Happiness Project: Think about rituals.

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.

Until I started my Happiness Project, I didn’t think much about rituals and whether they made me happy.

But when I reflected on them, I realized that I find rituals both calming and energizing (this is no paradox, and in fact, is a very desirable, happy state).

For example, In my high school, exams were taken VERY seriously, and the process was always the same. When everyone was settled at a desk, the teacher would pass out the papers, and we’d lay them face down. She’d return to the front of the classroom, look at the clock, and say quietly, “It is now 9:10. You have two hours. Be sure to read all instructions carefully”—then a dramatic pause—“you may turn over your test paper and begin.”

This familiar, grave, quiet formula made the start of an exam into a little ritual that helped put me in the right frame of mind to face a stressful exam.

I was astonished when I went to college to find a completely chaotic exam-taking process. People would hurry to the professor’s desk, grab a paper, and shove each other out of the way to sit down. When the end of the exam was announced, some people would keep writing for ten or fifteen more minutes before a TA snatched away their blue books.

This lack of ritual left me rattled and distracted – just the opposite of how I’d approached exams in high school.

Along the same lines, the Little Girl just started “camp,” and I’d braced myself for a dismissal when they’d all rush out of the door helter-skelter as we adults pushed amongst ourselves to try to scoop up the right kid. Intead, after singing a good-bye song, the children stand in a circle in the classroom, while the grown-ups wait in a line outside the door. The counselors call the children’s names, one by one, and the child comes to the door to get a big hug and to leave. The orderliness and deliberateness of this process keeps everyone calm and cheerful.

Whenever I sit down to work, in my office or at a coffee shop or at New York Society Library, I run through a series of updates, checks, synchronizations, and switching on of various devices and programs. It’s both soothing and energizing to perform my machine ritual.

So think about rituals in your life. Take a moment to savor the enjoyable ones. Think about opportunities to heighten the experience of an ordinary occasion by treating it with special deliberation—particularly if it’s a stressful or emotional experience. Discussing a child’s report card. Giving a performance review. Packing for a trip. Getting ready for a date.

Studies show that family traditions and family rituals encourage children’s social development and boost feelings of family cohesiveness. But they’re not just important for children.

I was intrigued this story in Gimundo about a Canadian non-profit that started the website Thank Your Donor where blood-donation recipients can relate their stories and their thanks to blood donors. One of my major interests is increasing rates of organ donation, and this is an interesting strategy to help people understand the importance of this kind of action.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Five tips for giving good praise.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for giving good praise.

I’m a praise junkie. I really, really need those gold stars. I know I’ve got to get over it. One of my most important happiness-project resolutions is “Don’t expect praise or appreciation.” I think about that resolution every day. But boy, it’s hard to keep.

For example, we just went through a major household project – and I mean MAJOR – that took a lot of time and effort on my part. Which, I admit, I accomplished with a minimum of grace. I tried, oh how I tried, but I just couldn’t muster it.

As I’ve done before, I begged the Big Man to manipulate me with praise! I urged him to sucker me into doing this project cheerfully by heaping gold stars on me! But he wouldn’t.

I know the way to happiness is to be FREE of the craving for praise, not to need someone to pat me on the back. I know that. I should be the source of my own sense of satisfaction, of happiness; I should know that I’ve done a job well and not depend on someone else’s opinion.

I’m sure that one reason that I went to law school was because it was clear to me what I would need to do to win praise. I wrote my papers, I got my note published, I became editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. These were big gold stars, and they were precious to me.

So I give myself an enormous gold star for putting those law-related gold stars aside to start over again as a writer. I love my work, and that’s hugely satisfying. But I still crave praise – and because the closest and easiest source would be the Big Man, I get frustrated when he won’t give it to me. Which he doesn’t. Yes, I know that’s not his job, and that I shouldn’t depend on him for it. Like I said, I’m working on not needing it.

Recently, as I fumed about all the ways in which the Big Man wasn’t feeding my praise addiction, these tips occurred to me. They apply to all kinds of relationships — friendship, work, romance, family. It’s nice to be able to give praise effectively; it means a lot to people to receive sincere praise — even people more mature than I.

