Learn from the Past.

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.

We all make mistakes, and have things go wrong, but one resolution I try very hard to keep is to “Learn from the past.”

Many of my most significant happiness-boosting actions – large and small – have come in reaction to things that went wrong.

To take a small example: it was only after thinking hard about why I was so often crabby during lovely family vacations that I recognized the problem: I was hungry. Once I understood what had gone wrong on previous trips, I was able to come up with a solution: now I make sure to have to pack almonds and other snacks whenever I travel.

To take a large example: in college, I didn’t participate in any extracurriculars – no sports, no newspaper, no drama, no singing group, no soup kitchen, no sorority. I didn’t think much about it during college, but during the two years between college and law school, with more perspective, I came to regret that I hadn’t been more involved. I vowed that in law school, I would take part in more extracurricular activities, and I did. Of these, the most significant was the Yale Law Journal, where I ended up being editor-in-chief – which ranks as one of the most important experiences of my whole life.

To take a medium example: I stopped drinking, more or less, because after stopping drinking during my pregnancies, I became such a lightweight that just one glass of wine had a big effect on me — and not a good effect. Alcohol made me sharp-tongued, indiscreet, insensitive, belligerent, and sleepy. The day after a social occasion, I often felt terrible about how I’d acted. To address this, I need to start drinking more, to build up my tolerance, or less. For me, giving up alcohol most of the time — I still have the occasional glass of something — makes me happier.

It’s hard to learn from the past, because that process means that I have to look long and hard at things in my life that didn’t go right – where I failed, or was disappointed, or didn’t rise to the occasion, or felt regret, guilt, or anger. And re-living that past is no fun.

It’s also difficult to do. One way I “learn from the past” is to apply my Eighth Commandment to Identify the problem. What did I wish had been different about that family trip? about college? about that party the other night? When I really look carefully to identify an exact problem — not just a vague feeling of dissatisfaction — I often see a solution.

Whenever I do “Learn from the past,” I find it very satisfying. Not only do I manage some aspect of my life more happily, but I also have the exhilarating sense of having corrected something, of having redeemed myself – yes, I’ll say it, of turning lemons into lemonade.

Has there been an occasion when learning from the past allowed you to do something more happily in the present?

* One of my new favorite blogs is the wonderfully thought-provoking Starfish Envy, started by my sister’s writing partner. “I’m thirty-seven. I’m successful. I’m single. Now what?” And as fascinating as it is, it’s super-fascinating to see a friend’s blog. It gives you a whole different insight into a person’s mind and life.

* Join the discussion over on the Facebook Page. Check it out!

Exercise, Weight Loss, and Happiness.

I was very interested to read John Cloud’s recent Time cover story about exercise and weight loss, Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin. This is a very complicated issue, and the article’s argument has sparked many debates – but from a strictly happiness perspective, two points jumped out at me.

First: even if exercise doesn’t help me lose weight (and I admit, I’m very weight-preoccupied), it’s still extremely important for general good health and for not gaining weight — and for keeping my mood positive. For example, one study showed that even moderate aerobic exercise boosted mood – for as long as twelve hours. Almost everyone I know who exercises regularly says that they stick to their routine for mental as much, or more, than for physical reasons.

Second: I should always be wary of occasions when I have the urge to “treat” myself. So often, treats don’t contribute to long-term happiness.

From the article, and from my own observation, it seems that exercise often inspires people with the belief that they deserve a “treat” – and usually a high-calorie treat. For example, I was just reading Sally Koslow’s novel, Little Pink Slips. The main character goes running with her best friend, and afterward, they split a scone. But as Cloud suggests, from a strictly calorie perspective, those two women would have been better off skipping the run and the scone.

It’s also easy to fall into the assumption that because exercise is healthy, anything related to it must be healthy – this tendency is called the halo effect. A friend of mine would chug a big bottle of Nantucket Nectars after working out. He considered this a healthy, energy-boosting drink so never thought about calories at all. I pointed out that a bottle has almost as many calories as a Snickers bar! (My gleeful revelation of this fact did not endear me to him, I must confess.)

