Your Happiness Project: Make a joke of it.

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.

Everyone says, and it’s true, that one of the most effective ways to handle negative emotions is to lighten up. If things are sad, try to find a reason to laugh. If you’re angry, joke around. Easier said than done, however.

I had a chance to keep my resolution to “Make a joke of it” last night. As a consequence of certain marital negotations last year (not conducted in the most happiness-boosting way, I must confess), my husband took on the job of dealing with my daughter’s adventure in orthodontia. The orthodontist’s office is right around the corner from his office, and he agreed that he’d schedule the appointments and take her. Which was GREAT!

On our flight to Kansas City for the holidays, the Big Girl lost her “functional applicance” (the new-fangled thing she wears in her mouth, except when she’s eating). We looked everywhere on the plane; it was gone. We got back home a week later, and the Big Man didn’t call to make an appointment. Days went by. I reminded him periodically, but nothing happened.

Whenever I thought about this delay, I became extremely annoyed. Last night, I stomped into our bedroom ready to turn on my anger at full volume. “This really matters, this is important, she’s growing now, what’s the point, it’s expensive, she’ll only have to have braces longer, you promised you’d do it,” etc., etc., etc. Then I thought, “Make a joke of it.”

So I went over, put my arm around the Big Man, and said nicely, “You know what? If you don’t call the orthodontist’s tomorrow, I’m going to be furious, I’m going to be enraged, I’m going to be beside myself. I’m not threatening, just giving you fair warning.” And I laughed while I said it.

“I know, I know!” he said, shaking his head. “I’ll send myself an email right now.” And he did. And today he made the appointment.

I’m not sure if making a joke of it was more effective than getting angry, but I don’t think it was less effective. And it was a much nicer way to have that unpleasant exchange. I was happier about it, and the Big Man was happier about it.

I used the same technique on myself last weekend. I had a bunch of dreaded, dull tasks to take care of. I told myself, “I’m going to clear away a lot of these chores in the next two days. It’s going to be the ‘Weekend of the Dreaded Tasks’! Like the ‘Rodents of Unusual Size,’ in The Princess Bride.” As I groaned to myself as I put away the holiday decorations, organized my address list for our Valentine’s cards, finally dealt with the mail that came when we were out of town, and other things too dull to mention, I repeated to myself, “Oh well, this is the Weekend of the Dreaded Tasks.” And just making that little joke to myself made it easier to tackle those tasks.

Of course, I recognize that in neither case when I kept my resolution to “Make a joke of it” was I really funny. My jokes weren’t funny at all. But just the attempt to take a humorous attitude made a huge difference.

It’s easy to say “make a joke of it,” but it’s hard to do when you’re feeling angry, scared, bored, or upset. Have you found a way to get yourself to make a joke?

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If you’re interested in a particular subject, but aren’t sure where to start to find related blogs, an invaluable resource is Alltop. There are a huge number of blogs, organized in a very accessible fashion, according to lots of different categories. A cornucopia.

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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. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Happiness interview with Nina Smith.

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

One of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Bring people together,” and I also love being on the receiving end of that resolution. My friend Marci Alboher is famous for her ability to make helpful and fun introductions. Through Marci, I met (virtually) Nina Smith, who founded the popular site Queer Cents. It’s a personal finance site (think WiseBread or Get Rich Slowly) with a twist: “We’re here, we’re queer, and we’re not going shopping without coupons.” One of the topics that interests me most in happiness is the complex relationship between money and happiness. Nina has done a lot of thinking about exactly this topic, and on the topic of happiness generally.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Nina: Happiness does not need a lot of conditions.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Nina: I am what I eat. I’m still trying to master how to make better food choices and practice portion-control so that the relationship between what I eat and how I feel improves.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Nina: Thich Nhat Hanh said, “Happiness is there, only our capacity of enjoying it is in question.” I am responsible for my own happiness and it is a state that I can actively change for the better.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Nina: It depends why I’m feeling blue. Sometimes blue might have more to do with feeling lonely or isolated – this was especially true when I moved away from my family and lived alone as a young adult. Back then, my happiness boost was getting out of my apartment and being around other people. Often times, it was as simple as walking to the neighborhood coffeehouse to read a book or write something in my journal. Chatting briefly with the server, catching a smile from a stranger, and listening to music was enough to infuse my mood with brighter colors on a long and lonely weekend.

