One simple step toward happiness every day for a year. Doesn't everyone want to be happy?
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Monday, August 31, 2009

Play Checkers Outdoors

I've advocated doing things a little differently: looking at your neighborhood from the roof, for instance, or practicing connection with others.

Here's another spin on that: do a mundane, familiar thing in an unfamiliar place.

The title example, "Play Checkers Outdoors," may seem tame.

But do it, and watch what happens.

Doing indoor things outdoors--or outdoor things indoors--gives a whole new feel to things.

Ask anyone who's taken an outdoor shower.

Have you ever watched TV outdoors? (We see it all the time on street corners in China.)

Or let's move the other way: indoor paintball; riding a bike down the hallway of a building; picnic on a rug.

They point is (again) to get out of your rut. See with new eyes. Refresh, and re-create.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Read a NEW Children's Book

I've recommended before that we go back and read old books, watch old movies, and see old friends.

But if you don't have a kid of your own, you may not be aware of just how good children's books have gotten since we were kids.

I still love Dr. Seuss and Uncle Shelby, Winnie the Pooh and Sendak's Wild Things.

But I can't help feeling that in some ways children's books have gotten better.

Take a look, for instance, at the Artemis Fowl series, which author Eoin Colfer described as "Die Hard with fairies."

Or Neil Gaiman, whose Graveyard Book thrilled me even more than his M is for Magic.

And if you haven't heard about the fostered "prince" named Harry Potter, sit down and start reading now.

Newer children's literature is also filled with amazing illustrations; check out the sometimes Boschian books by David Wiesner, for example, or the whimsical work of Mordicai Gerstein.

And remember that being a kid isn't all fun and games; the Judy Blume books I read in college (in a children's lit class) have given way to even deeper examinations of the "real world" by such highly-praised writers as Jacqueline Woodson.

So the next time you're in a bookstore, pick something up from the children's section.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

Clean Up That Mess!

I've been crazy busy lately. It's funny how a teacher on a long summer vacation can never find enough time!

As a result, stuff is starting to pile up everywhere: next to the bed, in the kitchen, and especially on the desk.

And it's starting to get to me. I'm leaving for a six-day trip tomorrow, but as soon as I come back…

Ever hear of "Clutterers"? They are people who are fighting against the clutter in their lives. There's even a group called "Clutterers Anonymous," with a 12-step program similar to that of A.A.

They define clutter as "anything we don't need, want, or use that takes our time, energy or space, and destroys our serenity." Notice that: excess clutter cuts into happiness!

I know, cleaning up a mess is a pain. But when it's clean, it's clean!

What about that pile of wood next to the driveway? Or the papers shoved into that bookcase?

And do you dare consider cleaning out (gulp) the garage?

Just think how good it will feel to be able to walk without stepping over or around stuff.

So tidy up. Police the area. Get organized. And clean up that mess!

You'll be happier.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Don't Sweat the "Almosts"

It was one of those scenes you hope never to see.

I was crossing a street in Shanghai the other day, and coming toward me was an old man, pushing his wife through the crosswalk in a wheel chair. They weren't moving too fast, but I figured they would just make it before the signal changed.

Suddenly a guy on a scooter came out of nowhere (running the light) and swerved around them.

The old man stopped, turned in his direction, and shook his fist shouting something like "Be careful! You almost hit us!"

While he was reacting, the light changed.

Defeated, he had to come back to where he started and wait for the next light.

What was the source of his trouble? Well, most would blame the guy on the scooter.

But if the old-timer had kept going, his burden would have been lighter.

How many times have we wasted breath and energy lamenting what "almost" happened? I "almost" died when I had my tonsils out. I "almost" got that dream job. I "almost" forgot to make an important call.

When I was a kid, we used to say that "'almost' only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades." OK, maybe there are a few more examples, but overall, if you "almost died" and you're here to tell about it, I guess you didn't.

So breathe. Move on. Get over the "almosts."

You'll be happier.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pay Attention

One of the prime "virtues" of Buddhism is called "mindfulness."

I used to tell my junior high students in America this story: A man came to an old master and asked what "the secret" was. The master picked up his brush and wrote: "Attention."

