Happiness is a Habit

I get the Bold School e-mail from the Washington Post; it’s basically a weekly report on some aspect of aging and it’s always interesting. This week’s was on the grumpy old person stereotype, countered with research that shows that happiness throughout life is a U shape, declining through the thirties and forties and then rising again in the fifties and continuing to rise after that. The e-mail concluded with the idea that even if you’re a pessimist, happiness is something that you can consciously practice in small ways until it becomes a habit. Such as (from the e-mail):

Practice gratitude. Keep a gratitude journal, pray or do kind things, such as emailing notes of praise or thanks, or letting someone go in front of you in traffic. Our colleague (and Bold School copy editor) Jim Webster jots down one positive thing a day, then posts the whole lot at month’s end. (I may try this in January or February. February is usually my happiness killer.)

Do the obvious stuff. Get enough sleep and exercise, breathe deeply, and smile regardless of how you feel. (Okay, not the last one. Women get told to smile all the damn time. I’ll smile when I want to, not because somebody doesn’t want to look at my resting bitch face.)

Focus on good news amid the bleak. Read uplifting selections from The Post’s Inspired Life section, including this story about a therapist who teaches patients to retrain their brains. And check out our weekend good-news newsletter, The Optimist, or flip through our new series on climate change solutions. (I can recommend The Optimist newsletter. In fact, I highly recommend the Washington Post in general.)

Practice self-compassion. Stop comparing yourself to others, and surround yourself with positive people. (This is why we do Happiness Sundays, folks. Even if I’ve been a grinch this year.)

Pretend to be decades younger. Cliches about being only as old as you feel are starting to have scientific backing. (I told Krissie we were never going to die because I feel nineteen and she acts like she’s fourteen. She said the thought that she acted like fourteen made her happy. See? It works.)

Note: Today is the shortest day (stretch of daylight), aka the Winter Solstice (Summer Solstice for those down under). From now on it will gradually stay lighter longer. Since I’m a big fan of light, this is another reason to be happy, even though we’re not going to see spring until April. Happy Solstice, Light Lovers!

45 thoughts on “Happiness is a Habit

  1. I’ve been trying to remember to do one sun salutation in the morning before I have a cup of coffee. I have this terrible habit of wanting to do “all or nothing” and then can’t be consistent or over commit to something to burn myself out. But one sun salutation is doable even on a fairly busy day (it helps the sun comes up late and the children are sleeping in a bit) and when I do skip or forget a day, it doesn’t feel like a big deal to start over again. It’s just a little preventative measure on my hamstrings and hips so I don’t injure myself running. That’s been my recent happiness habit. The running hasn’t really been happening lately, but that’s a problem to tackle for another day. 😉

    Other than that, very happy to be sliding into that quiet part of the year. We’re not travelling or having company. The holiday shopping and chores are all done and nothing of importance needs to get done until the new year. Quiet, cozy days. Puttering, reading, writing, some short runs if the weather is nice.

    1. That’s how I started with at-home yoga. And because I single-step back, not jump, I would do one for each leg and be done.

  2. I read one trick for gratitude a while back. Once a week, you write down one good thing that happened on a piece of notepaper and put it in a jar or other container. Then at the end of the year, you can open up those notes to yourself and reflect positively on the entire year.

    I tried to do that on a more or less daily basis, and have a cookie jar with notes in it from several years ago. I still haven’t gone through them. It might be fun.

    Meanwhile, I am happy for friends. I had one come over and help with baking cookies yesterday. It was fun, and I was glad for the assistance. It means that I’ll be able to gift cookies to the neighbors as I do every year.

    And, every day my ankle and leg are getting stronger. Who knew that not using it for 7 weeks would make everything so weak! (Doctors, obviously, but not me.) But things are getting better, and that makes me happy!

    I hope everyone’s holiday celebrations are wonderful!

    1. It occurs to me that Jenny’s happiness Sundays is really our cookie jar – and we get to share everyone’s happiness. Thanks Jenny!

