“What other people, real or imaginary, do and think and feel… is an essential guide to our understanding of what we ourselves are and may become.”
Ursula K. Le Guin, The Language of the Night
“Sartaj was thinking about how uncanny an animal this life was, that you had to seize it and let go of it at the same time, that you had to enjoy but also plan, live every minute and die every moment.”
Vikram Chandra, Sacred Games
“There are unheralded tipping points, a certain number of times that we will unlock the front door of an apartment. At some point you were closer to the last time than you were to the first time, and you didn’t even know it.”
Colson Whitehead, The Colossus of New York
“Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.”
Virginia Woolf, The Years
“Against a dark sky all flowers look like fireworks.”
G. K. Chesterton, “The Glory of Grey”
“I understand how scarlet can differ from crimson because I know that the smell of an orange is not the smell of a grape-fruit.”
Helen Keller, The World I Live In
“Many of us know the joy and excitement not so much of creating the new as of redeeming what has been neglected, and this excitement is particularly strong when the original condition is seen as holy or beautiful.”
J. B. Jackson, The Necessity for Ruins: and Other Topics
“There have been other suns that set in significance for me, but that sun! It was a book-mark in the pages of a life.”
Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road
It’s easier to change our circumstances than to change ourselves.
The most important thing is to know ourselves, and to choose the habit strategies that work for us.
5 things making me happy
As of September 7, the Met is now open again on Tuesdays (visitors must be vaccinated and masked). Wonderful!
I love studying the five senses; I’ve learned so many odd facts. In a minor but amusing example of how others shape what tastes we choose, research shows that in a restaurant, we usually want to order an item different from what others have already ordered—even if that may mean choosing a dish that we don’t particularly want. This phenomenon explains why I feel uncomfortable ordering the salmon after my two friends have already ordered it. Do you feel this way?
I had a terrific time talking to the brilliant Kate Bowler on her Everything Happens podcast. We discuss how our senses anchor us to the present, the difference between happiness and joy, and whether happiness is a selfish endeavor. Listen here.
I was fascinated by this study of emojis. Guess which emoji is the most popular, worldwide? Tears-of-laughter emoji—along with thumbs-up, red heart, blowing-a-kiss, and single-tear in the top five. Ninety percent of global emoji users said that emojis make it easier to express themselves.
The Happiness Museum opens in Denmark! I can’t wait to visit. Another reason to visit Copenhagen, a city that I love.
5 things making me happy
New vocabulary alert! I recently heard myself use a word for the very first time: “zhuzh”—“to make something more interesting or attractive by changing it slightly or adding something to it.” It was strange to hear a new word come out of my mouth, but I did use it properly.
During my daily visits to the Met, when I’m anywhere nearby, I make a point to walk past Fra Fillippo Lippi’s “Portrait of a Woman with a Man at a Casement.” The sight of that man poking his head through the window makes me smile every time. Fun fact: this is the earliest surviving double portrait in Italy.
I’ve always been so curious about whole-body cryotherapy—brief exposure to very cold temperatures—and because I’m writing my book about the five senses, I wanted to push myself to try this extreme sensation. I finally booked an appointment, and I’m very glad I did. It was a sensory adventure! Read more about my experience here.
I love getting a surprise in the mail. In episode 342 of the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I talked about a listener’s suggestion to use “rubber duck debugging”—when you explain a problem to a rubber duck, and in the process of talking through it, figure out the answer. A few days later, Elizabeth mailed me my very own rubber duck.
Because I love miniatures, a thoughtful reader sent me this 30-second video that shows a tiny room tucked behind an electrical outlet. So fun!
13 Tips for Sticking to Your Resolutions
There is no one-size-fits-all solution to a Happiness Project. You can start at any time—the New Year, your birthday, after a big change or revelation, or right now, today—and it can last as long as you want. It’s up to you. But when it comes to being happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative, what we do every day matters more than what we do once in a while.
For sticking to your resolutions, consider these strategies:
1. Be specific. Resolutions like “Make more friends” or “Strengthen friendships” are vague, and there’s no way to measure your success. Resolutions that are concrete and measurable might be: “Start a group,” “Say hello,” “Make plans,” “Show up,” and “No gossip.”
