Happiness quotation from Christopher Alexander (last time).

This is the third time in a row that I’ve included a long quotation from Christopher Alexander as my weekly quotation. Last time, I promise!

Here, Alexander is talking about architecture, but I think it’s fascinating to think about his point in relationship to the elements of a happy life.

But then I read a passage in an ancient Chinese painting manual—the Mustard Seed Garden manual of painting—which made the situation clear to me.

The writer of that manual describes how, in his search for a way of painting, he had discovered for himself the same central way that thousands of others like him had also discovered for themselves, throughout the course of history. He says that the more one understands of painting, the more one recognizes that the art of painting is essentially one way, which will always be discovered and rediscovered, over and over again, because it is connected with the very nature of painting, and must be discovered by anybody who takes painting seriously. The idea of style is meaningless: what we see as a style (of a person or of an age) is nothing but another individual effort to penetrate the central secret of painting, which is given by the Tao, but cannot itself be named.

The more I learn about towns and buildings, the more I feel the same thing to be true. It is true that many of the historic styles of building have some quality in common – they have it not because they are old, but because man has, over and over again, approached the secret which is at the heart of architecture. In fact, the principles which make a building good, are simple and direct – they follow directly from the nature of human beings, and the laws of nature – and any person who penetrates these laws will, as he does so, come closer and closer to this great tradition, in which man has sought for the same thing, over and over again, and come always to the same conclusions.
–Christopher Alexander

Dan Schawbel, the personal-brand guru who writes the Personal Branding Blog and who wrote Me 2.0, was kind enough to do an interview with me. Interesting questions.

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.

Relationships and love: Read this letter from a reader’s mother.

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.

A new year has just begun, the traditional time to turn over a new leaf — a happiness-project endeavor.

One of the challenges of a happiness project is overcoming the conviction that nothing and no one can change. Another challenge is overcoming the disappointment you feel when you try to change, but no one notices your efforts. What’s the point, you may ask, when no one thanks me for clearing all the clutter? When no one knows how hard it was for me to keep my temper? When no one appreciates my efforts to plan something fun? This is a real problem for me. I crave those gold stars.

Even St. Therese of Lisieux remarked in The Story of a Soul, “I noticed this: when one performs her duty, never excusing herself, no one knows it; on the contrary, imperfections appear immediately.”

If all this rings a bell, read on. A thoughtful reader in his late 20’s — I’ve changed his name — emailed me a copy of a letter he got from his mother. I got tears in my eyes when I read it. People can change, people do appreciate your efforts, things can turn happier. In his email to me, “John” explained how happy this letter made him. That reminded me of my Second Splendid Truth:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Here’s a copy of the letter John received from his mother:

This past Christmas visit was one that I will remember and cherish
forever. You were the John that I always remembered before age 11. I
thought he had gone somewhere else never to return. You were patient,
kind, and loving. You acted like you wanted to be around us, instead
of hiding in your room with your computer for hours on end. I only
hope that you enjoyed this visit as much as we did.

I wanted to tell you THANK YOU SO MUCH for the great present. It
is the first time any son of mine has ever spent that much money on
me…or even gotten me a gift that was reciprical to the ones I had
given them. I don’t know if you know, but my language of love is
gifts….so I DO get very disappointed when I put tons of thought, and
money into getting cool gifts for people, and they give me nothing I
want back…or give me something WAY LESS in value than what I gave
them. I love giving the gifts as well…and making sure it is
something you will delight in!! I have become a cool listener for
when people throw out ideas they think they would like to get…and I
can remember that all year…and I surprise them at Christmas or
birthday time. It is a passion of mine.

I cannot tell you how delighted your gift certificate to Amazon
has made me. I am thrilled about it….just as thrilled as you have
been with your new watch!! I still want to do a dance about it!!