"OK," the guy said, "I'm paying attention. Now what's the secret?"

Again the master wrote: "Attention. Attention."

"'Attention'? That's it? I came all this way and all you give me is 'Attention'?"

A third time: "Attention. Attention. Attention."

The man slumps in defeat and asks, "What do you mean, 'Attention'?"

Then the master speaks for the first time: "How can you accomplish anything if you don't pay attention?"

And with that (after the groans) I would explain to my students that whatever the area of your life--school, work, family, romance--everything goes better if you just pay attention.

So take a little inventory. What are you neglecting? And why? Financial obligations? Things you should be doing for loved ones? Tasks at work?

Next, why are you ignoring them? What is the (imagined) benefit in letting them go?

The final step--after paying attention to an issue--is to do something about it.

So wake up. Be mindful. Pay attention.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Laugh

When I was a kid, I was a devout reader of Reader's Digest. First I read the "jokes" (or, as they called them, "humorous anecdotes"; I even got one published in the 80s). Then I read everything else.

One of their columns was called "Laughter Is The Best Medicine." I can't remember any of the jokes, but that title always stuck with me.

It turns out to be true. The benefits of laughter can be akin to those of a mild workout. So, herewith, the medical benefits of laughing:

  • Laughter uses a lot of muscles, a surefire way to release stress from your body.
  • Laughter increases the production of immune cells in the body.
  • Laughter releases endorphins, creating a feeling of well-being as well as relief from minor pain.
  • Laughter strengthens blood vessels and increases blood flow, leading to healthier hearts.

Not enough? It also has mental benefits (joy, zest, bouncing back) and social ones (makes you more attractive, and makes people like you).

Of course, it's hard to separate the effects of laughter from the humor that causes it. But let's not get hung up in that.

Find a funny movie (check YouTube). Read some jokes . Look at cartoons. But be sure to actually laugh, don't just think to yourself "That's funny."

Better yet, do all of these things with someone else, because we all know that laughter is contagious.

And not surprisingly, if you laugh, you'll be happier.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Get Enough Sleep

I'm in high gear these days with travel and writing projects. It seems like I'm busier during summer vacation than when I'm "working"!

And since there's no need to get up at any particular time, I tend to go to bed late. But with so much to do, I still get up (fairly) early.

And it takes its toll.

One of the first side effects I notice when I'm sleepy (I know, this is weird) is paranoia.

Did I lock the door to our other room? What if I get fired? Do I have enough money to do what I need to do?

Things that never bother me when I'm well-rested.

Lack of sleep can impair growth and healing, make you clumsy, and cause you to gain weight.

It can even cause diabetes. And, in lab animals, death.

Proper sleep, on the other hand, has innumerable benefits. It reduces stress, makes us more alert, and improves our memory, to name a few.

Like withholding food and water, sleep-deprivation is also a well-known torture technique.

So why torture yourself? Get enough sleep.

You'll be happier.

Monday, August 24, 2009

See an Old Favorite Movie

A week ago I suggested that you "Read an Old Favorite Book." This one's similar.

When I was a kid, there were two theaters we could go to, the Temple and the El Monte. These places were big, before the mallification of American cinemas.

Sitting there in the dark with my brothers and friends, I went to places much farther away than the China where I now live.

I've revisited some of those films in recent years: Disney greats, and The Duke; heroes and villains (and sometimes someone kissed a girl--yuck).

Every time a Broadway musical made it to film, my mom dragged us to see it: My Fair Lady, The Sound of Music, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, and (one of my favorites to this day) The Music Man. Thanks, Mom.

With the exception of Gypsy, I've made my wife sit through all of these; and when I find it, we'll watch that, too.

I've also "forced" her to watch Excalibur, Silverado, Time Bandits, and The Outlaw Josey Wales--and that's just recently. (It's too bad we have to watch these on a TV screen in our room. If you can find an old favorite on a big screen, good for you.)

