The Happiness Jar & The Curse Cup

They sit on the window ledge in my living room. I’m looking at them now: The Happiness Jar and the Curse Cup. They’re visible reminders of the choices I get to make throughout each day.

The Happiness Jar came first. The idea, attributed to Elizabeth Gilbert (or at least it was on her Facebook page that I had first seen it) is simple. Each day, you reflect on something that made you happy, write it down on a small piece of paper along with the date, and put it in a jar. Then at the end of the year, you open the jar and randomly read through all those happy moments. (You can find instructions and variations here and here.)

It has same benefits as keeping a gratitude journal. The act of reflecting on positive things and writing them down each day (or even anticipating that process) makes you more mindful of the happiness you experience each day. It could be something your child or friend or spouse did to make you feel loved or appreciated. Or the fulfillment you got from doing good work or exercise. Or simply the way the sun felt or the food tasted.

Like writing in a journal, it takes a while for it to become part of your routine. Though capturing a happy moment only takes a few seconds each day, my first attempt at a Happiness Jar wound up languishing on my bookshelf. It was only when I put the jar in a visible place along with some post-its and a pen, and put it on my progress chart, that depositing something in the jar became a habit.

The Curse Cup came later, and it's also simple: every time you curse, you deposit some money in the cup. While I’m not offended by cursing, I didn’t like that it had become an unthinking habit. Between growing up in The Bronx and working on trading floors, cursing seemed like a natural part of my self-expression. But when my children commented on my “bad words” and a few readers pointed them out in my writing, I decided there’s enough cursing in the world that I didn’t need to add to it. 

I said the kids could split whatever money was in the cup at the end of the year. So now I have an eager peer support group at home, waiting to assist me by pointing out whenever I curse and demanding I deposit a dollar for each offense.

These are trivial changes to my environment and to my day, and yet they’ve shifted my thinking. They've made me more mindful of a choice I get to make: I can focus on the good things in my life and be actively on the lookout for more, or I can add to already-too-much negativity and anger in the world.

The Happiness Jar and The Curse Cup. Which one will I contribute to today? 

Why “Half-full or half-empty?” is the wrong question

It’s such a common metaphor for our outlook on things. “Are you a glass half-full person?”

But that’s too simple and too static, because work and life are fluid and ever-changing. So here’s a better question to ask the next time you examine your glass:

“Is it evaporating or are you filling it up?”

half full glass of water or half empty PSC0512_FYI

More than just your outlook

Of course, there is a genetic predisposition to how we view the world. In The How of Happiness, Prof. Sonja Lyubomirsky says our biology accounts for about half of our happiness. Our environment, surprisingly, accounts for only a tenth.

The other 40% is up for grabs.

That means that even those who win the Genetic Happiness Lottery and the Life Circumstances Lottery can still be quite miserable if they don’t do anything with the 40% that’s within their control.

Said another way, if you passively observe the slings and arrows hurled at you and those around you, you can find plenty to be unhappy about, and the water in your glass will slowly evaporate.

The power of a drop

The way to overcome this passive process is by actively adding to your glass, perhaps with just a drop each day. It might be as simple as pausing to appreciate a moment. Practicing a small act of generosity. Making a connection with someone new, or deepening your connection with a friend.

“Life is a verb,” as Patti Digh wrote, and so is happiness. That might seem obvious, but it took me almost fifty years to realize it.

A few years ago, as part of my own happiness project, I started using a simple guide that has made me more mindful of small things. A bit more of this, a bit less of that.

I’ve maintained such a guide since then, and over the years I’ve discovered the power of the progress principle. Small steps unlock other small steps that, over time, can lead to a remarkable shift in how you think and act.

Each drop changes you in some small positive way. Over time, you can make it rain.

Make it rain