“When Happiness is Absent, We Do Everything to Possess It.”

“We must, therefore, pursue the things that make for happiness, seeing that when happiness is present, we have everything; but when it is absent, we do everything to possess it.”
— Epicurus

This statement is much more challenging and mysterious than it appears on first glance. What things really brings happiness? How do we pursue those things?

* My friend Abigail Pogrebin’s book, One and the Same: My Life as an Identical Twin and What I’ve Learned about Everyone’s Struggle to Be Singular, just came out. Her book trailer is terrific; the book sounds fascinating, even to a person like me who is not a twin, let alone an identical twin, and I’ve ordered my copy — but also, I must admit that I could look at photos of identical twins for hours.

* 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.

A Secret to Happiness: Don’t Try to Keep That Resolution.

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.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood (cribbed from Niels Bohr) is “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” So whenever I’m very convinced that something is true, I ask myself, “Is the opposite also true?”

The main strategy for my happiness project is to make and keep resolutions. I’ve made dozens, maybe hundreds of resolutions, and I have Resolutions Chart where I score myself on the most important resolutions. I constantly remind myself, “It’s important to keep that resolution! It will make me happier!” and usually it does.

But I have at least one resolution that I just can’t seem to keep, and I’ve decided to resolve to do just the opposite, to “Give up that resolution.”

I’m giving up my long-standing, often-repeated resolution to “Entertain more.” Fact is, I’ve never really committed to that resolution: I never broke the goal down into steps that I could follow and pushed myself to keep them. Well, why not? Why was I able to keep resolutions like Stop gossiping and Read more and Don’t expect praise or appreciation, but not this one?

I want to entertain more, but clearly, I also do NOT want to entertain more. Finally I realized – I need to give up this resolution for a while.

If I’m honest with myself, I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed. The Happiness Project book is finally about to hit the shelves, and that means a lot of work – not just writing work, which I’m used to, but other kinds of work. My children need a lot of attention. My husband has been traveling a fair amount. When I have some spare time, I want to just hang around the apartment and read; I don’t want another to-do list, even for something fun. Some people like party errands (flowers, food, fixing up the house, figuring out whom to invite), but I don’t.

So I’ve decided to abandon that resolution for a while.

Starting an exercise routine. Learning Italian. Cleaning the basement. We all have longstanding resolutions hanging over our heads – resolutions that we want to keep, but we don’t really make much progress towards, and which can therefore give us a feeling of powerlessness or failure. As important as it is to try to keep resolutions, sometimes you need to give up a resolution.

Sometimes, too, I think a resolution can block you. You don’t have any nice clothes because you want to lose weight. You don’t read any novels because you’ve promised yourself to read War and Peace. Letting go of one resolution might make it easier to keep other resolutions.

The thing is, I know if I’d keep the resolution to “Entertain more,” it would make me happier. But I’m going to admit to myself how happy it will make me not to keep that resolution.

How about you? Have you ever boosted your happiness when you gave up a resolution?

* I loved watching this video of starlings’ flight patterns.

* Zoikes! More than a week has gone by since I mentioned the fact that The Happiness Project is available for pre-order! Act now! If you need any convincing, look here and here.

Take a Look at Some Other Happiness Projects. It’s Not Just Me!

One of the most exciting things about working on my happiness project is seeing other people start their own happiness projects.

I get a real kick from seeing these happiness-project blogs, where people have taken my basic idea and run with it themselves — taking the concept in so many different directions. Every happiness project is different; every one is fascinating. Check these blogs out yourself:

If you have a blog that’s not on this list, please add yours to this simple form, and your blog’s name and URL will be added to the chart. That way, all of us can see what you’re doing.

If you’d like to start a happiness project, but don’t want to do it using a blog, here are some ideas for getting started. Happiness projects for everyone!

* How can I resist a column on Money & Happiness? I can’t, so I’m a big fan of Laura Rowley’s writing Yahoo! Finance.

* For more discussion about happiness, join the Facebook Page. Lots of people, lots of fascinating insights and conversation.

Eight Excellent Tips for Living that My Parents Gave Me.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight excellent tips for living my parents gave me.

My mother:
–“Stay calm.” My mother probably reminds of this three or four times each time I see her. I really need this advice. Every day.
–“The things that go wrong often make the best memories.” My mother told me this when we were getting ready for my wedding. It’s a very good thing to keep in mind, because it’s absolutely true, and it can also help you laugh at a bad situation while it’s happening.
“You like to have a few things that you really like, instead of lots of choices.” Okay, this advice might not be widely applicable, but it was a huge revelation to me about my own nature. My mother made this comment in the context of clothes, but it’s true in many areas of my life.
–“That’s so wonderful! Be grateful, because you worked hard for what you got, and you deserved it, but others also worked hard, and people don’t always get what they deserve.” My mother made this observation when I called home to report that I’d been elected the editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal. I repeated her remark to a friend, who thought it sounded like a little unenthusiastic, but in fact, it was reassuring, especially in the long run. Because it’s TRUE. You don’t always get what you deserve, even when you work hard, and my mother’s observation has been very comforting to me in other circumstances, when things didn’t go my way.

My father:
–“If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you the responsibility.” This was perhaps the best advice for the workplace I ever got.
–“Energy.” Very true. The first chapter of The Happiness Project is devoted to energy. (Here are nine tips for giving yourself an energy boost in the next ten minutes.)
–“Enjoy the process.” If you can enjoy the process, you are less concerned about outcomes. That’s a big help in the world.
–“All you have to do is put on your running shoes and let the front door shut behind you.” Good advice for all couch potatoes trying to pick up an exercise habit. Just do that much! That counts!

