Why I decided to put together a photo album that wasn’t as good as it could have been.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is “Be a treasure house of happy memories.” Thinking back on happy times elevates mood; research has shown that although depressed people have as many nice experiences as other people, they don’t remember them as well. By helping my family to recollect happy times from the past, I’m boosting their happiness in the present – and photographs are a particularly good way to recall happy memories.

On the other hand, one of my Secrets of Adulthood is “Photo albums and houseplants are a lot of trouble.”

I’ve been experiencing this conflict for weeks now. On the one hand, I wanted to make a lovely album of photographs from our summer – all carefully arranged, with lengthy, well-written captions to remind us, in future years, of all our adventures.

But whenever I thought about undertaking this project, I felt overwhelmed and panicky. It filled me with dread. We had so many photographs, and it was going to take a huge amount of time and energy to complete the album, even using an online service as I planned to do. As summer vacation receded into the past, and photos started to pile up from the fall (the Big Girl getting her ears pierced, the first day of school, my father-in-law’s birthday), the task loomed ever more ominously in my mind. I already had so much work to do. I didn’t want to labor over a photo album, too.

So I reminded myself of another Secret of Adulthood, this one lifted from Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” My desire to create the perfect summer album was preventing me from working on it at all. I needed to do a good-enough job and get it done – or else I might end up never doing an album at all.

I used another happiness-project technique to get the task finished: I set a specific time to do it. I’d been telling myself that I’d organize the album “in my free time,” but the fact is, I don’t have any free time. I’m never aimlessly wandering around the apartment, looking for something to do. Because making the album was a priority for me, I wrote it on my calendar as a real appointment, and I worked on it yesterday while the Little Girl took her nap.

As it turned out, making the album wasn’t such an awful task. Once I actually sat down to do it, I got it done in one sitting. I didn’t spend a lot of time arranging the pictures, I didn’t write captions, I didn’t do a lot of things that would have made it nicer, but I got it DONE.

Now I have the happiness of anticipating the arrival of the album.

I found

Happiness quotation from Colette.

“What a wonderful life I’ve had! I only wish I’d realized it sooner.” –Colette.

Coming across this quotation was one of the things that most inspired me to start my Happiness Project.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Your Happiness Project: Throw away other people’s trash.

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.

The subject of self-esteem is a topic that has generated a fair amount of controversy over the last few decades, but one thing seems clear: you don’t get healthy self-esteem from constantly telling yourself how great you are, or even from other people telling you how great you are. You get healthy self-esteem from behaving in ways that you find estimable.

In other words, the best way to feel better about yourself is to do something worthy of your own respect: keep a difficult resolution, meet a challenge, solve a problem, learn a skill, cross something unpleasant off your to-do list. And one of the best ways to feel better about yourself is to help someone else — do good, feel good.

I had a friend who went through a period of tremendous rejection: she was fired from her job, she didn’t get into the graduate program to which she’d applied, and her boyfriend broke up with her. Everything worked out fine in the end, and I asked her how she got through such a tough time. She said, “I was practically addicted to doing good deeds for other people. It was the only way I could make myself feel like I wasn’t a total loser.”

I recently performed a very small action that gave me a big boost: throwing away other people’s trash. I’ve always been careful to throw away my own litter, but it never occurred to me to do anything about random litter lying around.

The other day, though, I was in the subway, where an empty Snapple bottle was rolling around to the great annoyance of everyone in the car. The bottle rolled back and forth, back and forth, and I thought, “Someone should pick that up.” Then I thought – “Someone like me! Why shouldn’t I be the one to pick it up?” So I did.

I was astonished by the surge of good feeling I got, quite disproportionate to such a minor action. I also thought I could feel a palpable wave of approval from the other people on the subway – which I was probably projecting, but which also shows the effect that my tiny good deed had on me.

Since then, I’ve looked for chances to throw away other people’s trash. In a coffee shop, I threw away the coffee cup someone left on a table. I threw away a plastic cup that was rolling down the sidewalk. Etc.

So try it yourself; throw away someone else’s trash. “Do good, feel good” is a happiness truism that really is true. Act like a considerate citizen of the world, and you’ll boost your self-esteem.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Strategies to deal with unhappy events — like what’s happening now on Wall Street.

The economic turmoil of the last few weeks – and especially the last few days – has New Yorkers feeling sad. Lots of people are losing their jobs. Lots of familiar institutions are changing or vanishing. Even people who aren’t directly affected will be indirectly affected in many ways by what is happening on Wall Street, because it plays such a major role in the life of New York City.

When we’re faced with serious setbacks, psychological mechanisms kick in to help us see positive aspects in the situation. I’ve been struck by how often people – especially those directly affected — search for opportunities for “post-traumatic growth.”

