This Wednesday: Five tips for creating your OWN set of happiness commandments.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for creating your own set of happiness commandments.

Yesterday, I posted examples of happiness commandments from several people to inspire folks to get started on their OWN happiness projects. Today’s tips are about how to construct your own set of happiness commandments. To get you thinking, here are my Twelve Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I would feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So how do you think about coming up with your own list?

When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people.

My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.”

A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.”

A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person.

“No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese, and “Act as I would feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

So pay attention. What words repeat themselves in your ear? What was the offhand comment that you’ve found unforgettable? “No deposit, no return” is nothing more than a sign on a soda machine, but if it’s a memorable and powerful phrase for you, go with it.

When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life – how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As 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.”

Some people’s commandments can be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

This might be true for you.

Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive. I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

Each person’s list will differ. A reader commented yesterday that “Say yes” would be a terrible addition to his commandments, because he tends to over-commit. For another person, “Say yes” might be at the top of the list. You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Take your time. It took me months to come up with my Twelve. This takes some reflection.

If you come up with your own set, please consider posting them. I’m sure it would be very valuable for me and other readers to be able to see them. Seeing other people’s commandments helps clarify what your own commandments need to be.

In a typical episode of Internet maze exploration, I went from Communicatrix’s newsletter to Chris Glass to this very intriguing Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. I love any comprehensive, imaginative arrangement of information.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Debi

    I love this idea. I have an Ralph Waldo Emerson quote in a frame over my desk that I think summarizes a lot of what I would want to express in my “commandments”:
    “To laugh often and much;
    to win the respect of intelligent people and the affection of children;
    to earn the appreciation of honest critics and endure the betrayal of false friends;
    to appreciate beauty, to find the best in others;
    to leave the world a bit better, whether by a healthy child, a garden, or a redeemed social condition;
    to know even one life has breathed easier because you lived. This is to have succeeded.”
    I have a Robert Frost quote in a frame as well: “Don’t ever take a fence down until you know why it was put up”

  • Is there any significance to the order of your list? I really like how it begins with “Be Gretchen” and ends with “There is only love”.
    I have my own “Keep Tryin’ Manifesto” (“commandment” would have been a much better word choice). It is for encouraging myself to achieve life goals. Happiness is of course always the ultimate goal.
    1. Memento mori
    2. Take chances
    3. Expect discomfort
    4. No excuse
    5. Focus
    6. Don’t sweat the small stuff
    7. Keep trying
    8. Steadily, persistently, passionately
    It took me about a year to come down to that list. I should add “Do it now” to my list. Thanks for the tips!

  • So great to read these. “Memento mori” isn’t one of my commandments, but I dedicated a month of the happiness project to that resolution, and related matters. I also like “expect discomfort.”
    Having children really taught me the value of the “don’t take down a fence etc.” commandment. If most parents are doing something in childreading, there’s a reason. I might not agree with it, but I’ll learn why! so don’t try to revolutionize parenting until I understand why things are the way they are.

  • Hi! I’ve been reading for a while, but I never comment. I thought making this list would be neat, though, so:
    1. Don’t overthink.
    2. The question is not “do they love me?”
    3. Feelings are just feelings.
    4. Just do it.
    5. Get outside.
    6. Take care of your body.
    7. Act as the person you want to be.
    8. Love what you love unabashedly.
    9. Make the awesome choice.
    10. Indulge in story.
    11. Strive for compassion.
    12. Forgive yourself.

  • Thanks, Gretchen! I like how you’re inviting people to share theirs, because we can all get ideas from the community. How cool. 🙂
    Still working on mine.

  • Postscript:
    This just popped into my head. I might have to shorten it for a commandment, though. One day in English class, I realized that I’d left my huge textbook in the cafeteria. This was the same way that I’d bled through my favorite jeans and drowned my cell in the toilet. I smashed my fist on the desk, yelled “BUGGER IT ALL” and left.
    When I got back the prof said “If you can’t show compassion for yourself, how will you ever be able to show compassion to others?” Stopped me dead in my tracks.
    A commandment form might be “Be compassionate to yourself so that you may be compassionate to others.”