And now I'm twisting the minds of a whole generation of Chinese students. Every semester my kids watch my all-time favorite, The Wizard of Oz. I've shown it so many times I can now recite much of the dialogue. Some of my students have also seen To Kill a Mocking Bird, High Noon (requested by presidents in the White House theater more than any other film), The Lion King, and one lucky class got to see The Gods Must Be Crazy.

With all the media available to us now, there's no reason not to go find one of those films that changed your life, and share it with those around you.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Small Steps

There's an oft-quoted proverb that I'm nearly sick of hearing: "The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step."

It's widely attributed to Laozi (or Lao-Tzu), near-legendary founder of Taoism. And it's exceptionally well-known in China: When I Googled the eight-character Chinese phrase, I got "about 1,030,000" results!

It has become such a cliché that sometimes I treat it like banner advertising on a web page: it never penetrates my consciousness.

But recently I undertook a massive project: Visiting nearly 150 ancient temples across 25 of the Mainland's 31 province-level areas.

That's huge.

And after I committed to the project, I started to worry: How will I manage? How will I pay for it?

And the answer came: One temple at a time, just as I visited the 188 great temples of Japan, and walked the Old Tokaido Highway from Tokyo to Kyoto.

So here's my advice: Dream big. Don't let the size of a project stop you. Then, do it in small steps.

A fine example of this can be seen in Jean Giono's beautiful modern parable The Man Who Planted Trees, about a poor shepherd who turns a barren valley into a fully-functioning forested ecosystem by planting one acorn at a time.

So plant an acorn. Take a step. Lay a brick. Write a paragraph. These are the small first steps toward the completion of a big project.

And just by starting, you'll be happier.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Calm Down

It took me a while to learn this: Never tell an agitated person to "c-a-l-m d-o-w-w-w-n-n..." They're likely to yell at you: "'Calm down'? What do you MEAN 'calm down'?! I AM CALM!!!"

But seriously: calm down.

Do you know what happens when you get upset?

Your body releases a hormone called adrenaline, in what is termed a "fight or flight response." It's very useful if you need to get your large muscles ready to fight someone, or runaway ("take flight").

But if what's got you worked up is your boss, or traffic, or your significant other, there's nowhere to run, and it's not nice to hit.

Do you know what excess adrenaline does to your body? It suppresses digestion and your immune system. Plain English: It exposes you to getting sick.

More directly, it can cause heart palpitations, and excessively rapid or irregular heartbeat. It can create anxiety, and cause headaches and high blood pressure.

In short, adrenaline ain't good for you. Unless you’re planning to run from a saber-toothed tiger.

So, seriously, calm down. Take a chill pill. Cool your jets. Take a deep breath. Go to your happy place. Think pleasant thoughts.

It's better for your body and your mind.

And you'll be happier.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Play with a Pet

One of my side jobs involves writing three columns for English learners every week in the local newspaper. Recently I've been writing about proverbs, and today I wrote about the dog being "a man's best friend."

In doing so, I reflected on one of the best things about dogs: they don't judge us. (Cats? Hmmm...) If you leave the room for a moment and then return, your dog is as happy as if you just came back from a long trip.

Where else can you get that kind of unconditional love?

So today's secret is a no-brainer: play with a pet. A dog, cat, hamster--I have to admit, it's easier to play with mammals than with fish; some birds have possibilities, though. I used to have a cockatiel who would give me a "kiss" (taking a sunflower seed from my lips).

If you already do this, cool. If you have a pet that you've been ignoring for a while, take her/him out for some fun.

And if you don't have a pet? Borrow one. Or, better, if your life allows, rescue one from a shelter, but only if you’re prepared to be responsible for it for the rest of its life. (It doesn't really sound like play, does it? But the rewards are great...)

So rediscover what our ancestors knew: some of the best people are animals. Get in touch with your wild side. Throw a ball, dangle a paper on a string, or just cuddle.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Go for a Walk...ANYWHERE

Lots of my friends were mountain hikers, but I used to love to walk in the desert. Descending into canyons, ascending again to cross a mesa, the crisp dry air…bliss.

There's none of that here in the uber-moist concrete canyons of Shenzhen, China.

But you know what? Walking is still a pleasure.

