How to Be Happier: Know Yourself. Harder Than It Sounds.

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.

In my studies of happiness, I’m always asking myself, “Is this bit of happiness wisdom a universal truth, or is this just true for some people?”

I haven’t identified many universal truths, but one of them is “Know thyself.” You can’t build a happy life if you don’t recognize and acknowledge the things that make you happy. That’s why the first of my Twelve Commandments is “Be Gretchen.”

This doesn’t sound too hard, does it? Yet I’m continually astonished how difficult it is to do. One reason that it’s challenging is that we’re so judgmental. We judge others, and we judge ourselves.

I was thinking about this last night. At dinner, I was seated next to a very friendly, intelligent woman. In the course of the conversation, she told me two things about herself:

1. She is a non-materialistic person who isn’t interested in “stuff.”
2. She loves beautifully-made clothes (result: she loves buying clothes).

I couldn’t read her mind, of course, but I think I detected some uneasiness as she talked about these two ideas. She didn’t value stuff, and she didn’t want to be the kind of person who valued stuff, yet she had this other passion that conflicted with that conception. Can you be non-materialistic yet crave Prada? (I have another friend with a similar issue — his passion is tech equipment.)

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is you can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do. This woman has three options as she lives her life:

First, she could live up to her non-materialistic ideals and squelch her love of clothes. This seems sad to me. Most of us don’t have so many passions that we can drop one without losing an important source of happiness.

Second, she could stop talking about her non-materialistic ideals, because they made her feel hypocritical, and throw herself into clothes-buying and clothes-wearing. That might be fun, day to day, but in her heart she’d probably feel that she was living a life out of synch with her values.

Third, she could strive to accept herself: her non-materialistic values are real, and her love for clothes is real.

To me, the third option is like the best option. Sometimes, we don’t like what we like. We wish we were different — more spiritual, more sophisticated, more adventurous, more cultured. But you don’t get to pick what you like.

You might argue, “If she truly believed in the value of living a non-materialistic life, she wouldn’t be interested in fashion and fancy clothes.” That sounds like it would be true, but I don’t think it is true. Human nature isn’t always consistent.

In Song of Myself, Walt Whitman wrote:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

There’s a sadness to a happiness project, and that’s the sadness that comes from accepting ourselves: the parts we embrace and the parts that we wish were different.

Now, this a difficult issue, because — what does it mean to live in accordance with your values? It seems that they can’t be real values if they don’t actually guide your actions, if you don’t make choices that reflect your beliefs. True. Maybe this woman would choose not to buy Prada etc., because she wanted to live her beliefs. But perhaps she could find other ways to enjoy that passion, rather than squelching it entirely.

A difficult issue. What do you think?

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Thought-provoking study: “Psychologists have found that how much people smile in old photographs can predict their later success in marriage.”

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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.

How to Be Happier: Ten Tips for Being a More Light-Hearted Parent.

One of my Twelve Commandments is “Lighten up,” and I have a lot of resolutions aimed at trying to be a more light-hearted parent: less nagging, more laughing. We all want a peaceful, cheerful, even joyous, atmosphere at home — but we can’t nag and yell our way to get there. Here are some strategies that help me:

1. At least once a day, make each child helpless with laughter.

2. Sing in the morning. It’s hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood, and it sets a happy tone for everyone—particularly in my case, because I’m tone deaf and my audience finds my singing a source of great hilarity.

3. Get enough sleep yourself. It’s so tempting to stay up late, to enjoy the peace and quiet. But morning comes fast. Along the same lines…

4. Wake up before your kids. We were so rushed in the morning that I started getting up half an hour earlier than my children. That means I can get myself organized, check my email, post to Slate, and get my bag packed before they get up. It’s tough to wake up earlier, but it has made a huge difference in the quality of our mornings.

5. I’ve been researching the hedonic treadmill: people quickly adapt to new pleasures or luxuries, so it takes a new pleasure to give them a jolt of gratification. As a result, I’ve cut back on treats and impulse buys for my kids. The ice-cream sandwich or the Polly Pockets set won’t be an exciting treat if it isn’t rare.

