It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: read Sonja Lyubormirsky’s THE HOW OF HAPPINESS.

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.

I just finished reading Lyubomirsky’s book, The How of Happiness,and it’s the PERFECT book if you’re starting a happiness project. It lays out the different strategies to pursue to boost happiness and provides the scientific rationale behind each of them.

Lyubomirsky talks about the “40% solution” to happiness. Research shows that happiness is 50% a product of genetics, 10% a product of circumstances (wealth, health, age, marital status, etc.), and 40% a product of the way we think and how we live our lives.

Forty percent is a lot.

I was very interested to read The How of Happiness; for my work on my own Happiness Project, I pulled together much of the same research and devised, in many cases, similar areas of focus. Though I put my own idiosyncratic spin on it.

Doing it myself was more beneficial, because my Happiness Project is perfectly tailored for me and my way of thinking, and more importantly, the process of devising it forced me to think very deeply about my own particular happiness; however, for people who don’t want to spend QUITE as much time on it, this book gives a terrific grounding and a framework for setting forth.

One way this book is different from many books on happiness – whether by philosophers, scientists, or self-help gurus – is that Lyubomirsky emphasizes that different people need to take different routes to happiness. The “fit,” she stresses, is very important.

Absolutely true. That’s why my First Commandment is “Be Gretchen.” I have to pursue happiness in a way that makes sense for me. As Montaigne wrote, “The least strained and most natural ways of the soul are the most beautiful; the best occupations are the least forced.”

I get very annoyed with people like Thoreau who insist that there’s only one route to happiness (which, coincidentally, conforms perfectly with the way they like to live their lives). Or the happiness researchers who say things like “After a person has $15,000, money makes no difference to happiness.” This simply CANNOT be universally true!

So if you’re eager to start a Happiness Project, but you don’t know where to start, or you want to know the scientific basis for various recommendations, this book will be a big help.

Continuing mystery of happiness research: why no happiness researchers talk about the effect of physical environment (e.g., clutter, beauty). If you look in popular culture, people are clearly very preoccupied with this and its effect on happiness – but as far as I can tell, the scientific happiness experts never consider it.

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I had a lot of fun with the folks making the documentary Happiness Is. They interviewed me for the movie about “the pursuit of happiness in America.” It’s about to premiere at the SXSW Fillm Festival, and I hope I’ll be able to see it soon here in New York.

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If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Have you ever had to struggle to resist buying some enticing gewgaw as a surprise for your child?

One challenge of parenthood is setting limits on myself.

For her birthday, I gave the Big Girl a giant book of optical illusions. She loved the book—pored over it, looked at it with her friends, kept it out on her beside table. I was so pleased with myself for choosing it.

Yesterday I was in a drug store that had a rack of cheap children’s books. I spotted a book of optical illusions, and almost bought it for her. Then I stopped myself.

She already had a book with 200 illusions; this book probably didn’t have much new. But even beyond that—more of something you love isn’t always better.

In fact, as I thought about it, I wondered if having two books of optical illusions might, in fact, dim her pleasure in the first book. It wouldn’t seem as magical. Also, she’d be more likely to get tired of the subject.

I remember that when the Big Girl was in nursery school, the school head told a story about a four-year-old who had a toy car he loved. He played with it constantly. Then when his grandmother came to visit, she bought him ten toys cars, and he stopped playing with the cars altogether.

“Why don’t you play with your cars?” she asked. “You loved your blue car so much.”

“But I can’t love lots of cars,” he answered.

It’s so easy to make the mistake of thinking that if you have something you love, or if there’s something you want, that you’ll be happier with more of it.

As Barry Schwartz argues in his fascinating book, The Paradox of Choice: Why More is Less, one way to keep yourself from becoming jaded to pleasurable experiences and delightful treats is to keep them as rare indulgences.

That’s because one of the significant factors in happiness is the hedonic treadmill, or hedonic adaptation.

People are adaptable. We quickly adjust to a new life circumstance—for better or worse—and consider it normal. Although this helps us when our situation worsens, it means that when circumstances improve, we soon become hardened to new comforts or privileges.

It’s so much fun to bring pleasure to children. The smallest things thrill them. I’ll never forget the look on the Little Girl’s face when I bought her a Little Mermaid electric toothbrush at Target. “For me, Mommy? Is it FOR ME?” She literally clasped it to her heart.

