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Create Your Own 'Happiness Folder'

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Natalie Portman dropped some serious knowledge in her interview with James Lipton on Inside the Actor's Studio. Lipton brought up something Portman had mentioned in a previous interview -- how she had no clear memories from before 12. She elaborated:

"I realized that so much of memory is rehearsal. You get so much of it from your friends, your family, just going over things with you. I had no siblings, and I didn't have friends from when I was little. So much of it is just lost."

(Portman knows a thing or two about memory: she studied psychology at Harvard where she worked as a research assistant and was mentioned in a paper under her real name, Natalie Hershlag.)

It's easy to get bogged down in unhappy memories. In the times we've messed up, or the times we've failed at something, and so on. And amidst the discouraging thoughts, it becomes easier not to follow up with a cold email, or not to attempt a new project. Yet Portman said we rehearse a lot of memories -- so why not make a conscious effort to guide memory development?

As I was watching that interview, I toyed with the idea of rehearsing memories myself. Shortly after, I started bookmarking encouraging chats or emails, or just writing down really happy or exciting moments. Some include the day I started a new job, good times with friends, interviewing someone I really admired, going on a really fun date, collaborating with one of my heroes. I also keep screenshots of amusing images, and quotes or passages of text that I've found particularly practical or meaningful.

I call this The Happiness Folder.

Treat yo self mentally. Create a Happiness Folder. The folder can contain anything that helps you rehearse the memories that you need to become happier in the long-term. This ranges for every one, but could include:

  • Memories that make you more confident prior to a nerve-racking meeting. (e.g., Journal entries or photos of your "trophies" or "war stories" -- e.g., your first sale closed, your first bottle of champagne after your sale closed, memories of good friends -- who will be there even if you mess up this meeting.)
  • Or a folder that reminds you that you're not a terrible artist. (e.g., An encouraging Dribbble comment or Tweet. Your first exhibit. Your first acceptance into a contest. Your first sale, perhaps.)
  • Or a folder that kicks you in the ass when you're feeling a bit lazy. (e.g., A list of 2012's new year's resolutions, childhood goals, a photo of your family, a photo of your younger self, a photo of your heroes, pump-up music.)

These cues remind me of the times I felt on top of the world -- and hopefully help me find a pattern between them, so I can understand myself better. But they're also a sight for sore eyes on particularly gloomy days or when I'm about to attempt something out of my comfort zone. A lot of us are our own worst critics -- and the Happiness Folder serves as a way to balance that out a little bit.

In a worst-case scenario, you'll have a hotbed of creativity to draw from. Life won't seem to pass by as fast, because you're making more marks along the journey. But you may find your ability to cheer yourself up a lot more powerful with this resource.

Admittedly, the Happiness Folder still sounds like a bit of an indulgence. It's a warm, fuzzy, folder. It is the caring friend that gives you a nudge in the right direction. Perhaps the natural progression is to start on a more stimulating experiment -- a "Lessons Folder", where I take my worst memories and reframe them. It could be good practice. As Natalie Portman says:

"I was especially fascinated by memory studies. There was one that requested people's good and bad memories, and then checked them for content. But non-pathological people, people who maintain a happy, healthy brain, couldn't provide negative memories. They'd say, 'But I learned this from the experience;' they'd turn their negative memories into positive ones."

*A brief note on why I don't think it's vain to care -- at least a little -- about other people's opinions:

"They say you are not you except in terms of relation to other people. If there weren't any other people there wouldn't be any you because what you do, which is what you are, only has meaning in relation to other people." -- All the King's Men, Robert Penn Warren

Delude yourself all you want, but you live in a world heavily influenced by other people. At least briefly consider what they think.

Herbert Lui is the Creative Director of Wonder Shuttle. He is the author of a free guide to building credibility online.