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

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It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. Your assignment: SHOW UP. I’m going to show up for the opening day of THE GOLDEN COMPASS.

Golden_compassNot long ago, I had an epiphany – happiness projects for everyone! Join in! No need to catch up, just jump in now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

Here’s this Friday’s assignment: Show up.

Just as Woody Allen said that “Eighty percent of success is showing up,” about eighty percent of relationships is showing up.

This particular resolution is hard for me, because I’m always haunted by the feeling that I should be spending my time in front of my computer, or if not, I should be with my family.

Plus, it’s so much easier to stay home rather than to “show up,” which means dealing with the logistics of coordinating to meet another person or showing up at a particular place. Often “showing up” means foregoing wearing running shoes, always a sacrifice for me.

But showing up is a crucial way to keep in touch with other people, to keep interests alive, to have fun, and to bring novelty and challenge—so important for happiness—into your life.

Showing up is important for building relationships, studies show, because familiarity breeds affection. The “mere exposure effect” describes the fact that repeated exposure makes people like music, faces—even nonsense syllables—better. According to the “exposure principle,” the more often a person sees another person, the more intelligent and attractive that person will be ranked.

I’ve noticed this about myself. Even when I don’t take an immediate liking to a person, I tend to like him or her better, the more often we see each other. And at the same time, of course, the more I show up, the more that person likes me.

Also, “showing up” exposes me to new mental and physical environments. I love routine in every way, but even I have to admit that the happiness experts are right when they say that novelty and challenge bring happiness. Whenever I leave my hamster-wheel habits, I get a boost of happiness.

Because of my resolution to “Show up,” I’ve been better about visiting friends’ newborns. I’ve been to various reunions. I’ve gone to panels and forums that I might have skipped. I took a “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” class. Whenever I show up, I’m happy that I did. And yet, every time, I have to struggle with my impulse to stay home.

Of course, there’s a balance. I have to “Show up” at the computer and with my children, too. I need time to stay at home and read in bed with the Big Man.

Today I’m “showing up” – but I don’t need a push this time. My children’s literature book group is taking a field trip: we’re meeting in Times Square to see The Golden Compass in the middle of the day. In preparation, I re-read the trilogy. Can the movie possibly live up to the book? I’ll find out at 12:45 today.

I just discovered The Thinking Blog. It’s one of those sites where you never know what to expect, and you find out the oddest bits of information…I find these utterly addictive.

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.

I've just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

I’ll be so happy once I’m thin. Or rich. Or successful. Or engaged. Right?

Scale2A thoughtful reader emailed me a link to a post on Kate Harding’s blog, Shapely Prose, called The Fantasy of Being Thin.

It’s a fascinating, thought-provoking post. Everyone should go read it, so I’m not going to write much here.

Kate Harding makes several interesting arguments, but her key point is the tendency for people to think, “When I’m thin, I’ll be different. I’ll be more adventurous, or more sociable, or happier in my relationship.” Her message: No, you won’t. You’ll still be yourself.

I know exactly what she’s talking about. For many of us, there are things that we wish were different. We imagine it will be different when we’re thin. Or rich. Or when we have a baby, or a sweetheart, or a new kitchen, or a best-selling book…

Her post reminded me of the challenge to keep my First Commandment (see left column): “Be Gretchen.” Being Gretchen means accepting limitations and proclivities that I sometimes wish were different.

For example, for a long time, I didn’t acknowledge my passion for children’s literature. That interest didn’t fit with the picture that I wished were true about myself. I wanted to be more serious, more grown-up. I wanted to love opera, or caselaw, or global finance, or fly-fishing.

But once I embraced what I REALLY loved, instead of what I wished I loved, and started my children’s literature book group, my passion became a huge source of joy.

The thing is, it’s a bit sad to accept yourself. You face all the things that you will never be. But to be yourself is the only way to be happy.

On the specific issue of weight – I’m still trying to think through the issue of how attractiveness and self-image relate to happiness. When I posted about Anne Kreamer’s terrific book, Going Gray, about Kreamer’s decision to stop dying her hair and “go gray,” many readers posted fascinating comments on the topic. It’s complicated. I would describe myself as “weight-preoccupied” (I think that’s a term of art), so Harding’s comments about focusing on thinness as the key to all happiness resonated with me. It depresses me to admit how much my mood is affected by a two-pound swing on the scale.

It’s a challenge. Be Gretchen. Now, not later. As is.

