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

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Help! Do you have a brilliant idea for a sub-title for the Happiness Project?

At long last, in a few weeks, I’m going to try to sell my book proposal for the Happiness Project.

It’s very unusual with a non-fiction book to work for so long on a project before selling it. I hope I made the right strategic decision to hold off as long as I have. Wish me luck.

In any event, I’ve been trying, and failing, to come up with a great subtitle.

So I’m turning to you and the wisdom of crowds for suggestions for a subtitle.

To start the thinking, here are some current options:

The Happiness Project:
 A Year of Changing My Life—Without Changing My Life

 My Year-Long Quest to be Happier

 My Year-Long Quest to be Happier by Changing My Life—Without Changing My Life

 Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Pick Up Litter, Swallow Anger, Contemplate the Heavens, and Generally Have More Fun

 My Year of Bursting into Song, Picking Up Litter…etc.


I like the paradoxical “changing my life without changing my life” but I fear that’s too obscure – people won’t get it and so will be put off. (What I mean is that I don’t make a radical change in my life — move to India or give up shopping or take a sabbatical from my family. I look for greater happiness within the ordinary confines in my life.)

My usual tagline for the Happiness Project is “I spent a year test-driving all the tips, rules, wisdom of the ages, and current scientific research to find out what actually works.” I like this description, but I can’t figure out how to turn it into a snappy subtitle.

“My Year of Test-Driving the Wisdom of the Ages and Current Scientific Studies to Discover What Actually Made Me Happier” doesn’t strike me as compelling.

I also like the idea that “Gretchen tests all this advice and reads all those books so you don’t have to.”

A friend suggested “My Year of Purposeful Living, Wanton Singing…and Picking Up Strangers’ Trash.” This sounds great. My only hesitation is that I wish I could replace “Purposeful Living,” because that kind of vague advice is the kind of thing I really avoid in the Happiness Project. (We can all agree that that’s a worthy goal, but how the heck, exactly, do you go about living more purposefully?) I can’t think of something that sounds as good but that’s more concrete.

I like the word “adventure.” I wish there were a synonym for “quest” that had the same meaning and wasn’t quite so unicorn-y. I really want to keep the mention of the “year.”

I suspect that the right subtitle is something completely different from the ideas above. Something imaginative and unexpected, but that also accurately describes the Happiness Project. But darned if I can think of what it could be.

One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “It’s okay to ask for help.” So I’m asking. Help!

An unrelated matter:
If you’ve emailed me in the last few days to ask for a copy of my charts, please be patient. Here in Kansas City, I can’t SEND email because of a technical issue, but I’ll send the charts as soon as I get back to my office. And for those who may have missed the message – if you’d like a copy of my resolution charts, to use as inspiration for your own happiness project, just email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. (I’ve added the brackets to thwart spammers, but just type the email address in the usual way.)

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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.

When it comes to happiness – or enthusiasm, or friendliness – are Midwesterners different?

We’re in Kansas City, Missouri (just a few blocks from the Kansas state line, but we Kansas Citians care a lot about the distinction) for the yearly summer visit to my parents.

As always, I love being in Kansas City.

By coincidence, a few days before this trip, I had dinner in New York with one of my best friends from high school, who now lives in Brooklyn.

We were talking about Kansas City, and she mentioned that she had decided that Midwesterners really WERE more friendly and enthusiastic than people on the East Coast.

I’ve heard that, of course, but I never noticed too much of a difference myself. So this trip, I’ve been trying to pay attention.

People do seem less hurried. Clerks in stores are more chatty and helpful. Drivers don’t even turn into an intersection if a pedestrian is crossing (in NYC, they practically edge you out of the way with their bumpers).

Certainly the people walking around move more slowly than I’m used to. In a recent fascinating cover story in New York Magazine, Clive Thompson’s Why New Yorkers Live Longer, I read that a “recent ranking of cities found that New York has the fastest pedestrians in the country.”

Of course, the flip side to “not hurried” is “slow.” When you’re in a hurry, this slower pace can be slightly irritating. But overall, it’s a much nicer atmosphere.

I’m not so sure that people are really more friendly. Part of the friendlier atmosphere comes from not being in such a rush. People take the time to exchange a few words.

There’s a kind of friendliness peculiar to New York, too. Odd things are always happening, and you’re always around lots of other people, many of whom have hilarious commentary to offer.

Nevertheless, this exercise has made me appreciate the value of adding a few extra words to a routine exchange. Even a “Hot enough for you?” as clichéd as it is, makes an encounter seem more pleasant.

I’m not good about talking to strangers, so it’s an effort for me to offer these little remarks, but I’ve noticed the big difference it makes in the emotional tone of my day.

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This Wednesday: Five tips for making your schedule work better (with particular emphasis on coping with Mondays.)

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Five tips for making your schedule work better (with particular emphasis on coping with Mondays).

Over the last few weeks, unrelated to each other, a few friends happened to mention to me that they’d made minor changes to their approach to scheduling their work, with dramatic results.

These changes demonstrate the usefulness of paying attention to our own idiosyncratic rhythms – when we feel like buckling down, when we feel like goofing off.