For a long time, I’ve been keeping an eye out for studies of how people’s worrying about their weight affects their happiness. To me, this concern seem like a major factor in day-to-day unhappiness. I’ve never seen much on this issue, and if anyone has read any studies about this, I’d love to see the reference.

* I couldn’t resist a blog called Happiness in this World: Reflections of a Buddhist Physician, of course, and I was particularly intrigued by this post about The Good Guy Contract.

* 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. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

5 Tips for Happiness Reinforced by My Family Vacation.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: my family vacation reminded me of these 5 tips for happiness.

I just returned from a wonderful family vacation. Beautiful weather, mostly cheerful children, and no major mishaps (no travel disasters, bicycle crashes, poison ivy, etc.)

Being on vacation reminded me of several things about happiness – the first being, remember to take a vacation! Especially given the technology these days, it’s tempting to have a change of scenery and call it a vacation. But a vacation really means taking a break from work.

I was reminded of several other happiness principles, as well:

1. Fun is important to happiness. Is there such a thing as “fun for the whole family”? I think so, but I’ve learned that on vacation I need to make sure I make time for the things that I find fun – which in my case means reading. Sometimes I think, “Why am I just lying here, reading, on such a beautiful day? I should be going for a run/playing in the ocean/learning to play tennis.” But it’s a Secret of Adulthood – Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for me. I love to read, and now I let myself read as much as I can get away with, given the realities of a family vacation. After all, I still do plenty of other things. And speaking of that Secret of Adulthood, the converse is true:

2. Just because something isn’t fun for me doesn’t mean that someone else won’t find it fun. For instance, grocery shopping. It finally dawned on me that my husband loves to make a quick trip to the grocery store. I kept trying to make lists and be efficient and ask if he really had to make another trip to the store, until I realized: he loves to bike over to the grocery store for a few items. One day he went four times. That’s FUN for him.

3. Sleep is important to happiness – the more I learn about sleep, the more convinced I become of that fact. Sleep keeps people feeling cheerier, it strengthens the immune system, it may even play a role in keeping weight off. According to one study, a bad night’s sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods (along with tight work deadlines). Another study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for your daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.

Accordingly, over the last few years, I’ve made a big effort to get more sleep – but during this vacation, there were several nights when I got TEN HOURS of sleep. Yes, I went to sleep at 9:30 p.m. and slept until 7:30 a.m., which I just wouldn’t have thought possible. This suggests to me that I may still not be getting enough sleep in my usual routine.

4. One irksome task can make vacation more fun. Some interesting studies suggest that interrupting a pleasant experience with something less pleasant can intensify a person’s overall pleasure. For example, commercials make TV-watching more fun.

For the last ten months, I’d been procrastinating about ordering a photo album from Shutterfly with our family pictures, and the task had really started to weigh on my mind. For this vacation, I decided to take a break from all work, except to do that photo album. This plan worked beautifully. Not doing my usual work make me relaxed, and having one irksome chore gave me the delicious feeling of goofing off – except when I actually did make myself do it. And I did get that task crossed off my list, which was enormously satisfying.

5. Everyone’s happiness project is different. (This is related to #1-2.) I met a very nice guy who described to me how he’d fulfilled his lifelong dream of buying a farm, where he’s raising some organic crops as well as pigs, cows, and I believe, goats. He was beaming with delight as he described how much he loved every aspect of it. I can think of few things that would make me feel more miserable than having a farm like his. Happiness projects just don’t look the same.

On a less elevated note, I would add that if you’re traveling with children, it never hurts to pack a few items of novelty candy for a long car ride. That, and a Harry Potter audiobook, will take you a long way.

* This article on Slate, Seeking: How the Brain Hard-Wires Us to Love Google, Twitter, and Texting, and Why That’s Dangerous, is absolutely fascinating. I think it has all sorts of happiness implications, but I haven’t quite figured out what they are yet.

