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

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Feeling unappreciated? Taken for granted? Happiness and the desire for praise, appreciation, and gold stars.

One of my most challenging resolutions has been my resolution, “Don’t expect praise or appreciation.” I crave praise and appreciation; I really want to win my gold stars.

Since I’ve tried to give up those gold stars, however, I’ve come to understand how much this desire was costing me.

I recognized that I was prone to quick bursts of anger and resentment. Only recently, however, have I understood that a major source of this irritability is my belief that I deserve to be praised and appreciated for what I do.

When I don’t get that praise, I feel furious and hurt. I feel ignored and taken for granted.

To try to combat this expectation, I keep reminding myself of a line from one of my favorite happiness works, St. Therese of Lisieux’s memoir, Story of a Soul. St. Therese wrote, “When one loves, one does not calculate.”

That’s why I added “No calculation” to my Twelve Commandments (see left column). I don’t want to keep score, I don’t want to feel grudging, I don’t want to feel cheated if I don’t get a gold star stuck to the top of my spelling homework. I want to act out of love, without calculation.

I used to have a self-congratulatory habit, when I did something nice for our household, of telling myself, “I’m doing this for the Big Man,” or “I’m doing this for the team.” Like I was so generous and thoughtful and giving. Then I’d be angry if no one oohed and aahed over what I’d done.

Now, however, I tell myself, “I’m doing this for myself. This is what I want.” I want to send out Valentine’s cards. I want to clean out the kitchen cabinets. I want to make homemade Mother’s Day presents.

This sounds selfish, but in fact, it’s less selfish, because it means I don’t expect praise or appreciation from anyone else. No one else even has to notice what I’ve done.

I’ve also started giving myself more gold stars. I allow myself to revel in my accomplishments and pat myself on the back. “Wow, you really resisted eating that chocolate-chip cookie batter, great job, Gretchen!” “Zoikes, look at how nice and tidy the girls’ rooms look, you really worked hard!” It’s silly, but it actually works.

I don’t think I will ever be able to relinquish my desire for gold stars. It’s part of my personality. It’s probably a major motivator behind my actions. But I want to be able to harness that characteristic, instead of letting disappointment and resentment sour my relationships.

It’s funny — as a result of my happiness-project work, I’ve been talking more about the gold-star issue with the Big Man, and now that I can discuss it in a more humorous way, by saying, “Please give me my gold star,” instead of being demanding and grasping and enraged, he’s been better about saying, “Thank you for doing that, Gretchen.” He says it in kind of a joking way, but still, I eat it up.

I love anything to do with de-cluttering, so my new favorite blog to visit is Unclutterer. Every time I read it, I get fired up to tackle some unsuspecting closet or shelf.

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.

I’m trying to boost my happiness by being more enthusiastic.

My father is an unusually cheery person, and he enthusiastically embraces any proposed plan—and what’s more, he’s also willing to pitch in whenever someone says, “We’re going to make Swedish cookies this afternoon. Will you go to the store to pick up some eggs?” or “We’re out of batteries for the toy vacuum. Will you go to Costco?”

I’ve always taken this aspect of his character for granted (though my work on the Happiness Project has helped me start to appreciate it), but lately I keep thinking about a seemingly unremarkable conversation between my parents when we were home for Christmas.

“We’re having pizza for dinner,” my mother told my father when he walked in the door after work.

“Wonderful! Wonderful!” my father answered immediately. “That sounds great. Do you want me to go pick it up?”

I’m trying to adopt that attitude. When the Big Man makes a suggestion, like “Let’s go out for lunch,” or “How about going to the park this afternoon?” I’m trying to answer with an eager “Great idea!” and “How can I help?” instead of tepid “Okay” or “Sure” or “If you want.”

Enthusiasm is a source of energy, and by not responding with enthusiasm, I’m draining energy out of the moment.

By nature, I think I’m a pretty low-enthusiasm person. I don’t much like adventure, or inconvenience, or novelty, or even being too hot or too cold. Nevertheless, I’m trying to remember my commandment to “Act as I would feel.” And it does work—by acting more enthusiastic, I begin to feel more enthusiastic.

Also, because enthusiasm is catching, when the Big Man and I both act enthusiastic, our two girls start acting more enthusiastic, too. And it’s just much more fun to live in that atmosphere than in an atmosphere of, “Well, if you want, I guess we could…”

I like checking out Penelope Trunk’s blog Brazen Careerist, so I was curious to read her new book of the same name. The book, like her blog, is written in a snappy, conversational style — and is quite funny.

I’m particularly interested in her work, because she incorporates a lot of the happiness studies. She actually picked up and moved to Madison, Wisconsin, because the research predicted that she’d be happier there. That shows a real dedication to living by your own advice. I was impressed with myself when I did the five-day drawing course, just eight subways stops from my apartment.

