Happiness and the joy of undertaking a big project, Part II

(continued from yesterday)

So I’d found this enthralling, one-of-a-kind book by J. M. Barrie, The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.* Now what?

I was incredibly fortunate to have a friend who was as enthralled as I was — who understood why the book is so extraordinary.

We were talking about it when we came up with our unbelievably exciting plan: we’d do our OWN Boy Castaways book, with photographs of our OWN children.

Over the past several months, we’ve been doing the preparation. She wrote a skeleton “story” like the one Barrie illustrated – about a royal family forced to flee and go in search of a magical bird. Like Barrie, we wouldn’t write out a long story; we’d just use the story skeleton to provide captions for photographs of the children.

We went to Central Park to research possible sites for photos. We did a storyboard that matched photo locations with costumes with captions. She’s been scouring eBay for interesting things to buy for costumes – a miniature bugle, a wooden shield, a ruffled tuxedo shirt, a fez. (I know that she’s secretly thrilled to have a solid reason to buy all that fun stuff on eBay that you WANT to buy but can’t really justify.)

Yesterday we took our first photograph, the one illustrating the line: “The Princess performs a sacred dance.” The cherry trees are in blossom in Central Park, so we took the photo there. The Princess (the Little Girl) refused to do much dancing, but we coaxed her into various sacred-ritual-type poses.

I’m sure this project will turn out to have many unexpectedly fun aspects, but one aspect is that it allows us to take advantage of the tremendous beauties of Central Park. There are so many gorgeous places in which to set our scenes, and it’s a delight to feel like we’re able to make good use of the riches that the park offers. Like the flowering trees! So beautiful, so fleeting – and we’ve captured them in our project.

At an early stage, my friend was enthusiastically describing the project to her husband, who clearly was overwhelmed at the thought of the amount of time and effort that this was going to consume.

“I can’t believe you’re going to do this,” he said. Then he corrected himself. “No, actually, this is perfect for you two. You’re going to love doing it.”

One of my happiness-project resolutions is to “Make books.” Some people like to go skiing, some people like to learn about wine, I like to make books. I only recently discovered that this was my hobby, because I’d never thought of it as a category of activity. But I’ve realized that YES, making books, in all ways, is what I love to do. Be Gretchen! I wouldn’t have been able to handle this project alone — I’m just incredibly lucky that I have a friend who so perfectly shares this vision.

Onward. One major hurdle: we don’t have a title yet.

* Unfortunately, I can’t put in a live link to the library’s image site. To view The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island:
Go to the Beinecke Library site
Under “Finding Books, Images, and Manuscripts,” go to ORBIS, the online catalogue
Search by title for “boy castaways”
Hit the blue #2 entry that will come up
Hit the link to “View images from the Beinecke Library’s Digital Images Online Database.”
This is quick and easy, despite sounding complicated!

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Along the same lines, about making projects, making books, unusual forms of creativity, etc., I was absolutely AWESTRUCK by the description on writer Sloane Crosley’s website of the dioramas she made to illustrate essays in her new book, I Was Told There’d Be Cake. I’ve long been obsessed with Joseph Cornell and his boxes, and I’ve always wanted to make dioramas. Now I’m truly inspired. In fact, I’m reeling with the sense of possibility. My mother-in-law knows where to order boxes made of Lucite…

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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.

Happiness and the joy of undertaking a big project.

My First Splendid Truth holds that to think about being happier, you must consider feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth. I’ve become increasingly convinced that the atmosphere of growth is far more important than generally recognized.

Studies show that novelty and challenge—though they can make us uncomfortable, frustrated, uneasy, etc.—are keys to happiness. People who have novel experiences are happier than those who stay in a rut. Also, people are very sensitive to change in their circumstances, whether in a positive or negative direction. Therefore, a feeling of progress, improvement, and learning makes us happier.

I’ve been looking for more ways to bring “an atmosphere of growth” into my life. Children provide it, of course. Also, my blog is a major source of growth for me (also frustration, anxiety, etc.).

And today, a friend and I took the first big step in a BIG project we’re doing together. This multi-stage undertaking will contribute enormously to my atmosphere of growth.

We’ve been planning for months, and the planning has been fun, but I was starting to develop Beginner’s Dread about actually starting. But this afternoon we got underway, and it’s going to be SO TERRIFIC. It’s already a source of joy, and it’s going to keep going for months.

Along with novelty, challenge, and growth, this project combines many resolutions: “Spend time with friends,” “Show up,” “Indulge in a modest splurge,” “Read at whim,” “Appreciate the seasons and this time of life,” and most importantly, “Be Gretchen.”

The inspiration for this project? A while back, I was reading a biograpy of writer J.M. Barrie, J.M. Barrie and the Lost Boys (Barrie is best known for writing Peter Pan). It made brief mention of a book made by J. M. Barrie using photographs of the four Llewelyn boys he adored. He took photographs of the boys during one summer, then created a story out of the pictures called The Boy Castaways of Black Lake Island.

He made one copy for himself, and one copy for the Llewelyn family, but the boys’ father left their copy on the train, so only one copy of this book exists.

I noticed that this one copy happened to be in Beinecke Library, the rare books library at Yale, where I went to college and law school. I needed to go up to New Haven for some reason, so I stopped by the library to see the book (keeping my happiness-project resolution to “Force myself to wander”).

