▪ Go to sleep earlier.
▪ Exercise better.
▪ Toss, restore, organize.
▪ Tackle a nagging task.
▪ Act more energetic.
Like 44 percent of Americans, I make New Year’s resolutions—and usually don’t keep them for long. How many times had I resolved to exercise more, eat better, and keep up with my e-mail in-box? This year, though, I was making my resolutions in the context of my happiness project, and I hoped that would mean that I’d do a better job of keeping them. To launch the new year and my happiness project, I decided to focus on boosting my energy. More vitality, I hoped, would make it easier for me to stick to all my happiness-project resolutions in future months.
In a virtuous circle, research shows, being happy energizes you, and at the same time, having more energy makes it easier for you to engage in activities—like socializing and exercise—that boost happiness. Studies also show that when you feel energetic, your self-esteem rises. Feeling tired, on the other hand, makes everything seem arduous. An activity that you’d ordinarily find fun, like putting up holiday decorations, feels difficult, and a more demanding task, like learning a new software program, feels overwhelming.
I know that when I feel energetic, I find it much easier to behave in ways that make me happy. I take the time to e-mail the grandparents with a report from the pediatrician’s checkup. I don’t scold when Eliza drops her glass of milk on the rug just as we’re leaving for school. I have the perseverance to figure out why my computer screen is frozen. I take the time to put my dishes in the dishwasher.
I decided to tackle both the physical and mental aspects of energy.
For my physical energy: I needed to make sure that I got enough sleep and enough exercise. Although I’d already known that sleep and exercise were important to good health, I’d been surprised to learn that happiness—which can seem like a complex, lofty, and intangible goal—was quite influenced by these straightforward habits. For my mental energy: I needed to tackle my apartment and office, which felt oppressively messy and crowded. Outer order, I hoped, would bring inner peace. What’s more, I needed to clear away metaphorical clutter; I wanted to cross tasks off my to-do list. I added one last resolution that combined the mental and the physical. Studies show that by acting as if you feel more energetic, you can become more energetic. I was skeptical, but it seemed worth a try.
GO TO SLEEP EARLIER.
First: bodily energy.
A glamorous friend with a tendency to make sweeping pronouncements had told me that “Sleep is the new sex,” and I’d recently been at a dinner party where each person at the table detailed the best nap he or she had ever had, in lascivious detail, while everyone moaned in appreciation.
Millions of people fail to get the recommended seven to eight hours of sleep a night, and one study revealed that along with tight work deadlines, a bad night’s sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods. Another study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each night would do more for a person’s daily happiness than getting a $60,000 raise. Nevertheless, the average adult sleeps only 6.9 hours during the week, and 7.9 on the weekend—20 percent less than in 1900. Although people adjust to feeling sleepy, sleep deprivation impairs memory, weakens the immune system, slows metabolism, and might, some studies suggest, foster weight gain.
My new, not-exactly-startling resolution for getting more sleep was to turn off the light. Too often I stayed up to read, answer e-mails, watch TV, pay bills, or whatever, instead of going to bed.
Nevertheless, just a few days into the happiness project, although I practically fell asleep on Eliza’s purple sheets as I was tucking her in, I wavered for a moment when Jamie proposed watching our latest Netflix DVD, The Conversation. I love movies; I wanted to spend time with Jamie; 9:30 P.M. seemed a ridiculously early hour to go to bed; and I knew from experience that if I started watching, I’d perk up. On the other hand, I felt exhausted.
Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up? Inertia, I suppose. Plus there’s the prebed work of taking out my contact lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face. But I’d made my resolution, so resolutely I headed to bed. I slept eight solid hours and woke up an hour early, at 5:30 A.M., so in addition to getting a good night’s sleep, I had the chance to do a peaceful block of work while my family was still in bed.
I’m a real know-it-all, so I was pleased when my sister called and complained of insomnia. Elizabeth is five years younger than I am, but usually I’m the one asking her for advice.
