The Happiness Project

Mindfulness Exercise: Look Down Third Avenue. Avoid Getting Hit by Cars.

A concept that comes up all the time in the study of happiness is mindfulness . I’m not a very mindful person (are you? here’s a quiz ), and I’m always looking for ways to cultivate greater mindfulness. Except meditation—I just cannot get myself to try meditation. I know, I know, I should.

But even though meditation holds no attraction for me, I’ve found other ways to cultivate mindfulness. For one thing, I’ve been trying to make myself more aware of the very small pleasures scattered throughout my days. Instead of absent-mindedly noticing the smell of hyacinths, for instance, I want to take a moment to properly appreciate it.

I identified a small but real pleasure yesterday. I noticed how much I love to look up and down the long avenues in my neighborhood. I love seeing the buildings rising up on both sides, the long lines of red, green, and white lights, the patterns of people and signs. Now, reveling in this pleasure is slightly dangerous, because it means I’m standing in the middle of the street—so it’s a fleeting pleasure that can last only as long as a red light. But having registered this pleasure, I’m going to try to enjoy it every time I cross an avenue.

Keying into these tiny pleasures gives you a lift even on a happy day. And being in the habit of noticing them can also act as a buffer when you’re feeling blue or angry. One concrete cause of unhappiness is rumination . Studies show that by dwelling on irritating feelings and episodes, you amplify their power in your mind. Taking a moment to distract yourself from bad feelings can help alleviate them.

Samuel Johnson observed, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.” The pleasure of looking south down Third Avenue is little, but it’s real.

* 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. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.