I was blown away by this book. I LOVED it. It was like nothing I’d ever seen before. Absolutely marvelous, a whole new way of telling a story and keeping a photo album – and Barrie is an extraordinary writer. I’m continually haunted by the opening line: “We set out to be wrecked.”

Rarely have I wanted to own something so badly – and I discovered that I could order a copy. The library had made a digital image of every page. So I bought myself a copy of every page.

To my great good fortune, I have a friend who immediately realized the brilliance of The Boy Castaways and who was as enthusiastic about it as I was.

Tomorrow I’ll describe our own Boy Castaways project. It’s so fabulous.

***Earlier today, I tried to post a link to the Beinecke Library site’s digital images of the book. For some reason, the link won’t work — I think the link gets timed out. If you’d really like to check out the book (and it’s worth it!), do this:

Go to the Beinecke Library site: Beinecke Library
Under “Finding Books, Images, and Manuscripts,” go to ORBIS, the online catalogue
Search by title for “boy castaways
Hit the blue #2 entry that will come up
Hit the link to “View images from the Beinecke Library’s Digital Images Online Database.”
This is quick and easy, despite sounding complicated!

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I just discovered a new blog that I find very charming, I Think This World Is Perfect. Of course, with a name like that, I was instantly intrigued.

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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 Saturday: a happiness quotation from Montaigne.

“Natural inclinations are assisted and reinforced by education, but they are hardly ever altered or overcome.” — Montaigne

This observation has had an enormous influence on me — both in how I try to follow my First Commandment to Be Gretchen, and also how I think about raising my children.

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Along the same lines, a thoughtful reader sent me the link to this short internet movie, Animal School. It specifically addresses the education of children, but I think that its point applies to adults, as well.

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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.

It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Ask for a favor.

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.
Here’s something that might sound counter-intuitive: Ask for a favor.

As Ben Franklin recommended, “If you want to make a friend, let someone do you a favor.”

Ask for help, for advice, for suggestions. By doing so, you place yourself under obligation to your favor-givers – which makes them feel kindly toward you.

Sudies show that for happiness, providing support is just as important as getting support. By offering people a way to provide support, you generate good feelings in them.

And on your side, asking for a favor is a sign of intimacy and trust. The fact that you’ve asked for a favor shows that you feel comfortable being indebted to someone. I remember a friend at work telling me, “I never liked that guy until he told me he needed to borrow $50 from me. Then I realized he must consider me a friend, and presto! I started liking him.”

So asking, and receiving, a favor generates good feelings on both sides.

Obviously, there are small favors and big favors. You don’t want to ask someone to take care of your dog while you’re on vacation unless that person is already a GOOD friend. But asking for a recommendation for a good dentist isn’t burdensome.

One of my most helpful Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help.” Asking for help is a very useful way of asking for a favor. I’m absolutely mystified by asking for help is so hard for me. So often, I can just solve a problem by asking for help—which is almost always freely and cheerfully given.

It can be selfless to be selfish, and you can be generous by taking. Ask for a favor.

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Gimundo had an amazing post about scientific innovation to create new human organs and body parts. Astounding. A finger-growing powder!

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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.

Resolutions for how to be happy have to be made over and over. Alas.

I’ve been doing some thinking lately about the difference between happiness goals and happiness resolutions, and the role of habits in helping me or thwarting me.

What’s discouraging is that many of my most important happiness resolutions aren’t getting much easier. That’s why I think it’s important to think of these as “resolutions” that I approach anew each day, rather than “goals” that I’d expect to achieve and be done with.

One of the main things I’ve worked on in my Happiness Project is my sharp tongue. I snap, I nag, I “talk in a mean voice,” as the Big Girl put it when she was younger.

I worked hard on this tendency, and I did improve.

Lately, however, I’ve been relaxing my vigilance a bit. Maybe I thought I’d reached my “goal.” And you know what? The snapping, the nagging, the sharp tone has come right back.

I can HEAR the words come out of my mouth in a nasty tone. Sometimes I even sound more aggravated than I actually am.

I guess I thought my struggle would get easier, once I’d been keeping my resolutions for a while.

Nope.

My tendency to speak harshly is one my worst traits and the reason for a lot of my resolutions. It’s one of the main reasons I felt compelled to start my Happiness Project. It’s the reason I’ve more or less quit drinking alcohol. It’s the reason I try so hard to get enough sleep and not to let myself get too hungry or cold. It’s the reason I resolved to quit nagging, and to stop gossiping.

These steps have helped, but the sharp tongue is still there.

I think back on last Saturday morning, for example. We’d all slept badly. The Big Man was at the gym, and I was giving the girls their breakfasts. Both girls were being whiny and demanding.

My resolutions and my Twelve Commandments started ringing in my ears: “Laugh out loud,” “Lighten up,” “Acknowledge the reality of other people’s feelings,” “Sing in the morning,” etc.

Did I do any of that? No. I scowled at them both. I spoke in a harsh voice. I clenched my jaw.

It was the Big Girl who turned the mood around. Unbelievably, she suddenly pulled herself together and started distracting the Little Girl with a funny story. The Little Girl cheered up once she’d eaten some breakfast, and I cheered up after I had some coffee. Peace descended.

So often, it just takes one person to change the mood. I hope that next time, I’ll be able to meet the challenge, instead of leaving it to my eight-year-old.

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New York Times reporter Tara Parker-Pope has an excellent blog, Well, where she writes about a variety of health-related issues. Fascinating stuff there.

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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.