  • Ester

    Okay, so these are some of the “commandments” I keep repeating inside my head. As you may notice it’s quite redundant:
    1-Take responsibility
    2-Stop making excuses
    3-You have a choice
    4-Stop the drama
    5-Nothing will change, if you don’t do anything different
    6-Practice makes perfect
    7-Delay gratification
    8-If there’s a why, there’s a how
    9-Show up
    10-Boldness rewards
    11-You may delay but time will not
    12-Do what you love

  • 1. Speak only in terms of what you want.
    2. What other people think of you is none of your business.
    3. Reality is perception.
    4. You can do anything for fifteen minutes.
    5. Ask, and it is given.
    6. There is only now.
    7. Simplify, beautify, prosper.
    8. Edit. Add. Appreciate
    9. Baby steps
    10. Trait transfer

  • Behold the awesome power of Chris Glass! Glad you had a fun trip down the rabbit hole.

  • Karryn

    I forgot about the most obvious one: the one I have carved in a plaque on my front hall wall: TO HAVE WHAT YOU’VE NEVER HAD, DO WHAT YOU’VE NEVER DONE.

  • Claire

    I have 7 so far. As I thought of more they seemed redundant, but I’m willing to add more later!
    1. Trust your instincts
    2. Know Yourself
    3. Decide for you, not for them
    4. Listen, understand, discuss
    5. Be cool
    6. Hold the door open
    7. What goes around, comes around
    Roughly put, the first 3 are very internal, and are about different aspects of living my life the way I want to live it (e.g. figuring out what I want to work on, never buying CDs because I want to take long vacations; buying meat from the organic butcher not the supermarket, etc.) “Listen, understand, discuss” is about not pre-judging an issue, and sums up my learning theory. “Be cool” is not about fashion, it’s about not overreacting. And hold open the door to me means two things. Firstly, it means “be nice” – do the little things which can brighten someone else’s day. And it also means “clear a path for the others to come through” – share knowledge and contacts, be a source of solutions. And the final one, well, it’s fairly self-explanatory…. I guess it comes under your first tip!

  • Hi Gretchen,
    After Priscilla Palmer’s self development list Jenny and I have decided to try to help build the self development community. So we are holding a little contest. I would like to invite you, and anyone else interested, to find out more details at

  • Oops, I was moving to fast and the link didn’t go through. Second try, otherwise, just check out my blog!

  • beth

    In my tai chi class, we consider Jo Tsun Hwa’s Four essentials for practice. These may not be commandments,but they apply to much more than tai chi.
    1. Know yourself. (You can’t succeed without awareness of your own strengths and weaknesses.)
    2. Do your best.
    3. Don’t over do it. (Don’t be so intense and fanatical that you take the joy from the experience.)
    4. Make a little progress every day.

  • More great insights and commandments. The Tai Chi list is a great example of what I called “metaphor” commandments — the lessons of tai chi as the lessons for life. Somehow, this can be especially compelling.
    Now I’m off to check out Jenny-and-Erin’s blog…

  • Suze

    I must have been thinking about this for some time without being aware of it because they spilled forth without much effort:
    1. Relinquish non-essentials
    2. Let go
    3. Love
    4. Listen
    5. The next five minutes are the most important
    6. Relax
    7. Enter nature daily
    8. Listen
    9. Laugh
    10. A little every day is better than a lot once a week.

  • R.M. Koske

    I’ve got several mottoes and concepts that I’ve been using as affirmations with varying success. I’ll have to look at them to see which, if any, work as commandments.
    Two that I’m pretty sure will become commandments are “Remember the Einstein Effect” and “The Lime Cure.”
    The Einstein effect is based on a quote that I first saw attributed to Einstein (though now I’ve seen it attributed to other great thinkers as well) “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.” The Einstein Effect is that if you’re unhappy, doing something different is likely to help (because more of the same would be insanity.) Really, I think it is nearly the same as Ester’s #5.
    The Lime Cure comes from an unexpectedly happy moment. My husband was eating a lime and wanted me to try. I resisted, and argued, and finally gave in. It was a sharp and sour as I feared, but I was smiling. Fun isn’t always painless or easy, and something new and different that is a little difficult can lead to happiness.
    Everyone’s posts are so great – I’m thinking I’m going to end up stealing ideas from a lot of you!

