The Happiness Project

Why I’m NOT Trying to Keep Things Simple

Part of the challenge of mindfulness—which is one of the top 12 themes of my happiness project—is to keep myself from falling into mechanical thoughts and actions. Instead of walking through life on autopilot, I want to question the assumptions I make without noticing.

My research into cognitive science led me to the concept of heuristics . Heuristics are mental rules of thumb, the quick, common-sense principles you apply to solve a problem or make a decision. For example, the recognition heuristic holds that if you’re faced with two objects, and you recognize one and don’t recognize the other, you assume that the recognized one is of higher value. So if you’ve heard of Munich but you haven’t heard of Minden, you assume that Munich is the larger German city.

Usually heuristics are helpful, but in some situations, our cognitive instincts mislead us. Take the availability heuristic : People predict the likelihood of an event based on how easily they can come up with an example. This is often useful (is a tornado likely to hit Manhattan?), but sometimes people’s judgment is skewed because the vividness of examples makes an event seem more likely than it actually is. Child abduction, say.

I have certain rules for living that I apply—they aren’t really heuristics, in the true sense of the word, but they’re rules I use to set priorities and decide how to spend my time.

Sometimes they’re happiness-boosting, but I’ve started to realize that sometimes they aren’t. In particular, I’ve been thinking about my application of two of my most often-invoked rules:
I’m in a hurry.
Keep it simple.

“I’m in a hurry” is often useful. It keeps me from wasting time. It helps me stay focused on my top priorities. However, I see, it’s part of the reason that I have trouble keeping several of my happiness-project resolutions: Take time for projects ; Force myself to wander; Schedule time for play (yes, I see the irony in these resolutions). I want to allow myself time to mess around and to do things that aren’t necessarily productive; constantly telling myself “I’m in a hurry” makes me feel like there’s no time for those activities in my schedule.

Likewise, “Keep it simple” is often useful. What item should I bring to my daughter’s end-of-school party? “Keep it simple” – so I volunteer to bring paper plates and napkins, not home-baked muffins. Should I have house plants? No, keep it simple. Should we get a fish? No, keep it simple.

But a lot of the things that boost my happiness the most also add complexity to my life. Having children. Writing this blog. My children’s literature reading groups (yes, now I belong to two of these groups). These activities add complications, but they also add happiness. Applied too broadly, “Keep it simple” would impoverish my life.

One good rule I’ve found: if I find myself repeatedly making a resolution without making any headway, I should stop and Identify the problem .

One resolution I’ve made for YEARS is to entertain more. I love people, I love bringing people together, why do I never want to have people over? I realize that every time I start thinking about planning some kind of get-together, my two rules start flashing in my brain: “I’m in a hurry!” “Keep it simple!” These rules tell me that I don’t have time to shop, to clean, to spruce up our apartment, to deal with food and drink; they tell that I don’t have the mental energy to plan a guest-list, send invitations, worry about all the odds-and-ends.

As of today, I’m going to try to replace those two rules with a different rule: I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me . Maybe that will combine the usefulness of the two rules, without the drawbacks.

Do you find yourself repeating your own personal directives – like “Keep it simple” – to yourself? Do they boost your happiness – or not?

* Sonya Lyubormirsky – author of one of my favorite happiness books, The How of Happiness – has just launched a fascinating, useful iPhone application, Live Happy . It combines her research and the functionality of the iPhone to help you engage in a lot of practices that will boost your happiness. Click here to learn more or to unload the free trial version.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email 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.