Can the Simple Act of Making a List Boost Your Happiness?

Every Wednesday is List Day, or Tip Day, or Quiz Day.

This Wednesday: Can the simple act of making a list boost your happiness?

When I was in college, I took a class on the culture of Heian Japan,  and the one and only thing I remember about that subject is The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. This strange, brilliant book has haunted me for years.

Sei Shonagon was a court lady in tenth-century Japan, and in her “pillow book,” she wrote down her impressions about things she liked, disliked, observed, and did.

I love lists of all kind, and certainly Sei Shonagon did, as well. Her lists are beautifully evocative. One of my favorites is called Things That Make One’s Heart Beat Faster:

Sparrows feeding their young

To pass a place where babies are playing.

To sleep in a room where some fine incense has been burnt.

To notice that one’s elegant Chinese mirror has become a little cloudy.

To see a gentleman stop his carriage before one’s gate and instruct his attendants to announce his arrival.

To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.

It is night and one is expecting a visitor. Suddenly one is startled by the sound of rain-drops, which the wind blows against the shutters.

Other marvelous lists include Things That Arouse a Fond Memory of the Past, Things That Cannot Be Compared, Rare Things, Pleasing Things, Things That Give a Clean Feeling, Things That One Is in a Hurry to See or to Hear, People Who Look Pleased with Themselves, and, another of my very favorites, from the title alone, People Who Have Changed As Much As If They Had Been Reborn.

Making lists of this sort is a terrific exercise to stimulate the imagination, heighten powers of observation, and stoke appreciation of the everyday details of life. Just reading these lists makes me happier.

How about you? Have you ever made a list of observations, in this way?

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  • Hope

    Love , love, love this idea. At the back of my journal I have kept lists…most often favorite things. Now at almost 60 I realize they do change with the seasons of my life. When I reread my journals these it is a treat to relive the often small delights that enriched my life. I find it also helped me notice things in order to record them. It helped me to live life more aware.Have to think about doing this again!!
    1. “my” bench at the park
    2. the new sheets that have the perfect texture even after sleeping on them 2nd night
    3. the candle that has a wood wick
    I think I’m restarted…

  • Omg. I have a wonderful feeling in my belly just reading this! I must do this.

  • I do this. But I don’t require of myself to add to it each day. I let it be imperfect and repetitive and all. It does help train my brain to look for the good and small things

  • Sadye

    What a neat meditation device/creativity exercise! I should check out the book. And I 100 percent agree with “To wash one’s hair, make one’s toilet, and put on scented robes; even if not a soul sees one, these preparations still produce an inner pleasure.”

  • Sparrows feeding their young !!!!

    This made me cry 🙂

  • elina6422

    so simple, and sweet..creative and sentimental.Thank you.

  • MariCor

    Making a List is a sort of guide to remind of things needed to accomplish in a day. Indeed, it makes one Happy. In my opinion, what makes me even happier is when I get to perform and accomplish the list I made for the day.

  • Jami

    After reading both your books I made a list of things that make ME happy. I feel happier every time I read it!

    • gretchenrubin


  • Tessa

    Earlier this evening I was looking at a beautiful journal I was given as a farewell gift when I left my last job. It remains empty and I was wondering what I could use it for. I now have my answer. It is going to be my Journal of Lists. I think this is a marvellous idea. Let’s see. Where shall I start? My list of things I am grateful for, the things that make me happy, the things that I love, the people that I love (and why I love them), things that make me smile………. Thanks so much for this post, Gretchen.

  • lisa

    I have always been a list maker. I like making lists of things I need to do, things I want to do, places I want to go etc. And to cross something off the list gives me immense satisfaction. My husband and daughter have always kidded me about my “lists”, but now that my daughter is a mother of her own, I see she is making lists too.

  • happy2bhome

    I love this idea. In this crazy, busy world to carve out a few moments with a comfy chair, a wonderful cup of fragrant hot coffee and a pen, to revisit how it is the little things that go unnoticed by so many that give us a sense of “home” and well-being.

