Your Happiness Project: Give yourself a mental vacation, or, how to find a comfort food for your mind.

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.

Ever since the subprime mortgage mess began, and with the current financial crisis, many people—like me—have felt distracted and upset by the gyrations in the economy.

For some people, the anxiety is intense and relentless. If you’ve lost your job, or your job is at risk, or you’re entering the job market; if you’re planning to retire soon and your savings have taken a big hit; if you need to sell your house in a tough residential market – well, in those situations, you might find it hard to think about anything other than financial woes.

But try to give yourself a break from your worries, at least occasionally. By doing so, you’ll re-charge your battery, find it easier to stay calm and cheerful, find it easier to take action to remedy your situation — and you’ll sleep better. But this is easier said than done.

We all suffer from “negativity bias,” that is, we react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. Research shows one consequence of negativity bias is that when people’s thoughts wander, they tend to begin to brood. Anxious or angry thoughts capture our attention more effectively than happier thoughts.

So look for ways to pull your mind away from your worries onto positive topics. One great way is to watch a movie – preferably something funny! — or watch a favorite TV show. Don’t muddy the experience by trying to multi-task; you’re not going to get the benefit of taking a break from your own thoughts if you’re watching Trading Places while you pay bills or fold laundy. Give yourself a proper vacation: sit down and enjoy what you’re doing.

My favorite activity is reading, and when I really need “comfort food” for my mind, I read Victorian novels or children’s literature. I always re-read, too; when I’m upset, I want the comfort of knowing that I’ll love the book and that I won’t be upset by some unexpected plot twist.

I do find that some activities that are usually happiness-inducing don’t work very well when I’m preoccupied with bad thoughts. Listening to music, for example, is an extremely effective way to boost mood, but I find it too easy to start thinking about my worries when I’m listening – others might not have this problem. Similarly, although going for a walk usually cheers me up, it also gives me an excellent opportunity to brood if I’m inclined that way.

Cooking, cleaning, playing with your kids, playing video games, playing basketball – different people find different solutions. If you can find an activity that gives you exercise, gets you outside, or brings you in contact with other people, that’s especially effective.

So if you’re feeling overwhelmed, schedule a breather for yourself. By cheering yourself up, you’ll make yourself feel better, and you’ll also equip yourself to deal more effectively with tough situations.

Have you found a good way to give yourself a mental vacation — or an activity that acts as a comfort food for your mind?

I’m very interested in the issue of organ donation, and I got tears in my eyes when I read an article in yesterday’s New York Post. There was a terrible fire here in New York City, and in one family, a mother, a father, and three sisters died, and a ten-year-old boy was being kept alive only on life support. A family member said, “He was our only hope. We just hope they can harvest his organs so that his organs can save somebody else’s life.” With so much loss, this family was still able to think about others. To sign up for the organ donor registry yourself, go here.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Wednesday Tip for Blog Action Day: 1 tip on making yourself happier during the economic crisis — and combating poverty, too.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day — and today is also Blog Action Day.
This Wednesday: One big tip to help make you feel happier during the economic crisis — and combat poverty, at the same time.

The folks at Blog Action Day were prescient in their choice of “Poverty” as this year’s subject. The current economic situation will mean that people already living in poverty will suffer more, and that more people will face poverty.

For many people, however, the financial crisis won’t push them into true poverty, but it will make them feel much poorer – and as a consequence, make them feel anxious and powerless.

If you’re one of those people, there is a way that you can both help people living in poverty and help yourself feel happier: Give to other people.

One of the most important principles I’ve learned from my happiness research is that although we assume that we act because of the way we feel, often we feel because of the way we act.

Therefore, if you don’t like the way you’re feeling, take action in the opposite direction — it sounds simplistic, but it’s almost uncannily effective. If you’re feeling poor, give something away. If you’re feeling powerless, take control of something. Also, one of the quickest ways to make yourself feel better is to be GRATEFUL. It’s hard to feel grateful when you’re thinking about your 401K’s drop in value; thinking about giving to people who are worse off will remind you of how much you have to be grateful for.

When we think of doing something to help people living in poverty, it’s easy to think about donating money — and to say, “Look, I’d like to help, but I can’t afford to give right now.” Or to think about donating time – and to say, “I’d love to volunteer, but I’ve got to focus on my job hunt.”

When you tell yourself that you can’t afford to give, you increase your feelings of panic and danger. If you find ways to give, you will show yourself that you have enough and more, that you can be generous, that you recognize that others have needs more pressing than your own – and that will make you feel better. This act doesn’t have to be huge. I have a friend who puts all her loose change in a jar at the end of the day, and when the jar is full, she gives it to her church. It’s not much money, but it’s constant. She’s done it for years, and by now, she’s probably given away a fair bit.

