A “Little Thing” (Very Little) That Makes Me Happy: the Gift Bag.

Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible,” and I’m often struck by how much happiness I get from small, seemingly trivial aspects of my life.

Solving a nagging problem, even a very insignificant one, can bring me a sizable boost. One of my Twelve Personal Commandments is to Identify the problem, because once I recognize a problem, I can often identify a solution. Here’s an example.

I always felt slightly frustrated when wrapping presents. I didn’t do a neat, attractive job, but never wanted to put in the effort to wrap more prettily. (All that paper just gets ripped off, right?) I didn’t like the waste. The long rolls of wrapping paper are hard to store. I always forgot to buy seasonal paper when it was on sale.

Now, however, I use gift bags instead of wrapping, and it’s almost embarrassing to admit how much satisfaction I get out of my system. It’s so much quicker and easier; just pop the gift into a bag of the appropriate size and color, and I’m done.

I keep a drawer dedicated to nothing but gift bags and tissue paper – almost all of which are recycled. If anything comes into my house with nice tissue paper, I save it. Whenever I get anything in a nice gift bag, I add the bag to my collection – and gloat over my acquisition.

Now, when I give gift bags, I never write directly on the bag, in case the recipient is also a gift-bag re-reuser.

I recognize that in the context of a happy life, this is a trivial issue. A staggeringly trivial issue. And yet, this little thing makes a difference. The happiness I get from this system comes not from the relief of a terrible problem, but rather, the simplicity and perfection of the solution.

Have you found a quick, easy solution to a nagging problem like that – a “little thing” that gives you a disproportionate but real boost in happiness?

* I write often about my craving for gold stars – turns out there’s a woman in Brooklyn who has been handing them out for the past year! She blogs about it at Gold Star 4 Trying, “We all need gold stars.”

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [.com] — and don’t forget the “1”. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

  • Oh, I use gift bags too – again and again.

    I also love how efficient and pretty my jewelry tree is – no more tangled necklaces in a jewelry box. And when 2 hooks on the back of my door weren’t enough to store clothes, I finally bought a 4-hook hanger – and it’s amazing how much happier I am with that.

    It is the little things!

    • gretchenrubin

      I recently bought a plastic earring holder for my daughter, and she has
      spent more time on it, and had more fun with it, than practically anything
      I’ve every bought for her.

  • Getting magazines that I subscribe to in the mail. It comes down to, what – maybe $1 an issue for most of them? But when they arrive I “save” them for the perfect reading time – snack, cocktail, no interruptions, maybe for a long car ride or sitting by the pool. They give me a ridiculous thrill.

  • Terryd35

    I like the gift bag idea, I always use them, because they are quick and easy. They also look good to!

    My personal simple solution to a large scale problem would be having a notebook and pen near me (always). This helps me stay organized, as I keep my to do lists and other daily notes on there. It is a simple and non-thrilling thing to do, but it gives me great satisfaction to cross things off, as well as know were to go and find recent notes or messages.


  • I use the gift bag idea too. Like you, I don’t write on the bag itself so the gift bag can be re-used, and at the same time, I always re-use any gift bag I receive.
    I find the “clean-as-you-go” mentality really effective. An example – I hate washing dishes. But, I find that if I wash the dish I just used immediately, it doesn’t pile up in the sink and makes my life much easier, and way cleaner.

  • LuckyMomma

    Being a stay-at-home mom with two kids, they often are in the car or waiting at baseball practice, ballet, the dentist, etc. So I bought each of them a clipboard, attached a fine-tipped pen to each one, and now keep them stocked with puzzles, worksheets, mazes, word seatches, dot-to-dots and whatever else they’re into. I just tear individual pages out of various books for them. My car is much neater now and the kids always have a variety of activities to choose from!

    • gretchenrubin

      What a great idea! I love this.

  • Belle

    I like to buy the inexpensive reusable totes that they sell at almost every store now for between $.99 and $1.99 and give gifts in them. It’s like an extra gift because they can also keep the tote bag and keep using it!

