicked, anxiously wondering if our toddler children would break all of their dishes and furniture. But then we were sitting on their back porch, devices tucked away, visiting without awareness of the time. One of these friends works on a happiness startup, a neuroscience company that is attempting to track when people are happy and direct them to notice and replicate it. Think FitBit for your mood. So I asked if working there had had an impact on her life. She thought for a minute, pushed back in her chair, and replied: “I have more moments like this.”
📘The Family Outing
Over the last two weeks, I spent three days in a recording studio in midtown with an insanely talented director and an engineer who could hear even the faintest rustle of a wire against my shirt, recording The Family Outing. I record audio weekly for the pod, but this was different. To hear my own voice moving along over my own words, for hours. To be witnessed in that private moment.
I learned that there are words I use a lot, so much I will admit to cringing! But I won’t tell you what they are. I welcome your guesses. If you listen, you will hear them, too. I caught two mistakes, one little and one big, both of which we were able to catch before the final printing. In another week, I’ll return to the studio to correct a few things that will doubtless come up, and then the audio book will be prepared for October 4 launch.
This week’s episode of Hello Monday focuses on pay transparency. It’s a good one. I decided to tackle the topic when I noticed a younger colleague had posted her salary on LinkedIn. It seemed to me like a bold move to join LinkedIn and then announce how much you get paid in a LinkedIn post. But an increasing number of people are comfortable talking numbers. And thanks to some new laws, many businesses are being required to disclose pay windows when hiring. This episode attempts to make sense of these things.
Things I’m reading
Judy Estrin asks us to examine leadership and innovation culture, and the role digital technology is playing. This essay is long, but worth it. And plan to go slow. Here’s just one nugget:
“Focused on building up their own brands, too many leaders are lashing out instead of modeling collaboration and communication. In this paradigm of shock and awe, we are losing the capacity for deeper, less structured discussions. The right type of conversation is shocking in a good way, leading to uneasiness as a precursor to progress rather than the certainty of a settled answer.”
Who is collecting data from your car? This piece from The Markup identifies 37 companies making money off this data in a very lightly regulated environment.
Yo, did you see that Axios has sold to Cox Enterprises for $525 million? It’s a great exit at a moment in the economy when that would seem improbable. The New York Times notes that it offers “a rare flicker of hope” for the digital media industry.
👩🏼💻 And in case you’ve also been wondering….
What’s with the Little Miss meme?
***So maybe you’re asking, what’s this about again? You're my brain trust. I don't write for thousands. I write to exchange ideas with the small group of people I've met and who matter to me, in hopes that together we can figure out something more about where humanity is going and how it gets there. This is a team sport. Please let me know what to think about, where to train my attention, where you are training yours.