Some of her more provocative arguments: “Being likeable matters more than being competent,” “Blame yourself first,” “Don’t be supportive,” “How to manage a boomer boss,” “A messy desk makes you look incompetent,” “Use harassment to boost your career,” “Typecast yourself.” A lot of these are counter-intuitive, which is what makes them interesting — you have to read the book before you can decide whether you disagree.

This Saturday: a quotation from C. S. Lewis.

“No man knows how bad he is till he has tried very hard to be good….Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is.” –C.S. Lewis.

My four pillars of happiness: energy, fun, peace of mind, and love.

Because I’m the kind of person who likes to divide everything into categories, and enjoys trying to distill every idea into its essence, I’ve been trying to think of how to characterize the elements of a happy life.

I have my earthshaking happiness formula, of course: To be happy, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

Then I asked myself, “What are the elements necessary for a happy life?”

Approaching the question in this way, I came up with a different kind of answer.

At least in my current thinking, my four pillars of happiness are: energy, fun, peace of mind, and love.

I’m still tinkering. For example, at first I had “a clean conscience” instead of “peace of mind,” but I realized that you could have a clean conscience without peace of mind, and I think you do need peace of mind. Not necessarily a peaceful life – some people thrive on bustle and even chaos – but peace of mind.

I debated about whether to include “energy” and “fun.” Probably you could be happy with “love” and “peace of mind.”

But if you have love, peace of mind, AND energy AND fun – wow, then that really sounds like a joyful kind of happiness.

Research backs me up on energy and fun.

One study measured students for four extraverted characteristics—talkativeness, assertiveness, adventurousness and energy level—and found that while all extraverted characteristics were related to happiness, energy level was most strongly related.

Also, when you have energy, it’s much easier to do all the things that will make you happier. It’s easier to exercise, it’s easier to hold your temper, it’s easier to go out of your way to help someone else.

Fun sounds a bit frivolous, but research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life. People who have fun are twenty times more likely to be happy. And again, when you have some fun in your life, it creates a cushion that makes it easier to handle the difficult parts of life. It can be a refuge, a distraction, a refreshment.

Peace of mind and love – of course, you must have peace of mind and love in order to be happy.

Will clearing your clothes clutter make you happier? Oh yes.

Closet2A few days ago, I was helping a friend clear out her closet (one of my favorite things to do), and I made a new observation about the nature of clutter.

This seems counter-intuitive, but it makes sense: people who aren’t very interested in clothes (like me and my friend) are far more likely to have clothes clutter than people who love clothes.


First of all, “clutter” is stuff that you don’t like or don’t use. So people who love clothes may have bursting closets, but because they love the clothes they have, it doesn’t feel like “clutter.”

Many people who love clothes (not all, but many) are scrupulous about weeding out clothes that don’t work. This subset tends to have a highly edited collection of clothes, because they only keep things that look good, are useful, and are in great shape. People who love their clothes less ruthlessly may have packed closets and drawers, but they revel in the abundance.

On the other hand, people who aren’t interested in clothes are often overwhelmed by clothes clutter.

Because they aren’t interested in clothes, they can’t be bothered to make decisions like “That pair of brown pants is more comfortable than this pair of brown pants, so I’ll get rid of this pair,” or “This sweater is looking pretty tired, so I’ll retire it.”

Because such folks often hate to shop as well (again, this is me, unless I go with my mother), they dread the possibility of having to run out and buy something for a particular occasion. So they refuse to let go of any stitch of clothing, for fear that some circumstance will arise when they’ll need it.

People who love clothes have less clutter, too, because they like to think of different ways to wear the clothes they have; they get more use out of their clothes. People who don’t like clothes don’t spend any time thinking about them, so don’t realize that there’s a way to use that black sweater or those corduroy pants – and because those clothes aren’t worn, they turn into clutter.

If you’re drowning in clutter, and you’re not much interested in clothes, the best thing to do is to pare down your wardrobe – dramatically. Aim to get rid of at least half the items you own. How many t-shirts do you really need? How many pairs of jeans? Does that jacket really fit? When was the last time you wore that shirt? Brace yourself: you’ll find this process boring and anxiety-producing, but you will be amazed by how energized you’ll feel after you get rid of the bags and bags and bags that are headed to the trash or to the Salvation Army.

For me, clearing clutter is a key in striving to be happier. Outer order makes it much easier for me to find inner serenity. Not to mention that it’s easier to find my keys.

I love a follow-your-bliss story, and my friend Marci Alboher has a great one. She had a successful career as a lawyer, then began to think about making a switch to journalism. She started down that new path by taking a writing class at her local Y – and yesterday, she started a new gig as an on-line columnist writing about “Shifting Careers” for the NEW YORK TIMES. Check out her first article, When It Comes to Careers, Change is a Constant.