Six tips for designing your happiness commandments.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for designing your happiness commandments.

I have a happiness project, and I think everyone else should have one, too. Everyone’s project will look different, but we can all benefit.

One very useful – and also challenging – thing I’ve done as part of my happiness project is to formulate my own commandments, i.e., the precepts that I want to guide my actions and thoughts. Here are my Twelve Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out. (this is my most cryptic commandment; here’s an explanation)
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

In my experience, designing your list of personal commandments is extraordinarily helpful in working for happiness, so think about what your list might be. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Five of my Twelve Commandments are 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 want to 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. 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. In fact, twelve commandments may be too many. 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.

A reader emailed me that she was trying to come up with her own set of commandments, but it kept turning into a to-do list. I had the same problem. Remember, this isn’t a place for things like “Put your keys away in the same place every night.” But maybe that resolution fits into a larger commandment you’d like to observe.

Each person’s list will differ. A friend told me that “Say yes” would be a terrible addition to his commandments, because he tends to over-commit. His list says, “Say no.” 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 and think hard. It took me months to come up with my Twelve. This takes some reflection.

Looking at other people’s commandments can be a great source of inspiration. Here are some that I’ve found intriguing:

Forget the past.
Don’t think about things too much.
Do stuff.
Talk to strangers.
Stay in touch.
Do your least favorite part of the job first.
Avoid debt.
Love your mother.
Dig deep.
Show and tell.
Forgive yourself.
Create something that wasn’t there before.
Notice the color purple.
Adorn yourself.
Be in awe.
Help others.
Be silly.
Make footprints. “I was here.”
No fear.
Take it in.
Expect a miracle.
Play the hand you’re dealt.
Recognize my ghosts.
Be specific about your needs.
React to the situation.
Keep proportion.
Do what matters.
Stay calm.
Go outside.
Feel the danger (many dangers, like a bad diet or drunk driving, don’t feel dangerous)

What are your personal commandments? Please consider posting them. I’m sure it would be very valuable for me and other readers to be able to see them.
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Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Great post topic, Gretchen! My 10 Personal Commandments are:
    1. You are the most important bird in your nest.
    2. First things first, second things never.
    3. Your thoughts create your destiny.
    4. You can handle it.
    5. Make it work.
    6. You don’t need to be the best, just better than the rest.
    7. Trust your instincts.
    8. Make a lot of mistakes, but never the same ones twice.
    9. If you want to succeed faster, fail faster.
    10. Progress, not perfection.
    I elaborate on each of these point at

  • You really hit something on the ‘2nd’ section. I believe that all of our lives fit the movie role and we are unaware of it. That is very interesting indeed.
    I also am one to work better off of metaphors. Just like ‘No Deposit, No Return’ works for a soda machine, it works for life as well. I find these analogies laced through the art of Jiu Jitsu. I see them on the mat everyday.
    One of my favorites…
    ‘We’re not baking cookies here.’
    Simply put, it means, yes this is hard and tests every ounce of your fortitude, but you should expect that. Its not like we are baking cookies or anything.
    This little amusing saying has become a staple in our gym. I love the idea of having 12 commandments. Writing things down increases the chance tremendously that they will come true.

  • Great information to know about and its an interesting one too. I think this could be a helpful information for many in getting themselves away from the stress.

  • @ Shanel Yang
    “If you want to succeed faster, fail faster.”
    –I love that. Short, simple, and definitely true. I might have to steal it 🙂

  • I’ve never come up with a comprehensive list, but here are some things I’ve used almost as mantras over the years:
    Chill out
    Lighten up
    This too shall pass
    Ebb and flow
    Let go
    Compassionate Detachment

  • “Remember the past but do not dwell there.”
    Israel Kamakawiwo’ole

  • Elizabeeth

    I keep a list of favorite sayings that I re-read from time to time, and add to as I feel moved to. Some of my favorites that come in the form of “commandments”:
    Find a bright side and look on it, dammit.
    Don’t get in a pissing contest with a skunk.
    Chop wood, carry water.
    Ask for what you need.
    Make your own fun.
    Plan for tomorrow, live for today.
    Don’t wait until you’re too old to enjoy it.
    Eat fruit: you’ll feel better.

