The Happiness Project

A chronicle of my attempts to test-drive every tip, principle and scientific study that promotes happiness

The Habits We Most Want to Foster, or The Essential Seven

Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.

seven-columnsMy current writing project is a book that will be called Before and After, about the most fascinating subject ever, the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits—really? (To be notified when the book goes on sale, sign up here.)

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. Or not.

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When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

Last week, I posted about the “Big Five,” the areas into which most people’s desired habits fall.

I asked for reader advice about two questions: had I overlooked any areas, and was there a better name than “Big Five”?

Thank you, readers! I got very helpful answers to both questions.

First: yes, indeed, I’d missed some important areas. Now I have seven areas.

Second: given the new number, a reader had a great idea for a snappy name: the Essential Seven.

Voila! The Essential Seven include…

1. Eat and drink more healthfully (give up sugar, eat more vegetables, drink less alcohol)

2. Exercise regularly

3. Save and spend wisely (save regularly, pay down debt, donate to worthy causes, make purchases that contribute to happiness or habits, pay taxes, stay current with expense reports)

4. Rest, relax, and enjoy (pursue a hobby instead of cruising the internet, enjoy the moment, stop checking email, get enough sleep, spend less time in the car, take time for myself)

5. Stop procrastinating, make consistent progress (practice an instrument, set aside two hours daily for uninterrupted work, learn a language, maintain a blog, keep a gratitude journal)

6. Simplify, clear, and organize (make the bed every day, file regularly, put keys away in the same place, recycle, give away unused clothing)

7. Engage more deeply—with other people, with God, with yourself, with the world (call family members, read the Bible every day, volunteer, spend time with friends, observe the Sabbath, spend time alone in nature)

Of course, the same habit might satisfy different needs for different people. For one person, yoga might be a form of exercise (#2), for someone else, a way to find mental rest (#4); for someone else, a spiritual practice (#7). And people value different habits. For one person, organized files might be a crucial tool for creativity; another person finds inspiration in random juxtapositions.

The argument I’ll make in Before and After is that when we change our habits, we change our lives. We can use decision-making to choose the habits we want to form, use willpower to get the habit started, then—and this is the best part—we can allow the extraordinary power of habit to take over. At that point, we’re free from the need to decide and the need to use willpower. We take our hands off the wheel of decision, and our foot off the gas of willpower, and rely on the cruise-control of habits. Mindfully, then mindlessly.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

So readers, what do you think of the Essential Seven—the name and the concepts themselves? I very much appreciate all the thoughtful comments that people posted. Very, very helpful.

I must say, it pleases me to have seven. I hate to quote Voldemort, but he was right when he observed, in Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, “Isn’t seven the most powerfully magic number?”

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Also ...

  • As I mentioned above, my current writing project is a book called Before and After, about habit-formation. I identify the twenty-one strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. Some are quite familiar, such as Monitoring, Scheduling, and Convenience. Some took me a lot of effort to identify, such as Thinking, Abstaining, Identity. Some are more complicated than you might assume, such as Rewards and Other People. The most fun strategy? Treats. My favorite chapter? As you might have guessed from series I did for an entire two weeks, the chapter on Loophole-SpottingI love keeping lists of the loopholes I spot.

    The book will hit the shelves in 2015, and if you want to be notified as soon as it’s available for pre-order, sign up here.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of The Happiness Project, a book and a blog about her adventures learning to be happier.

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