Begin YOUR happiness project! Need help getting started? Identify a symbol for yourself and your happiness project.

A new theme for the Happiness Project is to spur everyone to do a happiness project, too. Happiness projects for everyone! I am the happiness evangelist.

Only recently did I start thinking about it this way – even though implicit in the idea of keeping this blog is the desire to help other people learn from my happiness project. Now, though, I’m going to start explicitly addressing the question of how people can design their own.

I need to figure out a systematic way to do this, but until then, I’ll just throw out some provocative suggestions.

I was thinking about a life symbol – or what should it be called? personal symbol? imago? figuration? – I mean the symbol you adopt for yourself and your happiness project.

Without giving it much thought, I picked my symbol as the bluebird, because the bluebird is a symbol for happiness.

I believe this connection comes from the wonderful Maeterlinck play (later made into a Shirley Temple movie), The Blue Bird, where two children look for the Blue Bird of happiness.

I’ve been thinking about life symbols lately, because I’ve been immersing myself in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and her fiction is filled with symbols, often with religious significance. About symbols, she wrote, “I think the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once…The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest.”

Now consider: in life, O’Connor loved peacocks. Because she was in very poor health, she lived on a farm with her mother, and she raised peacocks there.

But peacocks aren’t just peacocks. As she pointed out in a letter, the peacock is the symbol for the Transfiguration, and in medieval symbology, for the Church—the eyes are the eyes of the Church.

So picture Flannery O’Connor, writing her books, meditating on the mysteries of religion and fiction, close to death, surrounded by peacocks. It would seem like unbelievably heavy-handed symbolism, if it weren’t true.

The peacock symbol is extended by others – peacocks illustrate many of the covers of books published after her death.

O’Connor loved birds from a very young age. Did she choose to surround herself with peacocks partly because of their symbolism? Who knows? But it’s thrilling that she did.

I was intrigued to read that symbols for Buddha include an empty seat, a pillar of fire, a tree, and a pair of footprints – images that signify that he has gone beyond form.

Bridge, skyscraper, candle, river, poppy, library…the value of thinking about a personal symbol comes from the fact that it requires us to think of our lives metaphorically. Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

It’s difficult, but surprisingly fun. I hit on the blue bird without much thought, but I like it.

If you conceive of your life symbol, please post it – I’d love to see people’s choices. And if you can think of a more lyrical name than “life symbol,” please suggest it! That phrase is so flat and banal. Though I’m starting to think “imago” might work.

If you love words, neologisms, obscure vocabulary, etc., check out Wordie. I was excited that my post about darshan was mentioned by a fellow reader.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Sharyn

    My take on “Imago” would be “Inspiro” because I’ve always thought of all of this “happiness effort” the same as “inspirational”.
    My Inspiro is a bird, also – a brilliant red Cardinal. I see them almost every day at my bird feeders.

  • Sharyn

    Gretchen –
    A P.S.: I know you love children’s books – did you catch today’s Google logo?

  • Zyada

    I would suggest totem. It has the same meaning in the original culture as your life symbol, and most people chose their personal totem through meditation.
    I’ve considered the tiger my totem since I first heard of the concept.
    However, another term for you and all the other Harry Potter fans might consider is the Patronus. In interviews, Rowling stated that the Dementors were specifically meant to symbolize depression. Thus the enemy of the dementors(depression) is a Patronus(happiness). Patronuses (Patroni?) also have strong visual symbology that reflect the personality of the summoner.

  • I’m so glad someone pointed this blog out to me — you’re giving me a lot of great things to think about!
    The gryphon has been a personal symbol of mine since high school, for various reasons. It’s often used as a symbol of courage, which fits my personal quest — to become less ruled by fear and doubt. I like the idea of using that as inspiration.

  • Debi

    What about the term “talisman”?
    Mine has long been sunflowers – audaciously happy yet practical (yummy when roasted with salt). I should put more effort in displaying them. Thanks for the tip!

  • I love these choices — and also the words to describe them. Talisman, totem, inspiro…all great. I thought of the patronus, and also the “daemon” from Pullman’s books, but they don’t seem like the right words, because they aren’t chosen. They are probably a deeper reflection of the person’s soul because of that, but somehow, didn’t seem quite right.
    Hmmm…here comes a non sequitur. Isn’t it interesting that Dumbledore and Voldemort both have daemon-like companions — Fawkes and Nagini — but Harry doesn’t. Hedwig never played that kind of role; and even so…well, I won’t be a spoiler, but if you’ve read HP 7 you know what I would say.
    Yes, I saw the Google bar! How fabulous! At first I thought it was “back to school” but then light dawned.

