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

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In which I discover that everyone has a leading role; no one has a supporting role. Or rather, we’re all in both roles all the time.

SpotlightYears ago, the Big Man and I fixed up a very close friend with another friend. They fell in love, it was great. But within a few years, he got sick. She stood by him through it all. Then he died. It was awful. And it was very, very hard on our friend.

It was a sad situation for many reasons. As the years passed, one thing continued to bother me: I felt we had put a beloved friend in the path to sorrow. It had been inadvertent, and well-intentioned, but still, we had brought all this pain into our good friend’s life.

I mentioned this to the Big Man last night. And he said something that completely changed my thinking. He said, “Yes, it was very hard on her. But think how much better it was for him.”

This thought, obvious as it is, had never occurred to me. I realized – how often I make this error. I was acting as though my friend were the main character of this story! That she was the one who really mattered. And I saw that I make this mistake all the time. I’m the MOST main character of course, and then the people close to me, and so on…with some people just appearing as extras or in walk-on roles.

But that’s not true. Everyone is a main character. And everyone is a minor character. And as I started thinking about this, I realized that many of my favorite happiness passages concerned exactly this shift: someone re-interpreting a situation, by understanding how different circumstance would seem if someone else were placed in the starring role.

I just can’t resist including them. Each has haunted me, but only now do I see what theme links them together.

Reading Flanner O’Connor’s letters led me to the book, A Memoir of Mary Ann, a memoir about a little girl, Mary Ann, who lived with a gruesome tumor on her face before dying of cancer, written by the nuns with whom she lived for several years in a free cancer-treatment home.

Near the end of Mary Ann’s life, a five-month-old baby, Stephanie, was brought to the cancer home. Stephanie’s parents were crushed at the thought of leaving their baby there.

The nuns relate that for years, Mary Ann had longed for a baby to take care of. When Stephanie arrived, she said shyly to the baby’s mother, “I didn’t pray for a baby to be sick, but I prayed that if a baby was sick, it would come here.”

Later, the mother wrote the nuns, “I had accepted the hurt [my child’s affliction] brought me, but I had not accepted the fact that I had to give her up. My husband was suffering too and my attitude…was not helping much. Mary Ann’s words opened my understanding. Stephanie was needed…this child with the bandaged face and a heart full of love needed her…God had given me a good husband, six beautiful children. This last child was probably the most special of them all, destined for something I knew nothing about.”

In Viktor Frankl’s masterpiece, Man’s Search for Meaning, he relates a story from his psychiatric practice, when an elderly man, distraught with grief over the death of his wife two years before, came to him.

Frankl asked, “What would have happened…if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?”

The man answered, “Oh, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!”

Frankl responded, “You see…such a suffering has been spared to her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering—to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.”

The man left the office, comforted. Frankl observed, “In some way, suffering ceases to be suffering at the moment it finds a meaning, such as the meaning of a sacrifice.”

Here’s an example from children’s literature. In Rick Riordan’s novel, The Sea of Monsters, the hero of the story, thirteen-year-old Percy Jackson (who happens to be the son of the sea god Poseidon and a mortal woman), has taken Tyson, a huge, awkward boy who seems to be learning disabled, with a misshapen face, under his wing. They go to high school together, but Percy isn’t exactly sure why he’s bothering to protect Tyson and drag him along on his Olympian adventures.

He keeps Tyson with him, though, and at the end of the book, Percy learns that Tyson is also a son of Poseidon, and he’s a Cyclops, which is why his face looks wrong.

Tyson says to Percy, “Poseidon did take care for me after all…I prayed to Daddy for help…He sent me a brother.”

Ah! we see. Percy thought that Tyson was tagging along with him, but in fact, he was a supporting character in Tyson’s adventure.

It’s a very unsettling and interesting exercise to think about the people in my life and to imagine myself in a minor, supporting role. How do I fit into their fates? Am I helping?

I love reading Dooce. I admire her writing tremendously. It’s not easy both to be funny about life with your forty-six-month-old and your husband and family. Not to mention, working blue.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from William Edward Hartpole Lecky.

Lecky“One of the great differences between childhood and manhood is that we come to like our work more than our play. It becomes to us if not the chief pleasure at least the chief interest of our lives, and even when it is not this, an essential condition of our happiness. Few lives produce so little happiness as those that are aimless and unoccupied. Apart from all considerations of right and wrong, one of the first conditions of a happy life is that it should be a full and busy one, directed to the attainment of aims outside ourselves….the first great rule is that we must do something – that life must have a purpose and an aim – that work should be not merely occasional and spasmodic, but steady and continuous. Pleasure is a jewel which will only retain its luster when it is in a setting of work, and a vacant life is one of the worst of pains, though the islands of leisure that stud a crowded, well-occupied life may be among the things to which we look back with the greatest delight.”
–William Edward Hartpole Lecky

This is the ATMOSPHERE OF GROWTH that is one of the four elements of the First Splendid Truth.

As always, when I stop by Seth Godin’s blog, I’m glad I did.

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. 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’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.