I wanted also to let you know that a miracle has happened. I
never thought in my wildest dreams that you could let go of the anger
you possessed against me over the years that pent up due to mostly
misunderstandings, and not knowing the whole story on your part, and
negative self talk. You had said you were wiping the slate clean and
starting over in our relationship…and you had given that to me in
2007 for my birthday. I did not believe that your firmly held anger
and resentment against me would not flare up….on the next
occasion…and we would be back where we started….so I have been
waiting for the angry John to emerge. But, I have not seen or felt the
anger you used to hold, and the contempt in your voice, and the
calling me on every little nuance is gone….and you are delightful to
be around!!! I may have not noticed it so much had the other 2
brothers been around…but it was great to truly be forgiven by

I wanted to thank you also for your patience with me on learning
the pictures on the computer. It was 2am, and you had to get up
early…but I felt no anger, stress or urgency in your voice. Your
father would have thrown up his hands, and stomped out of the room!!
He has little patience when trying to teach me the computer….so I
try to plug along hanging on to what I know, and praying the computer
will not break so I have to disturb him to fix it.
It was great to have an eager, willing and patient teacher. I have
never known a patient teacher regarding the computer.!!

The love you showed me in this short time we had is OVERWHELMING.
I have not felt that from you since you were 8-10 years old. It makes
me cry even now when I think about it. I think I may be getting back
the son that I have prayed would return to me for so many years….it
is a miracle.

I tell you, I will never forget these past 3 days….and all that
they have meant to me. You are a very special and wonderful person,
John. I am glad you are back. I have missed you for so long.
Love you, Mom

The incomparable Leo Babauta, a blog pal of mine who writes the insanely popular blog Zen Habits, has a new book that just came out two days ago, but is already generating a huge amount of buzz: The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential…in Business and in Life. I can’t wait to get started.

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.

The secret to keeping your New Year’s resolutions — is there a magic formula?

From articles in the New York Times today, Alex Williams’s New Year, New You? Nice Try and Ken Belson’s As Resolutions Go, Spending Less May Actually Stick, I gleaned some statistics about resolutions-keeping:

—According to one survey, the top three resolutions made by Americans in 2009 are:
1. Losing weight — 20%
2. Quitting smoking — 16%
3. Spending less — 12%
—About 80% of people who make resolutions stop keeping them by mid-February.
—Two-thirds of dieters gain back any lost weight within a year.
—Many people make and break the same resolution year after year.

These facts are pretty discouraging. Does that mean it’s pointless to make a new year’s resolution? I don’t think so. You’ll never succeed unless you try, so you might as well try.

If you really want change, THINK about it, plan it, probe it, keep yourself accountable, have a plan — don’t just reflexively say “This year I’m really going to learn to cook” and expect it to happen.

For example, in my case, I have a huge number of resolutions related to my happiness-project, and those I’ve managed to keep, more or less, or I’ve decided to discard them. The Resolutions Chart (see below) played a huge role in my ability to keep them, because I framed my resolutions as manageable, concrete tasks; I scored myself to give myself accountability; by reviewing the chart each day, I kept my resolutions uppermost in my mind.

Now, of course, my entire Happiness Project is based on resolutions-keeping, so I’m biased. I love resolutions. But it’s true, they’re hard to keep. I often comfort myself with the thought of the patron saints of resolutions — Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, and St. Therese of Liseiux — who talked often about how they failed to live up to their resolutions. But they still thought it was a worthwhile endeavor.

Ben Franklin wrote: “…on the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.”

My New Year’s resolution for 2009? To entertain more. Somehow, this resolution didn’t make it onto my official happiness-project Resolutions Chart. Big mistake. I’ve made and broken this resolution for at least seven years. Ah, but this year will be different…

One of the great pleasures of my vacation was that I got to do a lot of reading. If you are Narnia/C.S. Lewis fan, I highly recommend Laura Miller’s The Magician’s Book. If you love reading a good novel — one that is beautifully written, has fascinating characters, and a lot of suspense — I highly recommend Marisha Pessl’s Special Topics in Calamity Physics. I have to admit, this was a novel that reviewers kept saying was terrific, and I developed a kind of aversion to it. Why does that happen to me? I have no idea. But guess what, it really IS a fantastic novel.

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.

