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.

Happiness is…Breakfast with Deepak Chopra.

Zoikes, yesterday I had breakfast with Deepak Chopra. It was a fascinating conversation – the two of us, along with two other people interested in the same issues. Like an idiot, I didn’t ask if I could discuss our conversation on my blog, so I don’t feel comfortable relating what he said – not that our discussion covered anything potentially scandalous. Mindfulness, love…that sort of thing.

People keep asking me what he had to eat. I was concentrating so hard on the conversation that I wasn’t being very observant. I think he had an omelette, but I wouldn’t swear to it.

Yes, I realize that this isn’t a very satisfying report. Alas!

* I really enjoyed coming across a blog of photographs, By Henry Sene Yee Photography. Lots of humor and acute perception, in addition to engaging photographs.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 22,000 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.

Eight Tips for Working More Happily With Your Colleagues.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 8 tips for working more happily with your colleagues.

Last week’s tips offered sixteen suggestions for feeling happier at work by tackling aspects of your work space and your day. But actually, your relationships with your co-workers has more influence on your happiness.

Maybe you have lots of co-workers — or maybe, like me, you work by yourself so you have to fashion your own “colleagues.” Here are nine strategies that I’ve used at various point in my work life:

1. Although some people believe it’s best to keep work life and personal life separate, and therefore avoid making friends with colleagues, for most people, having strong friendships makes work more fun. Science supports this: having close relationships is essential to happiness, strengthens the immune system, and reduces anxiety. However…

2. If you’re in a long-term relationship, avoid creating situations that might put you in the path of temptation. (Here are five tips to avoid having an office affair.)

3. If you work alone, take time to mix with other people. Socializing boosts the moods of introverts, as well as extroverts. I love having long stretches when I work by myself in silence, but I’ve realized that I need to make several appointments each week to put me in contact with other people.

4. Each week, walk around your office and talk to a few people you don’t know well. You’ll feel more comfortable socially, plus knowing more people facilitates work flow. Remember the mere exposure effect, as well: repeated exposure makes people like music, faces, even nonsense syllables, better. That means that the more often you see someone, the more intelligent and attractive that person will seem.

5. Apply the Eighth Commandment: Identify the problem. If a colleague gets under your skin, figure out why. I used to work with a guy who enraged me at every meeting. When I started analyzing his techniques, to understand why he was having that effect on me, I became fascinated with the brilliance of his subtle put-downs. (For a list of his strategies, see my book Power Money Fame Sex, chapter 3.)

6. Apply the Twelfth Commandment, There is only love. This commandment was inspired by a friend who took a job where she knew she’d have a difficult boss. From the beginning, she told herself, “There is only love.” She doesn’t allow herself to criticize her boss, even in her own mind, and won’t listen to anyone else’s criticism. She says it’s tough to do, but it has made her job far easier.

7. Say “Good morning” to everyone. This is polite, and it will also help you feel like you have a small connection to everyone you see. That makes your workplace seem more friendly and warm.

8. Cut people slack. You never know what’s going on in people’s lives, and it’s always better to err on the side of being forgiving, not taking things personally, and trying to see the funny side of circumstances.

What am I missing? What are some strategies that you’ve used to work more happily with your colleagues?

* Zoikes! There’s a group for people doing happiness projects forming in Enid, Oklahoma that already has 26 members! Fantastic! If you’d like to start a group, yourself, click here for the starter kit. If you want to connect with other leaders starting groups, check out this discussion. If you want to see if a group is forming in your area, check here (this list looks pretty clunky; we’ll make it more visually appealing at some point but just wanted to get the list going at this point).

More about the Significance of Unhappiness for Happiness.

My post yesterday – about unhappiness – has been bothering me. I feel like I missed some important points, but I’m not exactly sure what they are. The people who commented on the post brought out some important elements, but I still feel like there’s more here to wrestle with.

One consideration I forgot to take into account is a Secrets of Adulthood: happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. That is, the things that bring happiness also bring frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. Raising children, starting a blog, going to the gym, traveling in a foreign country…these are some things that bring me a huge amount of happiness, but also a lot of frustration, anxiety, boredom, fear, etc. But although I have bad feelings, I don’t think that’s quite the same thing as feeling unhappy.

The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. Sometimes people equate “unhappiness” with “feeling bad.” But bad feelings have a different…flavor…depending on whether they’re accompanying an activity that’s fundamentally making me happy, or making me unhappy.

