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

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What I learned about happiness from my love of Harry Potter: lesson #1.

HarrypotterOne extraordinary source of happiness for me these days is the knowledge that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (or HP7, as I affectionately call it) will be clutched in my hot little hands in less than a week.

And upon reflection, I realize that my love for the Harry Potter books has taught me several important things about the nature of happiness.

First is the truth, and the primacy, and the challenge, of my First Commandment: “Be Gretchen.” (See left column for all twelve commandments.)

One fact about me is I have an enormous love for children’s literature. I love it, I just love it. I still haven’t figured out what I get from children’s literature that I don’t get from adult literature, but there’s something.

But for a long time, I didn’t admit my passionate interest in kidlit. It didn’t fit with my ideas of what I wished I were like. It wasn’t grown-up enough. I wanted to be interested in constitutional law, and serious literature, and the economy, and other adult subjects. And I was interested in those topics, but I somehow felt that I needed to hide my love of Philip Pullman and Louisa May Alcott. I repressed this side of my personality to such a degree that when the third Harry Potter book came out, I didn’t buy it for several days. I’d fooled even myself into thinking that I didn’t care.

When I started The Happiness Project, I realized that I should try to embrace this suppressed passion, but I wasn’t sure exactly how to go about doing that.

Then one day, I had lunch with an acquaintance—someone I hoped could be a friend but who wasn’t a friend yet. She was young, polished, highly educated, a well-established literary agent, and quite intimidating. But somehow it emerged that she, too, was a Harry Potter…well, freak captures the intensity of her enthusiasm. And she loved children’s literature, too. I’d found a kindred spirit.

Then it occurred to me – I knew a third person, as well. Could we start a book group? For adults reading children’s literature? Would anyone else want to do that? I decided to see if I could organize one.

Now comes the Oprah-ish part of the story: not only did it turn out that a lot of people were interested in children’s literature, but they were all highly bookish, accomplished, interesting people—and most of them I’d known, at least a little bit, before. Once I spoke up, I discovered that I already knew and liked many people who shared my interest.

Now this children’s literature book group is one of the joys of my life.

The first time our group met, I set around an email with the details (we were discussing C. S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe over dinner), and I included a quotation from C. S. Lewis’s brilliant essay, On Three Ways of Writing for Children:

When I was ten, I read fairy tales in secret and would have been ashamed if I had been found doing so. Now that I am fifty I read them openly. When I became a man I put away childish things, including the fear of childishness and the desire to be very grown up.

But I realized that this apologia didn’t mean much to anyone else in the group, because they’d never tried to squash their interest in children’s literature. Why had I? Remember, be Gretchen.

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Via a site I love, 43 Folders, I found an interesting post about how to handle email by another blogger I love, Colleen at Communicatrix.

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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 Saturday: a happiness quotation from Leonardo da Vinci.

Leonardo2“It is easier to resist at the beginning than at the end.” –Leonardo da Vinci

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Studies show that doing a good deed will make you happier – and here’s a (little) opportunity!

GoldstarNow for a little arrant self-promotion.

If you know people who would enjoy The Happiness Project blog, please take a moment to pass them the link. Word of mouth really works, because people respect the opinions of their friends and colleagues.

Now, I know that as good deeds go, this isn’t a particularly lofty or important deed, but still, it’s a nice thing to do.

And it will likely make you feel happier, too. Current research and the wisdom of the ages teaches us that doing good deeds makes us happier, and I’ve been surprised by just how powerful that effect is. It’s really true: a surefire way to get a shot of happiness is to do something to increase the happiness of someone else.

Paradoxically – and this is really worth thinking about – a key way to increase the happiness of other people is to be happy yourself. As Mark Twain said, “Whoever is happy will make others happy, too.” The circularity here is confusing, but worth puzzling over.

Well, I feel a little sheepish making a plea for help with blog promotion, but one of my Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help,” and now I’m asking.

The happiness of finding a new technique to improve my writing.

Laptop2I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of Susan Bell’s new book, The Artful Edit, about how writers can do a better job of editing themselves.

It has a lot of good advice, but there was one technique – reassuringly simple to do – that I tried today with great success.

I printed out my draft in a different font.

Yes, it was as easy as that. When I printed out my draft for editing, I switched the text from Times New Roman, which feels like my own handwriting, to Georgia.

It sounds insignificant, but in fact, the changed look of the page made it easier to spot awkward spots.

When I’m done with this edit, I’m going to try another of Bell’s suggestions, and read the whole darned draft aloud.

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For folks interested in the general subject of self-improvement, the great site Pick the Brain has a helpful round-up of blogs worth checking out. Needless to say, I was very happy to see The Happiness Project on the list.

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If you’re new to the Happiness Project, you may want to 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.

This Wednesday: How to feel happier BY THE END OF THE DAY: Your menu of options.

CheckmarkEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: How to be happier BY THE END OF THE DAY: Your menu of options.