  • Ruth

    My happiness commandments:
    1. Be who you are.
    2. Let go.
    3. Ask.
    4. Love.
    I wrote about them and others I considered:

  • dk

    Based on your example, Gretchen, I started my own list of commandments several months ago. It took me a while to figure out what I wanted them to be, and it’s still a work in progress, but this is what I have so far:
    1. Act as I would feel. (thanks for this one! Did you know that this is one of the basic tenants of cognitive behavior therapy?)
    2. Give it 96 minutes. (This is my version of “Do it now.” This comes from a friend’s application of the 80-20 rule to work–96 minutes being 20 percent of an 8-hour work day. I am a huge procrastinator, yet I also am happier when I have a sense of accomplishment. For me, being happier requires making an effort to side-step my procrastinating tendencies and just get on with it. I try to approach big tasks now by reminding myself to just give it an hour and a half, and I usually find that a huge amount can be accomplished in that time.)
    3. This too shall pass.
    4. Even when life isn’t perfect, it’s wonderful. (So corny, so true.)
    5. Make haste to be kind.
    6. Nothing is for certain. (This might be my version of “lighten up.”)

  • I absolutely love the concept of happiness commandments. I’ve got my list on the sidebar of my livejournal, so that I at least pass my eyes over them regularly. Here’s my list:
    1. Say yes.
    2. Don’t wait.
    3. Other people are nothing to be afraid of.
    4. Work at work.
    5. Embrace being here.
    6. Ask questions.
    7. Be positive.
    8. Be fearless.
    My list started off with just the first five, but over the last few months I’ve added the other three. “Be fearless” actually came from a Dove Promises wrapper — which I’ve still got sitting under my computer monitor at work. A good reminder, even if I’m not good at following it.
    (Is this post a repeat? It looks a lot like the one from September 5 of last year.)

  • jane

    Do the right thing.

  • Gen

    I’ve been working on this:
    1. Be present.
    2. Lighten up.
    3. Take care of yourself.
    4. Look for the good.
    5. Connect.
    6. Speak up.
    7. Let go of perfect.
    8. Take action.
    9. Give without expectation.
    10. Make yourself happy.

  • I like your third tip, lessening your list to only two: Be Gretchen and There is only love. Sometimes maybe less is interpreted more introspectively. I have a few commandments, but one of my most important is “Everything matters.” Every look, tone, word, deed, is received by someone else. It’s important to keep life kind.

  • HappyGuy

    I’ve heard eating can make you pretty happy. Should give it a try.

  • Great post 🙂
    My commandments are:
    1. Work harder.
    2. Just do it.
    3. Trust yourself.
    4. No expectations.
    5. Meet people.
    And since a few weeks I have that sentence popping up in my head, but I’m not sure where and how to integrate it:
    “No one said it would be easy.”

  • sheila

    1. Never give in (As in “Never give in, never give in, never, never, never, never – in nothing, great or small, large or petty – never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense.” Winston Churchill)
    2. No one running for his life will notice (This was one of my father’s favourites, to keep mistakes in perspective and keep worries at bay.)
    3. Action, not reaction. (This reminds me to be pro-active and to actually DO something.)
    4. Become the person your dog thinks that you are. (Not sure who to credit with this one, but I loved the idea when I first came across it!)

  • Tim

    I have only one, but it covers a lot of things for me:
    Always with love
    I forces me to realize I am infinately rich, indestructably gentle and as strong as I need to be, even when I do not feel so. And it reminds me that I am forgiven for my failings.

  • Know that the world is a beutiful place.
    Believe that there is hope for humanity.
    Work to make the first two true

  • I love all these! I’ve made a list of all of them.
    “Always with love” reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from St. Therese: “I know of no other way to perfection but love.”
    “Fail faster” reminds me of one of my mantras: “Enjoy the FUN of failure.” Maybe it should be a commandment!
    All of these are so thought-provoking — it’s also interesting how, when you read someone’s list, you really get a sense of that person’s character. Fascinating.

  • Naomi Rose

    I like Joanna’s possible off-the-cuff comment at the end of her comment “keep life kind”. I think that will be part of my list.

  • – Live your own life
    – Cultivate a willingness to be seen
    – We don’t need another hero.
    – Just ask.
    – Never expect things to be the way they were.
    – Baby steps
    – Unattended stress shrivels the brain.
    – Nothing formed in the mind is immutable.

