The Most Important Contributor to Happiness, According to Science

In the summer of 2017, I spent months in a state of inaction, wrestling with myself about a problem I was facing. I had an idea for a book I wanted to write, but I was worried that a publisher wouldn’t be interested in it. I wrote and rewrote book proposals, researched literary agents, and weighed pros and cons. 

I was worried that the book wouldn’t be good enough. I feared being rejected by the traditional publishing industry.

Around Labor Day, I had an epiphany and came to a resolution: Just write the damn book. After all, how was I to know whether the book was good enough until there was an actual book in existence to judge?  

Six months later, the book was published. But I didn’t go the traditional publishing route. Shortly after I started to write the book, I decided to self publish. With action, the right decision became clear. I wasn’t going to put my dream into someone else’s hands. I didn’t want to relinquish creative control to a gatekeeper. I decided to succeed or fail on my own terms. 

By assuming control, the weight of the anxiety I was feeling lifted. The inertia of inaction eased and was replaced by the joy of autonomy.“We better jog it out,” I said to my wife Heather.

She glanced up at me, strapped on her pack, and without a word headed down the trail at a good clip as the rain began to intensify.

We were in the middle of a getaway weekend, and in the midst of hiking through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on our way to the City of Marquette in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. It was my idea to stop in Pictured Rocks, one of my favorite places to hike, since it’s on the way (more or less) as you drive west through the peninsula from the Mackinac Bridge. 

Heather was up for hiking, as she always is, but there were a few details that I probably should have thought through a bit better. 

For one, we only had about two hours to spare and seven miles to hike over mildly rugged terrain, which wasn’t going to leave us much time to linger at the points of interest along the way, including majestic waterfalls and iron ore-stained cliff formations. 

Two, I forgot to take into account that there are not many easy dining options for long stretches in the Upper Peninsula, so we were forced to skip lunch in order to get the hike in. Heather is not a big fan of skipping lunch (ever see those Snickers commercials?).  

Finally, I didn’t look real closely at the weather—if I had I would have noticed that a storm was scheduled to roll in precisely at the time we were to reach the 3.5 mile turnaround point on our “out and back” hike. Hence, the need to “jog it out.”

When we reached our car—cold and soaked from head to toe—I tried to put a “look on the bright side of things” spin on the situation. Again, a glance but no response as Heather wiped mud off...well...pretty much everything.

 

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Experiences, not Things, get Better with Time

“We better jog it out,” I said to my wife Heather.

She glanced up at me, strapped on her pack, and without a word headed down the trail at a good clip as the rain began to intensify.

We were in the middle of a getaway weekend, and in the midst of hiking through Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, on our way to the City of Marquette in Michigan’s beautiful Upper Peninsula. It was my idea to stop in Pictured Rocks, one of my favorite places to hike, since it’s on the way (more or less) as you drive west through the peninsula from the Mackinac Bridge. 

Heather was up for hiking, as she always is, but there were a few details that I probably should have thought through a bit better. 

For one, we only had about two hours to spare and seven miles to hike over mildly rugged terrain, which wasn’t going to leave us much time to linger at the points of interest along the way, including majestic waterfalls and iron ore-stained cliff formations. 

Two, I forgot to take into account that there are not many easy dining options for long stretches in the Upper Peninsula, so we were forced to skip lunch in order to get the hike in. Heather is not a big fan of skipping lunch (ever see those Snickers commercials?).  

Finally, I didn’t look real closely at the weather—if I had I would have noticed that a storm was scheduled to roll in precisely at the time we were to reach the 3.5 mile turnaround point on our “out and back” hike. Hence, the need to “jog it out.”

When we reached our car—cold and soaked from head to toe—I tried to put a “look on the bright side of things” spin on the situation. Again, a glance but no response as Heather wiped mud off...well...pretty much everything.