1. Be specific. You read this in a lot of parenting advice: praise means more when it’s specific than when it’s general. “What a beautiful painting!” is less gratifying than “Look at all the colors you’ve used! And I see you used all your fingers with the finger paints. You’ve really made your picture look like a spring garden!” This is true, for adults, too. “Great job,” is less satisfying than an enumeration of what, exactly, was done well.

2. Acknowledge the actor. The Big Man has a habit of saying something complimentary without acknowledging that I had anything to do with whatever result he’s talking about. For example, with this household project, he looked around once and remarked, “This really turned out well.” As if some deus ex machina had wrought these changes overnight. Aaargh.

3. The effusiveness and time spent in giving praise should be commensurate with the difficulty and time-intensiveness of the task. If a task was quick and easy, a hasty “Looks great!” will do; if a task was protracted and difficult, the praise should be more lengthy and descriptive. Also, you might bring up the praise more than once.

4. Remember the negativity bias. The “negativity bias” is a well-recognized psychological phenomenon: people react to the bad more strongly and persistently than to the comparable good. For example, within marriage, it takes at least five good acts to repair the damage of one critical or destructive act. So if you want to praise someone, remember that one critical comment will wipe out several positive comments, and will be far more memorable. To stay silent, and then remark something like, “It’s too bad that that door couldn’t be fixed,” will be perceived as highly critical.

5. Praise the everyday as well as the exceptional. When people do something unusual, it’s easy to remember to give praise. But what about the things they do well every day without any recognition? It never hurts to point out how much you appreciate the small services and tasks that someone unfailingly performs. Something like, “You know what? In three years, I don’t think you’ve ever been even an hour late with the weekly report.” After all, we never forget to make a comment when someone screws up.

If anyone has any tips for how to free yourself from the craving for praise, send them my way! I really need them. The need for praise is such an ingrained part of my personality that I doubt I’d be able to change completely, but I can do better.

Several thoughtful readers sent me the link to this terrific happiness article, World Gets Happier — about how the world seems to becoming happier, and why.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Happiness interview with Carrie McCarthy and Danielle LaPorte.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness.

During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him, than by any other kind of argument.

I heard about Carrie McCarthy & Danielle LaPorte when I read about their approach to self-knowledge in an article in Domino magazine: they ask a series of questions that leads you to a two-word “Style Statement” that defines your authentic self. It’s an extremely interesting and provocative exercise.

I did it, and my Style Statement was Constructive Insouciant. Carrie is Refined Treasure. Danielle is Sacred Dramatic.

Now they’ve written a terrific workbook for discovering your own Style Statement: Style Statement: Live By Your Own Design (an Amazon bestseller.) You can check them out at Carrie and Danielle. Also, every weekday you can join the active discussion on Carrie and Danielle’s Daily Q&A. From deep wisdom (this edition on life lessons) to looking good (beauty tips) the Q&A is all about being true to yourself.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Carrie: Hugging my husband
Danielle: Sending thank you cards.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Carrie: Happiness can be quiet and still.
Danielle: Happiness can be deep and private, or full tilt out there – but either way, it raises the frequency of everything. Happiness is way more productive than I thought it ever was.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Carrie: Rushing.
Danielle: Withdrawing. Not getting enough sleep.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Carrie: This too shall pass.
Danielle: Everything matters. Nothing’s important. Thanks to Nietzsche for that one.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Carrie: Going for a run in nature, calling my twin sister.
Danielle: Really hot baths. Add plenty of essential oils (Lavender or Sandalwood), some oranges or ice cream to eat, and a good magazine.

Gretchen: 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?
Carrie: Adds: being grateful. Detracts: controlling life.
Danielle: Complaining is tragic, really. Accentuating the positive is an act of deliberate creation…and that can only lift your spirits.

