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Creativity: 12 mental exercises — zany but productive.

TwelvecrayonsEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Twelve mental exercises — zany but productive.

Dorothea Brande was an American writer and editor, well known for her books Wake Up and Live and Becoming a Writer (a useful resource for writers, by the way).

In Wake Up and Live, she suggests twelve mental exercises to make your mind keener and more flexible. These exercises are meant to pull you out of your usual habits and to put you in situations that will demand resourcefulness and creative problem-solving. Brande argues that only by testing and stretching yourself can you develop mental strength.

Even apart from the goals of creativity and mental flexibility, Brande’s exercises make sense from a happiness perspective. One thing is clear: novelty and challenge bring happiness. People who stray from their routines, try new things, explore, and experiment tend to be happier than those who don’t. Of course, as Brande herself points out, novelty and challenge can also bring frustration, anxiety, confusion, and annoyance along the way; it’s the process of facing those challenges that brings the “atmosphere of growth” so important to happiness. (It’s the First Splendid Truth: to be happy, you must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.)

I have to confess that I’ve tackled just a few of Brande’s mental exercises – #6 and #10 – and only because they come naturally to me, which is hardly in the spirit of the exercises. I keep toying with the idea of trying the others. Maybe I’ll do them for Happiness Project II.

Here are Dorothea Brande’s twelve mental exercises. Note: she wrote these in 1936, so you need to adapt of few of them.

1. Spend an hour each day without saying anything except in answer to direct questions, in the midst of the usual group, without creating the impression that you’re sulking or ill. Be as ordinary as possible. But do not volunteer remarks or try to draw out information.

2. Think for 30 minutes a day about one subject exclusively. Start with five minutes.

3. Write a letter without using the words I, me, mine, my.

4. Talk for 15 minutes a day without using I, me, my, mine.

5. Write a letter in a “successful” or placid tone. No misstatements, no lying. Look for aspects or activities that can be honestly reported that way.

6. Pause on the threshold of any crowded room and size it up.

7. Keep a new acquaintance talking about himself or herself without allowing him to become conscious of it. Turn back any courteous reciprocal questions in a way that your auditor doesn’t feel rebuffed.

8. Talk exclusively about yourself and your interests without complaining, boasting, or boring your companions.

9. Cut “I mean” or “As a matter of fact” or any other verbal mannerism out of your conversation.

10. Plan two hours of a day and stick to the plan.

11. Set yourself twelve tasks at random: e.g., go twenty miles from home using ordinary conveyance; go 12 hours without food; go eat a meal in the unlikelist place you can find; say nothing all day except in answer to questions; stay up all night and work.

12. From time to time, give yourself a day when you answer “yes” to any reasonable request.

If you’d like to read a more lengthy explanation of the twelve disciplines, or about Brande’s explanation for these exercises, go here and search for Chapter 11 – Twelve Disciplines.

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Several thoughtful readers forwarded me the link to a fascinating article in New York magazine, Jennifer Senior’s Alone Together, about loneliness and living in a city. It turns out that although we think of the big, impersonal city filled with lonely souls lost in the crowd, that’s not the case.

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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. No need to write anything more than “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.