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

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Do you think children bring happiness? Some experts say no; I say yes.

BlocksToday was the Little Girl’s first day of pre-school. She’ll only go two mornings a week, but still, this is the beginning of SCHOOL. We were both excited.

It’s a sunny, crisp day here in New York City, and I thought to myself, “Boy, it doesn’t get better than this,” as I pushed the stroller on our way there.

I’ve seen the argument that children don’t, in fact, add to people’s happiness. I don’t believe that. (I’m not arguing that people can’t be happy without children; of course they can.)

Children add to happiness for many reasons, but one way is that they help supply a key element to a happy life: an atmosphere of growth.

My First Splendid Truth is: To be happier, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

No surprise, watching the growth of my children is exciting and gratifying. It’s thrilling to see them take each step forward.

But that’s not the only way they help provide “an atmosphere of growth.” Having children contributes to my growth, too. It requires me to learn new skills and new information. It puts me in contact with a new set of people; this morning I met a woman and her son who live on the corner of my block, whom I’d never seen before! It broadens my existence – would I know anything about Laurie Berkner, Ten Minutes Till Bedtime, or High School Musical if I didn’t have kids?

In keeping with family tradition, I took the Little Girl’s picture this morning, of her holding a sign that read, “First day of pre-school – September 18, 2007.” I do this on the last day each year, too. It occurred to me that before I knew it, three years would pass, and I’d be taking her picture with a sign saying “Last day of pre-school – June 2010.”

That’s the thing about life with children: the days are long, but the years are short. I want to revel in this first day, because in a flash, nursery school will be over.

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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.

Do you have trouble sticking to your resolutions? Turns out that it really does matter.

HighwaYesterday’s New York Times Magazine had a very interesting cover story, Gary Taubes’s Do We Really Know What Makes Us Healthy?

From a happiness perspective, the bit that caught my eye was about the “compliance effect” or “adherer effect.” It turns out that people who stick to a doctor’s orders – say, by taking a prescription – are different, and healthier, than people who don’t.

In one drug study, a group of men were assigned a drug or a placebo. The men who faithfully took their pills had significantly better outcomes than the men who didn’t – even the men who were only taking a placebo!

The conclusion: a group of people who faithfully adhere to a program that they think healthful (taking vitamins, exercising, eating a better diet) will have a different outcome from a group that doesn’t, for reasons that aren’t altogether clear.

Now, of course, we’d all like to be in the category of “adherers” who can stick to positive programs, but it’s tough to do.

The big question: How do you change yourself from a “non-adhererer” to an “adherer”?

Whenever I meet people who have stuck to a new resolution, I try to figure out how they did it. HOW did she transition to an entirely new career? HOW did he change his parenting style? HOW did they change from a couch-potato couple to a training-for-the-marathon couple? It’s so much easier to see what ought to be done than to do it.

I’ve seen the argument that prodigies in sports, music, chess, etc. don’t really exist, and that exceptional performance is the result of practice.

The most important quality for a prodigy, then, is not innate talent, but a drive to practice.

And so it may be with happiness, health, and many other desiderata. A key element is the ability to STICK to a resolution that would bring about change.

I’ve stumbled on some little tricks that help. For example, when I was trying to develop the habit of exercising, I always exercised on Monday. That got me started on the right foot for the week.

I started keeping my resolutions charts to keep myself constantly reviewing my resolutions and holding myself accountable. (As always, if you want to see a copy, just email me–see left-hand column)

When I was trying to give up my beloved Nutritious Creations chocolate-chip cookies, I decided that I would NEVER, EVER eat one again. As Samuel Johnson said, “Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult.” If I ate one, I’d be back to two a day. (Okay, sometimes three a day.)

In fact, I’ve found, it’s often easier to do something NEVER or EVERY DAY than a couple of times a week. When a friend said she was having trouble getting herself to post to her blog two or three times a week, I suggested that she post every day. And that helped. I work on the Happiness Project book every single day, even if I just jot down notes for ten minutes, because that’s a habit that helps me actually get some writing done.

The advantage of doing something NEVER or EVERY DAY is that I don’t spend time fussing about when or how often I’m going to do something. I know that I absolutely can’t do it, or that I absolutely must do it.

If you have suggestions for strategies that have made it easier for you to stick to a resolution, please post them. I suspect other people are as interested as I am in how to be a better “adherer.”

I always enjoy checking out Guy Kawasaki’s How To Change the World. He posts on all sorts of topics, almost always interesting.

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What is the real proof of love?

FlanneryoconnorBecause I’m on a Flannery O’Connor kick, I ordered A Memoir of Mary Ann, by the Dominican Nuns of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Home in Atlanta (1961).

These nuns ran a free cancer home, where Mary Ann Long came to live at age 3. She had a cancerous tumor on her face; one eye had been removed. By the time she died, the tumor had grown so much that she couldn’t eat. She was only supposed to survive six months, but she lived to be twelve.