But like other pleasures, the joy of giving a present to a child — as well as their joy in getting a present — will become dull if indulged in too often. Not to mention all the other obvious reasons why plying your kids with stuff is a bad idea.

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Leo Babauta of the fabulous Zen Habits has launched a new blog that I’ve already added to my RSS line-up: Write to Done, about the craft and practice of writing. Great material there for people doing all kinds of writing.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

This Wednesday: Seventeen tips for coping with a medical catastrophe.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seventeen tips for coping with a medical catastrophe.

One of the things I’ve done for my Happiness Project is to read a lot of memoirs of catastrophe. Catastrophe takes many forms, but many of these memoirs involved medical crises.

Mercifully, I haven’t myself had an experience with a medical catastrophe. And believe me, I’m very grateful for that. As I was reading, I made notes on the writers’ advice about how to cope with one. It seems reductive to sum up these profound experiences in a tips list, but the writers themselves seemed eager to try to help others learn from what they went through.

Because, unfortunately, although these memoirs are packed with accounts of doctors, nurses, and others who were wonderful, they’re also crammed with stories about devastating problems and hideous frustration with doctors, nurses, and hospitals.

I took the following lessons:

1. Don’t go alone to a stressful doctor’s visit. You can’t listen well when you’re processing difficult information. You need support and another set of ears.

2. Bring a list of questions, take notes, and write everything down. Ask how to spell unfamiliar words – you’ll want to look them up or discuss with other people.

3. Or even use a tape-recorder.

4. Don’t feel like you have to make a decision on the spot. It’s very rare that action has to be immediate. Take the time to absorb the facts, learn about your condition, and consult other doctors.

5. Keep a binder in which you record everything you learn, every decision that’s made, everything that’s performed, every result you know.

6. Always bring all that information with you.

7. Remember, it’s okay to ask for a second opinion. You should.

8. It’s surprisingly important to like and respect your doctor. This matters!

9. Ask your doctor if you may contact him or her between visits, and if so, how?

10. Don’t be afraid to ask how many times the doctor has performed a particular procedure.

11. See if you can call ahead and find out if the doctor is running late before you head into an appointment.

12. Double-check everything you possibly can. When my father was in the hospital, his doctor told him not to drink anything, then a nurse urged him to take a pill with water—which would have been disastrous, if he’d done it. A friend who went through chemo had a special notebook where she wrote down her prescriptions, and checked her notes against the chemo bags before she allowed each treatment to proceed.

13. Always ask: Is this procedure, drug, etc. REALLY necessary? Do you really have to have that enema? Are there other, less invasive options? Over and over in the memoirs, I read about actions that weren’t really necessary that led to major pain or complications. Side effects, pain, difficulty of recovery, time in the hospital, risk of infection, possibility of medical mistake – these are real risks. Arthur Frank refused to sign a consent form when his doctor didn’t explain an operation to his satisfaction—and then ended up not having it at all.

14. Try to have someone with you as much as possible. After reading these memoirs, I would try my darndest never to let a family member stay one hour unaccompanied in a hospital.

15. Don’t postpone things—like seeing friends—until you’re “doing better.” You may never do better.

16. Manage pain!

17. This last one strikes me as quite unfair, but people with experience with medical catastrophes say that it does matter: try to be likeable. Gilda Radner, in particular, emphasized it in her absorbing memoir, It’s Always Something. Being gregarious and upbeat wins you more attention and care. It doesn’t seem fair that your likeability should matter at a time when you’re in pain and afraid. But it does. So try.

As I said, I’m in the very fortunate position of never having had to deal with a true medical catastrophe myself – either as a patient or as a sidekick. But my turn will come. The phone is going to ring. (Ask not for whom the phone rings, it rings for thee.)

If you have further suggestions about dealing with a medical crisis, it would be great to see them here, for everyone’s benefit.

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Karly at First Ourselves had a great post about how, during a particularly stressful time, she and her husband left a notebook in the bathroom and communicated by leaving notes for each other.

I don’t think that would work well for the Big Man and me, but I loved her idea of doing the same thing with children. The Big Girl would be enchanted — she’s in that note-writing stage. And the notebook would be a terrific keepsake.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

Once again, I remind myself to “Act the way I want to feel” and to “Spend out.”