Maybe you can’t give money or time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t give.

You could go through your closets and give the coats you don’t use anymore to a coat drive. Or you could go through your kids’ old books to see if you could give some to a group like Project Cicero, to go to a school or library in need.

Maybe you don’t have any stuff to give away. You could donate blood.

Maybe you are feeling so overwhelmed that even the thought of cleaning out a closet, or figuring out how to get to the closest blood bank, is something you just can’t face. You still have something to give to others – something precious, something life-changing, and you can sit right there at your desk, right now, and do it in about 25 seconds, without any further hassle. How? You can register to become an organ donor. If you support the idea of organ donation, but you haven’t signed up, take this chance to put your values into action. Do it! Right now! (Register online even if you’ve already signed an organ donor card, to make sure you’re in the online registry, which is far more accessible to doctors).

So act the way you want to feel. Acting with generosity, with gratitude, with compassion, will change your perception of your own situation. And it will improve the lives of others.

I don’t mean to suggest that people should only take steps to address poverty as a way to make THEMSELVES feel better. Obviously, we have a duty to help other people, regardless of how it makes us feel.

But when you’re feeling shocked and frantic, it can be hard to think about other people. Research shows that happy people are more helpful, more altruistic, and more interested in the problems of other people and society; unhappy people tend to be more defensive, self-absorbed, and isolated.

So by trying to make yourself feel happier, you are also preparing yourself to do a better job of helping others. Bolstering your own sense of calm and security will free you to think about other people. And if you can make this change in yourself by helping those living in poverty – well, that’s a perfect virtuous circle.

This is a good example of the extremely important Second Splendid Truth, which holds that:
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.

Especially when life feels complicated, the idea of simplicity is extremely attractive. I find good ideas at On Simplicity.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. 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 Colleen Wainwright.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, 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.

Today’s interview is with Colleen Wainwright, aka the Communicatrix. Colleen has a terrific blog, as well as a terrific newsletter. I read a lot of newsletters, and hers is one of the ones that I most look forward to reading. How could you not enjoy a newsletter that’s “about expressing the unique fabulosity that is you”? Colleen always has useful advice, good links, excellent reading suggestions — plus I usually laugh out loud a few times as I’m reading.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Colleen: Hands down, hanging out with my pal Arno J. McScruff.

I grew up with cats, which are excellent, in their borderline-indifferent way. There’s a lot about happiness to be learned from living with cats, as well. I’m thinking particularly of the cat’s ability to go from 60 to zero in a nanosecond.

But nothing beats a dog for maximum attitude excellence. Nothing I’ve found yet, anyway.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Colleen: That happiness isn’t something you get; it’s something you are.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Colleen: Haha! Where do I start?

Gretchen, some days it feels like everything I do gets in the way of my happiness. Stuff like…attachment. Expections, especially those of the unrealistic variety. The ever-popular Beating the Crap Out of Myself. The somewhat less frequent exercises in Verbally Trashing the Enemy.

Then there’s the dead-simple stuff I swear I will never get sometimes, like not eating right, not getting the rest I need, not playing enough.

I suppose if you boil it down, you could call it hubris. Who the hell am I to think I can do all this toxic ridiculousness without it affecting my happiness and, by extension, the health and happiness of the world around me?

Thanks for the reminder!

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?
Colleen: This, too, shall pass. It sounds like a totally negative thing on the face of it (and the way we use it most, it is). But if you think about it, there’s a second meaning: time is short, baby. Is this how you want to spend it?

My all-time favorite quote is from Beverly Sills, the American opera singer: There are no shortcuts to any place worth going.

It’s not specifically written about happiness, but boy, howdy, does it ever apply!

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Colleen: I walk. With or without the dog. Something about a little exercise, a little motion, a little canine, really turns me around.

I also have a very strange habit of watching the Clint Eastwood film, Play Misty for Me, when I need comfort. I only watch the first few scenes, before it turns dark and scary (it’s a really good thriller!).

When I’m going through a stressful time, I’ll watch it every night in a row, for weeks on end. Not exactly a heroin habit, but I was concerned enough about it to run it by my shrink. She says it’s cool, provided I don’t get to the point where I can’t sleep without it. (I’ve been in Seattle for two weeks now and haven’t watched it once, so I figure I’m good!)

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?
Colleen: The Additive: People who genuinely extend themselves to others, even in small ways like a “hello” or a smile, are happier. Dead simple. Crazy-effective.

The Subtractive: Forgetting to be grateful for what you have right now. It’s a killer.

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?
Colleen: Definitely up and down periods until about six years ago, when I got diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.

