What Image Suggests Happiness to You?

One of the things that’s making me very happy right now is the astonishing progress of the happiness-project groups. A while back, I promised to create a starter-kit for people who wanted to launch a group for people doing happiness projects (click here if you’d like one), and more than 2,500 people have asked for one.

Now there are groups all over the country (Los Angeles, Dallas/Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Boston, Philadelphia, Memphis, DC, etc.) and all over the world (Singapore, Midlands, Johannesburg).

If you’re doing a happiness project (by yourself or with a group), it’s fun and also thought-provoking to choose a personal symbol for your happiness project. For instance, I chose a blue bird, because blue birds are symbols of happiness. On the Happiness Project Toolbox, the Inspiration Board Tool is a place where you can collect images that inspire you. People have posted some amazing images.

I’m always interested to see what image a happiness-project group leader chooses to illustrate the Facebook Page for the group. I like all these choices:

Wendi in Gainesville picked:

Waterville, Maine picked:

Nicole in Enid, Oklahoma picked:


Sadia in Chapel Hill (but also for 20-somethings everywhere) picked:


Liz in Johannesburg picked:


Connie in New York (my hometown, yipeee):


Sara in Chicago:

Linnea in Columbus picked:


What would you pick to be the image or personal symbol for your happiness project? or for your group?

Whether or not you want to join a group for people doing happiness projects together, one of my big discoveries from my own happiness project is the tremendous happiness I’ve gained every time I’ve joined or started a group. At last count, I’ve joined or started nine groups since I began my project! And all of them are highlights of my life, for various reasons. So do consider making “Join or start a group” one of your resolutions.

A note to groups: I know that some group leaders haven’t added their group to the list. I know it’s a bit of a pain, but please do add yourself. It only takes a moment, and I’d really appreciate knowing about your group. Here’s the complete list.

* Speaking of happiness-project group in Singapore, if any of you Singaporeans would like to join — or you have a friend in Singapore who might be interested — more information is here.

* Check out this amazing interactive graph from the New York Times about how different groups of Americans use their time. Addictive. If you’re a fan of Edward Tufte, you shouldn’t miss this — whether to admire or criticize.

“The Cause of Happiness May Be the Cause of Misery.”

“There is no gift of nature, or effect of art, however beneficial to mankind, which, either by casual deviations, or foolish perversions, is not sometimes mischievous. Whatever may be the cause of happiness, may be made, likewise, the cause of misery. The medicine, which, rightly applied, has power to cure, has, when rashness or ignorance prescribes it, the same power to destroy.”
-– Samuel Johnson

* Follow me on Twitter. If you haven’t tried Twitter yet, give it a go. I love it.

Learn from the Past.

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.

We all make mistakes, and have things go wrong, but one resolution I try very hard to keep is to “Learn from the past.”

Many of my most significant happiness-boosting actions – large and small – have come in reaction to things that went wrong.

To take a small example: it was only after thinking hard about why I was so often crabby during lovely family vacations that I recognized the problem: I was hungry. Once I understood what had gone wrong on previous trips, I was able to come up with a solution: now I make sure to have to pack almonds and other snacks whenever I travel.

To take a large example: in college, I didn’t participate in any extracurriculars – no sports, no newspaper, no drama, no singing group, no soup kitchen, no sorority. I didn’t think much about it during college, but during the two years between college and law school, with more perspective, I came to regret that I hadn’t been more involved. I vowed that in law school, I would take part in more extracurricular activities, and I did. Of these, the most significant was the Yale Law Journal, where I ended up being editor-in-chief – which ranks as one of the most important experiences of my whole life.

To take a medium example: I stopped drinking, more or less, because after stopping drinking during my pregnancies, I became such a lightweight that just one glass of wine had a big effect on me — and not a good effect. Alcohol made me sharp-tongued, indiscreet, insensitive, belligerent, and sleepy. The day after a social occasion, I often felt terrible about how I’d acted. To address this, I need to start drinking more, to build up my tolerance, or less. For me, giving up alcohol most of the time — I still have the occasional glass of something — makes me happier.

It’s hard to learn from the past, because that process means that I have to look long and hard at things in my life that didn’t go right – where I failed, or was disappointed, or didn’t rise to the occasion, or felt regret, guilt, or anger. And re-living that past is no fun.

It’s also difficult to do. One way I “learn from the past” is to apply my Eighth Commandment to Identify the problem. What did I wish had been different about that family trip? about college? about that party the other night? When I really look carefully to identify an exact problem — not just a vague feeling of dissatisfaction — I often see a solution.

Whenever I do “Learn from the past,” I find it very satisfying. Not only do I manage some aspect of my life more happily, but I also have the exhilarating sense of having corrected something, of having redeemed myself – yes, I’ll say it, of turning lemons into lemonade.

Has there been an occasion when learning from the past allowed you to do something more happily in the present?

* One of my new favorite blogs is the wonderfully thought-provoking Starfish Envy, started by my sister’s writing partner. “I’m thirty-seven. I’m successful. I’m single. Now what?” And as fascinating as it is, it’s super-fascinating to see a friend’s blog. It gives you a whole different insight into a person’s mind and life.

* Join the discussion over on the Facebook Page. Check it out!

Exercise, Weight Loss, and Happiness.

I was very interested to read John Cloud’s recent Time cover story about exercise and weight loss, Why Exercise Won’t Make You Thin. This is a very complicated issue, and the article’s argument has sparked many debates – but from a strictly happiness perspective, two points jumped out at me.

