April Fool! How a Prank Can Make You Happy.

My happiness-project resolutions include “Cultivate rituals and traditions,” “Spread family cheer,” “Take time for projects,” and Be a treasure house of happy memories.

This cluster of resolutions runs together – meaning that doing a single action means I can give myself a gold star in several boxes (and yes I love those gold stars).

Last year, I decided to start doing holiday breakfasts, so these days I decorate the breakfast table for each holiday. This is easy, fun, and festive. I also decided to start playing April Fool’s pranks.

Yesterday morning, I combined the two. Before I went to bed the night before, I dyed the milk bright green — in an opaque container. In the morning, when my two daughters were at the table, I got a big gasp when I poured the milk out onto their bowls of Special K. Much excitement. Then the green milk dyed their teeth and tongues green, another source of hilarity.

The happiness pay-off was huge. Both girls got a big kick out of it; they were very excited to tell my husband about it when he came into the kitchen; they were very excited to tell their friends that I had played a real joke on them. The morning felt special and fun.

I took a picture, so we can remember this morning for a long time.

This April Fool’s joke took me about ten seconds to pull off, but I had to decide to do it. Sometimes, even doing the smallest extra thing seems impossible, but it’s worth the effort. I constantly have to remind myself of the Third Splendid Truth: The days are long, but the years are short. I’m always happy when I take the time to observe a tradition, do a family project, spread a little cheer, take a photo.

Last year, I froze my daughters’ bowls of cereal — this year, food dye. Now I am officially out of kid-appropriate pranks. Any ideas? Please post!

* If you’re interested in volunteering as a super-fan, to help me out with various tasks such as the early testing of my super-fabulous new website, you can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line. To those of you who sign up — thanks so much!

Taken for Granted? 5 Tips for Dealing with Feeling Unappreciated.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 tips for dealing with feeling unappreciated.

Oh, how I crave gold stars. One of my worst qualities is my insatiable need for credit; I always want the recognition, the praise, the gold star stuck on my homework. I struggle to master my need for gold stars, because it makes me a resentful score-keeper.

Several of my resolutions are aimed at this desire, like Don’t expect praise or appreciation and “Do it for myself.” One of my Twelve Commandments is “No calculation” – it comes from a quotation from St. Therese of Lisieux, who observed, “When one loves, one does not calculate.”

Nevertheless, for all my efforts, I have to admit that I still crave gold stars. Whether or not I should want them, I do. Here are the strategies I use to try to curb my craving:

1. Do it for yourself. For a long time, I self-righteously told myself that I made certain efforts “for the team.” While this sounded generous, it led to a bad result, because I sulked when my husband or whoever didn’t appreciate my efforts. Now, I tell myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I want to send out Valentine’s cards. I want to organize the cabinets. This sounds selfish, but in fact, it’s less selfish, because it means I’m not waiting for a gold star. No one else even has to notice what I’ve done.

2. Find ways to reward yourself. Maybe other people aren’t giving you credit, but you can give yourself credit. One reason I love my Resolutions Chart is that I get a little jolt of satisfaction when I reward myself with check-mark next to a resolution. I give myself my own gold stars! (True confession: my need for gold stars is so raw that when I started keeping my Resolutions Chart, I considered buying actual gold-star stickers and literally sticking them on. I didn’t go that far.)

3. Tell people you’d like to get a gold star. Once I acknowledged to myself how much I crave gold stars, I was able to explain that to my family – and sometimes even joke about it. Since then, they’ve all been better about doling them out, because they know how important it is to me. Also, it’s easy for people innocently to overlook contributions you’ve made, and if you give a gentle reminder, they might happily load you with gold stars.

4. Express your appreciation for what other people do. One good rule for happiness is that if you wish people would act a certain way toward you, act that way yourself toward others. If you wish people would be freer with praise and appreciation, make sure you’re ladling it out yourself. Also, when you push yourself to feel grateful for what others are doing, you remind yourself of how much they do for you — and that eases resentment.

5. Remember that being taken for granted is a form of praise. It’s ironic: the more reliable you are, and the less you complain, the more likely you are to be taken for granted. If you always meet deadlines, if you never lose your temper, if you’re always prepared, people overlook your efforts. Really, that’s a compliment.

