Your Happiness Project: Don’t Let the Perfect Be the Enemy of the Good.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could 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.

I was inspired by an observation by Voltaire to make my resolution, “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” In other words, instead of pushing yourself to an impossible “perfect,” and therefore getting nowhere, accept “good.” Many things worth doing are worth doing badly.

I have a friend who never exercises unless she’s training for a marathon; as a consequence, she almost never exercises. I never push myself when I exercise, and although I suspect she scoffs at my wimpy work-outs, I’ve managed to get myself to exercise several times a week for years. If I’d tried to have a more ambitious work-out, I’m sure I wouldn’t have exercised at all.

Along the same lines, I told a friend that one of my happiness-project resolutions was to “Remember birthdays,” and so I was sending out happy-birthday emails. He said, “Oh, you shouldn’t email! You should call or write a hand-written note, that’s much nicer.” True – but I won’t. And it’s better to get something done imperfectly than to do nothing perfectly.

The perfect can also become the enemy of the good in the quest for perfect information. There are two ways to approach decision-making: as a satisficer (yes, that is a word) or as a maximizer.

Satisficers are those who make a decision or take action once their criteria are met. That doesn’t mean they’ll settle for mediocrity; their criteria can be very high, but as soon as they find the pasta sauce or the business card that has the qualities they want, they’re satisfied. Maximizers want to make the optimal decision. Even if they see a bicycle or a backpack that meets their requirements, they can’t make a decision until after they’ve examined every option, to make the best possible choice. Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers; maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they did, in fact, make the best choice. (For a fascinating discussion, read Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice.)

In almost every category, I’m a satisficer, and in fact, I often felt guilty about not doing more research before making decisions. But it’s one of my Secrets of Adulthood: Most decisions don’t require extensive research. In picking a girls’ summer camp, a friend got information from twenty-five camps and visited five in person. We got information from five camps and picked the one that a friend’s daughter loved. I used to think that my lack of diligence was a sign of laziness, and my resolution “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good” has made me feel a lot better.

In some situations, the happier course is to know when good enough is good enough, and not to worry about perfection or making the perfect choice.

*
I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click here. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line.

Happiness Interview with Jonathan Fields.

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.

Jonathan Fields, of Awake at the Wheel blog fame, has a new book that just hit the shelves two days ago: Career Renegade. Remarkably, Amazon sold out on the first day it went on sale – but perhaps that’s not a surprise, because it’s a book that’s meant to help you figure out how to make a living doing a job you love. That’s obviously an issue of great interest to many people, especially these days. Turning a passion for video games into a career – that could make someone very happy.

Jonathan has done a lot of thinking about the relationship between happiness and work – one of the most fascinating sub-topics within the subject of happiness, and also an area that people find very challenging to change when it’s not working.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Jonathan: Coming up with new knock-knock jokes with my 7 year old daughter. For me, it’s all about people and flow. So, activities that take me away, especially ones I can share with people I love to be around are the activities I tend to be drawn to.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Jonathan: That it’s not about what you have, it’s about who you bring to the party. Experiences and people are the holy grail, not money and stuff.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Jonathan: Planning. I tend to be very driven and, along with that comes a fair amount of thinking about and living in the future. It’s good to think about what’s coming next, to work to make it unfold the way you want it to.

But, life’s uncertain. That may be the only thing in life I’m certain about. And, what you work so hard to make happen down the road may not happen. So, giving up too much of the juicy stuff that lies in front of you every day isn’t necessarily the most intelligent tradeoff in the world. Think about what you want…but love, cherish, nourish and be grateful for what you’ve got.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful?
Jonathan: Actually, it’s something that was shared with me by the soon-to-be former editor of Lifehacker, Gina Trapani. When I was interviewing her for my book, Career Renegade, at one point she said, “you do the thing you can’t not do.”

There’s so much in those 7 simple words. A second one comes from the epic poem, The Bhagavad Gita, and it translates roughly as “it’s far better to follow your own path imperfectly than to follow another’s perfectly.”

Similar sentiment. Both speak to the critical importance of being authentic.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Jonathan: You mean, besides a honking hunk of Green & Black’s 70% dark organic chocolate?! For most of my life, movement or exercise has been my go-to pick me up. There’s just something about moving, breathing and sweating.

It’s like God’s reset button.

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?
Jonathan: On the “adds to” side of the equation, focusing on what is right and what can go right and being consciously grateful for what you have. Just flip that around and you end up on the “detracts from side.”

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?
Jonathan: I’ve definitely run the gamut. Much of my unhappiness, when it’s been more present, has come from either an unwillingness to accept my lack of control over certain circumstances in life or seeing those close to me going through challenging times and being unable to make it okay.

I’m a solver. And, when I can’t solve…well, that bugs me. For the most part, though, I have to admit, I live a pretty blessed life.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Jonathan: Yes, and this follows largely from my last answer. The more comfortable I get accepting some stuff’s just out of my control, the less anxiety and frustration I tend to carry. I don’t waste huge amounts of time or energy trying to fix things that can’t be fixed or make certain things that will never be certain.

I also check in on a pretty regular basis to make sure I’m allocating my time and energy in a way that’s consistent with what makes me come alive. From a career standpoint, that almost always involves the process of creation with great people. And, from a personal standpoint, it means making sure I am not only there, but present, as much as possible to play with my family and friends.

Oh, and one last thing…I try to laugh as often as possible (which isn’t too hard for me, since I’m genetically inclined toward dorkdom).

*
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 grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

If you just can’t get enough on the subject of happiness, check out this live online chat.

