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

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Do you ever suffer an uncontrollable urge to criticize someone?

GossipI’ve been having some unkind thoughts lately. A few people have crossed my path who have inspired me with a terrific desire to gossip about them, to talk about their faults.

So far, I’ve resisted, but I can feel my resolve crumbling.

It’s not nice to talk trash about other people – even to say accurate things. These aren’t situations where discussing their faults could lead to any kind of improvement. It would just be satisfying for me.

Now, if I had the greatness of soul to emulate St. Thérèse of Lisieux, I would try hard to feel love for these folks. One of my favorite St. Thérèse stories is that in the convent, Thérèse disliked intensely one of her fellow nuns, confusingly named Teresa of Saint Augustine. In her spiritual memoir, Story of a Soul, Thérèse described this fellow nun as “a Sister who has the faculty of displeasing me in everything, in her ways, her words, her character.” But instead of avoiding her, Thérèse sought out this nun at every turn and treated her “as if I loved her best of all” – so successfully that the sister once smugly asked Thérèse, “Would you tell me…what attracts you so much toward me; every time you look at me, I see your smile?” After Thérèse’s death, the disagreeable nun said with great complacency, “At least I can say this much for myself: during her life I made [Thérèse] really happy.”

Teresa of Saint Augustine never suspected that she was the disagreeable sister described in Story of a Soul until thirty years later, when the chaplain, in a fit of exasperation, told her the truth.

But I’m not around these people often enough to be dear friends with them, even if I could muster up the love.

But I will not to gossip about them! My lips are sealed! I’m not going to say a word!

If I can’t feel the love, I can change the subject.

One concrete cause of unhappiness is rumination. Studies show that by dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes, you amplify their power in your mind. So after I write this post, I won’t allow myself to think about these annoyances anymore.

I wrote this post but delayed posting it, so if you happen to know me, and you saw me recently, and you worry that you’re one of the people described, don’t worry, you’re not. Anyway, it wouldn’t occur to these people that anyone might find them annoying – which is part of what makes them annoying.

Look! I did it! I said something critical, right there. It just slipped out. Zoikes, I’ve got to change the subject NOW.

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I’m a big fan of the blog Get Rich Slowly, which I got to know through LifeRemix. It’s about being frugal, which might not strike everyone as a fun endeavor, but this site really makes it seem a) possible and b) interesting to spend money more wisely.

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This Wednesday: Five tips for creating your OWN set of happiness commandments.

TencommandmentsEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for creating your own set of happiness commandments.

Yesterday, I posted examples of happiness commandments from several people to inspire folks to get started on their OWN happiness projects. Today’s tips are about how to construct your own set of happiness commandments. To get you thinking, here are my Twelve Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I would feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So how do you think about coming up with your own list?

First:
When I look at my Twelve Commandments, I realize that five of them are actually quotations from other people.

My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.”

A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.”

A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person.

“No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese, and “Act as I would feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

So pay attention. What words repeat themselves in your ear? What was the offhand comment that you’ve found unforgettable? “No deposit, no return” is nothing more than a sign on a soda machine, but if it’s a memorable and powerful phrase for you, go with it.

Second:
When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life – how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

Some people’s commandments can be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

This might be true for you.

Third
Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive. I’ve found that my commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. I suspect that Twelve Commandments is too much. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

Fourth
Each person’s list will differ. A reader commented yesterday that “Say yes” would be a terrible addition to his commandments, because he tends to over-commit. For another person, “Say yes” might be at the top of the list. You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Fifth
Take your time. It took me months to come up with my Twelve. This takes some reflection.

If you come up with your own set, please consider posting them. I’m sure it would be very valuable for me and other readers to be able to see them. Seeing other people’s commandments helps clarify what your own commandments need to be.

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In a typical episode of Internet maze exploration, I went from Communicatrix’s newsletter to Chris Glass to this very intriguing Periodic Table of Visualization Methods. I love any comprehensive, imaginative arrangement of information.