I always like to remind myself that feeling blue is momentary. These days, my blue is less about loneliness and more about strain that comes with balancing work and life commitments. It’s strange how a decade, middle age, and creating a family can change my perspective on things. My mood boost now is exercise: I took up running shortly after turning forty and I run at least 3 miles on as many mornings as possible. A bad mood has less of a chance of sabotaging my day when I fit in a run.

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?
Nina: People with regrets seem to be less content than those that live life in such a way as to not have regrets. When we fully participate in the present, it is easier to let go of our past mistakes, failures and lost opportunities. The present is the place that’s filled with hope and possibilities and in my opinion, happiness.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Nina: People love to say that money can’t buy happiness. For me personally, money buys a certain amount of happiness. Perhaps this is a predictable view since I blog about money but from my vantage point, money definitely buys comfort, ease and security; and I know this contributes to my happiness. I remember when I didn’t have money. It was hard to be happy when I was worried about how I was going to pay my bills and basic necessities.

You once wrote that this “money buys happiness” view depends partly on how we spend our money. I’ve never been a consumer for the sake of consuming and thinking this purchase or that purchase will make me happy. Rather, I spend money on experiences and my daily surroundings in an attempt to live a simple, but beautiful life.

Also, I only spend money that I have by living within my means. Here’s an example: my partner and I spent $85,000 over the last couple of years on fertility treatments and then the adoption process. While our newborn son brings me incredible joy, it would have been harder for me to be “happy” today if we had used credit cards or a home equity line instead of our savings to pay for all those expenses. To be completely candid, I probably would have elected to forgo “parenting” if it meant going into debt to do this… some people might not understand, but I know what contributes to my happiness and debt would have prevented me from being a happy parent. Right now we’re working on starting his college fund… and socking away money for his education will make me a very happy mom over the next 18 years.

By the way, The American published an excellent article in 08: Can Money Buy Happiness? Your readers might find the commentary to be of interest.

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I had a lot of fun writing a list of Ten Blogs and One Site That Will Boost Your Happiness for Blogs.com.

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I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click here. 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.

Relationships: Eight tips for dealing with criticism.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for dealing with criticism.

I have a very hard time being criticized, corrected, or accused – even of the smallest mistakes – and I react very angrily. I’ve wrestled this instinct under control in a professional context, more or less, but I have more trouble with it at home. All it takes is for the Big Girl to say something like, “You forgot to remind me to bring my library book,” to send me into a tirade. “What do you mean…it’s not my responsibility…I didn’t know Wednesday was Library Day…” etc., etc.

More and more, I see the connection between perfectionism, control, and anger. Zoikes, how I try to be more mild-mannered and easy-going! Here are some of the strategies that I try to use to accept criticism. If I manage to use them, they never fail me, but it can be hard to have the mindfulness needed to apply them.

1. Listen to what a critic is saying. Really listen, try to understand that point of view, don’t just nod while you formulate your retorts.

2. Don’t be defensive. This is the toughest step for me. With my writing, for example, I always have to take a deep breath before reading an edit letter or meeting with an editor, to remind myself, “I welcome criticism. This person is helping me. I’m eager to hear how to improve my book/article/post.” Act the way you want to feel! That’s my Third Commandment. Along the same lines…

3. Don’t fire back by criticizing your critic. Your comments will just sound defensive, and you’ll escalate the exchange. This urge is very difficult to resist, because the impulse to justify and attack is strong when you feel criticized, but it just isn’t helpful, and it certainly isn’t effective.

4. Delay your reaction. Count to ten, take a deep breath, sleep on it, wait until the next day to send that email…any kind of delay is good. A friend told me that she has a rule for herself: when she’s upset about something that happened at her children’s school, she won’t let herself do anything about it for three days – and usually she decides that no action is better than action.

5. Explain honestly the reason for your actions. Sometimes it’s tempting to re-characterize your actual feelings and motives. Usually, though, that just complicates things more. It becomes impossible to have an honest exchange.

6. Admit your mistakes. This is extremely effective and disarming. When I got my first job, my father told me, “If you take the blame, you’ll get the responsibility.” I’ve found that to be very true. Difficult, but true. Admitting mistakes is the first step, then…

7. Explain what you’ve learned. If you can show a critic that you’ve learned something, you prove that you’ve understood the criticism and tried to act on it. That, itself, usually mollifies critics.

