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Balanced Life -- Why 'Having a Mission' Can Make You Happier

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I'm working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone's project will look different, but it's the rare person who can't benefit. Join in -- no need to catch up, just jump in right now.

Writer Jean Stafford scoffed, "Happy people don't need to have fun," but in fact, studies show that the absence of feeling bad isn't enough to make you feel good; you must strive to find sources of feeling good. Research shows that regularly having fun is a key factor in having a happy life; people who have fun are twenty times more likely to feel happy.

Recently, I noticed a pattern among activities that people find fun: Have a mission. There's something about having a playful purpose, of trying to achieve something, that makes an activity more fun.

For example, a friend told that she loved visiting flea markets and antique stores to look for old globes - not fancy ones, cheap ones. She has a rule that she'll never pay more than $20. She's the kind of person who loves poking around in those kinds of shops in any case, but having a mission makes it more fun, less aimless.

For that matter, having a collection of any sort is a very popular way to have a mission. You get the little zap of satisfaction whenever you find another piece of blue sea glass on the beach or another out-of-print book by Charlotte Yonge. Or you collect experiences, like attending a game in every Major League Baseball stadium or running in as many marathons as possible.

Taking photos is a common way to incorporate a mission into traveling. Not only does this help keep memories vivid, it also makes you more attuned to your environment while traveling. (Although for some people, taking photos can become a barrier to experience; they get so focused on getting the photos that they don't enjoy the reality.) For example, during my most recent visit to New Haven, I had a lot more fun wandering around once I set myself the mission of taking tourist photos of my own romance.

Some people have a mission to take photos during everyday life: taking a photo of people's bare feet whenever they get the chance, taking a photo of every red barn they see. Artist Nicholas Nixon did a series called The Brown Sisters, a series of black-and-white photos of his wife and her three sisters taken every year from 1975-2006. It's absolutely riveting.

Why is this true? The First Splendid Truth holds that to be happier, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

The more I've thought about happiness, the more surprised I've been at the importance of the "atmosphere of growth." I think this is a huge engine of happiness, and when you have a mission, you create an atmosphere of growth whenever you pursue that mission.

Have you found a way to have a mission? What is it - and does it boost your happiness?

P.S. I'm chuckling away at my choice of image. Get it?

* On Gimundo, I read about a very reassuring study that concludes that workers who are permitted to spend time each day (less than 20% of total time) puttering around the internet are actually more productive than those who aren't allowed to do so. Phew.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you'd like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I'm trying to thwart spammers.) Just write "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.

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