The Happiness Project

Just Call Every Bowl of Ice Cream a Big One

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too . Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in—no need to catch up; just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of the major principles of happiness—and this comes as a shock to no one—is that perception shapes reality. The way we view something determines our experience. I saw this during the inauguration . A person could say, “It’s fantastic to be here among so many people,” or a person could say, “It’s a pain to be stuck in these crowds and long lines.” Same reality, different perception.

I realized the importance of characterization when I eavesdropped on a few conversations between my 3-year-old and her grandmother.

My daughter: “Can I please have some ice cream?” (yes, she did say “please”)
My mother-in-law: “OK, but you had a cookie earlier, so I’m just going to give you a little bowl.”
My daughter: “No, no, I want a big bowl! Not a little bit.”

Mother-in-law: “Tonight you’re going to go to bed nice and early.”
Daughter: “No, no, no! Not early. I want to stay up late!”

Had my mother-in-law said, “I’m giving you a big scoop” or “We’re letting you stay up late,” my daughter would have accepted that characterization instead of protesting. Same bowl of ice cream, same bedtime, different perception.

And this isn’t just true of children. The other day, I was talking to an acquaintance, and the subject of happiness came up. She said, “Gretchen, you dabble in the subject of happiness, don’t you?”

Well, yes, in fact, I do dabble in the subject of happiness. I’ve been dabbling away for 10 hours a day for more than three years now.

I’m pleased to say that I handled it nicely in the moment, but I’m embarrassed to admit how much this characterization annoyed me. My reaction doesn’t speak well of me, at all; I know perfectly well that this person has no particular reason to know what I’m up to and that she didn’t mean to bug me—yet I found it hard not to feel irritated with that particular characterization.

It’s helpful to “watch the characterizations” when we’re speaking to other people, and it’s also important when we’re characterizing things for ourselves. One of the challenges of my happiness project is to try to be more positive and lighthearted—without being fake and superficial.

Often, I’ve found that I can characterize something in a way that’s more positive but just as truthful. For example, “That meal was very filling” instead of “That meal was very heavy.” Or “The play had a lot of great moments” instead of “The third act of the play was boring.” Sometimes, of course, I’m trying to make a specific critical point, and that’s fine, but sometimes remembering to “watch the characterization” allows me to make my point in a less negative way—in particular, to myself.

* I subscribe to an interesting daily trend-watching newsletter, TrendCentral . Yesterday’s update listed some new slang terms, of which my favorite is: Retox (ree-tox) v. To go back on your New Year’s resolutions and do the opposite of the goals you set for yourself. “Instead of following my resolution to get fit this year, I decided to retox and take up cooking classes instead. Oh well, no one follows New Year’s resolutions anyway, right?”

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.