YOUR Happiness Project: Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings.

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.

In the comments the other day, a reader recommended How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I couldn’t agree more. I think this is the best parenting book out there.

One of that book’s most important lessons is simple, and just as applicable to adults as to children: acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings. Don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, fear, or reluctance; instead, articulate the other person’s point of view.

Sounds easy, right? Wrong. I had no idea how often I contradicted other people’s assertions of their feelings until I tried to quit. “You always have fun when we go.” “You should be thrilled, this is great news.” “It won’t be that much work.”

The other day, I had a chance to put this principle to work. I was in the bedroom when the Big Girl burst in, crying. I knew it was real crying, and not fake crying, because the Big Girl has a very convenient “tell” when she’s staging her tears. If she balls up her hands and holds them to her eyes, like an actress in a melodrama, she’s faking. This time, her hands were down, so I knew she was really upset.

I pulled her onto my lap, and she sobbed into my shoulder, “People always pay attention to the Little Girl but nobody ever pays any attention to me.” Now, it isn’t factually true that no one ever pays any attention to the Big Girl, but I managed to restrain my first impulse, which was to argue, “What about the five games of Uno I played with you last night?” and “You know everyone loves you just as much as the Little Girl.”

Instead, I said, “Wow, that hurts your feelings. You feel ignored.” I rocked her for a few minutes without saying anything, then said, “You feel like people pay more attention to the Little Girl.” We sat in silence for a while. She seemed to be getting calmer. Then I said, “You’re our most precious, darling girl, and no one would ever forget about you, or think that someone else is more important than you.” Then she got off my lap and skipped off!

Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. That sure seemed to be what happened.

This principle is just as true for adults. Recently, I undertook a MAJOR household project. Which, I admit, I did with about zero grace – but I did do it. The Big Man was well aware of my simmering resentment. Just before I was about to start the biggest part of it, he looked around and said, “Well, this doesn’t look like it will be too tough.” Wrong thing to say! Probably, he thought he was being comforting or encouraging. Instead, he enraged me. It would have been better to have acknowledged my feelings, by saying something like, “Wow, this looks like a huge job, it’s great that you’re going to do this.” Plus it never hurts to give me some gold stars.

I’ve found, too, that when other people deny or ignore my feelings, I tend to keep repeating myself (i.e., whining), because I don’t feel heard. So, for example, maybe the Big Man doesn’t want to talk about my annoying encounter with the cable guy, and I don’t even particularly feel like talking about it, but until I get my “Wow, that must have been so annoying,” I can’t let it go.

I don’t know why I laughed out loud at this story on Gimundo about

I worry about the happiness of the American Idol contestants.

Last night, they announced the winner of American Idol. Now, I know practically nothing about American Idol. I’d never watched for even one minute until a few months ago, when the Big Girl asked to start recording it so she could watch during her TV time.

Since then, I’ve watched bits and pieces with her. It’s not a show I like, because I feel too sorry for the people who lose – I don’t watch the Olympics or the Super Bowl, either. (I have a lot of these weird quirks — like my distaste for the theme of unjust accusation. It annoys the Big Man from time to time; I pass on a lot of Netflix suggestions.)

Also, because I think about happiness all the time, I started worrying about the contestants’ happiness. It’s painful to lose, of course. And along the way, sometimes the judges, being nice, would say things like, “You really have star quality,” “I know you’ll make it in the music industry, even though you’re being eliminated now,” etc.

On the one hand, it’s important to have a big dream and a big vision for ourselves – and that means being open to the possibility of failure. I remind myself constantly of my resolution to “Embrace the fun of failure.”

But usually, when you’re pursuing a big dream, you work at it step by step. You gradually move up through a series of challenges which you surmount, or not. The thing about American Idol is that everyday people are catapulted into the glare of tremendous fame, and a dizzying world of possibility opens. Then, for most of them, it ends very abruptly. (I’m assuming – am I wrong? Do many contestants manage to turn American Idol into a good career opportunity?)

This strikes me as a likely route to dissatisfaction. I’m reminded of the conclusion of the Christopher Guest movie, Waiting for Guffman, when the dentist, captivated by show business, leaves his dental practice to try to make it as a performer; in his final appearance, we see him telling jokes in front of a bored crowd at a seniors center. The possibility of being taken up by a famous Broadway producer had completely altered his sense of himself.

