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

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Can studying the science of personality boost your self-knowledge, or appreciation of others? I think so. And it’s awfully interesting.

FiveThere is a Buddhist saying: “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.”

I tend to scoff at mystical predictions like that, but in fact, I’ve found it to be uncannily accurate as I’ve been working on the Happiness Project.

For instance, about a week after I committed myself to starting a strength-training regiment – really committed myself, not just pretended, as I had many times before – I had coffee with a friend who mentioned that she loved the strength-training work-out she did in a gym near my apartment. Eureka!

For the last few months, I’ve quite literally and repeatedly had this thought: “Boy, I’ve been reading so much about the five-factor model of personality. This framework is intriguing, but I have a lot of questions, especially about the neuroticism factor. I wish I could find some up-to-date, useful source that would lay it all out.”

Eureka! Friday, my copy of Daniel Nettle’s Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are arrived. I read it in one night.

I have Twelve Commandments (see left column), of which two are supreme: “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

I hoped that understanding the five-factor framework would help me “Be Gretchen” by giving me insight into my own character, and possibly also help me with “There is only love” by helping me understand other people better.

Nettle lays out the “big five” dimensions:

1. Extraversion – response to reward
2. Neuroticism – response to threat
3. Conscientiousness – response inhibition (self-control, planning)
4. Agreeableness – regard for others
5. Openness to Experience – breadth of mental associations

These categories somewhat, but don’t exactly, mean what a layman might think. For example, I’d thought “extraversion” was basically “friendliness,” but that’s not right. Also, although I’d certainly used the word “neurotic” many times, I realized I didn’t know exactly what it meant.

The book is absolutely fascinating (it’s also comprehensive, short, and well-written, which is hard to pull off). At the end is a twelve-question questionnaire that, though so short, is apparently quite accurate in evaluating people.

In full disclosure, here are my scores:

1. Extraversion – low-medium
2. Neuroticism – low-medium
3. Conscientiousness – high
4. Agreeableness – low (for a woman; if I were a man I’d be low-medium)
5. Openness to Experience – high

The first two categories are particularly useful for someone thinking about happiness: people with high Extraversion scores have very strong positive reactions (they consistently report more joy, desire, excitement, enthusiasm), and people with high Neuroticism scores have very strong negative reactions (fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust, sadness—very often directed at the self).

Learning about the five-factor framework did, indeed, boost my sense of understanding myself and others — which, I hope, will make me more charitable.

I was telling some friends about Nettle’s book, and I mentioned that I scored “low” on Agreeableness. “Surely not!” they cried. “You’re very Agreeable!”

But I wasn’t surprised by my result. I suspect that my friends, as evidenced from their loyal reaction, are more Agreeable.

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I just tried a new way of linking to Amazon. It looks to me as though it’s not working. I would appreciate it very much if a reader or two would let me know if the link to Nettle’s book took them to the right place, or just to the Amazon home page.

In other blog-improvement news, I emailed Typepad tech support to ask about the formatting problem that has been dogging me, and they’ve made a configuration change for feeds. It may take a while, but allegedly the problem will be fixed. Thanks so much for everyone’s suggestions and feedback. And patience.

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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.

I'm just about finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you’d like to hear when the book goes on sale, sign up here.

This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Horace.

Horace“Dare to be wise! Begin now. The man who puts off the day when he will live rightly is like the peasant who waits for the river to drain away. But it flows on, and will flow on for ever.” –Horace

Good advice. Start YOUR happiness project today.

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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.

A happiness challenge: the boomerang errand — when you think you’ve rid yourself of some task, but then it flies right back to you.

BoomerangI am awaiting an answer from Typepad tech support. I am carefully drafting this post to omit any symbols other than periods and commas.

As I feared, when I fixed the formatting problems some people saw in the posts, I wreaked havoc on other people’s versions. So now I must find a solution anew.

Thus, I am facing a good example of a boomerang errand, which I find to be a major, recurring challenge to maintaining a cheerful mood, day to day.

A boomerang errand is one where, just when you have successfully got rid of some task, it drops right back into your lap.

You buy light-bulbs, but you buy the wrong size. Back to the hardware store. You call the air-conditioner repair people, but then you have to call the electrician. Another appointment to keep.

