My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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My “friendship” resolutions and one of my most thrilling happiness-project adventure stories.

NancyellenOne of my areas of concentration for the happiness project is friendship, and my sub-resolutions include “Bring people together” and “Help people think big.”

“Bring people together” came from my realization that the one of the most thoughtful gestures is to help friends connect with other people – setting up single friends, recommending people for jobs, etc.

“Help people think big” came from my realization that words of enthusiasm and confidence from a friend can genuinely inspire someone to tackle an exciting goal. My agent was the one who said to me, “I really think you should consider doing a blog.” “Really?” I said dubiously. “Do you think I could?”

I try to live up to these resolutions, and Tuesday night marked the culmination of one of my most dramatic happiness-project adventure stories.

In December 2004, the Big Girl’s nursery school arranged a “reunion” for all the children who had graduated into kindergarten, so they could come back to see their old friends and teachers. While the children were occupied, the nursery school directors, Nancy Schulman and Ellen Birnbaum, led a parent discussion about the kindergarten transition. These kinds of meetings were familiar, because we had had them periodically during the nursery school years.

As always, Ellen and Nancy’s insights and advice were incredibly helpful. As I stood up to leave, I thought, “These two should write a book.” I was immediately convinced that this was the greatest idea ever.

Now, I didn’t know Nancy or Ellen particularly well, but I went over to Ellen and said, “You two should write a book.”

“You know, we’ve thought about that,” she said, “but never very seriously.”

“Well, I really think you should,” I repeated. Ellen called Nancy over, and we talked about it for a few minutes. Then we said good-bye.

I suspected that nothing more would happen unless I nudged them along, so I suggested that we meet for coffee to talk about the publishing process. As we talked, they became increasingly enthusiastic and full of ideas. I put them in touch with my agent. In a flash, they had a book contract and were on their way.

And now they’re done. They’ve written a fantastic, helpful book for parents of nursery-school age children. Two days ago, Practical Wisdom for Parents: Demystifying the Preschool Years, went on sale (perfectly timed for me personally, because the Little Girl starts nursery school in the fall). That very morning, Nancy and Ellen were on the Today Show. At their book party that night, they said that if it hadn’t been for me, they wouldn’t have written the book.

The fact is, I played a teeny, tiny role in their huge achievement. But it just may be true that I played a critical role. They needed someone to say “You should do this” and to help them begin to navigate in unfamiliar territory.

They’re thrilled with their accomplishment. But I feel fabulous, too. It makes me so happy to think that I helped them. Do good, feel good. It really works.

I’m fascinated by the issue of obesity, and I was flabbergasted to read Gina Kolata’s New York Times story this morning, Study Show That Obesity Can Be Contagious, about the new study recently published in the New England Journal of Medicine that shows that obesity “spreads” among friends.

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I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

This Wednesday: Eight tips for how money CAN buy you happiness.

DollarbillEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Eight tips for how money CAN buy you happiness.

I think that the relationship between money and happiness is one of the most interesting, most complicated, and most sensitive questions in the study of happiness.

Studies show, unsurprisingly, that money’s impact on happiness is greatest when you have the least amount of money.

But if you’re one of the lucky people who has enough money to cover the basics – food, shelter, even a car — does that mean that money can’t make a difference to your happiness?

Some happiness experts argue yes, but I think that’s…ridiculous.

The secret to using money to buy happiness is to spend money in ways that support your happiness goals.

Imagine that you have a certain amount of extra cash. How should you spend it?

One option: a fancy new TV set. Enticing. The fact is, however, that the new TV won’t give you much happiness bang for your buck. The “hedonic treadmill” describes our tendency to adapt quickly to changed circumstances — which means you’ll get a big kick out of the TV for a short while, but you’ll soon take it for granted.

The hedonic treadmill means that buying STUFF isn’t very satisfying, but there are ways to spend money that are likely to help give you enduring happiness. Spend money to…

1. Strengthen bonds with family and friends. Studies show that having close relationships is one of the most important elements of a happy life. Pay for a plane ticket to visit your brother’s new baby, go to your college reunion, throw a Superbowl party.

2. End marital conflict. If you’re constantly arguing about the unkempt lawn, or the moldering laundry, see if you can throw some money at the problem. Can you hire the teenager down the street to clean out the garage?

3. Upgrade your exercise. Studies show that one of the quickest and surest ways to boost your mood is to exercise. If spending money on a new iPod, a more convenient gym, or a new pair of yoga pants will make it easier to get yourself off the couch, that’s a good happiness investment.

4. Think about fun. Ask yourself – and be honest – what’s fun for you? Fishing, bird-watching, travel, hunting through flea markets, experimenting in the kitchen, skiing, scrapbooking? Make sure that your calendar reflects some activities that you are doing just for FUN. For happiness, you’re better off using your money to have a great experience than to gain a possession.

5. Serenity and security. Peace of mind is critical to happiness, so use the money to pay down your debts or to add to your savings.

