How the Pandemic Is Making You Happier

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit the planet, Americans were already experiencing record rates of anxiety and depression. Loneliness was also at epidemic rates. Add to that income loss, the resultant economic uncertainty, chronic deprivation from meaningful social contact, and the possibility that you might die every time you step outside your house, and you’ve got yourself one seriously bummed-out species.

But even in the midst of the turmoil and contagion, there are aspects of the pandemic that have surreptitiously been adding to your storehouses of happiness — or at the very least, not subtracting from them. Here are the the three ways the pandemic has been making you ever so slightly happier and less stressed:

1) Reduced exposure to loud noises. People don’t realize that ambient noise is a huge and automatic stressor. As part of the research for my Happiness Engineering course, I measured ambient noise levels in various cities. For example, New York City subway cars are some of the loudest places in the world, averaging in the 90–105 dB(A) range while in motion. That alone stresses out the passengers plenty. And that’s even before getting jostled by other passengers, missing your stop, or getting asked for handouts for a song performance you didn’t request.

As an aside, please also keep in mind that exposure to sound levels of 100db(A) for more than 15 minutes can lead to permanent hearing loss. I always wear earplugs inside subway cars, which may be a good idea if you don’t want to go deaf. If you would like to develop a healthy obsession about how ambient sound levels may be wrecking your body and stealing your soul, I recommend downloading the NIOSH Sound Level Meter app for your smartphone.

Onward. People who live in big, loud cities think that they can filter out the noise and go about their business without penalty — “Ah, you just get used to it.”

I regret to inform you: that ain’t how it works. Noise is one of the two things your body never gets used to, because noise cannot be predicted. You just adapt to it by having chronically elevated circulating stress hormones. This can wreak all kinds of havoc on your body, giving you high blood pressure, diabetes, and shredded nerves, amongst other self-inflicted maladies.

So when you’re not exposing yourself to noise from road traffic, construction, car horns, subways and sirens, your nervous system naturally calms down a few notches. Your circulating stress hormone levels go down, you chill out a little, and you’re just a little bit happier.

2) Less commuting. Were you wondering just a minute ago what the other thing was that people never get used to? Well, wonder no more: it’s your commute. Why? Because even though you’re going the same route every day, no two commutes are the same. If it ain’t the same, you can’t get used to it.

Now here’s an interesting study. Scientists wanted to figure out: what activities make people the happiest, and what makes them the most miserable? They would text volunteers at random times of the day and ask them two simple questions: What are you doing right now? And on a scale of 1–10, how happy are you right now?

Well, in every city and every country they did the study, the world champion for misery was the same: commuting. People would rather do anything else than commute. This includes changing poopy diapers and taking out trash. Another study found that the stress levels of a driver commuting to work is equal or higher than that of a jet fighter pilot.

Okay, I’m going to let that sink in for a moment: driving around in rush-hour traffic stresses you out more than being in an aerial dogfight with a Russian MiG-27. Now imagine doing that 26min commute (the American average) twice a day, five days a week. Who’s going to be a stressed-out puppy? That would be you — also with the hoarse throat and sprained middle finger from shouting at other drivers and flipping them off.

Contrast this with a commute-free, traffic-free, road-rage free day of working from home or a cafe. Now who’s feeling more chilled out and happy? You, that’s who! You probably didn’t even notice it until I brought it to your attention. But just note the contrast in the general level of tension in your mind and body the next time you hop in your car, worrying about the cars in front, the yellow light about to turn red, the crazy parking situation downtown… and let that be a source of gratitude for when you’re not driving. Which brings us to…

3) Gratitude. This pandemic has been incredibly hard on a lot of people. Millions have contracted this supremely unpleasant disease. And hundreds of thousands have perished before their time. This is tragic, sad, and heartbreaking, in so many ways that are beyond the scope of this article.

However, I’d like to bring to your attention that if you’re reading this right now, chances are very good you’re not dead yet. And for better or for worse, part of counting our blessings is comparing ourselves to those who are less fortunate. So, if you’re not in an ICU, on a ventilator, or experiencing multi-organ failure, start counting, now. Working lungs, kidneys, liver, brain — that’s a lot of blessings there.

The research on gratitude is very robust: the more of it you practice, the happier you are. So if this time last year you were perfectly healthy and perfectly taking it for granted, this year you can do better. Take time to express gratitude every time you see a pandemic counter on TV, hear about a celebrity who contracted COVID-19 or perished from it, or hear a siren of an ambulance you’re not in. Thank your immune system, thank your genes, thank whoever or whatever runs your universe. Nobody’s tomorrow is promised, so get on your knees for having had yet another one, you lucky beast.

If you want to take it to the next level, contemplate your own death, too. The Bhutanese are famously some of the happiest people in the world because they contemplate their own death five times a day. Hey, as of the writing of this piece, there’s even an app for it called We Croak. Because this much I can guarantee: if COVID-19 doesn’t get you, something else eventually will. If you think about it right, being in a position to contemplate your own death instead of actually being dead can be a source of perpetual joy.

In all likelihood, the net effect of the pandemic is a reduction in people’s overall happiness. However, while we’re counting blessings, let’s remember that you’re commuting less, exposed to less noise, and less dead than many. So let these observations inform how you may want to change your life once the pandemic threat has subsided, lest you inadvertently restore to your life the same self-inflicted miseries of yore.

Deliberately Happy: The 5 Happiness Action Principles

I’m standing at the edge of a prehistoric forest clad in a Flintstone-style bearskin, minding my own business, when I see a mastodon approaching me. This one looks like he’s in a bad mood, and starts to charge. I pick up some stones and start pelting him, but that just makes him madder. As he runs at me faster, I have two thoughts: this is the end, and gee I really hope this is a dream. At that moment, ten copies of myself rise out of the ground, and the full soccer squad of us pelt the mastodon with major-league pitcher accuracy. The mastodon has a change of heart, turns tail and goes back into the forest. All eleven of me emit war-whoops of victory.

