Digging Deep with Happiness Through Subtraction

Columbia Gorge Munra Point View Hike

Ten million self-help books exist, all promising to improve our lives. Many focus on a strict schedule and the addition of various tasks or practices: Meditating, exercising, time scheduling, eating well, always smiling, never complaining, being a perfect person…

Just turn into a robot and BOOM, life becomes easy.

Except it doesn’t work for most of us, including me. Changing multiple variables usually creates overload and a short circuit back to old habits.

A Different Approach

I prefer happiness through subtraction. Cut out the activities and habits that create misery, then add back things that make you grin each day when you open your eyes.

I was introduced to this concept by Nassim Taleb’s book AntifragileHe writes:

Happiness is best dealt with as a negative concept…the pursuit of happiness is not equivalent to the avoidance of unhappiness. Each of us certainly knows not only what makes us unhappy, but what to do about it.

Unfortunately, humans are terrible at guessing what will make us happy. We are great at figuring out what makes us miserable though! As Francis Jourdain said, “One can furnish a room very luxuriously by taking out furniture rather than putting it in.”

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

A magical spot at the base of Elowah Falls in Oregon.

Subtract the Unhappy

Start with basic activities that make you unhappy. Perhaps it’s feeling guilty about a caffeine addiction, loathing daily mind-numbing conference calls, or the overwhelm of emails stacking up like Tetris blocks. What are the root causes of those things, and would eliminating them add considerably to your happiness?

Maybe we need caffeine because we’re exhausted each morning. But why are we tired? (New parents, you know why…sorry, but I can’t help you there!)

Was it from staying up late flipping through social media, or not sleeping well because computer screens churn out mind-stimulating blue waves? (Try Flux to address the latter; Apple’s new OS incorporates this idea.) Cutting social media or computer time after dinner might result in better sleep, decrease the need for caffeine, and create a cascading positive effect.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Spring flowers in the Columbia Gorge looking west toward Portland.

Hitting inbox-zero feels great, but it’s a Pyrrhic victory since doing so in a hurry often creates more work. There’s no faster way to build giant email chains than a quick email. (Try Cal Newport’s technique to fix this.)

Still, developing an efficient system to deal with email doesn’t address the core question: why are we getting so many emails?

We can be efficient, but at some point there’s too much to handle, or the work itself is mind-numbing. I faced this in 2013 when I received 5,000 emails per month (and sent 2,500). I was efficient, but even using canned (saved) responses and other templates only worked to a degree.

Drilling deep, I saw the source of my unhappiness wasn’t email. Instead, I was completely burned out from working daily with clients who asked for (and deserved) immediate responses. My solution was to hire staff to take over those duties. This lowered my income, but allowed me a more flexible schedule to focus on other things.

I still work daily, but incoming email has dropped to a fraction of the volume. It also isn’t as time-sensitive, so I can deal with it when convenient.

My solution is only one approach. For my industry, I didn’t see another way since automation wasn’t an option. Your situation is probably different, but figuring out the root causes of what makes you unhappy is a powerful place to start.

Tenuous ground on the way to Munra Point.

A day hike in Oregon.

Work unhappiness is only the beginning. We can apply happiness through  subtraction to all aspect of our lives, including friendships, food, and physical workouts that we dread. I hate indoor cycling, but will mountain bike until my legs fall off.

As Leo Babauta of Zen Habits wrote recently, “we fear only one thing really: not having control, certainty, security, comfort.” Cutting away activities that make us unhappy leaves us with fewer stress points. We can’t erase the fear of losing control or security, but blowing away negative chaff in our life gives us more energy to powerfully deal with the headaches that do come up.

The next time you’re feeling overwhelmed or down, don’t add habits to your life. Take to heart the old Swedish proverb: “Fear less, hope more; eat less, chew more; whine less, breathe more; talk less, say more; love more, and all good things will be yours.” What else could we possibly need?

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Straddling a narrow ridge near Munra Point in Oregon.

Creating vs. Consuming

Symbiosis in Jedediah Smith State Park.

Symbiosis in Jedediah Smith State Park.

I spend my days consuming a lot of information. In the work zone, it’s emails and phone calls. In my business, creativity is often rewarded with frustrated clients, so I have a ton of systems to keep things the same for every person. Which works well, and keeps everyone happy since there are few surprises. But a life without surprises becomes monotonous and suddenly fresh and new is only waking you up when your forehead smacks the table as you nod off!

Books are important for me. Blogs, books, magazines – I take in a lot of writing from people I respect whose work inspires me to be a better person, or to push myself in directions I hadn’t considered. For example, I just finished Malcolm Gladwell’s latest booked entitled “David and Goliath”, with insights on how an underdog wins. Mr. Money Mustache helped refine my skills for dialing in finances, which  helped make this trip happen. Tim Ferriss of “The Four Hour Work Week” first helped spur me into being self-employed, and then to apply the Pareto Principle to my business practices to cut activities that weren’t producing results or enjoyment for me. Small tweaks in mentality that collectively allowed me to restructure compared to seven years ago when I was a fresh-eyed engineer sitting in a cubicle pondering my life, eyes crossed with spreadsheets and energy modeling software.

Sunset, redwoods style.

Sunset, redwoods style.

These days, I’m shifting. It’s time for me to start creating via writing and photography, both latent passions of mine I am rekindling. Time to unleash the accumulated knowledge inside me and share from a wellspring of coiled information. I’m unsure where it will lead, but my primary goal is to dissociate it from financial gain and focus on content that speaks to me. The time is right. We’re on this trip, which frees up energy otherwise spent elsewhere. Also, my business – finally dialed in enough to work remotely – is in a good place and I don’t wake up worried about work every day as I did in the past. Now it’s just worrying every few days – working for oneself surrrrre is fun!

This one's for Ryan and Hilary!

This one’s for Ryan and Hilary!

I’m flexing a muscle I haven’t used in a long time. Writing is like any other activity, physical or intellectual – use it or lose it – and my writing strength is currently the little twerp in weight lifting class benching only the bar. I suspect it will take some time to develop my voice, to refine my thoughts and not feel like, as Kurt Vonnegut said, “an armless, legless man with a crayon in my mouth every time I try to write.”

One hang up is the courage to truly speak my mind via the written word. It’s hard to write (or speak) that way, and doing so not knowing who will read it will take some time. Or perhaps knowing who will read it is tougher? Brene Brown calls this the “vulnerability hangover,” that feeling after you share something personal and then think, “Wow, what are people thinking about me now?” James Altucher is amazing inspiration for this – that guy puts his heart and soul into every post with more honesty than anyone else I read.

Blue sky far above in Jedediah Smith State park.

Blue sky far above in Jedediah Smith State park.

All to say that I’m looking forward to sharing our travels, and that this blog isn’t just about Traipsing About the earth. I’m looking forward to sharing the journey within the context of  our lives, wrapping in the past, goals for the future, and any fun or interesting ideas that bubble up along the way.

After two amazing days in Jedediah Smith State Park hiking among redwoods, I’m writing this from Gold Bluff Campground with the waves crashing in the background and a clear, star-studded sky. We sure are lucky with this weather for late November! Tomorrow, it’s Fern Canyon and Prairie Creek’s sampling of the redwoods.

Chelsea lounging in the upper deck.

Chelsea lounging in the upper deck while I type.

Cheerio from Northern CA,


Watching the sunset over the Coastal Trail just south of Crescent City, CA.

Watching the sunset over the Coastal Trail just south of Crescent City, CA.