  • O’Connor, eh? That can get heavy, but it’s great stuff.
    Perhaps the Franciscan “Tau” cross I wear under my blouse. It’s wooden, simple, on a cord with the three knots of Franciscanism–poverty, chastity, and obedience.
    It’s not something which is intuitively a happiness symbol, but I find it inspiring to touch the cord periodically. It grounds me and leads me to meditate on the saints, esp. Francis and Clare. It also reminds me of exciting new life possibilities as a potential tertiary.
    I also have a llama that lives in my hand. It manifests my emotions sometimes…but I’m not sure it’s a happiness symbol, more an emotive symbol.

  • Hi Gretchen — I’m glad you found my darshan mention on Wordie. (I just recycled an old blog post to get it into Wordie.)
    Keep up the good work, I really enjoy your blog.

  • Oh — and my happiness project logo 🙂 — a labyrinth. Perhaps a reminder to enjoy the journey, with all it’s twists and turns. Or a reinforcement of contemplation. Or a signifier for the sort of projects I like (I search out labyrinths when I travel)….

  • Claire

    Mine is an owl. I’ve always adored owls, and used to go and draw the ones in my local museum when I was younger. I have some models on my windowsill to remind me, and a picture of one which my uncle bought from Australia when I was young, and which has been in my room ever since I can remember. I used to hide my diary behind it, it was just the right size… While owls are a symbol of wisdom and cleverness, one of my favourite owls is Owl from Winnie the Pooh, who, memorably, was the only one of the gang who could read, and who could write his own name – “W-O-L”. A reminder that it’s easy for even the wisest to certain of something which is actually wrong…. something I try and remember in my research.
    Thank you for making me think all this through, it’s wonderful. Maybe I’ll slip my smallest owl into my suitcase as I pack tonight before heading off to a conference – I’m presenting my research and it’s scary for me to stand up in front of everyone, so a reminder of my ongoing happpiness project would be a wonderful boost.

  • Kris

    I have several totems that change order of significance in my life but are, nonetheless, important. Blue Heron, Squirrel, Red Fox, Hawk and Cat. Labryinths figure largely as well. As does Medusa. I also have a figure that I use as my own. It’s a woman dancing on a spiral and it’s all one, singular line.
    Great post.

  • Debbie

    I do alot of branding (logo) work for corporate and non-profit clients. Often, I look for inspiration from universal symbols. Here’s a web site I often check. It has a list of hundreds of universal symbols.

  • Kashmira

    Mine is a daisy. A simple, happy flower.
    Looking at daisies, seeing how pretty they are, and “happy” swaying in the breeze and basking in sunshine, and how low-maintenance they are, makes me happy.
    I want to be a like a daisy, simple, sweet, content with a few things, and happy.

  • @ Debbie
    Thanks for sharing that link!

  • I chose the Phoenix, since I always seem to be reinventing myself out of the ashes of my last failed project. One day perhaps I’ll evolve into a new symbology… but this one seems to fit me best for the time being. I really enjoy reading your stuff. Keep it up! As one who loves words and wordplay, it’s always a delight to come across someone who’s similarly inclined.
    : )

  • My symbol is a lion. I want to be courageous–lionhearted. I then discovered that Venice is a city traditionally ascribed to John Mark, the young gospel writer from the Bible. And the symbol for Venice is…a lion!

  • Kelsey

    My life symbol would be a gerber daisy. I love all of the bright colors and the simplicity of that flower.
    We used gerber daisies throughout our wedding theme and they’ve always brought me joy!

  • Vanessa Battersby

    My symbol is the dragonfly. It started out as a butterfly, because my name, Vanessa, means butterfly, but for some reason has morphed into a dragonfly in the last few years. Both are beautiful, free, lighthearted and great travellers. In Japan, dragonflies symbolise courage, strength and happiness. They definitely make me happy!

  • Barbara

    The sun. The warm, life-giving, glowing energetic sun. My perfect symbol for my happiness project.
    Just the thought is making me shine. Thank you!

  • Just by accident last year, I found myself drawn to the Blue Morpho butterfly. Metamorphosis. I think that says it all.