“This is really showing us what matters,” said one friend. “We have a beautiful family, we have our health, this isn’t a catastrophe.” Someone else said, “It’s been amazing to get so many emails and calls from people who are checking to see how I’m doing – I realize how many friends I have.”

People also use the downward-comparison strategy; they find a way to be grateful by realizing how much worse their situation could be. “We almost moved to Hong Kong, we’re so lucky we didn’t do that.”

People are also taking time to do ordinary, pleasurable things that help give them a sense of normalcy and relief. When I was doing the research for my biography, Forty Ways to Look at JFK, I remember reading a story that an advisor told – I may not have the details right, but as I recall: When this advisor walked into the West Wing during the Cuban missile crisis, he heard Kennedy speaking in a low voice. He assumed that JFK was meeting with someone about the crisis, but then he saw that Kennedy was sitting with his young daughter Caroline in his lap and was reading her a story. The advisor realized that this was one of the ways that Kennedy was staying cool – giving himself breaks from the tension by taking moments with his family.

Other people comfort themselves by reminding themselves to take the long view. “I just keep telling myself, a year from now, this will all be over,” said a friend. “In ten years, it will just be a distant memory.”

This isn’t to say that it’s not appropriate for people to feel unhappy or depressed under certain circumstances. It’s normal and often even helpful to experience negative emotions. But finding ways to make yourself feel better, or to contain the negative emotions to one part of your existence, can make it easier to bear a difficult time.

All these coping mechanisms help people deal with an unhappy event. What strategies have you found useful, to deal with a major challenge in your life?

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.

Bad habit: 5 tips for kicking a bad habit.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 5 tips for kicking a bad habit.

Well, September is half over, and I’ve managed NOT to eat any of my beloved Tasti D-Lite. And it hasn’t even been that hard to give it up. How did I go from 2-3 stops a day, to zero? Here are the strategies I used to kick my bad habit.

1. Running start. I gave up Tasti D-Lite after we returned from a short vacation, so I’d already gone four days without it by the time I was faced with temptation. This gave me a gratifying head start.

2. Busy time. I’ve heard that it’s easier to kick a habit when your schedule changes, because you don’t have a fixed pattern yet. I gave up Tasti D-Lite right when school was starting up again, when my schedule would be unusually hectic. I feared that this might work against me, because one of the attractions of Tasti D-Lite is that I can grab it on the fly, and it’s conveniently available at several stops in my usual path through the neighborhood, but rushing around also kept me from dreaming up justifications for indulging. And I don’t have any times yet when I usually stop to give myself a treat – so I don’t have pangs when I don’t get it.

3. Not one bite. No exceptions. I gave it up entirely. Many people advocate moderation for treats, and this strategy works for some folks, but not for me. If I ate Tasti D-Lite three times a week, I would spend a huge amount of time and mental energy fretting about “Now? Later? Today, tomorrow? Does this cone ‘count’?” I find that a lot of people are pretty judgmental about this: they insist that I should be able to enjoy things in moderation — and they predict that giving things up altogether will mean I will be less likely to stick to my resolution. True, the cold-turkey strategy isn’t for everyone, and it may sound draconian, but in fact I have much better success, and much less difficulty, when I give up things altogether. Know what works for YOU.

4. Head off temptation. One reason that I ate a lot of Tasti D-Lite was that I was genuinely hungry, and it was a convenient snack. I’m trying to make sure that I don’t let myself get hungry, so I don’t get tempted to take the quick solution. Fact is, for me it’s a lot easier, and more fun, to grab a Tasti D-Lite cone than to eat a civilized bowl of soup. I’m making sure I get enough real food to keep from being tempted to eat fake food.

5. Consider marshmallows. I heard that if you’re wondering whether you over-indulge in something (shopping, alcohol, Tasti D-Lite), you should substitute “marshmallows,” and ask yourself what you would think of that habit. In my case, I said, “Twice a day, sometimes three times a day, I stop to eat marshmallows.” “I feel a little embarrassed by the number of marshmallows I eat.” “I wouldn’t let my children eat this many marshmallows in one day.” Ick! Too much! This reminds me that I stopped this habit for a valid reason. Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly agree with Samuel Johnson, who said that, “All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.” I’m not being idly severe with myself; I’m not giving up TDL (as I affectionately call it) because I think it’s “wrong” to eat it. I don’t think it’s wrong to eat it. I was just eating too much of it, and it was crowding out more nutritious food.

Gosh, it feels good to kick a habit. I feel freer, less guilty, more virtuous. My resolution only covers the month of September, but I doubt that I’ll go back to my previous habits when the month is over. Maybe I’ll keep Tasti D-Lite for a special, occasional treat.

I’m thrilled that I was invited to join the fantastic 9rules, “the best content from the independent web.” Check it out! So many great bloggers are gathered there.

Interested in starting your own Happiness Project? If you’d like to take a look at my 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.