  • Kristin

    I’m somewhat the opposite — my wrapped packages aren’t the prettiest, but tissue paper frustrates me so much! When I put things in gift bags, the paper never looks good. If there’s some trick to it, I definitely haven’t discovered it yet! I much prefer wrapping… except that I procrastinate and wind up putting things in bags all the time, because they’re so much faster! Maybe one of these days I’ll learn the secret to good tissue paper presentation.

    That said, my mom really liked the bag I used for her Mother’s Day present! Yellow tissue paper and a blue bag with yellow flowers. “Yellow is so bright and sunny!” She carefully folded the paper and planned to tuck it and the bag into her gift supplies, to be reused. That really made me happy!

    Oh, and the present that was in that bag? A copy of The Happiness Project. 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Awwww, glad to hear that! I hope your mother enjoys the book — as much as
      the gift bag!

    • jenny_o

      Kristin, I JUST discovered the secret to the tissue paper presentation – it was on a package of tissue paper I used for Mother’s Day – and I’m so happy to share it! Once you have the tissue paper all unfolded, use your open hand to grasp the top piece in the middle. Sort of scrunch it up, and the four corners will bend in towards each other. Make the scrunched-up part into more of a pointed shape which you can then insert into the bag – the corners will be nicely fluffed out of the top of the bag. (If you like, put tissue in the bag under the present, or loosely wrap the gift in a sheet or two of tissue before putting the “fluffs” in on top.) My goodness, this was harder to describe than it was to follow the three little pictures on the package 🙂

  • I share your love of gift bags and have managed to combine that with the solution to another problem. I lead a finger painting creativity play date for grown ups and the participants often leave their creations behind after. I began accumulating a large stack of colorful abstract paintings. One day I needed to wrap a gift and the stack came to mind but the object was round so it was a challenge. A little folding and a glue stick turned the sheet of painted paper into a bag. Now I turn many of the leave behinds and almost all of my splashes and splatters into unique, hand painted gift bags. They are almost as appreciated as the contents.

  • theshubox

    you know, you’re right! and i have a pile of unwrapped gifts in my ‘to do’ area that is just PERFECT for a cute and easy gift bag.

    it’s amazing how sometimes seemingly obvious solutions just . . . aren’t.

    thanks for this simple + lovely post!

  • jillamo

    My happy thing is my new way to store plastic bags. I like to get these at the store so I can use them around the house, but I never have a good place to keep them-a drawer? under the sink? shoved in a bookshelf? I recently read an article about putting these bags in empty kleenex boxes and what a a difference it has made! It is so neat to have a bag dispenser and I get very excited when I get new bags to put in my “dispenser”!

  • 423

    As a klutzy gift wrapper I have resorted to gift bags except when having to mail an item to the celebrant.

    My husband who is an EXPERT gift wrapper always dismisses this as “cheating” but it causes me far less stress UNLESS of course I overhandle the tissue paper and have to start over.

  • ALM

    Velcro is my little thing! I bought a pack of stick-on velcro dots that I find many little uses for. Garage door opener falling out of the slot for it in the car? Velcro! And another dot lets me stick the opener next to my keys in the house. It attaches my ipod better onto its armband, hangs small picture frames, all sorts of stuff. Totally makes me happy.

    • diana

      I am going to do this! Great idea.

  • jenniemurphy

    Some may think this is not simple but I’ve started creating my own birthday and thank you cards. I’m retired now and never had the the time for a craft, plus I’m not the artsy type, but someone sent me a simple, homemade card and I thought “I can do that.” I keep it simple by just buying interesting and beautiful paper, blank cards, glue sticks and a good pair of scissors. The creativity comes in combining the different paper into different patterns. I love it!! Plus it forces me to write someone personal and heartfelt inside.

  • Hi Gretchen.

    I can see the value here. Gift bags sure do save time. I have wrapped various gifts and a gift bag would save 20 minutes. I’d say that is why they are so popular at stores.

    On that gold star point, that is entertaining. Next time I see stickers I might get some to put on people.

  • Oh, I love little tips like these!

    I use a carabiner to clip my keychain on the strap of my purse. Now I never have to dig for my keys.

    Like other posters, I also : save magazines until I have that perfect relaxing moment with them & make my own greeting cards.

