Limit your social media. Social media is an oxymoron. It thrives on anger and hate, since that drives more interaction, which boosts clicks and revenue for the platform. If you can, drop it completely. If not, limit yourself to a certain time per day. You will be shocked how much better you’ll feel. After I dumped Facebook, I had to call people on the phone, or email them directly. That forced me to have deeper relationships with people, and I realized how shallow Facebook had made some of my interactions.
It sometimes feels like it is so hard to avoid feeling down or depressed these days. Between the sad news coming from world headlines, the impact of the ongoing raging pandemic, and the constant negative messages popping up on social and traditional media, it sometimes feels like the entire world is pulling you down. What do you do to feel happiness and joy during these troubled and turbulent times? In this interview series called “Finding Happiness and Joy During Turbulent Times” we are talking to experts, authors, and mental health professionals who share lessons from their research or experience about “How To Find Happiness and Joy During Troubled & Turbulent Times”.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ryan Haag.
Ryan is the author of “To Build A House: My Surprisingly Epic Journey in Custom Home Building.” In his book, Ryan documents his race to build his house while the entire world seemed bent on stopping him. Between deaths in his family, firing a builder, a mortgage company going out of business and a city government continually finding “problems” with his build, Ryan had to learn how to find happiness in a very challenging environment. This and other writings can be found on his publishing website, SnowyOwlPublishing.org.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive into the main focus of our interview, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
My childhood is best described as…fractured, because I moved constantly as a kid, and even as an adult. It wasn’t until I left for college that I lived in any one city for more than 3 years in a row. My dad was a Marine Corps officer, so I moved everywhere: North Carolina, New Jersey, Michigan and even Japan! I learned to make friends really quickly, and just as quickly leave them. Those experiences taught me to lean heavily on my family, because family was the only thing that ever stayed constant.
It also made me tough. I remember the first time someone told me that their kids were breaking down and crying because they moved one city over, and I just couldn’t understand how that was so bad. Moving, losing friends, having my stuff broken by inconsiderate movers, all those sorts of things were just so common that I got used to them. I had to “roll with the punches” a lot as a kid. That really helped me later in life when I went to build a house and pretty much everything went wrong.
What or who inspired you to pursue your career? We’d love to hear the story.
My dad has always been my biggest inspiration. He encouraged me to develop strong math and science skills, and he steered me towards entering the Navy because it offered real engineering opportunities. He really drove me to apply for the Navy’s nuclear power program. I remember him telling me it’s better to be an engineer in the Navy vice the Marine Corps, because in his words, “All Marine engineers do is build bridges and then blow them up with explosives.” Learning how to safely operate a nuclear reactor and a nuclear-powered submarine gave me a huge boost in my career and set me up for future success, but it was always my dad that challenged me to take those first steps in a technically-demanding career.
None of us can achieve success without some help along the way. Was there a particular person who you feel gave you the most help or encouragement to be who you are today? Can you share a story about that?
In college, I really struggled to balance my classes and spiritual life. I had volunteered as an usher at my Church, where I arrived early and helped people find seats, gathered and counted money, and made sure everything flowed without issues. It’s like being a bouncer at a club, but everyone is nice and not starting fights or drinking too much alcohol, so you don’t have to crack anyone with a night stick. My college engineering classes were grueling, and I struggled to consistently wake up after long nights of study to arrive on time for Sunday Mass. When I went to quit, the coordinator, a guy named Jim, offered to move me to Saturday evening Mass instead. He could have just dropped me from the rolls, but instead he took the time to listen to my problems. He also called me each weekend to make sure I was doing OK.
It was such a change for me, since I was so used to people readily breaking relationships that I was shocked someone outside my family was willing to stick with me. Jim and I have stayed in touch, and he even read through my draft book and helped me edit the final copy. Jim reminds me every day that even something simple as listening can have a huge impact on someone’s life.
Can you share the funniest or most interesting mistake that occurred to you in the course of your career? What lesson or take away did you learn from that?
I’ve made plenty of mistakes in my career, so its hard to pick just one. I learned a hard lesson once when I was standing watch on the nuclear power plant while our submarine was underway. It was around two in the morning, so most people were asleep and there really wasn’t much going on. I thought it would be funny to make an announcement on our announcing circuit we had in the engineering spaces, so I said a few funny things that got a laugh from everyone. Turns out though, the Chief of the Boat was also in the engine room, and he didn’t find my announcements so amusing. Our Executive Officer (the second highest ranking person on the submarine) called me to his stateroom, told me to stand at attention, and then told me how much of an idiot I was, with some colorful language I won’t repeat here. I then spent the next hour cleaning out a really dirty bilge station.