Fame has a crazy effect on people. It’s like money. Wanting it, winning it, having it thrust upon you without any effort on your part, losing it…fame and money can create strange, powerful disturbances in the normal fields of life.

As Plutarch observed, “For dealing with the blessings which come to us from outside we need a firm foundation based on reason and education; without this foundation, people keep on seeking these blessings and heaping them up but can never satisfy the insatiable appetites of their souls.”

Hmmmm…I don’t think I agree with everything in this very provocative post about some reasons that people have affairs on the Psychology Today blogs, but there’s a lot of interesting material here. I’ve been thinking about equity theory lately, and wanting to learn more about it. It was also interesting to me as someone who wrote a biography of JFK. In college, a friend told me, “In the best relationships, both people think they’re getting the better deal.” This post undercuts that argument!

I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.

11 tips for sticking to a schedule of regular exercise.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 11 tips for sticking to a schedule of regular exercise.

Exercise is a KEY to happiness. Research shows that people who exercise are healthier, more energetic, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. They get relief from anxiety and mild depression, comparable to medication and therapy. They perform better at work.

Also, although it’s tempting to flop down on the couch when you’re feeling exhausted, exercise is actually a great way to boost energy levels. Feeling tired is a reason to exercise, not a reason to skip exercise.

But even when you admit that you’d feel better if you exercised, it can be very hard to adopt the habit. My idea of fun has always been to lie in bed, reading, preferably while also eating a snack – but I’ve managed to keep myself exercising by using all these tricks on myself:

1. Always exercise on Monday. This sets the psychological pattern for the week. Along the same lines…

2. If at all possible, exercise first thing in the morning. As the day wears on, you’ll find more excuses to skip exercising. Get it checked off your list, first thing.

3. Never skip exercising for two days in a row. You can skip a day, but the next day, you must exercise, no matter how inconvenient.

4. Give yourself credit for the smallest effort. My father always said that all he had to do was put on his running shoes and close the door behind him. Many times, by promising myself I could quit ten minues after I’d started, I got myself to start – and then found that I didn’t want to quit, after all.

5. Think about context. I thought I disliked weight-training, but in fact, I disliked the guys who hung out in the weight-training area. Are you distressed about the grubby showers in your gym? Do you try to run in the mornings, but recoil from going out in the cold? Examine the factors that might be discouraging you from exercising.

6. Exercise several times a week. If your idea of exercise is to join games of pick-up basketball, you should be playing practically every day. Twice a month isn’t enough.

7. If you don’t have time both to exercise and take a shower, find a way to exercise that doesn’t require you to shower afterward. Twice a week, I have a very challenging weight-training session, but the format I follow doesn’t make me sweat. (Some of you are saying, “It can’t be challenging if you don’t sweat!” Oh yes, believe me, it is.)

8. Look for affordable ways to make exercising more pleasant or satisfying. Could you upgrade to a nicer or more convenient gym? Buy yourself a new iPod? Work with a trainer? Get a pedometer to keep track of your walking distances? Exercise is a high life priority, so this a worthwhile place to spend some money if that helps.

9. Think of exercise as part of your essential preparation for times you want to be in especially fine form — whether in performance (to be sharp for an important presentation) or appearance (to look good for a wedding) or mood (to deal with a stressful situation). Studies show that exercise does help.

10. Remember one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood, courtesy of Voltaire: Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Don’t decide it’s only worth exercising if you can run five miles or if you can bike for an hour. I have a friend who scorns exercise unless she’s training for a marathon — so she never exercises. Even going for a ten-minute walk is worthwhile. Do what you can.

11. Don’t kid yourself. Belonging to a gym doesn’t mean you go to the gym. Having been in shape in high school or college doesn’t mean you’re in shape now. Saying that you don’t have time to exercise doesn’t make it true.

People often ask me, “So if I want to be happier, what should I be doing?” and I always say, “The first thing to do is to make sure you’re getting plenty of sleep and plenty of exercise.”