    I used a mini photo album for storing seed packets for the garden. They stay together, and organized, and I can flip through and see the pictures. I can even store opened packets, folded over, and the seeds don’t spill out.

  • ML

    I read somewhere once that to reduce stress, one should have some extra birthday cards on hand so that you aren’t frantically looking for a birthday card at the last minute.

    I have been doing this, buying a “could be for anybody” type of blank birthday card to use in case of a “birthday emergency”. I have also started buying birthday cards for family members months ahead of time. So the desire to find the right card does not merge with the stress of “His/her birthday is TOMORROW, we need a card!”

    It makes me so happy to no longer have “birthday emergencies” to deal with! Also, everyone always compliments me on my choice of card! Little do they know that I bought their card months ago!

    • Marci

      I work at a place with many senior citizen volunteers, and I’ve learned to stock up on sympathy cards. This may seem a bit morbid, but my 80 to 90 year friends take a very practical approach to being in the last chapter of their lives. They’re the ones who gave me the tip! Instead of shopping for a card just before a visitation or funeral, I can spend my time crafting a few words of sympathy and write memories of the person who has died.

  • CarlaMae8

    I admit that gift bags are easier, but I still prefer wrapping paper. My wrapping jobs aren’t that fancy. However, I have found that opening a wrapped package is WAY more fun than a gift bag. There is just something about ripping off the paper that makes me smile. It is worth the little bit of extra time it takes me for that “little thing.”

    It is true that wrapping paper is more wasteful. I always try to recycle the used paper. If you are really motivated, you can use the comics or children’s artwork for wrapping paper. In my family, we will also reuse the wrapping paper if it is big enough and the person didn’t rip it while opening the package.

    • shelley

      I agree CarlaMae8 – unwrapping a present is so much more fun for me than a gift bag so I always wrap gifts for other people – even though I am not a very talented wrapper!

  • mem5435

    I used WD-40 Yesterday to make my sliding door open easier and I felt amazing. When you find joy in the little things you will live an incredibly happy life.

  • EscapeVelocity

    There is a place on my commute to work where I can take the U-turn lane, which is great when there’s no oncoming traffic when I need to merge across after coming out of it, or make two protected left turns, which takes a bit longer but is safer. I learned the cycle of the traffic light at the corner so now I know whether it’s a phase where I can get away with using the U-turn lane or not. This has been a HUGE improvement in my life. I also learned in the process of doing this that the cycle time of the light is ONE MINUTE, which makes it seem much less tragic if I wind up having to sit through a cycle.

  • CeeBee

    I don’t write on the bags either so they can be used. Along those lines, when I give a gift card to someone, especially teachers, I don’t write on the gift card, other than the amount. That way they can use the gift card to “re-gift” if they want to. I figure at holiday times, a teacher might want to give her gift card away to someone else, saving her some time AND money.

  • tmstewart

    I, too am a gift bag lover! I am a crappy, lazy wrapper and they make me look good. I have a whole closet full of one’s from gifts I’ve received.

    My greatest simple pleasure ever is when I have just changed the sheets and slide into bed. I adore that feeling when your skin slides against fresh sheets. When they have been on a few days and the oils from your skin settle in them, they don’t have that same feeling. After 47 years, it still makes me instantly happy, not matter how my day went.

  • MichelePen

    Ha-ha. I also reuse. At my baby shower my cousin took over because I was “wasting” time by folding all the tissue paper. She folded so much tissue paper for me I was almost embarassed—it was okay though. I folded all of hers at her shower the next year.

  • faith

    i have my 2 younger ones (6 and 3) put their clothes out for the next day in gift bags that weve gotten. the next morning its more fun to get dressed when you take your clothes out of a colorful gift bag. i also have them put their pjs in the bag, then put the bag on their pillow.

  • Keep Scotch tape in the kitchen, for labelling food. Small step, big results.

  • I love wrapping presents, and I have so much paper, gift tags and ribbons I’m embarassed to admit that!
    I love paper in any form, that’s it, and I’m really good at wrapping.

    But I have my tips too!