  • The yin-yang symbol is filled with significance for me.
    The smooth black-blending-into-white form reminds me that life is about finding a balance between opposing yet complementary elements. For example: work versus play, alone versus together, and male versus female.
    Love your blog, Gretchen!

  • My life symbol would be the droplet in water. I love the image of everything flowing from center, outward, causing ripple effects that impact all (all we are, all we touch).

  • Pennies and dimes that I find on the ground are very special reminders to me of an aunt that passed on — these make me feel she’s still got my back. Also a feather, floating down or lying on the ground, makes me feel happy, grateful, inspired or comforted.
    I might call these sacred symbols.

  • Karen

    I just realized from reading your post that I do have a symbol. It is the new moon. It’s always been my favorite – that little fingernail of a glow that also just barely reveals the whole round beautiful shape of the moon. To me it shows promise, promise with a certainty of fulfillment. Then it does it again – and again. I’ve always called the new moon “my moon.”

  • For a while I was using an old bi-plane as a symbol. It was to remind me that I wanted to ‘go solo’. That is quit my job and start my own business/work for myself.
    At one point I told my wife that I feel like I’m slogging on this so alone and nobody, not even cares or gives me support or anything.
    Then I realised my symbol do not have space for passengers. I ditched it like a hot potato, but I have not replaced it with something satisfactory yet. I am leaning towards a sail ship but it does not yet feel like something I can own.

  • I love the idea of a personal symbol. Mine is the lotus flower. I have it tattooed on my back and it’s also the symbol for my business. It’s sort of a ‘bloom where you’re planted’ theme for me, and reminds me to be the best version of me, even in adversity or when surrounded by negative energy/people.
    Thanks for this Gretchen. I’m working on my personal happiness project thanks to you!

  • I read through the list that Debbie linked, and I kept coming back to bread. According to the list bread is a symbol of a prosperous and happy home. I used to bake homemade bread for my family, and to me it seemed to be a way to say I loved them. Also, I recently saw a blog called “Eat Not The Bread of Idleness” (based on Proverbs 31) because the blogger wanted to get out of the habit of laziness, which I have been working on lately, too. Finally, bread reminds me of the feedings of the 4,000 and the 5,000 — saying to me not to worry because God will provide.
    So, as strange as it sounds, I guess my “life symbol” is bread. I think I am going to start baking again!!

  • Your post made me consider what I would choose to represent me and my idea of happiness…it could be a cat, lying relaxed in the warm sun on a rug, yet ready to spring into action from a deep sleep.
    Or perhaps it is the crow. I miss my crows, the ones I would watch with my cats from the window to my backyard….their brilliant blue-black feathers, their strutting, their intelligence. Crows are often considered harbingers of death, but in many other cultures and countries, they are revered for their wisdom, planning, communication, and social abilities as well as their tight family units.

  • I hadn’t thought of this before reading your post. I was surprised when I just took a moment to let my symbol come to me and I thought, “hummingbird.” The hummingbird showed up at my wedding and often times presents itself at times I need a reminder to stop and relish the miracle of such an amazing bird (or life in general).
    After doing a Google search on the symbolism behind the hummingbird, I was delighted to learn that this fits me perfectly. What a hummingbird symbolizes is so in-line with what I continue to learn and practice in my own life AND what I am continually teaching as a life coach.
    Thank you for giving me another great idea for an assignment to do with my coaching clients!

  • Mine would be the sea; tranquil and deep.

  • Can I have two?
    The pink flamingo, which I chose when I was in first grade. Flamboyant and PINK.
    And the Hindu warrior goddess Durga–many arms she has, and she rides a tiger!

  • Pauline

    Hi, Enjoying this blog and wealth of informattion…. My symbol is a Turtle…. a symbol of wealth, longevity, strength ,reliance on oneself,endurance stability and profecy …. Thank you.

  • First off, your website is fantastic- what a concept! I will be back.
    2nd, I think my symbol will be a tree — growing, reaching for the sky- while still groundd to the earth and everything else.

  • Eyal Herlin

    for me life is it’s own symbol;
    it’s a dynamic one that always teaches me.
    make everything in your reality a symbol for the best that life has to offer.
    hit by a moment of self-conciousness i realize my words above sound philosophical and detached but i really do mean them literally.

