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

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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.

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 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.

This Wednesday: Six tips for feeling better about yourself.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Six tips for feeling better about yourself.

First came the self-esteem movement. Then came the backlash to the self-esteem movement.

It’s pretty clear that repeating “I’m the greatest” or winning a trophy along with every other participant isn’t a good way to build self-esteem.

At the same time, it’s a rare person who isn’t sometimes – or often – plagued with painful self-doubt.

When you’re feeling lousy about yourself, what can you do to feel better?

Here’s the secret.

To build your self-respect…do something worthy of your respect. To like yourself better…do something that makes you likable. Here are some suggestions:

1. Do a good deed. This is as selfish as it is selfless; you’ll benefit as much as the person you’re helping. When I’m feeling low, thinking about the time I helped some friends get a book contract makes me feel much better than recalling every compliment I’ve ever received. In the same vein…

2. Make small gestures of good citizenship. Bring your old magazines to the gym so other people can read them. Help someone with a stroller. My current favorite: picking up trash that other people have left on the subway.

3. Keep a resolution. Not only will you benefit from exercising or cleaning out your garage, you’ll also get a boost from the mere fact that you made a commitment and stuck to it.

4. Become an expert. There’s great satisfaction in mastery. Pick a subject that interests you, and dig in deep: the American Revolution, the works of Chekhov, wine.

5. Boost your energy. Studies show that when you’re feeling energetic, you’re much more likely to feel good about yourself. For a quick shot of energy, take a brisk ten-minute walk (outside, if possible, where sunlight will also stimulate your brain), listen to some great music, or talk to a friend.

6. Challenge yourself physically. This tip doesn’t work for me, but I know that many people feel great after para-sailing, white-water rafting, bungee-jumping, or rollercoaster-riding.

I’m pleased to announce that The Huffington Post has asked me to be one of their bloggers. Lots of interesting material on that site – check it out. Today is my debut (I think). Ah, I love being part of the blogosphere.

I’m a HUGE fan of Brian Wansink’s book Mindless Eating, and I just saw that it was written up in (of all places) the business section of the New York Times. If you haven’t read the book, the article, Your Plate is Bigger than Your Stomach, gives you a flavor (excuse the pun)…