I had a severe onset, which meant outrageous fevers, weight and blood and muscle loss, and a long hospital stay and convalescence. I distinctly remember being in the hospital, about halfway through my 11-day stay (which, for the uninitiated, is an eternity these days), when I was at my physical nadir. They’d stabilized me, but my prospects for a normal life and recovery were pretty grim. I’d seen my dad grapple with Crohn’s my whole life, and I knew how bad it could get.

So I’m in the bed, just lying there, without the brightest of prognoses, and this wave of warmth and love flooded through me. I’m not religious at all, but because I have no adequate words for it, I’ve described the feeling as being like sitting in the hand of God. I felt at peace and at one with everything in the world. It lasted forever and was gone in a flash—like time stopping, but also like being in some kind of eternal flow. Even as I experienced it, I knew it wouldn’t last, nor was it supposed to. It was just a lucky, lucky glimpse into what really mattered.

From that moment on, I’ve been cranky and scared and depressed and all the stuff I ever was, but now with the realization that I can choose to feel that way or not. So yeah, I choose it still, but more and more fleetingly.

Part of the reason I started blogging was in the hope that I could share some of what I learned, so that maybe I could spare one or two people from having to go to such extremes to find their peace.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Nah. I mean, I try to cultivate a general awareness, period. I think that keeps me in the here and now, and the more I’m really there, the harder it is to soak in unhappiness.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Colleen: Haha! Uh…love? Marriage? Moving, the first three times? That VP/corner office thing?

I’m really lucky in that I got to live my life backwards and experience relative success in my 20s. It became immediately apparent that fortune wasn’t going to cut it; the glow from fame, or recognition, was nice, but transitory.

I guess my reply to what did surprise me is the fairly standard “helping other people.” I’m kind of ashamed at how long it took me to come around to that one, but oh, well. No beating myself up, right?

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On why undertaking a major project is a good source of happiness.

I’ve written before about the massive project I’ve undertaken with a friend — a book of photographs of our children, modeled after the brilliant J. M. Barrie’s one-of-a-kind book, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

It turns out that a multi-step, multi-hassle, multi-errand, time-sucking project like this one brings SO MUCH HAPPINESS!

It’s fun to do something fun with a friend — and even better, our children are involved, too. It’s always fun to take cool photos of your children, especially when you can dress them in costumes. We have a reason to do things we wouldn’t ordinarily bother to do; this morning, we met in the park at 9:30 a.m. It was gorgeous in the park, but in the normal course of life, we would never have been there that early today.

This morning, the Boy Castaways project (as we call it now, because we haven’t thought of a title for our book yet) was also an opportunity for me to enjoy the novelty and challenge that are so important to happiness.

Today was a big day, because we were taking the much-anticipated boat shots. We rented two rowboats in Central Park, rowed out to the middle, and took pictures of the children. One of the photos will take its title from my favorite line from Barrie’s Boy Castaways: We set out to be wrecked.

The novelty and challenge, for me, arose from the fact that I had to row one of the boats. This is not the kind of thing I would ordinarily be inclined to do at all. I’m very uncoordinated and unadventurous. My friend, on the other hand, was raring to go. She’s the type to eat pie for breakfast and encourage her kids to catch turtles — so rowing a boat was no big deal for her.

I’m sure she knew I was dreading the challenge (fact is, novelty and challenge are usually accompanied by fear or frustration), and also knew that I’d be fine if I had to do the rowing, and indeed, once we got out on the water, I LOVED it. “Why haven’t we done this before?” I kept thinking. “We could eat a picnic on the water! We could row all around the lake! We have a great view of Bethesday fountain!”

Now, for many people, rowing a boat isn’t novel or challenging — but it was for me. I got a burst of happiness from the satisfaction of having tackled my uneasiness and having mastered something new. The fact that it’s extremely easy to row a boat on a perfectly calm little lake didn’t at all detract from my feelings of triumph.

And the photos! They were unbelievable. A happy morning.

I discovered the Wisdom Journal — a blog about “life, money, business, and the pursuit of balance.” Subjects useful to the study of happiness!

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Happiness quotation from Jane Austen.

From the novel Emma:

“Miss Bates…had never boasted either beauty or cleverness. Her youth had passed without distinction, and her middle of life was devoted to the care of a failing mother, and the endeavour to make a small income go as far as possible. And yet she was a happy woman, and a woman whom no one named without good-will. It was her own universal goodwill and contented temper which worked such wonders. She loved every body, was interested in every body’s happiness and quick-sighted to every body’s merits; thought herself a most fortunate creature, and surrounded with blessings in such an excellent mother and so many good neighbours and friends, and a home that wanted for nothing. The simplicity and cheerfulness of her nature, her contented and grateful spirit, were a recommendation to every body and a mine of felicity to herself.” –Jane Austen

I visited the Think Simple Now blog for the first time — glad to discover it.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.