One of the "old friend" books I'd love to find and read again is Bruce Chatwin's The Songlines. Much of the book is a travelogue about Australia, especially the life of the Aborigines, but a large section near the end is a kind of notebook on nomadism.

It was there that I found something interesting. Chatwin says that the reason babies enjoy being rocked to sleep is that it mimics the movement of their mothers walking with them back in the time when all human beings were nomadic.

Hmm.

There is something pleasing about the rocking back and forth from side to side that happens as we propel ourselves forward. Striding out, head held high, arms swinging, just feels good, you know?

So: do it.

Go for a walk, even if it's just in the hallway of your office or apartment building. Don't wait for the holiday when you can hit the trail into the mountains or the desert.

Just walk.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Practice Connection

One way to define "family" is that they're the people that will love you in spite of everything.

So there's a funny little exercise that you can do.

Try this next time you're out in public: Try to see every person around your age as a brother or sister. Older people can be seen as a mother or father, aunt or uncle. And younger ones as your son or daughter. (Here in China, family labels are often used toward non-family members, so a slightly older man at work may be "Older Brother Wu," etc.)

That guy smoking at the next table? You’d forgive your brother, wouldn't you?

The old lady shouting across the restaurant--would you scold Grandma? (Maybe you would; but try not to.)

The screaming child down the hall in your apartment building? She's your baby.

This is a first step in developing compassion, "feeling with" other people. (The final step is not just to love our neighbors as ourselves, but to see that our neighbors are ourselves. But that's a mighty big step.)

So practice connection with strangers around you. And when you've got that one down, try the (much harder) practice of doing the same thing with the people in your life: your boss as sister, the new kid in the department as son, that cranky old bus driver as uncle.

Suddenly, you start to see the connections we have with other people. You can tolerate their behavior, and more, really start to love them. And guess what happens next?

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Read an Old Favorite Book

OK, for some of us this isn't so different from "Contact an Old Friend," since our old friends are old books!

But really, what were you reading ten years ago, or twenty, or thirty?

Read it again.

There are some books I go back to every five years or so. And it really is like seeing an old friend.

But, as with an old friend, there can be surprises. Is that what that meant? I had no idea!

The book may be the same, but we have changed, and we'll see side of that old companion that we never saw before.

That fairy tale is more gruesome than I remembered.

Animal Farm is funny!

Shakespeare gets more brilliant every year.

I used to think Hemingway was overrated. Now he makes me want to cry.

Rudyard Kipling is better than I thought he was.

And I'm finally starting to "get" Paulo Coelho.

Like any book, they're better if shared. Read that children's book to your child. Or do a mini-book-club-thingy with a friend from back then. (Two old friends for the price of one.)

Revive an old friendship...with a book.

You'll be happier.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Contact an Old Friend

Most of you are probably reading this on FaceBook, so you already know what I'm talking about.

But it's so cool to get in touch with someone you haven't seen in years. (Almost as cool as when they get in touch with you.)

Of course, this is only virtual. Take the next step. Have a face-to-face, perhaps followed by a heart-to-heart.

How is old Joe anyway? Are Mary's kids grown up? What, little Johnny has a John Junior? Did that other kid every graduate?

Everyone changes, but everyone stays the same. Whatever made you like them before is (probably) still there.

You can't go home again. But you can visit.

FaceBook has brought me people from virtually every phase of my life, from elementary school to my last-year's students. In most cases, I'm half a world away and can't do much more than write (and share pictures).

But most of you can. Call up an old buddy: "Hey, Frank, guess who this is?" Set up a meeting: "Let's have dinner at the old place." Bring along some pictures. Meet in a park with the kids (or grandkids, or second spouses) and introduce them to each other.

Nostalgia is what it used to be. Grab some.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Get Out of Your Rut

Back when I used to drive in the States, I was always trying to find alternate ways to get to the same place.

Now that I rely on public transportation in China, I still try to take a different bus route now and then, and I get giddy with happiness when a cab driver reveals a new way to get to an old place.

Sure, I'm a creature of habit, just like most people. But I have chosen to live out my mundane existence in a strange land, where even the familiar is weird.