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Begin YOUR happiness project! Need help getting started? Write a list of happiness commandments for yourself.

TencommandmentsA few weeks ago, I posted about my epiphany that EVERYONE should have a happiness project. Join in! Start your own!

I need to figure out some systematic way to address this topic, but until I do, I think I’ll just throw out some provocative suggestions to get people thinking.

One of the most difficult — and most helpful and fun — challenges I undertook in my happiness project was coming up with my list of Twelve Commandments. I should do a series of posts explaining the significance of each one, because a few are a bit cryptic, but for me, they are all extraordinarily meaningful:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I would feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

So, for your happiness project, come up with your own set of commandments.

A reader wrote that she was trying to come up with her own set, but it kept turning into a to-do list. I had the same problem. Remember, this isn’t a place for things like “Put your keys away in the same place every night.” But maybe that resolution fits into a larger self-command you’d like to observe.

For inspiration, here are some examples.

The first is from Howell Raines’ Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis.

Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.

Here are two sets emailed to me from readers (who want to be anonymous):

1. Say yes.
2. Don’t keep score.
3. No fear.
4. Give without limits or expectations.
5. Take it in.
6. Expect a miracle.
7. Play the hand I’m dealt.
8. Recognize my ghosts.
9. Be specific about my needs.
10. React to the situation.
11. Keep proportion.

1. Overcome obstacles—you cannot overcome every obstacle but you can overcome more obstacles than you think, if you just persevere
2. Spend more—life is short, you have a tendency to hoard things (money, time), and you cannot take them with you when you go, so spend them while you can
3. Do what matters—resist the temptation to do something easy but forgettable or meaningless and instead do things that matter, even if they are more difficult; make memories
4. Pay attention—deadlines, politics, relationships, names, birthdays, what people are most proud of, their favorite things/activities, and especially their life dreams
5. Stay calm—unless you are seeking thrills and excitement (e.g. skydiving), stress kills and soothing attracts; you and your relationships will live longer if you stay calm
6. Empathize—put yourself in the other person’s shoes; resist the temptations to: argue, criticize, or complain, focus on yourself and not others, forget people’s names, deny your mistakes, boast of your successes and other’s failures, fail to reward those who do good by you
7. Get outside—almost everything feels better with sunlight on your skin
8. Get physical—being physical, whether in athletics or relationships, is a supreme source of joy
9. Do it now—life is short; procrastination will ruin the little life you have; fear it accordingly
10. Take care of yourself—if you value something, take care of it, and other people will notice
11. Believe you are the prize—confidence is a self-fulfilling prophecy, neediness is unattractive, and pride is not a sin
12. Be classy
13. Experiment—get out of the rut; boredom will kill you and your relationships
14. Feel the danger—many dangers (saturated fat, drunk driving) don’t feel dangerous until it is too late
15. Don’t pick—often one must leave well enough alone: acne, wounds, other people’s flaws and mistakes, topics of conversations that other people don’t want to talk about, these are things that should be left alone—despite the most burning desire you have to reopen them; let people cool down and things might heal themselves

One thing that interests me is how distinct these lists are. The commandments give a powerful sense of each writer’s character and of the kinds of challenges he or she faces.

Tomorrow, I’m going to post some tips on creating your own set of happiness commandments.

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There’s an interesting post on LifeRemix today, 20 Simple Ways to Become a Bookworm. There’s a lot of great information there, resources that I didn’t know about, and I’m a real book addict. As for reading more, the most important things is — remember, it’s supposed to be FUN! I just found a new great book on St. Therese, and I’m amazed at how quickly I’m making my way through it.

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A new and perhaps slightly grim way to mark a wedding anniversary: “Unthinkable Day.”

LastwillRecently the Big Man and I had to make changes to our wills, and zoikes, there’s nothing like seeing the words “LAST WILL AND TESTAMENT” in that lawyerly, old-fashioned typewriter-style Courier font, to act as a memento mori.