  • Gretchen, this precious post has had me thinking ever since it appeared! I especially like what you said about “the value of thinking about a personal symbol comes from the fact that it requires us to think of our lives metaphorically.” So true!!
    Since I still haven’t figured out how to link back, I just include the link where I finally posted about this:
    It was a journey for me, finding the right life symbol, and quite surprisingly, it touched a whole lot of other aspects of my life. Now I know, my image is the grape vine.
    Thank you for sparking the journey!

  • Rachel Adams

    I’m working on a happiness log for a psychology class and was inspired to create my own happiness project. I’ve adopted what my family calls a ‘freak flag’ as my symbol. Flying your freak flag means that you are showing yourself off for who and what you are, usually in your strangest area of passion or expertise.
    Thank you so much for the privilege of sharing in your inspiration to promote happiness,

  • Kiki Hastings

    Just finished reading the happiness project and by the end i came to conclude that like your bluebird, i have a totem too, the snail.
    Its humble, always on the move (like me) and wears a shell featuring the golden ratio, an organic precision that has always fascinated me. It reminds me to take my time, tread lightly and look deeper into lifes beautiful mysteries.
    I think i’ll start a collection.

  • Stephanie

    A pineapple. Although I’m mildly allergic to eating this tropical delight I was told once as a child that the pineapple means hospitality. Moving forward in life I want to be the woman who makes people feel good. I will make delicious meals that feed the soul. I speak positively. I will send birthday, get well, congrats, and just because cards. I will provide space in my house that visitors feel comfortable in. I will make and give thoughtful gifts. In my grown-up-ness I for got how happy these things made me. I forgot how when I played pretend with my sisters, I was the mommy and teacher who loved to bake, and sing, and make things for people and at nice things. When you are little you don’t know how to gossip or be pretentious, or condescending.
    So my symbol- the pineapple.

  • Debbie Leigh

    My symbol would be the daffodil. Daffodils make me happy looking at them and they remind me that Spring is on the way!

  • I have never thought of items or animals in terms of representing myself, but it’s fascinating to see how insightful and perceptive everyone is!
    I’d have to say that the chicken is my “nature twin”. Some exotic breeds are quite beautiful, and they all have unique personalities (we are not talking Tyson breeds, here).
    I like that chickens are remarkably aware of their surroundings, but really only concerned with their own business. They have a practical, important job to do (egg-laying) and then they get on with the business of enjoying their day.
    My silkie hens are fierce defenders and loving mothers. And it gives me no end of pleasure to watch them wander across our acres, feathers ruffling in the breeze, content in their world, which exists entirely in my backyard.

  • Ladder, or um, bridges, something about reaching for the other side, or the unseen. Thanks for something to think about here!

  • Anne

    I have a few symbols: the Phoenix because transformation inspires me deeply (I named my daughter Phoenix 22 years ago) so that symbol is with me all the time, I love saying her name out loud); 4-leaf clover (my husband has laser-sharp eyes and finds them for me on a regular basis which I find amazing and brings me great joy – and makes me feel ‘lucky’ in love); hummingbirds (represents energy,grace and love and I always get a child-like wonder when I see them); river (moving life force,sometimes with a vengeance and other times with flowing quietly along)

  • My symbol is a golden spiral-it appears over and over again in nature-where I find much of my happiness. Shells, waves, flowers, galaxies. It also represents mathematical balance. I love mathematics and I’m striving for personal balance. It looks inward at itself, as I try to do.  

  • Lana

    a lighthouse – guides, provides shelter and also symbolizes that I have light in my life through Jesus.

  • Ayelet

    I think I’ll choose my happinness symbol as a Cat. They land on their feet no matter what. It symbols mental strength to me and not giving up as well as courage and when you know something is right you don’t think twice. I love your posts. Very inspiring.

  • naia

    My personal symbol has long been an onion. I’ve been told that I’m constantly changing and never quite seem to be the same person from any point of a few years. I feel like when things are bad I can hopefully peel away some of the rot and that awesome mysteries and potential are waiting inside to be revealed.

    • gretchenrubin

      Love it!

      Have you seen the brilliant movie “Shrek”? Shrek compares himself to an onion.

  • My life symbol is a white pigeon. because I feel that the first an the most important step in order to happiness is peace. You have to be in peace first with yourself and then with others in order to start to experience any happiness. I think it is what every human needs to adopt.

