It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Connect with your past.

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.

One of my newer happiness-project resolutions is to “Connect with my past.” I’ve been trying to reach out to people, and to visit places, that were important to me in previous incarnations.

The Big Man and I are the same — we tend to lose touch with our friends from the past. We have plenty of friends in the present, and we love seeing old friends, but we aren’t good about keeping in contact.

That’s one reason I love Facebook and other internet tools that make it easier not only to keep in touch with people, but to keep track of them. Now it’s so much easier to keep tabs on people as they move, switch jobs, etc.

A few months ago, to “Connect with my past,” I called one of my best friends from high school. It’s a long story, but I hadn’t talked to her for more than ten years. It took me a while to track her down, but thanks to a clue from a fellow Kansas Citian whom I ran into in an airport, and a lot of Google persistence, I found her. It was so much fun to talk to her – to awaken the part of my brain connected to her, and also to feel that I’d sewn up a dangling loose thread of a relationship.

Today, I went to a lunch given by my law school alumni association. Although I’d never attended one of these lunches before, my resolution to “Connect with my past” inspired me to go. The speaker was someone I knew from my clerkship past (she clerked for Justice Souter when I clerked for Justice O’Connor), so I saw a chance to “Connect with my past” in two ways: my law school past and my clerkship past.

My experiences in law school and as a lawyer were extremely intense, extremely happy, and extremely interesting – plus, the Big Man and I met in law school, so that puts a rosy glow over that period. But now that I’m a writer, and not a lawyer, I feel disconnected to the lawyerly part of my life.

Going to the lunch, seeing some people I knew, hearing news of other friends, hearing about what’s happening at the law school…it was very satisfying.

I’ve been surprised by how happy this kind of activity makes me. Is it because it boosts my sense of connection to other people — a key to happiness? Or because it heightens my sense of having a continuous self? Or because it brings back happy memories, which is an important contributor to happiness? Probably all of these.

Surprisingly, I haven’t seen any studies or scientific discussion of this aspect of happiness-building, and I haven’t read any advice of this nature in popular sources. Nevertheless, connecting with my past has really made me happier.

So, go to a reunion, attend an event, call or email an old friend, drive by a former haunt, look through a photo album, re-visit the restaurant you used to love, listen to some music that reminds you of a long-ago period of your life…or what else? What are some other ways to connect with our pasts?

I love tips, and Gimundo has a great list of tips, via Productivity Café, about how to prod yourself into being on time.

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.

Happiness is reading a good memoir.

I love reading spiritual memoirs, and memoirs of catastrophe, and memoirs of other people’s Happiness Projects (though they don’t call them “happiness projects,” that’s what they are).

So I was very interested to read Trish Ryan’s memoir, He Loves Me, He Loves Me Not: A Memoir of Finding Faith, Hope, and Happily Ever After. It’s a combo of all three kinds of memoir.

From college on, Ryan was very eager to get married. She lurched through some bad relationships, then made a disastrous marriage to a man with a vicious temper. His temper was so vicious, in fact, that when she decided to leave him, she just walked out of the house one morning. She didn’t bring anything with her, and she kept her whereabouts hidden, until she managed to get a divorce by relinquishing any claim to their marital property. Throughout this time, she was also on a spiritual quest.

When she left her marriage, she moved to Boston, and she ended up joining the Vineyard Christian Fellowship of Greater Boston. My favorite part of the memoir recounts how she embraced the church and Jesus, turned her life around, and married the perfect guy.

This memoir is fascinating, because Ryan is so honest (and a bit kooky). She talks about her longtime belief in astrology; her repeated, classic He’s Just Not That Into You relationship mistakes; her initial reservations about some aspects of the religion she slowly adopted. It’s also very funny.

Also, she accomplishes something very difficult: she writes about her faith, religion, and Jesus in a way that will resonate, I bet, not only with people of the same faith but also with a wide audience.

I’m trying to remember if I’ve ever failed to be enthralled with the story of someone’s Happiness Project. I can’t think of an example. There’s just something so engaging about reading about how people decide to change their lives, and how they go about doing it. People have such wildly different challenges, and undertake such wildly different resolutions to try to turn their lives around.

This is a very, very happy story. I have to say, I got a little teary in the wedding scene. Then I immediately went online to see if there were any pictures of Trish Ryan and her husband Steve on her author website (there are).

I like checking out the LifeTwo site. They do great round-ups of lots of interesting studies, plus there’s other fun material there.

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 Wednesday: Eight psychological terms to help you strengthen your friendships.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight psychological terms to help you strengthen your friendships.

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: the most essential key to happiness is strong relationships with other people.

We all have many kind of relationships that contribute to our happiness, and one of the most important is our friendships. My happiness-project resolutions aimed at friendship include “Cut people slack,” “Show up,” “Make three friends,” “Bring people together,” “Remember birthdays,” “No gossip,” and “Say hello.”

Here are eight psychological terms and principles that I’ve found helpful as I’ve been trying to build and strengthen my friendships.