My XO, as we called him, was right. I had used a professional announcing circuit for silly games, on a nuclear power plant no less. After my initial grumblings about the XO being a jerk, I realized I had been very unprofessional and had lowered my own credibility. That situation forced me to grow up and take my job much more seriously. I also thought more about how I had to develop respect with people in order to lead them, and that would be hard if I acted like everything was a joke. It was a good lesson to learn early in my career.
What are some of the most interesting or exciting projects you are working on now? How do you think that might help people?
I’m working on my next book, called “To Build A Homestead,” which chronicles how I took my brand new home and added fruit trees, a garden, an 18-foot tall pirate ship, and all the other things you would expect a home in the country to have. The twist is, I built this during the COVID-19 pandemic, so it was difficult balancing lumber shortages, social distancing, and weird school situations.
I learned very quickly that all the wonderful YouTube videos that make gardening and living “closer to Mother Earth” look easy are total lies. It’s discouraging when a deer ravages your garden that you spent months growing, or when your fruit trees die because you had a month of no rain and 95-degree heat. I find it easy for people to get discouraged, so I’m writing this book to provide hope and some useful tips for people that want to live more environment friendly, but have real jobs and not as much time as they would like.
I’m also working on some other writing projects, but I’ll keep those a secret for now. I’ll put them on our publishing website as they develop.
You are a successful leader. Which three-character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Humility, Tenacity and Flexibility.
Humility, because I accept that I don’t know everything, and that I have something to learn from everyone I meet. One of my assignments in the Navy was running a detachment of nearly 100 Sailors in Groton, Connecticut. The Sailors were really young, in some cases only half my age, and it would have been easy to dismiss their opinions. I distinctly remember one day receiving a request for welding equipment. Instead of just approving it, I walked downstairs and asked one of my very young Sailors to walk me through what each item was used for. I started that conversation with “I don’t know much about welding, but I heard you’re good at welding and I’d like to know more.” That Sailor brightened right up and we spent nearly 30 minutes discussing the finer points of welding equipment. I learned a lot, and I heard later from my Operations Officer that I had built a lot of respect with my Sailors.
Tenacity, because sometimes the answer to a problem is simply sticking with it long enough to solve it. When I began building my home, I had so many issues crop up. I had to fire our first builder, our mortgage company went out of business, and we had a 6-month delay on the project as a whole. There were many people that told me “Ryan, maybe you should just quit and start over later,” and to be honest, I thought about quitting a few times too. But I stuck with it, and I finished my home right before the COVID-19 pandemic. Had I quit early, I probably would have had to wait until 2024 to start building again.
Flexibility, because our world changes a lot and you constantly have to update yourself. Flexibility doesn’t mean you throw out the past though. I’m an avid student of history, and I think it’s important to understand why people made the decisions they did in the past, so that you can make better decisions in the future. That’s called wisdom.
Flexibility is how I met my wife. After I joined the Navy I went on a few blind dates, but none of them seemed to pan out very well, and I’m not the kind of guy that does well in a bar scene. I signed up on eHarmony, which at the time was pretty new and most people thought it was sort of creepy. I figured that a computer algorithm couldn’t be any worse than blind dates at a bar scene. Sure enough, I dated three women that I was matched with on eHarmony. All the dates were good, and I ended up proposing to the third one, and now we’re in a beautiful home with a beautiful family, all because I was flexible in how I viewed dating.
For the benefit of our readers, can you briefly let us know why you are an authority about the topic of finding joy?
I’m a joyful authority figure because I’ve had to bounce back from multiple depressing circumstances. In my Navy career, I had two really horrible bosses, both of whom were fired and made national headlines, but not before making my work life miserable for multiple years. On the family side, my daughter was born with Down Syndrome, and then she died seven months later after failed heart surgery, despite receiving the best possible care from Yale Hospital. Going from the challenges of taking care of a special needs child to planning that child’s funeral is a pretty rough experience. Right after that, I had to build my home, and there were so many challenges that they filled an entire novel!
Between these challenges and the constant moving and stress that Navy life imposes on you, it’s easy to become a bitter, angry person, and plenty of people do just that. Instead, I’ve used these experiences to grow, to try and become a better person and to use an otherwise sad or depressing situation to push me to improve myself. It’s one thing to be happy when everything is going well, but it’s significantly more challenging to find happiness in the middle of adversity.
Ok, thank you for all of that. Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about finding joy. Even before the pandemic hit, the United States was ranked at #19 in the World Happiness Report. Can you share a few reasons why you think the ranking is so low, despite all of the privileges and opportunities that we have in the US?
