On why undertaking a major project is a good source of happiness.

I’ve written before about the massive project I’ve undertaken with a friend — a book of photographs of our children, modeled after the brilliant J. M. Barrie’s one-of-a-kind book, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

It turns out that a multi-step, multi-hassle, multi-errand, time-sucking project like this one brings SO MUCH HAPPINESS!

It’s fun to do something fun with a friend — and even better, our children are involved, too. It’s always fun to take cool photos of your children, especially when you can dress them in costumes. We have a reason to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily bother to do; this morning, we met in the park at 9:30 a.m. It was gorgeous in the park, but in the normal course of life, we would never have been there that early today.

This morning, the Boy Castaways project (as we call it now, because we haven’t thought of a title for our book yet) was also an opportunity for me to enjoy the novelty and challenge that are so important to happiness.

Today was a big day, because we were taking the much-anticipated boat shots. We rented two rowboats in Central Park, rowed out to the middle, and took pictures of the children. One of the photos will take its title from my favorite line from Barrie’s Boy Castaways: We set out to be wrecked.

The novelty and challenge, for me, arose from the fact that I had to row one of the boats. This is not the kind of thing I would ordinarily be inclined to do at all. I’m very uncoordinated and unadventurous. My friend, on the other hand, was raring to go. She’s the type to eat pie for breakfast and encourage her kids to catch turtles — so rowing a boat was no big deal for her.

I’m sure she knew I was dreading the challenge (fact is, novelty and challenge are usually accompanied by fear or frustration), and also knew that I’d be fine if I had to do the rowing, and indeed, once we got out on the water, I LOVED it. “Why haven’t we done this before?” I kept thinking. “We could eat a picnic on the water! We could row all around the lake! We have a great view of Bethesday fountain!”

Now, for many people, rowing a boat isn’t novel or challenging — but it was for me. I got a burst of happiness from the satisfaction of having tackled my uneasiness and having mastered something new. The fact that it’s extremely easy to row a boat on a perfectly calm little lake didn’t at all detract from my feelings of triumph.

And the photos! They were unbelievable. A happy morning.

I discovered the Wisdom Journal — a blog about “life, money, business, and the pursuit of balance.” Subjects useful to the study of happiness!

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Happiness quotation from Jane Austen.

From the novel Emma:

“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness and quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.” –Jane Austen

I visited the Think Simple Now blog for the first time — glad to discover it.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Your Happiness Project: Don’t follow the stock market too closely.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

This has been a crazy week in the financial world. What’s happening in the economy has consequences for everyone – for some people, very directly and immediately, for others, over the long term.

But no matter what it means to you, it’s unnerving to see those stock market numbers crash down through new barriers, even if they climb back up.

On Monday, I kept checking the Dow number throughout the day. I realized that this activity wasn’t useful, and it certainly wasn’t happiness-inducing, but I couldn’t resist. For the rest of the week, though, I managed to restrain myself, and I didn’t check the numbers until the end of the day.

I drew a lesson from the contrast: don’t keep checking the numbers. I’d been stoking my anxiety for no good reason. After all, I’m not going to respond to the information in any immediate way, and if my goal is to be a well-informed citizen, I can do that just as well by checking at the day’s end to see what happened. Similarly, I’m avoiding reading or listening to the wild doomsday predictors. No one knows what will happen. There’s value to reading a thoughtful analysis of the economic situation, but I don’t need to spend my time listening to not-particularly-well-informed people speculate on various catastrophe scenarios.

The happiness challenge posed by the economic situation is severe, so it’s a good idea not to add to the problem by constant, purposeless monitoring.

I always find interesting material when I poke around Pick the Brain.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Speaking of saying the right thing, here are three situations that have me stumped.

Yesterday, I posted eight tips for saying the right thing. As I was thinking about it later, I realized that there are three situations that have me stumped. I just don’t know the right thing to say. If anyone has any suggestions, I’d love to hear them.

1. Crazy behavior. When bad things happen, or in difficult situations, people sometimes act in erratic, unproductive ways. A divorced friend swears by Abigail Trafford’s Crazy Time; Surviving Divorce and Building a New Life as the best book about doing through a divorce; it argues that it’s very common to go through a “crazy time” after separation. During this “crazy time,” “in addition to widespread anger and depression, researchers found a startling incidence of profoundly disturbed behavior.” I’ve seen this happen myself.

Is there a way for a friend gently to suggest when someone is acting crazy? I don’t mean the situation where a person has a distorted picture or a biased view (who doesn’t?); I mean when people are doing things that are actually destructive: a doctor who changes her husband’s chemo prescription without consulting the doctor in charge; a husband who dumps all his wife’s possessions out the window of their tenth-floor apartment. Is there a way for a friend to intervene, without alienating a person who needs a lot of support?

2. The close acquaintance, or the distant friend. I find it harder to find the right words to say to someone who is a close acquaintance, or a friend with whom I’ve fallen out of touch, than to a close friend. How do you show sympathy and support for someone you don’t really know very well? On the one hand, there’s a natural impulse to shy away from someone in pain, which we must fight; on the other hand, the fact is, it’s hard to know what to say or how to act when you’re not already a close part of someone’s life.