1. One friend used to hate the frantic rush of Monday mornings, but now he comes into work Monday morning without any expectations for himself until after lunch. He lets himself do easy work like checking email, reading email newsletters, and doing more substantial tasks IF he feels like it, but doesn’t consider himself “at work” until 1:30. The result? He gets about as much done as he did before – he just feels less pressure.

2. Also on the subject of Mondays — one of my former roommates has always suffered from the Sunday Blues. Now she deals with it by making sure she has something to look forward to on Monday: she schedules lunch with a friend, excuses herself from some daily task that she doesn’t enjoy, or figures out some other way to improve the day. Once Monday morning comes, she’s always fine – she just suffers from dread on Sunday. Having something pleasant to anticipate lessens the feeling.

3. Another friend gets to work at 8:00 a.m. but doesn’t react to anything until 10:00.m. He only works on tasks that he’s set himself. By not answering email or working on someone else’s request until 10:00, he takes care of his own priorities first.

4. Studies show that the brain is often better able to tackle cognitive tasks before noon. A friend of mine noticed that this was true for him, so now he loads all his serious intellectual work into the morning, and uses the time after lunch for meetings, easier work, and going to the gym.

5. The change I’ve made in my approach to my schedule is – don’t expect to have a regular schedule. I love routine and predictability, but the way my life is right now, every day is different. For a while, that made me felt frustrated and inefficient. Now I’m trying to embrace and enjoy it.

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Is your iPod a source of happiness? At last, I discover the happiness power of music.

IpodThe first of my Twelve Commandments is to “Be Gretchen,” and it’s only since I’ve started making an effort to “Be Gretchen” that I realize how difficult that goal is.

Take music.

I knew from my research that listening to music is one of the most effective ways to boost your energy and mood (second only to exercise). In fact, in one study, 92% of people felt happier when they listened to music they liked. If you’re in a blues emergency, music is a great way to turn yourself around.

For a long time, I had assumed I liked music, because “everyone” did, but then realized I didn’t enjoy music very much (I thought). It’s one of my Secrets of Adulthood: “Just because something is fun for other people doesn’t mean it’s fun for you, and vice versa.”

I decided that I didn’t really like music much, and I thought this recognition was a mature, thoughtful embrace of “Being Gretchen.”

But a few nights ago, as I listened in ecstasy to the Red Hot Chili Pepper’s Under the Bridge for the fiftieth time since I discovered it, I thought – wait, maybe I DO like music.

It has finally dawned on me that I do like music, but I like to listen to it in a very particular way. I don’t like to get a CD and listen to the whole thing. I don’t like a wide variety. I like to listen to my very favorite songs over and over.

I’ve always been slightly embarrassed by this propensity. I thought it showed a lack of sophisticated appreciation. It’s a Top-40 kind of mentality. I have no depth of musical knowledge, just familiarity with a handful of scattered songs. Plus, my taste in music runs to the slightly cheesy.

But I thought, “Be Gretchen. Listen to the music I like, the way I like.”

I bought my first iPod yesterday. The Big Man – who loves music – showed me how to load it. It’s very easy.

And now I’m so excited to listen to music. I’m in the process of hand-picking my favorite songs to put on the iPod. Perfect timing, because we’re going home to Kansas City to visit my parents, and I like to go running there, and running is so much nicer with music.

This project is giving me a huge boost even when I’m not listening to the music. I’ve noticed that making collections of your favorite things is a great way to get a jolt of happiness. Try it. Make an album of your favorite photos of your friends or kids; make a shelf of your favorite sources for your Ph.D. thesis; make a list of your favorite restaurants.

I KNOW listening to this music is going to make me happy – plus, it will probably make it more likely that I’ll go for a run, also a mood booster.

Incidentally, I would point to this incident as an example of the way money, used right, can give happiness support. I was very lucky to be able just to go out and buy an iPod when I decided I wanted one. Now that I have it, I’m sure it will give me a lot of happiness bang for the buck.

Next on my list of songs to download: Angie by the Rolling Stones.

(As a way to link to the songs, I’m linking via YouTube, which I hope is ok from a copyright standpoint [I am a lawyer, after all] but I think the videos distract, and detract, from the music.)

A great productivity/life hacks blog with a tech emphasis is The Cranking Widgets Blog. It’s a fun read, and although most of the tech hacks are over my non-techy head, I like being exposed to that stuff — I’m hoping it will seep in over time.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Dostoevsky.

Dostoevsky“For we are made for happiness, and any one who is completely happy has a right to say to himself, ‘I am doing God’s will on earth.’ All the righteous, all the saints, all the holy martyrs were happy.” –Dostoevsky

Now for a jarring transition —
I’m a regular on Karen Salmansohn’s terrific daily radio show, the Be Happy Dammit Hour on Sirius LIME 114. Yesterday we talked about the critical importance of having strong relationships,and she mentioned some interesting studies that I hadn’t seen, about the difference between the way men and women gossip — discussed on her blog, Not Salmon. Highlights: men seem to gossip more than women, and both men and women prefer to gossip with women, and women give more dramatic reactions and ask more follow-up questions. Also, only 5% of gossip time is devoted to criticism — less than I would’ve expected. Interesting.

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.