6. Most messages to kids are negative: “stop,” “don’t,” “no.” So I try to cast my answers as “yes.” “Yes, we’ll go as soon as you’ve finished eating,” not “We’re not leaving until you’ve finished eating.” It’s not easy to remember to do this, but I’m trying.

7. Look for little ways to celebrate. I haven’t been doing holiday breakfasts long, but they’re a huge source of happiness. They’re quick, fun, and everyone gets a big kick out of them.

8. Repetition works. A friend told me he was yelling at his kids too much, so he distilled all rules of behavior into four key phrases: “keep your hands to yourself”; “answer the first time you’re asked”; “ask first”; and “stay with us” (his kids tended to bolt). You can also use the school mantras: “Sit square in your chair;” “accidents will happen,” “you get what you get, and you don’t get upset” (i.e., when cupcakes are handed out, you don’t keep trying to switch).

9. Say “no” only when it really matters. Wear a bright red shirt with bright orange shorts? Sure. Put water in the toy tea set? Okay. Sleep with your head at the foot of the bed? Fine. Samuel Johnson said, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.”

10. When I find myself thinking, “Yippee, soon we won’t have to deal with a stroller,” I remind myself how fleeting this is. All too soon the age of Cheerios and the Tooth Fairy will be over. The days are long, but the years are short.

Have you found any good strategies to cut back on the shouting and to add moments of laughing, singing, and saying “yes”?

Secrets to Happiness: Prayer and Wii Mario Kart.

I just finished reading Kevin Roose’s memoir, The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner’s Semester at America’s Holiest University. As a 19-year-old college student at Brown, Kevin decided to spend a semester “undercover” as a student at Liberty University, the largest Christian fundamentalist university in the U.S., founded by Jerry Falwell. He wanted to understand what that college experience, so different from his own, would be. The book is a very sympathetic, searching look at what he found at Liberty.

I loved this book. I love memoirs; I love year-long experiments, no surprise (though, actually, his experiment lasted only a semester); I’m fascinated by very devout communities. Plus the book is very funny.

The experience caused Kevin to re-examine many of his assumptions – in particular, his assumptions about what makes people happy.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Kevin: When I got to Liberty for the first day of orientation week, I expected to be completely unhappy, mostly because Liberty’s 46-page code of conduct – which prohibits drinking, smoking, R-rated movies, cursing, and dancing – wiped out basically 95% of my daily life. After I got used to the rules, though, I actually found that the rigid discipline was actually sort of refreshing. It gave me an incredible amount of structure in my life, and I felt happy and productive there. A sociologist named Margarita Mooney has done studies of religious college students who attend services regularly, and it turns out that on the whole, they report being happier, more motivated, more diligent about their schoolwork than the students who don’t practice a religion. I think I can see why.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Well, it wasn’t that long ago – I’m only 21 now – but I think one of my major realizations has been that my happiness doesn’t always have to depend on how busy I am. It used to be that I’d think of happiness as a timed goal – as in, “After I finish my manuscript, I’ll be able to relax,” or “When midterms are over, I’ll finally get to have fun.” But recently, I’ve been able to be happy even in the most hectic times, simply by prioritizing and taking breaks to do things I enjoy.

What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

When I was living at Liberty, I had to learn how to pray. I’m back at secular college now, but I still pray almost every day. Don’t get me wrong: I’m not an evangelical Christian, and I don’t believe that God sits on his throne in heaven watching our requests flood into his cosmic inbox. But I do think there’s value in focusing on the needs of my friends and family members, trying to empathize with them for ten or twenty minutes a day. It forces me to be aware of how lucky I am, and I really do think it motivates me to be more compassionate. As the writer Oswald Chambers says, it’s not so much that prayer changes things, but that prayer changes me, and I change things.