2. Write it down.
3. Review your resolution constantly. If your resolution is buzzing through your head, it’s easier to stick to it. Keep a resolution chart or write it on a sticky note in a place you’ll see it every day.
4. Hold yourself accountable. Tell other people about your resolution, join or form a like-minded group, use a habit tracker, think about a key identity that you want to cultivate—whatever works for you to make yourself feel accountable for success and failure.
5. Think big. Maybe you need a big change, a big adventure—a trip to a foreign place, a break-up, a move, a new job. Let yourself imagine anything, and plan from there.
6. Think small. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that only radical change can make a difference. Just keeping your fridge cleared out could give you a real boost. Look close to home for ways to improve and grow.
7. Ask for help. This can be hard, but you’ll be amazed at how much easier your task becomes.
If you have an especially tough time keeping resolutions, if you have a pattern of making and breaking them, try these strategies:
8. Consider making only pleasant resolutions. We can make our lives happier in many ways. If you’re struggling to keep your resolutions, try resolving to “Watch a movie every Sunday,” “Read for an hour every day,” or whatever resolutions you’d find fun to keep. Often, having more fun in our lives makes it easier to do tough things. Seeing more movies might make it easier to keep going to the gym.
9. Consider giving up a resolution. If you keep making and breaking a resolution, consider whether you should relinquish it entirely. Put your energy toward changes that are both realistic and helpful. Don’t let an unfulfilled resolution to lose twenty pounds or to overhaul your overgrown yard block you from making other, smaller resolutions that might give you a big happiness boost.
10. Keep your resolution every day. It’s often easier to do something every day (exercise, post to a blog, deal with the mail, do laundry) than every few days.
11. Set a deadline.
12. Don’t give up if something interferes with your deadline.
13. “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” Thank you, Voltaire. Instead of starting your new exercise routine by training for the marathon, aim for a 20-minute walk each day. Instead of cleaning out the attic, tackle one bureau drawer. If you break your resolution today, try again tomorrow.
But the opposite of a profound truth is also true, and you might succeed by ignoring these tips! You might do better when you don’t feel accountable to anyone, or when you don’t have a deadline, or don’t follow a schedule. If a strategy doesn’t work for you, try something else.
There are many ways for us to achieve our aims, and there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. Do what works for you. When we know ourselves better, we can make aims that we’re more likely to keep.
The 21 Strategies for Habit Change
Do you want to make a significant change in your life? Or help someone else to make an important change?
Often, this means changing a habit (get more sleep, quit sugar, exercise regularly, spend more time in nature, put down devices). Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life—research suggests that about 40% of our existence is shaped by our habits.
In her book Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin identifies the 21 strategies that we can use to make or break our habits.
1. The Four Tendencies
To change your habits, you have to know yourself, and in particular, your Tendency—that is, whether you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.
All of us face both outer expectations (meet a work deadline) and inner expectations (keep a New Year’s resolution). Your Tendency describes how you respond to those expectations.
Upholders respond readily to both outer and inner expectations. They work hard to meet others’ expectations—and their expectations for themselves.
Questioners question all expectations, and will meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified by reason, logic, and fairness; they follow only inner expectations.
Obligers respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations. They keep their promises to others, but have difficulty keeping their promises to themselves. They respond to external accountability.
Rebels resist all expectations, outer and inner alike. They choose to act from a sense of choice, identity, or freedom. They resist being told what to do; often, they don’t even like to tell themselves what to do.
When we try to form a new habit, we set an expectation for ourselves, so understanding our Tendency allows us to choose the strategies that will work for us. For instance, accountability is a crucial strategy for Obligers, but for Rebels, it can be counter-productive.
By taking into account various aspects of our nature related to habit formation, we can avoid wasting energy, time, or money. For example, are you a morning person or night person? An over-buyer or under-buyer? Do you prefer familiarity or novelty; competition or collaboration? Considering such distinctions will help you establish habits in the ways that best suit you.
We manage what we monitor. Keeping close track of our actions means we do better in categories such as eating, drinking, exercising, working, TV and Internet use, spending—and just about anything else. A key step for the Strategy of Monitoring is to identify precisely what action is monitored.