For example, I have a low threshold for irritation. I get annoyed very, very easily. My children annoy me, and not owning enough socks annoys me. I willingly (more or less) accept the annoyance caused by the demands of little kids, but why suffer the annoyance of a lack of socks? Just buy some socks! As an under-buyer, this is a real challenge for me – but having enough socks does, in a small way, contribute to my happiness.

On a higher note, my work often causes me to feel anxious, stressed, frustrated – but I love my work, so it’s not hard for me to tolerate these feelings. It’s part of the process of accomplishing what I’m trying to do. But if I had a job I disliked, those emotions might overwhelm me with unhappiness.

So all bad feelings aren’t created equal. A bad feeling can accompany something that will, in the end, lead to happiness – or not.

When people talk about the foolishness of trying to eliminate unhappiness, I think they’re envisioning a life from which all bad feelings had been banished. That kind of life wouldn’t make anyone happy, and it’s not possible anyway. (Even the great St. Therese of Lisieux, with her tremendous spiritual gifts, felt despair and even petty annoyance in her cloistered convent.) The trick, I guess, is to figure out where bad feelings will turn to the good, and where they won’t – i.e., where they’re a necessary accompaniment to an activity that makes you happy, or when they’re a sign that you need to think about making some changes.

* I was thrilled when Barbara Arredondo of Mexico’s Indigo Brainmedia wanted to interview me about the “proyecto felicidad.” I don’t speak Spanish, but this site is amazingly fun to visit anyway, because it’s so dynamic. And check out the company I was placed in here! Sheesh.

* 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.

The Importance of Unhappiness for Happiness.

Because I write every day about happiness, and how to be happier, many people assume that I’m on an anti-unhappiness crusade – that I think that life, lived right, would be a stream of non-stop blissful moments.

As a consequence, I frequently hear arguments in defense of unhappiness – that without unhappiness, you can’t have a rich, complete moral and aesthetic life; that it’s a necessary corollary to love and attachment; that it’s an important goad to working for meaningful changes; that it’s not possible to have an “up” without a “down”; etc. (Some people, I suspect, argue on behalf of unhappiness because they ascribe to Happiness Myth No. 1: Happy people are annoying and stupid.)

But I’m not on a wipe-out-every-sad-moment-from-your-life campaign; I don’t think that striving to have a happier life means that you should be striving to wipe out all unhappiness from your life or to ignore any cause for unhappiness to live in a cheery stupor. I agree with all those arguments about the significance of unhappiness.

In fact, because of my happiness project, I try to pay a lot more attention to unhappy feelings. It’s tempting to try to tune them out, because they’re unpleasant, but unhappiness is an important cue. (As always, I consider depression to be a grave condition, separate from the happiness/unhappiness distinction.)

An extremely minor example of this: how I gave up fake food. For a long time, I ate a lot of fake food – things like granola bars, fat-free cookies, single-servings packages of sugary cereals, etc. I’d get hungry when I was running around, and instead of getting some real food to eat, I’d get fake food. Fake food was easy, it was cheap, it was fast, and it felt like a treat.

I did this for years. Because of my happiness project, however, I started looking for places in my life where I felt bad (that’s one prong of the First Splendid Truth), and I realized that eating fake food was a source of bad feeling for me. Eating so much junk food instead of healthy food made me feel guilty and out of control.

So I gave it up – cold turkey, because I’m an abstainer not a moderator. And it makes me very happy to be free from that small, but relentless, shot of twice-daily guilt.

Feeling bad is a sign that it’s time for action. Change is often painful; unpleasant, disruptive; exhausting; scary. Unhappiness can act as the goad to get you to push through those barriers. It can push you to switch jobs, get out of a relationship, move, change your habits, change your behavior, change the world. You can start meditating, start running, start a non-profit, start a garden. Everyone’s happiness project is unique, and the approach that you take to address your unhappiness is unique.

I’m saying that unhappiness is a clue to a way to be happier; does that mean that I believe that the goal of life is to eliminate all unhappiness? No. But it is a goal to give up needless unhappiness, or foolish unhappiness, or lazy unhappiness? Yup.

Some people describe a pleasure, or a sense of purposefulness, in feeling sad. I guess I just don’t get that.

What do you think? Have you experienced a situation where feeling unhappy was an important catalyst to help you change? And is there a redeeming quality for unhappiness that I’m not appreciating?

* Groups for people doing their own happiness projects are forming! I saw this link to the one in Gainesville, Florida, and I heard that the Greater L.A. group already has 31 members — zoikes. I can’t wait to hear more about these groups.

* If you’d like to start a group yourself, for people doing happiness projects, click here for a starter kit.