It makes me feel alive.

Have you ever tried to visualize the words "the rat race"? This isn't a bunch of rats running across a meadow; it's rats in a maze, or on a wheel.

Who wants to be a rat?

So here's a little challenge for you: Think of something that you do day after day, and...do it differently.

Butter your bread with a fork.

Dry off after your shower with paper towels.

Order a different drink at Starbucks.

Shave with the razor going up instead of down.

Write with your opposite hand.

Put a lemon slice in your water.

Turn your monitor upside down.

Let him/her drive.

Don't answer the phone.

Or just do as I do and take the long way home.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Lighten Up (and Laugh at Yourself)

A long time ago, my dad told me a joke.

A cowboy walked into a blacksmith's shop. As he hustled around the shop, the busy smith only had time to yell a gruff "Be careful!" to the tenderfoot.

After a few minutes, the cowboy moseyed over to where a horseshoe sat, fresh out of the forge. And...

He picked it up. And dropped it immediately.

"Hot, wasn't it?" the blacksmith ribbed.

"Nope," replied the cowboy, trying to save face, "it just don't take me long to look at a horseshoe."

Even a man in boots and jeans can be a stuffed shirt.

Here's the thing: If we can't laugh at ourselves, we shouldn't be allowed to laugh at anyone else. Laughter at others is just plain mean coming from a person who thinks he or she can "do no wrong." I'm far more comfortable with taking a ribbing from someone with a firm grasp on self-deprecation.

We could just call it what it is: "humility."

So lighten up. Laugh at yourself. Encourage others to do it, too. Stop taking yourself so seriously. And the next time you screw up, it'll probably bother you less.

And you'll be happier.

Friday, August 14, 2009

Trade Fear for Love

A long time ago I read a book by a guy named Gerald Jampolsky. It was called Love is Letting Go of Fear, and it was based on ideas from the famous "Course in Miracles."

Its premise was breathtakingly simple: there are only two authentic emotions, Love and Fear. All positive emotions come from Love, and all negative ones come from Fear. And where one is, the other is not. (The book may not have put it just that way; but that's how it came out after I processed it.)

This helped clarify my thinking in so many ways.

Take sorrow, for instance. Is it OK to grieve? Healthy grieving, we could say, is based on Love: "I miss her, I had a good life with him." Less healthy is the grief that comes from Fear: "How can I live without her? I don't know what I'll without him."

So today's secret is a simple one: Trade Fear for Love.

Fear is the great enemy in many traditions. It keeps us from leaving the nest and learning to fly. It keeps us from moving forward. It keeps us from feeling the Love around us.

If we can lay Fear aside, and exchange it for Love, all good things will come to us.

As the Bible says, "Perfect Love casts out Fear."

So make the trade. Now.

You'll be happier.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Start a Project

When I was a kid, I couldn't wait for summer vacation to start. Ten whole weeks with nothing to do! Glorious!

Then, after two or three weeks, the boredom started to set in. And by mid-summer, ugh.

What usually saved me from insanity was a project.

One summer, it was a train set, complete with papier-mâché mountains and Bristol board buildings.

Another summer, it was reading books by James Michener.

And another, it was writing songs with a high-school buddy.

Later, when I owned a house, there was landscaping, painting, and carpentry to be done.

You see, by getting deeply into a project, I gave myself a reason to get up in the morning.

You're looking at one of my current projects: these 365 "secrets."

And lately, I found a list of "key temples" in China, and I've immersed myself in research before I set out to see them all.

I still love projects.

Is your life lacking a little "oomph"? Are you just plain bored?

Find a project, and dive into it headfirst.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Give Yourself a Break

If I've learned one thing in nearly 30 years of classroom teaching, it's that everyone's different. Different ways of processing information, different types of motivation--everything.

But to teach effectively, you have to kind of lump people together. So here's one such gross categorization:

Some kids need a pat on the head. Some need a kick in the pants.

This post is for those who need a pat on the head. They're the ones who have an "inner voice," an interior drive, more powerful than anything that comes from outside.

