How to boost your happiness by keeping a list of your “Things I’ve Learned So Far” or “Secrets of Adulthood” or “Notes to Self” or whatever.

A thoughtful reader sent me a link to Eric Zorn’s fantastic post, 50 things I’ve learned in 50 years, a partial list in no particular order. It’s a great read – amusing and thought-provoking.

His “50 things list” reminds me of my Twelve Commandments and my Secrets of Adulthood (in the left-hand column and reprinted below). His list is a mixture of admonitions for behavior and nuggets of hard-won wisdom (e.g., “cough syrup doesn’t work”).

On his excellent blog, Bob Sutton has a list of “Fifteen Things I Believe” which is a similar approach to trying to make sense and sum up experience.

Distilling your life wisdom into a list is certainly fun, and it’s also a happiness-booster. Every time I re-read my own list, I’m reminded of what I’ve identified as important lessons for myself. For example, probably not a day goes by when I don’t remind myself, “It’s okay to ask for help.”

And I love reading other people’s lists. Some highlights from Eric Zorn:

–It’s better to sing off key than not to sing at all.
–Promptness shows respect.
–Cough syrup doesn’t work.
–The Golden Rule is the greatest moral truth. If you don’t believe in it, at least try to fake it.
–Keeping perspective is the greatest key to happiness. From a distance, even a bumpy road looks smooth.
–Don’t waste your breath proclaiming what’s really important to you. How you spend your time says it all.
–Wounds heal faster under bandages than they do in the open air.
–In everyday life, most “talent” is simply hard work in disguise.
–Great parents can have rotten kids and rotten parents can have great kids. But even though biology plays a huge role in destiny, that’s no excuse to give up or stop trying.
–Four things that most people think are lame but really are a lot of fun: barn dancing, charades, volleyball and sing-alongs.
–When something that costs less than $200 breaks and it’s not under warranty and you can’t fix it yourself in half an hour, it’s almost certainly more cost-effective to throw it out.
–The 10-minute jump start is the best way to get going on a big task you’ve been avoiding. Set a timer and begin, promising yourself that you’ll quit after 10 minutes and do something else. The momentum will carry you forward.
–Exercise does not take time. Exercise creates time.
–The store-brand jelly, cereal, paper goods, baking supplies and pharmacy products are good enough.
–When you’re not the worst-dressed person at a social event, you have nothing to worry about.
–Your education isn’t complete until you’ve learned to take a hint.

I think the most important of my Twelve Commandments are:
• Be Gretchen.
• Act as I would feel.
• No calculation.
• There is only love.

My Secrets of Adulthood include:
• Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
• Try not to let yourself get too hungry.
• Even if you think they are fake holidays, it’s nice to celebrate Mother’s Day and Father’s Day.
• If you can’t find something, clean up.
• The days are long, but the years are short.
• Turning the computer on and off a few times often fixes a glitch.
• It’s okay to ask for help.
• You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you LIKE to do.
• What you do EVERY DAY matters more than what you do ONCE IN A WHILE.
• You don’t have to be good at everything.
• Soap and water removes most stains.
• It’s important to be nice to EVERYONE.
• You know as much as most people.
• Over-the-counter medicines are very effective.
• Eat better, eat less, exercise more.
• What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you–and vice versa.
• People actually prefer that you buy wedding gifts off their registry.
• Houseplants and photo albums are a lot of trouble.

I’ve also been meaning to add “Go outside” to my list. I’m always looking for new Secrets of Adulthood, or personal commandments, so along with Eric Zorn’s, I’d love to hear any proposed additions.

I love anything to do with reading and writing, and Dark Party is a cool online magazine about just those subjects. They dub it “literate blather” but it’s hardly blather. The folks there were nice enough to do an interview with me. They also ran a terrific post where they asked a bunch of people “What book changed your perspective on life and why?” I named Wayne Kostenbaum’s Jackie Under My Skin — though once I started thinking about it, the list started to grow and grow. I added several books to my library list after reading the post.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Zyada

    The golden rule isn’t a Great Moral Truth. It is reality. If you treat people badly, you will end up surrounded by people who treat you badly.
    I’ve seen this in action.

  • penguinlady

    I started writing down the things I learned when I was a bridesmaid for the very first time. Every time I went to a wedding, I wrote down what went right, what went wrong, and any thing else that was of note. By the time my own wedding came around, I had a nice long list of guidelines – that I also freely shared with any of my other friends who got married along the way. I’ve also done this with other things, as easy as Thanksgiving (which recipe was great, what brand of turkey/pumpkin pie was yummy), or as heartbreaking as death (don’t wear heels to a cemetery). It’s rewarding to look over the lists and see how much I’ve learned.

  • Here’s another wise woman’s terrific list:

  • Making a list like this is such a helpful thing to do. I remember starting such a list in college, then forgetting about it. Then having to relearn things. Making such a list and keeping it with us, adding to it and constantly reviewing it keeps us reminded of those important lessons and keeps us in the mode of seeking and learning and growing.
    Another essential list to keep around is a list of blessings or good things. It may be difficult to get it started, but once you do, it’s hard to stop. You just keep thinking of more and more things to add to it. Then, if you find yourself starting to get down, you can just pull out your list and be reminded. It’s hard to feel down, with a big list of blessings.

  • I love this one from Zorn:
    “24. If you’re in a conversation and you’re not asking questions, then it’s not a conversation, it’s a monologue.”
    This is something I suspect not many people know, if the amount of bad date monologues I’ve had to pretend to be interested in are any indication.
    Great post (as always).

  • As chance would have it, I released a meme on Lessons, In Hindsight a few days ago. The responses are great too.
    The link:
    I hope it is ok to leave this link here. The last time I tried to contribute to a discussion by letting people know of an interesting debate on a blog I often read, the blog owner sent some fantastic abuse my way! 🙂

  • My latest addition to my list:
    Being capable of being happy and being happy are NOT the same thing.
    The first requires different things for different people, but generally requires some level of security/stability, and for some people, it might require medication. (I am one of those people.)
    The second ALWAYS requires work. There is no magic event, person, or pill that will guarantee happiness. You have to try.

  • I love this idea of focusing on happiness as a life project! It makes me reflect on some of my own secrets to happiness….
    For instance, knowing that I CAN have what I want – but even better is to want what I have! 🙂 Gratitude is the key. It aligns me with the frequency that make dreams come true. The other great peace generating secret I’ve found is to simply prefer reality.
    Thanks for your wonderful work!!
    Blessings, Lynne

  • DaveW

    My favourite ‘note to self’ has got to be “Rome wasn’t built in a day, but bits of it were”. There have been so many times when that has inspired me to keep going with something that seems insurmountable.