Happiness Project: Accept the change.

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.

One common source of unhappiness for people is the failure to accept that some social norm has changed.

For example, a friend of mine dislikes seeing people talking on their cell phones. Even when they’re speaking quietly on the street, just seeing them on the phone bugs him; he doesn’t think people should speak on the phone in public. Another friend is appalled every time she gets an invitation by email.

This problem hits me with the issue of security measures. Going through airport security exasperates me tremendously – also, having my bag examined before I enter a public building, like the New York Public Library.

The last time I was home in Kansas City, my mother and I were doing errands, and she wanted to stop by my father’s office and pick something up from him. She pulled up by the curb, so I could just run up to the fifteenth floor and get it, but as soon as I jumped out, I stuck my head back in the car.

“What’s the problem?” she asked.

“I don’t have my wallet.”

“You don’t need your wallet!”

“But I don’t have any I.D. with me.”

My mother couldn’t believe that in New York, you have to show identification to enter most large office buildings. It’s so very annoying.

I’m not arguing that people should talk on their cell phones on the street, or not; or that we should stop sending proper paper invitations through the U.S. mail, or not; or that we should abandon security measure altogether, or not.

The fact is, whatever a person might think,the social norms have changed, and people WILL talk on their cell phones, and they will send email invitations, and they will expect to check your bag, take your photo, and write down your name. And life is too short to keep railing about it.

I decided that unless I wanted to become an active, purposeful agent of change, I just had to accept the situation gracefully. Constant grousing just fans the flames of irritation, and to complain about matters that most people find acceptable is iself an annoying trait. As Samuel Johnson observed, “To hear complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy.”

Is there any recent change in social norms that bugs you? Have you found a way not to let it get under your skin?

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Happiness projects: they really do work! Here’s an example.

Recently I got an email from a reader that made me very HAPPY. I asked if I could post it, because I thought it was such a good example of the fact that doing a Happiness Project can make you happier.

It can be easy to say to yourself, “Why bother?” “Even if I did X, Y, or Z, would it really make a difference?” “I don’t have the time or the freedom to make the kind of big changes that I need to make,” or “Just doing a little bit each day isn’t enough to add up to anything.”

But as this reader’s email shows, if you make up your mind to identify your resolutions, and stick with them, you can see real results. He makes it look so easy! And it’s not hard – you just have to do it.

I would point out that his resolutions were very wisely chosen, and were directly related to outstanding sources of building happiness: creating an atmosphere of growth, building relationships, and “do good, feel good.” Plus he managed to get more exercise, too. Here’s the email:

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Gretchen,
In the vein of being mindful and showing gratitude to those you appreciate, I’ve been meaning to share with you the positive effect your blog has had on my life for a while now. I began reading your daily entries at the beginning of November, last year. I had spent a bit of time thinking about my own happiness prior to coming across your project and found many helpful bits in the things you were writing. I am most interested in the science about happiness and the psychology of assembling a more appropriate approach to life that will lead to positive feelings. Two books that lead me in this direction were The Progress Paradox and Stumbling on Happiness.

Anyway, you had posted a few things on resolutions that inspired me to come up with my own. Knowing that I needed to be specific about things that could be accomplished and that being more social would lead to additional happiness, I wrote out the following three general goals against which I could judge success at the end:

1.) Take A Class
2.) Volunteer
3.) Join A Group

I promptly signed up for two courses at the UC Berkeley Extension to continue learning for my own edification. I also volunteered with the Boy Scout troop that I had been affiliated with while I was in my teens. These two resolutions took up much of my free time for the first half of the year. Recently, I began working toward the third goal and joined a rowing club.

I can tell you, without a doubt, that these three resolutions have led to all of my best experiences this year. I’ve made some important and valuable new friends in my economics class, have learned how to motivate and lead through my experiences with the Boy Scouts, and am continuing to expand my social circle by joining the rowing club (while getting more exercise). Honestly, when people ask me what I’m “up to,” I tell them about the things I’m doing because of those resolutions and really sound interesting. More importantly, I’m feeling fulfilled and definitely happier.

I’m now taking a third course at Berkeley and considering joining a wine club. I also walk five times a week, and keep myself motivated to maintain the habit using many of the suggestions you’ve shared (the one that sticks with me the most is the one from your dad about just having to put the shoes on and get to the mailbox).

I’ve learned so much through your research and experience and just want you to know that your work is worth the effort. The impact on my life has been immediate, and I’m certain it will last for many years, if not the rest of my life. Sometimes, people say that if the things they do can influence one person, then it was all worth it. Well, you have!