    I decided to put the meds I take every morning in a nice, little candy tin I keep on the kitchen counter.
    I put all the pills there and I get rid of the ugly med packages I hated so much to see around.
    It is more pratical and also more beautiful!

    • JayW

      Some years ago I realized if ‘ it ‘ is worth writing down it is worth a ‘decent’ piece of paper and so while all my notes DON’T go in my notebook they do go on standardized pieces of paper , never on the back of an envelope, the margin of the newspaper or whatever random paper is at hand. When I review notes I then act upon it , or transfer the info to my notebook tearing the note in half of more knowing that it has been dealt with . Tearing notes in half (or more depending on the emotional energy involved in the task it represents ) makes ME happy!

  • One more thing:
    I decided to use one journal to write everything I need on it.
    I use it for work related notes, personal notes, and so on.
    That helps me to avoid piles of different pieces of paper and notes!
    I also glue in my journal or diary everything I want or need to keep.
    Anything that is not glued just gets lost!
    As you can say, I’m not really a neat person 😉

  • RomanSoluk

    Gift bags are really useful. In fact I hate wrapping all presents in paper. 🙂

  • kafe55

    I store my bag of trash can liners at the bottom of my kitchen trash can, so when I pull up the full bag of trash to throw out, the new bags are right there at the bottom. Saves a step. It’s not the most fun task, so I enjoy any kind of time savings on it.

  • VRK

    Gretchen, based upon your post above you would certainly enjoy the website entitled ‘1000 Awesome Things’. A book by the same name (and author of the website) has also been published. It describes those numerous ‘little things’ that bring great smiles to one’s face.

    Here’s the link; Enjoy!

  • diana

    I love reading these. This weekend, when faced with a stack of kids’ books that pile up on the radiator near the dining room table, I actually forced myself to identify the problem, and then realized I could take out knick-knacks from the glass-fronted china cabinet to the left of the radiator and use it for books. A very obvious solution but until I thought about it, we just kept piling the books on the radiator (because I am obsessive about having a clean dining room table.) And last night, my husband who thought he hated to put away laundry realized that he only hated to put away MY laundry because it wasn’t “standardized” (all those items he didn’t know what to do with) but he liked putting away his and the kids. So he just put my non-standard items on a chair and put away the rest. A breakthrough after many years.

  • diana

    I have found so many of David Allen’s tips so helpful (in Getting Things Done & his newsletters) & they bring me pleasure throughout my day. Such as: his tips for putting all incoming “stuff” (like receipts, notes to self) into “in-boxes” (one of them is my purse) and processing them daily into my calendar, “action lists,” reference, garbage–etc. I do this daily with any to-do stuff from my kids’ school and is great to be able to have a system for managing all the incoming items (like party invitations) and then being able to throw them away. Over the past 5 years this has transformed me from a fairly disorganized person to someone actually organized. A good thing because schools seem to send home mountains of “stuff” every day. I also was thrilled when someone told me about their system for putting “best work” in downstairs folders with my kids names & then transferring them a few times a year to a big bin in the basement. I realize I get a lot from other people’s tips.

  • Megan S

    I realized last night when cooking dinner that my grocery list is something really simple that always makes me feel happy. A couple of years ago I got a pad of paper & stuck it to the fridge. Whenever we run out of something we write it on the list. Last night while cooking dinner my husband said “we’re out of mustard” so I walked over & wrote it down. I immediately felt happy. In the past we would have gone weeks without mustard and been frustrated every time we went to use it. Now it will get taken care of and with hardly any extra effort. I love it!

  • I like gift bags but I am not allowed to use them. Unfortunately, in a fit of frustration about 15 years ago I said to my husband that the effort one puts into gift wrapping shows the amount of caring for the person and then I picked up a gift meant for his step father and shoved it into a gift bag and shoved it to him with a “here” and told him to sign the card.

    My husband then repeated this story to everyone — so now if I use a gift bag I’m told that I must not care very much about that person. It became a big hassle.

    I hadn’t really meant that statement–I was just having a bad day.

    BTW, you are featured in a comic today:

  • I totally understand the “small thing” concept. Just got a new back door and every time I look at it, I feel happy.

