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

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Another important element of happiness: having a sense of CONTROL over your life.

DirtydishesResearch shows that a key component of happiness is a sense of control over your life. The more you perceive yourself to be in control, the better you feel.

A sense of control means having a feeling of autonomy, of choosing how you spend your time, of doing your own work in your own way.

This is obviously true about major issues, such as whether you can control when you leave work each night or whether you have any leisure time. Lately, though, I’ve noticed how much better I feel even in insignificant situations when I feel like I have some control.

Generally, if the Big Man makes dinner, I clean the kitchen; despite the obvious moral hazard inherent in this system, it works well. The other night, however, as we finished eating, I looked around and noticed that he’d somehow used every pot and chopping board we owned.

“Don’t worry about the kitchen,” the Big Man volunteered, before I said a word. “I’ll clean it up after my conference call.”

I went ahead and cleaned up the mess myself. By telling me that he’d take over the chore even though it was my responsibility, he put me in control. By offering to do the clean-up himself, he removed my sense of resentment, and he also made me feel like I was choosing to give him a treat.

Also, discomfort is easier to bear when you know that you can end it when you choose.

A few months ago, for our trip to India, I got my first prescription for sleep medication. I used to get very worked up when I had trouble sleeping, but now my bouts of insomnia bother me less. I almost never actually take the Ambien, but just knowing that it’s in the medicine cabinet makes me feel in control of my sleep.

So I’ve been looking for ways to make people, particularly the Big Man, feel that they have more control, especially in situations they find unpleasant. I’m trying to say things like…

“Do as much as you can, and I’ll finish up.”
“We’ll leave as soon as you want to leave.”
“Don’t worry about that, this time I’ll take care of it.”

Child-rearing experts advise giving children a sense of control by allowing them to make choices about the little things in their lives—though with kids, it’s better to limit the choices so they don’t feel overwhelmed.

“Would you like to wear your green shirt or your white shirt?”
“Do you feel like having milk or water with dinner?”
“Pick out a book for me to read to you.”

This blog is a great example of how having a sense of control changes perception of a task. If “someone” had assigned me the job of writing a blog entry six days a week, I would have considered it an enormous burden. But because I control the blog, and I can change my mind whenever I like, keeping up with the writing feels like a satisfying exercise of autonomy, rather than an onerous assignment.

I'm deep in the writing of my next book, Before and After, about making and breaking habits, and there's nothing more satisfying than reading the success stories of people who have changed a habit. If you have a Before-and-After story of a habit you changed, and you're willing to share it here on the blog, please contact me here. Once a week, I'll post a story. We can all learn from each other.

This Saturday: a quotation from Adam Smith.

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“Nothing is more graceful than habitual cheerfulness, which is always founded upon a peculiar relish for all the little pleasures which common occurrences afford. We readily sympathize with it: it inspires us with the same joy.” –Adam Smith.

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Several readers have been kind enough to write to let me know that my text appears underlined if they read it using Firefox or Safari. I’m working on it! Please don’t give up on reading; I’ll get it fixed asap.

Face it: you have no free time.

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The other day, I was waxing poetic to a friend about the joys of clearing out closets, and she sighed, “I know, my closets are a mess, and I’m dying to get them cleaned out. As soon as I have some free time, I’m going to get started.”

The fact is – she doesn’t have any free time.

I suffer from this illusion as much as anyone. I fantasize about the summer looming long and empty, with ample time for me to undertake all sorts of projects that I can’t do during “the year.” I think I’ll get a lot done at night after the girls go to bed. I imagine that as soon as I’m done with my book proposal/my manuscript/book publicity, I’ll have a glut of leisure.

But for a lot of people, including me, that kind of open time just isn’t going to present itself.

The fact that I have no “free time,” however, doesn’t mean that I can’t “free up some time.” I need to set priorities and make time for the things I want to do.

Only since the Happiness Project have I kicked the bad habit of putting off things I didn’t want to do, with the excuse that I’d do them when I had free time — priorities like weight-training, doctors’ appointments, starting a blog, organizing all my wonderful happiness quotations in a book.

These days, I often go to the extreme of making an entry in my calendar, like “research Disneyworld” or “clean out coat closet.” Otherwise, I never find the time.

I might have thought that making time for these “free time” priorities would make me feel overwhelmed by a crowded schedule. Actually, it makes me feel more relaxed, because I see that I can tackle the tasks that I know should be done. As the list shrinks a bit, I feel like my life is in better shape.