  • Skye

    The sun. I use it as my business logo (a primitive drawing of the sun). I want to be strong and shine out for everyone to see who I am and what I can do. And I want to be fearless in being that strong and visible. A writer I like quite a bit wrote a children’s book. In it, the young hero is told to hold the sun inside of himself so that he has it when he needs it. Then, when he is surrounded by sun-hating, depressed people, as he’s becoming like them, he remembers that he carries his own sun inside himself and it gives him the strength to rip down all the window coverings and let in the sunshine, and also to allow him to escape. I try to remind myself to keep the sun inside of me and shine it into the darkness when that comes along.

  • Tara Waudby

    Doors and Doorways. Specifically, old, beaten down doors – magical and hardy. I love the idea of opening doors and peering down passageways. My writing theme for years now has been opening doors as inspiration to cleanse ourselves of our own perception and see things from a different angle.

  • Nieves

    I think my life symbol would be birds. Some species of birds are among the most faithful and loyal partners. Besides, no matter how far they go, they always know how to come back to their nest and take care of their young. I also love their freedom to fly and go wherever they want, and just by doing what they know how to do best (singing, for most birds) they make one’s life better. I just love the idea of being a bird in general. I think there are a lot of qualities that I can identify myself with in birds: freedom, loyalty, simplicity, a sense of direction and beauty in the small things.

  • Lisa

    It probably doesn’t seem too creative, but the symbol I would choose at this stage of my life is the yin/yang symbol. I thought of many symbols, like a tree and the ocean – symbols of life and flow, but I kept coming back to the yin yang.
    Yin Yang represents a blend of opposites or seemingly conflicting ideologies within the one whole – it is the male and female, the dark and the light, the spiritual and the earthly, joy and sadness, all co-existing in harmony, surrounding each other and fitting together in a perfect flow to make something whole and beautiful. For me it symbolises peace and acceptance of all that is. While my idea of happiness includes positive emotions and joy, it also includes meaning and purpose and an openness to all that life brings.
    For me acceptance and peace are key to living a happy and fulfilling life. The yin/yang symbolises awareness of my own light and shadow, my conflicting characteristics, most importantly it symbolises all the imperfect aspects of me blending together to create a “perfect” whole.

  • nghtblueangel

    A sunflower. I looked up the meaning behind it and it relates a lot to my personality. I need to remember that meaning when I’m having a bad day.

    Primary Significance: Gifts of radiant warmth, sunflowers are the happiest of flowers, and their meanings include loyalty and longevity. They are unique in their ability to provide energy in the form of nourishment and vibrance, an attribute which mirrors the sun and the energy provided by its heat and light.

  • Andrea

    A Hummingbird. The Hummingbird Symbolizes the enjoyment of life and lightness of being. Those who have the hummingbird as a totem are invited to enjoy the sweetness of life, lift up negativity wherever it creeps in and express love more fully in their daily endeavors. This fascinating bird is capable of the most amazing feats despite its small size, such as traveling great distances or being able to fly backwards. By affinity with the hummingbird, those who have this bird as totem may be encouraged to develop their adaptability and resiliency while keeping a playful and optimistic outlook.

  • Erin

    My personal symbol is the ankh. I chose it because, within a few days, I saw it EVERYWHERE: on the license plate of a car that cut me off and then moments later, on the sign of a hospital I had to visit, in CSI Las Vegas when I turned on the TV, the earrings of a passerby on the street, and most importantly, in an incredibly vivid dream I had where I felt that I communicated with my recently deceased sister. I bought a 6″ gold leafed ankh at a museum shop and have it displayed in my home. I also debated about getting an ankh tattoo; it’s that important to me. It means everlasting life and I felt I knew that in my soul before I ever saw a definition.

    An hourglass is also deeply symbolic to me, which is funny since I think of it as “do it now/time is finite”, which is the opposite of how I feel about the ankh. I just ordered a vintage hourglass on etsy and am eager to have it in my home. This symbol harkens back to watching “The Wizard of Oz” as a young girl – the scene where the wicked witch turns the hourglass over to mark the remaining moments of Dorothy’s life. I learned via a random Wikipedia search that pirates used the hourglass on their jolly rogers (flags) to show hostages/victims that their time was running out.

  • Adrien

    When I started to read Your book, I felt the compulsion to start a scrapbook to make notation, copy quotes and draw. (till I found You mentioning the Blank Book). Somehow amongst the collages and drawings and OWL crept in (3rd page). Serendipity??? My happiness symbol choose me before I made conscious decision.