This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Robertson Davies.


Sentimentality is a flaw in a work of art, certainly, but the word is often thrown at great and overpowering works of art that embarrass critics who live, emotionally, in St. Ogg’s, though intellectually they have journeyed south as far as Cambridge. The ending of The Mill on the Floss moves me to tears, though I am not an easy weeper. It is not the immediate pathos of the death of Maggie and Tom that thus affects me: it is rather that a genuine completion of human involvement has been attained, but attained only through Death. A happiness beyond mere delight has been experienced – a happiness as blasting and destroying as an encounter with the gods.

To my mind, this is anything but sentimental. People who prate of sentimentality are very often people who hate being made to feel, and who hate anything that cannot be intellectually manipulated. But the purgation through pity and terror which is said to be the effect of tragedy is not the only kind of purgation that art can bring. The tempest in the heart that great novels can evoke is rarely tragic in the strict sense, but it is an arousal of feelings of wonder at the strangeness of life, and desolation at the implacability of life, and dread of the capriciousness of life which for a few minutes overwhelms all our calculations and certainties and leaves us naked in a turmoil from which cleverness cannot save us. Sentimentality is sometimes used by critics as a term to rebuke artists who seeks to sound this terrifying note; if the artist fails, he is probably merely sentimental, but if he succeeds, the critic would be wise to slink back into his kennel and whimper till the storm passes.

–Robertson Davies

I’ve re-read this quotation hundreds of times, particularly when I was writing about Winston Churchill in Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Churchill was often accused of being sentimental, and this passage helped me understand why I didn’t think he was sentimental.

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It’s Friday: time to think about YOUR Happiness Project. This week: Set a target.

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 now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One thing I’ve really noticed as I’ve done my Happiness Project is that when I want to make a change, it really helps to set a target.

We all have a lot of vague resolutions rattling around in our brains – “I want to make some new friends/exercise more/spend more time reading/keep the house tidier/stop nagging” – but the trick is to figure out how to KEEP those resolutions.

Setting a target helps in several ways:
 Targets make a vague goal concrete
 Targets provide accountability – it’s easy to judge whether you hit your goal, or not
 Reviewing your target keeps your resolution fresh and vivid in your mind

Any resolution can be translated into a target.

For example, targets for “eat healthier” could be: eat one meal a day made up only of fruits and vegetables; eat three kinds of vegetables a day; at the grocery store, for every package of crackers/cookies/chips, buy a bag of fruits or vegetables.

Targets for keeping the house tidier could be: before bed, spend 10 minutes tidying up; hang up my coat every time I walk in the apartment; make my bed every morning. The first goal in the delightful Flylady’s system is to “Shine your sink” EVERY day.

It’s true that targets are easier to set when the goals involve very concrete actions. Targets can be harder to devise for goals relating to attitude and behavior – being more polite, staying calm, practicing loving-kindness. But it can be done.

I had a lot of success with my target to make three friends in every new situation. Setting a target for friendship could seem forced and inauthentic, but in fact, it has helped me act friendlier and, yes, make more friends.

In fact, one of the most useful aspects of setting a target is that it forces you to imagine how you’ll translate your desire for high-minded change into action in the real world.

I asked some friends if they’d ever set a target for themselves.

One friend set the target of remaining Blackberry-free between 7:00-9:00, so that he wouldn’t be distracted while he was with his kids.

Another friend has a sister going through a rough period, so she set a target of calling or emailing her sister once each day.

Another friend has a tendency to over-spend, so she doesn’t allow herself to use a credit card for anything that costs less than $300. That way, she cut down on the “minor” purchases that were adding up to a major expenditure by the end of each month.

If you’re vowing to make a change in your life, figure out a way to set a target for yourself – a concrete, measurable, and manageable target. It’s surprisingly effective.

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Via Gimundo, I found a story that will make a lot of people (mostly men) very happy: scientists may have discovered the genetic cause of balding — which may then make it possible to stop the balding process.
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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.

