Want to be Able to Predict If Someone Will Be Happy In the Future?

I recently finished a terrific novel, Sarah Dunn’s Secrets to Happiness. (How could I resist that title?) One scene caught my happiness-project attention. Betsy is on a blind date with Alan, and they’re both in the mode of sizing up marriagability on the first date.

Alan asks Betsy, “Do you consider yourself a happy person?” In response to her vague answer, he says, “My uncle always said…the secret to being happy in a marriage is to marry someone who was already happy…[And] the older I get, the more I see that my friends who married happy women are happy, and the ones who didn’t have all sorts of problems.”

“You can’t blame that on the wives,” Betsy answers.

“Yeah, but I think what he meant was, it’s hard to make an unhappy woman happy…a house can only be as happy as the least person in it.” (His rationale would apply to husbands, too.) Alan never asks Betsy on a second date, and the clear implication is that he decided that she seems unhappy, and so would likely be unhappy in marriage.

Now, this reminded of studies – as discussed in Daniel Nettle’s Happiness — that show, as Nettle sums up, “that the best predictor of how happy people are at the end of the study is how happy they were at the beginning. It is as if happiness or unhappiness stem in large part from how we address what happens in the world, not what actually happens.” (p. 92)

This tidbit has always struck me as singularly unhelpful for someone working on being happier – like telling someone that the best way to avoid being overweight was to have always been thin.

Alan was using that information not as a guide to thinking about his own happiness, however, but to evaluate the likelihood that someone else would be happy – someone whose happiness would matter a lot to him, if they married.

This got me thinking. Betsy was unhappy, in large part, because she was worried about getting married and having children. Presumably, then, she’d be happier once she was married with a family, so it seems unfair for Alan to presume she was permanently unhappy.

But in real life, how does this work? Are some people basically happy or unhappy, and don’t try to change, so that something like finally getting married wouldn’t make such a difference? Or would it? The arrival fallacy holds that we generally aren’t made as happy by that kind of “arrival” as we expect. On the other hand, the First Splendid Truth holds that feeling right is very important to happiness, and if your life doesn’t reflect your dreams and values, it’s hard to be happy.

That question aside, Alan’s way of thinking struck me as both helpful and harsh.

Helpful, because sometimes it might well be worth considering someone’s happiness level. If you’re interviewing for a job with a boss who seems very dissatisfied and angry, you might decide that he wouldn’t be happy with you (or you with him). If you’re thinking of sharing an apartment with someone who lives under a dark cloud, you might want to choose a different roommate.

Harsh, because it prompted Alan to turn away from Betsy, who was a nice person, and because this kind of analysis would push people away from less-happy people, who need friendship and consideration. (Spoiler alert: in the end, Betsy gets married to a terrific guy.)

What do you think? Have you ever made a similar analysis about someone else’s happiness?

* Special message for the Super-Fans:

Hey Super-Fans!
Thanks SO MUCH for volunteering as a super-fan. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate it. The designers report that the website will be ready to test on April 6. We’ll see – such dates often slide – but it shouldn’t be too long. I’ll send you an email with all the information. (If it turns out you don’t want to participate in the test, don’t worry about it, of course.)

If anyone else is interested in volunteering as a super-fan, to help me out with various tasks such as the early testing of my super-fabulous new website, you can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.

Thomas Merton’s Ambition? “To Be What I Already Am.”

“Finally I am coming to the conclusion that my highest ambition is to be what I already am. That I will never fulfill my obligation to surpass myself unless I first accept myself, and if I accept myself fully in the right way, I will already have surpassed myself.”
— Thomas Merton, Journal, October 2, 1958

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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.

Relationships: Why I’m Trying to be Interested in Hannah Montana as Well as Tolstoy.

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.

I’m going through a Tolstoy obsession right now – one which I’ve resisted for a long time, but now, in true Tolstoyan fashion, am allowing myself to succumb to – and I was struck by a phrase in a description of Nabatov, a hero in Resurrection.