Gretchen: 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?
Carrie: I have times of real happiness which are all the more precious because I am often pensive. I value those moments of thought because it gives me the opportunity to see and feel the grey of life. It is a balance as I crave solitude and yet too much I start to hibernate. To become happier I spend time in nature, with family and with art.
Danielle: I have had Dark Nights, for sure. Existential crises where I questioned my beliefs and let much of what I thought to be true die. Reaching for enlightenment…or happiness…requires that shedding, that burning. There’s a great Zen saying, “Now that the barn is burnt down, I can see the moon.” That’s how happiness happens for me at key transitions in my life: a purge, a humbling, a mighty smile. There have been passages where I have been the happiest I’ve ever been, and the unhappiest I’ve ever been – at the same time. I am almost always in touch with the deep pool of happiness in my being, but never completely happy. I consider it a divine dissatisfaction.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Carrie: Every morning I wake and give thanks. I feel happy. I feel blessed.
Danielle: Well, I try not to “work” at it. I try to play at being happy, which is tricky because I’m an intense chick. I do often need to give myself permission to simply just do what makes me happy. The Dalai Lama says that happiness is the point of life. And, as co-dependent as it is, I often use that as my green light to lighten up.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Carrie: As I have gotten older my expectations on what makes me happy has become more aligned with my reality of what gives me happiness. A cup of Earl Grey tea, ideas, good food, beauty, friends & family, reading, running, learning, travel.
Danielle: Having our son blew my circuits of happiness. I knew I was going to love him, but the reality of his presence is vastly more amazing and cool than I could ever have imagined. In the Olympics of Happiness, he’s like a record-breaking Gold Medalist.

There was a very interesting article in Reader’s Digest about If You Only Knew, in which doctors disclose things they usually never say to patients. Fascinating, and a little scary.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Why undertaking a big, complex project can make you happy.

I’ve written before about my fascination with the strange, brilliant Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island by J. M. Barrie.*

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.*

Barrie 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 went to visit it at Beinecke Library, the rare books library at Yale, where I went to college and law school (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.”

Fortunately for me, I have a friend who absolutely appreciated the extraordinary genius of the book. In a flash, we decided to do our own project, using our own children, modeled on Barrie. We’ve been planning it now for months (happiness-project resolution: “Take time for projects”).

I ordered two copies of the book from Beinecke – one for me, one for my friend (happiness-project resolutions: “Indulge in a modest splurge” and “Make purchases to further my goals”). My friend and I have been scouting for locations and gathering costumes and props.

Yesterday, we took our first photograph with the four children (we’d already taken one photo, of just the Little Girl, to take advantage of the flowering trees as a background). All the other photographs will be taken outdoors, in Central Park, but we decided to include a “Portrait of the Royal Family” taken indoors. Another friend has an exceptionally ornate living room, so we trucked over to her apartment, decked our children out in faux ermines, velvets, jewels, scepters, crowns, and armor. The children were enthusiastic and cooperative. The result was SPECTACULAR.

I’d been dreading this portrait a bit. I knew it would take a lot of time and energy in the middle of the day on Sunday. Herding two nine-year-olds, a six-year-old, and a three-year-old…it wasn’t going to be easy. But it was so, so worth the effort.

Bertrand Russell observed that “The satisfaction to be derived from success in a great constructive enterprise is one of the most massive that life has to offer.” Now, I think Russell had in mind something like merging two companies, or passing a law, or founding a school. But even a small-scale success in a constructive enterprise is enormously gratifying – not just when you’ve finished, but all along the way. (The unpoetic name for this very powerful source of happiness is “pre-goal attainment positive affect”).

The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happy, we need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. The more I think about happiness, the more importance I grant to the fourth element, the atmosphere of growth. People crave a feeling of growth, of progress, of mastery, of learning. The slow progress we’re making on this large project is giving a lot of happiness.

Also, everything is more fun with friends. I couldn’t possibly undertake this project by myself. I’d be overwhelmed. Also, I don’t have a lot of the skills involved – my friend can sew and is an eBay fantatic. (You wouldn’t believe the props she has found for us there.) And it wouldn’t be as much fun for me or for my children, without the other family to do it with. Even the Big Man is getting into the spirit of it.

If it weren’t for my Happiness Project, I’m sure I would never have started this project. I wouldn’t have gone to see the book in the Beinecke Library, I wouldn’t have splurged to buy a copy, I wouldn’t have allowed myself to conceive of a big, time-sucking project. Yet again, I marvel at the fact that it really is true: when I diligently live up to my resolutions, they really do bring me happiness.

* Unfortunately, I can’t put in a live link to the library’s image site. To view The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island:
Go to the Beinecke Library site
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!

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Happiness quotation from Guillaume Apollinaire.

“Now and then it’s good to pause in our pursuit of happiness and just be happy.”
– Guillaume Apollinaire

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.