This sounds so straightforward, but it’s not. John Ruskin reflected:

The little pig was so comforting to me because he was wholly content to be a little pig; and Mr. Leslie Stephen is in a certain degree exemplary and comforting to me, because he is wholly content to be Mr. Leslie Stephen; while I am miserable because I am always wanting to be something else than I am.

Be John Ruskin.

If you’re interested in subjects related to religion and spirituality, Beliefnet is a treasure trove of great material. For fun, take the Belief-O-Matic Quiz: What Religion Am I?

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: Nine tips for lifting yourself out of the holiday blues.

PresentsEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine tips for lifting yourself out of the holiday blues.

’Tis the season to celebrate – and also the season to feel overwhelmed, lonely, angry, irritated, and rushed.

Here are nine tips for keeping yourself feeling happy during the holiday period.

1. Get enough sleep. Turns out that, although it seems like a minor life issue, not getting enough sleep is a major disturber of people’s moods. Jet lag, traveling, parties, and over-excited children all make it hard to get your usual number of hours. Making an effort to get to bed at a decent hour really pays off.

2. Exercise. Studies show that one of the quickest and surest ways to boost your mood is to exercise. If you’re away from home and can’t do your usual routine, even a short walk will help. Even better…

3. Go outside to exercise. Or at least go outside. Light deprivation is one reason that people feel tired. Research suggests that light stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood and focus. For an extra boost, get your sunlight first thing in the morning

4. Stay in control of your eating. It seems to me that guilt about holiday binging is a major source of the blues. For that reason, I’m CONSIDERING resolving not to eat any sweets during the Christmas holiday. It’s usually easier for me to abstain than to be temperate. It seems Scrooge-ish not to have gingerbread cookies or bites of a Winstead’s Frosty, but I think I would be happier if I weren’t worrying about it.

5. Don’t rush around. Hurrying to pack, rushing through stores, sprinting to make a flight – these are sure to put you in a bad mood. Give yourself plenty of time. Do a few errands or buy a few presents each day, starting now. I get out a suitcase a week before we leave for Kansas City, and I toss items in as soon as I think of them.

6. Learn from the past. What has made you unhappy in years of old? Think back. Avoid your triggers. Stay out of the kitchen, stay out of the mall, stay away from Uncle Billy – sometimes there’s a weird triumphant satisfaction in getting worked up, yet again, by a particular situation. Don’t do it! Don’t expose yourself to known happiness risks.

7. Make time for real fun. Sometimes holiday vacations, which are supposed to be “fun,” are actually just a huge hassle. Figure out ways to have fun. In my family, we decided to reduce gift-giving. All the adults “draw” for each other’s names, and we each buy stocking presents for just one other person. Also, include time for things YOU like to do: going to a movie, taking a nap while everyone else goes skating, going to the gym. I plan to spend a lot of time drinking coffee with my sister.

8. Behave yourself! If you sulk, snap, tease, or shirk, you’re not going to feel happy. It may feel good, but only for a moment. Then you’re going to feel bad. Instead, try to help out, bite your tongue, clean up, or run to the store. Look for opportunities to say, “Don’t worry, I’ll take care of it,” or “This is fine,” or “What should I be doing?” Do good, feel good—this really works! The way we feel reflect the way we act, so if you act in an affectionate way, you’ll feel more affectionate.

9. Fill your heart with love. Remember the Twelfth Commandment (see left column): “There is only love.” If you’re heading into a difficult situation, take a moment to fill your heart with love. Think of all the reasons that you’re grateful to your family, and the happy memories you’ve shared, and how things might look from other people’s perspectives. This can be very hard to do, but it will make you happier. And if you’re happy, you’re going to be better able to make other people happy. That is the mystery of the Second Splendid Truth.

Remember, holidays are supposed to be a time of peace, love, and fun — and we can’t bicker, complain, and nag our way there. Figure out what YOU need to do to keep a holiday spirit. Number One on my personal list: the Little Girl MUST HAVE HER NAP. All else pales in comparison.

I love the excellent site Gimundo, so it was a thrill to see the Happiness Project listed in Kathryn Hawkins’s round-up on Simple Steps to Happiness. She lists several great Internet sites on happiness, all of which I read and agree are worth checking out.

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.


Try to do one nagging task each day, or even better, avoid having a nagging task.

HerculesOne of the boxes on my Resolutions Chart reads “Nagging task.” I try to cross one nagging task off my list each day. This doesn’t sound like much, but just doing one a day means that over the course of a few weeks, I get quite a bit accomplished.

Just as important, I’ve tried to take steps to reduce the total number of nagging tasks that I have.

