Five Mistakes I Make in My Marriage.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day, or List or Quiz Day.
This Wednesday: 5 big mistakes I make in my marriage, and how I try to address them.

One of the main twelve themes of my happiness project is marriage. For me, as with many people, my marriage is one of the most central elements in my life and my happiness.

When I started my happiness project, and I reflected about the changes I wanted to make — as well as the resolutions I wanted to keep in order to bring about those changes — I realized I had five particular problem areas in my marriage. Here they are, along with the strategies I try to use to address them:

1. My demand for gold stars. Oh, how I crave appreciation and recognition! I always want that gold star stuck to my homework. But my husband just isn’t very good at handing out gold stars, and that makes me feel angry and unappreciated.

I figured out a good strategy. I used to tell myself I was doing nice things for him – “He’ll be so happy to see that I put all the books away,” “He’ll be so pleased that I finally got the trunk packed for camp” etc. – then I’d be mad when he wasn’t appreciative. Now I tell myself that I’m doing these things because I want to do them. “Wow, the kitchen cabinets look great!” “I’m so organized to have bought all the supplies in advance!” Because I do things for myself, he doesn’t have to notice. This sounds like a more self-centered approach, but it’s really much better.

2. Using a snappish tone. I have a very short fuse and become irritable extremely easily – but my husband really doesn’t like it when I snap at him (big surprise). I’ve done a lot to try to keep my temper in check. I don’t let myself get too hungry or too cold (I fall into these states very easily); I try to keep our apartment in reasonable order, because a mess makes me crabby; when he tries to make a joke out of my temper, I try to laugh along; I try to control my voice to keep it light and cheery instead of accusatory and impatient. Confession: I haven’t made much headway here.

3. Getting angry about a fixed trait. This is very, very tough. One of the things I’ve learned from my happiness project is that you can’t change anyone but yourself, and while there are some things I’d love to change about my husband, those things aren’t going to change. He isn’t going to get better about answering my emails. He is going to keep making rich desserts that tempt me. Etc. Instead of getting all worked up, as I often do, I’m trying to remind myself of HOW SMALL his flaws are, in the scheme of things.

4. Score-keeping. I’m a score-keeper, always calculating who has done what. “I cleaned up the kitchen, so you have to run to the store” — that sort of thing. I’ve found two ways to try to deal with this tendency.

First, I remind myself of the phenomenon of unconscious over-claiming; i.e., we unconsciously overestimate our contributions or skills relative to other people’s. This makes sense, because of course we’re far more aware of what we do than what other people do. According to Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis, “when husbands and wives estimate the percentage of housework each does, their estimates total more than 120 percent.”

I complain about the time I spend organizing babysitting or paying bills, but I overlook the time my husband spends dealing with our car or food-shopping. It’s easy to see that over-claiming leads to resentment and an inflated sense of entitlement. So now 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 remind myself of all the tasks I don’t do.

Second, I remind myself of the words of my spiritual master, St. Therese of Lisieux: “When one loves, one does not calculate.” That precept is the basis for my 11th Personal Commandment: No calculation.

5. Taking my husband for granted. Just as I find it easily to overlook the chores done by my husband (see #4), it’s easy for me to forget to appreciate his many virtues and instead focus on his flaws (see #3). For example, although I find it hard to resist using an irritable tone, my husband almost never speaks harshly, and that’s really a wonderful trait. I’m trying to stay alert to all the things I love about him, and let go of my petty annoyances. This is easier said than done.

I’ve found that working to keep my resolution to Kiss more, hug more, touch more is an effective way to help me stay in loving, appreciative frame of mind.

What are some mistakes you make in your marriage or long-term relationship? Have you found any great strategies for addressing them?

* Want to pre-order the book, The Happiness Project? Here’s the link!

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 24,000 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.

Were People Happier in the Good Old Days?

One habit of mind that I do not have – and which I think does not contribute much to happiness – is the tendency to regret the “good old days.”

This way of thinking is partly related to age, but not completely. I know many people, quite young, who say things like, “People are so much more materialistic than they used to be,” or so much more narcissistic, or so much more self-indulgent, or so much less engaged with other people, etc.

Well, maybe so, could be. But I’m skeptical of generalizations like that. For thousands of years, people have been decrying the present and pointing to a more noble past.

For example, take this sentiment: “It is strange that there should be so little reading in the world, and so much writing. People in general do not willingly read, if they can have any thing else to amuse them.” Sounds very current, right? I read someone express exactly this sentiment on Twitter about thirty minutes ago.

So when was it said? In 1783. Richard Burke, to Samuel Johnson.

* The New York Times now has its own happiness blog: Happy Days: The Pursuit of What Matters in Troubled Times. HAPPY minds think alike.

* There’s a lot of interesting debate on the Facebook Page. Join the discussion!

Why I’m NOT Trying to Keep Things Simple.

Part of the challenge of mindfulness – which is one of the top twelve themes of my happiness project — is to keep myself from falling into mechanical thoughts and actions. Instead of walking through life on auto-pilot, I want to question the assumptions I make without noticing.

My research into cognitive science led me to the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are mental rules of thumb, the quick, common-sense principles you apply to solve a problem or make a decision. For example, the recognition heuristic holds that if you’re faced with two objects, and you recognize one and don’t recognize the other, you assume that the recognized one is of higher value. So if you’ve heard of Munich but you haven’t heard of Minden, you assume that Munich is the larger German city.

Usually heuristics are helpful, but in some situations, our cognitive instincts mislead us. Take the availability heuristic: people predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often useful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?), but sometimes people’s judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. Child abduction, say.

