I have no expertise whatsoever on the topic of happiness. But I do have a knack for observation and simplification. That’s what I do for my day job as the creator of Dilbert. Today — as some of you are already backtracking on those New Year’s resolutions — I’m going to strip out all of the mumbo-jumbo around the topic of happiness and tell you the simplest way to get some.
You’re reading this in the business section because every bit of what follows on the topic of happiness is relevant to your career, especially if you have entrepreneurial ambitions. You’ll need all the good health, good looks and mental energy you can muster to influence people and survive the long hours. As luck would have it, the good habits that make you healthy and energetic help to make you happy at the same time, so it’s a double win.
As far as I can tell, people usually experience the sensation of happiness whenever they have both health and freedom. It’s a simple formula:
Happiness = Health + Freedom
I’m talking about the everyday freedom of being able to do what you want when you want to do it, at work and elsewhere. For happiness, timing is as important as the thing you’re doing. For example, your favorite food is useless to you if the only time you can eat it is when your stomach is already full. But if I offer you bland food when you’re starving, you’ll feel as if you won the lottery. The timing of things matters.
The same principle is true for exercise. If you exercise when you’re in the mood for it, you can enjoy the workout. But if you can only exercise after a long day on the job and a grueling commute, you might hate it. There’s a right time and a wrong time for nearly every activity, from sleep to sex to paying bills. Matching your mood to your activity is a baseline requirement for happiness. The good news is that timing is relatively controllable, especially in the long run.
If you’re just starting out in your career, it won’t be easy to find a job that gives you a flexible schedule. The best approach is a strategy of moving toward more flexibility over the course of your life. That quest could take the form of badgering your pointy-haired boss into letting you work from home one day per week, or it might mean going back to school to learn a skill so you can run your own business. In my case, it means waking up several hours before the rest of the family. There isn’t one formula for finding schedule flexibility. Just make sure all of your important decisions are consistent with an end game of a more flexible schedule. Otherwise you are shutting yourself off from the most accessible lever for happiness — timing.
We can’t ignore the role of money in all of this. Money can’t directly buy happiness, but it can give you more options, and that’s an important part of freedom. So don’t give up too much income potential just to get a flexible schedule. There’s no point in having a flexible schedule if you can’t afford to do anything.
The second part of the happiness formula is health. It’s never a good idea to take health tips from cartoonists, so check with your doctor if anything here sounds iffy to you. I don’t know how many people have died after reading health tips from cartoonists, but it probably isn’t zero. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The most important thing to know about staying fit is this: If it takes willpower, you’re doing it wrong. Anything that requires willpower is unsustainable in the long run. And studies show that using willpower in one area diminishes how much willpower you have in reserve for other areas. You need to get willpower out of the system. I’ll show you some tricks for doing that.
My observation is that you can usually replace willpower with knowledge. That isn’t an obvious point, so I’ll give some examples.
Imagine you are hungry and I offer you a delicious but unhealthy dessert. It would take a lot of willpower to resist. Now imagine the same scenario, but I simultaneously offer a healthier food option that is also delicious. Suddenly it is easy to pick the healthy alternative over the dessert. The dessert was only irresistible when the alternative was starving. So the trick for avoiding unhealthy foods is to make sure you always have access to healthy options that you enjoy eating. Your knowledge of this trick, assuming you use it, makes willpower far less necessary.
Now imagine I offer you a choice of pasta or a white potato. And let’s say you enjoy both to a similar degree. Which do you choose? If you have only a basic understanding of nutrition — similar to what most people have — you might say it’s a toss-up. You’ve heard carbs are bad for you and that’s where your knowledge ends. But if you knew that pasta is far lower on the glycemic index than a white potato, you would make a far healthier choice that requires no willpower at all. All it took was knowledge.
And while you’re eating your pasta, feel free to pile on the parmesan cheese. Cheese adds calories, but the fat content will help suppress your appetite, so you probably come out ahead. If you didn’t already know that, you might end up using willpower to avoid cheese at dinner and willpower again later that night to resist snacking. A little knowledge replaces a lot of willpower. Is there anything else you should know about diet? Let me give you a quick quiz.
Did you know that sleepiness causes you to feel hungry?
Did you know that eating peanuts is a great way to suppress appetite?
Did you know that eating mostly protein instead of simple carbs for lunch will help you avoid the afternoon energy slump?
Did you know that eating simple carbs can make you hungrier?
Did you know that exercise has only a small impact on your weight?
If this is the first you have heard any of those facts, and you are sporting some extra pounds, you probably have a knowledge gap that feels to you like a shortage of willpower.
Speaking of knowledge, I’ve recently discovered that my cravings for certain foods can be manipulated. That surprised me because I thought my food preferences were baked into my DNA. I once loved french fries with an almost insane passion. But after I started noticing how drained and useless I felt after eating simple carbs, french fries became easy to resist. Knowledge weaned me off french fries when willpower could not.