  • Jeanne

    I love lists too, and could not survive a trip to the grocery store or packing for a trip without one. I have lists for both of these events on my computer and print them out and use them regularly. But did you know that lists can make great gifts? One year I made a list of 50 Things I Like (things like lemon scented anything, No. 2 wood case pencils and my comfy bed), decorated it with cute clipart and sent it to my family with a challenge to make their own. One year I made a list of childhood memories, cut them up into little slips, folded them, and put them in a big plastic jar, which I decorated. Things like bacon and eggs after church on Sundays, or fighting over who would put the last bell on the Christmas tree (there were two of us and five bells). They LOVED this. Also created a card for Mother’s Day made up of a list of sayings mom used a lot (e.g., give it some elbow grease or let’s get some light on the subject). Everyone got such a kick out of it. Who would enjoy a fun list from you?

  • rlepkan

    I love lists. I write mostly to do lists but I think I have now been inspired to write other types of lists as well. I love to write but find I need at least an hour to get my thoughts out. Moving to writing in a list based nature will decrease the amount of time I spend, since the list can be as long or as short as I want, and will improve my happiness since I love to write so much.

  • aryannatimothy

    Of course! Doing good thing to others somehow uplifts your soul and it changes you to being a better person because doing good feels so good 🙂

  • Cristina Spencer

    At a 40th Birthday party the guest of honor shared her “Top 40.” Loved it so much I blogged my own, and others have followed suit. So yes, I think making lists can add to happiness!

  • I read about The Pillow Book in The Tale of Murasaki by Liza Dalby. (Based on Murasaki Shikibu, the author of The Tale of Genji). In the book Murasaki and her cousin make lists based on the seasons. I was inspired by it and started a notebook where I was going to write about the seasons but I never got round to making a list, lol. I think Sei Shongan was a relative of Murasaki’s. I’ve never read The Pillow Book or The Tale of Genji, would be interesting to read both.

    I did start a “Loveliest Things” list recently though, which was inspired by the book Mistress Pat by L.M. Montgomery. I like to make lists of things to do and I’m now writing a gratitude list every day.

  • Kate

    On my new (first) smartphone I have this listmaking app I really like. Until I read this piece, I was using it as one would expect: Today’s To-Dos, Dinners, Groceries, etc.

    After reading this, I went on and created “What I Love,” which so far includes cream cheese & cucumber sandwiches, squirrels, the serial comma, and of course, making lists. Thanks to you and to Sei Shonagon for a lovely idea that made my day!

  • I laughed when I read your latest post Gretchen because I am a BIG list-maker. My whole website – – revolves around ‘the list’. 🙂

    I love making lists of all kinds, but my day-to-day list is at which is an amazing website that’s changed my life. It has separate sections for other Lists so I may have to create some that are just about observations than about all the things I need to do!

  • Upbeat Mom

    On my 53rd birthday, I wrote down a list of 53 things for which I was grateful. I couldn’t believe how happy it made me.

  • I’ve adored The Pillow Book for years. (I was also introduced to it in a Japanese Studies class in university.) It is so delightful, and also a nice reminder that, though time and geography might separate us, people are very much alike.

  • msjenniferwalker

    This is such a great idea! I am always making ‘to-do’ lists, which are not normally fun…except the part where you cross off the final item before you can think of another one to add. For a time, I did make lists of things to be grateful for at night. They were just short little lists, but they always made me smile. I believe you mention something about those kinds of lists in your book, if I recall. It’s been too long, I obviously need to reread your book. Hee hee

    I think I will definitely write down a list of future lists to write! What a tongue twister! 🙂

  • Terese

    No poetry relative to the keen insights of Sei Shonagon, but this week I organized all random notes on my iPad and iPhone into idea lists; music, books, artists, movies, gifts, restaurants. It did indeed, make me Soooo happy

  • Carla

    I absolutely LOVE making lists. I go through all our household paperwork and make a list at the beginning of each week of the tasks I should and need to complete. However, it does get overwhelming if there is a few days were tasks are left unattended. I have thought about making lists for music, travel, things that make me ME. I am very interested in the book! Why do lists make us happy? I feel it gets my thoughts down on paper and out of my head. I always feel better when I do get them down. Is it because it is tangible?

  • jennie

    I have only made “to Do” lists which lately causes me stress and anxiety. May be because it never ends or because I expect to much of myself?? I will try the idea of making lists that are more positive as suggested by your readers.

  • Patty Koguek

    Love this list starter to focus, not only what “to do”, but how to approach the day with positivity and abundance. Will share with my readers and hopefully get some of them to buy Happier at Home! Thanks