This particular hypervivid dream was inspired by a book of remarkable explanatory power I read called The Social Leap: The New Evolutionary Science of Who We Are, Where We Come From, and What Makes Us Happy (ebook, print and audiobook) by Prof William von Hippel of Queensland University. The book solved some puzzles I had in my head about human behavior and society. In particular, the last few chapters crystallized a lot of my own thoughts about happiness.

One of the reasons that happiness seems to elude so many people is that our brains are not designed for happiness. They are designed for survival. Happiness is just a neat little byproduct of the survival program that only now in modern times have the leisure to pay attention to.

Happiness arises because of a clever ruse of the brain: it attaches pleasurable feelings to any activity that enhances our survival and reproduction. Eating food? Feels good! Sex? Amazing! Hanging out with friends? More please!

Prof von Hippel’s big thesis is that we humans succeeded so spectacularly compared to our ape forebears because we descended from our tree dwellings to become more social and cooperative (hence the book’s title). One scrawny human against a saber-toothed cat doesn’t stand a chance. But a whole group of rock-throwing, spear-hurling humans will repel a big cat or bring a mastodon to heel.

So at a very deep level, evolution has also programmed our brain to make us feel good when we do prosocial things. Because whenever humans strengthened their bonds, they enhanced their survival.

This is where the 5 Happiness Action Principles (HAPs) come from: they are all survival-enhancing activities that make us feel good when we engage in them. They are also the kind of activities that help us build and grow — our talents, our friendships, our communities.

1. LEARN

The first Happiness Action Principle is Learning. Three hundred thousand years ago on the savanna, when you learned how to build a fire or weapon, your ability to survive went up. We still have those same savanna brains, so even though learning Photoshop or baking sourdough may not be as useful to us in the wild, we’re still going to feel good when we do it.

I also want to make a distinction between pleasure and happiness here. Researchers have a bunch of terms around this, e.g. synchronic vs diachronic happiness, but the distinction I’d like to make is between short-term happiness, which is more like pleasure, and long-term happiness, which is more like joy.

For example, you’re going to feel pretty good while eating a piece of chocolate, and for some minutes afterwards. But you’re not going to look back on that experience two years from now, feel this flush of pleasant emotion and say, Woooow, that was amazing wasn’t it. It’s good mostly while it lasts, and that’s that.

Contrast this to the pleasure of learning a new language, or Photoshop, or scuba diving. Not only is the experience of learning intrinsically pleasurable, but for the rest of your life you can use that skill and derive pleasure from it. From accomplishing the feat, you can also experience an emotion researchers call authentic pride, which also feels good.

So learning gets you a triple dose of happy: while you’re doing it, while you’re using the new knowledge, and every time you give yourself a pat on the back for doing the work and feel pride.

2. CREATE

We’re all born creators, and creating stuff that wasn’t there before — think tools, buildings, babies — is the prime evolutionary drive. So it’s no surprise that evolution made sure that creating feels damn good. Like learning, you get the bonus of enjoying both the process of creating as well as its fruits.

As soon as words like “creating” and “creativity” come up, some people panic and say, “Well, I’m no Leonardo da Vinci. I’m just not a very creative person.” Well, the good news is that everybody is creative all the time. You just can’t help it. That sentence you just spoke on the phone? You created that spontaneously out of sheer nothing. And chances are that it has never been uttered before — an original! Frame it and put it on the wall.

That may be one of the blocks to people’s creative instinct, especially if they happen to have a perfectionist streak (yours truly = guilty!). To derive the benefits of creativity, you don’t have to write The Great American novel. You don’t have to paint like Rembrandt or compose like Beethoven. All you have to do is doodle on a sketchpad, noodle on a keyboard, write in your journal. It’s all art, so Make More Art Now. Worry about publishing later.

The beauty of establishing a creativity habit is that when you keep at it, eventually you will create stuff worth publishing. The number one determinant of whether you create work of value is how much stuff you put out. Prolific is better than perfect.

So pick up your calendar right now and set aside one or two one-hour slots this week to just create. It could be an outing with your camera, a session drawing charcoals, a stab at a poem, an article for your blog, 3D printing something, cooking a new dish. Let the perfectionism go — you’re already a masterpiece. And if you make this creating thing a habit, greatness will come of it.

3. SHARE

The third Happiness Action Principle is sharing. Cooperation got Homo sapiens to be the dominant species of the planet, and sharing was a big part of it. Whenever our hunter-gatherer forbears had a big kill, they shared the mastodon meat with the rest of the tribe. In the absence of extra-wide SubZero refrigerators, excess meat would spoil anyway, so it only made sense to share. And the mutuality assured that in lean times, others would share with us. Sharing helped us survive, so sharing still feels good.

So if sharing is such a natural part of our genetic makeup, why do I have to write a whole article to encourage you to do it? I mean, you don’t need articles about the virtues of breathing and pooping, right? Well, it’s probably because about 10,000 years ago, humans switched from hunter-gatherer mode to agrarian mode. With that came the notion of food surplus and private property, and sharing became less fashionable. My farm! My grain! My oxen! Keep your grubby hands off my stuff, please.

Scholars such as Edward O. Wilson and Jared Diamond have called the agrarian revolution the greatest disaster to befall the human race. Egalitarian, healthy, leisurely hunter-gatherer societies gave way to an alternative that wasn’t exactly an improvement. Average heights fell, tooth decay went up, women got subjugated, infectious disease proliferated, and war rampaged. As a species, we’ve never recovered.