    2. I’ve been doing that exercise this year–every Monday I write down something that made me happy from the week before. I might have missed a couple, but I’ve mostly been pretty diligent about it. I intend to sit down in January and look at them. Hopefully that will bring back some of those happy feelings.

  3. The artists network I’m in had a wonderful Christmas party on Wednesday evening: food to share, interesting people to get to know better, an open fire and wooden beams all over the place (I’d guess the house is C17).

    On Thursday I had a painless visit to the dentist, who’s going to crown my broken tooth, so no false teeth necessary as yet. And then a lovely long hot bath when I thought I’d lost my hot water for good.

    Friday a good friend came to stay overnight, and I introduced her to another old friend and they really got on.

    Today’s great positive is that the plumber thinks I can keep my water supply and my boiler switched on and just rely on the boiler’s safety valve and a bit of manual fiddling to keep the pressure within operational limits. He’s ordering me a new one tomorrow morning (expensive, but has a 12-year guarantee), and hopes to install it between Christmas and New Year.

    And I’ve just been FaceTimed by my mother’s favourite American cousin, who I haven’t spoken to for a while. He’s still going strong at 87 and it was great fun to reconnect.

    Oh – and I had a lovely card from the-friend-who-sacked-me’s grown-up nephew, saying he and his mother are baffled by the whole thing but are absolutely not going to let it affect our relationship.

  4. I believe the advice to smile is not necessarily to smile at anyone—you could do it alone in your house.

    The kids are coming home from Boston and London and I have a week where I will work part time from home. The social events are piling up, creating some anxiety since I’m an introvert….but all in all it will be good.

    However this Wednesday christmas really makes baking harder.

  5. I’ve always been the happiest at small victories and knowingly give myself an inner fist pump when they happen. Larger victories do not compute with my family they most likely bring major downfalls. One step forward, two steps back, that sort of thing.

    February being my birth month I’m happy because we get at least an hour more of sun and that in itself is a blessing.

    Right now I have a cookie base setting up in the refrigerator and then will fill in mini muffin tins to bake this afternoon. I went to the dollar store and they have in their candy section individual packages of Hersey Kisses, different flavors, to put in the cookie base while they are still warm from the oven. Also picked up a box of peppermint bark and will try those too. They’re about the size of the kisses. Here’s hoping for a small victory.

  6. I keep meaning to subscribe to the WaPo. This is a good reminder to just do it.

    As to happies, I’ve got two this week. The biggest is that my cat Todd “only” has diabetes, after my fearing he had kidney disease. Diabetes is treatable; kidney failure, not so much. I’ve had both experiences with cats in the past, and it seems that feline diabetes treatment has improved significantly in the 10 years since my last diabetic cat, but not kidney treatment. Also, PSA to cat owners: switch to canned food. I was in denial about the risks of feeding dry food. And now that he really HAS to go onto wet food, it’s a bigger challenge than if he was used to eating it (and he might not have developed the diabetes if he’d been on canned food).

    And second one is a bit odd, but my dentist apparently needs to practice on some new equipment or using a new technique, so her office called to see if I wanted a free crown on a tooth that needs one, and has for a couple years, but hadn’t been bothering me enough to shell out the grand it costs. I was a guinea pig for her one other time, so I totally trust that even if she’s new at something, the outcome will be good. It could also just be some year-end pro bono stuff, but either way, I’m grateful and happy. Especially given the early expenses of a diabetic cat — dosage is very trial-and-error, so there are lots of vet visits initially, and as everyone knows, insulin has gotten expensive.

    1. Sounds like a great dentist. And the normal price makes me feel better about my £270 (though I still think it should be free, as it would be if I had a bad toe).

