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A Little Happier: Happiness Lessons from a Friend and His Messy Wife.

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A few years ago, I wrote a book called Outer Order, Inner Calm, because I was so intrigued by the degree to which outer order contributed to inner calm, for most people—certainly for me.

I’ve been doing strength-training for years, so I’ve become good friends with my trainer, Mike. And Mike and I often talk about mutual interests like habit formation, low-carb eating, and clutter-clearing.

Like me, Mike is someone who really thrives in orderly, organized surroundings.

My sister Elizabeth calls me a “happiness bully,” and I can get pretty…forceful…if I think there’s a way for someone to be happier. So one day, when Mike was complaining about how messy his house was, I encouraged him to tackle the clutter. “You’ll feel so great!” I told him. “It’s so energizing, it’s so freeing!”

He said, “I know, I feel exactly the same way. The thing is, I’m really neat. I like everything to be put away in its place. But my wife is so messy! It drives me nuts.”

“How does this come up?” I asked. “What are the conflicts?” (I am a happiness bully.)

“For instance, I’ll be sitting down at the kitchen table to tackle some household administrative tasks she wants me to do, but everything is so disorganized that I have to spend half an hour cleaning up before I can focus, and after all that, I don’t feel like dealing with those tasks anymore. And then she gets annoyed with me.”

“Do you like being in the thick of the action?” I asked. “Is that why you’re sitting in the kitchen?”

“No, that doesn’t really matter to me,” he replied.

“So Mike,” I said, “maybe you could find a place in your house—like a desk or a table in a corner—where you could keep things very organized, just the way you like it to be when you work, and everyone would agree not to disturb that area, and just leave it for you, as your place. Do you think they’d agree to that?”

He looked at me with surprise. “Well, I have an office,” he said.

“Well, why don’t you use your office?” I asked.

“Because it’s too messy,” he said. And the minute he said those words, he became seized with the desire to clear it out. He was inspired by the vision of how great it would be to have it fixed up right.

In fact, that weekend, he sent me a video to show off how orderly he’d made his office.

When I saw him for my next strength-training session, he couldn’t wait to tell me about everything he done. “It looks fantastic,” he concluded. “I’m just about finished, I’m about 85 percent of where I want to be.”

I had to ask, “So what’s left to do?”

He said, “Well, one thing that looks messy is that my winter coat is always on the floor.”

I had to ask. “Mike, why is your winter coat on the floor?”

He said, “Because my wife is so messy and has so much stuff! The coat closet in our front hallway is full of her coats, so I’m supposed to hang up my coat upstairs, in our bedroom closet.”

“Well,” I said, “I agree, it’s pretty unrealistic to think that you’ll walk all the way up to the bedroom to hang up your coat. And I know your wife loves clothes and probably does need a lot of room in that hallway closet.

“But, Mike,” I suggested, “do you think that maybe a good solution would be to hang a few hooks or a put a coat rack in the garage? It’s not as convenient as the hall closet, but it would still be a lot easier to grab your coat if you were going for a walk in the neighborhood or driving somewhere. Could you do that?”

He looked at me with surprise. “Well, we have a mudroom.”

I started to laugh. “So Mike,” I asked, “Why don’t you use the mudroom?”

“Because it’s too messy!” he replied. And he started to laugh too. He knew what I was going to suggest next. And the next weekend, he and his family cleaned out the mudroom.

What’s the moral of the story?

  • It’s easy to blame other people instead of seeing our own role in a problem?
  • The only person we can change is ourselves, so if we’re unhappy or annoyed with a situation, we should always begin by asking, “How might I be able to change things for the better?”
  • Sometimes, it’s easier for an outsider to spot a solution that we’ve overlooked?

I think it’s all of these things. And I realize that I’m lucky that my friend is so good-natured about the happiness-bully side of my nature! I offer it with love.

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