I have certain rules for living that I apply – they aren’t really heuristics, in the true sense of the word, but they’re rules I use to set priorities and decide how to spend my time.

Sometimes they’re happiness-boosting, but I’ve started to realize that sometimes they aren’t. In particular, I’ve been thinking about my application of two of my most often-invoked rules:
I’m in a hurry.
Keep it simple.

“I’m in a hurry” is often useful. It keeps me from wasting time. It helps me stay focused on my top priorities. However, I see, it’s part of the reason that I have trouble keeping several of my happiness-project resolutions: Take time for projects; Force myself to wander; Schedule time for play (yes, I see the irony in these resolutions). I want to allow myself time to mess around and to do things that aren’t necessarily productive; constantly telling myself “I’m in a hurry” makes me feel like there’s no time for those activities in my schedule.

Likewise, “Keep it simple” is often useful. What item should I bring to my daughter’s end-of-school party? “Keep it simple” — so I volunteer to bring paper plates and napkins, not home-baked muffins. Should I have house plants? No, keep it simple. Should we get a fish? No, keep it simple.

But a lot of the things that boost my happiness the most also add complexity to my life. Having children. Writing this blog. My children’s literature reading groups (yes, now I belong to two of these groups). These activities add complications, but they also add happiness. Applied too broadly, “Keep it simple” would impoverish my life.

One good rule I’ve found: if I find myself repeatedly making a resolution without making any headway, I should stop and Identify the problem.

One resolution I’ve made for YEARS is to entertain more. I love people, I love bringing people together, why do I never want to have people over? I realize that every time I start thinking about planning some kind of get-together, my two rules start flashing in my brain: “I’m in a hurry!” “Keep it simple!” These rules tell me that I don’t have time to shop, to clean, to spruce up our apartment, to deal with food and drink; they tell that I don’t have the mental energy to plan a guest-list, send invitations, worry about all the odds-and-ends.

As of today, I’m going to try to replace those two rules with a different rule: I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me. Maybe that will combine the usefulness of the two rules, without the drawbacks.

Do you find yourself repeating your own personal directives – like “Keep it simple” – to yourself? Do they boost your happiness?

* Sonya Lyubormirsky — author of one of my favorite happiness books, The How of Happiness — has just launched a fascinating, useful iPhone application, Live Happy. It combines her research and the functionality of the iPhone to help you engage in a lot of practices that will boost your happiness. Click here to learn more or to unload the free trial version.

* 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.

Note to Self: Don’t Imitate St. Aloysius.

“Practical experience has now convinced me of this: the concept of holiness which I had formed and applied to myself was mistaken. In every one of my actions, and in the little failings of which I was immediately aware, I used to call to mind the image of some saint whom I had set myself to imitate down to the smallest particular, as a painter makes an exact copy of a picture by Raphael. I used to say to myself: in this case St. Aloysius would have done so and so, or: he would not do this or that. However, it turned out that I was never able to achieve that I thought I could do, and this worried me. The method was wrong. From the saints I must take the substance, not the accidents of their virtues. I am not St. Aloysuis, nor must I seek holiness in his particular way, but according to the requirements of my own nature, my own character, and the different conditions of my life. I must not be the dry, bloodless reproduction of a model, however perfect…If St. Aloysius had been as I am, he would have become holy in a different way.”
– Pope John XXIII, Journal of a Soul: The Autobiography of Pope John XXIII, January 16, 1903

A good reminder to keep my the first of my twelve Personal Commandments: Be Gretchen.

* If you haven’t watched my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short, you might enjoy seeing that.

Practice a NON-Random Act of Kindness.

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.

A while back, I posted about Happiness Myth #7: Doing “random acts of kindness” brings happiness. I wasn’t arguing that acts of kindness wouldn’t make you happy, but only that those acts shouldn’t be random. Random, unpredictable kindness makes people puzzled and suspicious, but purposeful kindness is exhilarating. Non-random doesn’t mean that you have to know the people involved; it just means that they have to understand the context of your behavior.

For example, I was talking about this myth on a radio show, and the host recounted that he’d once been stopped on the street by a large man who announced, “I’m giving away free hugs!” and hugged him. This hug, though free and a quite random act of kindness, was not appreciated.

On the other hand, a friend told me a wonderful story about a non-random act of kindness she’d performed. On April 15 a few years ago, she was standing in a post office crowded with people who needed to mail their tax returns. There was a huge line in front of the one machine that dispensed stamps.

When my friend’s turn finally came, instead of buying the minimum number of stamps, she bought $20 worth. Then she went along the line of people behind her, handing each person as many stamps as needed, until she ran out.

The people who got the free stamps were ecstatic – and even the people who didn’t get the free stamps were ecstatic, because the long, slow line got so much shorter so quickly. Everyone was surprised, excited, and laughing.

It makes me so happy to think about this moment! For $20, my friend transformed a miserable taxpaying visit to the post office into a moment of elevation – not just for herself, but for the strangers in line with her. And for me, too.

It reminds me of Henri-Frederic Amiel’s exhortation: “Life’s short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

As the Second Splendid Truth sets out:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

A non-random act of kindness is a great way to put Splendid Truth 2A into practice. Have you ever done (or received) a non-random act of kindness that made you very happy?

* For people who do a lot of work at home, like me, there’s a great guest post by Wisebread‘s Lynn Truong on Jonathan Fields’s Awake at the Wheel about Cues to create a work/life balance.

If you want a moment of nature in your day, check out this time-lapse video on Gimundo of a butterfly emerging from its cocoon. It’s an oft-invoked metaphor; pretty interesting to see what it actually looks like.

* Join the Facebook Page to swap ideas and insights about happiness. Lots of fascinating comments there.