  • sunshine80303

    1. Good clean living always pays off
    2. Work hard play hard and don’t waste time
    3. Find a happy place and chill
    4. The more the merrier
    5. Always give others the benefit of the doubt
    6. Forgive – myself and others
    7. Love and gratitude always
    8. Be decisive
    9. Expect good things to happen

  • eac

    1. Love is all around
    2. It’s all in your perspective – be positive! Don’t give yourself the luxury of a negative thought.
    3. To really let go of the pain, you have to give up the hope that the past could have been different. So move forward with the strength you’ve been given to live an undefeated life.
    4. There is a crack, a crack in everything. That’s how the light gets in.
    5. No complaints
    6. Recognize my patterns
    7. Reverence
    8. No fear
    9. Stay calm
    10. Compassion – for myself, for everything else on the planet
    11. No judgment

  • Amanda

    1- Kia Kaha – Maori for “be strong” and the words my grandmother said to me most often.
    2- Honesty and compassion
    3- Choose hard – If you have a choice to make, choose the thing that’s hardest
    4- Whatever the world takes from you, let it go
    5- Be present
    6- Don’t drink for no reason
    7- Thinking it makes it so
    8- Don’t rehearse unhappiness – As in, don’t rehearse unhappiness by engaging in thought attacks that anticipate negative things. A REALLY bad habit of mine.

  • Lucy

    My 12 Commandments:
    1. Take Risks. (I like to remind myself that Big Happiness Takes Big Risks.)
    2. Show up.
    3. Do it Now.
    4. Never Fear Rejection.
    5. All you need is love.
    6. Feel Your Feelings (My favorite quote for this one: “What we resist, persists.”).
    7. Grow.
    8. Be Present in the Present.
    9. Get ON the damn treadmill.
    10. Be Kind (Subtitle and reminder for myself: Sarcasm is not a form of kindness).
    11. Let it Be.
    12. Live Your Values. (My favorite quote for this one is Eleanor Roosevelt: Do what you feel in your heart to be right-for you’ll be criticized anyway.)
    Hope these help someone 🙂

  • I love the idea of Happiness Commandments. I’ve just being overthinking it! Today I took time to just write down the key ideas I’ve found important over the last few years. Amazing that it wasn’t as hard as I thought.
    ~ Give grace
    ~ Express my gratitude
    ~ Rejoice in beauty
    ~ Encourage others
    ~ Think less
    ~ Act first so feelings follow
    ~ Lean into fear to minimize regrets
    ~ Enjoy simplicity
    ~ Do baby steps now
    ~ Persist through to success
    ~ Move more
    ~ Use creativity instead of money

  • DiscoveredJoys

    I think a lot depends on where you are in your own life’s story. Me and my wife have raised two great young men and got them through university, I’ve taken early retirement, and my wife takes early retirement next week… so we are no longer striving to succeed so much as get our spirits in order.
    My own happiness commandments are split into two parts. The first part is how I (should) treat myself, and the second part is how I (should) treat other people:
    To me:
    1) Smile broadly
    2) Breathe deeply (remarkably good for reducing stress)
    3) Walk mindfully (walking on grass or by water if possible)
    4) Discover joys daily
    5) Live congruently (align my reason for living with my goals, skills, knowledge and attitude)
    6) Reduce distractions (concentrate on the important stuff)
    From me:
    7) Remember everyone is different
    8) Listen carefully
    9) Speak kindly
    10) Advise wisely
    11) Help generously
    12) Thank people sincerely
    Plus I always try to remember that happiness is not a ‘thing’ to hunt for, it is merely(!) your mind’s way of telling you that you are living your life well…

  • DiscoveredJoys

    Strange, isn’t it. After posting my 12 commandments I read a piece about what was on Emily Wilding Davison’s tombstone (she was the lady that threw herself under the Kings horse running in the Derby at Epsom in 1913. She was killed, but her cause, female emancipation, finally triumphed.)
    The inscription leapt off the page at me,

  • Susan

    1. Be in the present
    2. Slow down
    3. Focus
    4. Simplify
    5. Stay in adult
    6. Let it go
    7. You matter
    8. Show up
    9. Lighten up
    10. You are good enough as you are
    11. Please yourself
    12. There is only love (thanks for this one Gretchen!)

  • chris brannigan

    1. Nothing lasts
    2. Kids matter
    3. Music helps
    Just 3 commandments.
    Below I’ve tried to briefly explain
    the meaning behind these three slogans.
    I’ve always called them:
    There may be other things that are true, but so far, at age 56, these are the 3 I’m sure of.
    1. Nothing lasts. i.e.:
    1a. nothing good lasts,
    so enjoy it while it’s here
    1b. nothing bad lasts, so endure it till it’s gone
    1.c and finally, the zen version,
    the only thing that DOES last is the great nothingness of the empty space in the universe, so get over yourself.
    2. KIDS MATTER (more than anything else in the world, because they us in the world of tomorrow, so they must always come first.)
    3. MUSIC HELPS ( no pain no matter how great wasn’t eased at least a bit by the right music, no joy no matter how perfect wasn’t enhanced by the right tune!)