Private property is ingrained as a feature of modern society, and now you can store your mastodon meat indefinitely in your SubZero, so the incentive to share is down. That’s why it’s particularly important now to seek out and design sharing opportunities into your life. That’s why it’s called Happiness Engineering — you’ve got to design these features into your life that no longer come so naturally.

Sharing your money, properties and toys is nice, but it may be even more fulfilling to share of your time and talent. The more social, the better. People tend to appreciate and remember experiences better than things anyway.

What are some ways you can bring more sharing into your life? Some ideas:

  • Share a homemade meal.
  • Write someone a poem or letter of appreciation
  • Send friends a funny joke or video
  • Make a playlist of your favorite pop songs or classical pieces
  • Make a list of favorite books and send it to your friends
  • Start a blog or podcast to share your ideas

The key is to start small, start simple, and put it on the calendar to make sure you jumpstart the sharing habit.

4. CONNECT

The better tribe members are connected to one another with bonds of friendship and trust, the more likely they are to cooperate. The more tribe members cooperate, the better they all do. As some wise man said, “People succeed in groups.” Therefore evolution made sure that connection feels really good — probably more than anything else.

This is also why being disconnected from others feels so horrible, because in our savanna days, expulsion from the tribe was tantamount to a death sentence. In ancient times, exile was considered a punishment worse than death. And in modern days, solitary confinement is the ultimate penalty.

Strangely, modern man has inflicted a lot of voluntary solitary confinement upon himself. In affluent Western society, we seem to value privacy and personal space over connection. In his masterful and prescient book Together: The Healing Power of Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, Dr Vivek Murthy, 19th Surgeon General of the United States, notes how we were already in the midst of a loneliness pandemic even before coronavirus struck.

Being lonely doesn’t just feel bad; it’s actually bad for your health. Dr Murthy cites studies by Prof Julianne Holt-Lunstad showing that the impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking fifteen cigarettes a day — more than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and lack of exercise.

We build real connection through deliberate effort. Prof Jeffrey Hall has found it takes 80-100 hours to turn an acquaintance into a real friend, and more than 200 hours to become a close friend (part of someone’s “sympathy group”, to put it technically).  Even the least intimate type of friendship, “casual” friendship, only forms after forty to sixty hours spent together.

Straight out of Dr Murthy’s book, here are some strategies “to help us not only to weather this crisis but also to heal our social world far into the future:

1) Spend time each day with those you love. This is not limited to the people in your immediate household. Reach out also to the other members of your lifeline via phone or, better yet, videoconference, so you can hear their voices and see their faces. Devote at least fifteen minutes each day to connecting with those you care most about.

2) Focus on each other. Try to eliminate distractions when interacting with others. Forget about multitasking and give the other person the gift of your full attention, making eye contact, if possible, and genuinely listening.

3) Embrace solitude. The first step toward building stronger connections with others is to build a stronger connection with oneself. Solitude helps us do that by allowing us to check in with our own feelings and thoughts, to explore our creativity, to connect with nature. Meditation, prayer, art, music, and time spent outdoors can all be sources of solitary comfort and joy.”

 5. SUPPORT

Tribes whose members supported one another in trying times such as illness, famine or war fared better, having more offspring survive to future generations. So evolution has designed us such that supporting one another feels good.

How can we support one another? Here are some ways:

1) Give a helping hand. As Dr Vivek Murthy says in Together: “Help and be helped. Service is a form of human connection that reminds us of our value and purpose in life. Giving and receiving, both, strengthen our social bonds—checking on a neighbor, seeking advice, even just offering a smile to a stranger six feet away, all can make us stronger.”

2) Check up on friends and cheer them up. One of the fastest, most effective ways to cheer yourself up is to cheer up someone else.

3) Teach. The flip side of learning is teaching, and it feels just as good, if not even better. If you have a skill to teach (and we all do), volunteer to do so. Give an online seminar. Make an instructional video. Read to kids.

4) Mentor someone. This is a longer-term commitment to a younger person’s growth, and its rewards are commensurately greater.

5) Listen. Therapists are basically people paid thousands of dollars to pretend they’re our friends (while not talking to our other friends) and listen to us without judgment. Well, as a friend, you don’t have to pretend! You can already do that for your friends for free!

You don’t have to solve anyone’s problems. You just have to listen attentively, occasionally saying something like “I really hear you” or “That sounds challenging.” Your friend experiences relief, you’ll feel useful, and your bond will strengthen.

CONCLUSION

Learn, create, share, connect, support: nature has hardwired us to feel good when we engage in these activities. As a bonus, they don’t just feel good right now; they also form the foundation of our long-term happiness.

I sincerely hope that you have the opportunity to incorporate some of the principles from this article into your daily activities so you can develop new mental and physical happiness habits. You even have some suggestions to get you started, and some great books to get you going. To start the sharing process, you can send this article to friends who would benefit from it.

I also understand that creating lasting change can be challenging. So when you feel called to make these changes stick, putting your life on a permanently higher trajectory of joy and generativity, here are two ideas:

• I invite you to apply to the first Happiness Engineering class, starting soon. This is where we support one another as a cohort for 3 months to tune up our lives in five areas so we can better fulfill our purpose in life of fully giving our gift to the world. 

• If you would prefer to consult with me one-on-one, write to me at drali at happinessengineering.com.

Happiness comes to those who take action, and there is no time time better than right now to do just that. Go forth and generate some greatness!