1. Triadic closure. In a phenomenon called “triadic closure,” people tend to befriend the friends of their friends – and this is very satisfying. Friendships thrive on inter-connection, and it’s both energizing and comforting to feel that you’re building not just friendships, but a social network. I now make much more of an effort to help my friends become friends with each other, and to befriend friends’ friends. (Total non sequitur: “befriend friends’ friends” is quite a phrase! Bad writing, but I couldn’t resist.)

2. Emotional contagion. “Emotional contagion” is a strong psychological effect in which we “catch” the happy, sad, or angry moods of others. Someone in a happy, energetic mood will help boost the moods of others, and obviously, this creates a very pleasant atmosphere. Unfortunately, negative moods are more contagious than positive moods; if I’m crabby, I can trigger a wave of crabbiness in my friends. I’m trying to do a better job of living up to my duty to be happy.

3. The mere exposure effect. Familiarity breeds affection. The “mere exposure effect” describes the fact that repeated exposure makes people like music, faces — even nonsense syllables — better. Because of the “exposure principle,” the more often a person sees another person, the more intelligent and attractive that person will be ranked. So I try to put myself in situations where I’m going to see a lot of the same people over and over.

4. Fundamental attribution error. The fundamental attribution error is a psychological phenomenon in which we tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters, and to overlook the power of the situation to influence their action. In other words, we over-emphasize the role that personality plays in shaping others’ behavior, and under-emphasize the role of outside forces. I assume that the guy in the drugstore is an inconsiderate jerk because he rushed ahead of me to get to the counter, when in fact, he’s very considerate, and he’s rushing to get home with the medicine for his sick girlfriend.

5. Warmth. Attraction is reciprocal; we tend to like people more when we think the like us. So if I’m friendly and openly pleased to see someone person, that person is more likely to feel friendly toward me. Instead of playing it cool, I try to show a lot of warmth.

6. Smiling. As obvious as it seems, studies do show that we’re perceived as more friendly when we smile more (it also helps to have an expressive face, to nod, to lean forward, to have a warm tone). The sheer amount of time smiling makes a very big difference on perceived friendliness.

7. Subliminal touching. Studies show that subliminal touching – that is, touching touching a person so unobtrusively that it’s not noticed – dramatically increases that person’s sense of well-being and positive feelings toward the toucher. And vice versa. This fleeting touching might be something like touching a person’s back as you walk through a door, or touching his or her arm for emphasis.

8. 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. If I can manage to joke around, I’ll evoke a situation in which the people around me were more likely to joke around, too. In other words, I make my own weather.

As with many aspects of happiness, people often assume that friendship should flow easily and naturally, and that trying to “work” on it is forced and inauthentic. But in the bustle of everyday life, it’s easy to forget to take time for our real priorities. Since I’ve started trying to keep my happiness-project resolutions, I’ve found that my friendships have expanded and deepened. It’s worth the effort.

A while back, I posted about getting my “Style Statement” with Carrie McCarthy and Danielle LaPorte. Now they have a book, Style Statement: Live By Your Own Design, and I just got my copy.

The “style statement” is a two-word phrase that sums up your personal style. It’s descriptive, but also prescriptive, because it not only describes you, it’s meant to help you think about your decisions and actions with more insight into what makes you happy. The first word in the phrase describes your dominant style, and the second word, the individual edge – in an 80/20 balance. For example, I’m “Constructive Insouciant.”

The book helps you figure out your own “style statement” and, knowing that, to think about how you might bring your life into better alignment with your style. Thinking about being “Constructive Insouciant” has given me real insight into certain decisions I’ve made.

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.

Happiness interview with Zen Habit’s Leo Babauta.

I’m starting something new: from time to time, I’ll 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 ask the same set of questions in each interview, the better to compare different people’s experiences.

Today’s interview is with Leo Babauta of the fantastically interesting and useful blog, Zen Habits. Along with Zen Habits, he recently finished the e-book, Zen to Done, is writing another book, and has a blog about writing, Write to Done. He’s married, has six kids, lives on Guam, and has done a lot of thinking about the nature of happiness and how to live a happy life.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Leo: Exercise, undoubtedly. It’s one of my favorite things to do — even if I don’t feel like exercising at the moment, once I get started I invariably feel great. And it leaves me feeling amazing all day long.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Leo: For most people, happiness is a choice (unless you have clinical depression or something like that). This isn’t immediately obvious to most of us, especially just starting out in life, because we think we need a good job or a good spouse or a good income or a nice house and car or world travel in order to be happy. But happiness isn’t about any of that. It’s about wanting to be happy, and living your life so that you’re happy. It’s about staying positive and seeing the good things in everything.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Leo: Probably just taking on too much. When I overload myself with projects, I get stressed out and life and work aren’t as fun anymore. So when this happens, I take a time out, and I decide what’s most important. Then I get out of all the other commitments or postpone them to when I have more time. Simplifying my life like this always makes me happier.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Leo: There are many. “Stay positive” is one. But my all-time favorite is five words of life advice from Vietnamese Zen monk Thich Nhat Hanh: “Smile, breathe and go slowly.” I think of it almost daily. It’s the wisest and most practical advice I’ve ever heard.

