Your Happiness Project: Find Your “Comfort Food” Activity.

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.

We’re all familiar with the idea of “comfort food” – the food that you turn to when you’re feeling sad or stressed, to make yourself feel better. Maybe it’s mac and cheese made the way your mother used to make it, or maybe it’s a cupcake from your favorite bakery.

I realized that I have a “comfort food” type activity: reading children’s books. I love children’s literature, so I often read children’s books (now that I’ve embraced my love for kidlit) whatever my mood.

But when I’m feeling overwhelmed, worried, or upset, I find myself turning to children’s books for comfort. These are books that I’ve re-read innumerable times, and that I love, and that have that special quality of atmosphere that children’s books have.

My favorite comfort-activity authors are Louia May Alcott, C. S. Lewis, Frances Hodgson Burnett, Madeleine L’Engle, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Edward Eager, Elizabeth Enright, and Noel Streatfield. Oh, and E. L. Konigsberg, L. Frank Baum, Judy Blume, Robert O’Brien, Betty MacDonald, and Susan Cooper. And of course J. K. Rowling.

Just thinking about these names gives me a delicious feeling of pleasure and reassurance.

For years, I read children’s books as my comfort activity without quite grasping that I was self-medicating through literature. Now, though, instead of unconsciously wandering over to my kidlit bookshelves in times of stress, I reach for these books, knowing that they’ll make me feel better. Realizing I have a tool at the ready is itself soothing.

My husband cooks for his comfort activity – often, bread. A friend of mine told me he plays with his dog, another friend watches episodes of The Sopranos, and another friend cleans out the fridge.

Remember, to find real comfort in an activity, it can’t be something that makes you feel anxious or guilty, later. That kind of treat doesn’t work in the long run. Don’t go shopping or eat ice cream if the good feeling is going to turn bad.

Do you have a “comfort food” activity?

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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.

Happiness: Putting the Flashlight on the Second Shelf of My Coat Closet.

Something that always cheers me up – when I can muster the energy to do it – is to tidy up. I find it relaxing to put things away, and the resulting order calms my mind. Chucking junk mail, putting dirty clothes in the hamper, arranging everything to fit in the medicine cabinet…these kinds of activities never fail me. When I’m feeling blue, to take action to make an improvement, no matter how insignificant that improvement may be, is a tonic.

Over the past few years, I’ve thought a lot about the happiness power of clutter-clearing, and I discovered something surprising. Although I would have thought it would be easier to put things away in general areas — the coat closet, any kitchen drawer — it’s actually much more satisfying to return item to a highly specific location.

One of life’s small pleasures is to return something to its proper and precise place; putting the flashlight on the second shelf in the coat closet gives me the archer’s satisfaction of hitting a mark. Have you ever seen those peg boards where people have outlined their tools or their kitchen implements, to show where each thing belongs? (I think Julia Child had one.) That’s exactly what I’m talking about.

Now I strive to have an exact place for everything in my whole apartment (except toys – I just throw Polly Pockets and stuffed animals into whatever box, drawer, or shelf is closest, or else I would never have time to do anything else). Obviously, this system makes it easier to find the things I need, which boosts my happiness, but it also boosts my happiness to have that deep sense of placement.

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A friend set me a link to the blog Inchmark, where Brooke Reynolds has a great idea: every time one of her children says something funny, she writes it on a piece of paper and puts it in a jar. When she’s feeling blue, she reaches into the jar to pull out a quotation. I write those funny things in my one-sentence journal, but putting them in a jar is much more colorful and accessible.

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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.

Friendship: Seven Tips for Making New Friends.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: seven tips for making new friends.

Ancient philosophers and scientists agree: strong social ties are the KEY to happiness. You need close, long-term relationships; you need to be able to confide in others; you need to belong; you need to get and give support. Studies show that if you have five or more friends with whom to discuss an important matter you’re far more likely to describe yourself as “very happy.”

Not only does having strong relationships make it far more likely that you take joy in life, but studies show that it also lengthens life (incredibly, even more than stopping smoking), boosts immunity, and cuts the risk of depression.