8. Enjoy the fun of failure. Re-frame the issue entirely to embrace criticism. Fact is, trying new things and aiming high opens you to criticism. I tell myself to Enjoy the fun of failure to try to re-frame failure and criticism as part of the fun. Otherwise, my dread of criticism can paralyze me.

What am I overlooking? Have you found any other strategies that work for you?

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I just came across an interesting blog — Work Life Love. Many of my favorite topics.

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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. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

In which I address the controversy that has been brewing, unbenownst to me, on my blog for four days.

Holy cow! I’ve been scrambling to meet an editing deadine for my book, so for once I haven’t been obsessively checking my blog every few hours – and controversy erupts. I’m very sorry that I seemed to be ignoring commenters. Never again will I allow myself to disengage this way, even overnight.

Let me explain what happened. After a post a few days ago about John’s letter from his mother, several people wrote comments that were harsh characterizations of John’s mother – inferring from her letter the kind of mother she’d been and how she might have acted in the past.

The letter was on my blog, and I’d made my own comment about it, so it was appropriate for people to comment honestly, with their own views.

Nevertheless, I felt terrible. I’d read the letter very differently from those commenters, and their interpretation hadn’t occurred to me AT ALL. By posting the letter, without anticipating it, I had exposed two people to severe public criticism, and in particular, a person I thought was acting laudably. What’s more, I worried that posting the letter and opening the door to this criticism would interfere with an admirable attempt by two people to heal a rift. (No matter what you think of John or John’s mother, you have to admit that they are both TRYING to behave lovingly at this point, which I think counts for a lot.)

I was just sick about having thoughtlessly brought these two people into this situation. John had sent me the letter and suggested posting it – but still. I was the agent that had permitted this to occur.

As a consequence, I reacted in the moment and took down all the comments — there were about twelve, many of which struck me as very harsh. Even as I was doing it, a little voice murmured, “Think it over! Wait an hour, don’t react in the moment, this is a bad idea.” But the thought of John and his mother reading my blog and feeling horrible upset me so much that I went ahead and deleted the comments.

As that little voice predicted, I soon regretted my action. (Note to self: always listen to that little voice.) The commenters had taken the time and effort carefully to explain their own views and insights, and I had wiped that away, without any warning or explanation. I’d been so focused on my own distress at the thought of upsetting John and his mother that I didn’t think about the effect of my deletions on the commenters.

Therefore, not much later, I decided I wouldn’t delete any more comments, but would let any new ones stand. I should have written an explanation on my blog at that point, but I didn’t. Just then, I got caught up in re-writing the introduction of my book, a task that requires enormous concentration. I remembered to post, because that’s part of my daily work, but I didn’t allow myself the distraction of checking my blog (I have to admit, checking my blog is an activity that I often use as a procrastination tool, and it feels like “fun” that I could cut out at a crunch time).

Lesson learned: I won’t do delete comments this way again, and I’ll read comments regularly. (This is so ironic! I read comments CONSTANTLY, and this is practically the one time I didn’t. Aargh.)

I’ve never faced this kind of question before; the single time I’d ever deleted a comment was about two years ago, when, out of the blue, someone posted a horrible racist joke, which I took down immediately. People have posted some mean things about me, but I never considered deleting those. (Here is one of my favorite exchanges, if you’re interested.)

I learned something else. Of course, I always ask readers’ permission to post something they wrote, but now I’m going to warn them that comments are sometimes critical, and if comments are critical, I will leave them up. At least that way they’ll be prepared and will know my policy (and so will I). Also, when I post something like this letter, I’m going to add a note to readers, reminding everyone that the people under discussion are actual, ordinary people. It can feel like you’re discussing Jennifer Anniston — nope! These aren’t public figures, who have developed a tough skin, put themselves in the limelight, and don’t read everything that’s written about them — and so it behooves us all to keep a gentle tone. And I will be far, far more reluctant to post notes from readers.

Okay, that’s more than you wanted to know! One commenter gently reminded me of my own Tenth Commandment: Do what ought to be done. I hope that now I have. Thanks so much, readers, for your comments and for helping me clarify how to be a more responsible and responsive blogger. I hope you’ll keep reading.

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One of my first blog friends, the wildly creative Danielle LaPorte, has just launched a new blog, White Hot Truth. Can’t wait to see what she comes up with as she moves forward.