      1. Jane. I have no dental insurance. The root canal I had for my birthday (I spent my b’day in two different dentist offices) cost $1,100. This does not count the cost of the cap which goes over it for another $1,000. However, I rushed out and go dental insurance (cost $700/year with medicare) and put off the cap until Jan. 2 when the dental insurance goes into effect, when my share of the cost is $500 (50 percent deductible). So if I end up having another dental procedure next year, my insurance cost will be covered. Oh, except there is $1,000 annual payout limit on the insurance. You have a great deal.

        1. Yes, definitely, compared to the US. But the NHS originally covered eyes and teeth as well as the rest of your body; and unfortunately they’re my weak points.

    2. Good luck with the kitty. I’m glad it is only sort of bad news. (And the wet food thing has pros and cons, so it isn’t necessarily the answer for all cats.)

  7. I think you can–most of the time–be happy on purpose, but it’s something that has to be worked at every day. The term “small victories” has a lot to do with it.

  8. My happy is still the publishing of my English novel- thanks to thosen of you who downloaded it and read it on Kindle Unlimited! If you don’t have KU but are eager to look at it – from Dec 25 – 29 it will be free on amazon.com, so here’s the link:

    I think the story benefited a lot from Argh Ink because it’s about a community of people living in a house together (and y’all know how much store Jenny sets by communities). It’s also a love story. And a story about my home region. But ’nuff said. I just have to talk about it because it makes me happy and there are not so many people around me right now who will appreciate an English novel.

  9. From here on, days get longer. In that regard, one of my duties at work is to program the external lighting schedule. I’ve been saying for years that they should get photo-detectors that would turn the lights on whenever it’s dark enough, but they never wanted to trust the prison lights to that level of automation. Go figure.

    Because it’s my job, a part that takes as much as ten minutes every week or two, I am aware of the creep of the daylight hours. Right now, sunset is doing just that. Locally, it happens right around 4:55 PM. I think it’ll be at 4:56 on Christmas Eve. Sunrise, OTOH, had been skipping minutes to get later and later, keeping the day’s length not quite constant. It’s 7:19 now, it’ll be 7:21 by month’s end. The rate of change will begin to accelerate, and more so in the mornings, until March, when it will change several minutes at either end every day. Then the change continues until June, but the rate of change gradually slows.

    There are websites devoted to sunrise/sunset calendars. I use one in particular, for work. On a daily basis, I just look at my phone’s weather app. Weirdly, these little details contribute to my happiness. 🙂

  10. Several people in my family are adversely affected by the shorter days and are hanging on by their fingernails just now. I love to hear from them the second week in January. Their relief and glee at the days becoming that little bit longer always makes me smile.

  11. I have been working for years on actively practicing happiness. (Definitely still a work in progress, but WAY better than where I started out.)

    One simple trick my best ever psychologist ever taught me was to be alert for negative thoughts (“Oh god, I’m going to screw this up again.”) and replace them with positive ones (“Oh well, at least if I do, it will give people a good laugh, and it won’t be the end of the world.”) Needless to say, there are times and circumstances when this is easier than others, but it is especially good for the little daily nehnehneh voice in our own heads.

    In other news, I am now something of a Pollyanna. If someone says, “It’s raining AGAIN,” I’m likely to say something perky about it at least not being snow, or it will be good for the flowers, or it will clean my car off for free.

    I have found this simple bit of mindful positivity really helpful.

    This week’s happy was last night’s Yule dinner party with my family of choice–friends of long standing and a few husbands and kids. We had a great time, it makes up for my not being able to be with my own family for the holidays, and while I had to spend a lot of time and energy cleaning the house, when I woke up this morning I HAD A CLEAN HOUSE. In the middle of the December rush. So that’s a happy too.

  12. This will probably be the last crush update for the year, but the following went on this week:

    (a) He came to karaoke to hang out with me (i.e. none of the other friends went, and he knew that). I ended up singing “When You Say Nothing At All,” which is pretty much our (whatever the hell this is) relationship in a nutshell. He knew that was for him and applauded and gave me this certain….romantic look about it. Awww.