Tomorrow is our wedding anniversary, and although it’s an unconventional way to celebrate, a great tradition would be to use our anniversary as a prompt to do an annual review of our situation, should the worst befall. Are our wills up-to-date? Do the Big Man and I have access to the financial information that the other person routinely handles? Etc. (For example, I know offhand that the Big Man has no idea where I keep the tax information or the kids’ birth certificates. I should probably mention that to him.)

I read this idea in Lynn Caine’s memoir Widow, about her experiences after her husband died when she was in her forties. She was left with two children, 9 and 5, and no idea how to handle the situation.

Every couple would have different concerns, but questions could include pensions, insurance, debts, guardianship of children, what the plan might be if income level or childcare arrangements had to change dramatically.

For the Happiness Project, I’ve read lots of accounts of cancer, sudden death, and other catastrophes. One common theme is how horrible and difficult it is to deal with cold logistics at a time of shock and grief. Being organized and knowledgeable would a comfort.

Repeating this review once a year, in the normal course, would keep it from seeming morbid – instead, it would be an ordinary expression of family responsibility. Also, because no one enjoys this kind of exercise, it would help to have an anniversary as a reminder that it needed to be done. Otherwise, it’s one of those tasks that’s always on the to-do list, but never tackled.

Lynn Caine calls it “Contingency Day.” Or maybe Unthinkable Day, or Be-Prepared Day, or Hourglass Day…

Although it seems like a supremely unromantic activity, looking at our wills made me feel overwhelmed with love for the Big Man. I was so grateful for the fact that he was alive and healthy. I imagine that Unthinkable Day would do this every anniversary.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Richard Brautigan.

BrautiganTuesday will be my wedding anniversary, so in honor of that day, I decided to post one of the readings we had at our wedding ceremony. It’s actually an entire short story, called “I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone,” by Richard Brautigan, from a wonderful collection of his very short stories, Revenge of the Lawn.

I have to say, if you’re looking for a selection to use during a wedding ceremony, I like this little story as much as any love poem, Shakespeare sonnet, Bible passage, or reading from Khalil Gibran that I’ve ever heard. (I do happen to have red hair, as in the story, but I don’t think that’s necessary.)

A friend who’d been a groomsman asked his sister, an artist, to make a piece of work incorporating the story to give us as a wedding gift. It’s one of our very favorite possessions and hangs where we see it all the time, so “I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone” makes the Big Man and me happy every day.

I Was Trying to Describe You to Someone

I was trying to describe you to someone a few days ago. You don’t look like any girl I’ve ever seen before.

I couldn’t say “Well she looks just like Jane Fonda, except that she’s got red hair, and her mouth is different and of course, she’s not a movie star…”

I couldn’t say that because you don’t look like Jane Fonda at all.

I finally ended up describing you as a movie I saw when I was a child in Tacoma Washington. I guess I saw it in 1941 or 42, somewhere in there. I think I was seven, or eight, or six.

It was a movie about rural electrification, a perfect 1930′s New Deal morality kind of movie to show kids. The movie was about farmers living in the country without electricity. They had to use lanterns to see by at night, for sewing and reading, and they didn’t have any appliances like toasters or washing machines, and they couldn’t listen to the radio. They built a dam with big electric generators and they put poles across the countryside and strung wire over fields and pastures.

There was an incredible heroic dimension that came from the simple putting up of poles for the wires to travel along. They looked ancient and modern at the same time.

Then the movie showed electricity like a young Greek god, coming to the farmer to take away forever the dark ways of his life. Suddenly, religiously, with the throwing of a switch, the farmer had electric lights to see by when he milked his cows in the early black winter mornings. The farmer’s family got to listen to the radio and have a toaster and lots of bright lights to sew dresses and read the newspaper by.

It was really a fantastic movie and excited me like listening to the Star Spangled Banner, or seeing photographs of President Roosevelt, or hearing him on the radio “… the President of the United States… “

I wanted electricity to go everywhere in the world. I wanted all the farmers in the world to be able to listen to President Roosevelt on the radio….

And that’s how you look to me.

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