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

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I got tears in my eyes when I read this email.

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Nineteen tips for cheering yourself up — from two hundred years ago.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 19 tips for cheering yourself up—from two hundred years ago.

While reading a biography of English writer Sydney Smith, Hesketh Pearson’s The Smith of Smiths, I stumbled across this letter. In 1820, Smith wrote a letter to an unhappy friend, Lady Morpeth, in which he offered her tips for cheering up.

I have my own variety of tips lists for cheering up, and I was interested to hear what someone from two centuries ago would recommend. Most of Smith’s suggestions are as sound now as they were almost 200 years ago – though a few are amusingly odd, and it might be tougher today to work “good blazing fires” into everyday life.

“1st. Live as well as you dare.
2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75 or 80 degrees.
3rd. Amusing books.
4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.
5th. Be as busy as you can.
6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.
7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.
8th. Make no secret of low spirits to you friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.
9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.
10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.
11th. Don’t expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.
12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy, sentimental people, and everything likely to excite feeling or emotion, not ending in active benevolence.
13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.
14th Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.
15th. Make the room where you commonly sit gay and pleasant.
16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.
17th. Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.
18th. Keep good blazing fires.
19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.
20th. Believe me, dear Lady Georgiana.”

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A thoughtful reader sent me the link to PocketMod, which shows you how to make your own mini-personal organizer. I can’t wait to try it out myself.

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Happiness interview with Tyler Cowen.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness.

During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him, than by any other kind of argument.

Tyler Cowen is one of my blogland friends – I’ve never met him.

Some people argue that the internet/Facebook/email/texting/etc. have a bad impact on our social relationships, because they distract us from face-to-face contact, which is more satisfying. That may be true, but these tools also permit us to have relationships with people we would have otherwise have never known – and that’s very satisfying.

I got to know Tyler through his provocative economics blog, Marginal Revolution. How do economics and happiness overlap? In lots of interesting ways.

He also recently published a fascinating book, Discover Your Inner Economist: Use Incentives to Fall in Love, Survive Your Next Meeting, and Motivate Your Dentist. Although his book wasn’t about happiness, I found it quite relevant to the Happiness Project.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Tyler: Why don’t we start with food, sleep, and sex? There’s writing, blogging, and reading too, not to mention consuming artificially created stories. In fact most of life seems to fit under #1.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Tyler: I wasn’t so wise at 18 but I’m still not so wise today. I have the same basic temperament, which is the main thing.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Tyler: Not that I can think of. Being grudge-free is very important and I’ve done OK on that score.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Tyler: Kids change people, but most people don’t change so much otherwise. Acceptance is therefore important.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Tyler: Think of me as a liar if you wish, but (short of witnessing the decay or death of loved ones) I don’t really get depressed. See #2.

Gretchen: Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Tyler: Grudges and blaming other people are very harmful, in my view. Their actions really are determined by forces outside their control and it is time to accept that. Don’t blame them for what is wrong in your life.

Gretchen: Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
Tyler: Same, same, same. Same!

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Tyler: I don’t believe in working on being happy, I think it produces anxiety. I’m pretty happy but I also don’t see happiness as an all-important value. We pursue values other than happiness all the time, and for the better.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Tyler: Marriage is good for the happiness of men, but I had expected that. Travel is an interesting issue. It makes people deeper, and makes their internal mental stream much richer, but I’m not sure it ever makes them *happier* per se. It can be a lot of hard work and also some frustration. Still it is worth doing as much as you can.

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Setting resolutions: why an ambitious resolution might not necessarily be the right resolution.

Recently, in a post, I included a quotation from George Orwell’s essay, Reflections on Gandhi. The essay is absolutely fascinating, on a number of levels, and also quite controversial; I found myself thinking about a different section of it today, in another context. Note: I’m quoting it because I think it’s worth thinking about, not because I necessarily agree with every point Orwell is making here (or ever made in his whole career).

One of Orwell’s main arguments is that Gandhi’s saintliness makes him inhuman:

But one should, I think, realize that Gandhi’s teachings cannot be squared with the belief that Man is the measure of all things and that our job is to make life worth living on this earth, which is the only earth we have. They make sense only on the assumption that God exists and that the world of solid objects is an illusion to be escaped from. It is worth considering the disciplines which Gandhi imposed on himself and which…he considered indispensable if one wanted to serve either God or humanity. First of all, no meat-eating, and if possible no animal food in any form. And finally– this is the cardinal point–for the seeker after goodness there must be no close friendships and no exclusive loves whatever.

