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My Best Advice for Graduates: 12 Tips for A Happy Life

It’s graduation season.

I’m particularly aware of this, because my daughter Eliza is graduating from high school in two weeks. The days are long, but the years are short.

I’m trying to hold back the urge to follow her around the apartment giving her little bits of advice and wisdom. To relieve my mind, here’s what I would tell her, or anyone graduating from high school, college, or graduate school:

1. Know yourself

Something that’s clearer to me every day is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for building a happy, healthy, and productive life. You have to know yourself: your temperament, your interests, your values. For instance…

 

The better we know ourselves, the more readily we can construct a life that will work for us.

2. Beware of drift.

“Drift” is the decision we make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which we don’t take responsibility.

You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You get married because all your friends are getting married. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, or you don’t know what else to do, so you take the path of least resistance.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. To see if you’re drifting, take this quiz.

3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I cribbed this from Voltaire, and I remind myself of it often.

I can’t let the perfect, fantasy Gretchen crowd out the actual, real Gretchen.

I remind myself that the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start; having friends over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.

4. Write (and re-write) your own set of personal commandments.

One of the most challenging—and most helpful and fun—tasks that I did as part of my Happiness Project was to write my Twelve Personal Commandments. These aren’t specific resolutions, like “make my bed,” but the overarching principles by which I try to live my life.

I think this is a great exercise — to distill your core values and hopes for yourself into a succinct list, so that they’re very clearly in your mind. And then you can re-visit them periodically, so you can update them as you grow older and your life changes.

As an example, here are my Twelve Personal Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

5. Identify the problem.

This idea seems so obvious, but it has been the one of my most important insights. Now I’ve disciplined myself to ask, “What’s bugging me? Why is something not working? What’s the problem here?”

A friend hated her law job so much that she was ready to quit. But when she “identified the problem,” she realized she actually hated her commute. She started listening to audio-books, and her life improved dramatically.

Usually there isn’t such an easy, dramatic solution, but nevertheless, it astonishes me how often it works.

I could never get myself to hang up my coat, and when I “identified the problem,” I realized that I didn’t like putting things on hangers. I added six hooks to our closet door — and problem solved.

6. Take care of your body: exercise regularly, get enough sleep. 

I’ve done hundreds of happiness and habit interviews from successful, creative people. Almost all of them mention the importance of a regular exercise routine — and also that they wish they had started this habit sooner. They also frequently mention the importance of getting enough sleep.

Our physical experience always colors our emotional and intellectual experience. If we’re feeling exhausted or sluggish, it’s hard to be happy and productive. Get enough sleep, and get some exercise, and you’ll find it much easier to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

7. Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation. 

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it. And here’s why: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

People often tell me, “Yes, I’m very motivated to achieve this aim,” but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean when they say they’re “motivated?” No idea.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then take concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in my book Better Than Before, I argue that the great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

We really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

8. Give time and energy to keeping relationships strong.

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: the most essential key to happiness is strong relationships with other people.

We need enduring, intimate bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide; we need to be able to get and give support.

Anything that tends to deepen or broaden relationships is likely to boost happiness. Things like:

  • attending reunions
  • going to weddings
  • remembering birthdays
  • keeping up a group chat with your friends who are spread across the world
  • starting a book club
  • making friends with the friends of your friends (this is called “triadic closure”)
  • having a standing yearly date to get together — for a few years out of college, my friends all got together for an Ides of March weekend. Somehow, we stopped, and I’ve always regretted that. Along those lines…
  • if someone’s important to you, make concrete plans to see them; remember, something that can happen at any time often happens at no time.

9. Ask yourself, “Whom do I envy?”

Envy is a very unpleasant emotion, and we often don’t even want to admit to ourselves that we’re feeling envious.

But negative emotions play a very important role in a happy life, because they warn us that something needs to change. When we envy someone, it’s a sign that that person has something that we wish we had for ourselves. And that’s useful to know.

When I was considering switching from law to writing, I noticed that when I read in my college magazine about people who had great law careers, I felt a mild interest; when I read about people who had great writing careers, I felt sick with envy. That was an important clue.