I think it’s important to first put the study in context. Being ranked 19th sounds bad until you realize that there are 156 countries total in the ranking. The U.S. is the highest ranked country on the list with a population over 100 million, and it’s pretty close to other similarly sized countries like Germany (89 million and #17), the U.K. (67 million and #15) and Mexico (126 million and #23). If you think about it, larger countries have many smaller populations that have vastly different life experiences, so it’s nearly impossible for them to score high on aggregate surveys like this one.
That being said, maybe a better question is, why isn’t the U.S.A. number one, given the wealth and opportunities that are present? I think the answer is hidden in the survey itself. On page 24, the survey author notes that:
“The most striking feature is the extent to which the results buttress a finding in psychology that the existence of positive emotions matters much more than the absence of negative ones. Positive affect has a large and highly significant impact in the final equation of Table 2.1, while negative affect has none.”
I think this is a key point. Despite all the opportunities, positive emotions matter the most. People in the U.S., on average, have fewer positive emotions when answering the survey questions than those in countries like Finland and Costa Rica. I believe this happens for a few reasons, the first is that most people in the U.S. have never lived in another country for any period of time. In my Navy career, I lived in places like Greece, Bahrain and Hawaii (which might as well be its own country!), where I spent much time mingling and living like a local. I learned that while each culture had much to offer, they also had many downsides. For example, I loved the food in Bahrain, but I saw firsthand how many of the police officers were brutally racist towards the Pakistani and Indian immigrants in the country. I also witnessed how many people lived in cardboard shanties near the towering and beautiful skyscrapers they were building. Once you’ve seen how bad it can really be elsewhere, it’s hard to say that your circumstances are truly awful when you’ve seen what truly awful is elsewhere in the world.
I also think that the negative media, especially on social media, really drags people down. I left Facebook because I found that I was always angry after scrolling through my feed. After a bit of introspection, I realized that Facebook was profiting from my anger, and by staying glued to my phone, I was willingly participating in spreading anger to others. Two months after dumping my account, I found I had far more inner peace while still remaining informed on the world around me. Social media’s financial model essentially requires outrage and “click-bait” titles, and it’s no surprise that higher social media use is increasingly linked to depression.
What are the main myths or misconceptions you’d like to dispel about finding joy and happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
There is no true joy without suffering. Every athlete will tell you that in order to be the fastest, strongest, or most agile, they had to suffer through hours of painful practice. Athletes run, lift weights and push themselves until their bodies ache all over from pain. But when you see that person win a game or a gold medal, the sheer elation on their face is one of pure joy. In contrast, we all too often don’t want to see suffering, but it’s a mistake to think that by removing suffering, we can still have joy.
At my house I built a giant pirate ship playplace. It’s massive, like, 18 feet tall massive. It took me months to build. I spent every bit of free time I had cutting boards, leveling decks, or screwing together framing. I cut myself a few times and nearly knocked myself out when a 4×6 post slipped out of my hand and hit me on the side of my head! I suffered a lot to build that giant pirate ship, but now that it’s done, it’s a masterpiece that I regularly boast about to my friends. I still smile just looking at it! More importantly, if I had paid someone to build it for me, I would not get nearly the level of joy from it. The pain of putting it together is directly linked to the joy I now receive from that accomplishment.
The other happiness myth is the “finding myself” myth. I talk to young men and women that tell me they are taking a break from their job, or leaving their marriage, or just going out to the woods to “find themselves.” These people seem to think that breaking out from this one bad situation and with a little bit of introspection they will suddenly find happiness.
The problem with this thinking is that it pretends the bad situation is your only problem. It puts all the blame on this bad person or bad situation, and leaves out the possibility that you have internal flaws that require repair. Now, maybe this other person is downright abusive, in which case it makes sense to leave. But most of these situations aren’t like that. For example, I had a really bad boss in Hawaii that was fired in a very public manner. I was at home when my friend called me and said “Your life is going to get easier now that Captain so-and-so is gone.” I replied with “No, it’ll get harder in a week when everyone realizes that the Captain wasn’t the cause of most of their problems.” Sure enough, in a week everyone began discovering all the other problems we had that had been masked because everyone blamed this one Captain for their problems.
Let me be straight: “finding yourself” is an excuse to blame some “other” for your troubles. I’ve started asking people “What if you find yourself and you don’t like the person you find?”, which normally makes them pause. If you’re assuming that some single event is going to magically transform your day-to-day happiness state, you’re fooling yourself.
In a related, but slightly different question, what are the main mistakes you have seen people make when they try to find happiness? Can you please share some stories or examples?
