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

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Why Gilda Radner, Gene Wilder, and the fundamental attribution error are relevant to happiness.

GildageneOne thing I do for the Happiness Project is to read memoirs of catastrophe – people who have gone through cancer, divorce, death, etc.

Several months ago I read Gilda Radner’s interesting memoir, It’s Always Something, and yesterday I finished Gene Wilder’s equally interesting memoir, Kiss Me Like a Stranger. The two were married when she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer, and died, so reading the two memoirs gives a window into that experience from both perspectives.

One thing that made this story particularly striking to me is that I remember seeing Gilda Radner and Gene Wilder together, many years ago. It was in a drugstore somewhere in New York City, I can’t remember where. I do remember that Gilda Radner was carrying a little dog (named Sparkle, I know now after reading these memoirs).

A very peculiar aspect of fame is that fact that strangers remember the most fleeting encounters with you; it’s astonishing, really, that I remember seeing the two of them, for just a moment, so long ago.

One reason that I remember them was that I remarked on how serious they both seemed. They were speaking in low, intense voices and looked solemn. “Well, maybe they’re only funny and light-hearted when they’re acting,” I thought. “Maybe that’s how famous comedians are in person. Or maybe they’re trying to be inconspicuous, because they’re famous.”

In fact, this might have been the very day that Gilda Radner got a terrible report from her doctor. When I intersected with them would’ve been about the same time that she was sick. What for me was an ordinary day, with the fun of a celebrity sighting, might have been one of the worst days of their lives.

This is a perfect example of the fundamental attribution error – which Wikipedia defines as “the tendency for people to over-emphasize dispositional, or personality-based, explanations for behaviors observed in others while under-emphasizing situational explanations. In other words, people have an unjustified tendency to assume that a person’s actions depend on what ‘kind’ of person that person is rather than on the social and environmental forces influencing the person.”

I assumed that Radner’s and Wilder’s behavior reflected their characters; it never occurred to me that their behavior might reflect something happening to them.

Which reminds me – always cut people slack; always assume that their irritability, or unfriendliness, or absent-mindedness, neither reflects their true nature nor has anything to do with me. In brief, don’t take things personally. As Henri-Frederic Amiel wrote, “Life is short and we never have enough time for the hearts of those who travel the way with us. O, be swift to love! Make haste to be kind.”

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Zoikes, I’m thrilled. Already 228 people have joined the Happiness Project group on Facebook. Visit, join, post, discuss! Today I’m going to throw out some discussion topics.

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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.

Are you a member of Facebook? If so, check out the Happiness Project group. If not, join, then check out the Happiness Project group.

FacebookI’m a happiness crusader, so I’ve been hugely gratified to hear from a number of people that – inspired by this happiness project – they’ve started their own happiness projects.

For example, Karly emailed me yesterday to say that she’d posted her rules for happiness, similiar to my Twelve Commandments (see left column), on her blog, First Ourselves.

And three readers started Our Happiness Project.

Everyone’s happiness project will look different from everyone else’s, but we can all learn from each other. Each project is different; each is fascinating.

Last week, a generous and thoughtful reader, Jackie Danicki, emailed me. I can’t remember now how I made Jackie’s acquaintance in blogosphere, but we’d intersected someplace along the way. Jackie is a blogging/social networking guru – with her own excellent blogs, Jackie Danicki and Jack & Hill.

Jackie offered to set up a happiness-project “group” on Facebook, if I were interested.

At first, I wanted to say “No, thanks,” because I didn’t want to deal with figuring out what this entailed. Also, what if we started this group, and nobody joined? I’d feel rejected.

But then I remembered all my happiness-project resolutions: Try something new; put myself out there; enjoy the fun of failure; only connect; ask for help.

So I said, “Yes, thanks, and can you explain how it would work?”

Not only did Jackie do that – we actually MET IN PERSON for coffee in New York City on Friday. (Whenever I meet someone from blogland in real life, it’s like having a childhood imaginary friend appear in person.)

So Jackie did set up the Facebook group. Please check it out! You can also search for “happiness project.” You have to be a member of Facebook to access it, but it’s easy to join.

This group is a place where people can exchange views, tips, reactions, and strategies. In this blog’s comment section, you might feel constrained to react to what I’ve written, but in the Facebook group, you can raise new issues and start different discussions.

I can’t wait to read what people post there. If, in fact, anyone does.

While I’m “asking for help,” here’s a question: is there a way to put something on my blog to let people know about the existence of the Facebook group?

One true rule of happiness is “Do good, feel good.” I hope that Jackie feels good about her nice gesture.

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I’m not sure I’d describe Revival of the Faddist blog as a “happiness project,” but it’s certainly an engaging exercise in self-experimentation. Andy tries a bunch of fad diets, one after another. It’s quite funny, and also quite illuminating.

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This Saturday: a happiness quotation from Mary Cantwell.

Marycantwell“Meanwhile, as we read, two little girls slept as if couched on zephyrs on the south side of the parlor floor, in a room that had bunny wallpaper…and a bookcase crammed with the collected Beatrix Potter. Snow White was in a youth bed and Rose Red was in a crib, and next to them was the little blue and white guest room that one of them would have one day.
Because I recognize emotions only in retrospect, I didn’t know that I was happy. As always, there was something nagging at my mind’s corners. But I did know that I had all that it is proper in this world to wish for.”
— Mary Cantwell, Manhattan, When I Was Young

I love Mary Cantwell’s writing, and in my blog, I almost used the names Snow White and Rose Red for the Big Girl and the Little Girl. But that would have meant calling the Big Man by the name Prince Charming, and I feared people would find that unbearably annoying.

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I’ve been hearing about Apartment Therapy for a long time but finally checked it out myself. Lots of great stuff there — my favorite bits are the wonderful photographs of scenes around New York City.

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A simple, easy, cheap way to fight the clutter that appears on your desk.

PadpaperI recently stumbled onto a new workday trick that keeps my desk cleaner and my mind clearer.

You know those little notes you write to yourself? The phone numbers, the URLs, the “call John Doe” reminder, the quick “don’t forget” notes…all those nagging loose ends that clutter the paper surfaces of a desk?

I used to scribble down quick notes to myself on whatever piece of paper that was lying around. This caused problems for several reasons: later, I couldn’t find what information I needed; I often couldn’t read my writing or figure out what a note meant; and often I accidentally tossed something I needed, or was reluctant to toss a note because I didn’t know if I needed it.

Now I have a “scratch paper for the day.” I keep a pad of paper by the phone, and anytime I have the urge to make a note to myself, I discipline myself only to use that pad of paper.

At the end of the day, I toss the piece of paper, after copying anything I need to keep.

I’m amazed at how much difference it has made in my sense of order. I’m not surrounded by illegible scribbles that may or may not be critically important.

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I rarely manage to post a link that relates to my own post for the day, but today I pull off this feat of relevancy — check out Ian’s Messy Desk.

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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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