The kick-in-the-pants type need to be told, even urged, to do the simplest of things: "Johnny, your hair is on fire. You put that out right now!" Otherwise, Johnny would let it burn.

The other type, though, is so driven to do what's right that they often don't do anything at all, for fear of making a mistake, or looking foolish, or getting yelled at.

That's who I'm talking to today. And my message is simple:

Give yourself a break.

Whatever it is that you're afraid to do, do it. Whatever it is that you're beating yourself up over, get over it. Find the mental road block that's keeping you from moving forward ("I'm not smart enough, people will laugh at me, I tried before and failed") and crash through that sucker like the Dukes of Hazzard.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Seize the Miracle

"There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle." --Attributed to Albert Einstein

Yup. And I bet you can guess which end of that of that continuum this guy is on.

Now, "miracle" is a sticky word. It might mean a suspension of natural laws, proving the existence of a supernatural being.

Or it might be used to describe the subject of the latest infomercial.

What I mean by "miracle" is something that takes the breath away, something simple and profound, something that forces me to realize that the world is much more amazing than I can usually bear to think about.

What was that last bit again? I mean, if we spent all of our time giving the world its due, we'd probably just stand around awestruck all the time.

Still, a couple of times a day, it's good to stop and be, as my British friends say, "gobsmacked."

Item: Birth. The birth of anything, from the avocado tree coming out of the pit your kid suspended on toothpicks in a jar of water, to the newborn baby. Even weeds are amazing in their ability to germinate.

Item: Light. If you don't think so, get a prism.

Item: Flies. Yes, flies. Look at them closely sometime, how their little legs work and all. And can they maneuver? We haven't built anything that can fly like that, let alone that small.

Item: Learning. From "A is for Apple" to Hamlet in ten years.

So, like, wonder already. And add to this list.

You'll be happier.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Change Your Perspective--Literally

I remember when I was a kid, there were these really rare occasions when for some reason I was allowed on the roof.

Everything looks so different from up there.

I've never seen my house from a helicopter or an airplane, but this was the next best thing.

Right now, I want you to try something. Go get a chair, or better a ladder, and put it in one corner of the room. Climb up until your head touches the ceiling. And look around.

Finished? Now, lay on the floor. Not on the bed, or the sofa. On the floor. And look around.

Try the same things outside.

Go out to the car. Lean in and put your head where your feet usually go. Step up on your bumper and look around the neighborhood.

Did you every realize that most of the time we view the word from somewhere between three to six feet above the ground? (Three or so if we're seated.)

The world just looks different when we get outside of our zone. Kids know this. We've forgotten.

So look at things from a different point of view--literally. Change your perspective.

You'll be happier.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

Grow Old Gracefully

These days, I have a hitch in my gitalong.

I don't spring up out of bed and attack my day like a firefighter.

I kind of slouch into it.

I'm 54.

I also don't dye my hair or beard, use wrinkle cream, or try to dress like a teenager.

Sure, I'm a guy. Our issues aren't the same as a woman's.

But I love to see the women I know letting their hair go gray. They've earned it!

Wrinkles? Laugh lines.

And whatever the books may say, purple is an old lady's color! There's nothing ungraceful about it.

If you know someone pushing 90, don't try to make him act like a youngster of 60. Let him sleep late. Let him eat what he wants. I knew a woman in her 90s who lived on canned chili and Pepsi Cola. She was healthy (and happy!) until the day she keeled over.

On the other hand, if you're pushing 90, you probably shouldn’t insist on driving anymore. Let someone else do the work.

Here's a little secret that my 87-year-old dad shared with me: "Growing old isn't so bad--considering the alternative!"

So go ahead, grow old. Leave youth for the young. Flex your wisdom.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Appreciate What You Have

A few weeks ago, I encouraged you to "Count Your Blessings." As I told you then, our blessings are infinite. So I hope you’re still counting.

But there's a subtle difference between "Count Your Blessings" and today's secret, "Appreciate What You Have."

Can you see it? It's simple, really.

The fact is, not everything we have is what we might call a "blessing."

How about a cold? Or cancer?

How about a difficult kid? "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is," said King Lear, "To have a thankless child."