* Because I’ve been on vacation, it’s been at least a few days since I mentioned that the book The Happiness Project is coming out in a few months. Yes, it’s true! Order early and often. (But seriously: if you’re inclined to buy the book, pre-orders really give a boost to a book. The early show of enthusiasm makes a big difference, so I really appreciate it.)

Take a Vacation.

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.

The biggest challenge of a happiness project isn’t figuring out what resolutions I should make, but actually sticking to my resolutions.

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve found that I have quite a lot of trouble keeping my resolutions related to play – that is, the activities I do in my free time, because I want to do them, for their own sake, for my own reasons, and not for money or ambition. To encourage myself to play more, I’ve made resolutions to Be serious about play, Take time to be silly, Force myself to wander.

Believe me, I see the irony in the fact that I work doggedly at fun and am so serious about joking around, but given my nature, I have to measure what I want to manage, and if I don’t commit to having fun, it will get crowded out of my workaholic days. Even so, these resolutions remain a challenge for me.

Writer Jean Stafford scoffed, “Happy people don’t need to have fun,” but in fact, studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn’t enough to make you feel good — you must strive to find sources of feeling good. Regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times more likely to feel happy.

Starting today, for the next week, I’m going to keep another play-related resolution: Take a vacation. I haven’t stepped away from my blog very many times since I started it more than three years ago, but it’s time for a break.

I’ve started to feel overtapped — the feeling captured perfectly in Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, when Bilbo says to Gandalf, “I feel all thin, sort of stretched, if you know what I mean: like butter that has been scraped over too much bread. That can’t be right. I need a change, or something.”

It’s time for more butter, some fun — which, for me, means as much reading in bed as I can get away with, given that my two children have a different notion of fun.

Now I’m off to pack for the beach. I’ll be back soon.

* This little video really made me want to learn CGI! Maybe that can be my “novelty and challenge” task for Happiness Project II.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 26,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.

Twenty-Three Phrases to Help You Fight Right.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: twenty-three phrases to help you fight right.

Almost all couples fight; the secret is to fight right. I’ve posted about what not to say during a fight. Here are some phrases that actually help.

I review this list from time to time, so that when I’m arguing with my husband, I remember the phrases that help me fight right. Recently, for instance, I was angry at my husband for showing – I thought – a lack of respect for my priorities. So I waited until a good moment (this itself is tough for me), and said, “I need you to listen. This is important to me.” From his startled expression, he clearly thought I was starting a fight; but by warning him that I needed him to respond carefully, we managed to avoid a fight altogether.

When my husband and I do argue, I find that the single best technique to apply is humor. If one of us can laugh and joke around, the angry mood lifts instantly. But during an argument, my sense of humor is the first thing to go.

Failing that strategy, here are twenty-three phrases that help turn down the heat of anger:

Please try to understand my point of view.
Wait, can I take that back?
You don’t have to solve this—it helps me just to talk to you.
This is important to me. Please listen.
I overreacted.
I see you’re in a tough position.
I can see my part in this.
I hadn’t thought of it that way before.
I could be wrong.
Let’s agree to disagree on that.
This isn’t just your problem, it’s our problem.
I’m feeling unappreciated. [Always, my craving for gold stars!]
We’re getting off the subject.
You’ve convinced me.
Let’s take a break for a few minutes. [If you can remember to do this, it’s extremely effective – especially if you’re having a big fight. After a break, it’s almost impossible to go back to yelling.]
Please keep talking to me.
I realize it’s not your fault.
That came out all wrong.
I see how I contributed to the problem.
What are we really fighting about?
How can I make things better?
I’m sorry.
I love you.

I actually get tears in my eyes when I read this list. Such is the uplifting power of fighting right.

Also, to fight right, it’s very important to respond well if your sweetheart makes a repair attempt – the technical term for a gesture of reconciliation and love. Don’t rebuff a repair attempt!

What other strategies or phrases have helped you fight right?

* A thoughtful reader sent me the link to an excellent blog Half Full, about “the science of raising happy kids.”

* If you like the blog, you’ll love the book! It’s not just a collection of touched-up blog posts, I promise. Pre-order The Happiness Project now!