My parents never gave me relationship advice or weighed in on my boyfriends (true, I only had two real boyfriends, one of whom I married, but I’m sure it was hard to resist nevertheless).

However, once when I was home for vacation, both of my parents remarked on the requirements of a happy relationship. Maybe they’d had a conversation between themselves, which was why it was on their minds. Anyway, it was so unusual for them to make this kind of remark that both statements made a big impression on me:
–My mother said: “In a relationship, it’s important that a person is kind, because eventually, if he’s not kind to other people, he won’t be kind to you.”
–My father said: “In a relationship, it’s important that a person be able to have fun, because you’re not going to have a happy life with someone who can’t have fun.”

Have you received any great advice from your parents?

* A thoughtful reader sent me the link to a great Boston Globe article she wrote: Will He Hold Your Purse? “As a breast cancer doctor, I’ve learned how to spot a devoted husband — a skill I try to share with my single and searching girlfriends.”

* It’s Word-of-mouth Wednesday, the day when I gently encourage (or, you might think, pester) you to spread the word about the Happiness Project. You might:
— Forward the link to someone you think would be interested
— Link to a post on Twitter
— Pre-order the book for a friend
— Put a link to the blog in your Facebook status update
Thanks! I really appreciate any help. Word of mouth is the BEST.
(Note that links in the comment box, just below, make some of these steps easier.)

“Without Attention, We Cannot Go Deeply in Thought or Relations.”

For years, I’ve done a lot of my writing at the wonderful New York Society Library (though lately I’ve been tethered to the internet and my three monitors at home). Because the rule of silence in the study room there is so strictly enforced, for a long time I saw but never spoke to one of my fellow writers — but finally, I actually did meet Maggie Jackson.

She’s the author of Distracted: The Erosion of Attention and the Coming Dark Age, which comes out in paperback today. It’s a fascinating examination of the consequences of all the technology we use – on learning, relationships, and our inner lives. Maggie Jackson emphasizes the importance of the ability to pay attention.

Because the issues she discusses have such clear consequences for happiness, I was curious to hear her answers to these questions.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Maggie: Being alone with my books and thoughts. Pursuing the trail of a thorny research question. Being with my family and friends: sharing a meal, swimming or walking at the ocean, exploring a new place. Many, many simple things make me content – teatime, museum-hopping, bicycling, reading in an old library, playing in the snow.

What do you know now about happiness that you didn’t when you were 18?
My dad was the king of simple pleasures. He was not a tormented soul. I, on the other hand, was a moody, impatient kid who tried to do too much and move too fast. I could see but not really appreciate my dad’s view of the world when I was young. But he must have left his mark on me, because I’ve come to realize that life isn’t all about the tallest peaks or fastest races, and it’s certainly not about our possessions, titles, or money. Life’s meaning unfolds in both the “big moments” and the detours and pauses and tiny moments of serendipity. Being in the present, along with being present for others, is crucial. I used to have one gear: high. But now I realize that happiness comes from complicated rhythms. And it comes and goes. It’s not a state of being that once reached, sticks.

Is there a link between attention and happiness?
Yes. Being able to focus is something that most people value instinctively. I can’t recall a great thinker or creator or leader – from Marie Curie to Picasso to Barack Obama – who doesn’t have enormous powers of concentration. As a young adult, I understood unthinkingly that attention is the key to getting things done. But until I began researching the fate of attention in our distracted society, I didn’t really realize the complexity or importance of this human faculty. Attention is a key to learning, memory, problem-solving, engagement, intimacy and creativity – all that we strive for today. Attention is now considered a tripartite capacity made up of focus, or the spotlight of the mind; alerting or wakefulness; and executive attention, or the ability to plan, envision, judge. Without attention – which derives from the Latin for ‘stretch toward’ – we cannot go deeply in thought and relations. As a result, attention is our most essential stepping stone to happiness. And controlling our powers of attention is crucial to steering our fate.

Is there anything that people often do or say that adds or detracts from their happiness?
Throughout history, humans have been programmed to take the easy way out, as a means of conserving energy and lowering risks. Take the short-cut to the fishing hole. Sow the plants that need less care. Set a trap rather than track an animal. Our ability to plan ahead and use technology allows us to survive, with less physical effort. But this instinct does us a disservice in a digital, cognitive age. Television, fast food, quick transport and even instant social connectivity give us a world built on the quick and the instant. The pendulum begins to swing too far in the direction of ease and passivity. The result is all too often anxiety, depression, poor health. The trick is not to forget our physicality, our limitations and the beauty of effort, both in the biological and cognitive realms. A life too easy or escapable quickly becomes meaningless.

Do you work at being happy?
No, I work on pursuing my dreams and battling my demons. Happiness follows.

* Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s Wasabi Mama is a “sinus-clearing rant on parenting, work, media, and entertainment” — many of my favorite subjects, so I love a visit there.

* If you’re in a book group and think you might choose The Happiness Project as a reading selection, please let me know. I’ll send you a discussion guide, plus I plan to give away some free advance copies of the book, and I’ll choose addreses from these emails.
–Email me at gretchenrubin1[at]gmail.com (don’t forget the “1”) with the message “book group”
–include your name and address if you’d like to be eligible for a free book
–if you’re willing, I’d love to know a little about your group: how many members, what you read, etc. No particular reason, I’m just curious about book groups!