The biggest mistake people make is trying to make pain go away. Pain teaches you, and if you pay attention, it can be your biggest teacher. After painful experiences, most people ask “What can I do to make the pain go away?” That’s a bad question, because it doesn’t challenge us to grow, it simply asks us to remove what was painful. If we had tried something new, and the first time we fail we immediately stop trying, then that desire to remove pain will have short circuited our possibility of developing a new skill or habit.
We should be asking “Why was this experience painful?” Going back to my pirate ship example, the building process took a long time because I was learning a lot of new things. I had never taken on a personal building project of that size, so I learned a lot about framing, concrete, leveling, bracing, and a whole host of other building skills. Had I quit early and paid someone else to finish it, I would have removed the pain, but I also would have lost the true happiness of seeing a project through to completion. Instead, I asked myself “Why is this so painful?”, and when I realized the answer had to do with learning new skills, it motivated me to finish.
Fantastic. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share with our readers your “5 things you need to live with more Joie De Vivre, more joy and happiness in life, particularly during turbulent times?”
- Limit your social media. Social media is an oxymoron. It thrives on anger and hate, since that drives more interaction, which boosts clicks and revenue for the platform. If you can, drop it completely. If not, limit yourself to a certain time per day. You will be shocked how much better you’ll feel. After I dumped Facebook, I had to call people on the phone, or email them directly. That forced me to have deeper relationships with people, and I realized how shallow Facebook had made some of my interactions.
- Ask “What should I learn from this experience?” In turbulent times, bad things are bound to happen. You won’t learn anything by focusing on the bad, or trying to make the pain go away. Instead, ask what lesson this bad event is teaching you. This question forces you to find something useful in the trials you’ll undertake. I asked myself this question often after one of my bad bosses was fired. This question challenged me to improve myself instead of just blaming my bad boss for all my woes, and caused me to grow as a person and a professional.
- Build something small. When times are rough, it’s easy to get into a rut of checking our phones, reading the same websites and in general, not doing very much. To break out, plan and complete a small project. It can be as simple as cleaning your desk or washing the dishes in your sink. If I’m stuck in a rut, I like to vacuum out my car. It only takes me 15 minutes, but the process of starting and completing something re-motivates me to tackle the bigger challenges of my day.
- Stay focused on the next step. When my daughter died suddenly after heart surgery, my world was crushed, and I floundered for a bit. It would have been easy to stay in a state of shock. Instead, I focused on the next thing. First it was planning a funeral, then filling out autopsy forms, and finally writing a short speech for her funeral. Staying focused on doing the next step helps you navigate the challenges that life throws at you. You don’t need a grand plan when you’re in a funk…you need a next step to slowly walk you out of it.
- Build real plans, not dreams. When I wrote my book, I knew it would be difficult, but I built a plan where I forced myself to write a chapter at a time, then edit it, then get others’ opinions, and then publish it on Amazon. I’ve talked with more than a few aspiring authors, but so many of them are simply dreamers. They imagine being an author, but they never build a realistic plan that would put a book together. Dreams are great, but they won’t lead to the accomplishments that give you the confidence to outlast hard times.
What can concerned friends, colleagues, and life partners do to effectively help support someone they care about who is feeling down or depressed?
The best advice I can give is to get depressed people doing something. It is so easy to wallow in misery and loathing. I know when I was most depressed after losing my daughter, all I wanted to do some days was just curl up in a ball and read depressing articles on the Internet. That isn’t healthy, and it won’t make anything better. Take your depressed friend out for a walk in the sun. Get them up and moving around. A good technique is to help them clean up their home or apartment, because it gets that person doing something that can be completed. Once that depressed person is doing something, it’ll put them on a better and more constructive path.
Ok, we are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good for the greatest number of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger.
I think the best thing would be a movement to limit our social media use and instead actually call our friends. Maybe call it a “Return to the telephone,” or something like that. We could even have a cool acronym, “RT3,” if it’s not already used by some company somewhere. If people swapped one hour of social media for an hour of actually talking to a friend or family member on the phone, we’d be in a far happier place than we are now.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US, whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we both tag them 🙂
Elon Musk. He is such a different person from me, so I would stand to learn so much from him. He lost a young child as well, so we even share something in common. I’ve watched how he’s pushed the boundaries on so many things, from solar energy and transportation to space travel. He’s one of those people that can take dreams and turn them into reality, even if they involve colonizing Mars! I’d totally do a lunch or breakfast date with him, although hopefully he’d pickup the check 😊
How can our readers further follow your work online?
I’m working on my second book, which I’m hoping to release early in 2022. I have an author page on Amazon, and I just got our website, snowyowlpublishing.org running, so updates will be posted there as well!
Thank you for these really excellent insights, and we greatly appreciate the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!