Nabatov is a peasant who got a high-school education because of his exceptional talents. He didn’t go to the university, however, because he wanted to “go among the people and enlighten his neglected brethren.” He took up various positions, and each time was arrested for trying to organize the peasants, and ultimately he was exiled. Tolstoy extols his virtues:

“As a peasant he was industrious, observant, and clever at his work; he was also naturally self-controlled, polite without any effort, and attentive not only to the wishes but also to the opinions of others. His widowed mother, an illiterate, superstitious old peasant woman, was still living, and Nabatov helped her, and used to visit her when he was free. During the time he spent at home he entered into all the interests of his mother’s life, helped her in her work, continued his intercourse with former playfellows, smoking in their company cheap tobacco in ‘dog’s-foot cigarettes,’ took part in their fisticuffs, and explained to them how they were all being deceived by the State and how they ought to disentangle themselves from the deception they were kept in.”

The phrase that caught my attention in this description is that Nabatov “entered into all the interest of his mother’s life.” It occurs to me that when you think of people getting along harmoniously – whether in a family, or among friends, or in an office – people make an effort to enter into the interests of each other’s lives.

Presumably Nabatov wasn’t much interested in the things that interested his “illiterate, superstitious old peasant” mother. I’m not much interested in Hannah Montana, which interests my older daughter. My husband isn’t much interested in why I think all biographers of St. Therese of Lisieux have profoundly misunderstood her.

Not only do people find it difficult to enter into each other’s interests, people also have a strong impulse to be judgmental about other people’s interests. I think someone’s interest in wine is boring. Someone thinks my interest in children’s literature is childish.

When you’re trying to be happier, one issue that frequently arises is: “If I do this, am I being fake? Doesn’t happiness depend on being authentic? If I don’t naturally feel optimistic/positive/interested, why should I pretend?” (See, e.g., whether you should unenthusiastically play your part in a tradition.)

That’s a very good question. If you spend your time faking an interest in topics that bore you, you’re not going to be very happy. On the other hand, entering into other people’s interests is an important way to show respect and affection.

Ah, the elusive happy medium. What do you think? Is it laudable to enter into other people’s interests, or do you view that as inauthentic? Wait…I think I hear the Hannah Montana theme song. Gotta go.

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I’m thrilled! I asked if any possible “super-fans” of the Happiness Project would be willing to volunteer to help me out in a few ways — and so many people have offered. Thank you all!

If any more kind souls would like to sign up, please just drop me an email at
gretchenrubin1[at]gmail[dot com]. (I added brackets to thwart spammers, but just use the usual email format.) No need to write anything more than “super-fan” in the subject line, and I’ll put your name on the list.

First item: before long, I’m going to launch my super-secret, super-fabulous, happiness-related website. I’ll send the super-fans the link ahead of time, in case they’d be interested in being beta testers (i.e., using the site in its early, pre-public stages).

If you’re not interested in that, there are other issues that will come up in the next few months — all purely voluntary, of course, so if you sign up as a super-fan but then don’t have time or don’t want to do anything, that’s fine, too.

How to Make Friends and Have Fun.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is Join or start a group. I can’t begin to measure how much happiness I’ve received from starting my two children’s literature reading groups (yes, now I belong to two of these groups, because the first one got so big we stopped accepting new people). If you’re trying to find more happiness in life, being part of a group helps you make new friends, deepen existing friendships, and have fun – all factors that will make you happier. Also, it can be a source of an atmosphere of growth in your life, also key for happiness.

If you want to start a group, a common passion is a great organizing principle: French movies, gardening, learning Italian, training for a marathon, etc. But what if you don’t have a specific passion that lends itself to a group activity? What’s another way to form a group?

A reader, Jeff, wrote me with a great idea. He’s starting a club, The Magnificent Secret Science Club, all about conversation – with the idea that people are increasingly connecting through technology, but they still need and want a way to meet face-to-face.

Jeff has organized people to meet regularly in a bar for conversation. At each meeting, he’ll open with three questions for discussion, and then everyone can talk to each other.

This group meets in Minneapolis, so how do I know about it? Because he asked me for some discussion questions about happiness.

I tried to think of questions that would generate real debate and self-disclosure (self-disclosure is a great way to build trust and friendship). I suggested:

1. What’s the relationship between money and happiness?
2. What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
3. Is it selfish to work on being happier?
4. Is there a quotation, a book, or a scene from a movie that you’ve found particularly compelling?
5. If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
6. Have you noticed people with habits that regularly detract from their happiness? Or boost their happiness?

In fact…it strikes me that a great organizing principle for a group would be HAPPINESS! Everyone has strong views and experiences to share. If people got together to talk about their happiness projects, they could swap ideas, build enthusiasm, and hold themselves accountable – and have fun with friends at the same time. How great would it be to see happiness meet-ups popping up across the country? Boy, if people want to start happiness-project groups, I’d create some kind of kit to help them get the ball rolling. If you think you’d be interested in starting something like that, drop me a note at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com]. (Sorry to write in that weird way — trying to thwart spammers.)

