In my new book The Happiness Project I describe the year I spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier -- from Aristotle to Thoreau to Seligman to Oprah. Here on the Huffington Post, I've recounted some of my adventures and conclusions in pursuit of happiness.
I'm describing my happiness project, but of course, the point of The Happiness Project is to encourage you to start your own happiness project. I've heard from many readers who have tried my suggestions themselves -- such as keeping a daily one-sentence journal, making their bed, or joining a group -- to happy effect.
To take just one small example, I've written about my idea of the abstainer/moderator split: when it comes to resisting temptation, some people find it much easier to abstain altogether, while others do better exercising moderation. (Here's a quiz to tell you which camp you're in.) Abstainers and moderators judge each other harshly; abstainers think moderators constantly cheat, and moderators think abstainers have a rigid, unhealthy attitude.
Neither way is the right way to resist temptation. As with many aspects of happiness, it's a matter of knowing the right approach for you. I myself am an abstainer -- like Samuel Johnson, who observed, "Abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult." When you recognize your own nature, you're better able to devise a happiness project that works for you.
One woman commented:
Learning that I am an abstainer ... has been a great boon to my happiness. Knowing myself better helped me make the choice to give up sugar and flour all together. I have found it much easier to stick to my resolution when abstaining totally. Plus, I have lost 45 unwanted pounds over the last several months. And that is a certainly a happiness booster!
Before I started my happiness project, I certainly didn't realize I was an abstainer, and it surprised me to discover that it was far easier for to give up things altogether than to indulge every once in a while.
In fact, as I used myself as guinea pig to test various theories about how to be happier, I discovered several things that surprised me. The most effective ways to pursue happiness were sometimes counter-intuitive.
1. Do buy happiness.
Well, maybe money can't buy happiness, but spent wisely, it can buy things that contribute mightily to happiness. Some of the best things in life aren't free. To be happy, we need to feel loved, secure, good at what we do, and have a sense of control. Money doesn't automatically fill these requirements, of course, but it sure can help.
2. Don't get organized.
When I faced tackling the intimidating piles of clutter in my apartment and office, my first impulse was to run to a supply store to buy lots of organizing gizmos. Then I realized -- no! My first task was to get rid of things that I didn't need or didn't work. The most important tool in my clutter-clearing arsenal turned out to be trash-bags. (Here are 27 bonus tips for keeping your house in order.)
In many cases, after sorting through a pile, I found myself left with nothing to organize. Conquering clutter is a happiness booster because for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm.
3. Do let the sun go down on my anger.
In the past, I'd always conscientiously aired every complaint before bedtime. Studies show, however, that the notion of "anger catharsis" is nonsense. Venting anger related to minor, fleeting annoyances just amplifies bad feelings; not expressing anger often allows them to dissipate.
4. Don't insist on "the best."
There are two types of decision makers: satisficers seek to satisfy certain criteria; maximizers seek to make the best possible decision. Once satisficers find a tent or a watch that meets their requirements, they buy it; maximizers want to find the best tent or the best watch. Maximizers tend to be less happy than satisficers, because they agonize over their choices. I often remind myself of one of my favorite Secrets of Adulthood (cribbed from Voltaire): Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
5. Do embrace the fun of failure.
Positive psychologists tell us that challenge and novelty are key elements of happiness. Studies show that people who do new things -- learn a game, travel to unfamiliar places -- are happier than people who stick to the familiar. When I tested this proposition, I figured it wouldn't be true for unadventurous, routine-loving me, but to test it, I launched a blog. True, the novelty and challenge of my blog initially often brought me frustration and anxiety, as I had to face failing at multiple tasks until I figured them out, but mastering those tasks made me extremely happy.
6. Don't practice "random acts of kindness."
We've all been urged to practice random acts of kindness -- pay the toll for the next car in line, feed a parking meter, buy a stranger a cup of coffee. And studies do show that if you commit a random act of kindness, you'll feel happier. However, the person who is the beneficiary of your random act probably won't feel happier.
Research indicates that many people reacted to receiving a random act of kindness with -- suspicion! It's not the kindness of the act that's the problem; it's the randomness. We're on guard when we don't understand a person's actions. Of course, it's always nice to be nice, but if you want to boost other people's happiness as well as your own, practice non-random kindness. Help a co-worker who has a tight deadline. Let someone with a few items cut in front of you in the check-out line. If you look, you can probably find enough opportunity for non-random kindnesses to keep you busy.
7. Do "fake it till you feel it."
Although we assume that we act because of the way we feel, we often feel because of the way we act. An almost uncannily effective way to change my emotions, I discovered, was to act the way I wanted to feel. If I feel resentful, I act thoughtful. If I feel lethargic, I act energetic. If I smile, I feel happier. One experiment showed that people who used Botox may feel less angry, because they aren't able to make angry, frowning faces! Although it may seem insincere at first, controlling your actions is an effective way to change your feelings.
Have you been surprised by something that did - or didn't make you happy, contrary to your expectation?
Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project--an account of the year she spent test-driving every conceivable principle about how to be happy.