Close friendships, Gandhi says, are dangerous, because “friends react on one another” and through loyalty to a friend one can be led into wrong-doing. This is unquestionably true. Moreover, if one is to love God, or to love humanity as a whole, one cannot give one’s preference to any individual person. This again is true, and it marks the point at which the humanistic and the religious attitude cease to be reconcilable. To an ordinary human being, love means nothing if it does not mean loving some people more than others. The autobiography leaves it uncertain whether Gandhi behaved in an inconsiderate way to his wife and children,
but at any rate it makes clear that on three occasions he was willing to let his wife or a child die rather than administer the animal food prescribed by the doctor. There must, he says, be some limit to what we will do in order to remain alive, and the limit is well on this side of chicken broth. This attitude is perhaps a noble one, but, in the sense which–I think–most people would give to the word, it is inhuman. The essence of being human is that one does not seek perfection, that one is sometimes willing to commit sins for the sake of loyalty, that one does not push asceticism to the point where it makes friendly intercourse impossible, and that one is prepared in the end to be defeated and broken up by life, which is the inevitable price of fastening one’s love upon other human individuals. No doubt alcohol, tobacco, and so forth, are things that a saint must avoid, but sainthood is also a thing that human beings must avoid…it is too readily assumed that “non-attachment” is not only better than a full acceptance of earthly life, but that the ordinary man only rejects it because it is too difficult: in other words, that the average human being is a failed saint. It is doubtful whether this is true. Many people genuinely do not wish to be saints, and it is probable that some who achieve or aspire to sainthood have never felt much temptation to be human beings. It is not necessary here to argue whether the other-worldly or the humanistic ideal is “higher”. The point is that they are incompatible.

This issue arose in St. Therese’s life. When Therese entered the Carmelite convent at the age of sixteen, she was joining two of her biological sisters, with whom she was extremely close. But Therese allowed herself to show no special interest for these sisters or to seek out their company, although this hurt their feelings very much. Interestingly, though, when she was dying, the Mother Superior arranged things so she could see more of her sisters, and Therese did permit that of herself in that circumstance (though maybe she saw it as an aspect of obedience). Throughout her spiritual memoir, we see Therese discussing this challenge of preference.

In the August 2, 2004, issue of the New Yorker, in the profile “The Gift,” Ian Parker wrote about Zell Kravinsky, a real-estate developer with a compulsive desire to give things away, such as most of his $45 million fortune to charity, and one of his kidneys to a stranger, both against the wishes of his family. Is his action saintly or pathological? It’s hard to decide.

Kravinsky said, “The sacrosanct comitment to the family is the rationalization for all manner of greed and selfishness,” and following this precept, he makes it clear that he tried not to favor his own children above unknown children. When I read this, I had a hard time figuring out why I found that morally shocking. On what basis did I think it right to love and favor your own children more than other people’s children? Or why, in the case of Therese, would it seem shocking if she didn’t want to have her own beloved biological sisters with her as she died, in preference to the other nuns? Orwell explains why. There are two systems of values.

On a much more trivial scale, prompted by Orwell’s observation, I thought about goals that I’d rejected because I assumed they were too difficult, without questioning whether they were actually worthy goals for me, or whether I’d actually be happier if I adhered to them: being a vegetarian, giving up TV, never eating any refined flour or sugar.

Or more to the point, waking up early to work. I’ve always thought it would be a huge advantage if I could get up at 4:40 or 5:00 am to work, before my family wakes up.

Anthony Trollope, who managed to be a prolific novelist while also revolutionizing the British postal system, attributed his productivity to his habit of starting his day at 5:30 a.m. In his Autobiography, he notes, “An old groom, whose business it was to call me, and to whom I paid 5 pounds extra for the duty, allowed himself no mercy.” Which suggests that it’s not easy to get out of bed at 5:30 a.m. — especially if you don’t have an old groom on hand to shake you awake.

As it happens, for the last week, and as I write this right now, I spontaneously woke up around 5:00 am, and I got up to work. So I have to decide whether I want to stick to this plan, and MAKE myself get up at that time every day, or go back to 6:45 am.

Well, it turns out that waking up at 5:00 am, while good for my work life, has its drawbacks. It means that I have to go to sleep around 9:30 or 10:00 pm (getting enough sleep is a TOP happiness priority). And that means giving up my time with the Big Man, after our children are in bed. It seems a bit bleak to be going to bed by myself while he’s up having fun.

I’d always assumed that if I really had the right stuff, I’d be getting up before dawn to write. Now I’m not so sure.

If you violently disagree with Orwell’s points, please read the entire essay. This quotation doesn’t capture the complexity of Orwell’s argument or his views on Gandhi.

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