Gretchen: For my “Happiness Project,” I spent a year test-driving all the tips, rules, current scientific studies, and wisdom of the ages about how to be happy – I report on what works, and what didn’t.
I started my twelve-month Happiness Project on January 1, 2007. Each month, I pursued a different set of resolutions aimed at a particular goal. So, for example, January was the month for “Energy,” February for “Marriage,” and March for “Career.”
I experimented -- would I be happier if I got more exercise? If I saw my friends more often? If I had more fun? If I stopped nagging my husband? I did everything from hypnosis to laughter yoga to keeping a one-sentence journal.
I didn’t reject my ordinary life—by moving to Walden Pond or
And I did.
DP: How did you come up with the idea to pursue different theories of happiness in one year?
Gretchen: One day, I had a sudden realization: I was in danger of wasting my life. On that rainy afternoon, as I was staring out the window of a taxi, I saw that the years were slipping by.
“What do I want from life, anyway?” I asked myself. “Well…I want to be happy.” But I never thought about what made me happy, or how I might be happier.
I had much to be happy about. I was married to the love of my life; we had delightful young daughters; I was a bestselling writer, after having had a stellar career in law (including a clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor); I was living in my favorite city, New York City; I had a very close relationship with my parents, sister, and in-laws; I had great friends; I had my health; I didn’t have to color my hair.
But too often I sniped at my husband or the cable-repair guy, I felt dejected after even a minor professional setback, I drifted out of touch with old friends, I suffered bouts of melancholy, insecurity, listlessness, and free-floating guilt. Would a happy person act that way?
I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations. One day, I’d stop twisting my hair, and wearing running shoes every day and eating oatmeal for lunch and dinner. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d fix up our apartment, and I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d get more reading done. I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I’d go to museums, and I wouldn’t be scared to drive.
In that moment, as I sat in the taxi, I realized two things: I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change.
“I need to think about this. In fact,” I reflected, “I should start a happiness project.”
DP: Where you unhappy before starting the project? Are you happier now?
Gretchen: Before I started this project, I was pretty happy, but I thought I could be happier. And zoikes, I was right. It turns out that taking the time to think about happiness, and to make changes that increase happiness, really does pay off in a big boost.
Someone might look at my goals and my results and think—boy, Gretchen had it easy. Stop scolding and read more aren’t dramatic vows. No booze or cocaine, no 300-pound weight loss, no screaming matches with family members, no terrible diagnosis, no car crash, no bitter divorce.
In fact, some people seem to think it’s frivolous to worry about happiness at all, unless a person is desperately unhappy.
I disagree. A 2006 study shows that most Americans (84 percent) rank themselves as “very happy” or “pretty happy,” and I’ve always considered myself “happy”—yet, at the same time, just about everyone, like me, would like to be happier. Why? Because happiness is a notoriously elusive state; studies show, for example, that people generally expect they’ll be happier in the future. Even people who consider themselves more or less happy have a deep desire to take steps to be happier.
My experience shows me that it’s worth the effort.
DP: What three theories on happiness did you find most compelling and why?
Gretchen: There are three quotations from happiness that have had enormous influence on my thinking.
Striving for happiness may appear to be a selfish goal, but it’s not.
Studies repeatedly demonstrate that happy people are generally more sociable, creative, forgiving, and tolerant of frustration than unhappy people, while unhappy people are more often withdrawn, brooding, and antagonistic. Happy people tend to be more responsible to others and to maintain relationships better. They’re more confident, optimistic, energetic, and likeable, and they tend to be more successful in their personal lives and at work. They do more volunteer work and give more to charity. They’re healthier. They commit fewer crimes. When people are in a good mood, they think more clearly and are more open to new ideas. Although depressed people are more vigilant against making mistakes, people think more flexibly and with more complexity when they’re in good moods.
And happy people lift other people’s moods (that’s “emotional contagion”). If I’m happy (or at least act happy), I help make other people happy.
My realization of the duty to be happy led me to one of my major insights – what I call my “Second Splendid Truth”:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
“It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.” G. K. Chesterton
This quotation reminds me that although it’s hard to take a light tone, to joke around, to be enthusiastic, it pays off for happiness.
"When one loves, one does not calculate." St. Therese.
I have a bad tendency to keep score. Since I let my husband take a nap, I get to go to the gym, etc.
DP: How would you now universally define happiness?
Gretchen: I’m going to dodge that question. I’ve decided not to try to define happiness.
One researcher recorded 15 different academic definitions of happiness, which also goes by the names of hedonic tone, subjective well being, positive affect, etc.
Instead of trying to come up with a definition of my own to add to that list, I just use the broad term “happiness,” in the belief that, practically speaking, people know what happiness is, even if they can’t quite define it, and in any event, it doesn’t really matter if everyone agrees.
The question that concerns me for the Happiness Project is: no matter how particular people define the term, can we make ourselves happier? And the answer is YES. To know how to think about happiness, I came up with my First Splendid Truth:
To think about happiness, we must think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.
In other words, we should try to have more “feeling good” (excitement, fun, engagement, pleasure), less “feeling bad” (anger, resentment, boredom, anxiety), more “feeling right” (the feeling that we’re living the life we ought to lead), in an “atmosphere of growth” (a life that includes a feeling of progress, growth, and movement).
It’s clunky, but it works.