    (b) Yesterday he was going to a concert in a restaurant in the middle of nowhere with all of his relatives, and then a bunch bailed at the last minute, so he started asking friends to go and asked me. I did an insane amount of driving to get to it since I was supposed to be hours away earlier in that day (I was south, they were going north), but did it. I ended up following what turned out to be his family car, with a license plate that mentioned love in it. Coincidence? Hmmm. Anyway, he was very sweet about certain things with regards to me and stuff yesterday, so that was good.

    I am also getting more crazy synchronicities going on, just a ton. Like hearing our names together, random emails, romantic licenses, and seeing hearts everywhere.

    I see him for the last time in a few hours (cast party) and I will be bummed to not see him much after that for the rest of the winter at least. Oh well. Right now I am enjoying the contact this week. And well, maybe someday…who knows.

    Also, I’m out of work for two weeks and going to visit a friend during some of the vacation, so yay there.

  13. Last night I did something I’ve always wanted to do, and we made up a fire in the fire pit, by the sea, and made some spiced hot red wine, and some pies, and had a few people over. It was great. It wasn’t windy, and the fire burned happily. I had been given some sparklers, so we burned those. I told friends to bring something they wanted to burn, but I forgot to do that. It was fun and simple and outside. Time passes, whether we mark it or not, but I like to notice the circle of the year.

  14. Glad to have many holiday tasks out of the way, and many holiday treats to look forward to and enjoy.

    I made a mental box this week, and have been sticking ideas that pop into my head (and which don’t need to pop out of my mouth) into said mental box. This is allowing me to experience a possibly valid negative thought without having to say it, deny it, examine it, blah blah blah… I just think, “I’ll put it in the box in case I want to revisit this at some later, more appropriate point”. I am finding this helpful to not share stress with other already stressed out people.

    People have been apparently very happy to receive cookies from me, which makes me happy. AND I have cookies to eat, as well.

  15. I’ve made some moves lately that have been quite positive but. But some aspects Have made me miserable and ill tempered. I’m really struggling to first understand why I have such ugly feelings and two, how to control them. It’s like I’m holding a one inch fuse on a yard long stick of dyno. So I’m faking it while shopping, wrapping, cooking, baking and decorating. Other than that slice of joyousness, I think Ive been reincarnated several times but never lived into adulthood. I survived this go round solely because of the discovery of penicillin. So I’m operating with the emotional tool box of an eight year old. I’m 8. And on a good day, 13. Most days, I survive by smiling and laughing.

  16. My happy today is that I dragged Nourene out of her apartment for a walk this afternoon. It was almost 50 this afternoon and this weather had to be seen to be believed. At 94 she isn’t able to walk very far, but after rolling down to the park to watch the kids on the playground, she was much more determined to work on her physical therapy and build up her strength. I hope she has an appointment before the memory of that walk wears off.

  17. I deliberately started smiling at people a number of years ago as an experiment and it’s mostly voluntary now. I don’t have to think about smiling when I meet someone – it just happens. Having spent the last 10 days in bed caused by a bad flue and complications from an unrelated infection, I’m grateful for the fact that I’s generally in good health and am able to access medical care when I need it – 3 office visits and 2 blood tests in the last week. My PIL came for a short early holiday visit and my MIL took over decorating our tree. It was a win-win for both of us. I’m finally starting to feel better so DH and I were able to get out and pick up a couple of last minute gifts for DS. I’m looking forward to a quiet week with just the three of us.

  18. I finally had the one-on-one with my manager that I made the appointment for two weeks ago. Then the *** hit the fan at work and he was either in major meetings with upper management or had to deal with a sad family emergency.

    He had, admittedly, been kind of ducking the meeting as he suspected he knew what I was going to say. I said end of March…a little more than 90 days…and why. He said I can expect push-back from upper management (probably AFTER the holidays as they are enjoying them with their families while we are being stressed worse than ever). But he’s happy for me. If I give at all it will be for a package that I don’t think that company policy will allow.