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?
Leo: I find that negativity detracts from many people’s happiness. The worst part is, they don’t realize they’re doing it, and they don’t want to hear it from you either. I try to make positive suggestions, or share what’s worked for me, and sometimes that helps. People wallow in self-pity, complain, get discouraged from failure, get depressed by their jobs and their health … all human emotions, of course, but if you allow this kind of negativity to stay in your life, you’ll be dominated by it.

I see people go from unhappiness to happiness simply by taking positive steps in their lives. They might start exercising, or waking early, or simplifying their lives. Many people on my blog who try some of my suggestions along these lines report some amazing transformations from simple little steps like these.

Gretchen: Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Leo: When I was younger, I always wanted a promotion. I worked hard at getting it. Then I got the promotion, and I wasn’t any happier. I made more money, but somehow my expenses expanded to meet my new income. I had a higher position of authority, but along with that position came more responsibilities, more hours worked, more stress. This happened a few times, and then I made the choice to step down to a position of lower responsibility, so I could shed all the stress and long hours and focus on doing something I loved. It turned out to be an amazing decision, and ever since then, I’ve focused more on doing what I love than on getting more money or more authority. Every step of the way in my journey in the last 10 years, I’ve chosen passion over power and money, and it’s worked out very well.

Speaking of websites that are a great resource for life hacks, productivity tips, and just generally how to live life in a more effective and serene way, check out Merlin Mann’s 43 Folders. It’s packed full of great stuff.

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.

Debate: do pets make us happier?

Growing up, my family had a much-beloved dog, Paddy-Wack (“Knick knack paddy wack, give your dog a bone…”), but we don’t have a pet now. I’m very thankful that our building doesn’t allow them, because the Big Girl would constantly be pestering me about it, if not. I definitely wouldn’t want the responsibility of having a pet – we’re taxed to the uttermost right now, with two children. We can’t even keep a houseplant alive.

Nevertheless, I know that for many people, pets are an enormous source of happiness. The other day, though, I had a fascinating conversation with a friend about the negative happiness consequence of having pets. There are pros and cons I hadn’t considered.

The pros to having pets:
Pets (above the fish/turtle level) provide companionship and unconditional love, both of which are KEY to happiness.

Dog owners, at least, often get more exercise, and exercise is a source of happiness.

Research shows that while we think that receiving support is a key to happiness, actually, providing support is perhaps even more important. Pets require our constant attention and care.

Having a pet contributes to the “atmosphere of growth” because you learn about your pet, learn to take care of it, watch it grow, etc.

Having a pet often contributes to stronger relationships with other people, by giving you something in common and similar concerns. I know many people who have made good friends at the dog-walkers park.

But my friend pointed out some cons:
Pets make it much harder to travel. When I asked him why he couldn’t leave his dogs in a kennel for a week, he said, “How often do you leave your two daughters for a week?” Point taken.

For people who have difficulty expressing affection to people, pets can be an outlet. In some cases, this is a bonus, but it can also mean that such folks are less inclined to direct their outward affection toward other people, who need it. Along the same lines, people who aren’t terribly social feel less need to be sociable, so they end up spending less time with other people.

Pets generate a huge amount of chores, which can be a source of tension and resentment.

Pets are sometimes used to justify decisions that people don’t want to take responsibility for. Instead of saying, “I don’t want to go to Thailand” or “I don’t want to go to your family’s house for Thanksgiving,” they say, “We can’t leave the dogs.”

Obviously, pets are an expense.

Trying to decide whether to get a pet?

In his fascinating book Stumbling on Happiness, Daniel Gilbert argues that people aren’t very good at predicting what will make them happier in the future. He suggests a remedy: To predict what’s likely to make you happy in the future, ask someone who is having that experience at the moment. The more similar such surrogates are to you, the more helpful their information is likely to be.

So if you love to travel, or if you spend most of your time at home, or if you have a lot of kids or no kids, ask similiarly-situated people how they like having a pet.

Gilbert maintains that although we all feel very idiosyncratic, we’re much more alike in our preferences than we imagine—so the experience of other people is the best guide to follow.

Lists of pros and cons aside, from my own experience, pet ownership seems a lot like parenthood: As much as people might explain the disadvantages, and as much of a pain as it might be for long stretches, you’re never sorry you made the decision. There’s a satisfaction there that seems beyond the reach of conventional measure or rational explanation. Why? I think the secret is LOVE. We gladly pay a high, high price for love.

The folks at AOL Canada very kindly asked me to do an interview, which was a lot of fun. Also, a thoughtful reader posted the link to a very interesting site,, a blog that incorporates cartoons. Ever since I read Scott McCloud’s entire brilliant oeuvre, and Dan Pink’s fantastic The Adventures of Johnny Bunko, I’ve been thinking a lot about the tremendous potential of comics.

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.