Sunday, January 25, 2009

Happiness: Stop doing the things you like

The Plan II program at UT does these alumni-outreach lecture classes every year, called Perspectives. Basically, they take a topic and they have professors from different disciplines attack the topic, and then get quizzed by a panel and take questions from the audience. They run the course as a credit course for students, but hold it in the evenings and throw it open to alumni. I've been to a few of these. 

This year the topic is happiness, and the first lecture was by Wendy Domjan, in psychology. She mentioned some practical how-to-be-happier tips in her lecture, among other things, and here's one: stop doing the things you like.

I think she was quoting some other professor, but it might have been that one of the other professors that were on the panel threw this idea out -- I can't remember. The idea was, every year, pick something you really like -- fave food, smoking, FOX news, whatever -- and stop doing it. For a year. Then when you take it up again, you'll be able to enjoy it that much more.

Domjan tied this in to a statistical statement that on average, people who are members of religions that have some specified part of the year for abstaining from sex are happier with their marriage or their spouses. I can't remember exactly how she phrased it, and definitions matter a lot in these happiness discussions, but you get the idea. 

I did a quick web search but I wasn't able to find any references for this idea, so for the moment I'm just throwing it out there. If you know more about this, let me know.


  1. For some reason, the idea of quitting smoking for a year so that when you take it up again you can really enjoy puffing on the cancer sticks strikes me as funny.

    Sort of the evil twin of AA.

  2. I don't know, this idea might make sense for simple vices or luxuries like you list. But for more worthwhile pursuits or disciplines, I think stopping for a year would be a bad idea. Unless you're burnt out and you don't like to do it anymore.

    I agree with Doug -- the idea of quitting smoking for a year is funny. Of course, it would make the nicotine much more effective when you returned!

  3. You could have the joy of quitting smoking every other year!

    Yeah, in retrospect, that was a hilarious one to list there. But I'd had three cups of Atlas-strong coffee by that point, so we're just lucky if the sentences were coherant.

  4. I guess there's little chance that Aaron will be giving up coffee for a year . . .

    I think Mikael nailed it when he noted that this principle might not apply to serious pursuits.

    In his latest book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularizes the idea (based on various studies) that it takes about 10,000 hours of intense work to build up mastery in any field of endeavor, from sports to chess.

    That averages out to at least 3 hours of work a day for 10 years. It's a sobering thought for a wannabe fiction writer such as myself.

    On the other hand, it seems supported by my basketball experience. I struggle to get into good enough shape to run up and down the court, but just last weekend I held my own in a full court game with 20 year olds because my experience can counter their athleticism. Except for the handful that played serious K-12 ball, whose skills and youth make me look like a garden gnome nailed to the court.

  5. Doug = world's tallest garden gnome, who smokes for the pure joy of it

  6. I wonder if intense tech writing or textbook writing counts towards the goal.

  7. I've heard of that 10,000 hours idea. But just remember, you can still be very very good at something before you reach that distant milestone.