Monday, December 04, 2023

How To Be Happy - Directions From The Happiness Project

4 commandments of a contented heart.

“No one is happy who doesn’t think himself (or herself) happy, so without ‘a heart to be contented,’ a person can’t be happy.” — Gretchen Rubin

This November has been a happier month for me so far. Not because this month has been a very easy one, it has actually been difficult as usual. There had been some ups — I am starting with my new job, I just celebrated my birthday yesterday, I met some of my close friends after almost two years. 

And there had been some downs — I lost my uncle this weekend, someone on Medium called me an idiot, my 11-year-old daughter will be undergoing surgery.

It has been just a week, so I can’t predict how the entire month will be, however, I am observing a shift in my mindset as if I am feeling a sense of calm and peacefulness, a sense of content, despite all these difficulties. This is a big change considering the amount of stress and anxiety I suffer from.

In my last article, I wrote that happiness is in small details that we often overlook or don’t pay attention to.

Sometimes, happiness doesn’t come to us naturally. It could be our personality — we are more like Eeyore. Or it could be because of a mental or physical illness, it could also be an incident that is making us feel more despondent or gloomy.

Whatever your reason for not feeling happy is, you can not also let yourself fall into the deep hole of gloominess for long. After all, that is detrimental to your mental health and your overall well-being. You have to take action. 

I decided to take action and started with the Happiness Project recommended by Gretchen Rubin. She undertook a year-long journey to seek happiness and documented her story in this book. This book has mixed reviews on Amazon, but I still decided to take a chance. There are a few things that didn’t really speak to me but I thought of working on those that did connect with me.

For the month of November, Gretchen suggests four commandments to follow.

Laugh Out Loud

Gretchen writes, “A small child typically laughs more than four hundred times each day, and an adult — seventeen times.” I wondered if I hit that number even in an entire week, or sometimes in a month. 

This article in Psychology Today states that laughter improves your relationships, boosts your memory, lowers your stress, makes you resilient, improves your health and your overall wellbeing, makes you attractive, and most importantly laughter helps you make the world a better place. Do you still need more convictions to laugh out loud?

This weekend I was in Germany to meet some of my closest friends after almost 2 years. After my father passed away suddenly in December 2019 and I was grieving deeply, I hadn’t had the opportunity to meet them anymore because the covid situation took charge that impacted worldwide. 

I lived in The Netherlands and my friends in Germany, just a neighboring country and a merely 2-hour journey. But with a closed border, it took us such a long time to meet again. Connecting with loved ones brought back good memories and instantly elevated my mood. I also realized laughter is contagious. We laughed out loud with silly jokes and small things. I laughed to my heart’s content.

It actually takes some effort to be able to laugh, especially if you are not the funny or humorous type. Notice and make a list of things that make you smile or laugh. 

Use Good Manners

Gretchen mentions in her book about the Buddhist concept of loving-kindness which implies 

“acting with compassion toward all sentient beings, with an awareness and appreciation of the natural world.”

In my very first article here on Medium, I wrote how random acts of kindness can make your life more meaningful and happy. Research suggests that kindness makes us happy and happiness makes us kind. Now to be able to show kindness, we need to be aware of how we treat people and that comes with good manners. Gretchen goes on to write:

“It’s easier to complain than to laugh, easier to yell than to joke around, easier to be demanding than to be satisfied.”

Living in a civilized society, it is the least we can do is to be polite to other people. And by politeness, I am not asking you to be nice just so that you look more agreeable. Rather, be generous in your smiles and good behavior to people to make others happy and that will make you happy in return.

I had been mindful these past few days about how I treat people more than how I am being treated. 

Small things like smiling at the cashier even when you had to wait too long in a queue, not trying to prove your point always (and trust me, so many times it isn’t actually needed), giving someone space on the sidewalk, paying good attention to someone and not hurrying to move on to the next topic, and showing interest in other people’s viewpoints make a big difference.

Give Positive Reviews

Being critical seems in fashion and sophisticated these days. Gretchen writes about a study where: 

“people judged the writers of negative book reviews as more expert and competent than the writers of positive reviews, even when the content of both reviews were deemed to be of high quality. Another study showed that people tend to think that someone who critcizes them is smarter than they are.”

I have seen this very much prevalent in Medium too, like many social networking sites where people think it’s absolutely their right to show how right they are. This weekend a writer in Medium (a random stranger) called me an idiot and thought it was absolutely appropriate to leave such a comment in a public forum. 

My original comment was not to him, and it was a very polite one (I will write about that in another story). But still, someone who disagreed with me thought calling me out was quite appropriate.

But stepping down from the air of superiority and giving people positive reviews is one step towards showing loving-kindness. Gretchen writes: 

“Giving positive reviews requires humility. I have to admit, I missed the feelings of superiority that I got from using puncturing humor, sarcasm, ironic asides, cynical comments, and cutting remarks.”

So will you stop disagreeing and just be agreeable to whatever comes your way? Absolutely Not. But you can always make your point and still be polite while giving feedback, even if you disagree. 

A recent study from Harvard Business School published in this article states that positive reviews boost productivity. The article states so aptly:

“Waiting until their funerals is too late to do anyone any good.”

When we write a positive review about our colleagues on Linkedin, or to an article that we read on Medium, we appreciate people. I decided to appreciate people more this month by leaving positive reviews about them or their stories. In return, I received such beautiful thank you notes that uplifted me in so many ways.

Find An Area of Refuge

Even with your best efforts, there will be days when everything looks so gloomy and hopeless. All these readings and my efforts in happiness projects can’t bring back my father or my uncle whom I lost just this weekend. My daughter’s impending surgery can’t be avoided or the outcome predicted. 

So what am I supposed to do during these trying times? Find an area of refuge — which can be either physical space or a symbol. 

Gretchen finds her ‘mental area of refuge’ in Churchill’s eulogy for Neville Chamberlain or in some other writings. She writes about the note written by Arthur Llewelyn Davies, the father of the boys — more commonly known as the Davies boys — who were the inspiration of the stories of Peter Pan, to J.M. Barrie — the creator of Peter Pan. 

Arthur Llewelyn Davies wrote the note when he was recovering from an operation that removed much of his upper jaw, palate, and cheekbone that left him disfigured. The note states: 

“Among the things I think about

Michael going to school
Porhgwarra and S’s blue dress
Burpham garden
Kirkby view across valley…
Jack bathing
Peter answering chaff
Nicholas in the garden
George always”

Gretchen writes so poignantly that: 

“These phrases mean nothing to an outsider, but for him, they were areas of refuge.”

I have both a physical and mental area of refuge. I have the corner of the sofa in my living room that gets the most sunshine, the area from where I have a good look at my olive tree fruiting, the clear blue sky with occasional clouds, and the fountain that we have installed this summer. In the evening I like to light a candle and read or write or just unwind in this very favorite spot of mine.

And my mental area of refuge is the books by Ruskin Bond where he writes about Landour, about rain on the roof, about sunshine in the foothills of Himalayas, about chasing butterflies, or about a lone fox dancing. That’s my refuge.


Sometimes, we need a little direction, a reminder, or a gentle nudge, and I hope this article will help you find your happiness or at the least, help you work towards your own happiness project. Remember, you deserve to be happy because:

“The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish, is misguided. It’s more selfless to act happy. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly lighthearted, yet everyone takes the happy person for granted.” — Gretchen Rubin

Thank you for reading this. I wish you a contented heart and all the happiness in the world.

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