Just six weeks. I’m still amazed. I’d been actively trying to be happier for the better part of a decade - researching, experimenting, wanting. Yet it’s only recently that I found something that worked, something that’s simple, effective, and free. Now I want to tell everyone about it.
Here’s the story of my personal Happiness Project.
There’s been a lot of research into what make people happy, particularly in the past two decades following the positive psychology movement. We now know some people have a genetic predisposition to be happier than others. Some simply have better circumstances, too. Yet, as Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky describes in The How of Happiness, there’s about 40% of our happiness that’s not explained by these factors. Even people with the exact same genes and circumstances would vary as to how happy they were.
The difference is in behavior - what we do and how we think. You might think that’s good news since we can control these things. But in fact most of what we do is unthinking.
In Strangers to Ourselves, Timothy Wilson writes that while our brains can take in eleven million pieces of information at any given moment, we’re only consciously aware of forty. It’s a dramatic statistic that shows just how little attention we have. It also shows us why change is so hard. Acquiring a new skill or behavior requires that we focus our precious attention over a period of time and, since attention is scarce, we have a natural aversion to expending it. As the neurologist Daniel Kahneman writes, “Laziness is built deep into our nature.”
How to change the 40%
This May, I started reading The Happiness Project in which Gretchen Rubin, a writer in NYC, chronicled her yearlong journey to become happier. Through her research and experiments on herself and her family (which are charming, funny, and easy to relate to), she came across her Splendid Truth: “I need to look at my life and think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”
The key, as the research showed, was to change her habits - what she did and how she thought. To do that, she borrowed an idea from Benjamin Franklin, who early on in his life identified 13 values he wanted to cultivate and would keep track of his progress every day. Gretchen felt that, more than anything, this made her happier.
“The single most effective step for me had been to keep my Resolutions Chart…By providing an opportunity for constant review and accountability, the Resolutions Chart kept me plugging away.”
My Happiness Project
I had discovered the power of charting my progress in writing the book and then as part of changing any habit. So I took a sheet of paper and listed things according to Gretchen’s Splendid Truth, resolving to do more of what made me feel good, less of what made me feel bad, more that made me feel right, and more that created an atmosphere of growth.
I added a few things as the first few weeks went by, and now my Resolutions Chart includes these things:
- Friends/family - Time with extended family and friends I don’t often see.
- 6-second hugs - Physical contact releases oxytocin, increasing bonding, trust, and feelings of happiness.
- No alcohol - Not abstinence but balance.
- No anger - Eliminating overreactions to small irritations.
- Admin - Getting little things done instead of procrastinating.
- Honest Day’s Work - Putting in a solid effort at work.
- No negative talk - Less sarcasm, snapping, or gossip.
- No phone overuse - Limiting time spent checking things on my phone.
- Do good - Helping someone else.
Atmosphere of growth
- Book/Circles - Investing in my learning, network, and career opportunities.
- Yoga/gym - Training my body to be healthier.
- Meditation - Training my mind to be calmer and more focused.
Some things, like working on the book or with working out loud circles, are fulfilling and meaningful. Smaller things, like being on my phone less and taking care of administrative tasks, simply make me less irritable.
Every day, in the morning and the evening, I looked at my chart for a few minutes. There were no great epiphanies. No single one of these things made me happier.
What happened is I became mindful of my happiness. Put together, all the resolutions on my chart made for a powerful shift in what I did and how I thought. Instead of thinking of happiness as something I would find, it has become a state I am actively trying to create. In a few minutes each day, the chart reminds me of what I need to do to maintain balance in my life and, when I’m out of balance, what adjustments I might make the following day. I gradually became happier after a few weeks. By 6 weeks, it was clear this I might maintain a resolutions chart for the rest of my life, just like Ben Franklin.
The thing I learned was this: You shouldn't wait for a happy life. By taking small steps towards it now and charting your progress, you can gradually build habits that can make each day a happier one.