10. Remember, everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s inevitable. And if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough.

11. Know your “tell.”

In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

And it’s common for people to have a  “tell” in everyday life, too.

For instance, my “tell” is that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. Under all circumstances, I love children’s literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know ourselves – but it’s not.

Recognizing and watching for your “tell” can help you manage yourself better.

12. Collect your own Secrets of Adulthood.

For years, I’ve been collecting my “Secrets of Adulthood,” which are the scraps of wisdom I’ve managed to grasp as I’ve become an adult. It’s fun — and helpful — to keep track of these.

For instance…

  • Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  • Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  • Over-the-counter medication is surprisingly effective.
  • Self-regard isn’t selfish.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • Things often get harder before they get easier.
  • It’s easier to keep up than catch up.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • We can’t make others change, but when we change, a relationship changes.
  • Don’t let yourself fall into “empty”: eat when you’re hungry, put gas in the car, keep some cash on hand.

What advice would you give to a graduate? Or what useful advice did you receive, when you were graduating?

Want to View the World with Fresh Eyes? 13 Tips to See More Clearly.

I’ve recently developed an obsession with color — what a gorgeous, fascinating topic! It makes me so happy to learn about color.

One reason I love studying color is that it helps me notice the world. I tend to walk around very absent-mindedly; I hardly see anything around me. For me to be present in the moment, and to connect with the world, I need a hook.

Looking at colors is one great hook, and there are many others, too:

  1. Notice colors — I push myself to notice the color of the sky; the contrast between the orange cone and the gray sidewalk.
  2. Look in a mirror — things look different in a mirror.
  3. Look at a picture of an object. Jamaica Kincaid wrote “Why is a picture of something real eventually more exciting than the thing itself?” A question that haunts me. Related…
  4. Look at an object alongside a picture of it. I heard about this strategy as a way of appreciating art more. Buy a postcard of an artwork, then study the artwork while you hold up the postcard. I’m dying to try this.
  5. Pretend to be a journalist — journalists notice things in a different way. Similarly…
  6. Pretend to be a tourist. Look at the shop windows! How people line up for the bus! What are people wearing?
  7. Draw — this one doesn’t appeal to me, but many people swear by it.
  8. Go someplace new — I’ve lived in my New York City neighborhood for more than a decade, and still I sometimes stumble onto a street I swear I’ve never walked before.
  9. Return to a familiar place after a long time away — go back to your old school; stop into the grocery store where you shopped when you lived in your old house. Fascinating.
  10. Imagine that you have guests coming to stay for the weekend — a great way to see your home in a new way. Along the same lines…
  11. Imagine that you will sell your house — you see it through the eyes of a judgmental stranger
  12. Notice contrasts, when two worlds are juxtaposed –school-children on a sidewalk in front of a business;  a horse-and-buggy clopping down the highway
  13. Look with a child — it’s such a sentimental cliche to say it, but children really do see the world with fresh eyes.

What hooks do you use to help yourself see the world more vividly?

7 Types of Loneliness (and Why It Matters)

One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a common and important obstacle to consider.

To be happy, we need intimate bonds; we need to be able to confide, we need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to get and give support. In fact, strong relationships are key — perhaps the key — to a happy life.

Of course, being alone and being lonely aren’t the same. Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

It seems to me that there are several types of loneliness. Of course, not everyone experiences loneliness in the situations described — for instance, not everyone wants a romantic partner. But for some people, the lack of certain kinds of relationships brings loneliness.

Once we’ve pinpointed the particular kind of loneliness we’re experiencing, it may be easier to spot ways to address it.

Here are some types I’ve identified — what have I overlooked?

7 Types of Loneliness

1. New-situation loneliness

You’ve moved to a new city where you don’t know anyone, or you’ve started a new job, or you’ve started at a school full of unfamiliar faces. You’re lonely.