How about a crappy job? Or a run-down house? Or a beat-up car?

Is it just possible to stop and appreciate those things?

There are lots of little mental tricks you can use, comparing yourself to others, etc.

But in the end, the ultimate trick is just to appreciate these things.

"Happiness," someone said, "isn't getting what you want. It's wanting what you get." (That's a pretty good paraphrase of the Buddha's "Four Noble Truths.")

So look around at what you've got, whatever it is. Be grateful for it. Say "Thanks." Appreciate it.

You'll be happier.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Be True to Your Values

The common wisdom these days seems to be, "It's not the things we do that we regret, but the things we don't do."

Hogwash.

There are lots of things I've done that I regret, and the ones I regret the most are the ones that I knew better than to do.

In other words, every time I violated my values, I lived to regret it.

Back when I was deeply involved in the Christian community, a pastor said something interesting. He said, "Just before we sin, there's usually a moment of decision. At that moment, we often convince ourselves that what we're about to do is the right thing to do. We rationalize the wrong to be right."

At that moment, we fail to be true to our values. That right there is a pretty good definition of "sin" (a word I use less and less these days).

But I guess that before we can be true to our values, we have to decide what those values are.

Have you ever defined your values?

Try this: Take a piece of paper, and write down the five values that you hold most dear. Don't write the Ten Commandments, or the Five Precepts, or the Four Agreements. Write your values.

Go ahead, I'll wait.

So how long did it take? Longer than you thought, I'll bet.

Now carry that list around with you. When there are decisions to make, consult it.

And you'll find, I suspect, that you generate less and less regret.

And as a result, you'll be happier.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Automate and Delegate

I have often said, based on absolutely no scientific evidence whatsoever, that 90% of life is taken up by icky-picky details.

Now, I know that many great teachers say that finding pleasure in the details is key: "Chop wood, carry water."

Sure.

But doesn't it seem that there are some details we're better off without?

For example: For nearly three years, I had to go to one bank every month and stand in long lines to pay my rent. Then I had to go to another bank to pay my utilities. The fourth year. I had a personal assistant who did it for me (while I was working out of town); but when she moved to Guam, it was back on me.

Now I live in school dorms, and rent and utilities are deducted from my check every month.

So for one year I delegated, and now I've automated.

What a relief.

So here's my suggestion: First, ask yourself: "What details am I taking care of that I don't absolutely have to?" Automate what you can, and delegate others to employees, appropriate family members (chores are good for kids), or anyone else that seems fair.

Then, learn to find joy in the things you must do, that are unavoidable.

Because surely, life is more complicated than it was for our ancestors. Any way we can, as Thoreau suggested, simplify, is a step in the right direction.

You'll be happier.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Pamper Yourself

Living abroad takes its toll.

You'd be surprised how much energy is spent just taking care of "the small stuff" when you don't speak the language, let alone understand The System.

So I guess I shouldn't have been surprised at the results of an informal survey I conducted a few years ago, asking my expat friends the "Ten Best Things to Do" in the South China city where I live.

A large percentage of respondents--male and female, from their 20s to their 50s--mentioned massage (including foot massage), manicure, and other things that I never would have thought of.

The lesson is clear: When the stress hits the fan, pamper yourself.

When my wife and I travel, one of the things I look for in a hotel is a bath. I have lived in several apartments here, and not one of them had a bathtub, only showers.

Ah, a bath…

When I was walking through Japan back in 2001, a long day on the road was best capped off by a stay in a temple with a piping hot bath (usually with other naked men--never mind that), a veg meal, and a big fluffy futon.

Austerity by day, pampering by night.

So look around. What's substandard? Bathing facilities? Your mattress? Recreational opportunities? The company you keep?

Or do you just need a massage, a fine meal, a manicure?

Find a space where you could stand to be pampered, and make it so.

You'll be happier.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Learn to Listen to Your Body

The day I arrived in Japan, I met a young Texan named Mike, sort of a Dennis-the-Menace all grown up.

He told me about the first time he went bungee jumping. It was a first-timers-only jump, from a tower, and the line was moving r-e-a-l-l-y slow. When he finally got to the top, he discovered why.