“I’m not getting any sleep,” she said. “I’ve already given up caffeine. What else can I do?”
“Lots of things,” I said, prepared to rattle off the tips that I’d uncovered in my research. “Near your bedtime, don’t do any work that requires alert thinking. Keep your bedroom slightly chilly. Do a few prebed stretches. Also—this is important—because light confuses the body’s circadian clock, keep the lights low around bedtime, say, if you go to the bathroom. Also, make sure your room is very dark when the lights are out. Like a hotel room.”
“Do you really think it can make a difference?” she asked.
“All the studies say that it does.”
I’d tried all these steps myself, and I’d found the last one—keeping our bedroom dark—surprisingly difficult to accomplish.
“What are you doing?” Jamie had asked one night when he caught me rearranging various devices throughout our room.
“I’m trying to block the light from all these gizmos,” I answered. “I read that even a tiny light from a digital alarm clock can disrupt a sleep cycle, and it’s like a mad scientist’s lab in here. Our BlackBerrys, the computer, the cable box—everything blinks or glows bright green.”
“Huh” was all he said, but he did help me move some things on the nightstand to block the light coming from our alarm clock.
These changes did seem to make falling asleep easier. But I often lost sleep for another reason: I’d wake up in the middle of the night—curiously, usually at 3:18 A.M.—and be unable to go back to sleep. For those nights, I developed another set of tricks. I breathed deeply and slowly until I couldn’t stand it anymore. When my mind was racing with a to-do list, I wrote everything down. There’s evidence that too little blood flow to the extremities can keep you awake, so if my feet were cold, I put on wool socks—which, though it made me feel frumpish, did seem to help.
Two of my most useful getting-to-sleep strategies were my own invention. First, I tried to get ready for bed well before bedtime. Sometimes I stayed up late because I was too tired to take out my contacts—plus, putting on my glasses had an effect like putting the cover on the parrot’s cage. Also, if I woke up in the night, I’d tell myself, “I have to get up in two minutes.” I’d imagine that I’d just hit the snooze alarm and in two minutes, I’d have to march through my morning routine. Often this was an exhausting enough prospect to make me fall asleep.
And sometimes I gave up and took an Ambien.
After a week or so of more sleep, I began to feel a real difference. I felt more energetic and cheerful with my children in the morning. I didn’t feel a painful, never-fulfilled urge to take a nap in the afternoon. Getting out of bed in the morning was no longer torture; it’s so much nicer to wake up naturally instead of being jerked out of sleep by a buzzing alarm.
Nevertheless, despite all the benefits, I still struggled to put myself to bed as soon as I felt sleepy. Those last few hours of the day were precious—when the workday was finished, Jamie was home, my daughters were asleep, and I had some free time. Only the daily reminder on my Resolutions Chart kept me from staying up until midnight most nights.
There’s a staggering amount of evidence to show that exercise is good for you. Among other benefits, people who exercise are healthier, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. Regular exercise boosts energy levels; although some people assume that working out is tiring, in fact, it boosts energy, especially in sedentary people—of whom there are many. A recent study showed that 25 percent of Americans don’t get any exercise at all. Just by exercising twenty minutes a day three days a week for six weeks, persistently tired people boosted their energy.
Even knowing all these benefits, though, you can find it difficult to change from a couch potato into a gym enthusiast. Many years ago, I’d managed to turn myself into a regular exerciser, but it hadn’t been easy. My idea of fun has always been to lie in bed reading. Preferably while eating a snack.
When I was in high school, I wanted to redecorate my bedroom to replace the stylized flowered wallpaper that I thought wasn’t sufficiently sophisticated for a freshman, and I wrote a long proposal laying out my argument to my parents. My father considered the proposal and said, “All right, we’ll redecorate your room. But in return, you have to do something four times a week for twenty minutes.”
“What do I have to do?” I asked, suspicious.
“You have to take it or leave it. It’s twenty minutes. How bad can it be?”
“Okay, I’ll take the deal,” I decided. “What do I have to do?”
