Good Housekeeping
By Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project: Counting What Counts

To boost your joy, sometimes you have to keep score


The Happiness Project: Counting What Counts

When a close friend has an intense interest or preoccupation, it often rubs off on me. For years, one friend was constantly bringing up what she called "the measurement problem" — the idea that measuring an activity or trait you value (or choosing not to measure it) changes the way you act on it. "If you don't measure something, it's easy to ignore it," she explained. "And that can be a problem."

This idea struck me with such force that I made it one of my Secrets of Adulthood: "I manage what I measure." If I want something to count in my life, it helps to figure out a way, literally, to count it.

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I have tangible proof of this: As part of my happiness projects, I keep a chart tracking all my resolutions; each day, I score myself on whether I've kept or broken them. I find that I'm far more likely to stick to a resolution when I set myself a task related to it — and when I measure whether I do that task.

Admirable but vague resolutions like "Find more joy in life" or "Stay in the moment" are tougher to measure — and to keep — than actionable ones like "Once a week, make plans with a friend" or "Don't check e-mail when I'm spending time with my family." It's difficult to quantify from day to day whether I'm getting more joy out of life, but it's easy to score myself on keeping a weekly date with a friend — and that date definitely boosts my happiness.

With my workaholic tendencies, I've realized that if I don't measure certain values, I neglect them. Resolutions like "Force myself to wander" and "Schedule time for play" may seem paradoxical, but if I don't put these goals on my calendar and score myself on my resolutions chart, I won't act on them.

Along the same lines, I realized not long ago that while I was enjoying plenty of relaxed time with my younger daughter, my older daughter's schedule had become so busy that I wasn't getting enough one-on-one time with her. That kind of connection is important to me, so to strengthen it, I resolved that we should "Go on weekly adventures." These days, once a week, I meet her after school and we head off on an outing, like a walk along the river or a museum visit. It's lovely to have an afternoon without distractions or nagging; one date a week may not sound like much, but it has made a big difference.

Not everyone agrees about the value of measurement. I've had people tell me that measuring an activity stifles it or encourages us to focus on quantity rather than quality of experience. If you're busy recording an experience, they argue, you can't be immersed in it. Shouldn't you enjoy the birthday party instead of pulling out your camera to photograph every scene?

These are good points — we all want to have a deep level of engagement with people and experiences. But I believe that measurement, used wisely, helps us get there. How will you immerse yourself in the fun of the birthday party if you don't set aside unstructured time in advance to dream up creative ideas for the celebration? How will you lose yourself in contemplation of the clouds if you don't block off dedicated screen-free hours outdoors? Measurement allows me to make sure that what matters most to me doesn't get pushed aside.

Take reading. It's my favourite thing to do — in fact, if I'm honest with myself, it's one of the few activities I heartily enjoy. So for a long while, I assumed I'd always make time for it. But books kept dropping off the schedule until I added "Make time to read" to my resolutions chart. Now I plan for reading, and not just for work; I also block off time to read for fun — which includes rereading, reading at whim, and reading children's literature.

Playing the piano. Taking a bike ride. Planning that exotic dream vacation. Is there an activity you'd like to do more often (or something draining you'd like to do less)? If so, try this: Figure out a concrete way to measure and track it. By counting the things that count — and pushing yourself to find a way to count the things that seem as if they can't be counted — you're sure to make more room for what matters most.

Next: Gretchen interviews Nilofer Merchant, author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era

Merchant, the author of 11 Rules for Creating Value in the Social Era, knows the (super)power of slowing down

Gretchen Rubin: What's a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Nilofer Merchant: Drinking coffee from my Wonder Woman mug. My stepdaughter gave it to me a while ago as a joke. But it has become a bit of a ritual to use it. We are all wiser and stronger than we think — we are all Wonder Woman.

GR: What gets in the way of your happiness?

NM: Overcommitting. When I sleep too little, travel too much, and don't eat well or exercise because I've said yes to too many meetings or projects, then I get tired, cranky, and lonely — and everything gets viewed through a tired, cranky, lonely lens. I get overcommitted easily by wanting to say yes (for fear the opportunity will never come again) when I really need to say "Not now" and have faith that the right things will be there when it's the right time.

GR: Do you have a happiness mantra or motto?

NM: "If you are irritated by every rub, how will you get polished?" That's from Rumi; it's my way of saying that even this challenge or frustration could be helping me in ways I cannot yet see.

GR: When you're blue, what gives you a boost?

NM: I keep a box full of notes, mementos of things I've accomplished, and movies that make me feel stronger, like G.I. Jane and Erin Brockovich. I call it my "break-glass" because I think, In case of disaster or fire, break glass. Going through this box gives me a boost. And the funny thing is that I always find notes about things I once dreamed of or struggled with that are now in my rearview mirror. It gives me perspective, which is usually the thing that is missing when I'm blue.

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