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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 of my blog.

The happiness of learning something new: what is RSS, anyway?

One of my happiness-project resolutions is “Learn how to do something new,” and I’ve had several readers email me to ask about RSS and Feedblitz updates. As happiness experts explain, “learning something new” is an excellent way of boosting happiness – though it usually means an uncomfortable period of frustration and discouragement, too. If you’re in the mood to “learn something new,” in this case about RSS and other ways of “subscribing” to blogs, read on:

Wondering what the heck RSS is?
RSS stands for “Real Simple Syndication.” If you’ve been mystified about that orange box with the white curves that appears on blogs everywhere, that’s the most common button for RSS sign-up. I have no idea how RSS actually works, but that doesn’t matter, because it’s actually easy to use.

This is how I think about it: Visiting a blog is like buying a magazine at a newsstand; using RSS is like getting a home subscription (except RSS is free) — you read the same content, and it’s delivered to you directly on your RSS reader.

RSS is handy if you read a lot of blogs. If you find yourself with a long list of favorite blogs to jump amongst, or if you follow a certain industry so need to check in with various sites periodically, or if you want to keep a list of blogs you like so you won’t forget one, RSS is very handy.

To use RSS, you need to sign up for an RSS reader – e.g., Google Reader (which I use), Bloglines. Then, when you want to add a blog to your list, you sign up to get updates through RSS (to use the magazine metaphor, to get the latest issue). After that, whenever that blog has new content, it’s sent to your reader. When you feel like catching up on your reading, you can go to your reader, and everything is updated, organized, and waiting for you.

Even though I have an RSS reader, sometimes I go to the actual blogs. One downside of using RSS is that you just get the update (much like getting a blog update into your email, see below). Sometimes it’s fun to go to the blog and see the whole site. On my blog, I have a lot of material in the sidebars that doesn’t show up in an RSS reader or in Feedblitz.

The upside of using an RSS reader is that you can zip through a lot of content very fast. It’s a very good way of organizing your reading.

If you want to try RSS, first sign up for a reader (e.g., Google Reader, Bloglines). Once you have a reader, you follow the instructions for adding a particular blog to your list. Lots of sites have buttons that show that they have RSS feeds available. The most common one is the orange box with white waves, like the one at the top-left-hand corner of my blog, but there are many others as well.

You can click the RSS button and follow the instructions, or paste in the URL of the blog you want to follow or the URL of its feed. It depends on your situation. When you’re doing it, this is a lot less confusing than it sounds.

I’m not very tech savvy myself, and I hesitated a long time before using a reader. Fortunately, it’s one of those tools that turns out to be fairly easy to use, once you get started. One day, I just held my nose, signed up, and fiddled around until I figured it out. But don’t feel like an idiot if it’s a bit awkward at first. It took me a while to get comfortable on it.

Want to use email instead?
Now, maybe you don’t feel like “Learning something new” and dealing with RSS, but you like the idea of getting updates. With many blogs, like this one, you can sign up to get updates sent to you though email. If you’d like to do that with this blog, go to the upper-right-hand corner of this blog and sign up through the Feedblitz box. (Never fear, you can unsubscribe any time, and I would never share the list.) Thousands of people use this method to get my blog updates, and it’s very handy if you like to route material through your email in-box.

Be warned, however: lately I’ve been having a problem with Typepad that means that people are getting duplicative Feedblitz emails. I’m working HARD to get this resolved, and Typepad is working on it, so I hope this problem will be fixed soon. If you’re annoyed by getting the extra emails, please bear with me! If you like the idea of email updates, but don’t want to get one every day, you can sign up for my monthly newsletter, which is a round-up of the best material from the previous month.

A lot of people complain about getting too many emails. If you feel that way, an advantage of RSS is that it allows you to get targeted updates outside your email.

That’s everything I know about RSS. As I say, I’m no tech expert. Please add a comment if there’s anything that I’ve explained poorly or am just flat wrong about.

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My RSS reader includes Cognitive Daily — it highlights interesting studies that I might otherwise miss. Today, for example, it describes a study about babies using sign language. This subject interests me, because we used baby sign language with both our daughters, and it’s FANTASTIC! It’s absolutely amazing to be able to communicate with your baby. The first time the Big Girl did the sign for “hungry”…I almst fainted.

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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. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.