I worry about the happiness of the American Idol contestants.

Last night, they announced the winner of American Idol. Now, I know practically nothing about American Idol. I’d never watched for even one minute until a few months ago, when the Big Girl asked to start recording it so she could watch during her TV time.

Since then, I’ve watched bits and pieces with her. It’s not a show I like, because I feel too sorry for the people who lose – I don’t watch the Olympics or the Super Bowl, either. (I have a lot of these weird quirks — like my distaste for the theme of unjust accusation. It annoys the Big Man from time to time; I pass on a lot of Netflix suggestions.)

Also, because I think about happiness all the time, I started worrying about the contestants’ happiness. It’s painful to lose, of course. And along the way, sometimes the judges, being nice, would say things like, “You really have star quality,” “I know you’ll make it in the music industry, even though you’re being eliminated now,” etc.

On the one hand, it’s important to have a big dream and a big vision for ourselves – and that means being open to the possibility of failure. I remind myself constantly of my resolution to “Embrace the fun of failure.”

But usually, when you’re pursuing a big dream, you work at it step by step. You gradually move up through a series of challenges which you surmount, or not. The thing about American Idol is that everyday people are catapulted into the glare of tremendous fame, and a dizzying world of possibility opens. Then, for most of them, it ends very abruptly. (I’m assuming – am I wrong? Do many contestants manage to turn American Idol into a good career opportunity?)

This strikes me as a likely route to dissatisfaction. I’m reminded of the conclusion of the Christopher Guest movie, Waiting for Guffman, when the dentist, captivated by show business, leaves his dental practice to try to make it as a performer; in his final appearance, we see him telling jokes in front of a bored crowd at a seniors center. The possibility of being taken up by a famous Broadway producer had completely altered his sense of himself.

Fame has a crazy effect on people. It’s like money. Wanting it, winning it, having it thrust upon you without any effort on your part, losing it…fame and money can create strange, powerful disturbances in the normal fields of life.

As Plutarch observed, “For dealing with the blessings which come to us from outside we need a firm foundation based on reason and education; without this foundation, people keep on seeking these blessings and heaping them up but can never satisfy the insatiable appetites of their souls.”

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Hmmmm…I don’t think I agree with everything in this very provocative post about some reasons that people have affairs on the Psychology Today blogs, but there’s a lot of interesting material here. I’ve been thinking about equity theory lately, and wanting to learn more about it. It was also interesting to me as someone who wrote a biography of JFK. In college, a friend told me, “In the best relationships, both people think they’re getting the better deal.” This post undercuts that argument!

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11 tips for sticking to a schedule of regular exercise.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 11 tips for sticking to a schedule of regular exercise.

Exercise is a KEY to happiness. Research shows that people who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. They get relief from anxiety and mild depression, comparable to medication and therapy. They perform better at work.

Also, although it’s tempting to flop down on the couch when you’re feeling exhausted, exercise is actually a great way to boost energy levels. Feeling tired is a reason to exercise, not a reason to skip exercise.

But even when you admit that you’d feel better if you exercised, it can be very hard to adopt the habit. My idea of fun has always been to lie in bed, reading, preferably while also eating a snack – but I’ve managed to keep myself exercising by using all these tricks on myself:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week. Along the same lines…

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. As the day wears on, you’ll find more excuses to skip exercising. Get it checked off your list, first thing.

3. Never skip exercising for two days in a row. You can skip a day, but the next day, you must exercise, no matter how inconvenient.

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. My father always said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. Many times, by promising myself I could quit ten minues after I’d started, I got myself to start – and then found that I didn’t want to quit, after all.

5. Think about context. I thought I disliked weight-training, but in fact, I disliked the guys who hung out in the weight-training area. Are you distressed about the grubby showers in your gym? Do you try to run in the mornings, but recoil from going out in the cold? Examine the factors that might be discouraging you from exercising.

6. Exercise several times a week. If your idea of exercise is to join games of pick-up basketball, you should be playing practically every day. Twice a month isn’t enough.

7. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find a way to exercise that doesn’t require you to shower afterward. Twice a week, I have a very challenging weight-training session, but the format I follow doesn’t make me sweat. (Some of you are saying, “It can’t be challenging if you don’t sweat!” Oh yes, believe me, it is.)

8. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer or more convenient gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer to keep track of your walking distances? Exercise is a high life priority, so this a worthwhile place to spend some money if that helps.

9. Think of exercise as part of your essential preparation for times you want to be in especially fine form — whether in performance (to be sharp for an important presentation) or appearance (to look good for a wedding) or mood (to deal with a stressful situation). Studies show that exercise does help.

10. Remember one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood, courtesy of Voltaire: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t decide it’s only worth exercising if you can run five miles or if you can bike for an hour. I have a friend who scorns exercise unless she’s training for a marathon — so she never exercises. Even going for a ten-minute walk is worthwhile. Do what you can.

11. Don’t kid yourself. Belonging to a gym doesn’t mean you go to the gym. Having been in shape in high school or college doesn’t mean you’re in shape now. Saying that you don’t have time to exercise doesn’t make it true.

People often ask me, “So if I want to be happier, what should I be doing?” and I always say, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and plenty of exercise.”

I know, that answer doesn’t sound properly transcendent and high-minded on the subject of happiness, but research shows that you’d be wise to start there. And I’ve found that if I’m feeling energetic and well-rested, I find it much easier to follow all my other happiness-inducing resolutions.

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Yesterday and today, I attended a MediaBistro conference on “Change the Way You Think About Media.” There were many fascinating speakers; one of the most provocative presentations was by the fabulous digital marketer and idea maven Steve Rubel — and you can read his presentation here.

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Yippeee, at last ChimpMail has fixed the sign-up page for my new monthly newsletter, so 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.

The happiness of stopping my daughter’s tantrums.

The Little Girl is a charming, ebullient, sweet-natured three-year-old. She also had a habit of throwing MASSIVE tantrums. Kicking, screaming, throwing things, pulling glasses off people’s faces…it was bad.

It seemed so uncharacteristic of her, I kept thinking she’d outgrow it. She was so happy and friendly. We made excuses: she was overtired, she had a cold, she didn’t like rushing around. But the tantrums didn’t go away, and it became a real drag. We started calling her “the girl with curl”:

There was once a girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.

Finally, I admitted I needed to take direct action. Her tantrums were putting a cloud over our family life, plus I realized that I was adjusting my expectations – I was putting up with behavior I would never have tolerated with the Big Girl, because I didn’t want to deal with a tantrum. Not good. And on the other hand, there were pleasures I wasn’t permitting the Little Girl, because I knew she’d throw a tantrum when we said “Not now” or “It’s time to stop.” We never let her watch any TV, for example, even though I would otherwise have been happy to let her watch a Sesame Street episode or part of a Wiggles DVD, because of the certainty of the tantrums that would follow when the TV was switched off.

There’s a Buddhist saying that I’ve found to be uncannily accurate: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” My teacher appeared in the form of Beth Lisick, when I read her book, Helping Me Help Myself.

I’d read the book, because Beth Lisick did her own kind of happiness project: she spent a year following the advice of ten self-help gurus.

One of the gurus she followed was Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Beth Lisick explained all the reasons she resisted following the simple program in the book (it boils down to counting calmly “1, 2, 3″ and if your kid is still misbehaving, enforcing a short time-out, with no emotion and no talking) but in desperation, she tried it, and it worked. Like magic.

Okay. If it worked for Beth and her son, maybe it would work for us. I bought the book. I tried it. And you know what? It worked. Like magic. It didn’t completely stop the tantrums – the Little Girl still throws it down, from time to time, but less often, and for a much shorter amount of time, and we know how to react when she does.

A big comfort as a parent, I’ve discovered, is having a strategy. I need a theory of how to behave. This book gave me a tool to use when I didn’t know what to say or how to react. Even if it doesn’t always work, I know that I’m being consistent and reasonable. That feels a lot better than just flailing around, saying and doing whatever comes into my head at a difficult moment.

