One of my good Twitter friends, Shola Abidoye, has asked me to write a post on these islands. The idea is simple but surprisingly powerful. Happiness islands are the times when we are happiest, cut off by warm, gently lapping seas, from the worries and woes of the rest of our lives. They can happen in life now, or for sustained periods in different parts of our life – maybe you were happiest in college, or living with a friend or friends, or doing a particular job. But you can swim to your happiness island at any time if you do the right thing.
And what is that? Ah, there’s the rub – we often don’t know how to make ourselves happy. Or do we? Try this short exercise:
Depart from your electronic devices, taking a couple of sheets of paper and a pen with you. Find yourself a peaceful spot where you can be alone and relax. Now write down all the times you can recall when you were unusually happy. Don’t stop until you have at least half a dozen such times and preferably more.
Now, what was the common denominator between those times? Was it the person or people you were with? A particular place? An activity? A time you were feeling good for a specific reason? Anything else that applied to at least two or three of your islands?
For me, there are only seven common themes, and they relate to particular friends and activities. Walking and talking aloud, thinking about a particular issue, with a friend, accompanied by my dog. Playing social tennis. Alone, reading and thinking in the sun. Playing games such as Perudo, the Peruvian lie dice game, preferably outdoors at a café or in the sun. Having a picnic with friends in the sun, surrounded by natural beauty. Writing a book. And – gambling, not online, with friends, at a racetrack. What’s the common denominator? The one thing common to all of these, with one exception, is that they are outdoors; and five of the seven are with friends, whom I can easily identify.
And for you? You may end up with a mixed bag, but typically not a very big bag. You may surprise yourself by the common denominators.
So what do you do to increase your happiness? As the late, great Peter Drucker used to say, to ask the question is to answer it. You spend more time on the things that make you happy. When I am about to die, I shall remember these happy times and feel I have had a good life: and I will not be wishing I spent more time in the office or doing things I never really enjoyed.
But there are also happiness deserts, not jolly desert islands, but real deserts, parched and unforgiving. These are the times when you are emphatically not happy. Identify the common denominators and vow never to let them intrude on your life. Very often, the best way to start being happy is to stop being unhappy. You have more control over this than you might think.
The idea is similar. Identify the times in your life – and in the last week – when you feel you’ve been particularly productive, achieving more of value to yourself and other people in a few minutes than in many hours of lesser work. What were the common denominators? For achievement islands, you may find it is a few types of activity. Yet you may also find it is working with a particular person or people, in a specific place, or at a particular time that is predictable and repetitive. Try it now.
For me it is mainly when writing a new book, when it is going well and flowing spontaneously, when I feel I am taking dictation from an unseen force. But it is also when I make a quick decision on a particular investment that I am sure has high potential upside; and also when I am discussing a new idea (new to me) or project over lunch. Books clearly take quite a bit of time to write; but the two other times when I feel I am achieving most can take place in small fragments of time, measured in a few hours or even minutes. And I know when a book is going to sell well, because it is fast and easy to write, and really the ideas come almost automatically.
Small amounts of time can lead to large achievements. And these particles of time are often a source of pride that lasts a long time.
Conversely, large amounts of time can be achievement and happiness deserts. Again, the best way to achieve more is to spend less time achieving little or nothing. Lie fallow. Enjoy yourself. Do what you were doing in the previous achievement islands. Wait for inspiration or opportunity to come. If you are too busy, you will miss the muffled knock of chance, the opening that may come – and go – in a flash. Life is only too short if you don’t enjoy it or nurture your unique creativity.
Usually, when you define your happiness and achievement islands, you realize something simple and wonderful. The causes of high happiness and achievement are less mysterious than you may have thought. Either the normal conditions for your happiness or achievement are met; or they are not. It may not always be easy to engineer the conditions, but the route is straightforward. For maximum happiness you may need to move city or country. You may need to stop spending a lot of time with people you don’t really like and spend it with the few people who inspire you. You may need to change your boss, your job, or even your career. But once you have made the decision to do what is necessary to achieve great things or become much happier, you have reached a critical turning-point in your life. You may go and live on your islands forever.