Life isn’t fair, or, why people who are irritable get more irritable, and people who are cheery get more cheery.

I love finding a precise term for things I’ve observed in the word. It’s so satisfying to discover concepts like Schadenfreude, or “acting in reliance,” or wabi-sabi. One of my favorite parts of writing my book Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide was making up new terms: platinum rule, eye stray, object lust, ubiniquity.

Recently I had a conversation with a friend about a mutual acquaintance – call her X. In flagrant violation of my resolution of “No gossip,” I observed, “X is one of the top two unfriendliest people I’ve met in my adult life.”

My friend is a friend of X, and she said, “I know. I like her, but a lot of people don’t. We’ve been in social situations together, and I’ll see other friends behave toward her in a way that I’ve never seen them act before, very hostile and defensive. She’s always nice to me, but I know she must be different with other people, if they react to her like that.”

Well, it turns out there’s a very handy term for this phenomenon. It’s “situation evocation.”

In situation evocation, we spark a response from people that reinforces a tendency we already have—for example, if I act irritable all the time, the people around me are probably going to treat me with less patience and helpfulness, which will, in turn, stoke my irritability.

On the other hand, if I can manage to do more joking around, I’d evoke a situation in which the people around me were more likely to joke around, too.

X is remarkably unfriendly. Her actions shape the way that people respond to her – and they respond to her, I bet, in ways that exacerbate her unfriendliness.

This is a good example of how life isn’t fair. People with a propensity to good cheer will find themselves in a friendly, cheerful environment, while people who are already angry or crabby will find themselves surrounded by uncooperative, suspicious people.

Goethe wrote: “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.”

Situation evocation explains one way in which we make our own weather. So, in the words of a Snoopy poster, “Let a smile be your umbrella.”

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Two friends of mine, Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, have written an outstanding book, Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years. Their book is a fantastic resource for anyone who has preschool-age children — I especially love their book because I played a tiny role in its creation. Nancy and Ellen have just launched a website, which has lots of great information for anyone who wants to know about child development at that stage.

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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: 20 very easy tips for lowering your daily stress level.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 20 very easy tips for lowering your daily stress level.

When we’re stressed, we tend to become more stressed. That’s because when we’re rushed and harried, we cut corners. We don’t take the time to do the little things that, though not difficult or time-consuming themselves, can end up saving enormous amounts of time and trouble.

For example, buying stamps isn’t stressful, and buying a roll of stamps isn’t any more stressful than buying twenty stamps, but realizing that you’ve run out of stamps when you’ve waited to the last possible day to pay your bills is STRESSFUL.

And it seems to be a natural law that every car’s gas gauge hits “Empty” at the moment of maximum inconvenience.

As a kid, I was puzzled by the meaning of the old saying, “A stitch in time saves nine.”

Now I know what it means. And it’s a very sensible saying. It means that if you make one stitch when it’s needed, you’ll save yourself the trouble of having to make nine stitches later.

Similarly, one of the best ways to lower the stress level in your life is to discipline yourself to do the little things that will help keep stress at bay.

These tasks don’t seem particularly important, and they’re easy to skip when you’re rushed, but if neglected, they can snowball into major stress.

So, if you feel like your stress level is high, try to tick off some items on this list. A little effort now means a lot less stress, later.

Go to bed thirty minutes earlier than usual.
Get up twenty minutes earlier than usual.
Before you go to sleep, prepare for the morning.
Bring a hat and an umbrella.
Don’t wear tight clothes or uncomfortable shoes.
Make a list.
Listen to a favorite song.
Keep extra cash and stamps in the house.
Be polite and be fair.
Laugh out loud.
Have a good book to read.
Keep an extra set of keys.
Exercise.
Always keep your passport in the same place.
Throw something away.
Don’t say mean things about other people.
Put a Bandaid in your wallet.
Keep gas in the car.
Pay attention to someone else.
Make your bed.

What am I overlooking? If you can think of other suggestions for little steps to ward off stress, please post them. I’m sure we all need them.

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My internet movie,

Ah, you’re thinking, one blog isn’t enough! Where can I read MORE from Gretchen? Check out RealSimple.com.

I was thrilled to be asked by RealSimple.com to post regularly as one of their new bloggers. I’ll be writing in the “Life and Soul” section, in a blog called Note to Self, about trying to remember my true priorities — while also trying to remember to pick up some milk.

Check it out!

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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.

Do you have a pet peeve – something that you always complain about?

Most of us have a few pet peeves. My mother-in-law can’t stand to listen to people talk on their cell phones. The Big Man doesn’t like seeing dirty dishes on the kitchen counter.

Don’t get me started on airport security or email spam. Or TVs in restaurants.

One of my resolutions has been to stop myself from talking about my pet-peeve subjects. I realized the truth of Samuel Johnson’s observation: “To hear complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy.”

So when I walked into a stylish pizza restaurant this afternoon, I wasn’t going to comment on the TV that was playing behind the bar – I wasn’t going to say anything about how a TV in any restaurant that isn’t a sports bar strikes me as so dreary, so distracting, can’t people turn off the TV for five minutes, blah, blah, blah.

I wasn’t going to complain about it…and then I realized…I kind of liked it.

The TV, turned to CNN, had the sound turned off. No one was turning to look at it, no one seemed distracted from conversation.

And it struck me that the TV provided a bit of color and movement – not as nice as having a view of the ocean, or a real fire burning, of course, but the same type of effect.

Now, not only have I stopped complaining about TV in a restaurant, I’ve become able to appreciate something pleasant about it. That gave me a happiness boost.

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A great site for working mothers to get advice and ideas is Work It, Mom! I was very pleased that they posted my thirteen tips for dealing with a really lousy day.

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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 Robertson Davies.


Sentimentality is a flaw in a work of art, certainly, but the word is often thrown at great and overpowering works of art that embarrass critics who live, emotionally, in St. Ogg’s, though intellectually they have journeyed south as far as Cambridge. The ending of The Mill on the Floss moves me to tears, though I am not an easy weeper. It is not the immediate pathos of the death of Maggie and Tom that thus affects me: it is rather that a genuine completion of human involvement has been attained, but attained only through Death. A happiness beyond mere delight has been experienced – a happiness as blasting and destroying as an encounter with the gods.

To my mind, this is anything but sentimental. People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel, and who hate anything that cannot be intellectually manipulated. But the purgation through pity and terror which is said to be the effect of tragedy is not the only kind of purgation that art can bring. The tempest in the heart that great novels can evoke is rarely tragic in the strict sense, but it is an arousal of feelings of wonder at the strangeness of life, and desolation at the implacability of life, and dread of the capriciousness of life which for a few minutes overwhelms all our calculations and certainties and leaves us naked in a turmoil from which cleverness cannot save us. Sentimentality is sometimes used by critics as a term to rebuke artists who seeks to sound this terrifying note; if the artist fails, he is probably merely sentimental, but if he succeeds, the critic would be wise to slink back into his kennel and whimper till the storm passes.

–Robertson Davies

I’ve re-read this quotation hundreds of times, particularly when I was writing about Winston Churchill in Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Churchill was often accused of being sentimental, and this passage helped me understand why I didn’t think he was sentimental.

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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.