I know, that answer doesn’t sound properly transcendent and high-minded on the subject of happiness, but research shows that you’d be wise to start there. And I’ve found that if I’m feeling energetic and well-rested, I find it much easier to follow all my other happiness-inducing resolutions.

Yesterday and today, I attended a MediaBistro conference on “Change the Way You Think About Media.” There were many fascinating speakers; one of the most provocative presentations was by the fabulous digital marketer and idea maven Steve Rubel — and you can read his presentation here.

Yippeee, at last ChimpMail has fixed the sign-up page for my new monthly newsletter, so 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.

The happiness of stopping my daughter’s tantrums.

The Little Girl is a charming, ebullient, sweet-natured three-year-old. She also had a habit of throwing MASSIVE tantrums. Kicking, screaming, throwing things, pulling glasses off people’s faces…it was bad.

It seemed so uncharacteristic of her, I kept thinking she’d outgrow it. She was so happy and friendly. We made excuses: she was overtired, she had a cold, she didn’t like rushing around. But the tantrums didn’t go away, and it became a real drag. We started calling her “the girl with curl”:

There was once a girl
Who had a little curl
Right in the middle of her forehead.
When she was good, she was very, very good
And when she was bad, she was horrid.

Finally, I admitted I needed to take direct action. Her tantrums were putting a cloud over our family life, plus I realized that I was adjusting my expectations – I was putting up with behavior I would never have tolerated with the Big Girl, because I didn’t want to deal with a tantrum. Not good. And on the other hand, there were pleasures I wasn’t permitting the Little Girl, because I knew she’d throw a tantrum when we said “Not now” or “It’s time to stop.” We never let her watch any TV, for example, even though I would otherwise have been happy to let her watch a Sesame Street episode or part of a Wiggles DVD, because of the certainty of the tantrums that would follow when the TV was switched off.

There’s a Buddhist saying that I’ve found to be uncannily accurate: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” My teacher appeared in the form of Beth Lisick, when I read her book, Helping Me Help Myself.

I’d read the book, because Beth Lisick did her own kind of happiness project: she spent a year following the advice of ten self-help gurus.

One of the gurus she followed was Thomas Phelan, author of 1-2-3 Magic: Effective Discipline for Children 2-12. Beth Lisick explained all the reasons she resisted following the simple program in the book (it boils down to counting calmly “1, 2, 3” and if your kid is still misbehaving, enforcing a short time-out, with no emotion and no talking) but in desperation, she tried it, and it worked. Like magic.

Okay. If it worked for Beth and her son, maybe it would work for us. I bought the book. I tried it. And you know what? It worked. Like magic. It didn’t completely stop the tantrums – the Little Girl still throws it down, from time to time, but less often, and for a much shorter amount of time, and we know how to react when she does.

A big comfort as a parent, I’ve discovered, is having a strategy. I need a theory of how to behave. This book gave me a tool to use when I didn’t know what to say or how to react. Even if it doesn’t always work, I know that I’m being consistent and reasonable. That feels a lot better than just flailing around, saying and doing whatever comes into my head at a difficult moment.

A lot of people would say, “I’d never use 1-2-3 Magic! I don’t like time-outs. That’s not the kind of parent I am.” I would have said exactly the same thing, as the mother of the Big Girl. But the Little Girl is different, and for us now, 1-2-3 Magic has been very helpful.

So, if you’ve got a tantrum-y kid, I would recommend giving it a try. Has anyone else had good, or bad, experience with it?

Organ donation is a cause that interests me greatly, and I was very encouraged to see this post in Gimundo about an Ontario fund to help with living expenses incurred by patients awaiting for their transplants. What a great idea.

I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.

I’ve heard from a few people that the link might not be working properly, so I’m off to investigate that right now!

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Aristotle.

“Men are what they are because their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse.” –Aristotle

Along those lines, current scientific studies suggest that, for happiness, genetics counts for about fifty percent, circumstances (like marriage, health, income, etc.) count for about ten percent, and the remainder — about forty percent of happiness — can be affected by purposeful strategies like exercise, cultivating gratitude, spending time with friends, acts of kindness, and the like.

I’m going to start sending out a short monthly newsletter. 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.