New Year’s Resolution: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Four tips for writing your personal commandments.

I’m doing a happiness project, and you could have one, too. Join in! Start your own! January 1 is a great time to try something new, to turn over a new leaf. Forty-four percent of Americans make New Year’s resolutions, and I certainly always do.

In starting your happiness project, you might begin by writing your personal Commandments. I’ve posted about this before, but because this exercise was one of the most challenging — and most helpful and fun – tasks that I did in preparation for my happiness project, I’m posting about it again. It’s really worth doing.

Here are my Twelve Commandments:
1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So how do you come up with your own list?

First: Listen to what’s buzzing in your brain.
When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people. My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.” A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.” A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person. “No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese (“When one loves, one does not calculate”), and “Act the way I want to feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

Second: Follow the metaphor.
When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life – how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

So you might find that your commandments would be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

Third: Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive.
I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

Fourth: Think about what’s true for YOU.
Each person’s list will differ. One person resolves to “Say yes,” another person resolves to “Say no.” You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Whenever I write about commandments, people post their own lists in response, and it’s always fascinating and inspiring to see what they’ve chosen. Here are some commandments that other people have adopted. Some might work for you, or spur your own thoughts.

Forget the past.
Do stuff.
Talk to strangers.
Stay in touch.
Make haste to be kind.
Don’t wait.
Action, not reaction.
Always with love.
Baby steps.
Recognize my patterns.
Be present.
Don’t rehearse unhappiness. [This is one that I really need to think about!]
Live your values.
The more the merrier.
Love is all around.
Notice the color purple.
Friends are more important than sex.
Choose not to take things personally.
Be loving and love will find you.
Encourage others.
Enjoy simplicity.
Rejoice in beauty.
Deeds not words.
Slow down.
Please yourself.
Nothing lasts.
Music helps.
Only a bore is bored.
Do something different.
Consider the source.
Be the fun.
Cut your losses.

If you come up with your own set, please consider posting them. It’s very valuable for me and other readers — seeing other people’s commandments helps clarify what our own commandments need to be.

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.

What you can learn about happiness from bullfighting.

I do a lot of reading, and one of the few downsides to that habit is that I often lose track of the source of an idea or phrase. I’ve spent hours trying to track down an anecdote or a fact that didn’t strike me as important when I read it, but that later on, I wanted to look at more closely.

Sometimes I even jot down a note without remembering to include the source. For example, I’m very intrigued with a new word: querencia. Where the heck did I come across it? I thought perhaps it was the name of a short story discussed in Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, but I can’t find it there. Oh well. For some reason, the word caught my eye, and I spent some time tracking down its meaning.

During a bull fight, the bull will sometimes stake out a particular part of the ring where it feels safe: its querencia. Perhaps it’s a corner, in a square field, or perhaps it’s a place where the bull successfully toppled a horse. Whenever the bull has a chance, it will return to its querencia.

This is a term that has great metaphoric resonance.

Each of us should find our own querencia, our sanctuary, a place to which we can retreat from the lances that pursue us. Maybe that querencia is a place, like a bedroom or a bikepath – or a mental area of refuge – or a frame of mind.

But the useful metaphor doesn’t stop there.

Apparently, the bull is often most fierce and unpredictable when it’s fighting its way to its querencia. Sometimes, perhaps, it’s so important to us to gain our querencia that we’re hurtful when anyone blocks our way. Maybe it’s so important to believe that a marriage is strong that we ignore what a spouse is saying. Maybe it’s so important to believe that a child is well-adjusted that we don’t understand what a teacher means.

Also, although the bull feels safer in its querencia, its querencia didn’t necessarily afford it any greater protection from the matador.

So what’s the lesson? Identify your querencia, find comfort in it — but use it as a strong base, not a hiding place.

This is very relevant to me these days, because I read Munro Leaf’s wonderful book, The Story of Ferdinand, at least once each day to the Little Girl. Now, Ferdinand was a bull who had found his querencia.

Zoikes, this Smashing Magazine post has some amazing photographs of split-second events.

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