For example, because I’m an underbuyer, I tend to buy one bottle of saline solution at a time, even though I use the stuff twice each day. Now I’m pushing myself to buy several bottles at a time. I know I’ll need it before too long, and by buying it all at once, I spare myself a task later.

Also, I found a great solution to the nagging task of buying and wrapping kids’ birthday presents. I took three minutes to place an online order for seven boxed sets of Roald Dahl and Edward Eager paperbacks. Wonderful books, suitable for boys and girls of a wide range of ages, easy to store and carry, easy for the family to re-gift if the child already has the book, no need to wrap—just pop it into a gift-bag (gift-bags are easier to use than paper—easier, more fun, and can be reused).

One common nagging task was to put things away. I recently realized that some objects have a natural home; if something keeps showing up in the same wrong place, maybe THAT should be the place to put it away.

Instead of keeping the Big Man’s overnight bag with the rest of the suitcases, far from our bedroom, I moved it to the top shelf of his closet, where he can get to it more easily. I moved the photo-album-maintenance box from my office to a shelf by the TV, because I only use the box while watching TV.

These sounds like petty considerations in the face of the transcendent goal of happiness, but as Samuel Johnson said, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

Another of my resolutions is to “Read more, read better,” and to get ideas for books to read, I like to check out Maud Newton. I always find a lot of great reading-related material there.

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.

On Thomas Merton, pride, and why people who think they’re morally superior may become major cheats.

DesertOver the weekend, I read Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own. It’s a group biography; I read it because I’m very interested in Flannery O’Connor, and I also wanted to learn more about the writer Thomas Merton – a man who converted to Catholicism at age 24, and become a Trappist monk two years later.

I’d read his memoir, The Seven Storey Mountain (this book led me to my obsession with St. Therese of Lisieux, actually), and for a long time, I’d wanted to learn more about Merton’s life and read more of his work.

I knew his reputation: wonderful writer, very spiritual, dedicated to the monastic life.

So I was absolutely FLABBERGASTED to learn that while he was a monk, he had an affair. When he was fifty-one, in the hospital for back surgery, he met Margie, a 20-something nurse who was engaged to another man. Their affair wasn’t an isolated moment; they exchanged letters (he told her that by writing CONSCIENCE MATTER on the outside, she could keep the letter private), he called her on the phone from the monastary, they met repeatedly. From what I can tell, this situation involved a fair amount of deception and Merton getting others to lie for him and drive him around. For example, Merton had appointments with a psychologist, and he arranged to use the office to meet Margie when the psychologist was out.

Here was a man who was world-famous, during his life, for his dedication to his vows of chastity, obedience, and poverty, and for his devout religious beliefs. I wasn’t shocked, but I was surprised.

As so often happens, just when I was thinking about this, a relevant article floated across my vision: Jeanna Bryner’s Oddly, Hypocrisy Rooted in High Morals article on about a study that showed that people who consider themselves very moral can become very bad cheats, because they believe that their high virtue exempts them from the rules that apply to ordinary folk.

In fact, those with the greatest sense of moral superiority can become the worst cheaters – if they think of themselves as very virtuous, and at the same time, can justify a dishonest behavior (cheating on a test to become a doctor to help others, say).

This may not have been operating in Merton’s case, of course, but it’s an interesting point. Maybe this also explains one of the dangers of pride. Your pride in your virtue makes you vulnerable to vice.

I’ve been thinking a lot about pride; it’s a very puzzling subject. Many of the greatest religious leaders and philosophers warn against pride, but what exactly does it mean to be prideful? And what is humility?

During the saint-making process for St. Therese, for example, the Devil’s Advocate brought up the fact that during her final illness, she made remarks like, “You know very well you are taking care of a saint, don’t you?” and she told her sisters to keep some petals she’d been holding so they could be given to people after she died.

These statements were held up as a sign of presumption – a potential disqualification. But was it? She WAS a saint. It’s like Churchill, who as a schoolboy, bragged about how important he’d be one day: “In the high position I shall occupy, it will fall to me to save the Capital and save the Empire.” And he did!

I want to think much more about it. For now, I’ve decided that rather than worry about acting with pride or humility, I should just try to “Be Gretchen,” which means that I must let go of arrogance and boastfulness, defensiveness and insecurity.

I always enjoy checking in with Ben Casnocha: The Blog. Ben Casnocha is a cheerful, nice guy with a good sense of humor with a wide range of interests (these qualities may sound a bit dull, but to my mind, there’s NO HIGHER praise), and it’s always refreshing to dip into his writing.

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.