As if blogging for Slate weren’t already a lot of fun — tomorrow Thursday January 15th, I’ll be doing an online chat, hosted by Slate and the washingtonpost.com, on the subject of happiness and how to be happier.

So if you’re so inclined, check it out tomorrow at 11:00 a.m. EST. You can submit questions or comments any time.

I’ve never done anything quite like this before, and it sounds like fun (novelty and challenge bring happiness, it’s true). The prospect of doing an hour online chat makes me glad, however, that I’m a fast typist. That class I took during the summer after seventh grade really did turn out to be useful, just as my parents insisted it would.

*
I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Six Tips For Boosting Your Sense of Self-Respect.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for boosting your sense of self-respect.

Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you didn’t get the promotion you were hoping for. Maybe your sweetheart broke up with you. People say “Don’t take it personally” and “Don’t let it get to you,” but that’s very hard to do.

If you’re feeling disheartened, what are some strategies for making yourself feel better about yourself? It’s pretty clear that repeating “I’m the greatest!” or winning a trophy along with every other second-grade soccer player isn’t a good way to build healthy self-esteem.

At the same time, it’s a rare person who isn’t sometimes – or often – plagued with painful self-doubt. When you’re feeling lousy about yourself, what can you do to feel better?

Here’s the secret. To build your self-respect…do something worthy of your respect. To like yourself better…do something that makes you likable. It’s tempting to think that support and encouragement from other people will reassure you, but A) often that doesn’t work and B) often you can’t winkle other people into giving you a pep talk.

Here are some strategies to try:

1. Do a good deed. This is as selfish as it is selfless; you’ll benefit as much as the person you’re helping. I had a friend who went through a period of tremendous rejection: she was fired from her job, she didn’t get into the graduate program to which she’d applied, and her boyfriend broke up with her. Everything worked out fine in the end, and I asked her how she got through such a tough time. She said, “I was practically addicted to doing good deeds for other people. It was the only way I could make myself feel like I wasn’t a total loser.” Along the same lines…

2. Make small gestures of good citizenship. Bring your old magazines to the gym so other people can read them. Offer directions to someone who looks lost. Sign up to be an organ donor. My current favorite: picking up trash that other people have left on the subway.

3. Keep a resolution. Not only will you benefit from exercising or cleaning out your garage, you’ll also get a boost from the mere fact that you made a commitment and stuck to it.

4. Become an expert. There’s great satisfaction in mastery. Pick a subject that interests you, and dig in deep: the American Revolution, Photoshop, knife techniques. This can be hard, because learning something new can also make you feel frustrated and stupid, but if you push through, you’ll give yourself a huge boost. Be sure to pick something that honestly engages you: become an expert on The Sopranos , if that sounds enticing, but don’t decide to learn about wine just because you think other people will be impressed. You’re much less likely to stick with it, so you won’t benefit as much.

5. Boost your energy. Studies show that when you’re feeling energetic, you’re much more likely to feel good about yourself. Most important: get enough sleep. If you need an emergency energy fix, take a quick ten-minute walk (outside, if possible, where sunlight will also stimulate your brain), listen to some great music, or talk to a friend.

6. Challenge yourself physically. This strategy doesn’t work for me, but I know that many people feel great after para-sailing, white-water rafting, bungee-jumping, or roller-coaster-riding. For the less daring, a great run, bike ride, or spinning class can do the trick.

*
I’ve written about Wordle before, but I can’t resist mentioning it again. It’s a toy for generating beautiful word clouds — and is just so fun and fabulous. I keep meaning to figure out how to use Wordle to make gifts, seems like there must be a way.

*
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 grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

A Psychological Term I Love (and Am Guilty of): “Unconscious Overclaiming.”

One of the fun things about law school—and you thought there wasn’t anything fun about law school!—was the new vocabulary we all picked up. A new word lets you have a new idea.

I remember that after I learned the concept of “acting in reliance,” suddenly, I saw people acting in reliance all over the place. (For example, when my friend John signed a lease for a two-bedroom apartment because Michael promised to room with him, he’d acted in reliance, and so when Michael wanted to move in with his girlfriend instead, John was entitled to hold him to his word.)

I’ve picked up a useful term from psychology: “unconscious overclaiming.” It’s certainly something I’m guilty of.

“Uunconscious overclaiming” is the phenomenon in which we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. In one study, for example, when students in a work group each estimated their contribution to the team, the total was 139 percent.

This makes sense, because we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. I complain about the time I spend paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car. Also, we tend to concentrate our efforts in the areas that we think are important, so we think our contributions are the more valuable. You might think that getting the weekly reports finished on time is very important, while your co-worker emphasizes prepping for a presentation.

It’s easy to see how overclaiming can lead you to an inflated sense of your contribution, and from there, to resentment. Now that I’ve learned about unconscious overclaiming, when I find myself thinking, “I’m the only one around here who bothers to…” or “Why do I always have to be the one who…?” I try to remind myself of all the tasks I don’t do.

Unconscious overclaiming is related to the “Lake Wobegon fallacy,” which describes the fact that we all fancy ourselves above average. (It’s named for Garrison Keillor’s imaginary town of Lake Wobegon, where “all the children are above average.”) Studies show that most people think they’re above average in fairness, luck, popularity, investing ability, and many other traits. In one survey, 80% of respondents put themselves in the top 30% of all drivers.

I love the mere word “overclaiming.” It’s perfect for what it describes.

*
A thoughtful reader send me the link to a great post, What I’ve Learned: Julia Child. I have my True Rules series; this is a list of True Rules from Julia Child.

*
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 grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.