Am I really so shallow?

I think about happiness all day long, and it really makes me sad to realize how much my happiness is affected by seeing a two-pound swing in my weight. Zoikes. Don’t I know better?

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Bootstrapper has a great list of 100 tiny tips to improve your mood. Just reading a list like that improves my mood, even before I try any of the tips — I love tip lists.

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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: 17 tips for conquering stage fright.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 17 tips for conquering stage fright

One of the most common fears is stage fright. I was so nervous before giving my school report on coral in fifth grade that I remember it vividly, to this day.

I still get nervous before speaking in public, but not nearly as much. I’ve made a list of tips that have helped me get more comfortable with the process.

Unfortunately, the most effective tip is the one that people with stage fright will least to want to follow: do more public speaking! It truly does get easier with practice.

One interesting thing I’ve noticed is that people feel stage fright in different situations. One friend of mine feels perfectly comfortable speaking to 500 people, but dreads speaking to twenty. I love speaking to twenty, but the bigger the group, the more intimidated I feel. One friend of mine quails at the thought of TV, another friend thinks that TV is much easier than talking to a live audience.

Here are seventeen tips for overcoming stagefright (and I needed every one of them):

Preparation
Prepare. I don’t write out a talk word-for-word, but I use a lot of notes, and I practice it word for word, many times. That works for me. Some people do better with a more ad-lib approach. But either way, the more prepared you feel, the more relaxed you’ll feel.

Mental practice. It sounds odd, but mentally rehearsing and imagining yourelf giving a relaxed, accomplished performance really does help prepare you. In order to make that mental rehearsal as close to the real situation as possible…

Try to visit the scene. Checking out the room where you’ll be presenting will make you feel far more comfortable. Pay special attention to amplification devices: will you be wired up? use a stationary mike attached to a podium? Hold a wireless mike?

Earlier that day:
Don’t do anything unusual. Don’t take a nap if you don’t usually take a nap. Don’t skip a meal; because of nerves, you might not feel hungry, but you need the energy. Don’t get a facial—I remember a friend of mine got a facial the day of her wedding, because she thought it would give her a lovely glow. Instead, it make her skin red and blotchy.

Exercise. Exercise helps make you feel relaxed, energized, and focused. It’s a good outlet for feelings of stress and jitteriness. Also, if you’re really nervous, you probably won’t be able to concentrate on anything very well, so exercise is a good way to occupy your waiting time.

Check your notes and equipment — make sure you’ve brought every page of the right set! I number each page of my notes and check to make sure they’re all there. I once went to see a friend moderate a panel. She took out her notes and said, “Oh dear, I picked up the wrong set of papers.” She was able to wing it beautifully, but I NEED my notes. Along the same lines, if you’re doing any A/V fanciness, make sure you have what you need so that it works properly!

What to wear:
— You’ll probably perspire much more than usual, so dress appropriately.

– If you don’t know about the sound system, or if you know you’ll be wearing a mike, be sure to wear a jacket or shirt or something on to which a mike can be clipped. A turtleneck sweater won’t work well.

– For women: wear low heels or flats. One symptom is stage fright is wobbly knees, and wearing high heels amplifies that feeling to the point that I feel like I’m going to topple right over.

Just before:
Act the way you want to feel. This is my Third Commandment, and it really works. ACT deliberately calm, lighthearted, and enthusiastic. This will help make you feel this way. In particular…

Focus on raising your energy level. It’s more interesting to listen to a person with more energy, and yet many of us lower our energy level when we’re nervous. So make an effort to pump yourself up.

Lower your shoulders and your eyebrows. When you’re feeling stressed, these tend to rise, which makes you look and feel tense.

Take deep breaths.

Stretch your arms above your head and swing them around. This will help you feel loose and relaxed.