    I have a busy spring planned! Tanzania in late April, early May and then this week – Happiness! – daughter asked if my husband and I want to join them in Hawaii for their 1oth anniversary trip. They are bringing their three year-old daughter so this will probably mean some grandparent baby-sitting while she and her husband due date nights but it will be fun if we can find a way to make it work.

    Final happiness this weekend: watching and listening to a whole bunch of friends from church and elsewhere, including my husband, sing and perform “Behold the Lamb” by Andrew Peterson. It is a lovely contemporary (includes drums, electric lead guitar, acoustic guitar, banjo, hammered dulcimer – also includes mandolin and an entire string section) telling of the Christ Story. Some of the songs: “O Come, O Come Immanuel” and “The Holly and the Ivy” are beautifully arranged instrumentals, with strings, guitar and mandolin. I got to see it twice! (I think that if you have a Spotify account you can stream it for free…I also think that I spotted a video of one of last night’s performances on youtube, but I don’t know how that that will be up.)

  19. The nice thing about getting older, from my perspective, is that you start getting your priorities straight. I think that may be related to the dip in happiness in middle years. Its easy to be happy when you are young because you are convinced wonderful things are coming your way and that you will be forever young, marry well, and be rich enough to afford your hearts desire. Then you hit middle age and realize you might have to settle for 1 out of 3, and it’s not the 1 you would have chosen. But the lovely thing about being older is that you’ve made it that far and you did it without those two things you thought were so important. How about that? Turns out your real friends never cared about how you look, enough turned out to be plenty, and if you had a good marriage or even no marriage you are still happier than the people who married “well.” So incredibly free-ing!!

  20. I love the idea of happiness as a habit.

    I was raised in a family that could find the black cloud for every silver lining, so happiness has always been a challenge.

    1. That was my mother. For every topic, she had a tragic story that had happened to somebody she knew.

      Now I drive my kid crazy because no matter what happens, I find the up side. I believe the last name she called me in frustration was “Pollyanna.” Could be worse.

      1. My Mom was like that, too, and I often didn’t feel that she was taking me seriously. Now that I am older I just think she took a longer view and also believed that her children were so wonderful that they could (eventually) do anything.

        Nine months after she died I miss her telling me that Howard (of “Our God who art in heaven, Howard be thy name) makes house calls.

      2. I wonder if this is a vestige of societies where you never admitted to good stuff to avert the evil eye? And the behavior becomes ingrained.

        And if you are good at something, particularly in the case of a woman, you are discouraged from saying that it was good because “that’s bragging” “that’s not modest” “that’s arrogant”. And if other people praise something, you should immediately disavow it. Although on the last one, I have finally convinced my female relatives and friends to stop acting like that. If I praise something and they say “oh, this old thing” or “It really isn’t so good”, I will then ask if my taste is somehow defective. They have learned in the face of praise to say “Thank you”. or “I am glad it like it.”

        But the black cloud in every silver lining business, I have yet to figure out how to deal with it.

  21. There are so many things I would like to be different about how I think it am. I would like more self discipline,have a faith in a higher power, happy, be social and wake up every morning with a positive attitude and want to both exercise and eat kale. But I would be a totally different person, and I don’t want that. I am learning to accept myself as a somewhat crabby, sarcastic, honest, funny curmugeon.

  22. My current thought is that happiness occurs in timeless moments — like Discworld’s Perfect Moments. The same image is in Shakespeare’s perfect love — what Romeo & Juliet, Othello & Desdemona, and Hamlet & Ophelia share briefly before it’s destroyed by the normal world. The point is that perfection can exist but that it stands apart from and cannot be coordinated with Time. My favorite example is a reverse one and is only referred to: in Pratchett’s Mort, Mort and his wife decide to live in the normal, mortal world instead of in an everlasting Perfect Moment.

    The point is that such moments can pop up and to treasure their transitory nature and remember them.

    Which is what you have all been saying in clearer ways.

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