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

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Want to launch your own happiness project? Follow the example of these three readers, and start a happiness blog yourself!

DoublehappinessZoikes, I can’t believe it. Three readers of the Happiness Project have started their own Happiness Project blog, Our Happiness Project, inspired by this one! This is unbelievably thrilling to me.

Last month, I finally realized that my true purpose with the Happiness Project isn’t just to work on my own happiness, but to persuade EVERYONE to start a happiness project. I want to be a happiness evangelist. This was always implicit in what I was doing, of course, but I hadn’t quite grasped it to make it an explicit goal.

Yes, genetics play an important role, and yes, I know about set-point theory, but I do believe that you can take steps that will boost your happiness – within the setting of your ordinary day.

Every person’s project will be different; that’s part of what makes happiness a fascinating subject.

And here’s the blog of people who are working on their own happiness project! I’ve added it to my RSS feed – I’m so eager to see what they post.

Starting that blog is a great strategy to boost happiness, for several reasons:

 By frequently writing and thinking about happiness goals, you keep those goals active and salient in your thoughts.

 Studies show that activities are more enjoyable when done with other people, and collaborating on a blog is a fun way to interact with others.

 You’re more likely to meet goals when you have concrete goals and a way to hold yourself accountable – like posting on a blog.

 Research shows that tackling new challenges – e.g., keeping a blog – boosts happiness. At least one of these bloggers has never had a blog before. For me, blogging was such a mystery that I felt an enormous rush from every little new thing I managed to do. I still remember the first time I figured out how to post an image.

 As the Second Splendid Truth holds, one of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to feel that you’re helping OTHER PEOPLE to be happy, and keeping a blog of your own happiness project will help other people learn from your experiences – and become happier themselves.

Reading Our Happiness Project certainly made me very happy.

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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.

This Wednesday: Quiz: Do you know yourself? It’s surprisingly hard.

GlacierEvery Wednesday is Tip Day (or quiz day).
Today: Quiz: Do you know yourself? It’s surprisingly hard.

My friend Michael Melcher, a career coach who used to practice law, just wrote an excellent (and quite funny) book called The Creative Lawyer; he also has a terrific blog. It’s aimed at helping lawyers find more job satisfaction – whether within law or outside of law – but it’s also a valuable resource for anyone trying to understand himself or herself better.

In doing the Happiness Project, I’ve been repeatedly struck by how hard it is to “Be Gretchen.” It’s oddly difficult even to appreciate my own interests. I have to remind myself of one of my most important Secrets of Adulthood: just because something is fun for someone else, doesn’t mean it’s fun for me – and vice versa. (See left column for all the Secrets of Adulthood.)

I’ve noticed that people often assume that everyone enjoys the same activities that they enjoy, because they believe those activities are inherently enjoyable – e.g., they enjoy arranging flowers because arranging flowers is just a fun thing to do. No! Not so.

Or else people assume that they in fact do enjoy what they think they SHOULD enjoy – e.g., they enjoy going to the theater, because going to the theater is a fun thing to do. Nope! Not true.

Here’s a quiz, lightly adapted from The Creative Lawyer, to help you figure out your interests. Not what you WISH interested you, but what ACTUALLY interests you.

1. What part of the newspaper do you read first?

2. What are three books you’ve read in the past year?

3. As a child, what did you do in your free time?

4. What’s a goal that has been on your list for a few years?

5. What do you actually do with your free time?

6. What types of activities energize you?

7. What famous people intrigue you?

You need to pay close attention to yourself. Skiing, drinking wine, going to concerts, eating pasta, gardening, shopping…all these activities are fun for some people, all these are chores for some people. Like me.

The better you understand your true likes and dislikes, the better able you are to make decisions – in work and leisure – that will make you happy.

The next step, then, is to act on your interests. For example, once I started paying close attention to myself, I realized that I’m fascinated by the subject of obesity. Just what is causing the dramatic rise in obesity? There doesn’t seem to be a way to act on this interest, other than to read articles and books on the topic, but I’m on the look-out. After all, I started a children’s literature reading group; maybe there’s some listserv or something I could join.

Gosh, I love reading Seth Godin.

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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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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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