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

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Happiness is…grandparents who are happy to babysit.

A major contributor to my happiness in general, and certainly on this vacation, is the fact that the Big Man’s parents, and my parents, are all super-hands-on grandparents.

All of them are such naturally helpful grandparent types that it took me a while to appreciate how lucky I was. Wasn’t everyone thrilled to be a grandparent?

Thrilled, usually. Eager to help, not as common.

One friend told me that after her son was born, she asked her mother-in-law if she’d be willing to babysit. “Well, I suppose so…” her mother-in-law replied. “As long as you don’t leave.”

But in my case, both grandmothers are the take-charge type, in the nicest possible way. My mother came and stayed for weeks when the Big Girl and the Little Girl were born. My mother-in-law loves to take one or both girls for hours at a time.

The two grandfathers work more on the entertainment and “let’s-get-some-ice-cream” side of child care, less on the diaper-changing side, but they’re also both very enthusiastic.

This is one of those facts of life that is so easy to take for granted. Our vacation would be a lot less relaxing for the Big Man and me if his parents weren’t spelling us with the girls.

Right this minute, as I type, the Big Girl is off eating lunch with her grandparents while I stay with the napping Little Girl. An eight-year-old isn’t a particularly challenging lunch companion, but they were just as willing to take her when she was two.

I crave gold stars for myself, but how often do I tell the grandparents what a huge help they are? I resolve to tell them all, today.

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.

Tips for how NOT to be happy.

One big revelation I’ve had about the nature of happiness is that some people simply don’t want to be happy.

There are many reasons: you want to control other people, you want the satisfaction of being pitied or self-pity or both; you want special attention; you want to take the pressure off yourself, because you can’t be expected to achieve much when you’re so unhappy.

Oddly, too, you might associate unhappiness with depth of soul or intellect, and so pride yourself on unhappiness as a sign of inner worth.

Plus, for many people, it’s less work to be unhappy than to be happy.

If you don’t want to be happy, what qualities might you cultivate? Consider these:

– Hone your powers of discernment so that practically nothing can meet your standards, and be sure to tell everyone else how the food, performance, or service fell short.

– Stay alone as much as you can. Avoid seeing other people. Cancel plans frequently, don’t answer your phone, tell people things like, “I hate parties,” “I detest crowds,” etc.

– When someone bugs you — whether it’s a stranger talking loudly on a cell phone or a relative repeating the same maddeningly stupid jokes year after year — tell as many people about it as possible. You may even need to see a therapist twice a week to talk about your grievances sufficiently.

– Avoid any physical effort. Drive everywhere, and when at home, get off the sofa as little as possible.

– Cultivate habits that keep you feeling stretched and overwhelmed. If you’re short on cash, overcharge on your credit card. If you’re busy at work, stay up late cruising the Internet or flipping among cable channels. If you don’t have enough time to yourself, make complex plans that will take lots of time and errands to manage — say, plan an elaborate birthday party for a two-year-old.

Would you take twenty minutes a day to be happy?

When I was in high school, I wanted new bedroom wallpaper. I made what I considered to be a very mature case to my parents for why my wish should be granted.

My father said, “Okay, but you have to do something for me, twenty minutes a day, four days a week.” But he wouldn’t tell me what I’d have to do.

I was intrigued by the mystery, and also figured that I could stand anything for twenty minutes a day, four days a week.

His demand: that I go running during that time.

This was the greatest bargain I ever struck. I barely remember the wallpaper, but that deal turned me into a regular exerciser.

I’ve always been terrible at sports, so I thought I hated all forms of exercise. But I discovered that I like exercise, I just don’t like losing at games.

And I discovered that the best part of exercise was the mood boost it gave me.

If you’re skeptical about the connection between exercise and happiness, a fascinating Newsweek cover story about exercise and the brain includes the article, “Exercise is a state of mind,” which lays out the evidence. (I tried to include the link but I’m using the Big Man’s computer, and it mysteriously won’t allow me to copy…argh.)

As the article points out, regular exercise “improves your mood, decreases anxiety, improves sleep, improves resilience in the face of stress and raises self-esteem.” It also offsets the effects of aging. In fact, in some studies, the effect of exercise was equal to that of drugs or pyschotherapy.

A lot of people take up exercising when they want to lose weight, but I think that you’re more likely to stay motivated to exercise if you focus on the mental benefits instead of the physical benefits. Although it’s true that people who exercise regularly are better able to keep weight off, it’s very easy to get discouraged if you don’t lose weight easily — which never happens, right?

It’s better to focus on SANITY, not VANITY.

Just this morning, I was in an irritable mood, because the Little Girl was so fussy at breakfast. (She’s already taking her nap, and it’s only 10:30 a.m.) But I went to the gym after breakfast, and by the time I left, I felt great.

Why it’s hard to be happy when your computer isn’t working properly.

It’s spring break, and we’re on a family vacation with the Big Man’s parents.

We’re staying at a beautiful resort, and having a lovely time. The girls are behaving themselves, I didn’t forget to pack anything important like Little Swimmer diapers or contact lens solution, the weather is glorious, and the Diet Coke is plentiful.

But my enjoyment is clouded by one annoyance, and I’m absurd enough to let it affect my mood: my laptop isn’t getting wireless service.

The Big Man’s wireless service works. Mine worked initially, not anymore. Because of this glitch, I feel helpless, frustrated, and cut off (because I can’t get my email). I’m having to re-type this post onto the Big Man’s computer, after writing it on my machine. Once again, I note that there’s something particularly unnerving and unpleasant about the failure of a communication device — compared, for example, to a busted hairdryer.

Do I recognize the utter preposterousness of my complaint, relative to the extraordinary and real hardships experienced by most people? Do I realize how spoiled, and fretful, and demanding I sound? Do I know that I should stop worrying about work and enjoy a vacaction?

Yes.

But it’s taking all my happiness-project discipline to keep this one irritation from zapping my mood. Even more than usual, I’m trying to remember my duty to be happy. The whole point of coming here is to have fun. If I’m testy, if I’m complaining, I’ll dull everyone’s fun.

I’ve heard the saying, “If Mama ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy,” or in other words, “Happy wife, happy life.” When I first heard these aphorisms, I though that sounded great — yipeeee, it’s all about pleasing me! — but if true, it’s a tremendous responsibility.

Because of “emotional contagion,” one person’s moods affect other people’s moods, and unfortunately, bad moods are more contagious than good moods — and “Mama’s” moods are perhaps more contagious than anyone else’s.

My dissatisfaction points out the hazard of the “hedonic treadmill.” We enjoy some new luxury, for a time, but soon we start taking it for granted; it no longer gives us particular enjoyment, but feels like a necessity. Think about air-conditioning, car radios, cable TV, cell phones. And now, wireless service.

Gosh, writing this (or rather, re-typing it) is making me truly comprehend the pettiness of my complaint. I feel like an idiot — but now I feel happier.

A quotation from Benjamin Franklin.

Benfranklin[Of his plan for achieving virtue, which I used as a model for my happiness project] “On the whole, though I never arrived at the perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet as I was, by the endeavor, a better and a happier man than I otherwise should have been had I not attempted it.” –Benjamin Franklin.

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Franklin’s point fits in with the arguments made by the two articles I linked to yesterday. Mastery (including self-mastery) comes from effort and practice.