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There are so many aspects to happiness in my view: diet, exercise, relationships, romance, parenting, creativity, efficiency, spirituality, order, learning, work….the list goes on. When I poke around the internet, there is SO MUCH that interests me that sometimes I just turn away and pick up a book. Yesterday I was checking out the “self-improvement” zone, and came across Today is That Day and ended up spending a lot of time there.

Are you looking for a way to eliminate problems and annoyances?

ScissorsOne of my Twelve Commandments (see left column) is “Identify the problem.” I’ve realized that often I’ll put up with a minor problem or an irritation for years, simply because I haven’t taken a minute to consider the nature of the problem and how it might be solved.

This rule seems so obvious that I’m surprised that it has proved so tremendously helpful. Nevertheless, it has.

Here’s an embarrassing example. I was always slightly annoyed by my need to run around the apartment getting this or that—a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, some Advil. Finally, light dawned, and I realized that as an expression of my love of clearing clutter, I was an over-consolidator.

What’s an over-consolidator?

I’d consolidated all the tools in the toolbox, all the scissors in the office-supply drawer, all the medicine in the medicine cabinet. Not a good idea. Some items SHOULD be spread around.

I put a screwdriver, a pair of scissors, and a bottle of Advil in the kitchen. I scattered scissors throughout the apartment. Etc. How did I not figure this out earlier?

Here’s a solution to a trickier problem. I’d been feeling weighed down by all the adorable drawings the Big Girl brought home from school. I loved them, but I didn’t know what to do with them. They were everywhere.

Finally, I said to myself, “Take a minute. Identify the problem. What am I going to do with these drawings?” and I came up with a great plan.

I chose the twenty best drawings. The Big Girl and I sat at the computer, and she dictated an explanation of what was going on in the pictures (not always quite obvious). I printed out the captions, glued them on the drawings, took the drawings to Kinkos to be color-xeroxed and bound. Then I threw away the originals (an important clutter-clearing step).

The whole process took weeks, and the color-xeroxing was surprisingly expensive, but it was worth it; now the drawings are preserved forever, and I gave copies for the grandparents and great-grandparents, who loved the gift.

So whenever I feel fretful, I instruct myself, “Identify the problem.”
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Therese Borchard has a blog on beliefnet, Beyond Blue, where she writes about “the daily spiritual journey of life with depression and anxiety.” We come at the subject of happiness from different angles, but obviously, we’re both deeply interested in the question of how we and other people can be happier. Therese was nice enough to run an interview with me.

This Wednesday: Ten hilarious tips for writing from Mark Twain.

Twain2_2Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Tips for writing from Mark Twain.

Novelist James Fenimore Cooper is out of fashion now (unless he’s sprung back into fashion without my noticing, entirely possible), but his novels, like the The Deerslayer and The Last of the Mohicans, were highly praised in their time. Mark Twain disagreed with that praise.

You can’t get the full hilarious effect of Twain’s essay Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences unless you read the whole thing, but we can all learn from his rules for writing. Here are some of my favorites from his list.

Mark Twain divides his rules into large rules and little rules—all violated by James Fenimore Cooper:

Large rules:
1. A tale shall accomplish something and arrive somewhere.

2. The episodes of a tale shall be necessary parts of the tale, and shall help develop it.

3. The personages in a tale shall be alive, except in the case of corpses, and that always the reader shall be able to tell the corpses from the others.

4. The personages in a tale, both dead and alive, shall exhibit a sufficient excuse for being there.

5. When the personages of a tale deal in conversation, the talk shall sound like human talk, and be talk such as human beings would be likely to talk in the given circumstances, and have a discoverable meaning, also a discoverable purpose, and a show of relevancy, and remain in the neighborhood of the subject in hand, and be interesting to the reader, and help out the tale, and stop when the people cannot think of anything more to say.

6. The personages of a tale shall confine themselves to possibilities and let miracles alone; or, if they venture a miracle, the author must so plausibly set it forth as to make it look possible and reasonable.

Little rules:
7. An author should say what he is proposing to say, not merely come near it.

8. Use the right word, not its second cousin.

9. Eschew surplusage.

10. Not omit necessary details.

I’ve never read anything by James Fenimore Cooper, and having read this essay, I certainly never will, but I’ve read Fenimore Cooper’s Literary Offences countless times, and it makes me laugh out loud each time.

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I just discovered the aptly named blog, The Juggle, a Wall Street Journal blog about juggling work and family life. Sometimes it makes me feel more stressed to read about “the juggle,” but sometimes I find it soothing to be reminded that everyone is struggling with the same issues — and to get some tips about how to handle the juggle better.