“Okay, okay,” you’re thinking, “I get it — but it’s not that easy to make new friends.” Here are some strategies to try, if you’re eager to make friends but are finding it tough:

1. Show up. Just as Woody Allen said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” a big part of friendship is showing up. Whenever you have the chance to see other people, take it. Go to the party. Stop by someone’s desk. Make the effort.

Also, the mere exposure effect describes the fact that repeated exposure makes you like someone better – and makes that person like you better, too. You’re much more likely to become friends with someone if you see him or her often. I’ve seen this happen over and over in my life. I’ve become close to unlikely people, just because circumstances put us in constant contact.

2. Join a group. Being part of a natural group, where you have common interests and are brought together automatically, is the easiest way to make friends: starting a new job, taking a class, having a baby, joining a congregation, or moving to a new neighborhood are great opportunities to join a group. If those situations aren’t an option, try to find a different group to join. Get a dog, for example. Or pursue a hobby more seriously. An added advantage to making friends through a group is that you can strengthen your friendships to several people at once — very helpful if you don’t have a lot of free time.

3. Form a group. If you can’t find an existing group to join, start a group based around something that interests you. My children’s literature reading groups – (yes, now I’ve helped start TWO of these groups — the first one became so large that we had to close it to new members) are among the top joys of my life. Studies show that each common interest between people boosts the chances of a lasting relationship, and also brings about a 2% increase in life satisfaction, but I’m confident that my kidlit groups have given me a lift in life satisfaction much higher than two percent. Movies, wine, cheese, pets, marathon-training, a language, a worthy cause…I know people in all these sorts of groups.

4. Say nice things about other people. It’s a kind way to behave; also, studies show that because of the psychological phenomenon of spontaneous trait transference, people unintentionally transfer to you the traits you ascribe to other people. So if you tell Jean that Pat is arrogant, unconsciously Jean associates that quality with you. On the other hand, if you say that Pat is hilarious, you’ll be linked to that quality.

5. Set a target. This strategy sounds very calculating, but it has really worked for me. When I enter a situation where I meet a new set of people, I set myself the goal of making three new friends. This seems artificial, but somehow, this shift makes me behave differently, it makes me more open to people, it prompts me to make the effort to say more than a perfunctory hello.

6. Make an effort to smile. Big surprise, studies show that the amount of time you smile during a conversation has a direct effect on how friendly you’re perceived to be. In fact, people who can’t smile due to facial paralysis have trouble with relationships.

7. Make friends with friends-of-friends. “Triadic closure” is the term for the fact that people tend to befriend the friends of their friends. So friends-of-friends is an excellent place to start if you’re trying to expand your circle.

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Check out my one-minute internet movie, The Years Are Short.

Happiness Interview with Penelope Trunk: “Happiness is Sort of a Trick.”

Penelope Trunk is one of the most interesting and provocative writers about career happiness – and happiness in general. (I think it’s almost impossible to untangle these two issues, but Penelope might disagree with me on that.) She wrote a terrific book, Brazen Careerist; she writes a very popular blog also called Brazen Careerist; and she’s the CEO of BrazenCareerist.com, an online community and consulting firm.

The thing about Penelope is that, yes, she is BRAZEN. She’s unusually honest about her experiences and her views (for example, she wrote a lot about her experiences with marriage counseling), and unlike many highly opinionated people, she packs her writing with solid information and backs up her perspective. I always get a lot out of reading her material – I don’t always agree, but I’m always fascinated.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Penelope: There is nothing simple that I can rely on to make me happier. Yoga always makes me happy, but getting myself to do it is difficult even though I’m always happy I did it. Kissing someone I have a crush on always makes me happy, but finding the crush and orchestrating the kiss is tricky.

