Happiness and the joy of undertaking a big project.

My First Splendid Truth holds that to think about being happier, you must consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the atmosphere of growth is far more important than generally recognized.

Studies show that novelty and challenge—though they can make us uncomfortable, frustrated, uneasy, etc.—are keys to happiness. People who have novel experiences are happier than those who stay in a rut. Also, people are very sensitive to change in their circumstances, whether in a positive or negative direction. Therefore, a feeling of progress, improvement, and learning makes us happier.

I’ve been looking for more ways to bring “an atmosphere of growth” into my life. Children provide it, of course. Also, my blog is a major source of growth for me (also frustration, anxiety, etc.).

And today, a friend and I took the first big step in a BIG project we’re doing together. This multi-stage undertaking will contribute enormously to my atmosphere of growth.

We’ve been planning for months, and the planning has been fun, but I was starting to develop Beginner’s Dread about actually starting. But this afternoon we got underway, and it’s going to be SO TERRIFIC. It’s already a source of joy, and it’s going to keep going for months.

Along with novelty, challenge, and growth, this project combines many resolutions: “Spend time with friends,” “Show up,” “Indulge in a modest splurge,” “Read at whim,” “Appreciate the seasons and this time of life,” and most importantly, “Be Gretchen.”

The inspiration for this project? A while back, I was reading a biograpy of writer J.M. Barrie, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Barrie is best known for writing Peter Pan). It made brief mention of a book made by J. M. Barrie using photographs of the four Llewelyn boys he adored. He took photographs of the boys during one summer, then created a story out of the pictures called The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

He made one copy for himself, and one copy for the Llewelyn family, but the boys’ father left their copy on the train, so only one copy of this book exists.

I noticed that this one copy happened to be in Beinecke Library, the rare books library at Yale, where I went to college and law school. I needed to go up to New Haven for some reason, so I stopped by the library to see the book (keeping my happiness-project resolution to “Force myself to wander”).

I was blown away by this book. I LOVED it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Absolutely marvelous, a whole new way of telling a story and keeping a photo album – and Barrie is an extraordinary writer. I’m continually haunted by the opening line: “We set out to be wrecked.”

Rarely have I wanted to own something so badly – and I discovered that I could order a copy. The library had made a digital image of every page. So I bought myself a copy of every page.

To my great good fortune, I have a friend who immediately realized the brilliance of The Boy Castaways and who was as enthusiastic about it as I was.

Tomorrow I’ll describe our own Boy Castaways project. It’s so fabulous.

***Earlier today, I tried to post a link to the Beinecke Library site’s digital images of the book. For some reason, the link won’t work — I think the link gets timed out. If you’d really like to check out the book (and it’s worth it!), do this:

Go to the Beinecke Library site: Beinecke Library
Under “Finding Books, Images, and Manuscripts,” go to ORBIS, the online catalogue
Search by title for “boy castaways
Hit the blue #2 entry that will come up
Hit the link to “View images from the Beinecke Library’s Digital Images Online Database.”
This is quick and easy, despite sounding complicated!

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I just discovered a new blog that I find very charming, I Think This World Is Perfect. Of course, with a name like that, I was instantly intrigued.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Montaigne.

“Natural inclinations are assisted and reinforced by education, but they are hardly ever altered or overcome.” — Montaigne

This observation has had an enormous influence on me — both in how I try to follow my First Commandment to Be Gretchen, and also how I think about raising my children.

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Along the same lines, a thoughtful reader sent me the link to this short internet movie, Animal School. It specifically addresses the education of children, but I think that its point applies to adults, as well.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Ask for a favor.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should 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.
Here’s something that might sound counter-intuitive: Ask for a favor.

As Ben Franklin recommended, “If you want to make a friend, let someone do you a favor.”

Ask for help, for advice, for suggestions. By doing so, you place yourself under obligation to your favor-givers – which makes them feel kindly toward you.

Sudies show that for happiness, providing support is just as important as getting support. By offering people a way to provide support, you generate good feelings in them.

And on your side, asking for a favor is a sign of intimacy and trust. The fact that you’ve asked for a favor shows that you feel comfortable being indebted to someone. I remember a friend at work telling me, “I never liked that guy until he told me he needed to borrow $50 from me. Then I realized he must consider me a friend, and presto! I started liking him.”

So asking, and receiving, a favor generates good feelings on both sides.

Obviously, there are small favors and big favors. You don’t want to ask someone to take care of your dog while you’re on vacation unless that person is already a GOOD friend. But asking for a recommendation for a good dentist isn’t burdensome.