His answer: “Go for a run.”
My father, himself a dedicated runner, never told me how far I had to run or how fast; he didn’t even keep track of whether I went for twenty minutes. All he asked was that I put on my running shoes and shut the door behind me. My father’s deal got me to commit to a routine, and once I started running, I found that I didn’t mind exercising, I just didn’t like sports.
My father’s approach might well have backfired. With extrinsic motivation, people act to win external rewards or avoid external punishments; with intrinsic motivation, people act for their own satisfaction. Studies show that if you reward people for doing an activity, they often stop doing it for fun; being paid turns it into “work.” Parents, for example, are warned not to reward children for reading—they’re teaching kids to read for a reward, not for pleasure. By giving me an extrinsic motivation, my father risked sapping my inclination to exercise on my own. As it happened, in my case, he provided an extrinsic motivation that unleashed my intrinsic motivation.
Ever since that room redecoration, I’ve been exercising regularly. I never push myself hard, but I get myself out the door several times a week. For a long time, however, I’d been thinking that I really should start strength training. Lifting weights increases muscle mass, strengthens bones, firms the core, and—I admit, most important to me—improves shape. People who work out with weights maintain more muscle and gain less fat as they age. A few times over the years, I’d halfheartedly tried lifting weights, but I’d never stuck to it; now, with my resolution to “Exercise better,” it was time to start.
There’s a Buddhist saying that I’ve found to be uncannily true: “When the student is ready, the teacher appears.” Just a few days after I committed to my resolution to “Exercise better,” I met a friend for coffee, and she mentioned that she’d started a great weight-training program at a gym in my neighborhood.
“I don’t like the idea of working out with a trainer,” I objected. “I’d feel self-conscious, and it’s expensive. I want to do it on my own.”
“Try it,” my friend urged. “I promise, you’ll love it. It’s a superefficient way to exercise. The whole workout takes only twenty minutes. Plus”—she paused dramatically—“you don’t sweat. You work out without having to shower afterward.”
This was a major selling point. I dislike taking showers. “But,” I asked doubtfully, “how can a good workout take only twenty minutes if you’re not even sweating?”
“You lift weights at the very outer limit of your strength. You don’t do many repetitions, and you do only one set. Believe me, it works. I love it.”
In Daniel Gilbert’s book Stumbling on Happiness, he argues that the most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy and assume that you’ll feel the same way. According to his theory, the fact that my friend raved about this fitness routine was a pretty good indicator that I’d be enthusiastic, too. Also, I reminded myself, one of my Secrets of Adulthood was “Most decisions don’t require extensive research.”
I made an appointment for the next day, and by the time I left, I was a convert. My trainer was terrific, and the atmosphere in the training room was much nicer than most gyms—no music, no mirrors, no crowds, no waiting. On my way out the door, I charged the maximum twenty-four sessions on my credit card to get the discount, and within a month, I’d convinced Jamie and my mother-in-law, Judy, to start going to the same gym.
The only disadvantage was that it was expensive. “It seems like a lot to spend for a twenty-minute workout,” I said to Jamie.
“Would you rather get more for your money?” he asked. “We’re spending more to get a shorter workout.” Good point.
In addition to strength training, I wanted to start walking more. The repetitive activity of walking, studies show, triggers the body’s relaxation response and so helps reduce stress; at the same time, even a quick ten-minute walk provides an immediate energy boost and improves mood—in fact, exercise is an effective way to snap out of a funk. Also, I kept reading that, as a minimum of activity for good health, people should aim to take 10,000 steps a day—a number that also reportedly keeps most people from gaining weight.
Living in New York, I felt as if I walked miles every day. But did I? I picked up a $20 pedometer from the running store near my apartment. Once I’d been clipping it onto my belt for a week, I discovered that on days when I did a fair amount of walking—walking Eliza to school and walking to the gym, for example—I hit 10,000 easily. On days when I stayed close to home, I barely cleared 3,000.
It was interesting to...