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

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One easy key to happiness: get more sleep. That means turning off the light!

Night_windowLast night, I practically fell asleep in the Big Girl’s bed as I was tucking her in. A little later, the Big Man proposed watching a TiVO’d episode of The Shield.

I wavered. I love The Shield; I wanted to hang out with the Big Man; 9:30 p.m. seemed a ridiculously early hour to go to bed; and I knew from experience that if I started watching, I’d wake up.

On the other hand, I felt very sleepy.

Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up? Inertia, I guess. Plus the exhausting pre-bed work of taking out my contact lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face.

I decided to head to bed. Because I went to sleep at 9:30, I woke up at 5:00 a.m. I spent ninety peaceful minutes working while my family was still asleep, and had a lovely, productive start to my day.

Too often, though, I choose to stay up, and then pay for it the next morning.

According to one study, a bad night’s sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods (along with tight work deadlines). Another study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for your daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise.

I have a lot of tricks I use to help myself get to sleep. But sometimes the most important trick is to remember to get into bed and TURN OFF the light.

At the same time, I did violate my happiness-project rule that, if possible, the Big Man and I should get into bed at the same time. But I knew there was no chance he was going to bed at 9:30.

The great blog LifeTwo dedicated this week to the pursuit of happiness. There’s a treasure trove of information there – all about how to be happier. Be careful; once you start reading, it can be hard to stop. Topics include “From Happy to Happier,” “Hedonists and Rat Racers,” “Pleasure and Meaning,” and, one of my very favorite subjects, “The Importance of Goals.”

Considering doing your own happiness project? Join the Happiness Project group on Facebook to swap ideas, strategies, and experiences.

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How do you deal with feelings of competitiveness or mean-spiritedness? I tried applying one of my Twelve Commandments.

YearbiblicallyI finally realized that not only am I working on my own Happiness Project, I am also a crusader for EVERYONE to have a happiness project! Join in, do your own! Everyone’s project will look different, everyone’s project will be fascinating.

For instance, several months ago, I heard that A. J. Jacobs was working on a new book, The Year of Living Biblically. That sure sounded like he was doing a happiness project, albeit a quirky one.

I knew A. J. Jacobs was a fantastic writer, because I’d LOVED his last book, The Know-It-All. In fact, it made my list of “Books that Made Me Laugh Out Loud.” (So far, this list has stayed very short, please send any recommendations.)

My reaction to The Year of Living Biblically is a good example of how I put a happiness-project strategy to work.

This was the situation: I knew that A. J. Jacobs was working on his book. I knew he was a great writer. I knew it sounded like a happiness project.

As a result, I felt competitive, anxious, mean-spirited. I felt like he’d encroached on “my” territory. I wanted his book to be bad, so my book would seem better. It wasn’t a happy feeling.

Then I reminded myself of one of my Twelve Commandments (see left column): Act the way I want to feel. How did I want to feel? I wanted to feel magnanimous, generous, admiring. I wanted A. J. Jacobs to feel like an ally, not a competitor.

So, out of the blue, I sent him an email and told him how much I loved The Know-It-All. I mentioned that, like him, I lived in New York City and would love to get coffee if he wanted to.

Guess what?

He emailed me back – a very nice email. We met for coffee. We talked shop about writing books about self-experimentation. He gave me an advance copy of The Year of Living Biblically. He invited me to his book party.

Guess what? Now I do, in fact, feel magnanimous, generous, and admiring. I have a known friend instead of an imaginary enemy.

His book comes out on October 9, and I’m sure it will be a HUGE success, and I’m happy about that. His book is hilarious, it’s thoughtful, it’s provocative, it’s enlightening. He does a masterful job of combining goofy elements, like photos of his beard growing progressively wild, with transcendent subjects like the nature of spirituality and religious history.

His happiness project is very relevant to mine, even though our two approaches are quite different; this is probably true of every happiness project. We learn about ourselves by learning about other people.

But about that email — that’s one thing that never ceases to amaze me about my happiness project – it really DOES work. When I take the steps I know I should take, it does result in more happiness.

And what if A. J. Jacobs hadn’t answered me? It wouldn’t have mattered that much. Just having sent that email made me feel better. Because I’d acted in a friendly way, I felt friendly. And happier.

Considering doing your own happiness project? Join the Happiness Project group on Facebook to swap ideas, strategies, and experiences. For instance, maybe you want to write your own Commandments.

This Wednesday: Nine tips for giving yourself an energy boost in the next TEN MINUTES.