I thought I had hit on a solution to my problem, but it turns out that to solve one problem is to create a new problem.

The secret to dealing with the boomerang errand is to stay calm. Studies show that the notion of catharsis, or relieving bad feelings by expressing them, is not accurate. Acting angry just makes you feel angrier, acting frustrated just makes you feel more frustrated.

So I consider my formatting problem with a serene and mild mien. Eventually, this will get worked out.

Maybe I will write my posts with nary a curly quote or dash. Hmmm. Do apostrophes also format in a bizarre way, or do they keep their shape? What about ellipses? Le’t m’e k’now…

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I recently came across two interesting happiness-related sites that are definitely worth a look: In the Know and The Happiness Notebook. This weekend I plan to spend some time cruising around on both.

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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 finally accept someone’s offer for help. Two months late.

HelpinghandKeeping a blog makes me very happy, for many reasons. One reason is that it’s a source of challenge and novelty, which, studies demonstrate, are critical to happiness.

Unfortuantely, along with challenge and novelty come frustration and feeling stupid.

A very kind reader—I’ll call her CB—emailed me to say that when she read my blog in her RSS feed, symbols like “curly quotes” showed up as ???. To help me, she thoughtfully included instructions on two separate ways to fix this problem.

I was so overwhelmed by trying to fix this glitch that I just…did nothing. I didn’t try to fix the problem. I didn’t respond to her email. I just left her message in my in-box, where I’d read it from time to time, and feel guilty and defeated. I didn’t even write her back! Which was so, so rude. This was in early AUGUST!

Yesterday, another reader wrote about the same problem. Okay, I decided, now I really need to get a grip on this.

I went back to CB’s email and tried to see if I could follow her directions. There was something I didn’t understand, about using Wordpad. Remembering one of my Secrets of Adulthood, I told myself, “It’s okay to ask for help.”

So I wrote CB back, apologized for my rudeness, and asked for more help. She answered, just as nice as before. I followed her directions.

So, here goes. If you’re reading this in an RSS feed, does the post look better? Does it look worse? Have I fixed anything?

I hope that CB’s good deed makes HER feel happy – that’s the “Do good, feel good” principle.

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I’m finding Gimundo dangerously addictive — I started reading this post about the importance of scent to happiness, and then clicked from one story to the next for about half an hour. And I’m supposed to be fixing my formatting problem!

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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: Seven tips on how simultaneously to boost your happiness and safeguard the environment.

GlobeEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven tips on how simultaneously to boost your happiness and safeguard the environment (in your own small way).

Monday was Blog Action Day, and bloggers across blogland posted about environmental issues. In honor of the occasion, I posted this week’s tip early. Here they are in their proper time slot — tips for the pursuit of happiness with a green twist:

1. Walk a mile instead of driving. Walking means you’re not adding gas fumes and rubber particles to the air, and at the same time, studies show, even a ten-minute walk lifts your mood and gives you a burst of energy.

2. Skip the bottled water. Fact is, there is no evidence that you need to drink eight glasses of water a day—this is a myth, folks! And you CERTAINLY don’t need a fresh plastic bottle each time you want some water!

3. Pause before you buy anything. Do you really need that gadget or gizmo? One study suggests that the average household could cut back on 40% of housework by cutting back on clutter, which almost certainly would boost your happiness considerably. And by not buying, you save resources that would be spend in production, transportation, and disposal.

4. Buy a gas-efficient car. Because of the hedonic treadmill, you quickly adapt to changed circumstances. Although you may fall in love with a gas-hog in the showroom, once you’ve had the car for a while, you’ll take it for granted—but stopping for gas is annoying every time.

5. Carpool. Unfortunately, a bad commute is something to which people never adjust; it’s a pain every single day. Studies show that we enjoy activities more when we do them with other people, so carpooling is better for your happiness as well as for the environment.

6. Pick up other people’s litter. Do good, feel good is a happiness truism that really is true. Act like a considerate citizen of the world, and you’ll boost your self-esteem.

7. Work in your garden. Research suggests that working with soil may boost mood by strengthening your immune system and flooding your brain with serotonin.

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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.