    As for wrapping, being a “greenie,” avoiding waste makes me not only happy, but ecstatic. Once I discovered wrapping with fabric, I have never used paper again. One of the things that makes me feel so good about it aside from the fact it can be used over and over (I build a lovely little vignette in my head about a silk scarf moving from person to person), but the fact that I learned a new skill of wrapping. It’s like origami with fabric instead of paper. Each gift is so gorgeous and takes less than a minute.

    The sight of beautifully wrapped no-waste packages thrills me.

  • Interesting concept, Gretchen. A problem is a problem whether great or small. And if it’s a problem, then it becomes an obstacle for us to get from point A to B. So any solution is helpful and therefore makes us happy. I love the solution to your Little… (Very Little) problem.

    Thanks for sharing!!

  • Lynn

    Love gift bags!

    As for the little things that make us happy….
    I have assigned everyone in the family a color. It’s used for towels, toothbrushes, tote bags, etc. Everytime I fold laundry or hand the kids a towel, it makes me happy because there’s no thinking involved.

  • Karen

    Sometimes I like the gift wrap (or bag or bow) better than the gift itself…my family knows that now and they often make an effort to save the wrapping paper and they certainly save reusable bags! I even make my own bags now and people look forward to receiving gifts in them!

  • Not only am I terrible at gift wrapping, I feel too guilty to buy those paper gift bags — more paper, more waste.

    I solved that by purchasing those cute reusable shopping bags retailers have now. The gift goes inside, and I make them look pretty by closing them up with ribbon (which I always keep from other gifts — so that’s recycled, too.)

    The recipient gets a gift and a handy shopping bag.

    When I travel, I buy bunches these bags (lightweight, inexpensive) to give away and for gift wrapping. In Europe, I found stunning designs. Here in the U.S., I love the bags from Target.

    At first I was unsure how people would react, but I get calls and notes from recipients asking where they can get more.

  • LadyTexan

    I have a couple of “little things” that I have recently addressed that bring that little smile of joy.

    1. My bathroom has just the toilet and shower/tub with a door separating the room from the sink area. I usually just pile my clothes/robe/pj’s on the toilet seat when I take a shower. Last week I finally put a stickon hook on the back of the door, and now every time I hang my robe on it I smile.

    2. I take several vitamins, some once a day and some twice a day. The big bottles looked kind of tacky on my bathroom sink counter. I bought a 7-day pill organizer, with AM and PM slots for each day. Now, every 2 weeks I load it up with the correct number of pills, and the bottle go back under the sink. I leave the top open to remind me to take the night pills. Organized, and attractive.

    3. I keep a small pair of scissors in my kitchen junk drawer. Instead of traipsing all the way to the office to use scissors, I can now just open the drawer, use them, and put them back. One more step towards convenience.

  • Sharpening my kitchen knives. It doesn’t take long and they’re so much nicer to use. Plus a sharp knife is a safe nice (it takes less force to make a cut therefore you’re less likely to slip).

    • gretchenrubin

      My husband JUST did this, and is so happy. (Though he did cut himself twice
      before he adjusted to the new sharpness.)

      • tarichaveritas

        check with your local butcher or grocery store. The meat counter at my local store just sharpened my favorite knife for me, and it’s so sharp now. It’s like I’m always cutting through butter. I’m so glad I finally got around to that little task.

  • * Speaking of koans, Wikipedia has an entry on hacker koans, which are hilarious, and truly thought-provoking.

  • LynneL

    I absolutely love gift bags too- especially for Christmas, where they saved me hours of time doing something I hate! But with all my recycling I found it hard to dig through all of them to find the perfect baby shower or birthday one until I discovered they have gift bag organizers!! It is shaped like a giant gift bag accordion and has labels on the top. Perfect!

    Speaking of the little things (and maybe this goes better under “Buy some happiness”) this morning as I slide my feet into the soft cushy warmth of my sheepkskin slippers I thought of your project, and of how happy these slippers make me, with my chronically cold toes. Even on warmer days they are like floating on a cloud! My mom always had slippers that flapped noisily and had no support, but these hug the back of my ankle, and make it so much easier to run after my 2 toddlers all day.

    Have a happy day!!