  • The things I’m always advising my friends (when asked!) are probably my commandments, but I don’t think I’ve ever written them down.
    1. Don’t take it personally
    2. Practice restraint of pen and tongue – what you don’t say now can’t come back to haunt you.
    3. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself.
    4. All of life is shades of gray – black and white thinking is not only limiting but incredibly unrealistic.
    5. Live in the now – the past is gone and unchangeable, the future is a concept, the only place you have true power is right now.
    6. Listen to children and the elderly – they are both brilliantly wise and do not have the same social filter as our peers.
    7. I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul — THINGS do not change, WE do.
    8. You can CHOOSE to be positive – if you wait for good things to happen in order to be happy, you will be waiting a long time. Your attitude determines how you see things, and you can choose a positive attitude.
    9. Write it down, get it out – either in lists or a journal, writing is powerful.
    10. “You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”
    11. Keep learning.
    12. Live in gratitude – see and appreciate the little things and acknowledge them to yourself – and say “Thank you” to strangers, tell the people in your life “Thank you” or “I appreciate that.” – it goes a LONG way.

  • You’ve inspired me to start a new blog, Soul Food. My favorite quote is by Karin Cotterman — “Water doesn’t wash. It remembers.” So my journey and challenge is to remember (and take action) what feeds my soul. After all, feeding my soul makes me happy.
    My soul food “ingredients” are:
    1. Forgive myself.
    2. Create something that wasn’t there before.
    3. Notice the color purple.
    4. Adorn myself.
    5. Just be myself.
    6. Live life in the slow lane. Wave ’em past.
    7. Play my music loudly (hip hop and all)
    8. Be in awe.
    9. Help others.
    10. Be silly. Be light.
    11. Make footprints. “I was here.”
    Thank you for unearthing the spring of inspiration from which I am loving taking a sip.

  • Hi Gretchen
    What a great discovery your site is! And just at the right time in my life… It took me a couple of days to figure out what the commandments are that I live by for my own happiness project … but I guess this is a life-long project and what is important now can change again. I am so blessed to have found your encouragement to think about what makes my life joyful and meaningful.
    Here’s my list:
    1. Live my I Am, As It Is
    ~ live truthfully, with integrity and acceptance
    2. I have been placed on Earth to spread love and peace
    ~ there is only love, no judgement
    ~ I was made to be soft, gentle, tender … starting with myself
    3. I chose to leave Heaven for Earth to get to know God, and Pippa
    ~ every experience is there to teach me
    ~ everything is for God’s loving purpose
    4. God is in complete control
    ~ life is therefore a beautiful, safe place, no matter what happens
    6. Nomads travel lightly
    ~ don’t hold on to anything that weighs you down, whether material or spiritual
    ~ keep it pure and simple
    7. Slow and steady wins the race
    ~ you can do anything for 15 minutes
    ~ perseverance is more important than power
    8. Breathe
    ~ remember to often take a moment to become still and centered
    9. Live like an elfinfairy
    ~ give freely, with no expectations and no regrets
    ~ always view life with delight, wonder and creativity
    10. Life is an ever-turning wheel
    ~ this, too, shall pass
    Thank you, too, for everyone who has shared such highly inspiring lists!

  • It’s a good thing *counting* isn’t on that list, LOL. I completely skipped nr. 5! Doesn’t matter what numbers we attach to the lists, as long as they speak to our very core of being.

  • Meg

    Hye Gretchen,
    It is so good of you to share your blog idea. I am not ready yet to take that step but do enjoy reading yours daily. I have slogans that I apply to situations . . . when I remember them at the time of stress. They are the kicks that get me thru the next minute sometimes.
    1. Discipline Your Relationship
    – this is with myself as well as with anyone that I have in my life
    2. Learn to Love Practice
    3. Pay Close Attention
    – to my attitude
    4. Do IT for 15 minutes
    5. SMILE!!!
    6. LISTEN 10-X more than I talk
    7. Love Is All
    8. Give Better to Yourself
    9. I Can’t Give What I Ain’t Got
    10. Logic not Emotionalism
    11. Read More
    12. What’s My Goal In This Project?
    I really enjoy reading your blog daily, I am a writer who needs more confidence about my abilities and It causes me to lose concentration. I often lose track of time when I am fighting the task at hand. I have your chart and hope that by working thru it on a daily basis that I will start letting logic take over, not the emotionaiism that tires me out so much.

  • These are my five! This is so exciting…I feel like I am starting an adventure or something.
    1.) Be kind.
    2.) Ask.
    3.) Get out there.
    4.) Expect to learn.
    5.) Balance.

  • arlene

    1.Give without hesitation.
    2.Help other people.
    3.Forget the past, it doesnt change anyhow,be thankful it happened,never regret.
    4.Love unconditionally.
    5.Forgive yourself.
    6.Cherish every moment with the person you love,youll never know when he’s gonna be gone forever.
    7.Nothing is permanent.
    8.Be kind.
    9.Be thankful.
    10.Pray harder.
    11.Think of the blessings that you have.
    12.Be yourself.