They put on his harness and gave instructions, then told him to step to the edge of the platform. Being a cocky youngster, he strolled right up to the lip, looking out into space.

They told him to jump, he said OK, and…nothing happened.

Mike's brain was sending a signal to his legs, and his legs were simply saying "no."

You see, no matter what the brain with all its "intelligence" was saying, the legs knew that jumping off a platform to the ground a hundred feet down was a sure way to die. Knowing this, Mike's legs were keeping his feet firmly planted. He said that he could feel a little "twitch" in the legs every time his brain sent the message, but the legs still went nowhere.

Friends, never forget: the body knows what's good for it.

"But wait," you say, "what about cravings that are bad for it? Like alcohol, or smoking, or too much sugar?"

I believe those cravings are telling us something important, and our brains--filled to the brim with advertising, rationalization, and bad habits--misinterpret those messages and lead us to unhealthy behavior.

That's not the body's fault, that's the ol' brain again.

So learn to listen to what your body really needs, and respond appropriately.

You'll be happier.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Live for Today

Back in the Dark Ages (when I was in junior high) the Grass Roots released a hit song that started out:

When I think of all the worries people seem to find
And how they're in a hurry to complicate their mind
By chasing after money and dreams that can't come true
I'm glad that we are different, we've better things to do
May others plan their future, I'm busy lovin' you

OK, it was kinda deep 'til that "busy lovin' you" part, then it just became another silly love song ("What's wrong with that, I'd like to know?")

But the course says it all:

Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
Sha-la-la-la-la-la, live for today
And don't worry 'bout tomorrow, hey, hey, hey

OK, except for the "Sha-la-la" and the "hey, hey, hey…"

But you get my point. Can you, just once, for one day of your adult life, live as if there were no past, and no future? Can you focus only on the people you meet, not the ones you have met, or will meet? Hear the sounds, smell the smells, taste the flavors of this day only?

What freedom! (How frightening!)

So pencil it into your Dayplanner; sync it to your Blackberry: "Next Thursday: Live for that day only."

(Be careful, though: If it becomes a habit, it will change your life.)

You'll be happier.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

Make Amends

Guilt sucks.

Many of us carry this huge pile of unpleasantness on our shoulders.

We manage to ignore it most of the time. But sometimes, it rises up and bites us. It prevents us from reviving an old friendship, or going to a reunion, or visiting a former company.

All because we have wronged someone, and have never made it right.

Well, confession, friends, is good for the soul.

You've probably heard of a "twelve-step program." Have you ever actually read the Twelve Steps?

Here are four of them:

4. [We] made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. [We] admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
8. [We] made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. [We] made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.

That's huge.

It's also an essential ingredient in removing the causes of behavior that's harmful to oneself and to others.

Give this some thought. And if it seems right, stop hiding. Steel yourself. And make amends.

You'll be happier.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Have a "Poker Night"

Long ago and far away, I used to sometimes go to the horse races.

Now, I'm no high roller, a die-hard gambler who puts his (fictional) kids' futures on the line every time he goes to the track. I just went for laughs now and then.

But I did find that my fun was enhanced if I placed a small wager.

A two-dollar bet changes everything. And since the maximum number of races in a day was nine, I couldn't lose more than twenty bucks. But oh, what fun that twenty bought me.

But I was going to talk about poker.

Many of us love to play board games, or card games, or anything that gets friends around a table with some snacks and beverages and a little friendly competition.

But friends, I'm here to tell you: however much fun you can have that way, it will be that much more fun if there's a tiny bit of money involved.

So I'm recommending that you have a boys'--or girls'--or co-ed--poker night, and play for pennies.

Seriously, what else are pennies good for?

Get your friends to bring some snacks and drinks, clear a space on the dining room table, and play the gracious host or hostess.

Whether your friends walk out seventeen cents to the good, or a buck thirty-three in the hole, they're going to have a great time.

Learn the rules, and follow them. Don't forget your manners. But aside from these caveats, let 'er rip. Let the good times roll.

You'll be happier!