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Gretchen Rubin

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Reconsider the Rules of Thumb You Use in Everyday Life

Posted: 08/09/10 08:00 AM ET

Thinking

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. Each Friday's post will help you think about your own happiness project.

My adventures in the lands of happiness research led me to the concept of heuristics. Heuristics are "rules of thumb," the quick, common sense principles people apply to solve a problem or make a decision. They aren't "rules for living" that you consciously try to apply; rather, they're deeply embedded, often unconscious rules that you use to make decisions, answer a question or decide a course of action.

Usually heuristics are useful, though sometimes they lead to cognitive bias. Take the availability heuristic: people predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often helpful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?) but sometimes people's judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. People become very worried about child abduction, say, when in fact, it's a very rare occurrence.

I realized that I have my own idiosyncratic collection of "heuristics" for making decisions and setting priorities. Well, maybe these don't fit the precise definition of "heuristics" -- but they're rules of thumb I apply when deciding what to think or how to act, mostly without quite realizing that I'm using them. They flicker through my brain so quickly that I had to make a real effort to detect them, but I identified a handful:

My children are my most important priority.
Exercise every day.
People don't notice my mistakes and flaws as much as I think.
My husband is my top priority.
"Yes" comes right away; "no" never comes.
Get some work done every day.
Whenever possible, choose vegetables.
I know as much as most people.
Try to attend any party or event to which I'm invited.
My parents are almost always right.
Ubiquity is the new exclusivity.
If I'm not sure whether to include some text in my writing, cut it out.
When making a choice about what to do, choose work.
I'm too busy to do that.

Looking at these rules showed me something. Several of them were difficult to balance. How could my kids, my husband, and my work all be top priorities? Also, I was pretty sure that my husband operates under the heuristic of "Try to skip practically any event to which I'm invited." That explained certain ongoing marital debates.

Some of my heuristics were unhelpful. "I don't have time" ran through my head dozens of times each day. I've been working to change that heuristic to "I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me."

I asked my friends if they had any personal heuristics, and I collected quite a few:
There's no wrong decision.
Always say hello.
People in business, small or large, will take advantage of you if they can.
What would my mother do?
Actually, this is good news.
Say yes.
This is the fun part.
Do nothing, go nowhere.
Do everything all at once.

What heuristics are shaping your behavior? Though I may be misusing the term. I mean, what are the rules of thumb that you apply to figure out what to think or do? Not what you WISH you thought ("Always take a moment to appreciate the sunshine") but what you actually think ("Any parent who misses a school function has bad values") -- whether or not you actually agree with that thought! What springs to mind?

Side note: At last, an answer. The CHICKEN did come before the EGG.

If you're also looking for some great summer reading, please consider The Happiness Project (can't resist mentioning: #1 New York Times bestseller).

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