People often ask me, “How do you do your research?”
I’m a kind of street scientist. I don’t have a lab full of undergrads eating marshmallows to study;
Really, I feel more like Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt or George Orwell, in the way that I analyze human nature. I love reading the science, and I think about the science all the time, but in the end, I pay the most attention to what I see around me. And what I read — not just science, but memoirs, biographies, novels.
I tell people this, and they say, “But how do you draw any conclusions?”
I can never think of a good answer. I just read a lot, talk to people a lot, take gigantic amounts of notes, and ponder. I look for patterns. Certain actions or remarks strike my attention, often for reasons that take me months to identify.
But it did occur to me that I’ve hit on one very useful analytic technique, without quite realizing it.
If I’m stumped by something I see, I substitute “because” for “despite,” and see if a proposition makes sense.
For instance, one thing that puzzled me tremendously when I was writing Better Than Before was the number of people who trained for the marathon as a way to get into the habit of running. But over and over, people told me, they’d had a great experience training, they’d successfully run the marathon — and then they’d stop running! This seemed counter-intuitive to me. Wouldn’t hitting a big goal like completing the marathon make people more committed to their habits? These people didn’t make sense.
Then I realized: I’d been thinking, “Despite the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” What if I thought, “Because of the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” Eureka! For the first time, I was able to grasp the great danger posed by finish lines in forming habits. (To read more, check out the chapter on the Strategy of Reward in Better Than Before.)
This technique works surprisingly often.
“Despite the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise” becomes “Because of the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise.” This was a huge Lightning Bolt for me! For more on this, read Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat.
A friend told me about taking her father to the doctor, and although the doctor emphasized the importance of following his instructions for taking medicine, and how he’d be monitoring to see if the medicine had been taken, her father wouldn’t take the medicine.“Despite the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take the medicine.” Could it be that “Because of the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take his medicine.” Yes! Her father is a Rebel.
I’m sure my legal training was helpful here. In law, you always have to make the contrary argument, to push as hard as you can to make the opposite points, to make your case as strong as it can be.
Have you ever discovered that a “Despite” is actually a “Because?” Or do you have other techniques you use to figure things out?
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the #1 New York Times Bestseller The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier—and the recently released Happier at Home and Better Than Before. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. For more doses of happiness and other happenings, follow Gretchen on Facebook and Twitter.
Image courtesy of Steven Lewis.