3. Usual interests. When someone has lost a job, received a terrible diagnosis, or otherwise is going through some very difficult period, I’m never sure how much to raise topics that would usually be interesting to the person, but seem trivial in light of what’s going on. I remember in one memoir of catastrophe, someone dying of cancer remarked how much she loved it when people would bring her bits of office gossip; it made her feel part of normal life. On the other hand, I worry that that kind of talk seems self-centered and inconsiderate when someone is facing a great personal challenge.

I’m eager to hear people’s suggestions. What have you found is the most helpful approach? If you’ve been on the receiving end, what kind of conversation comforted you most?

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Relationships: 8 tips for finding the right thing to say in a difficult situation.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for finding the right thing to say in a difficult situation.

I often feel like I don’t know the right thing to say. I’ll be desperate to find the right words, but in a tough situation, I just don’t know what to say to make a person feel better. I often find myself switching the topic of the conversation — so quickly that I’ve changed it before I realize what I’ve done.

I’ve been trying to come up with some tips to help me figure out what to say. This is what I’ve figured out so far:

1. Try to identify the real problem. It’s quite common for people (like me) to be upset about something, but then to pretend that they’re really upset about something else. Often, when a person’s reaction seems disproporationate to the purported cause, you can figure out what the real problem is, if you try. Once, the Big Girl came crying to me and said, “Everyone pays more attention to the Little Girl than to me!” I had a rare moment of wisdom enough to bite back my first responses: “You know that’s not true,” or “Didn’t I just play ten game of Blink with you?” Instead, I said, “No matter what, you know that you are our most precious, darling girl, and no one would ever forget about you, or think that someone else is more important than you.” That was what she needed to hear, and she skipped off.

You can’t make someone feel better if you’re not talking about the right topic, so taking the time to identify the real problem is a key step.

2. Don’t assume that you know what’s going to happen next. A friend told me that it really upset him, during his separation, when people spoke about his relationship as if divorce were inevitable. Similarly, even positive predictions like “It’s all going to work out” or “You’ll be as good as new” or “Of course you’re going to get that job/get engaged/get into that program” often aren’t very reassuring.

3. Find the right level of questions to ask. People really differ on what kind of conversations they like to have. Some people like to answer probing questions and to get into the details. Other people are just the opposite. So start with general and vague questions, like “How’s it going?” or “How are you doing?” and feel your way.

4. Don’t react with judgment. When something bad happens to someone, the people around him or her often try to identify a “mistake” so that they can reassure themselves that they’re safe, because they would never have made that mistake. But saying things like, “Well, I always said you should stop smoking,” “I never trusted her,” “You should have diversified your investments,” or “You know, you never set any good limits” is NOT helpful.

5. Resist the temptation to show empathy by drawing a comparison to your own painful experience. This sounds like a good idea, but from what I can tell, it doesn’t work very well. A friend whose baby died told me how enraged he was by people who compared his loss to their loss of beloved pets (yes, this really happened, more than once). And a friend whose child has a life-threatening illness was infuriated when people said they understood how upset she was, because they’d been through a divorce. Trying to show empathy by comparing your pain to another person’s is, apparently, not very comforting.

6. Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. This tip comes from all-time favorite parenting book, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk, and it’s just as applicable to adults as to children. Often, people just want someone to acknowledge how they feel. It can be tempting to say things like, “You’re not really mad,” or “There’s no reason to be so upset,” or “You were never happy in that job in the first place.” But denying people’s feelings adds to their frustration; acknowledging bad feelings helps the feelings to dissipate. This strategy is harder than it sounds to follow, but it really works.

7. Follow their lead. When I’ve talked to people who are very upset about something, I’ve noticed that they often keep circling back to the same point. It seems to help them to keep talking about that same one issue. It’s not always obvious why some aspect of a problem would be the most worrisome, and I used to try to move the conversation along, but now I think that it’s most helpful to follow a person’s lead and to keep talking about whatever is weighing most heavily.

8. Think about what a person needs to hear. Sometimes it’s not obvious that something needs to be said; you must be alert to people’s unspoken thoughts. A friend of mine was very close to her in-laws. She told me that when her brother-in-law got engaged, she felt jealous of his fiancée and was worried about feeling displaced in a relationship that was important to her. There wasn’t any reason for her to worry, but that was how she felt. One night at dinner, the entire family spent the whole time talking about the wedding, and afterward, her mother-in-law said to her privately, in a very loving voice, “Jill, you know you’ll always have a special place in our heart.” Jill told me that she almost started crying, it meant so much to her.

I thought this was just about the perfect thing to say. Her mother-in-law guessed what Jill might be feeling, and wanted to reassure her. She didn’t deny what my friend was feeling. She wasn’t dismissive of the new daughter-in-law. She didn’t make a comparison. But she said exactly what my friend needed to hear.

I wish I had many more tips. When you’ve been in a tough situation, what kinds of conversations have made you feel better (or worse)? Or what rules do you follow to find the right words to say?

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.