Happiness Engineering presents Brain Yoga, June 3-5

Thanks for your responses to my “How can I best serve you” email last week. Here’s some of what you suggested:

  • Brain Yoga
  • “Energetic blocking techniques, e.g. you’re working from home with other family members – how do you block their energy if they are stressed out? How do you not let toxic co-workers get to you, especially if you are super empathetic?”
  • Happiness Engineering 3-month course
  • Individualized coaching
  • More book recommendations

So I’m going to start with Brain Yoga. You know how you go into a yoga class all harried and tensed up with a zillion things on your mind, and leave it feeling calm and energized? Well that’s what we’ll be doing in Brain Yoga class. Only more powerful, and dealing directly with your mind.

Each class will be a 15-20min meditation, followed by a 30min talk, in which I teach you a technique to increase resilience, equanimity and compassion. About 45min total. If you’re wondering what that’s like, check out these recordings. Optional Q&A at the end of each session.

If you thought this was a good idea during the pandemic, it’s probably an even better idea during pandemic + riots. As this is a time for us to bring our most balanced, strong and compassionate selves to the fore, we all could use some reinforcements.

No charge for the three sessions this week. There will be a fee starting next week, because eventually, I too will have to make a living. If you want a Saturday session, let yourself be known and I’ll consider it. Sign up for one, sign up for all:

If you’d like individualized coaching, my office hours are Thursday, 2-5pm PT/5-8pm ET. Write to me directly and we’ll see how we can address your challenges, short-term or long-term.

Stay healthy, stay safe, stay sane

Dr Ali

Staying Sane in Trying Times: Seminars Apr 22-25

By popular request, I’m holding another series of Staying Sane Seminars this week.

Now, attendance at the seminars has been robust, but not exactly internet-breaking. I myself just took an online seminar on marketing, and my instructor would tell me that I need to do a better job of letting you know what these seminars are and who they’re for.

To that end, I will be sharing with you today a little bit more about my background and thinking:

  • Why these seminars are necessary
  • What qualifies me to teach you this stuff
  • Why this stuff is worthwhile
  • Who it’s for
  • What’s in these seminars anyway

1. WHY THESE SEMINARS ARE NECESSARY, PANDEMIC OR NOT

Here’s the deal: the universe was kind enough to drop the most complex machine in the entire cosmos into your cranium. It’s called your brain.

Unfortunately, the universe forgot to give you an owner’s manual. So most people — and by “most” I mean 99.964% — are running around feeling feelings and thinking thoughts that don’t necessarily serve them all the time. Stuff like fear, doubt, worry, self-loathing, shame, loneliness, and various flavors of self-inflicted misery.

What makes things worse is that evolution designed our magnificent brains for survival on the African savanna 300,000 years ago. This is before the era of gridlock traffic, report deadlines, “Real Housewives” and competitive kindergarten admissions. So there’s a lot of evolutionary mismatch between what our brains are optimized for and the challenges we encounter in 2020 C.E.

That means all of us have these ancient brains that aren’t adapted to modern environments. So we don’t feel so good all the time. And that’s where I come in.

2. WHAT I HAVE TO TEACH YOU (a.k.a. who the hell is this guy anyway)

Hi there! Dr Ali here. I have been studying how the mind works for over 20 years now. As an undergraduate physics and biology major at Harvard, I did lab research in neuroscience. After that, I studied medicine and workings of the body-mind at UC San Diego School of Medicine.

One day I sat in on a class on clinical hypnotherapy to heckle it. I found that hypnotherapy was effective beyond all reason for many conditions — and massively underused. Subsequently I got certified in it not once but twice, and have been practicing clinical hypnotherapy since.

I also got twice certified in another mind-healing modality called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP). Like an antibiotic, it was very effective for treating specific things. And when it worked, it was mind-bendingly effective. It could do in 20 minutes what 3 months of therapy couldn’t accomplish. Like magic.

Since 1999, I have been studying and practicing yoga. Yoga is a supremely powerful way to train the mind, and fortunately, it has become more popular in recent years. These days, people think of yoga as mostly aerobics with Sanskrit. Although doing “yoga booty ballet” is still better than not doing it, the truly transformative aspects of yoga are in meditation and breathwork.

I’ve also attended dozens of personal development workshops and lectures, from the mainstream (e.g. Tony Robbins), to the offbeat (e.g. Wim Hof ice baths), to the esoteric (inner fire Tibetan tummo tantra taught by a reincarnated lama). And I read 160 nonfiction books a year, mostly on psychology and personal development.

I’m telling you all this because you need to know that these Staying Sane Seminars aren’t just any old seminar. They’re a collection of THE best, most effective practices I’ve gathered over the past 20-some years. Stuff that works astonishingly well to transform the way you feel and think.

I call it Creative Repatterning: you’re using the creativity of your own mind to change its patterns.

You know how you feel after watching a Cirque du Soleil performance? How you say “wooow” a few times, and feel like a different person? Senses elevated. Mind expanded. Think of this as the Cirque du Soleil of personal development seminars.

Definitely not ordinary.

And for the time being, they’re free. Come on down.

3. WHO THESE SEMINARS ARE FOR

Who is this for? Anyone with a mind. Especially one that experiences occasional disquietude and suffering.

Access greater equanimity. Diminish stress, anxiety & worry. Build a happier you no matter what’s happening. Join me, Dr Ali Binazir, as I share with you Creative Repatterning techniques for altering your body-mind that are quite literally life-changing.