  • ruhi

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    Get a parchment, seize your quill and start scribbling! Here’s your chance to get your words in print. Submit original articles in your style and on any subject for Sans Frontières, the official Umang magazine. Creative writing, fiction, non-fiction, short stories and poetries are all welcome and the subject matter is entirely upto you. No clue where to begin from? Then here’s your aid…
    1. “I wnt 2 b ur FRAAND!” (The Boons and Banes of Social Networking Sites)
    2. Should we watch the watch dog? (The Media – Hero or Rogue?)
    3. Teen Life Crisis.
    4. OMG! My mom is Angelina Jolie and dad is Brad Pitt! (If I were a celebrity kid…)
    5. 10 reasons why you would want to be a politician!
    6. People ask for criticism only when they want praise.
    7. Streetcorner Symphony – How music exists everywhere.
    8. 40 going on to 20! (Age is only a number!)
    9. Year 2050 – Into the Future. (Fiction)
    10. High on Art!
    11. Girls, Gossip, Shopping – Synonyms???
    We also encourage artwork, photography, trivia and miscallany. Reach out to us at The last date is 27th July.

  • Brilliant! Here’s a few of my favs..
    1. “It is what it is.”
    2. “Never show up empty handed.”
    3. “Simply cut your losses.”
    4. “Only a Bore is Bored.”
    5. “Be the fun.”
    6. “28 days – it’s habit.”
    7. “Consider your source.”
    8. “Leave on a high note.”
    9. “Compliment recklessly.”
    10. “Research everything.”
    11. “There will always 1 girl in the room smarter, funnier, skinnier, or prettier than you.. get over it quickly.”

  • Jonobie

    I wrote a bit about some of my slogans/commandments here:
    My absolute favorite saying is “Run towards the roar”.

  • diamondgirl

    The list I have been working on and yes, daily review seems to be a good practice in remembering.
    1. Be present
    2. Stay connected
    3. Show gratitude
    4. Expect change
    5. Do something different!
    6. Ask for what you want
    7. Think before you act
    8. Befriend yourself
    9. Forgive
    10. Be compassionate
    11. Cultivate love
    12. Be polite and fair

  • Sherri

    Just this week I found your blog via Unclutter… I love it… I look forward to digging into every day… My 12 “commandments”:
    – See the glass as half-full
    – leave the past in the past
    – let go, let God
    – have faith
    – smile at everyone
    – be a light
    – take chances
    – God made you, and He doesn’t make junk
    – See yourself as other see you…
    – You can’t give away what you don’t have
    – I’m not where I want to be, but thank God I’m not where I used to be
    – Give thanks
    – God first, family second, career third

  • Karen

    I love your blog. I don’t have commandments, but am considering the format! Here are things i use to remind myself:
    It’s all good. (old hippie saying)
    Be here now. (from Ram Dass)
    There’s no where you can be that isn’t where you’re meant to be – it’s easy! (from the Beatles)
    I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and gosh darn it, people like me! (Stewart Smalley, from Saturday night live – reminds me to lighten up!)
    Keep up the great work Gretchen!

  • Paige

    I am in search of my life purpose this year and it really boils down to being happy and the things in life that bring me happiness. Today one of the most exciting things was being introduced to you and your blog!
    I have a list of commandments and I would love to share…
    1. Laugh often.
    2. Let go and let God.
    3. Smile.
    4. Set goals…and achieve them.
    5. Love much and with everything you have.
    6. Speak up.
    7. Never stop learning.
    8. Be the best you can be.
    9. Don’t live with regret.
    10. Guilt is wasted energy.
    11. Think, but not too much.

  • So far I have one … Be the best possible you. But I’m calling them “beatitudes:” happy am I when I … And thank-you for this, Gretchen … thank-you for giving myself and others this “project” to work on. I’ll be blogging through coming up with my beatitudes and I’d be honored if you’d check it out sometime @
    Blessing of happiness!

  • Guest

    Be here now—nothing lasts forever

    Know thyself and be true

    Don’t compare yourself with others

    Be patient

    Learn from your mistakes

    Listen to your body

    Embrace Change

    Be silly!

    Smile often

    10. Meditate

    11. Be
    a giver—not a taker

    12. Actions
    speak louder than words—Act accordingly

  • Guest

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    ~Be here now—nothing lasts forever

    ~Know thyself and be true

    ~Don’t compare yourself with others

    ~Be patient
    ~Learn from your mistakes

    ~Listen to your body

    ~Embrace Change

    ~Be silly!
    ~Smile often


    a giver—not a taker
    speak louder than words—Act accordingly

  • James Awosina


  • Debbie T

    Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good!

  • Jane Young

    1. Don’t do it for the gold star.