* I really enjoy the blog The Fluent Self — all about “destuckification” in all its forms.

* So many people have written to ask for a starter kit for launching their own Happiness-Project Groups!

I’m working away on creating something to send out — I want the materials to be terrific. I’ll keep you posted.

If you’d like to add your name to the list, email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com]. (Sorry to write in that weird way — trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Happiness-Project Group” in the subject line.

Want to Wake Up Happy? Maybe Jelly Doughnuts Are the Secret.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Read memoirs of catastrophe. I hit on this as my own form of memento mori – better than keeping a skull on my desk. Most of the memoirs I read deal with illness or death, in one form or another, but a different kind of catastrophe is divorce. I recently finished the terrific memoir of divorce by Isabel Gillies, Happens Every Day. (You might recognize her picture, because when she’s not writing, she’s an actress on Law and Order; also in the movie, Metropolitan.)

Even before I opened it up, I was inclined to love the book, because I’d heard that Isabel Gillies wrote the whole thing at my beloved New York Society Library. Once I started it, I couldn’t put it down – I ended up reading the whole thing in one day. One of the most important themes of the book is happiness (no surprise), and Isabel Gillies has obviously done a lot of thinking about the subject.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Isabel: Listening to a good song and dancing to it. Even better if my kids join me. I got to tell you, right now that Taylor Swift song “Love Story” is really doing it for me.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At 39, I find that enough sleep can be a big factor in how happy one is, but I’m not sure that was true at 18. My feeling about happiness (shared by many others of course) is that you are born with it. It’s a chemical thing. There are outside factors that can make you happier or sadder but everyone has a base level of happiness that varies from one person to the next. I don’t know that I knew that when I was younger. At 18, a live Grateful Dead show or having a cutie-pie boy smile at me after English class could make me pretty darn happy, but then again, I’m still dancing in the living room to Taylor Swift, so I don’t know how much has changed.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Oh, I sweat the small stuff a lot. I have to make my 7-year-old lunch to take to school, and every morning I wake up in a panic about what it will be. Will he like it? Will it stay hot? What if it’s not enough? Oh good lord it bums me out. I wish I could be more Zen, or wise enough to know that there are some things that you just can’t change or fix, so you should just take a deep breath and move on with your day. I can also be sensitive and get my feelings hurt, and then I focus on that instead of seeing the bigger picture.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Well, in my book I cite Adlai Stevenson’s quote about Eleanor Roosevelt, that she’d “rather light a candle than curse the darkness.” And that has become my motto. Also, I read my children The Missing Piece by Shel Silverstein. The book is an endless source of happiness for them. It just makes them laugh and pause and think. Seeing them dig it so much makes me think they’re onto something, so I pay attention to that book a lot and try to remember its lessons.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
Getting in bed with a cookbook. Settling into an evening of good TV, a glass of white wine, and take-out. Chatting on the phone with a pal, while making the beds. A walk. Having a snuggle with a kid. A jelly donut and cup of tea. Looking at photo albums. Picturing my husband’s smile.

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?
Gosh, these are harder questions than I thought. I guess I think that if one basically feels happy, then that is a done deal, with the environment or circumstances they find themselves in temporarily adding or subtracting from that. If someone is really unhappy, even winning the lottery will only make them happy for a certain amount of time and then they will probably return to their original state. I think what one may want to achieve is not so much happiness but peace?

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?
I think I have always felt the same level of happiness. I know that because I naturally wake up happy, and I always have. I think it’s my mother’s favorite thing about me. If there is something negative going on in my life, I might remember it soon after I wake, and then get bummed out, but the first feeling I have when I open my eyes is happiness. I think it’s chemical.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

I work on figuring out the root of why certain things get me down. It drives me crazy to think that my life can be adversely affected, or I can be pushed around, by something that I could change with a little introspective digging. If I can get to the bottom of why something gets in the way of my happiness I might be able to beat it. Another good trick to getting happy is focusing on something larger than yourself. Like jury duty oddly can make you happy. Participating in the bigger picture, something civic, something outside your own little life can make you swell with happiness. It might be subtle, but it’s definitely there.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I have been surprised that some very sad and unhappy times didn’t actually ruin my life, which is a lot of what my book’s about. Sometimes you have to make an active decision to be happy. Or, maybe even better, sometimes you have to find even the tiniest detail to show yourself there is happiness still inside you. You have to look for the good, the happy, even if it’s in something as small as a jelly donut.