2. I’m-different loneliness

You’re in a place that’s not unfamiliar, but you feel different from other people in an important way that makes you feel isolated. Maybe your faith is really important to you, and the people around you don’t share that — or vice versa. Maybe everyone loves doing outdoor activities, but you don’t — or vice versa. It feels hard to connect with others about the things you find important. Or maybe you’re just hit with the loneliness that hits all of us sometimes — the loneliness that’s part of the human condition.

3. No-sweetheart loneliness

Even if you have lots of family and friends, you feel lonely because you don’t have the intimate attachment of a romantic partner. Or maybe you have a partner, but you don’t feel a deep connection to that person.

4. No-animal loneliness

Many people have a deep need to connect with animals. If this describes you, you’re sustained by these relationships in a way that human relationships don’t replace. While I love my dog Barnaby, I don’t feel this myself — but many people feel like something important is missing if they don’t have a dog or cat (or less conveniently, a horse) in their lives.

5. No-time-for-me loneliness

Sometimes you’re surrounded by people who seem friendly enough, but they don’t want to make the jump from friendly to friends. Maybe they’re too busy with their own lives, or they have lots of friends already, so while you’d like a deeper connection, they don’t seem interested. Or maybe your existing friends have entered a new phase that means they no longer have time for the things you all used to do — everyone has started working very long hours, or has started  family, so that your social scene has changed.

6. Untrustworthy-friends loneliness

Sometimes, you get in a situation where you begin to doubt whether your friends are truly well-intentioned, kind, and helpful. You’re “friends” with people but don’t quite trust them. An important element of friendship is the ability to confide and trust, so if that’s missing, you may feel lonely, even if you have fun with your friends.

7. Quiet-presence loneliness

Sometimes, you may feel lonely because you miss having someone else’s quiet presence. You may have an active social circle at work, or have plenty of friends and family, but you miss having someone to hang out with at home — whether that would mean living with a roommate, a family member, or a sweetheart. Just someone who’s fixing a cup of coffee in the next room, or reading on the sofa.

If you read this list, and you’re thinking, “Yes, I do feel lonely — so what the heck do I do about it?” you might find this post useful: Lonely? 5 Habits to Consider to Combat Loneliness. Or this: Feeling Lonely? Consider Trying These 7 Strategies. (These posts are different from each other, even though the titles sound similar.)

It’s important to realize why we feel lonely, because only then can we see how we might address it. If you’re no-time-for-me lonely, for instance, maybe a solution would be to work with people on a project, where you’d be doing an endeavor together, on something you’ve all made time for. My mother once noted — and I think it’s very true — it’s easier to make friends when you’re working on a project together.

Loneliness is a major factor in unhappiness, so it’s an important area to tackle, if you’re working on making yourself happier.

Want to learn more? When I researched loneliness, I was very surprised by what I found, which I wrote about here: Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness.

If you want to read more deeply on the subject of loneliness, I highly recommend two books: John Cacioppo and William Patrick, Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, and Emily White, Lonely, a memoir about the author’s own experiences and research into loneliness. Also, in my books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I write a lot about how to build and strengthen relationships.

One of the keys — maybe the key — to happiness is strong connections to other people. The lack of these bonds, even temporarily, is a major happiness stumbling block.

Have you found any good ways to understand and deal with loneliness?

Do You Hate to Rush? 11 Tips for Getting Ready Faster in the Morning.

One small but annoying daily challenge? Getting ready each morning.

I very much dislike rushing or feeling pressed for time, and fervently agree with Thoreau, who wrote in Walden, “I love a broad margin to my life.”

By figuring out easy, quick ways to make it faster to head out the door, we can give ourselves a bigger margin of time.

Need some ideas? Here are eleven simple morning-related habits that may make your life easier.