 

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Two Things Stopping You from Your Next First (And Why You’ll Never Forgive Yourself)

We believe that first moments are the best moments. When you’re experiencing something new, you feel on fire. You create new memories. Time slows down. You break free of the rut of routine. We’ve been writing a great deal about the power of first moments over the last six months, and we’ve been thrilled to hear feedback from our readers that they’ve been inspired to chase more first moments of their own. This, in turn, has led us to create a new feature (you’re reading it!) in which members of the Life and Whim community share their own inspiring stories. 

Leading things off is Tom Nixon, an entrepreneur, musician, actor, author, friend, and lover of Northern Michigan. Check out Tom’s take on what it has meant to spend a year chasing firsts.

***

I’ll never forget my first kiss...but I have no idea where I was on my 37th. My first car was a yellow Buick Skyhawk...no idea what my sixth one was. My first day of college seems like yesterday. All the other days walking to class blend together into one amorphous blob of nostalgia...and feel like forever ago.

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10 Lessons for Kids About Life’s Infinite Possibilities

Over the last few weeks, Heather and I have made a concerted effort to “divide and conquer” more with our kids. Instead of always treating our girls as a unit, we’ve spent more time with each individually. This has been great. Instead of each competing for our attention, which often leads to acrimony, we’ve had opportunities to have deeper, more meaningful conversations, especially with our eight year-old daughter.

 

It happened in a blink but she’s starting to ask more questions about the big world outside of our family unit. She wants to know more about what high school will be like, what college is for, and how people make a living. There is nothing she would rather be doing at this point in life than creating art, so she’s particularly interested in how people craft creative careers. We explain to her that every book she reads, every song she hears, every garment she wears, and every picture hanging on the wall was created and sold by someone who had a vision and the gumption to bring something new into the world.

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When to Embrace Life’s Red Flags

Last weekend, we went on a family vacation. The place we stayed wasn’t five-star. It was a bit crowded, and noisy at times. The bathrooms were gritty. The food was far from perfect, there was no air conditioning, and our room lacked fluffy pillows and high-thread count linens. The five of (plus our dog) were packed into a small room—we were literally stepping on top of one another.

We went camping, and it was one of the best experiences of our summer.

On Sunday morning, Heather and I got up and weighed our options. It had been a long weekend. Sleep was spotty. And it rained overnight, so we were dealing with soggy shoes, towels, and other items that we had forgotten outside while trying to get everyone to bed in our small camper the prior evening.

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The Boy and the Butterfly: The Struggle Makes Us Stronger

A young boy came across a butterfly cocoon and brought it into his house. He watched, over the course of hours, as the butterfly struggled to break free from its confinement. It managed to create a small hole in the cocoon, but its body was too large to emerge. It tired and became still.

 Wanting to help the butterfly, the boy snipped a slit in the cocoon with a pair of scissors. But the butterfly was small, weak, and its wings crumpled. The boy expected the insect to take flight, but instead it could only drag its undeveloped body along the ground. It was incapable of flying.

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Why Getting Outside, and Doing New Things, Makes Your Kids Happy

When you live in northern Michigan like we do, there’s a strong sense of urgency when summer arrives. The season is short so we try to pack in as much sun and fun as we can, while we can.

Judging by the throngs of people at the beach, on the trails, out riding bikes, and on boats in the region, we’re not the only ones who have stepped away a bit from our offices and keyboards to soak in what summer has to offer.

One of the most satisfying (and exhausting) aspects of all of this summer fun has been watching our kids frolic in the great outdoors. They’re wearing us out, but we wouldn’t trade these days for anything, because we know that they are forming the most important moments that will matter over the course of our life together.

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Searching For Purpose: Break the Script and Open Yourself Up to New Experiences

In 1916, Robert Frost published one of the most renowned poems of the 20th Century, “The Road Not Taken,” which begins: "Two roads diverged in a yellow wood..." The metaphor of the “fork of the road,” upon which Frost’s seminal work is based, is so enduring because it is so universal. Every day, each one of us is confronted with choices, big and small, that determine the direction of our lives. 

