A True Rule about life — from an engineer.

My father often talks about “True Rules.” For example, when I started working after college, he said, “It’s one of the True Rules – if you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you responsibility.” And in my experience that rule has certainly turned out to be true. I love True Rules, and I recently started writing them down whenever I heard them. These aren’t general rules for living, like “Enjoy every day.” They’re more specific and concrete. So I’ve started the True Rules series — on video!

This True Rule is from Saul, a friend of mine from the days when we both worked at the Federal Communications Commission (my last job as a lawyer).

If you can’t see the video, Saul says, “This True Rule comes from my days as an engineer, where we learned that if something wasn’t working one way, you turn it around. So my True Rule is: if it’s not working one way, you have to turn it around.” Obviously this is as useful on a metaphorical level as on a device level.

Note: one of my happiness-project insights is that novelty and challenge bring happiness. Also frustration and annoyance. Notice that I managed to give the video clip a title for the first time! Ah, so satisfying.

Terrific new site launched today, by the inimitable Jonathan Fields! Career Renegade is definitely worth your attention. The much-anticipated book is coming out soon, but the site gives lots of preview material. I’m off to read the intriguingly titled Fire Fly Manifesto right now.

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.

Relationships: 7 tips to avoid annoying other people.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips to avoid annoying other people.

Most of us would like to get along well with others — whether friends or strangers. One thing to keep in mind is that certain habits tend to get on other people’s nerves. Now you might say, “If someone’s annoyed when I talk on the phone in the grocery store, I don’t care, because that’s ridiculous!” The fact is, whether or not you think it’s ridiculous, some people will be very annoyed. Just know that. Here are some common aggravations to keep in mind:

1. As I say to my three-year-old just about every day, “Don’t use a whiny voice.” Some people make a habit of talking in a whine, even when they’re making a perfectly innocuous comment. Some people whine ALL THE TIME. Once I started paying attention, I realized that I do this far too often, myself, and I try to remember to say things like, “Have you seen my keys?” in a nice tone, not in a whiny tone.

2. Watch your cell phone use. You may think it’s acceptable to talk in a store, or on a bus, or wherever, but remember that many people still find it extremely annoying when others use a phone in a public place.

3. Don’t curse. I’m astonished by how many people use very bad language in crowded situations. You may feel fine about using the f-word in conversation with your friends, but if you’re in the subway, other people are going to hear you, too.

4. Clean up after yourself.

5. Think about whether you’re being interesting. Certain topics are very interesting to the speaker, much less interesting to the listener: descriptions of dreams, fond discussions about your children, re-tellings of the plots of movies or plays.

6. Watch the eye-stray. When you’re talking to someone in a crowded room, it’s tempting to keep looking around at the other people. This is very annoying to the person to whom you’re speaking; it feels like you’re hoping to find a more interesting conversationalist. Maintain eye contact, or if you’re looking around for a reason, explain it. I was very annoyed by a woman who kept glancing over my shoulder, until she explained, “My husband is coming, and he doesn’t know anyone here, and he’s very shy, so I’m looking for him.” Then I didn’t mind.

7. Most importantly: remember that different things annoy different people. Unfortunately, the ways that we annoy others reflect our personal proclivities – so it’s hard to be aware of how other people might react. E.g., if you’re the kind of person who talks on the phone all the time, you probably aren’t aware of how annoying other people find it. Or if you talk about your kids all the time, you probably don’t know that a lot of people find that boring. As a person who scores low on Agreeableness, I’m not naturally very considerate – but I’m trying to be more mindful of my actions.

Zoikes, it just occurred to me that I may never have mentioned Fly Lady. I get a big kick out of that site and that approach to organizing your life. Baby steps!

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.

When is the right time to think about happiness? Before or after a catastrophe strikes?

When I started The Happiness Project blog, something worried me: I feared that people who faced major happiness challenges – like a serious illness, job loss, chronic pain, divorce, addiction, depression — would be put off by this site. Would they think: Who was I to talk about happiness, when everything in my life was fine? How helpful could my views be, unless I faced circumstances that made it very difficult to be happy?

