The Happiness Project

Dancing Salsa, Clearing Clutter, People-Watching in Central Park, and Other Secrets to Happiness

As I’ve worked on my happiness project, I’ve been very surprised by how energizing and cheering I find it to clear clutter. In fact, when I’m jonesing for a happiness boost, I’ve been known to beg my friends to let me help them clean out their closets.

One of my favorite books about clearing clutter is Julie Morgenstern’s classic Organizing From the Inside Out , which I find helpful, realistic, and inspiring. (I’ve read it a couple of times.) She has a new book that just came out, which is also terrific: SHED Your Stuff, Change Your Life .

The thing that distinguishes her approach is her emphasis on the reasons for clutter. Clutter isn’t just a matter of not having enough closet space. There are psychological reasons that you hang onto things, and when you acknowledge that aspect of clutter, you’re able to get rid of more and also to get more energy from the process. Julie Morgenstern has done a lot of thinking about happiness, as it relates to managing our possessions and time.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Julie: First and foremost, dancing. For all of my life, dancing. No matter what’s on my mind, I am instantly transported the minute I start dancing. The music and movement take me out of my head and into my body, as well as someone else’s musical composition, rhythm, sensibility, emotions. I enjoy all types of dance … from swing and salsa, to folk and freestyle.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18?
That a big ingredient to happiness is non-work-related fun. I always got great joy from my work and still do, but when I was younger, I connected happiness to achievement … and almost felt guilty taking time for fun. Now, I cherish the balance, having fun at work, and also having fun at play. I know this doesn’t sound like a radical concept, but it’s been a big a-ha for me over the years.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (Mine is reading children’s books.)
I go to Central Park. Being around people … the many characters, stories, scenes, energy, and warmth of others pulls me out of my own troubles and lifts my mood. It’s an instant antidote. And, I must confess, organizing something helps—a drawer, a bookcase, a closet—it’s a way of taking control of what I can, which boosts my calm and confidence.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to or detracts a lot from their happiness?
The primary difference between happy and unhappy people is the sense of personal control or victimization. As a consultant and speaker, most of the people I encounter feel like they are masters of their own lives and are a joy to work with. Together, we work out a plan to overcome any obstacles they have to achieving their goals. But periodically, I encounter people who feel like victims, and those people are never happy. No one is happy when they feel trapped, but I don’t believe any of us is ever trapped. Other than in the case of illness, we have the power to create and change our circumstances and continuously grow, learn, and improve our lives. And even in the most adverse situations, people who choose happiness find nuggets of joy and something to gain from each experience.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy?
I am a fundamentally happy person. Throughout my life, whenever I find myself in circumstances that distract from my happiness, I do whatever it takes to change those circumstances. And sometimes, that change is simply a matter of changing my perspective of a situation—and finding the opportunity in it. I consider life to be an adventure and a privilege and do everything I can to enjoy and get the most out of it.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you find very helpful?
“People are just about as happy as they make up their minds to be.”—Abraham Lincoln

* If you haven’t seen my one-minute movie, The Years Are Short , you might enjoy it.