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help.” Asking for help is a very useful way of asking for a favor. I’m absolutely mystified by asking for help is so hard for me. So often, I can just solve a problem by asking for help—which is almost always freely and cheerfully given.

It can be selfless to be selfish, and you can be generous by taking. Ask for a favor.

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Gimundo had an amazing post about scientific innovation to create new human organs and body parts. Astounding. A finger-growing powder!

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Resolutions for how to be happy have to be made over and over. Alas.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the difference between happiness goals and happiness resolutions, and the role of habits in helping me or thwarting me.

What’s discouraging is that many of my most important happiness resolutions aren’t getting much easier. That’s why I think it’s important to think of these as “resolutions” that I approach anew each day, rather than “goals” that I’d expect to achieve and be done with.

One of the main things I’ve worked on in my Happiness Project is my sharp tongue. I snap, I nag, I “talk in a mean voice,” as the Big Girl put it when she was younger.

I worked hard on this tendency, and I did improve.

Lately, however, I’ve been relaxing my vigilance a bit. Maybe I thought I’d reached my “goal.” And you know what? The snapping, the nagging, the sharp tone has come right back.

I can HEAR the words come out of my mouth in a nasty tone. Sometimes I even sound more aggravated than I actually am.

I guess I thought my struggle would get easier, once I’d been keeping my resolutions for a while.

Nope.

My tendency to speak harshly is one my worst traits and the reason for a lot of my resolutions. It’s one of the main reasons I felt compelled to start my Happiness Project. It’s the reason I’ve more or less quit drinking alcohol. It’s the reason I try so hard to get enough sleep and not to let myself get too hungry or cold. It’s the reason I resolved to quit nagging, and to stop gossiping.

These steps have helped, but the sharp tongue is still there.

I think back on last Saturday morning, for example. We’d all slept badly. The Big Man was at the gym, and I was giving the girls their breakfasts. Both girls were being whiny and demanding.

My resolutions and my Twelve Commandments started ringing in my ears: “Laugh out loud,” “Lighten up,” “Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings,” “Sing in the morning,” etc.

Did I do any of that? No. I scowled at them both. I spoke in a harsh voice. I clenched my jaw.

It was the Big Girl who turned the mood around. Unbelievably, she suddenly pulled herself together and started distracting the Little Girl with a funny story. The Little Girl cheered up once she’d eaten some breakfast, and I cheered up after I had some coffee. Peace descended.

So often, it just takes one person to change the mood. I hope that next time, I’ll be able to meet the challenge, instead of leaving it to my eight-year-old.

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New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope has an excellent blog, Well, where she writes about a variety of health-related issues. Fascinating stuff there.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Wednesday: 11 tips cutting down the number of things you buy.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 11 tips for cutting down the number of things you buy.

Some people buy too much, some people buy too little. That’s the overbuyer / underbuyer split.

Overbuyers are often anxious about all the money they’ve spent and the stuff they’ve accumulated, so they can use some tips on cutting down on the number of things they buy.

But as an underbuyer myself, I can say that we underbuyers, paradoxically, also sometimes buy too much. Because we hate to shop, once we’re in a store and forced to make a purchase, we have the urge to try to do as much as possible at one time, to avoid having to make another trip. Items start flying through the air into the cart. As one friend said of me, “You turn into a drive-buy shopper, once you get going!”

These tips should help both overbuyers and underbuyers to buy only what they need.

1. Pay cash.

2. Buy small items first. When you buy an expensive item, it’s easy to toss in unthinkingly a lot of smaller items alongside it – items that you might have otherwise have spent a lot of time considering, and which add up to a lot of $$$. So pick out smaller items first, then the larger item. Buy the software, the mouse, the mousepad, and the other bits and bobs, then choose the computer.

3. Don’t buy too much at one time. If you’re buying too many things, you stop paying attention to what you’re getting.

4. Don’t buy anything at a bargain store that you haven’t bought before at full price.

5. Before paying, review each of your purchases with a skeptical eye. Don’t buy anything you’re not sure you want and can use – this is particularly important with clothes.

6. Don’t tell yourself, “I can always return it”; remind yourself, “I can come back if I decide I need it.”

7. Make a list and stick to it.

8. Don’t buy anything that needs to be a specific size unless you KNOW the measurements you need.

9. Don’t shop when you’re hungry.

10. Be very skeptical of anything that’s on sale.

11. If you don’t shop, you don’t buy. Stay out of stores.

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I got a big kick out of the blog Indexed, which uses Venn diagrams to look at life. Very amusing.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.