  • Kimberley

    We have been using gift bags for awhile but we now have replaced those with reuseable store or tote bags (obviously clean and new ones for gifts, not the ones we put our own groceries in)…
    This is pretty, but not disposable and it’s functional too. Whenever possible, I always use a baby blanket as wrapping paper for shower gifts and have used tea-towels and tableclothes to wrap bridal shower gifts too. A little ribbon and that’s all the waste produced.

  • cranky

    I wish you would go back to addressing less trivial issues. I used to love your blog because it seemed like you understood happiness as a worthy and mighty struggle. Now it kinda seems like you’re so happy all the time, so incredibly satisfied with your life, that all you can do is share stories of how little things can make you even happier. Consider finding some guest bloggers who can make it real again?

    • gretchenrubin


      • anne

        It seems a little off-base (hypocritical? I can’t think of the right word..) to complain about a person-who is working on happiness-being happier. “Real” doesn’t mean “unhappy”, a message I got from reading The Happiness Project book.

      • Manda

        I know this is an old post, and i hope this comment finds its way to you. Love your work, love the way you write, never fails to entertain me (and hit home) when i need it. Ignore cranky. The name says it all. (plus thats the point – its amazing sometimes how trivial issues once resolved can make you so happy).

    • Pam

      I know this post is for an older post, but I LIVE in the small things.  One step in making life more simple, one step of happiness builds my energy to tackle the bigger issues that impede my happiness.  I have found that I should never despise small beginnings.
      Let me give you an example, I am having a terribly difficult medical issue that we can’t pin down the cause.  This is a major issue in my life, but finding a parking place at the hospital gave me great joy.  Also being able to reorganize my day so I can still get things done has given me great pleasure.  If I focus on the difficult, it won’t gain me anything and the difficult issue is still there.  If I focus on the little happiness issues, I gain some happiness and the difficult issue is still there.  
      Sometimes I can even widdle away at the difficult issues by taking small steps of laying aside my wants and my demands and doing small acts of kindness for the other person.  I WANT to be happy and it is work.

  • tarichaveritas

    I do this too! It’s a great way to both “spend out” and save, as you spend out to get initial bags but save by reusing them. My mom has always saved gift bags, and I know every Christmas that the teal metallic reindeer bag has a present for me in it.

    I actually teach birthday parties at a nature center right now, and I save tissue paper and gift bags after every party. We’re going to use the saved tissue paper for crafts this summer, and the bags go home with me for my stash.

  • Dot

    In 1992 I bought a Aquis Hair towel. Best thing EVER and I am still using the same one. After shower, I wrap my head in the Aquis towel. It soaks up so much water it take no time to blow dry or many time I just let it air dry. It took me forever to dry my hair before which made me sad, but this silly towel (which I paid $18 for and felt guilty about it before I used it), make my morning shower so happy!

    • I received this kind of towel as a gift, but even better, it’s in the shape of a turban with a button to pin it up on the head. It does make drying off so much quicker and more pleasant! Also, with the turban shape, it doesn’t fall of my head the way regular-shaped, thick towels always annoyingly did. They do say that it’s the little things….

  • Camille

    I too am a re-user of wrapping – bags, tissue, ribbon – when in good condition. I save boxes that have separate lids and neutral colored bases. I like to meticulously wrap the lid with quality paper and close it with a tied ribbon going around the the box only one way. By doing this, the box may be opened by simply sliding off the ribbon and the box and ribbon is ready to reuse by the receiver. My boxes are “well received” and used again. Sometimes they come full-circle.

  • ck

    one thing I do is read a story to my daughter every night. I try to do the voices and really be in the moment. it always makes us happy.

  • Thanks for such a great post and the review, I am totally impressed! Keep stuff like this coming.
    I like your style so much, I am your honest reader.

  • Well, it’s gald to read your post, but I wouldn’t understand your meaning well. Thanks all the same.

  • Nancy

    We  hated bringing our bottles and cans to the grocery store and dealing with the glacially slow and unreliable machine that took (most of) them back.  Solution:  Put them out with the trash in a separate bag.  Someone drives around the neighborhood  and takes them away, and he/she is welcome to the $2.00!