Click on the link to register via Zoom:
Wednesday, 22 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
(+1)
Thursday, 23 April 2020, 1pm PT/4pm ET/9pm London/6am Sydney
(+1)
Friday, 24 April 2020, 5pm PT/8pm ET/1am London/7am Sydney
(+1)
Saturday, 25 April 2020, 11am PT/2pm ET/7pm London/stay sleeping Sydney

4. WHAT’S IN THESE SEMINARS

So far some of the topics we have covered:

Meditation:

  • Focus and calm the mind and clear it of thoughts (hum-sau)
  • Becoming more compassionate towards others and self (metta or loving-kindness meditation)
  • Re-processing and transforming uncomfortable emotions (Tibetan tonglen)
  • Practicing integration of the full self (Dr Dan Siegel’s Wheel of Awareness)

Emotional self-regulation:

  • Byron Katie’s “The Work”: a crazy-effective process for dealing with challenging people and situations
  • Whack-the-Ball: diminish painful emotions instantly
  • The Volume Dial: diminish suffering or physical pain on demand
  • Breathing techniques
  • Re-framing with modal operators

Useful concepts and stories to shift your energy:

  • Spanda: the technique from Kashmiri Shaivic tantra to feel the vibration of the universe
  • Embodied cognition and the pen technique: the body leading the mind in feeling
  • Name it to tame it: Naming emotions as a way to make them more manageable
  • Meta-cognition: how to have thoughts about your thoughts  
  • How to generate and move energy through your body to change how you feel
  • Create your own happiness playlist on Spotify, or just use Dr Ali’s Moodlifter

5. INTEGRATING THIS STUFF INTO YOUR LIFE

If you’d like to get better at regulating your own feelings and developing an unshakable foundation of happiness, I’ve been working on a course that I’ll be starting soon for 20 people. If you’d like to be part of this first cohort, fill out the application here.

I have time slots for 3-4 one-on-one coaching sessions per week. They are $200/hr, or $100 for 30min. If you’d like to book one of those, click here.

Additionally, I have for you recordings of the first 6 seminars. Each one is different, with at least 80% new material:

Happiness Engineering in Trying Times 1

Staying Sane in Trying Times 2

Staying Sane in Trying Times 3

Staying Sane in Trying Times 4

Staying Sane in Trying Times 5

Staying Sane in Trying Times 6

Staying Sane in Trying Times 7

Staying Sane in Trying Times 8

Staying Sane in Trying Times 9

Staying Sane in Trying Times 10

9 Simple Strategies for Reading More Books: How I Read 130+ Books a Year

I have a mini-confession for you: I love bookstores. Actually, that’s not entirely true: I am crazy for bookstores. They exert a gravitational pull on me like a black hole pulls in a photon and obliterates all signs of its existence, putting a stop to time. My brain goes ooooh as I see all the shiny new books and browse the little treasuresI vanish into a sea of stimulus, novelty, and discovery. But with the ecstasy there also came the agony of not being able to read all of these insanely cool books. When would I find out about Operation Mincemeat, the successful British disinformation campaign against the Nazis? Or master the physics of cooking? Or delve into the 900-page lives of John Rockefeller and Alexander Hamilton (thanks a lot, Ron Chernow)? I would add them to my Amazon “Interesting books” list, which someday my future self would no doubt tackle all 640 titles thereof. And then, there were the 100+ unread books in my own library. They occupied three shelves in my bedroom, covered by a towel so I would feel less guilt when I passed by them (true!). Visitors assumed that it must be something shameful I was concealing. They weren’t wrong. My name is Ali, and I am a non-read-book hoarder. One of these books sitting there diligently gathering dust was Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation by Prof Daniel Siegel (ebook & print). I remember purchasing it enthusiastically several centuries ago, fully intending to read it right away. And then picking it up again a year later and getting to page 40 before putting it back on the shelf again, where it could capture dust and radiate guilt. One day, I picked it up, looked at the purchase receipt doubling as a bookmark (still on page 40), and realized the book had been on my shelf for six freakin’ years. Out of a mixture of pique and embarrassment, I just decided to drop everything and read the damn book. Holy cow! Here was a book that provided a whole new framework for mental health. It was enlightening, revolutionary, revelatory: chaos and rigidity as the pathological ends of the mental health spectrum, and integration as the desirable mean.* That epiphany made me realize the magnitude of the treasures hiding in the open on my bookshelves and reading lists. I fully appreciate Umberto Eco’s point about the benefits of the antilibrary of unread books, but this was getting ridiculous. Page 40 boy no more; I was going to read more. If I read 100 books a year—just 2 a week—I would not only go through all the unread books on my shelves, but also be able to read all the other books I was hankering for. So in 2016, I read 100 books. In 2017, 132 books. In 2018, I set a goal of 156, and ended up reading 170. According to Pew Research, the average American read 4 books last year. If you’re reading this now, I’m assuming you really like to read books, but somehow just don’t. And whether your annual book count falls closer to 4 or 400, you’d like to increase it. This article will help you do that. Before you make any rash decisions about not being able to do this because 170 books wtf man, some unfair advantages that enable me to read a lot:
  • I have designed my life to make writing and reading books my job. Your probably have a different job.
  • I read 2-4x faster than average, thanks to some mixture of talent and training.
  • I use my fallow time to read (see below).
  • I’m a single, self-employed man without children, wife, or lawn care duties, so I have chunks of uninterrupted time.
In 2015, I read a mere 48 books, and thought that was a lot. If you had told me I’d triple that number in a few years, I would have asked you to share what you were smoking. But I believe that by applying the strategies I’m about to enumerate, you can easily double or triple your yearly book count—even if you have a 9-5 job, spouse, and 2.3 children. These strategies work with the life you have right now. My goal is to help you jettison your excuses into low earth orbit so you get to enjoy reading all those books you’ve always wanted to read. Ready? Let’s do this. 1. MAKE READING BOOKS A CONSCIOUS PRIORITY Right now, the main reason you’re not reading as many books as you want is not that you can’t, or don’t have the time. It’s that you have not made it a priority. In the meantime, you have made other things priorities that you value less than reading, consciously or not. Noodling on social media. Reading random online articles that you encounter on said social media. Posting photos of your cat, dog, kid, or food on social media. Watching TV. Attending bullshit work meetings. Marathon video game sessions. Pulpy magazines. And did I mention social media? Yeah, social media. I hear ya—if you don’t attend the bullshit meetings, you can get fired. But the rest? If you want to get serious about reading more books, it’s time we make book reading a conscious priority. As in, this means a lot to me and I’m going to make it a permanent part of my life. As in, I only get 460,000 waking hours in this life, and every minute I spend doing one thing I kinda like is a minute I can’t get to do the thing I really like. As in, I love reading, dammit, and I’m going to make it a priority. Once you make this shift, from reading only when all the other important stuff is done, to reading being the important stuff, from giving it the dregs of your time to making it your prime-time activity, everything changes. And really, short of your relationships and life-sustaining activities, what’s more important than learning? One more thing before launching into the rest of the strategies: Go easy on yourself. Remember that reading is a joy and a privilege. We live in this totally bananas time in history when we have access to unlimited books for free or nearly so. In the Middle Ages, books were expensive enough to be priceless, and no one but the elite had access to them. Later, people like Voltaire and Charles Dickens had to choose between food and books. So instead of thinking must read more books high-achieving reading Hulk smash and making it one more thing to be competitive and neurotic about, think whooaaa I get to read. A privilege and a joy. Let’s get started. 2. SCHEDULE DEDICATED READING TIME The #1 way to signal to the universe your intention to read is to schedule it in your calendar. You mean like along the grocery runs, picking up the kids, and bullshit meetings, doc? Why yes! That’s what we do with important stuff: we put it on the calendar. That’s how we make it a priority that gets done. If you’re not serious about reading, we can stop right here and spare you the remaining 3000 words of this article. But if you are serious, and reading is a joy and a privilege for you, let’s get some time blocked out for you. Like, right now. Get your calendar, and block out at least three 30-minute reading sessions for this week. I have my dedicated reading time first thing in the morning, after showering and meditating. That way it gets done, and any additional reading time during the day is just gravy. I recommend that you select a time slot that you can stick to on a regular basis: right after lunch; right after putting the kids to bed; before everyone wakes up, whatever. Just make it consistent. If you can do 3 days a week, do that. If you can only 1 day, do that. The point is to improve from where you are right now, and build on it later. For now, I just want you to show an upward trend. If you’re spending zero time reading, any dedicated time is an improvement. Even one single page in the morning. And once you do get started, you’ll find that adding more time gets even easier. I have total faith in you. Let’s go, you bookbeast you. 3. RE-ALLOCATE TIME I used to be a semi-serious poker player. Sessions would gobble up acres of time: 4-8 hours for an evening cash session; entire days for tournaments. Once I stopped playing poker, all that time could now be spent doing something more worthwhile, like reading. What’s the poker in your life—your big time-suck that returns little on the investment, the guilty pleasure that’s maybe more guilt than pleasure? Is it watching TV? Playing video games? Noodling on social media? Surfing Wikipedia? Whatever it is, realize that you’re already spending that time, so the “I don’t have time” excuse is bullshit. Now consciously decide to re-allocate that time to reading instead. If you’re serious about reading, here are some tactics:
  • Get rid of your TV entirely if you have one. It’s easily the most pernicious time-waster in every household. I haven’t had one since high school, and seriously have no idea how people get anything done when 400 channels just sit there and say it’s Shark Week again and pretty much always watch meeeeee, for which I have no defense.
  • Cancel your Netflix subscription. After you watch the Wild, Wild Country documentary. Damn.
  • Get rid of your video game console. Unless you’re 13 and under.
  • Install the News Feed Eradicator extension to your internet browser.
  • Install website-blocking extensions to your browser, like RescueTime and StayFocused.
  • Delete all compulsively addictive apps from your phone: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram. Just do it. You won’t miss them, and trust me—anything else you do is better than spending time on those apps. Especially reading. This could reclaim you 20-90 minutes a day, depending on how addicted you are to those apps.
  • Get the Goodreads app for smartphone or tablet. It’ll help you read more books. And follow me there if you want to hear about my book recommendations.
Even if you do just one of these, you can easily recover 30-60min of daily time to devote to reading. Which raises the question: How much can you cover in 30min/day? The average educated adult reads at a speed of about 300 words per minute (wpm). That’s 18,000 words per hour. Let’s say the average serious book such as The Tao of Dating is around 280 pages and 70,000 words (ebook, print & audio). If you read half an hour a day, that’s around 180 hours/year, or 3.2 million words. That’s 46 books, yo! On just half an hour a day!! More than 4 standard deviations above the American mean of 12 per year!!! I’m running out of exclamation marks here, but the point is that the little bits of time add up. Book reading is an investment—unlike, say, all that time spent on social media, games and other compulsions. And you don’t have to quit all of your time-suck guilty pleasures to become a champion book reader. Assuming you sleep 8 hours a night, 30 minutes represents just 3% of your waking hours. Can you commit just 3% of your time to doing something you not only love, but that also brings massive positive returns to your life? Seems like a decent deal to me. 4. USE FALLOW TIME If I had a dollar for every time someone told me “I don’t have time to read,” I’d have many dollars. So we need to send this excuse to its swift and everlasting demise by proving that there’s all kinds of fallow time in your day that you can repurpose to reading time. a) Commuting to work. One day when I was visiting my friend Ben in Chicago, he was kind enough to drop me off to my meeting on his way to work. I asked him if he listened to any audiobooks on his 20-minute commute. “Nah, it’s not enough time for me to get into anything.” Are you kidding me? It’s the perfect time! The average American commutes 25 minutes to work each way, for a total of 50 minutes a day, five days a week. That adds up to 12,500 minutes a year (which, by the way, is totally bananas, and probably making you all kinds of miserable without your knowing it, which I will talk about extensively in my Happiness Engineering book. But I digress). If you commute by bus or train, you can read 53 books in that time (1 a week!). If you drive, you can listen to audiobooks and, at 8-10 hours per book, get through 20-26 of those. This is a substantial—nay, gargantuan chunk of time, bigger than your 30min daily reading allocation! b) Waiting in line. Stuck at the DMV or passport office? Waiting for your turn at the hair salon, or for your oil change to finish? These are perfect times to get in a nice chunk of reading. Each one of them may not be much, but put together, they add up to a lot. To make this work, ABAB: Always Bring a Book. Or read on your smartphone’s Kindle app like I do, which means you’ll always have 5 million books on you. c) Running. I’ve gotten through many an audiobook while running. It helps if it’s a lighter read, say a memoir like Amy Poehler’s hilariously heartfelt Yes, Please (ebook, print, and audio), vs a computationally complex read, like Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman (ebook & print), or Behave by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print), which is, incidentally, the greatest book I’ve ever read. d) Traveling. Airport bookstores have noticed: people read while traveling. I use earplugs to minimize distraction, improve concentration, and save my eardrums. Reading on Kindle means I don’t have to carry extra weight on board. Those 5 million books can take up space. e) Right before falling asleep. Bedtime is a good for a few more minutes of readage. I keep a non-taxing, not-too-exciting book bedside. A thriller will keep you up, so you may want to choose something less stimulating. This is how I slogged through the overlong but still excellent Mark Twain: A Life by Ron Powers (ebook & print). Some elephants are best eaten one bite at a time. 5. GET INTO AUDIOBOOKS I listen to an audiobook every time that I go for a run or get on a treadmill. This kills two birds with one stone: it allows me to consume a cool book, and it makes me more motivated to run so I can listen to a cool book! I noticed that the better the book, the more likely I was to run. Feel free to borrow that motivational technique. Less fun than running is driving in California, but a good audiobook can soften the sting. The 60-minute slog from Santa Monica to Downtown LA was an opportunity to listen to more of Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, the greatest audiobook and memoir I’ve ever listened to, and Shoe Dog: A Memoir by the Creator of Nike, also the greatest memoir ever. Depending on how much running and driving I’m doing, I get through 1-2 audiobooks a month. You can listen to them during your commute, run, walk, or other low cognitive-load activity that does not involve heavy limb-shredding machinery. I subscribe to Audible’s monthly audiobook program, which is exactly the right amount of audiobooks for me. At $14.95 a month, it also saves me a bunch on the mind-blowing Great Courses, which usually cost several times that. The key to listening to audiobooks while driving is to turn the book on immediately, regardless of the length of drive. Even those 10-minute jaunts add up. I’ve been doing this for so long that I honestly have no idea whether my car radio works or not. What times could you be enjoying listening to an audiobook? 6. READ BOOKS, NOT ARTICLES I swear I’m not looking over your shoulder right now, but if you’re reading this sentence, it’s safe to say you read articles online. So if you’re already spending time reading something, make them books, not articles (present company excepted). Articles are like bubble gum; books, like main courses, meals, or whole harvests. This means chucking both magazines and online pieces. I do read some articles, especially those in The New Yorker, the world’s greatest magazine. However, I have made a point of reading books instead of articles, and never reading news if I can help it. Wait what, no news? You choose to be ignorant about your world, doc? See, I subscribed to The Economist for over 15 years, and still think it’s great. But one day, I realized my waist-high stack of old issues was the equivalent of, like, 50 books. As much as I appreciated The Economist’s diligence in keeping me abreast of developments in Congo (still warring!), the Middle East (still quarreling!), and world economy (still fluctuating!), I realized that it was mostly a cloud atlas, obsolete as soon as it was printed. Sub sole nihil novum, said some wise man with much better Latin than mine, and he had a point. There’s nothing new under the sun; news should justly be called olds. One thing is up; another thing is down. The names change but the story is the same. Unless you use the news to take action (e.g. enlist for military service, run for office, evade a hurricane or dump bad stocks), then it is literally useless to you. And, while we’re on the Happiness Engineering website, I’ll remind you that most news is negative and designed to make you miserable. Reading good books about stuff you actually care about will make you much happier in the long run. 7. READ A LITTLE