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

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What it means to “Spend out” (Commandment #7) and why it’s a good idea to spend out.

ScoreboardProbably the most idiosyncratic and cryptic of “My Twelve Commandments” (see left column) is “Spend out.” What does it mean?

Spend out encompasses several resolutions.

I have a miserly nature; by spending out, I mean to stop hoarding, to trust in abundance. I find myself saving things, even when it makes no sense. Not long ago, my last pair of jeans started falling to pieces. I made myself go shopping, bought two pairs — and yet, I’ve still only worn one of the pairs. Why am I saving the others? Not wearing clothes is just as wasteful as throwing good clothes away.

I also need to spend out by letting things go. I re-use razor blades too many times, I keep my toothbrushes for too long. There is a preppy wabi-sabi to soft, faded khakis and frayed cotton shirts, but it’s not nice to be surrounded by things that are worn out, or stained, or used up.

Spend out applies to creativity as well as to possessions. I find myself thinking, “I should save that story…” or “I don’t want to use all my best examples now…” But pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out by the teaspoon.

The most important meaning of “Spend out,” however, is that I shouldn’t be a score-keeper, I shouldn’t stint on love and generosity. As St. Thérèse of Lisieux wrote, “When one love, one does not calculate.”

I have a bad habit of keeping a running tally of who’s done what.

“I gave the Little Girl a bath last night, so you…”

“I let you take a nap, so you…”

“I had to make the plane reservations, so you…”

NO! Spend out.

The vital notion behind spend out is that by spending, I create more gain.

I was intrigued by Arthur C. Brooks’s article in the November Portfolio magazine, Giving Makes You Rich, which presents analysis showing that people who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity.

I was astounded by this quite literal proof that “Spend out” does work.

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Somehow I missed this great post, A Zagat-Style Approach to Your Career, from the Shifting Careers blog when it ran last week. Ah, the joys of the RSS, so easy to catch up!

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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 Wednesday: Seven topics to avoid if you don’t want to risk being a bore.

WaterdropEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Seven topics to avoid if you don’t want to risk being a bore.

I hesitate to disagree with the immortal La Rochefoucauld, but I think he was wrong when he wrote, “We are always bored by those whom we bore.”

Not always (though I often remind myself of this observation when I’m feeling bored by someone else). I think that sometimes we find a topic so interesting that it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that it might not be interesting to someone else. And most of us want to make a good impression and avoid boring other people.

Unless you get a truly enthusiastic response from your interlocutor—which is possible—be very wary of recounting…

1. A dream.
2. The recent changes in your child’s nap schedule.
3. The route you took to get here.
4. An excellent meal you once had at a restaurant.
5. The latest additions to your wine cellar.
6. An account your last golf game.
7. The plot of a movie, play, or movie—in particular, the funny parts.

What do these subjects have in common? The listener has nothing to add. He or she must just hear you describe your experience.

Now, it’s not as if these subjects could never be interesting to someone. A great story-teller, of course, can make anything interesting.

And if a person has a child the same age as yours, or is a fellow oenophile, or is truly very curious about the latest addition to Philip Roth’s oeuvre, you might have a happy conversational partner.

Be on guard, though, for glazed expressions, noncommittal grunts, or darting eyes.

And here’s a point that I constantly prod myself to remember, because I love to tell a good, long, self-interested story as much as anyone: if you’re having a conversation with someone, and it’s interrupted, and that person shows no interest in picking up the thread of the dropped conversation, let it go.

“Oh, just to finish what I was saying, then we switched from I-95 to the Hutch, and then we took the next exit, which was wrong, so then we turned around and…”

Of course, the seven topics listed above are just examples. I’m sure I’m missing some topics on which it’s easy to be boring. Any spring to mind? Help your fellow readers to stay the life of the party

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If you want to get in the mood for Halloween, check out Extreme Pumpkins. I had never seen the site until someone gave me a copy of the book, Extreme Pumpkins, but then I had to see what was posted. This ain’t Martha Stewart’s vision of pumpkin-carving, but it’s pretty funny. Living in a NYC apartment means that I can’t really follow up on ideas involving power tools or highway flares, alas…

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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.

I’ve made an important new resolution: no more complaining about how tired I feel.

PillowsI’ve decided to nip a new bad habit in the bud.

For the last few weeks, I’ve been complaining constantly. “I’m exhausted,” “I feel so drained,” “I don’t have the energy to go to the park/organize a family playdate/run that errand.”

I’m sticking to my exercise routine. I’m going to sleep at a reasonable hour. I’m not sick. I’ve been trying the various tips I know about how to get a quick energy boost. I think that, from time to time, I just feel worn out. Then I feel better. This has happened before.

But I’m not giving myself a boost (or anyone else, certainly) by constantly repeating that I’m tired.

One of the critical pieces of information I’ve learned from the Happiness Project is that I should act the way I want to feel. If I want to feel more energetic, I need to act more energetic: pace when I talk on the phone, walk more quickly, put more energy into my voice.

This sounds like magical thinking, but hard science show that the “Fake it ‘till you feel it” strategy really works.

The least productive approach is to do what I’ve been doing – dwelling on my feelings of tiredness.

Of course, if this tiredness persists, I’ll go to the doctor. But I think it’s just a periodic bout of lethargy.

And with that last comment, I vow, I’ll stop talking about how tired I feel. As Samuel Johnson observed, “To hear complaints is wearisome alike to the wretched and the happy.”

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For a long time, I’ve been fascinated by Chris Anderson’s theory of the Long Tail, put forth in his book, The Long Tail. I visit his blog The Long Tail to hear what new insights he has.

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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.

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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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 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.