Do you need a happiness boost—right now? If so, take a look at this menu of options and make your choices. Remember, the more you tackle, the bigger the boost you’ll receive.

When you’re feeling blue, it can be hard to muster up the physical and mental energy to do the things that make you happier. Plunking down in front of the TV or digging into a tub of ice cream seems like an easier fix.

However, research shows (and you know it’s true) that these aren’t the routes to feeling better. Try some choices below. The more you push yourself, the better you’ll feel; but if you can’t tackle a big task, just do something small. Even a little step in the right direction will give you a lift.

According to my ground-breaking happiness formula, to be happy, you need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. What’s dragging you down? Is it a lack of fun, of connection? Do you feel a lot of guilt, boredom, or anger? Do you feel that something’s “not right” about your life? Do you feel stagnant or stuck? Focus your efforts on the choices that will do the most to address what’s not working in your life.

Your menu of choices — commit to doing as many items as you can:

Friends
__ call or email one of your closest friends
__ call or email three friends to whom you haven’t spoken in a while
__ track down an old friend who has drifted out of your life (I just did this a few days ago, zoikes)

Fun
__ add a fun thing to your calendar
__ add a fun thing to your calendar that involves other people
__ add a fun thing to your calendar that involves other people doing something outside

Challenge
__ think of a subject that you wish you knew more about (be honest! something that really interests you!) and spend 15 minutes on the internet reading about it
__ take a step toward acquiring a new skill that you want – research Italian classes in your neighborhood, order Photoshop for Dummies
__ if you absolutely can’t think of one single subject that interests you, visit two bookstores (one huge, one independent) and browse until some book catches your attention – and buy it

Do good, feel good
__ sign up to be an organ donor, and remember to tell your family
__ give $25 or more to a worthy cause
__ sign up to volunteer or participate in an organization

Energy
__ walk around the block
__ take a twenty-five-minute walk
__ go the gym or go for a run

Order
__ clear out the space around your computer
__ clear out a closet
__ walk through your house with a garbage bag, and clear clutter until the bag is full of trash; then walk around again and fill a new bag with things to be given away; repeat

Guilt
__ make a dentist’s or doctor’s appointment that you’ve been putting off
__ reach out to a family member whom you’ve been neglecting
__ make something right: apologize, confess, repair, replace, or return something you borrowed

Nagging tasks
__ clean out some old emails that you haven’t answered
__ stop off at the drugstore to buy supplies you need
__ stop off at the hardware store to buy supplies you need
__ fix something broken

Good citizen
__ Throw away someone else’s litter
__ Be helpful to an elderly person or a person with small kids
__ Be friendly to a store clerk who seems grouchy

Gratitude
__ Reflect on the following quotation, from Marjorie William’s Woman at the Washington Zoo:

We could hear her friends pull up to the curb. As her momentum carried her to the top of the stairs, Alice looked back and tossed me a radiant smile. She had become my glimmering girl: She looked like a rock star. She looked like a teenager. She looked absolutely stunning. She thundered down the stairs in those shoes, and as the front door slammed behind her, it came to me—what fantasy I had finally, easily entered this Halloween.

I’d just seen Alice leave for her prom, or her first real date. I’d cheated time, flipping the calendar five or six years into the future. The character I’d played was the fifty-two-year-old mother I will probably never be.

It was effortless.

Editor’s Note: A month after Marjorie wrote this, her oncologist concluded that there was no further treatment to recommend. Marjorie died, at home, on January 16, 2005, three days after her forty-seventh birthday.


__ Reflect on the following quotation, Winston Churchill to the House of Commons, June 4, 1940:

We shall prove ourselves once again able to defend our island home, to ride out the storm of war, and to outlive the menace of tyranny, if necessary for years, if necessary alone. At any rate, that is what we are going to try to do.

Even though large tracts of Europe and many old and famous States have fallen or may fall into the grip of the Gestapo and all the odious apparatus of Nazi rule, we shall not flag or fail. We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender; and even if, which I do not for a moment believe, this Island or a large part of it were subjugated and starving, then our Empire beyond the seas, armed and guarded by the British Fleet, would carry on the struggle, until, in God’s good time, the New World, with all its power and might, steps forth to the rescue and liberation of the Old.

__ Reflect on the following quotation, from Thomas Arnold, diary, June 5, 1842:

[Of reading the newspaper] “So much of sin and so much of suffering in the world, as are there displayed, and no one seems able to remedy either. And then the thought of my own private life, so full of comforts, is very startling.”

At the end of the day, look back on your list. Did you hit all the items you checked off? Do you feel happier?

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Via the Very Short List (very short, very fun, I just signed up for the daily notices), I discovered the wonderful Strange Maps, which has a wonderful collection of…strange maps. My favorite is the map of the United States, with the states renamed as countries with similar GDPs.

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If you’re new to the Happiness Project, you may want to 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.