Happiness interview: Piers Steel.

I was fascinated by Piers Steel's book, The Procrastination Equation: How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done. Procrastination is something almost all of us battle -- to one degree or another -- and the book is full of surprising information about who procrastinates most, and why, and how to prevent it.

For example, procrastination isn't tied to perfectionism or laziness, as many people believe, but rather to impulsivity. Impulsive people have trouble getting themselves to do things they don't want to do.

Because procrastination is one of the enemies of the happy life, I wanted to hear what Piers had to say about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Piers: Fixing or building things. I’m the type of guy who likes assembling IKEA furniture. Perhaps it acts as a counterpoint to the writing I do, but there is something wonderful about holding something physical in your hands and feeling the steady progress as an object reaches completion. Even better, when my five year old son’s Christmas gift, a train he adored, broke within a few weeks, he held back a tear as he placed his toy confidently in my hands. I’ve fixed so many over-loved toys in the past. A little disassembly, a bolt to keep the piston in place, and “good as new,” as he likes say when he gets it back.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Patience. I was once young and impulsive, wanting everything upfront. Unwilling to wait or work for larger but later rewards, I contented myself with what was immediately available, typically video gaming. Without long-term aspirations, I sought short-term pleasures almost exclusively. Later, I realized I was mostly distracting myself from a lack of meaningful ventures in my life, things that you care about and are willing to work hard for. Today, with a career I love and a family I love even more, my life is more than full. Nowadays, there is a willingness to work hard to create something of meaning.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Taking on too much responsibility. I found ambition later in life, perhaps when I finally acquired the motivational skills and the self-confidence to pursue truly difficult goals. My challenges have moved into the realm of work-life balance. Some days I still crave to do nothing of value, allow each hour to be enjoyably frittered away. I dream of snoozing away an entire Sunday, with a Mimosa setting the tone for the rest of the day’s events whenever my morning begins. My kids don’t leave much room for downtime so my life is almost the mirror image of my youth. It’s tricky finding life’s sweet spot between living for the moment and preparing for tomorrow.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
“This too shall pass.” It is useful to remind yourself that almost all of life’s trials are temporary. But beware! That saying comes with a curse. It can make you happy when you are sad, but it can make you at least self-reflectively melancholy when you are happy.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
My strategy isn’t to pursue happiness as directly as others often do. It doesn’t work, at least for me, quite as well as I would wish. I’m more of an Aldous Huxley adherent, “Happiness is not achieved by the conscious pursuit of happiness; it is generally the by-product of other activities.” So I seek accomplishment and meaning and through these activities I find satisfaction with my life. In a pinch, however, a really vigorous exercise routine dependably burns away gloom; sore muscles reacquaint you with your body and get you out of your head. [Note: to my mind, directly pursuing happiness would likely involve accomplishment, meaning, satisfaction, and exercise!]

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I see people reliving past wrongs for the rest of their lives. Sometimes a bad memory is a key to a happy life and grudges can do more damage to those who hold onto them than those who instilled them. If you had an unhappy childhood, one helpful way to get over it is by getting a little perspective. There are scores of wonderful autobiographies by people who truly have reason to gripe and yet strangely do very little of it, like The Glass Castle, A Long Way Gone, or Falling Leaves. Reading a few might be enough to assist you with moving on and stop letting the past define your future.

Is there anything that you’d particularly like to bring to readers’ attention?
Sharing inspirational stories is underrated in importance. Adolescents and adults from every kind background immensely benefit from hearing about others, like themselves, who went through the same tribulations and came out the other side. There is a section on it in my book, The Procrastination Equation, where I review how we take strength from learning about others like ourselves. Here’s one excerpt:

Consider the effect one such story had on entrepreneur Kaaydah Schatten. Despite being raised in profound poverty by alcoholic parents, today she is a multi-millionaire and international franchise owner, a transformation she partly attributes to early inspiration. At a young age, Schatten read the life story of Catherine the Great and, seeing a common thread with her own heritage—Kaaydah is of a royal line, being the hereditary chieftain of the Quakiutl tribe—she adopted Catherine as a role model.

The trick is in finding the right story as the best ones speak specifically to you. What resonates? Perhaps you need to read about someone from the same profession and in the same stage of career? How about the same upbringing? Do they need to have the same cultural background? We need to organize inspirational biographies and autobiographies so we can match people to an appropriate role model. There are others, much like yourself, who have encountered the same adversity but made it through and chronicled exactly how. The trail is blazed; we just need to know where. To this end, I would like to hear about what books or life stories you found inspirational in this way and why. How did it connect to what you went through and who else do you think would gain the same benefit? Pass on a little inspiration.

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