I know some of you are wincing at this idea — yes, I know you’re scoffing! Oh well, it’s not for everyone. Have you formed a group? What organizing principle did you use?

* I always enjoy checking out The Art of Non-Conformity. Great stuff there – and very original presentation.

Feeling Happier: 9 Tips for Making Yourself Feel Better in a Crisis.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 9 tips for making yourself feel better in a crisis.

When something bad happens, how do you make yourself feel better? Maybe you’ve lost your job. Maybe you’ve been crushed in a relationship. What can you do to lift your spirits?

1. Remind yourself, “It could be worse.” Making a downward comparison by comparing your situation to people with worse troubles puts your problems into perspective. Because I live in New York City, I know a lot of people who have lost their jobs. When talking about it, they often say things like, “We have two healthy children, and that’s what’s important” or “We almost moved to London a few months ago, we’re so glad we didn’t, and so we’re here near our family and friends now.” They’re reminding themselves that, in many ways, they’re fortunate.

2. Remember your body. Take a twenty-minute walk outside to boost your energy and dissolve stress. Don’t let yourself get too hungry. Get enough sleep. When you’re anxious, it’s easy to stay up late cruising the internet and eating ice cream — and that’s going to make you feel a lot worse in the long run. It’s very tempting to run yourself ragged trying to deal with a crisis, but in the long run, you just wear yourself out.

4. Do something fun. Distract yourself from the stress, and re-charge your battery, with an enjoyable activity. Watching a funny movie is a reliable way to give yourself a pleasant break, and listening to your favorite music is one of the quickest ways to change your mood. Be careful, however, not to “treat” yourself by doing something that’s eventually going to make you feel worse (taking up smoking again, drinking too much, indulging in retail therapy). My comfort food activity is reading children’s literature.

5. Take action. If you’re in a bad situation, take steps to bring about change. If you’re having trouble with your new boss, you could decide to try to transfer. Or you could change your behavior. Or you could find ways to pay less attention to your boss. Ask yourself, “What exactly is the problem?” It’s astounding to me that often, when I take time to identify a problem exactly, a possible solution presents itself.

6. Look for meaning. Re-frame an event to see the positive along with the negative. Maybe getting fired will give you the push you need to move to the city where you’ve always wanted to live. Maybe getting cancer has strengthened your relationships with your family. You don’t need to be thankful that something bad has happened, but you can see that even a catastrophic event can have (to use a cliché) a silver lining.

7. Spend time with friends and family. Strong social relationships are a KEY to happiness, so fight the impulse to isolate yourself. Ask for help, offer your help to others. Or just have some fun (see #4) and forget your troubles for a while.

8. Make something better. If something in your life has gotten worse, try to make something else better – and it doesn’t have to be something important. Clean a closet. Organize your photographs. Work in the yard.

9. Act toward other people the way you wish they’d act toward you. If you wish your friends would help you find someone to date, see if you can fix up a friend. If you wish people would help you find a job, see if you can help someone else find a job. If you can’t think of a way to help someone you know, do something generous in a more impersonal way. Become an organ donor. Donate things you don’t need anymore to charity. (This is also a way to keep #8). When you’re feeling very low, it can be hard to muster the energy to help someone else, but you’ll be amazed at how much better you feel.

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One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help,” and I’m asking for your help. If you consider yourself a super-fan of The Happiness Project (I ask sheepishly), and would be willing to help me out in a few ways, I’d love to hear from you.

First item: before long, I’m going to launch my super-secret, super-fabulous, happiness-related website. I’ll send the super-fans the link ahead of time, in case they’d be interested in being beta testers (i.e., using the site in its early stages, to help work out the kinks before I make it public).

If you’re not interested in that sort of thing, there are some other issues that will come up in the next few months — all purely voluntary, of course, so if you sign up as a super-fan but then don’t have time or don’t want to do anything, that’s perfectly fine.

If any kind souls would like to sign up, please just drop me an email at
gretchenrubin1[at]gmail[dot com]. (I added brackets to thwart spammers, but just use the usual email format.) No need to write anything more than “super-fan” in the subject line, and I’ll put your name on the list.