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

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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 just finished writing my next book, Better Than Before, about how we can make and break our habits. If you'd like to pre-order the book, click here.

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.

A happiness challenge: the boomerang errand — when you think you’ve rid yourself of some task, but then it flies right back to you.

BoomerangI am awaiting an answer from Typepad tech support. I am carefully drafting this post to omit any symbols other than periods and commas.

As I feared, when I fixed the formatting problems some people saw in the posts, I wreaked havoc on other people’s versions. So now I must find a solution anew.

Thus, I am facing a good example of a boomerang errand, which I find to be a major, recurring challenge to maintaining a cheerful mood, day to day.

A boomerang errand is one where, just when you have successfully got rid of some task, it drops right back into your lap.

You buy light-bulbs, but you buy the wrong size. Back to the hardware store. You call the air-conditioner repair people, but then you have to call the electrician. Another appointment to keep.

I thought I had hit on a solution to my problem, but it turns out that to solve one problem is to create a new problem.

The secret to dealing with the boomerang errand is to stay calm. Studies show that the notion of catharsis, or relieving bad feelings by expressing them, is not accurate. Acting angry just makes you feel angrier, acting frustrated just makes you feel more frustrated.

So I consider my formatting problem with a serene and mild mien. Eventually, this will get worked out.

Maybe I will write my posts with nary a curly quote or dash. Hmmm. Do apostrophes also format in a bizarre way, or do they keep their shape? What about ellipses? Le’t m’e k’now…

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I recently came across two interesting happiness-related sites that are definitely worth a look: In the Know and The Happiness Notebook. This weekend I plan to spend some time cruising around on both.

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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.