A lot of people would say, “I’d never use 1-2-3 Magic! I don’t like time-outs. That’s not the kind of parent I am.” I would have said exactly the same thing, as the mother of the Big Girl. But the Little Girl is different, and for us now, 1-2-3 Magic has been very helpful.

So, if you’ve got a tantrum-y kid, I would recommend giving it a try. Has anyone else had good, or bad, experience with it?

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Organ donation is a cause that interests me greatly, and I was very encouraged to see this post in Gimundo about an Ontario fund to help with living expenses incurred by patients awaiting for their transplants. What a great idea.

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I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.

I’ve heard from a few people that the link might not be working properly, so I’m off to investigate that right now!

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Aristotle.

“Men are what they are because their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse.” –Aristotle

Along those lines, current scientific studies suggest that, for happiness, genetics counts for about fifty percent, circumstances (like marriage, health, income, etc.) count for about ten percent, and the remainder — about forty percent of happiness — can be affected by purposeful strategies like exercise, cultivating gratitude, spending time with friends, acts of kindness, and the like.

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I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.

Happiness interview with Lifehacker’s Gina Trapani.

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. There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him, than by any other kind of argument.

Today’s interview is with Gina Trapani of the wildly popular megablog, Lifehacker. Lifehacker is crammed with all sorts of tips and hacks for getting things done more efficiently and with more fun; it has a tech flavor, but not so much that a non-techy person like me can’t get a lot out of it. It has contributed to a huge number of readers’ happiness, including mine.

Gina Trapani also just came out with a great new book, Upgrade Your Life: The Lifehacker Guide to Working Smarter, Faster, Better, that pulls together the best material from Lifehacker — check out the book’s website if you want a preview.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Gina: Talking with and spending time with people I love and admire always lifts my mood–even if it’s just a phone call. I work from home alone every day, so non-computer screen social time and that feeling of connection really helps me.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Gina: That getting that job/relationship/paycheck/grade/degree/recognition wouldn’t make me happy long-term. It would give me a shot of happiness around the time it happened, but that long term happiness is about the attitude I choose to have every day regardless of the circumstances of my life.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Gina: I’ve got a bad case of perfectionism, and I put pressure on myself to do too much, and that stress can kill happiness pretty quick. I also compare what I’ve done to what others have done and find ways that I come up short. That kind of self-criticism is natural and normal–especially for over-achievers–but it can be deadly, too.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Gina: Forgive me for this nerdy reference from The Matrix, but: “It is not the spoon that bends, it is only yourself.”

That’s my inner call to stop waiting around for something to happen (“because THEN I’ll be happy!”) and change my own mind about where I am and what I have right now.

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?
Gina: I think words are more powerful than we realize. Our lives are the stories we tell ourselves, so saying self-defeating things turns into negative experiences. You know what things I’m talking about: “I can’t do it. That’s too hard. I’ll never be that successful/get out of debt/resolve this problem/impress my boss. Everyone else gets everything they want but I always get the short end of the stick.”

On the opposite side of the coin, I love hearing people cast a positive spell over themselves and say things like “This is going to be great. I am so lucky. What a beautiful day. I’m so looking forward to this. I’m ready to kick ass on this project. Look at how cool this is!”

You can tell a lot about people by the casual remarks they make. I avoid Negative Nancies for the sake of my own happiness–I’ve actually ended friendships because I couldn’t handle the constant negativity.

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?
Gina: Like most people, my high school years were exceptionally unhappy, because I hadn’t developed the self-confidence to not worry about what other people thought of me. A year or two after September 11th–when I lived in NYC and worked near the Towers–was also incredibly difficult, though that was probably more a city-wide case of PTSD than anything else. Even after crazy traumatic events like that, I found my natural happiness level resumed its former self, but it did take time.

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There’s a great post on the Freakonomics blog about modern proverbs — that is, not traditional proverbs, like “A stitch in time save nine” (I was twenty years old before I figured that out), but new proverbs, like “It takes a village,” or “Fake it ’till you feel it.”

It was nice, too, to see that the question was posed by Fred Shapiro, the Yale quotation-master whom I saw in the Yale Law School library practically every day when I was in law school.

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I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.