Resolutions for how to be happy have to be made over and over. Alas.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the difference between happiness goals and happiness resolutions, and the role of habits in helping me or thwarting me.

What’s discouraging is that many of my most important happiness resolutions aren’t getting much easier. That’s why I think it’s important to think of these as “resolutions” that I approach anew each day, rather than “goals” that I’d expect to achieve and be done with.

One of the main things I’ve worked on in my Happiness Project is my sharp tongue. I snap, I nag, I “talk in a mean voice,” as the Big Girl put it when she was younger.

I worked hard on this tendency, and I did improve.

Lately, however, I’ve been relaxing my vigilance a bit. Maybe I thought I’d reached my “goal.” And you know what? The snapping, the nagging, the sharp tone has come right back.

I can HEAR the words come out of my mouth in a nasty tone. Sometimes I even sound more aggravated than I actually am.

I guess I thought my struggle would get easier, once I’d been keeping my resolutions for a while.


My tendency to speak harshly is one my worst traits and the reason for a lot of my resolutions. It’s one of the main reasons I felt compelled to start my Happiness Project. It’s the reason I’ve more or less quit drinking alcohol. It’s the reason I try so hard to get enough sleep and not to let myself get too hungry or cold. It’s the reason I resolved to quit nagging, and to stop gossiping.

These steps have helped, but the sharp tongue is still there.

I think back on last Saturday morning, for example. We’d all slept badly. The Big Man was at the gym, and I was giving the girls their breakfasts. Both girls were being whiny and demanding.

My resolutions and my Twelve Commandments started ringing in my ears: “Laugh out loud,” “Lighten up,” “Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings,” “Sing in the morning,” etc.

Did I do any of that? No. I scowled at them both. I spoke in a harsh voice. I clenched my jaw.

It was the Big Girl who turned the mood around. Unbelievably, she suddenly pulled herself together and started distracting the Little Girl with a funny story. The Little Girl cheered up once she’d eaten some breakfast, and I cheered up after I had some coffee. Peace descended.

So often, it just takes one person to change the mood. I hope that next time, I’ll be able to meet the challenge, instead of leaving it to my eight-year-old.

New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope has an excellent blog, Well, where she writes about a variety of health-related issues. Fascinating stuff there.

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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I know just how you feel. Don’t be so hard on yourself. Lack of sleep can even make a pussycat turn cranky. It’s number one on my list, right up there with eating right & exercising if I want to feel happy. You made me think of a post I wrote in early February, “Feeling Cranky, Pessimistic, Impatient & Annoyed? How Did You Sleep Last Night?”. Turns out, I even referred to you in the post. Here’s the link:
    There’s another one on sleep, written the next day. It was ON MY MIND. Sorry, to be so long winded here, but take a look at Sylvia Boorstein’s latest book, “Happiness is an Inside Job”.
    She’s an amazing 74 year old PhD psychotherapist who teaches meditation. Basically we will always get annoyed and angry. It’s all about recognizing that you do, being gentle with yourself, and STOPPING IT. Her book is like listening to the sweetest most sensible grandmother you can imagine.
    BTW, Tara-Parker Pope is my all time favorite health writer. And I love your blog. I was hooked when I read you’re a fan of Edgar Eager’s “Half Magic”. It was my first favorite book & I read it in 1958 or ’59! It magically reappeared in my life a month when I spotted it in a discard box where I tutor. Whew!

  • Gretchen— The resolution to speak kindly should also apply to yourself. Who do you think taught her daughter how to lighten a difficult situation with a joke? What a wonderful gift to give your daughter On the other hand —I find it helpful to hear about your difficulties because we all have our own struggles.

  • Gretchen, I second Rachel’s comment – your Happiness Project doesn’t only contribute to your personal development, but also provides a wonderful example for the people who come into contact with you. What a wonderful thing it is for the Big Girl and the Little Girl to grow up with a Happiness Champion and role-model in their very own house!

  • Pam

    One suggestion: When a child starts to whine, or talk like a baby, etc., tell the child that your ears don’t work when their voice is whining or not talking like a big boy/girl. Suggest that they go to a quiet spot and practice saying what they want to tell you and then come back to talk to you. Tell them you’ll wait right here and listen after you practice and come back to tell me what you’d like for me to hear. Try to always talk in a very slow, low calm voice. You’ll find this calms you as well. I’m a teacher and this does work especially when used consistently.

  • Ann

    There’s a Zen saying that what we resist, persists.
    After trying to fight my own bad habits, I’ve come to believe this. As long as something’s a big deal, I’ll always have it in the back of my mind, as something I’m doing or not doing, but always as something. It’s like trying not to think of an elephant. As soon as the word “elephant” enters your ears, you think about an elephant.
    Zen also says that observing a thing non-judgmentally changes it. I no longer try to correct so much as I try to observe.
    Just a thought,

  • Samantha

    I think you have hit the nail on the head with this idea of the difference between goals and resolutions. I have been thinking a lot about it since your post about it on the 7th.
    I have not been one to make resolutions because I always thought of then as goals that I couldn’t keep. Now I can think of them as what they truly are: something to keep doing even if you have to resolve to do better every five minutes like I feel I have to do.

  • This post definitely hit a nerve with me- that’s my worst trait as well. I really try to work on it, but I definitely struggle daily.

  • Gretchen, that’s exactly why I started reading this blog several months ago. I’m sick and tired of my own sharp tongue, and I want to change things. It’s incredibly difficult, isn’t it?