First: even if exercise doesn’t help me lose weight (and I admit, I’m very weight-preoccupied), it’s still extremely important for general good health and for not gaining weight — and for keeping my mood positive. For example, one study showed that even moderate aerobic exercise boosted mood – for as long as twelve hours. Almost everyone I know who exercises regularly says that they stick to their routine for mental as much, or more, than for physical reasons.

Second: I should always be wary of occasions when I have the urge to “treat” myself. So often, treats don’t contribute to long-term happiness.

From the article, and from my own observation, it seems that exercise often inspires people with the belief that they deserve a “treat” – and usually a high-calorie treat. For example, I was just reading Sally Koslow’s novel, Little Pink Slips. The main character goes running with her best friend, and afterward, they split a scone. But as Cloud suggests, from a strictly calorie perspective, those two women would have been better off skipping the run and the scone.

It’s also easy to fall into the assumption that because exercise is healthy, anything related to it must be healthy – this tendency is called the halo effect. A friend of mine would chug a big bottle of Nantucket Nectars after working out. He considered this a healthy, energy-boosting drink so never thought about calories at all. I pointed out that a bottle has almost as many calories as a Snickers bar! (My gleeful revelation of this fact did not endear me to him, I must confess.)

For a long time, I’ve been keeping an eye out for studies of how people’s worrying about their weight affects their happiness. To me, this concern seem like a major factor in day-to-day unhappiness. I’ve never seen much on this issue, and if anyone has read any studies about this, I’d love to see the reference.

* I couldn’t resist a blog called Happiness in this World: Reflections of a Buddhist Physician, of course, and I was particularly intrigued by this post about The Good Guy Contract.

* 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. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

5 Tips for Happiness Reinforced by My Family Vacation.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: my family vacation reminded me of these 5 tips for happiness.

I just returned from a wonderful family vacation. Beautiful weather, mostly cheerful children, and no major mishaps (no travel disasters, bicycle crashes, poison ivy, etc.)

Being on vacation reminded me of several things about happiness – the first being, remember to take a vacation! Especially given the technology these days, it’s tempting to have a change of scenery and call it a vacation. But a vacation really means taking a break from work.

I was reminded of several other happiness principles, as well:

1. Fun is important to happiness. Is there such a thing as “fun for the whole family”? I think so, but I’ve learned that on vacation I need to make sure I make time for the things that I find fun – which in my case means reading. Sometimes I think, “Why am I just lying here, reading, on such a beautiful day? I should be going for a run/playing in the ocean/learning to play tennis.” But it’s a Secret of Adulthood – Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for me. I love to read, and now I let myself read as much as I can get away with, given the realities of a family vacation. After all, I still do plenty of other things. And speaking of that Secret of Adulthood, the converse is true:

2. Just because something isn’t fun for me doesn’t mean that someone else won’t find it fun. For instance, grocery shopping. It finally dawned on me that my husband loves to make a quick trip to the grocery store. I kept trying to make lists and be efficient and ask if he really had to make another trip to the store, until I realized: he loves to bike over to the grocery store for a few items. One day he went four times. That’s FUN for him.

3. Sleep is important to happiness – the more I learn about sleep, the more convinced I become of that fact. Sleep keeps people feeling cheerier, it strengthens the immune system, it may even play a role in keeping weight off. According to one study, a bad night’s sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods (along with tight work deadlines). Another study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for your daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.

Accordingly, over the last few years, I’ve made a big effort to get more sleep – but during this vacation, there were several nights when I got TEN HOURS of sleep. Yes, I went to sleep at 9:30 p.m. and slept until 7:30 a.m., which I just wouldn’t have thought possible. This suggests to me that I may still not be getting enough sleep in my usual routine.

4. One irksome task can make vacation more fun. Some interesting studies suggest that interrupting a pleasant experience with something less pleasant can intensify a person’s overall pleasure. For example, commercials make TV-watching more fun.

For the last ten months, I’d been procrastinating about ordering a photo album from Shutterfly with our family pictures, and the task had really started to weigh on my mind. For this vacation, I decided to take a break from all work, except to do that photo album. This plan worked beautifully. Not doing my usual work make me relaxed, and having one irksome chore gave me the delicious feeling of goofing off – except when I actually did make myself do it. And I did get that task crossed off my list, which was enormously satisfying.

5. Everyone’s happiness project is different. (This is related to #1-2.) I met a very nice guy who described to me how he’d fulfilled his lifelong dream of buying a farm, where he’s raising some organic crops as well as pigs, cows, and I believe, goats. He was beaming with delight as he described how much he loved every aspect of it. I can think of few things that would make me feel more miserable than having a farm like his. Happiness projects just don’t look the same.

On a less elevated note, I would add that if you’re traveling with children, it never hurts to pack a few items of novelty candy for a long car ride. That, and a Harry Potter audiobook, will take you a long way.

* This article on Slate, Seeking: How the Brain Hard-Wires Us to Love Google, Twitter, and Texting, and Why That’s Dangerous, is absolutely fascinating. I think it has all sorts of happiness implications, but I haven’t quite figured out what they are yet.

* Because I’ve been on vacation, it’s been at least a few days since I mentioned that the book The Happiness Project is coming out in a few months. Yes, it’s true! Order early and often. (But seriously: if you’re inclined to buy the book, pre-orders really give a boost to a book. The early show of enthusiasm makes a big difference, so I really appreciate it.)