In most cases, particularly when it comes to the “big” choices in life, each path is distinctly marked. There is the easy, default path, and the hard, purposeful path. Too often, people look back on their lives and realize that many of the actions they took (or didn’t), choices they made (or didn’t), and priorities they set (or didn’t) happened by default; guided by the expectations of society and others, and not by their own inner compass. They traveled the safe, smooth path, not the uneven, winding one, and ultimately reached a destination, but one they regret in the end. 

 We all grapple with regret stemming from the choices we make (or don’t) in our lives. Again, it’s a universal part of the human condition. What’s important to realize, however, is that at any point in life’s journey, if you can summon the courage, you can stop, assess, and change direction. The key to making positive change, to live a life free of regret and full of passion, is to open yourself up to what truly matters—to you, not others—and to embrace the risks involved in pursuing it. After all, isn’t the risk of not living a life true to yourself an even greater risk?

"The two most important days in your life are the day you are born and the day you find out why." — Mark Twain

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Routines are Meant to be Broken

Routines are important. Having solid routines in place allow us to have productive days. By making certain actions habitual, such as when we get up in the morning, when we work out, and what we eat, we can allocate willpower and discipline (both finite resources) toward the unexpected variables that life inevitably throws our way. 

At the same time, routine becomes, well, routine. Life marked by uncompromising rigidity can feel like a hamster wheel you can’t get off. One day starts slipping into the next, and before you know it years pass by and you start wondering where the time went.

How can you get off the hamster wheel of monotony? Make a purposeful and intentional commitment to introduce more novelty into your life.

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Jay Harrington
Raising Well-Adjusted, Motivated Children: 3 Reasons to Praise the “Process” not the “Person”

Last weekend marked the midpoint of the spring soccer season in our community. This means we’re just a few weeks away from handing out participation medals to all of the kids on all of the teams, irrespective of whether they worked really hard or exhibited barely any effort at all on the field.

This is silly, of course. As we all know, kids count every goal and chalk up every win or loss on their mental scoreboards, even if we, as parents, refuse to employ actual scoreboards at their games or otherwise judge their performance. Since we’re not fooling our kids, why do we insist on trying to fool ourselves? 

Certainly, our motivations as parents to protect our children in all aspects of their lives are pure. From guarding against a skinned knee to shielding against a bruised ego, we don’t want our kids to experience pain. The question is: Notwithstanding our motivations, are we doing right by our kids when most of us come to realize (through our own personal experience) that unless our kids experience a bit of pain, discomfort, and displeasure, then they’ll never learn, grow, and become inoculated against the often harsh realities of the world.

Accordingly, like most aspects of parenting, trying to raise well-adjusted, motivated children, who become well-adjusted, motivated adults, is a bit of a conundrum. 

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Heather Harrington
The Happiest Moments of Vacation May Not be What You Think

If you recently braved airport security lines, crowded highways, and big crowds to travel with your family to a popular spring break destination, you know that vacation can be stressful. But it’s also fun, of course. And we do it—overpriced blended cocktails and all—because it’s an opportunity to bond with our families and create memories that last a lifetime. At least that’s the idea, if not always the reality. A good friend of mine likes to say that traveling with kids is not a “vacation”—it’s a “trip.

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Jay Harrington
Embrace Life’s Limitations to Unlock Life’s Promise

In 1944, a 39 year-old Austrian man named Victor Frankl and his wife Tilly were processed into the Auschwitz concentration camp. He spent approximately 18 months in the shackles of the Nazis being shuttled from one camp to another, before being liberated by American soldiers. Frankl survived the Holocaust, but his wife, mother, and brother did not. 

What is remarkable is that, despite suffering such great trauma, Frankl went on to become one of the most important and influential neurologists and psychiatrists of the twentieth century. In fact, it was the experience of spending time in captivity, experiencing suffering and deprivation, and watching some prisoners transcend their circumstances while others succumbed to them, that set Frankl on a path to explore life’s meaning and develop a renowned technique called “logotherapy” to help those in need overcome difficulty. Frankl’s big insight, which surfaced at his lowest moment, was gained by observing the resilience of humanity, and teaching others how to find meaning in life even in the harshest of conditions.

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Jay Harrington