How to Be Happier: Avoid False Choices.

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.

I started thinking about false choices when I heard a friend describe a new job he was considering. “I don’t think I’ll take it,” he explained. “There are two ways to do that job. John Doe was the wise counselor to the boss, the old friend who had the boss’s respect and his ear. Joe Doe was the sycophant, the suck-up who told the boss what he wanted to hear and did all his dirty work. I can’t follow the first model, and I won’t follow the second model. So the job’s not for me.”

But that was a false choice. There are any number of ways to do a job; he didn’t have to limit himself to one of those two models.

I’ve noticed that in the area of happiness, people often offer false choices.

“I’d rather have three true friends, instead of tons of shallow friends.”
There aren’t just two options at the extreme. There are all kinds of friendship, along a wide spectrum of intimacy. You don’t have to choose between a “real” few and “superficial” many.

“I think it’s more important to worry about other people’s happiness, instead of thinking only about myself and my own happiness.”
Why do you have to choose? You can think about your happiness and other people’s happiness. In fact, as summed up in the Second Splendid Truth, thinking about your own happiness will help you make others happy, too.

“I believe it’s more important to be authentic and honest than it is to be positive and enthusiastic.”
Can you find a way to be authentically enthusiastic? In my experience, it’s often possible, though it can take a little work.

From Eleanor Roosevelt: “Happiness is not a goal; it is a by-product.”
Happiness is a goal and a by-product. Nietzche explained this well: “The end of a melody is not its goal; but nonetheless, if the melody had not reached its end it would not have reached its goal either. A parable.”

I think false choices are tempting for a couple of reasons. First, instead of facing a bewildering array of options, you limit yourself to a few simple possibilities. Also, the way you set up the options usually makes it obvious that one choice is the high-minded, reasonable, laudable choice, and one is not.

But although false choices can be comforting, they can leave you feeling trapped, and they can blind you to other choices you might make. “Either I can be financially secure, or I can have a job I enjoy.” “I have to decide whether to marry this person now or to accept the fact that I’m never going to have a family.”

Can you think of examples of when you, or someone you know, fell into the trap of a false choice?

* I’m not very manly myself, but I get a big kick out of The Art of Manliness.

I’m thrilled by the number of people who have let me know that they’re interested in starting a happiness-project group in their area. I’ve been working hard on the starter kit to send you, and hope to have that ready to go very soon.

If you’d like to receive a starter-kit for launching your own group, let me know. Email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line.

How to Be Happy: Enjoy the Process.

The Sixth of my Personal Commandments is “Enjoy the process.” I learned this commandment from my father, who reminds us to “Enjoy the process” at every turn.

I’m finishing up the first-pass page proofs for my book. This is the first time I’ve seen my manuscript looking like a real book, and it’s very gratifying, as you can imagine.

Nevertheless, as I was editing, I was feeling overworked and plagued with self-doubt — when I remembered an afternoon a few years ago, after I’d just started actually writing the book, when I’d fantasized about the delights of the very stage I’m in right now.

And I realized – Enjoy the process! This is the FUN part! I like editing much more than writing. It’s exciting to see the book taking shape. Instead of getting worked up and agitated, I should let myself take pleasure in hitting this milestone and in moving forward.

As corny as it is to say, it’s true: I’ll be happier if I find happiness along the way (technical term: pre-goal attainment positive affect) instead of expecting to be happy when I reach a certain goal. Even if hitting that goal doesn’t make me as happy as I expect, if I enjoy the process, I’m happy.

For people who are thinking about careers and career changes (lots of folks like that, these days), a great resource is the Career Renegade blog and book, Career Renegade: How to Make a Great Living Doing What You Love.

* Hey super-fans! As expected, the pre-launch of the super-fabulous soon-to-be-unveiled website has been pushed back — now, to April 20. Hang in there! I think that date will hold.

If you haven’t signed up as a super-fan, but would like to volunteer to help with the pre-launch of the website, or other various things, I’d be thrilled to hear from you. You can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.

Want to Make Friends? Eight Tips for Making Yourself Likable.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for making yourself likable.