I realized, however, that one of my main goals for my happiness project was to prepare for adversity — to develop the self-discipline and the habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened. Because that wheel was going to turn. The time to start exercising, stop nagging, and work on photo albums, I decided, is when everything was going smoothly; I didn’t want to wait for a crisis to re-make my life.

Since March 2006, when this blog launched, I’ve been very gratified to hear from many readers who wrote to let me know that the strategies I talk about here did help them during particularly hard times. I’d be very interested to hear people’s views on this topic. Are you more likely to think about happiness – and to take action to try to build happiness – when everything in your life is going well, or when you’re facing a catastrophe?

If you’re facing a catastrophe, does it help to think about taking little, ordinary steps to build happiness (having lunch with a friend, making your bed in the morning, going outside for a quick walk)? Or are activities like that dwarfed by the magnitude of what you’re facing?

My hope is that the Happiness Project (blog and book) can help people trying to be happier within their ordinary life, and also help people trying to be happier in the context of a major happiness challenge.

If some particular resolution or approach has helped you deal with a big happiness challenge, I’m sure it would be helpful for everyone to hear about what worked for you – if it’s not too private.

Lots of interesting material at My Simpler Life.

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Happiness quotation from Elias Canetti.

“In the best times of my life I always think I am making room, even more room in me. Here I shovel away snow, there I raise aloft a piece of fallen sky; there are superfluous lakes, I let them run out (I save the fish), overgrown forests, I drive crowds of apes into them, everything is astir, but there’s never enough room, I never ask why, I never feel why, I just have to keep making room, on and on, and as long as I can do so, I merit my life.” –Elias Canetti

I don’t have a dog; and I don’t want a dog; and my building doesn’t allow pets, so I couldn’t have a dog, even if I wanted one — but this post from Stay of Execution made me think about all the happiness benefits of having a dog. There are a lot!

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Your Happiness Project: Imitate a spiritual master.

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.

One of the most universal spiritual practices is the imitation of a spiritual master as a way to gain understanding and discipline. For example, in Christianity, many people study The Imitation Of Christ and ask themselves, “What would Jesus do?”

In the secular world, I suspect, people often read biographies for spiritual reasons: they want to study and learn from the example of great lives. As a writer, I steeped myself in the lives of Winston Churchill and John Kennedy, and it seems to me that much of the fascination in these two towering figures comes from people’s desire to imitate their great qualities (though of course they both also had some not-so-great qualities).

Oprah is a spiritual master for a lot of people; also—I could be wrong about this—Warren Buffett. Some lucky people have found a spiritual master within their set of personal relationships.

For my happiness project, I decided to study and imitate a spiritual master—but whom? I didn’t feel a particular affinity for any potential masters, until I came across St. Thérèse of Lisieux. I’d become interested in St. Thérèse after I saw her praised in Thomas Merton’s memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain. I’d been so surprised to see the cranky, monkish Merton write reverently about the sappily-named “Little Flower” that I was curious to read her spiritual memoir, The Story of a Soul. Since then, I’ve developed a mini-obsession with St. Thérèse. I have almost twenty biographies of her, and “Indulging in a (not so) modest splurge,” I spent $75 on a book of photographs of her. Ah, St. Thérèse! She is the perfect spiritual master for me — the fact that I’m not Catholic doesn’t change that.

What figure would you choose to be your spiritual master? It might be obvious to you; it might take you some serious reflection. Once you’ve identified a spiritual master, try to learn more about his or her life; think about why you picked that particular figure; and, most important, how to incorporate the lessons of that life into your own life.

For example, when I was annoyed when the woman working next to me at the library kept sighing noisily, I was inspired by St. Thérèse: she tells the story of how she once broke into a sweat at the effort to conquer her annoyance when a fellow nun made maddening clicking noises during evening prayers. I could relate.

I’m curious to know what spiritual masters other people have adopted. Have you found someone whose life or teaching has captivated you? If you’ve identified your spiritual master, please post it—I, and I’m sure other people, would be very interested to see the range of choices.

Speaking of St. Therese, a friend from blogland, herself named for Therese and also a devotee, has a terrific blog, Beyond Blue, about “the spiritual journey to mental health.” I highly recommend it, especially if you’re interested in the subject of depression, especially the spiritual aspect.

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.