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?
I’m a chronic perfectionist, so writing and re-writing my book was a fairly unhappy process at times. I’d spend an hour writing a paragraph, decide I hated it, and spend another hour rewriting it, only to realize later that it had been better the first time around. It was tough, but I eventually learned to silence my inner editor and allow myself to work even when I knew I wasn’t feeling up to the task. Once, I put a post-it note above my computer that said, “Whatever It Is, Write Through It.” Reading it was like getting a halftime pep talk from a football coach, but the nerdy version.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
Three words: Wii Mario Kart. I know this might cement my status as an over-stimulated member of the Millennial generation, but what can I say? Playing video games makes me happy. Between releasing my book and keeping up with my schoolwork, my brain’s circuits are on 24-hour overload. Being able to zone out, forget about work, and guide an animated mushroom around a racetrack filled with oversized Venus Fly Traps is about as relaxing as it gets.

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I love HeadButler — a place to go for great recommendations for books, movies, music, and products — I signed up for the daily email.

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Consider starting a group — organized around happiness projects! (Or a book group focused on happiness books.) I’m busily creating the starter kit to send out to anyone who is interested. If you want a starter kit, email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line. Or use the sign-up box in the top-right column of the blog.

How to be Happier – What Have You Learned?

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help,” and today I’m asking for your help.

In Washington, D.C. next week, I’m giving a talk about the Happiness Project. As part of the discussion, I’d love to list some suggestions by readers of what they’ve learned from this blog – what specific things have proved most useful.

For example, a few months ago, someone wrote, “I’ve thought a lot about what your father said to you about exercising – that all you have to do is put on your running shoes and close the front door behind you. That has helped me exercise more.”

Someone else told me that she’d started keeping a one-sentence journal, and it had been a source of happiness for her.

I hope that this blog has been useful. If you’ve visited here before, and something particularly resonated with you, or some strategy that you tried really worked, I’d love to hear from you. Just post a comment here — I’m sure other readers would be interested to hear what worked for you — or drop me a quick note at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com] (sorry about the weird format; meant to thwart spammers).

If you read this blog on Slate, you might be thinking, “Gosh, she’s only been posting since January! That’s not much writing before asking a question like this.” Over on my freestanding blog, The Happiness Project, though, I’ve been writing since 2006.

Gosh, I hope a few people do respond! Whenever I ask for help like this, I get anxious – then I remind myself to Enjoy the fun of failure. It actually does work. Oh…I’ll add that as an item on my own list.

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The brilliant Marci Alboher has a fabulous blog on Yahoo! Shine, called Working the New Economy. Lots of great material there about dealing with today’s job environment. Alas, I read her post about 7 Deadly Sins of Networking, and How to Avoid Them, and realized I’d just committed a major sin.

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Consider starting a group — organized around happiness projects! I’m busily creating the starter kit to send out to anyone who is interested in doing something like that — also would work if you want to start a book group focused on happiness books. If you want a starter kit, email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line. Or use the sign-up box in the top-right column of the blog.

The Best Cure for Being Unhappy Is…

“The best thing for being sad,” replied Merlin, beginning to puff and blow, “is to learn something. That’s the only thing that never fails. You may grow old and trembling in your anatomies, you may lie awake at night listening to the disorder of your veins, you may miss your only love, you may see the world about you devastated by evil lunatics, or know your honour trampled in the sewers of baser minds. There is only one thing for it then — to learn. Learn why the world wags and what wags it. That is the only thing which the mind can never exhaust, never alienate, never be tortured by, never fear or distrust, and never dream of regretting.”
–T. H. White, The Sword in the Stone

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I frequently drop by the blog Beyond Blue — “a spiritual journey to mental health,” where Therese Borchard writes about depression, happiness, and similar issues from a religious perspective. Therese and I met online because of our mutual preoccupation with St. Therese of Lisieux.

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Consider starting a group — organized around happiness projects! I’m busily creating the starter kit to send out to anyone who is interested in doing something like that — also would work if you want to start a book group focused on happiness books. If you want a starter kit, email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line. Or use the sign-up box in the top-right column of the blog.