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posted: 1/12/2014 5:30 AM

Read this if you want to be happy in 2014

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  • "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams writes that studies show that using willpower in one area diminishes how much willpower you have in reserve for other areas. Instead, you can usually replace willpower with knowledge.

    "Dilbert" creator Scott Adams writes that studies show that using willpower in one area diminishes how much willpower you have in reserve for other areas. Instead, you can usually replace willpower with knowledge.
    Comic courtesy of Scott Adams

By Scott Adams
Special to The Washington Post

I have no expertise whatsoever on the topic of happiness. But I do have a knack for observation and simplification. That's what I do for my day job as the creator of Dilbert. Today -- as some of you are already backtracking on those New Year's resolutions -- I'm going to strip out all of the mumbo-jumbo around the topic of happiness and tell you the simplest way to get some.

This is a business story because every bit of what follows on the topic of happiness is relevant to your career, especially if you have entrepreneurial ambitions. You'll need all the good health, good looks and mental energy you can muster to influence people and survive the long hours. As luck would have it, the good habits that make you healthy and energetic help to make you happy at the same time, so it's a double win.

As far as I can tell, people usually experience the sensation of happiness whenever they have both health and freedom. It's a simple formula:

Happiness = Health + Freedom

I'm talking about the everyday freedom of being able to do what you want when you want to do it, at work and elsewhere. For happiness, timing is as important as the thing you're doing. For example, your favorite food is useless to you if the only time you can eat it is when your stomach is already full. But if I offer you bland food when you're starving, you'll feel as if you won the lottery. The timing of things matters.

The same principle is true for exercise. If you exercise when you're in the mood for it, you can enjoy the workout. But if you can only exercise after a long day on the job and a grueling commute, you might hate it. There's a right time and a wrong time for nearly every activity, from sleep to sex to paying bills. Matching your mood to your activity is a baseline requirement for happiness. The good news is that timing is relatively controllable, especially in the long run.

If you're just starting out in your career, it won't be easy to find a job that gives you a flexible schedule. The best approach is a strategy of moving toward more flexibility over the course of your life. That quest could take the form of badgering your pointy-haired boss into letting you work from home one day per week, or it might mean going back to school to learn a skill so you can run your own business. In my case, it means waking up several hours before the rest of the family. There isn't one formula for finding schedule flexibility. Just make sure all of your important decisions are consistent with an end game of a more flexible schedule.

We can't ignore the role of money in all of this. Money can't directly buy happiness, but it can give you more options, and that's an important part of freedom. So don't give up too much income potential just to get a flexible schedule. There's no point in having a flexible schedule if you can't afford to do anything.

The second part of the happiness formula is health. It's never a good idea to take health tips from cartoonists, so check with your doctor if anything here sounds iffy to you. I don't know how many people have died after reading health tips from cartoonists, but it probably isn't zero. Don't say you weren't warned.

The most important thing to know about staying fit is this: If it takes willpower, you're doing it wrong. Anything that requires willpower is unsustainable in the long run. And studies show that using willpower in one area diminishes how much willpower you have in reserve for other areas. You need to get willpower out of the system. I'll show you some tricks for doing that.

My observation is that you can usually replace willpower with knowledge. That isn't an obvious point, so I'll give some examples.

Imagine you are hungry and I offer you a delicious but unhealthy dessert. It would take a lot of willpower to resist. Now imagine the same scenario, but I simultaneously offer a healthier food option that is also delicious. Suddenly it is easy to pick the healthy alternative over the dessert. The dessert was only irresistible when the alternative was starving.

So the trick for avoiding unhealthy foods is to make sure you always have access to healthy options that you enjoy eating. Your knowledge of this trick, assuming you use it, makes willpower far less necessary.

Once you get your diet right, the next topic to tackle is exercise. I'm about to share with you the simplest and potentially most effective exercise plan in the world. Here it is:

Be active every day.

Under this system, anything that gets you up and moving counts. It doesn't matter if you're swimming, running or cleaning the garage. When you're active, and you don't overdo it, you'll find yourself in a good mood afterward. That reward becomes addictive over time. You'll be like Pavlov's dogs, but conditioned to be active.

After a few months of being moderately active every day, you'll discover that it is harder to sit and do nothing than it is to get up and do something. When that happens, you no longer need willpower to exercise.

You will be tempted to quibble with some of the things I said about diet and exercise. Don't get hung up on the details, because science keeps changing what we think we know anyway. The important point is that there are simple ways to substitute knowledge for willpower so you can ease into healthier eating and an active lifestyle.

When your body is feeling good, and you have some flexibility in your schedule, you'll find that the petty annoyances that plague your life become nothing but background noise. And that's a great launchpad for happiness.

I'll reiterate that you shouldn't get your health information from cartoonists. All I'm offering is the idea that happiness is more accessible if you replace willpower with knowledge and you replace short-term goals with lifelong systems.

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