I want to tell you that expressing gratitude always makes me happier. I know that research says this is true. But I think we could debate forever how much increase in happiness is so small it’s not even worth talking about. I’m not sure. But a kiss with a crush is always worth talking about.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
My happiness levels in life don’t particularly change depending on where I am in life. I have sort of a setpoint. I veer from it in the same way I veer from my regular weight the day after Thanksgiving — I always go back to that setpoint.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Eating bread is what I’m working on right now. I’ve been off gluten enough to know that it makes a difference in my anxiety levels. I am calmer with no gluten. But bread is so yummy, and also it’s the food I turn to if I want to do emotional eating. Over the course of a day I am happier if I don’t eat bread, but over the course of a minute — when the bread is in front of me — it’s hard to make the right decisions.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
I tell myself that happiness is not about making good choices or having success, it’s about being resilient when we mess up.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I eat bread. And then I have the problem above. If I am really unhappy I go to bed. Severe unhappiness generally goes away with time.

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?
I see a lot of bullshit around me. So I am sort of cynical about the discussion of happiness. I am not sure that I think the discussion of “Am I happy?” is productive. I think life is extremely difficult, for everyone, and that in order to get through life we have tricks for ourselves to continue the journey and happiness is sort of a trick. I don’t think there is a lot of happiness in life, there is a lot of hopefulness and interest in how things unfold, and there are spurts of happiness. Sometimes I think that happiness is maybe not the most important part of a well-lived life. But I’m not sure.

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?
Always the same. I have earned $300,000/year in NYC and I have earned $45,000 a year. And there was no change. I have been married and divorced, and there was no change. I have had lots of friends and very few friends, and no change. I am generally upbeat and optimistic, and I am an optimizer. And nearly of those things ever change.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Yes. By reading the research and watching how it applies to my life. Right now I am consumed with the idea that one of the biggest impacts you can have on happiness levels is going from no sex to having regular sex with a regular partner. Working on that one. Forget daily gratitudes. Those don’t impact happiness nearly as much.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I thought money would make me happy. It didn’t. I still think money would make me happy. There is cognitive dissonance and I think it might be part of our DNA. Here’s an irony: That in order to spend days implementing the happiness research, you’d do best to have someone else supporting you financially, so you can focus on happiness. I get stuck on thinking like this. I’m not sure how right it is, I just know that people — most people — are stuck on the money issue, even if they won’t admit it.

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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.

Gwyneth Paltrow’s Interesting Insight on Happiness.

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article from Bob Morris, Martha, Oprah…Gwyneth? about Gwyneth Paltrow’s emergence as a lifestyle guru.

I’m not interested in cooking, so I paid no attention to Gwyneth Paltrow’s new PBS show with super-chef Mario Batali, “Spain…on the Road Again,” but I had checked out her website Cut people slack, “Be easy to please,” “Have a heart to be contented,” etc.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly difficult to be positive and enthusiastic — it’s tiring. And being critical does supply a jolt of energy. I don’t know why, and it’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

In the end, though, being overly critical doesn’t boost happiness much. Self-image is shaped in large degree by our actions, and somewhere each one of us has a little Jiminy Cricket doing an evaluation: “Spiteful, destructive, unenthuasiastic, querulous…” Plus, the more negative we are toward others, the more negative they are toward us. Have you noticed that people who are very gossipy and critical are often quite paranoid? There’s a reason for that.

Paltrow’s observation — that being negative gives an energy hit – underscores a KEY point. When I’m tired, I’m far more likely to do things that drag on my happiness. I eat junk food, I speak too sharply to my family, I skip exercising, I don’t make the effort to help other people – neither strangers nor friends. And I’m more likely to be automatically negative.

I’ve becoming increasingly convinced about the importance of energy to happiness. When I started my happiness project, my first set of resolutions was aimed at boosting energy (“Get more sleep,” “Exercise better,” etc. – eventually I also largely quit drinking), because I figured I’m better able to keep my resolutions when I have more energy. I don’t need to write a snarky response to someone’s snarky comment on my blog, or criticize someone’s parenting decisions, or point out my husband’s shortcomings to him, or pointlessly trash a book or movie, to get that nasty hit of energy.

*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.