I just finished Beth Lisick’s hilarious memoir, Helping Me Help Myself: One Skeptic, Ten Self-Help Gurus, and a Year on the Brink of the Comfort Zone. She writes about the year she spent trying to improve her life by following the advice of ten of America’s best self-help gurus: Suze Orman, Richard Simmons, Jack Canfield, John Gray, etc.

Ummm…sound a tiny bit familiar?

When I first heard about the book, I have to confess, it made me feel anxious and defensive. Kinda like the way I felt when I heard about A. J. Jacobs’ The Year of Living Biblically. And when I heard about Jennifer Niesslein’s Practically Perfect in Every Way.

But then I reminded myself – Hey, I’m always saying that EVERYONE should have a happiness project! Here is hers! Fabulous, the more the merrier! It will be great! Obviously, something is happening in our culture right now, when people are interested in undertaking these projects — count me in!

And I read her book, and it’s terrific. I actually laughed out loud, which I rarely do.

Helping Me Help Myself perfectly illustrates the fact that everyone’s Happiness Project is going to look different, because everyone’s life is different.

Beth’s life is very different from mine. For example, she and her husband often stay out late, going to see bands play. I’m trying to remember if ever, in our whole history together, the Big Man and I have ever gone to see a band. I don’t think so.

Beth is the kind of person who can show up in a new city, meet some people, and end up having dinner with them that night. And enjoy the process. This isn’t me.

But that’s the fun of it! — seeing how she lives, what challenges she faces, how she tries to become happier and better. Every happiness project is relevant to every other, because we learn about ourselves by learning about other people.

Ron Hogan of the publishing-news blog GalleyCat, a guy who is a role model for my resolution to “Bring people together,” introduced Beth and me when she was in town promoting her book. He figured we’d have a lot to talk about.

Well, Beth confessed that she’d had a similar reaction to my Happiness Project when she first heard about it. It made her anxious. Then, she said, she reminded herself about “Abundance.”

That’s exactly what I remind myself with my resolution, “Spend out.” I don’t need to hoard; I don’t need to begrudge others anything, I can trust to abundance. We can all write great books about our happiness projects!

I really do believe that repeating these reminders really does make a difference in my thinking. I have the mantra my sister taught me: People succeed in groups. I have the sign-off I use whenever I email anyone with a blog: “May we both have a million readers.”

By “Acting the way I want to feel” (Third Commandment), I transform my feelings so that I feel friendly, generous, enthusiastic. And that’s a much nicer feeling than cursing to myself every time I see a nice notice about Beth’s book.

The thing is my Happiness Project really DOES work. When I take the steps I know I should take, it does result in more happiness.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.

In which I realize that I’m having trouble staying “mindful.”

I’ve been working on my mindfulness. Hmmm…but HOW?

I’m trying to stay more deeply in the present moment, to savor the seasons and this time of life, to stay focused on NOW rather than constantly fret about the future.

Current scientific studies show the benefits of being mindful, and certainly great religious leaders and philosophers have emphasized its importance. It’s hard for me to do, however.

For example, I just can’t bring myself to try meditating. Meditation holds zero interest for me — which, I know, probably means that I’m in all the more dire need of it. Ah well.

But just yesterday, I had a strange mindfulness (or rather, lack thereof) experience.

We’d spent a cozy family weekend together, mostly involving going to children’s birthday parties (four in three days!).

But last night, after the girls were both in bed, and I was heading to my desk to check my emails, I had the sensation that I was zooming back into my body and my life.

It was as if I were returning from a two-week trip. I felt as if I hadn’t seen any member of my family for many, many days. The very hallway in which I stood seemed fresh and unfamiliar.

It was very, very unnerving. If I was just getting back home – where had I been? I felt disoriented.

I have to think that this experience was somehow the consequence of not being mindfully present for the weekend. I hadn’t felt particularly distracted or preoccupied, but maybe I was just off in some other zone – and then got yanked back solidly into my life.

Weird. A good reminder of the importance of mindfulness.

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Lots of useful and thought-provoking material at the Ririan Project.

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New to the Happiness Project? Consider subscribing to my RSS feed: Subscribe to this blog’s feed. Or sign up to get email updates in the box at the top righthand corner.
If you’re starting your own happiness project, please join the Happiness Project Group on Facebook to swap ideas. It’s easy; it’s free.