* I have a few rare friends who are so funny that just the memory of things they said, years ago, is enough to start me laughing. (I’m married to one of these folks, lucky me.) One such friend has just started a blog, RealDelia, about “finding yourself in adulthood.” I’m so excited; Delia lives in London now, so I see her very rarely, but now I can get my fix every day. In today’s post, the phrase that got me going was the “searing professional experiences” line…ok, now I’m going back to read through the archives.

* If you’re interested in volunteering as a super-fan, to help me out with various tasks such as the early testing of my super-fabulous new website, you can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line. To those of you who sign up — thanks so much!

Want to be Able to Predict If Someone Will Be Happy In the Future?

I recently finished a terrific novel, Sarah Dunn’s Secrets to Happiness. (How could I resist that title?) One scene caught my happiness-project attention. Betsy is on a blind date with Alan, and they’re both in the mode of sizing up marriagability on the first date.

Alan asks Betsy, “Do you consider yourself a happy person?” In response to her vague answer, he says, “My uncle always said…the secret to being happy in a marriage is to marry someone who was already happy…[And] the older I get, the more I see that my friends who married happy women are happy, and the ones who didn’t have all sorts of problems.”

“You can’t blame that on the wives,” Betsy answers.

“Yeah, but I think what he meant was, it’s hard to make an unhappy woman happy…a house can only be as happy as the least person in it.” (His rationale would apply to husbands, too.) Alan never asks Betsy on a second date, and the clear implication is that he decided that she seems unhappy, and so would likely be unhappy in marriage.

Now, this reminded of studies – as discussed in Daniel Nettle’s Happiness — that show, as Nettle sums up, “that the best predictor of how happy people are at the end of the study is how happy they were at the beginning. It is as if happiness or unhappiness stem in large part from how we address what happens in the world, not what actually happens.” (p. 92)

This tidbit has always struck me as singularly unhelpful for someone working on being happier – like telling someone that the best way to avoid being overweight was to have always been thin.

Alan was using that information not as a guide to thinking about his own happiness, however, but to evaluate the likelihood that someone else would be happy – someone whose happiness would matter a lot to him, if they married.

This got me thinking. Betsy was unhappy, in large part, because she was worried about getting married and having children. Presumably, then, she’d be happier once she was married with a family, so it seems unfair for Alan to presume she was permanently unhappy.

But in real life, how does this work? Are some people basically happy or unhappy, and don’t try to change, so that something like finally getting married wouldn’t make such a difference? Or would it? The arrival fallacy holds that we generally aren’t made as happy by that kind of “arrival” as we expect. On the other hand, the First Splendid Truth holds that feeling right is very important to happiness, and if your life doesn’t reflect your dreams and values, it’s hard to be happy.

That question aside, Alan’s way of thinking struck me as both helpful and harsh.

Helpful, because sometimes it might well be worth considering someone’s happiness level. If you’re interviewing for a job with a boss who seems very dissatisfied and angry, you might decide that he wouldn’t be happy with you (or you with him). If you’re thinking of sharing an apartment with someone who lives under a dark cloud, you might want to choose a different roommate.

Harsh, because it prompted Alan to turn away from Betsy, who was a nice person, and because this kind of analysis would push people away from less-happy people, who need friendship and consideration. (Spoiler alert: in the end, Betsy gets married to a terrific guy.)

What do you think? Have you ever made a similar analysis about someone else’s happiness?

* Special message for the Super-Fans:

Hey Super-Fans!
Thanks SO MUCH for volunteering as a super-fan. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. The designers report that the website will be ready to test on April 6. We’ll see – such dates often slide – but it shouldn’t be too long. I’ll send you an email with all the information. (If it turns out you don’t want to participate in the test, don’t worry about it, of course.)

If anyone else is interested in volunteering as a super-fan, to help me out with various tasks such as the early testing of my super-fabulous new website, you can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.

Thomas Merton’s Ambition? “To Be What I Already Am.”

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”
— Thomas Merton, Journal, October 2, 1958

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.