FASTER So we calculated that reading for 30 minutes a day at 300wpm translates to around 46 books a year. It follows that if you increase your reading speed, you stand to read even more books. Let me say here that I don’t believe in “speed-reading.” You can scan the words faster and faster, but there’s an upper limit beyond which you’re just skimming text without understanding anything. That said, most of us are reading at far below the upper limit of our speed. You can stand to increase that speed by moving your eyes across the page faster. Train yourself to do that by following a finger or pen across the page, and gradually increasing the speed up to your limit. There are also apps to train you to read faster. I recommend that you use them not to read books, but to train yourself to move your eyes faster. One app is Quickreader, which highlights text at the speed you specify. I suggest you use it to overclock your brain to read at some absurd speed like 2000 wpm, which will go by in an incomprehensible blur. After that, dial back to some fast-but-not-ridiculous speed like 750wpm, which feels leisurely in comparison. But that’s over double normal reading speed! High-five, homie. Another useful app is Kindle’s WordRunner, available on Kindle Fire devices and Kindle for Android apps (but not the iOS Apple Kindle, for some strange reason). This app runs words by in one spot at the speed you specify. Once again, practice overclocking your brain at some stupidly fast speed. Then go back to reading a normal book, only faster than you did before. I dropped $50 on a Kindle Fire 7 just so I could get this feature. To improve your speed without having to download any new software, go to the Spreeder app, paste some practice text, and go to town. And if you want to get really serious, the same company makes software for $80 called 7 Speed Reading that will increase your reading speed. I found it a useful training tool which helped me improve my eye-fixation speed, and to get rid of some bad habits like back-skipping. Also note that you will read different books at different speeds. Computationally complex texts that require thought and processing may take 2-5x longer to read than the average book, while a pulpy novel or memoir may take half the time. Remember that it’s not a race in any case: you still want to enjoy the book and absorb its contents. A joy and a privilege! 8. READ ONLY BOOKS YOU REALLY LIKE When a book is fun and compelling, I read it quickly. When it’s boring, pointless, or poorly written, it takes forever. So you know what I do now? I only read books I really like! Crazy, I know. But you’d be shocked and amazed how many people feel like they need to get through The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire as if it’s some badge of honor. Life’s too short, yo! Even at 150 books a year, I’m going to get through at most another 6000 books in this lifetime. That’s not even 0.1% of what’s in the Library of Congress, so these books had better be awesome. There are enough stupendously great books out there such that you don’t ever have to read a crappy one. If partway through, you find a book tepid, you have my blessing to abandon it for something that’s great. So check out the Amazon and Goodreads ratings and reviews, and stick with the great stuff. Here are some lists of the best books I read last year: the most useful, most important, and just plain insanely great. This is one of the reasons I’m starting a podcast called The Ideaverse, which showcases truly extraordinary, mind-bending, life-altering books. Sign up on this website to be notified when it launches. 9. TRACK YOUR READING AND SET YOURSELF A CHALLENGE One way of signaling to the universe that you’re getting serious about reading is to set yourself a reading challenge: “In the next year, I will read 24 books.” Then keep track of your reading on your smartphone’s Notes app or some notebook. The management god Peter Drucker is famous for saying, “What gets measured gets managed.” Now that you are measuring your reading, you have a much better chance of improving it. An app like Goodreads allows you to both track your reading and set a public challenge. Having the challenge out in the open adds a smidgen of accountability which may make you more likely to adhere to it. And, let’s face it, how else are you going to brag about all the cool books you read? Especially ebooks, which do not show up on any shelf. CONCLUSION: HOW ARE YOU SPENDING YOUR LIFE? Not so long ago, I made a list of things I really enjoyed doing—the things that make life worthwhile, y’know? On the list: attending classical music concerts, running, dancing, cooking, socializing with friends, reading, traveling, and a bunch of other stuff that I strangely was not doing very often. Huh? I had time, and I could afford the activities. But somehow I was spending my days doing other things far less fulfilling. Forces other than myself had decided how I would spend my life, and I had tacitly consented. So I made a deliberate choice to do more of the stuff that made me happy. And now, I’m happier! And devouring books like some gigantic book-devouring termite from outer space (much cooler than a wimpy little book worm). If there’s a book I want to read, I put it in the queue and know I will get to reading it soon enough. I don’t have to do this. I get to do this. A joy and a privilege. I hope this article also impels you to take stock of how you are spending your time, and to deliberately incorporate into your life the activities that bring you joy and meaning. If reading is one of those activities, test and see which strategies in this article work for you, and report back to me! And if you have effective strategies of your own, please share them in the comments. Read on, my fellow super space-termites, AB PS: Most of the product links in this article are affiliate links. This means that every time you purchase through those links, you support the blog by having several shiny pennies deposited into my Amazon account. That allows me to buy more great books (currently about 20 a month) and tell you about them. I am infinitely grateful for your support! *Dan Siegel should be at least as famous a psychiatrist as Sigmund Freud, with the difference that Siegel’s work actually makes sense, helps heal people, and is backed by science. Freud, on the other hand, is only one letter off from fraud. RESOURCES Read faster: I got this software called 7 Speed Reading in 2014, and found it useful. It has drills for gradually increasing your eye-scanning speed, your wordspan (the number of words you can take in per eye fixation), and other stuff that will make you read faster. It’s sophisticated software, and it worked for me. Great books: If you are interested in reading some truly excellent books, here are the top 13 from what I read last year. You may have noticed by now that I only read nonfiction. For full reviews of each, go here.
  • Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood (2016) by Trevor Noah (ebook, print & audio).
  • Algorithms to Live By: The Computer Science of Human Decisions (2016) by Brian Christian & Tom Griffiths (ebook & print).
  • On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century (2017) by Timothy Snyder (ebook & print).
  • King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror and Heroism in Colonial Africa (1999) by Adam Hochschild (ebook, print & audio).
  • The Tiger: A True Story of Vengeance and Survival (2010) by John Vaillant (ebook & print).
  • The Art of Loving (1956) by Erich Fromm (ebook & print).
  • The Book of Joy: Lasting Happiness in a Changing World (2016) by Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, Douglas Abrams (ebook & print).
  • Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee: An Indian History of the American West (1970), by Dee Brown (ebook, print & audio).
  • Everyday Engineering: Understanding the Marvels of Daily Life (2015) by Prof Stephen Ressler (Great Courses). This 36-lecture course was one of the meatiest, most useful I’ve ever taken from The Teaching Company/Great Courses.
And the two greatest books I’ve ever read:
  • Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst (2017) by Robert Sapolsky (ebook & print). Tied for my Greatest Book Ever.
  • The Making of the Atomic Bomb (1987, revised 2012) by Richard Rhodes (ebook, print & audio). This is the greatest nonfiction book I’ve ever read. It won the Pulitzer, National Book Award, and National Book Critics Circle Award, so others seem to have liked it, too.