Delivery
Take your time at the beginning. My tendency is to rush through the preliminaries to get started. I’ve found, though, that I feel and seem more relaxed when I take a moment to get settled. As an audience member, it never bothers me when a speaker adjusts the mike, organizes papers, takes a drink of water, or whatever. Again, act the way you want to feel: relaxed.

– If you’re standing, remember to keep your weight balanced on both feet. Otherwise, it’s easy to start rocking from one foot to another, which is very distracting both for you and the audience.

– If you’re sitting, don’t lean back in your chair. This drains your energy and immobilizes you. Sit near the edge of the chair (but not so near that you might teeter off). If you cross your legs, cross them so that the knee farther from the audience is on top. This orients your body toward the audience.

Remember, even if you screw up, it’s not a catastrophe. As I learned when writing Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, early in his career, Winston Churchill was humiliated when he blanked out during a speech, and from that point on, he wrote his speeches out word for word, right down to notes to himself like “Pause; grope for word” “Stammer; correct self” that were meant to give the impression that he was extemporizing. And he managed to have a pretty decent career, nevertheless.

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Leo Babatua of the fabulous blog Zen Habits has done an e-book featuring his most invaluable insights. Check it out, The Zen Habits Handbook for Life.

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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 learn the meaning of the terms “extraversion” and “neuroticism.” They’re handy concepts.


Two psychological terms that get thrown around a lot are “extroversion” and “neuroticism.” For a while, I’d suspected that I didn’t quite understand exactly what they meant.

Daniel Nettle’s short, fascinating book, Personality, made it clear – and both terms are both extremely useful concepts in thinking about happiness.

As I’ve posted about before, Nettle’s book sets forth the “Big Five” model of personality. This five-dimension framework has emerged in recent years as the most comprehensive and dependable of the various personality models out there.

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

In this framework, the opposite of “extraversion” isn’t “introversion,” it’s “neuroticism.” So what does it mean, exactly, to be extroverted or neurotic?

I’d always thought “extraversion” was basically “friendliness,” but according to this scheme, high Extraversion scores means that people have very strong positive reactions, so that they consistently report more joy, desire, excitement, and enthusiasm. “Friendliness” is actually closer to “agreeableness.”

And although I’d often thrown around the word “neurotic,” in the Woody Allen sense, I hadn’t quite known what it meant. Turns out that people with high Neuroticism scores have very strong negative reactions—fear, anxiety, shame, guilt, disgust, sadness, very often directed at themselves.

These two concepts gave me a lot more clarity in thinking about human behavior.

They account for the fact that some people just take things harder – things are more infuriating, or scarier, or more anxiety-provoking. Other people find things funnier, more fun, more interesting.

The Extrovert laughs at hearing a woman talking loudly into her cell phone on the bus, while the Neurotic complains about it for days.

Learning these two terms was fascinating, and explained a lot about human nature, and it also had a very beneficial affect on me: I’ve become more patient with people who, I suspect, score high on “Neuroticism.”

Instead of feeling impatient with — what sometimes seems to me to be — unduly high levels of anxiety, irritation, or general negativity, I remember that this is an aspect of their personality. I don’t think that salmonella or black mold poses much of a threat in my life, but now I understand why my friend is more anxious about it.

Also, this framework reminds me that although it often seems to me that a certain situation automoatically evokes a certain response, that’s not true.

As a “low-medium” scorer on both extraversion and neuroticism, I can often choose whether to tap into my extraverted or neurotic side.

When my two-year-old daughter proudly shows me how she pulled an entire roll of toilet paper off the roll, I can choose to laugh at the ridiculous sight, or I can react with exasperation. I constantly try to remind myself that although it’s harder, it’s nicer for everyone, if I can choose to laugh.

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Today on the terrific LifeRemix network, I posted a list of the ten tips I used to transform myself from a couch potato to a gym enthusiast (well, if not always an enthusiast, at least a regular). If you’re trying to stick to an exercise regimen, check it out.

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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.