  • roxy

    This is what I’ve come up with in just the short time since reading this the other day.
    1. Be me
    2. Have an opinion
    3. Make time
    4. Relinquish non-essentials (to borrow from another commenter)
    And my fifth is in need of a nice short phrase. I need to remind myself not to perceive weakness where there is none. It isn’t weak to need help, or to need an escape every now and again.

  • Raj Hans

    What a great post !
    Gretchen …you are doing a marvelous job.
    I dont have anything to add right I am so full of the enjoyment that comes from reading this blog.
    Great work..

  • One quote that popped into mind while reading this and the comments was:
    ‘The mark of someone insane is someone who expects different results from repeating the same actions.’
    I’m going to try to write my own list now, there are some brilliant ideas here.

  • Gretchen, have you read the 27 Happiness Laws by Med Yones, what do you think of them? I also love his happiness anecdotes

  • I forgot the link of the Happiness Laws, here it is:

  • Gretchen,
    Thanks for the inspiration and motivation to write down my own list of commandments.
    1. Learn something new everyday
    2. Find something to laugh or smile about everyday
    3. Practice makes progress
    4. Celebrate success
    5. Listen more and talk less
    6. Let it go (enough already!)
    7. Use my talents to benefit others
    8. Love is a decision
    9. Follow through
    10. Do the difficult stuff first
    See for more info.

  • I’m glad I saw this post. I had been admiring your commandments list and thinking the placement was wonderful because it’s where you’ll see it every day. I try to make my blog a really comfy place where everyone can take their shoes off and that includes me! I like to think that what benefits me can benefit others too, so I do see your wisdom in sharing the list. It’s been wonderful reading other people’s lists too. I’m still working on mine, but when I’m done I’ll post them here as well as in my blog. I’ll have to figure out the best way to do it in my blog. Maybe I’ll just make a page for it… but then I won’t see it every day. Hmmm… my columns are almost full as it is. Maybe I can add something in the footer? lol Any ideas?

  • Nicky

    I am new to the site and do not know if there is a search for TIPS. But, Tips I would love to hear are… Tips on how to reply when people ask if you have children and you do not yet & you don’t know if you are “ready” or will have children in the futre… Why does everyone have to feel pressured to be the same? and why do women get tormented about not having children by every negative thoughtless comment from the masses?
    Tips on how to talk to family members you haven’t been in touch with for a while but love… but don’t know how to say “no” to nor wish to call, write, email because you know they will want you to come visit THEM. (and probably talk about~ marriage~Kids) & being “NORMAL”.

  • gks

    I have two sets of “metaphor” commandments that are based on two of my passions: trees and travel.
    The Tree Commandments:
    Stand tall
    Reach for the sky
    Go out on a limb
    Soak up the sun
    Sing with the Rain
    Enjoy the view
    Remember your roots
    “Ripeness is All.”
    (“Ripeness is All” is a favorite quote from Shakespeare’s King Lear: “Men must endure their going hence even as their coming hither; ripeness is all.” )
    The Travel Commandments:
    Use a compass, not a map
    Travel light
    Take baby steps
    Enjoy the view
    What’s in the way, is the way

    • Kel

      I just read this – I hope that some random email alert tells you that 6 years later someone replied to your post, because I’ve been struggling for months trying to get my head around my own happiness project. I couldn’t find a single thing that resonated enough to stay put in the list. And now I have 4: ripeness is all (immediately taken back to seeing it on stage in high school 10 years ago, and now it makes so much more sense), use a compass not a map, travel light, what’s in the way, is the way. I felt like I was smacked in the face reading each one of those. Thank you!

      • gretchenrubin

        Terrific. Good luck with YOUR happiness project.

  • Camilla

    Don’t you find it hard to remember and implement 12 commandments, plus your resolutions? It almost feels like too much for me to master. I don’t want it to feel like a burden. I have a copy of your worksheets, but it seemed like more work. I think I’m probably making this harder than it needs to be, and I want it all done at once! I’d appreciate any feedback or suggestions about how you and others have fit it into your lives naturally, without it feeling like a burden.

  • Joe Barker

    Simplified life by 4 Commandments
    1 Take care of yourself
    2 Use good judgement
    3 Be nice
    4 Have fun