Protect Your Heart: Start a Happiness Project

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin says her yearlong project made her happier—and it’s heart healthy.

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Going out dancing on a Saturday night makes me happy. So does nailing down an angle for a tricky magazine story I'm writing. And watching my 9-year-old snowplow down a ski slope for the first time. But I'm also cranky a fair amount of the time—especially these days, as I battle snow-clogged roads left by the blizzard of 2010. And that's not good for my heart, according to a new Columbia University study that found that happier people are less likely to have heart attacks, clogged arteries, and other cardiac problems. The researchers used a 5-point scale to measure people's happiness and found that for every point increase, heart risks declined by 22 percent. 

cover of The Happiness Project

To lift my own score a bit, perhaps I need a "happiness project." That's the title of a new bestselling book by Gretchen Rubin, a freelance writer and married mother of two who lives in New York City. She set aside a year to focus solely on ways to make herself happier. (And, yes, she's got a free website to help you create your own happiness project using this toolbox. ) 

Her book illustrates a systematic approach to improving your sense of well-being. First, you need to come up with your own list of resolutions. Rubin had ones for every month: January, boost her energy via exercise and more sleep; February, improve her marriage; March, produce more as a writer by blogging every day, etc. She also came up with principles to guide her in following her resolutions, like "Act the way I want to feel" and "Enjoy the process." Along the way, she figured out what worked for her and what didn't. To help her live more in the moment, for example, she shunned meditation but embraced laughing yoga. I asked Rubin a few of the burning questions I had after reading her book. Here are edited excerpts from our interview; you can listen to the full podcast below.

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Gretchin Rubin, author of the Happiness Project, details the life makeover that increased her well being.

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In your book, you choose not to define happiness. Why?

The definition is very slippery; there are more than 15 academic definitions, and I decided I didn't really need to arrive at a final definition for either myself or others. Some people emphasize peace, others love, others joy. What I realized is most important is the feeling of being happier. And it was always easy for me to see whether something made me happier, so I thought more about that. People get intimidated by the idea of achieving happiness, trying to get to that destination. And some experts deny that it's even possible. So I ask you to ask yourself: In your own life, today, this week, this month, what can you do to be happier?  While I love the idea of a happiness project, the whole thing sounds a bit daunting. In just the first month of your project, you worked on exercising more, improving your sleep habits, and decluttering your closets. How can the average working parent do all of that?

It's true I do hundreds of resolutions, and maybe that's not realistic for someone who doesn't have this project as her day job. But most of the things that I found to be effective don't require hours of work. For most people it's just about turning off the light a little earlier at night to, say, get more sleep and energy. Pick out a few things that you think will make you happier and stick with those; seeing that they do indeed make you happier will give you the incentive to try other things.  The million-dollar question is: How do you stick with all these resolutions? Are you keeping yours?

Every day is a new test. I also consider it a fresh start so if I screw up one day, I can start anew the next. By and large, I'm following these resolutions because they've made me a lot happier. I also keep a resolutions chart—an idea I got from Benjamin Franklin—and every night I review my list and check off the ones that I've followed. I think it's important to hold yourself accountable to keep commitments from falling by the wayside.  What are the toughest ones for you to keep?

One of the toughest is not to expect praise or appreciation. I'm one of those people who likes a gold star on my homework. But my husband, who is a wonderful man in almost every way, is just not the kind of person to give that gold star. I realized I had a lot of resentment for him because he wouldn't give me enough praise. One of my resolutions was to adopt the mind-set that I'm doing these things for myself—whether it's cleaning up the kitchen or sending out holiday cards—and not for someone else's appreciation. It just wasn't realistic. This is hard for me because I still love those gold stars, but I'm happier not expecting them.  Another resolution that's tough for me to keep along these lines is no score-keeping; I had to learn not to expect payback from others for favors I've done for them. There's a psychological term called unconscious overclaiming, which means that we tend to overestimate how much we've contributed to a group project, like the running of a family, and underestimate how much others have contributed. For instance, I might think about how much time I've spent taking care of the kids one day but not about the time my husband spent performing maintenance on the car.

[Fix your relationship with these makeover tips.]

One of your resolutions was to "buy some happiness." Aren't we told that's something money just can't buy?

Some of the best things in life aren't free. If you spend your money on experiences that make you happy, that's money well spent. Maybe spending your money on visiting your sister far away or attending a college reunion will make you happier than buying that new chair. Sometimes we make purchases that we think will drive our behaviors. Buying an expensive tennis racket won't get you to play tennis unless this is a sport you truly enjoy doing. People complain about how much money they spend on their pets, but they also get tremendous pleasure from their pets. You have to think about whether what you're spending your money on is really going to boost your happiness. It's all about choosing wisely. [10 secrets to finding happiness during the recession

So many of us look to the future for happiness—once we switch jobs, move to a new city, have a baby, we'll be happy—and we're never able to appreciate that joy of the present moment. How do you do this?

Some people meditate to remind themselves to pay attention, but that doesn't work for me. One thing I do is sit down at my computer, which I love coming back to to write my blog and respond to my readers' comments. I always remind myself how much I love my ordinary day. I also keep a one-sentence journal. I just write one sentence for every day to memorialize it. I started this when my girls were babies to remember their childhoods and not let it pass by in a blur. It reminds me to appreciate the now and focus on what's happening right in front of me. One of the problems with becoming mindful is that if you don't already have that tendency, you may never remember to actually sit back for a moment and pay attention. Finding something to serve as a reminder is key.  Scheduling in "spontaneous" fun is also helpful to bring joy to your everyday life. Take a look at your calendar, and make sure you have things to look forward to every day or every week. I mean things you really find fun, not things you think you should do because other people enjoy them. I don't like skiing, shopping, or drinking wine, so I skip those things even though they're supposed to be fun. Instead I blog or have lunch with friends. Having fun energizes you, and then those things that seem onerous maybe will feel lighter. 

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