11 Simple Morning Habits to Make Your Life Easier

  1. Put your alarm clock across the room, so you have to get out of bed to turn it off. No more snooze button!
  2. The night before, set an alarm to tell you that it’s time to go to bed. It’s a lot easier to get going in the morning if you’ve had enough sleep the night before. Also…
  3. Set an alarm to remind you when you’ve spent enough time in the shower.
  4. Buy several pairs of the same socks, so you never have to hunt for a mate.
  5. Decide your outfit while you brush your teeth to go to bed the night before, so you don’t have to take the time for inner debate in the morning. Or even better…
  6. Give yourself a work uniform, so you have very few choices to make when dressing. (I loved this piece by an art director,  “Why I Wear the Exact Same Thing to Work Every Day.”)
  7. Always put your keys, wallet, sunglasses, and cell phone away in the same place, so you don’t have to spend any time hunting for an important possession.  (Can’t find something? Here are 8 tips for finding misplaced objects. Bizarrely, I’ve found, these tips really do work.)
  8. The night before, gather everything you need for the next day–papers in your briefcase, exercise clothes in the gym bag, the book you’re returning to a friend at work.
  9. Always keep gas in the car.
  10. Drink the office coffee instead of stopping at a coffee place on your way to work.
  11. Convince everyone in your household to follow these same tips.

How about you? What tips and tricks do you use, to help yourself get ready faster each morning?

For Valentine’s Day: 7 Mistakes That I Keep Making in Romance and 5 Things I Do Right.

In writing The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, I thought a lot about what I can do to make my romantic life better.

In general, I’m a fan of using milestone days to prompt me to think about changes I might undertake to make myself happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative.

Certain days, such as January 1 or my birthday,  remind me to reflect on my life and my hopes for the future.  Recently, Inauguration Day prompted me to think about the highest ideals of the United States, and how I can live up to them, in my own life.

And Valentine’s Day is a great reminder to think about my romance!  My husband Jamie is the love of my life, but sometimes I don’t treat him with courtesy or interest. I have to remind myself — don’t be nicer to a stranger on the street than I am to my own husband. (In fact, research shows that married people often show more consideration to others than they do to each other.)

For instance, I make these relationship mistakes over and over, even though I know I shouldn’t. In the scheme of things, they’re fairly minor (which I’m quick to point out), but they are annoying. And in marriage, it’s good not to be annoying, whenever you can avoid it; marriage is a long, long road.

7 Mistakes That I Keep Making in Romance

  1. Even though I know it’s rude, I will often read my emails while I talk to my husband on the phone.
  2. I leave my clothes in a heap in a corner of our bedroom, even though I know it gets on his nerves.
  3. I give him a smart-alecky answer when he absent-mindedly asks me the same question more than once, even when it’s just some little thing I could easily answer.
  4. I leave empty diet soda cans scattered around the apartment.
  5. Months ago, for his birthday, he asked if we could get the carpets cleaned as his present, and I told him I’d organize that as my gift, and I haven’t done it.
  6. I haven’t made a doctor’s appointment for myself, even though he really wants me to get a check-up.
  7. I “snap” at him and speak sharply when I get anxious about something — when I fear that we’re running late, when I’m worried about whether we’re following the right parenting strategy, when I’m concerned about some work issue.

But it’s true that with time and effort, I’ve learned to do a better job in some ways.

As I write about in Better Than Before, my book about habit change, what we do most days matters more than what we do once in a while. I’ve managed to cultivate these good habits:

5 Things I Do Right

  1. I give him a warm, attentive “hello” and “good-bye” every time he comes home or leaves the apartment.
  2. I spend a few minutes clearing clutter in the early morning, right before I walk our dog Barnaby, so the apartment looks at least superficially tidy when he emerges in the morning.
  3. I text him funny or interesting updates during the day — pictures of something I see on the street, or Barnaby asleep in my office, or “Five years ago today” “One year ago” photos of our family (I do this so he doesn’t assume that every text or call from me involves an annoying logistical question).
  4. I’ve learned that as a Questioner (as opposed to an Upholder, Obliger, or Rebel), he doesn’t like being questioned, so I refrain from asking many questions that I’d like to have answered: “Where are we going for dinner?” “What time do we need to leave?”
  5. I make the bed on the days when he doesn’t make the bed. I love having the bed made, and so does he.

Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree: a key to happiness is strong relationships, and if we’re in a romantic relationship, it has a big influence on our happiness.

How about you — what romance mistakes do you repeat, and what good habits have you cultivated?