Well, no. You can’t actually make someone like you. But you can behave in ways that will make it slightly more likely.

We all want to feel that other people enjoy being with us, and that they seek our company. Having close relationships is one of the most meaningful elements to happiness. It’s not always easy to make friends, however. To form a friendship, you must like someone — and you must also be likable.

How can you boost the chances that someone will like you? Here are eight strategies to keep in mind – not ways to manipulate people or to be fake, but to make sure that your desire to be friendly effectively shines through:

1. Smile. Now, this is no shock, but studies do show that the amount of time you smile during a conversation has a direct impact on how friendly you’re perceived to be. Also, people mimic the expressions on the faces they see, so if you smile, you’re more likely to be smiled at. (Scientists have identified 19 types of smiles, by the way.)

2. Be easily impressed, entertained, and interested. Most people get more pleasure from wowing you with their humor and insight than from being wowed by your humor and insight.

3. Have a friendly, open, engaged demeanor. Lean toward people, nod, say “Uh-huh,” turn your body to face the other person’s body. Don’t turn your body away, cross your arms, answer in monosyllables, or scan the room (or look at your Blackberry! I have seen this happen!) as the other person talks.

4. Remember trait transfer. In “trait transfer,” whatever you say about other people influences how people see you. If you describe a co-worker as brilliant and charismatic, your acquaintance will tend to associate you with those qualities. Conversely, if you describe a co-worker as arrogant and obnoxious, those traits will stick to you. So watch what you say.

5. Laugh at yourself. Showing vulnerability and a sense of humor make you more likable and approachable. However, don’t push this too self-deprecation too far – keep it light. You’ll make others uncomfortable if you run yourself down too much. I met a guy who kept saying things like, “I’m an idiot,” “I have the most boring job ever,” etc. He was trying to be self-deprecating, but it was hard to know how to respond to that kind of comment from a stranger.

6. Radiate energy and good humor. Because of the phenomenon of “emotional contagion,” people catch the emotions of other people, and they prefer to catch an upbeat, energetic mood. Even if you pride yourself on your cynicism, biting humor, or general edginess, these qualities can be conveyed with warmth.

7. Show your liking for another person. We’re much more apt to like someone if we think that person likes us. Look for ways to signal that you enjoy a person’s company. When I call my daughters’ pediatrician with some health question, she always says “Hello!” as if she’s genuinely thrilled to hear from me, and I’ve really noticed what a difference it makes on my feelings of warmth toward her.

8. Try to remember the person’s name! If you can’t remember it, here are some tips for coping with the situation.

Studies suggest that we decide how close a relationship we’ll have with a new acquaintance within the first ten minutes of meeting that person, and that in evaluating people, we weigh early information more heavily than information acquired later. So make a big effort to be openly friendly the first time you meet someone.

Courtesy of the brilliant, funny Communicatrix, I discovered iSerenity, a site that provides “ambient sound environments at your desktop for relaxation.” You can use it as white noise if you work in a cubicle (a friend works for a company that plays white noise to give people more sound privacy at their desks) or if you like a soothing noise. I love the Rain. Also included: vacuum and fan, very handy if you have a newborn who sleeps better with those noises.

If you haven’t watched my one-minute video, The Years Are Short, you might like to check it out.

Happiness: Guitar Riffs, Weight-Lifting, and Two-Year-Old Twins.

Todd Kashdan is a positive-psychology professor at George Mason University whose work I follow with special interest. He studies many fascinating subjects — e.g., self-regulation and how personal strengths operate in everyday life – so I’m very eager to get my hands on his new book, Curious?: Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life. It’s exactly the kind of thing I love to read. (Also, we have the same publisher, Harper, which is a little bit like being from the same hometown.)

He just started a blog, Curious?, about “discovering and creating a life that matters,” on the Psychology Today blogs site – which, by the way, has a terrific assortment of blogs, if you haven’t checked it out.