She must have been quite an extraordinary child. After her death, the nuns approached O’Connor, to try to persuade her to write an account of the little girl. She wouldn’t do it, but she helped shepherd their manuscript to publication and wrote an introduction to it – which is why I happened to hear about it.

It’s an interesting book for several reasons, but what struck me most was the observation, “Apparently [Mary Ann] knew at that early age that the proof of real love is sacrifice.”

That sentence stopped me in my tracks. It’s another way of expressing one of my favorite happiness precepts – Reverdy’s “There is no love, there are only proofs of love” – but more blunt. I asked myself: am I showing my love through sacrifice?

I know that sounds preachy and dramatic, but it’s a good question.

In my life, day to day, that mostly means sacrificing my time, attention, and convenience.

Am I putting down my book to listen to a convoluted account of last night’s bad dream? Am I putting down my magazine to “Watch, watch, watch!” for the tenth time? Am I cheerfully agreeing to pick something up, drop something off, look something up, or re-schedule some date? Am I swallowing my impulse to nag, to criticize, to complain, to point out mistakes?

Not very often. And I sure load myself lots of gold stars when I do. Speaking of nuns, St. Therese of Lisieux wrote, “When one loves, one does not calculate,” and I’m still trying to shake the habit of counting up all my sacrifices to make sure I get my share in return. “You got to take a nap, so I get to go to the gym.” “I’m dealing with the packing, so you have to deal with the car.”

But there’s a fine line with sacrifice. Sacrificing too much is not good.

My Second Splendid Truth is: One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy; one of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.

If I sacrifice too much (realistically, not too much risk of that), if I don’t make sure I have enough time to read the newspaper, etc., it’s going to be hard for me to make anyone else very happy. Having fun and feeling energized make it easier to sacrifice for other people. It might not even feel like a sacrifice.

I loved reading the comments on yesterday’s post, to see the life symbols people use: lion, phoenix, daisy, water drop, labyrinth, and all the rest. If you need ideas, or if you just like great lists, a reader thoughtfully posted the link to a website Universal Symbols that lists dozens.

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Begin YOUR happiness project! Need help getting started? Identify a symbol for yourself and your happiness project.

PeacockA new theme for the Happiness Project is to spur everyone to do a happiness project, too. Happiness projects for everyone! I am the happiness evangelist.

Only recently did I start thinking about it this way – even though implicit in the idea of keeping this blog is the desire to help other people learn from my happiness project. Now, though, I’m going to start explicitly addressing the question of how people can design their own.

I need to figure out a systematic way to do this, but until then, I’ll just throw out some provocative suggestions.

I was thinking about a life symbol – or what should it be called? personal symbol? imago? figuration? – I mean the symbol you adopt for yourself and your happiness project.

Without giving it much thought, I picked my symbol as the bluebird, because the bluebird is a symbol for happiness.

I believe this connection comes from the wonderful Maeterlinck play (later made into a Shirley Temple movie), The Blue Bird, where two children look for the Blue Bird of happiness.

I’ve been thinking about life symbols lately, because I’ve been immersing myself in Flannery O’Connor’s work.

Flannery O’Connor was a devout Catholic, and her fiction is filled with symbols, often with religious significance. About symbols, she wrote, “I think the way to read a book is always to see what happens, but in a good novel, more always happens than we are able to take in at once…The mind is led on by what it sees into the greater depths that the book’s symbols naturally suggest.”

Now consider: in life, O’Connor loved peacocks. Because she was in very poor health, she lived on a farm with her mother, and she raised peacocks there.

But peacocks aren’t just peacocks. As she pointed out in a letter, the peacock is the symbol for the Transfiguration, and in medieval symbology, for the Church—the eyes are the eyes of the Church.

So picture Flannery O’Connor, writing her books, meditating on the mysteries of religion and fiction, close to death, surrounded by peacocks. It would seem like unbelievably heavy-handed symbolism, if it weren’t true.

The peacock symbol is extended by others – peacocks illustrate many of the covers of books published after her death.

O’Connor loved birds from a very young age. Did she choose to surround herself with peacocks partly because of their symbolism? Who knows? But it’s thrilling that she did.

I was intrigued to read that symbols for Buddha include an empty seat, a pillar of fire, a tree, and a pair of footprints – images that signify that he has gone beyond form.

Bridge, skyscraper, candle, river, poppy, library…the value of thinking about a personal symbol comes from the fact that it requires us to think of our lives metaphorically. Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory – and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

It’s difficult, but surprisingly fun. I hit on the blue bird without much thought, but I like it.

If you conceive of your life symbol, please post it – I’d love to see people’s choices. And if you can think of a more lyrical name than “life symbol,” please suggest it! That phrase is so flat and banal. Though I’m starting to think “imago” might work.

If you love words, neologisms, obscure vocabulary, etc., check out Wordie. I was excited that my post about darshan was mentioned by a fellow reader.

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