First things first. Certain habits serve as the foundation for other habits, because they keep us from getting too physically taxed or mentally frazzled, and then, because we have more energy and self-control, we follow other healthy habits more easily. We can strengthen our foundation by getting enough sleep; eating and drinking right; exercising; and un-cluttering.
For many people, if it’s on the calendar, it happens. Habits grow strongest and fastest when they’re repeated in predictable ways, and for most of us, putting an activity on the schedule tends to lock us into doing it. Scheduling an activity also protects that time from interference.
Many people do better when they know someone’s watching. For Obligers, most of all, external accountability is absolutely essential.
7. First Steps
It’s enough to begin; if you’re ready, begin now. And while starting is hard, starting over is often harder; once started, try not to stop. Don’t break the chain!
8. Clean Slate
When we go through a big transition, old habits get wiped away, and with that clean slate, new habits form more easily. For this reason, a great time to tackle a new habit is when starting a new job, a new relationship, or a new home. Many people also use the New Year, a birthday, or an important milestone as a clean slate. When facing a clean slate, remember that temporary becomes permanent, so we should start the way we want to continue.
9. Lightning Bolt
Once in a while, we encounter some new idea, new information, or a new role—and suddenly, effortlessly, a new habit replaces a well-established habit. This strategy is enormously powerful, but hard to invoke on command. Examples might include: a documentary or book, a diagnosis, an accident, a conversation with a stranger, parenthood.
When facing a strong temptation, “Abstainers” do better when they abstain altogether, while “Moderators” do better when they indulge in temptation sometimes, or a little. For Abstainers, it’s much more difficult to indulge in moderation than to give something up; for Moderators, it’s harder to abstain.
To a truly remarkable extent, we’re more likely to do something if it’s convenient, and less likely if it’s not. The amount of effort, time, or decision-making required by an action has a huge influence on our habits. Make it easy to do right and hard to go wrong. Likewise…
We’re less likely to take an action if it’s inconvenient. The harder it is to indulge in a bad habit, the harder it is to do it impulsively. To weaken a bad habit, make it as inconvenient as possible.
Plan to fail. Try to anticipate and minimize temptation, both in your environment and in your own mind. Use “if-then” planning to prepare for challenges that might arise: “If it’s raining, then I will exercise by following an online cardio video.”
We often seek justifications to excuse ourselves from a good habit…just this once. By identifying the loopholes we most often invoke, we can guard against them.
False choice loophole: “I can’t do this, because I’m so busy doing that.”
Moral licensing loophole: “I’ve been so good, it’s okay for me to do this.”
Tomorrow loophole: “It’s okay to skip today, because I’m going to do this tomorrow.”
Lack of control loophole: “I can’t help myself.”
Planning to fail loophole: “I’m doing this for no particular reason, but now that I’m here, I can’t resist.”
“This doesn’t count” loophole: “It’s a holiday!”
Questionable assumption loophole: “I’m so far behind, there’s no point in starting.”
Concern for others loophole: “If I don’t do this, someone will be hurt or inconvenienced”
Fake self-actualization loophole: “You only live once!”
One-coin loophole: “What difference will this one action make?”
When we’re tempted to break a good habit, we deliberately shift our attention away from unwelcome thoughts by finding healthy distractions.
External rewards can actually undermine habit formation. The best reward for a good habit is the good habit itself.
Unlike a reward, which must be earned or justified, a “treat” is a small pleasure or indulgence that we give to ourselves just because we want it. It’s easier to ask more of ourselves when we’re giving more to ourselves, so so it’s helpful to identify plenty of healthy treats.
Only do X when you’re doing Y. Pair two activities: one that you need to or want to do, and one that you don’t particularly want to do, and always do them together.
The more clearly we identify the habit we intend to follow, the more likely we are to stick to it. Frame a habit to be concrete, manageable, and measurable.
Our habits reflect your identity, so if you struggle to change a particular habit, re-think your identity. Every identity—athlete, artist, environmentalist, reliable parent, strong leader—carries certain habits with it.
21. Other People
Your habits rub off on other people, and their habits rub off on you. Associate with people who follow the habits you want to adopt.
Some strategies work very well for some people, and not for others, and some strategies are available to us at some times in our lives, but not at other times. There is no magic, one-size-fits-all solution to changing habits. It turns out that it’s not that hard to change your habits—when you do it in the way that’s right for you.