Obviously, given his work, Todd has given a tremendous amount of thought to the subject of happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Todd: There are few things more pleasurable than two people treating conversation as play without the slightest concern of being judged or where the conversation is and where it might head. Not only do I get to enjoy what the other person says and how they react to what I say, I get to enjoy the unexpected words and thoughts from my own brain. This spontaneity is unadulterated pleasure.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Pain and failure are not barriers to happiness. What prevents us from moving in the direction of what we care about and achieving a happy, meaningful existence is our unwillingness to be in contact with anxious thoughts and feelings, situations that caused us tension in the past, and situations that might cause us tension in the future.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
There is a dark side to my desire to become an expert in psychology, knowledgeable about science and literature, skilled as a parent, mountain biker, and weightlifter, and attentive as a husband. When I think I know something, I stop paying attention. It happens far too often and when it does, opportunities close. I constantly have to remind myself to let go of my ego, let go of my expectations, and stay flexible and profoundly aware of what is right in front of my senses.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Mark Twain said that “you will be more disappointed by the things that you didn’t do than by the ones you did do” and Ralph Emerson said “life is an experiment” and “the more experiments you make the better.” These are my mantras. I converse with these great thinkers multiple times per day.

I also cherish the image from Island by Aldous Huxley where all the birds are trained to say “attention” as a reminder to be mindful in whatever it is you are doing. It could be your bodily position when you bend down to rake leaves or staying immersed when someone speaks instead of thinking about what you’re going to say or do next.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).

First, there are certain songs that can immediately replenish my energy supply. Usually, we are talking about an incendiary experience with dirty electric guitar riffs, a gravelly vocalist, and grunge recording that ebbs and flows with very subtle vocal harmony. Music has been the backdrop of my existence since childhood and never ceases as a mood enhancer.

Second, there are work out sessions where I lift weights, grunt, and temporarily shed the other layers of my existence. My equanimity hinges on my ability to be a warrior in the gym.

Finally, I tune in fully and completely to whatever captures my kids’ interest. When my twin two-year-old girls are giddy and intrigued, nothing else matters. This is the newest addition to my repertoire of mood enhancers but it has quickly become the most profound. Perhaps this has something to do with the fact that it isn’t about me and I have no control over when these experiences arise. Taken together, there are less than a handful of times in my life when I entered down spells lasting longer than a few minutes or hours.

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?
Far too many people around me are unaware of their deepest values and passions. As a result, they settle on romantic partners, careers, and weekend habits that fail to offer them lasting satisfaction or meaning. It is easy to stay on the treadmill and float in a sea of boredom and apathy. It requires massive cojones (or ovaries) to make changes so that what we do is directly aligned with what we care most about. When people believe their personality and lifestyle is immune to change, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why?
My frequent, intense bouts of energy and exuberance have been a constant throughout my life. I am fortunate to have an excellent temperament but I also surround myself with people and activities that I am passionate about. Thus, my happiness rarely wavers.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I am continually surprised by the power of gratitude. There is something deeply moving about being mindfully aware of the people who benefited me, allowing me to discover my strengths and find outlets for them. Reflecting on my benefactors mobilizes me to attempt great feats and feel at home in the universe.

I’m thrilled by the number of people who have let me know that they’re interested in starting a happiness-project group in their area. I’ve been working hard on the starter kit to send you, and hope to have that ready to go very soon.

If you’d like to receive a starter-kit for launching your own group, let me know. Email me at gretchenrubin [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line.

A Fake Ad — For a Drug for the “Insufferably Cheery.”

Several thoughtful readers sent me this fake ad for Despondex, a “prescription depressant for the insufferably cheery.”

According to the ad, Despondex is “effective at reducing a range of symptoms,” such as:

  • talking to people in line at the grocery store
  • participating in community theater
  • Christmas caroling
  • collecting ceramic animal figurines
  • organizing neighborhood potlucks

The fake ad plays off Happiness Myth #1: Happy People Are Annoying and Stupid. It’s also pretty funny.

(Here’s the URL if you need it.)

A very smart guy told me that there’s no overlap between blog readers and book readers. “Two completely different types of people,” he insisted. “The people who read blogs don’t bother with books.” I’m not so sure. I get the sense that the people that read this blog, at least, also read books. Then it occurred to me — I could just ask. If you have a second, please answer the survey question:

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.