The Happiness Project

I recently attended a talk hosted by IGC featuring Gretchen Rubin. If you haven’t heard of her yet, Gretchen is the author of The Happiness Project, a memoir of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages about how to be happy—from Aristotle to Martin Seligman to Oprah. Rubin didn’t have the option to uproot herself, nor did she really want to; instead she focused on improving her life as it was. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions. On Gretchen’s blog, she shares her insights to help her readers create their own happiness project.

Here are some of the tips she uncovered during her journey to achieve happiness which I found to be worthwhile:

Sleep: In a 2007 survey from the Better Sleep Council, 44 percent of workers admitted that when they are sleep deprived, they are more likely to be in an unpleasant or unfriendly mood. In general, people who are tired due to lack of sleep tend to feel irritable and don’t have the energy to do much of anything. Millions of people fail to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night. One study revealed that along with tight work deadlines, a bad night’s sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods.

To fall asleep faster, Gretchen simply turned off the light. She admitted that she had often stayed up to read, answer emails, watch TV, or whatever instead of going to bed. After a week of more sleep, Gretchen began to feel a real difference. She writes, “I felt more energetic and cheerful with my children in the morning. I didn’t feel a painful, never-fulfilled urge to take a nap in the afternoon.”
Think about your own sleep habits. When was the last time you drifted off to sleep easily, slept soundly all night long, and woke up feeling refreshed and alert? When was the last time you hopped out of bed in the morning raring to go?

Be Accountable: The best chance of checking off a resolution or making an activity a habit is to schedule a specific time and place when you will plan to show up for the goal. You really have to know what you’re going to do. Just as I encourage my clients to commit to action steps which are measurable and achievable, so too does Gretchen. “I want to start eating healthy” is not enough. Pinning down the details of your plan will help you to evaluate whether you are making progress.

Gretchen kept a daily chart to measure her progress- an idea she got from Benjamin Franklin—and every night she reviewed her list and checked off the ones that she followed. She is one of those people who loves to get a gold star on her homework, so this exercise brought loads of joy to her.
Resolutions, as we all know, work best when they are concrete, not abstract. Start small; write down your plans on paper. I have a log where I jot down the miles I run every day in preparation for half marathon events for which I registered this year. It is minor, but I get a slight dopamine hit every time I put pen to paper post the loop of the park.

Tackle Clutter: Does outer order equal inner calm? This was a poll question Gretchen posed on her blog. My answer is “yes.” My mom once told me that she kept our house clear of clutter as she believed in the philosophy, “If you preserve order, order preserves you.” If this resonates, you likely will feel more serene and cheerful if your apartment and office space are not too messy. Gretchen found that having an uncluttered environment greatly influenced her sense of serenity — so she kept promises like Make my bed and Follow the one-minute rule.

Move: Nietzsche wrote, “All truly great thoughts are conceived while walking.” His advice is backed up by Thoreau and many others. People who exercise consistently report a general sense of well-being that people who lead a sedentary lifestyle do not experience. Getting your heart pumping allows more amino acid L-tryptophan to enter the brain- the precursor to the neurotransmitter serotonin, which balances moods.

Gretchen had all of her best writing ideas when walking or running. As she has a jittery nature, she found that she was far calmer on days when she had made it to the gym. When it comes to exercise, one type doesn’t fit all. I often tell my clients who are new to fitness to ease into it gradually. Just like when you were a kid, you had to crawl before you walked and you had to use training wheels before you could ride a two-wheeler bike. Making exercise a habit takes time. A few activities which may help to vary your routine include: table tennis, hiking, dancing, frisbee, golfing (no carts), jumping rope, volleyball, or walking the dog.

Start your own happiness project and begin with small intentions. Tune into the things that energize you, not things you think you should do because other people enjoy them. Think about some of the changes you might consider and then find a coach or assemble a supportive group. You can even email Gretchen through her blog for a happiness project starter kit.