GaspumpEvery Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Nine tips for giving yourself an energy boost in the next TEN MINUTES.

It’s hard to feel happy when you’re dragging around. Simple tasks seem overwhelming, people seem annoying, and nothing seems fun.

Lots of good results flow from having plenty of energy. Life just seems more manageable. Also, studies show, you’re more likely to feel good about yourself, and, Bob Sutton points out in his terrific book, The No A*****le Rule, being considered an “energizer” makes you far more likely to win a positive work evaluation.

For long-term energy, it’s most important to A) get enough sleep and B) exercise regularly. But that doesn’t help you if you need some energy RIGHT NOW. If you’re desperate for an immediate boost, try these tips:

1. Go outside into the sunlight; light deprivation is one reason that people feel tired. Research suggests that light stimulates brain chemicals that improve mood. For an extra boost, get your sunlight first thing in the morning. And while you’re outside…

2. Go for a brisk walk. One study found that even a ten-minute walk was enough to supply a feeling of energy and decreased tension.

3. Act with energy. We think we ACT because of the way we FEEL, but often we FEEL because of the way we ACT. Trick yourself into feeling energetic by moving more quickly, pacing while you talk on the phone, and putting more energy into your voice. Also, research shows that when people move faster, their metabolism speeds up.

4. Listen to your favorite upbeat song. Hearing stimulating music gives an instant lift. I’m always surprised by the effectiveness of this strategy.

5. Talk to an energetic friend. Not only do we gain energy from interacting with other people, we also – in what’s called “emotional contagion” — “catch” their emotions. Instead of infecting others with your draggy mood, try to lift yourself by catching the energy of a boisterous friend.

6. Tackle an item on your to-do list. Unfinished tasks weigh us down. So if you feel bad about never having had a skin-cancer check, or not having completed an over-due report, or not having faced this month’s bills, force yourself to tackle one thing that’s nagging you. It’s tough, but you will feel a HUGE rush of energy when you cross it off your list.

7. Clean up. I’m not sure why tidying makes such a huge difference, but when I feel like I can’t face the day, I just tidy up my desk, and I perk right up.

8. Drink some COFFEE! Coffee gets a bad rap, but fact is, it really does boost alertness, energy, and ability to focus. (Plus it’s a great source of antioxidants and – surprise! – contains a high level of soluble dietary fiber.)

9. Note of caution: people often try to use food to boost their low energy, but these other strategies are more effective and more healthful.

“Exuberance is beauty,” William Blake wrote, and it’s surprising how much sheer energy level can affect the quality of the happiness of a day.

Do you know about Google Alerts? If you have a particular subject that interests you (like a sports team, or news topic, or even yourself!), you can set up a Google Alerts so that you’re notified when that term appears on the internet. It’s free, easy to use, and a very useful tool.

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.

Why Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, and the fundamental attribution error are relevant to happiness.

GildageneOne thing I do for the Happiness Project is to read memoirs of catastrophe – people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, etc.

Several months ago I read Gilda Radner’s interesting memoir, It’s Always Something, and yesterday I finished Gene Wilder’s equally interesting memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The two were married when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died, so reading the two memoirs gives a window into that experience from both perspectives.

One thing that made this story particularly striking to me is that I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder together, many years ago. It was in a drugstore somewhere in New York City, I can’t remember where. I do remember that Gilda Radner was carrying a little dog (named Sparkle, I know now after reading these memoirs).

A very peculiar aspect of fame is that fact that strangers remember the most fleeting encounters with you; it’s astonishing, really, that I remember seeing the two of them, for just a moment, so long ago.

One reason that I remember them was that I remarked on how serious they both seemed. They were speaking in low, intense voices and looked solemn. “Well, maybe they’re only funny and light-hearted when they’re acting,” I thought. “Maybe that’s how famous comedians are in person. Or maybe they’re trying to be inconspicuous, because they’re famous.”

In fact, this might have been the very day that Gilda Radner got a terrible report from her doctor. When I intersected with them would’ve been about the same time that she was sick. What for me was an ordinary day, with the fun of a celebrity sighting, might have been one of the worst days of their lives.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error – which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.”

I assumed that Radner’s and Wilder’s behavior reflected their characters; it never occurred to me that their behavior might reflect something happening to them.

Which reminds me – always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don’t take things personally. As Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, “Life is short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

Zoikes, I’m thrilled. Already 228 people have joined the Happiness Project group on Facebook. Visit, join, post, discuss! Today I’m going to throw out some discussion topics.

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