I also learned that I can remove problem foods from my diet if I target them for extinction one at a time. It was easy to stop eating three large Snickers every day (which I was doing) when I realized I could eat anything else I wanted whenever I wanted. I can give myself that kind of permission because I’ve trained myself to enjoy relatively healthy food and to always have it nearby.
If you’re on a diet, you’re probably trying to avoid certain types of food, but you’re also trying to limit your portions. Instead of waging war on two fronts, try allowing yourself to eat as much as you want of anything that is healthy. I think you’ll find that healthier food is almost self-regulating in the sense that you don’t have an insatiable desire to keep eating it the way you might with junk food. With healthy food, you tend to stop when you feel full. That has been my experience anyway. In my 20s I could snarf my way through an entire box of donuts. But not once have I eaten an apple — which I also enjoy — and started in on a second apple.
One of the biggest obstacles to healthy eating is the impression that healthy food generally tastes like cardboard. So consider making it a lifelong system to learn how to season and prepare healthy foods. If you know how to make your veggies taste great, it isn’t so hard to avoid junk food. Here again, knowledge replaces willpower.
It’s easy to spot the people who are trying to use willpower instead of knowledge to get healthier. They tend to say things like this:
My goal is to lose 10 pounds.
In my experience, the fittest people have systems, not goals, unless they are training for something specific. A sensible system is to continuously learn more about the science of diet and the methods for making healthy food taste great. With that system, weight management will feel automatic. Goals aren’t needed.
I’m limiting my portion size.
You only need to do that if you are eating the wrong foods. Eating half of your cake still keeps you addicted to cake. And portion control takes a lot of willpower. You’ll find that healthy food satisfies you sooner, so you don’t crave large portions.
I’m increasing my workout to lose a few pounds.
No one can exercise enough to overcome a bad diet. Diet is the right button to push for losing weight, so long as you are active. People who eat right and stay active usually have no problems with weight.
I’m doing the (whatever) diet or cleanse.
Following a diet is hard. A cleanse is even harder. It takes effort and willpower. You’re better off learning to eat right and letting that knowledge nudge you in the right direction over your lifetime.
Once you get your diet right, the next topic to tackle is exercise. I’m about to share with you the simplest and potentially most effective exercise plan in the world. Here it is:
Be active every day.
Under this system, anything that gets you up and moving counts. It doesn’t matter if you’re swimming, running or cleaning the garage. When you’re active, and you don’t overdo it, you’ll find yourself in a good mood afterward. That reward becomes addictive over time. You’ll be like Pavlov’s dogs, but conditioned to be active. After a few months of being moderately active every day, you’ll discover that it is harder to sit and do nothing than it is to get up and do something. That’s the frame of mind you want. You want exercise to become a habit with a reward so it evolves into a useful addiction. When that happens, you no longer need willpower to exercise.
It’s important to remember that the intensity of your workout has a surprisingly small impact on your weight unless you’re running half-marathons every week. If your diet is right, moderate exercise is all you need. Your natural impulse to seek variety and challenge will cause you to learn more about the best practices of exercise over your lifetime. The only thing you absolutely need to get right is the part about being active every day.
When I was in my 20s I enjoyed playing pick-up games of soccer on Sunday mornings. It was terrific exercise, but it left me so sore I couldn’t exercise for several days afterward. Whoever came up with the saying “No pain, no gain” hadn’t thought it through. For me, the pain kept me from gain. These days I simply stay active every day, without pain and without the need for willpower, and I’m in the best shape of my life at age 56.
You will be tempted to quibble with some of the things I said about diet and exercise. Don’t get hung up on the details, because science keeps changing what we think we know anyway. The important point is that there are simple ways to substitute knowledge for willpower so you can ease into healthier eating and an active lifestyle. When your body is feeling good, and you have some flexibility in your schedule, you’ll find that the petty annoyances that plague your life become nothing but background noise. And that’s a great launch pad for happiness.
As you find yourself getting healthier and happier, the people in your life will view you differently too. Healthy-looking people generally earn more money, get more offers and enjoy a better social life. All of that will help your happiness.
Keep in mind that happiness is a directional phenomenon. We feel happy when things are moving in the right direction no matter where we are at the moment. The homeless guy who finds a promising dumpster is happier in the moment than the billionaire who just lost $100 million on a bad investment. It’s the direction of your life — progress if you will — that influences happiness. When you are learning more about diet and exercise it will give you the sensation of progress and control over you destiny. And that feels good compared to losing ten pounds and gaining it back.
I’ll reiterate that you shouldn’t get your health information from cartoonists. I’m a simplifier, not a doctor. All I’m offering is the idea that happiness is more accessible if you replace willpower with knowledge and you replace short-term goals with lifelong systems.
Adams’s new book is “How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life.”