6. Pay more for healthy food. It’s a sad fact that fruits, vegetables, and healthy food are more expensive than fast food, but eating healthfully will pay off in the long run, in terms of your good health and energy.

7. Spend the money on someone else. One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make someone else happy. Think about ways you could spend the money that would make a big difference to someone else — whether someone you know, or a cause you support. How many new books could the library’s children’s room add to the shelves?

8. Think about YOUR priorities. Two years ago, some friends decided to skip an anniversary trip so they could use the money to buy a super-expensive Dux bed. I thought this was a bad idea, because the “hedonic treadmill” would mean that they’d quickly get used to the new bed. Oh, no. They still rave about their Dux bed. So maybe that fancy new TV set would mean a lot to you, although I, for one, would hardly notice the difference. As always, the key to any happiness question is to know yourself, and what makes YOU happy.

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My second earth-shattering insight about happiness: how to make yourself happy, and other people happy, too.

Weston_pepperMy first ground-breaking insight into happiness is, of course, that to be happy, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Now I’ve arrived at my second earth-shattering insight about happiness. I’m not sure why it took me so long to see this clearly, because I’ve understood the principles involved for a very long time, and now it seems so obvious, but there’s a circularity to it (see below) that confused me.

Here it is:

One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

This is tremendously important. It’s absolutely true.

Someone who was very, very nice to me when I was just starting this blog was Chris Brogan. He picked up my Wednesday tips at the wonderful site, Lifehack, he gave me advice about podcasting, and most important, he didn’t make me feel like my questions as a new blogger were ridiculous. I read his blog, Chris Brogan, to keep up with his many adventures, although many of said adventures are a bit too techy for me to understand.

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One key to happiness: setting a target goal of making 3 new friends.

ThreeOne thing is clear: a major key to happiness – in fact, the major key – is having close relationships with other people. We need close, long-term relationships, we need to be able to confide in others, we need to belong, we enjoy activities more when we’re with other people. This is true not just of extraverts, but of introverts, as well.

In fact, people who claim to have at least five friends with whom they can discuss important problems are 60% more likely to describe themselves as “very happy.”

Unfortunately, a study published by the American Sociological Review in 2006 shows the average American has only two close friends, and almost a quarter of Americans have no friend in whom they can confide – a number that has doubled in the last two decades. (On the good side, family ties are strengthening.)

One of my main areas of concentration for the happiness project has been to try to stay closer to my friends and to make more friends.

One strategy I’ve adopted for making more friends may sound a little cold-blooded and calculating, but it has really worked for me.

I set myself a friend TARGET GOAL.

When I enter a situation where I’m meeting new people, I set myself the goal of making three new friends. So, for example, when the Little Girl starts pre-school in September, and I’m meeting a lot of new parents, I’ll be looking for my three friends.

I know it sounds artificial, but I’ve been trying this approach for a few years, and it works well. It changes my attitude from, “Do I like you? Do you like me? Do we have time to talk?” to “Are you someone who will be one of my three friends?” Somehow, this slight shift makes me behave differently, it makes me more open to people, it prompts me to make the effort to go beyond everyday chit-chat.

Because I feel busy and sometimes overwhelmed, I have a tendency to say to myself, “I don’t have time to meet new people or make new friends.” But that’s not true. I do have time, and making a new friend is tremendously energizing, not enervating.

Not all such friends have turned into close friends. Some I never see outside the context in which I first met them. But still, I feel like there’s a stronger connection between us – perhaps wholly one-sided, true, but still real.

And I know I’ve made more closer friends than I otherwise would have done.

I’ve also realized that “being friends” means different things in different stages in of life. In college, I spent hours each day with my friends. These days I don’t spend nearly that much time with the Big Man. That’s okay.

Productivity 501 has a great post about what to do when people come to your office to distract you. Lots of easy, practical, not-rude suggestions: take notes, talk to them while you’re standing up, don’t have a visitor’s chair, etc.

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What Harry Potter has in common with the Olympics, the World Cup, and American Idol.

HarrypotterI don’t follow the Olympics, the Super Bowl, the World Cup, or American Idol, so I never realized how MUCH FUN it is to be swept up in a national frenzy of anticipation.

A friend and I went to stand in line outside the Barnes and Noble at Union Square, to pick up the wristbands that would give us a place in line to buy the books tonight after 12:01. The line wrapped around the block, and we waited for two hours to get number 348.

It was a pain, but it was also a lot of fun.

I’ve seen people all over the city carrying copies of various Harry Potter books under their arms. I saw a hip girl with a t-shirt that read, “I solemnly swear I am up to no good.” A guy on the subway saw our Barnes and Noble schedule and asked us about the countdown party.

It’s thrilling to realize that so many strangers are as excited as I am. Being a participant in this mass enthusiasm is really making me happy. The whole city seems friendlier.

Maybe I’ll start watching the Olympics.

Via 43 Folders, I saw an interesting post made by Mike Davidson about that perennial subject, how to manage emails. His suggestion: don’t write or send any email that’s longer than 5 sentences. Hmmm….I’m going to give it a shot.

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