The Happiness Habit

Prevention Magazine . January, 2007
Steal these routines to make your life richer and more productive


I’ve spent several New Year’s Days sitting on the floor surrounded by stacks of magazines, piles of pictures, and assorted glue sticks. No, I haven’t regressed to kindergarten. Every year I make a “treasure map”: I cut out images that remind me of how I want to live in the coming year, make a collage on poster board, and then display the map where I can see it daily.

Treasure mapping is a wonderful tradition that can help you make your dreams come true. The first time I made a map with friends, one of them pointed out that it looked like a tribute to Mother Teresa: lots of images of helping others, but virtually no images of relaxation and fun. It was great feedback—and I made an immediate adjustment to my workaholic tendencies.

Whether it’s a onetime event to celebrate a rite of passage or a monthly gathering where your friends meet in a circle and speak from the heart, rituals can help you live a more fulfilling life. They can even expand your sense of time—lifting you out of the mad rush of errands and demands and setting you down in a seemingly endless moment of deep connection to your loved ones. You can draw on those special experiences for strength, wisdom, and good feelings whenever you’re in need. This year, improve your life by creating a few simple traditions that honor your heart and help you connect with people you care about. Here are five to inspire you.

Team Up for Chores

In early America, barn raisings were feats of incredible productivity but also wonderful social occasions. Sue Merriman, 54, a landscape designer and full-time mom, has given the idea a modern twist. Every Wednesday she gets together with her friend Devra Laner, 47; sometimes another friend joins them.

The women alternate houses, and the host picks a task that’s time-consuming, difficult to pull off alone, or just no fun—and therefore never gets done. Any project is allowed, although as Sue says, “At first, nobody thinks they can invite friends over to clean the grease out from under the stove.”

The women have done a lot of cleaning, organizing, and gardening in the past 3 years, but the work’s been companionable instead of onerous—full of laughter and talk. “We wanted to be able to see each other and we had to get things done,” Sue says. “So we decided to do both.” (Posted December 2006)

Hold a Swap Meet

At the end of every winter, Laura Gilbert, 30, and several friends do an annual closet purge. But before taking the castoffs to charity, they make them an excuse for a party. One by one, the closet gleanings are inspected and tried on by the women, who range from a size 2 to a 12.

“You see four different bodies in the same dress, and you realize, wow, stuff doesn’t always look best on the one who’s the skinniest,” Laura says. “You start to appreciate what does look good on you instead of beating yourself up because something doesn’t.”

And it’s like having a roomful of personal shoppers. “There’s a piece of clothing you’d never look at twice, but your friends say, ‘No, you must try it on’—and when you do, bam! It’s wonderful.”

Have a Dinner Exchange

When Suzanne Beyer’s children were in grade school, life was a perpetual sprint. One day, she and neighbor Karen Johns came up with a solution: “We thought, Why not exchange dinners once a week? That way, we’d each have one night when we could get caught up and be served dinner in gourmet fashion.”

So Suzanne and Karen would check their schedules for the day most jam-packed with sports practices and music lessons; that evening, a meal would arrive from across the street. “We never told each other what we were preparing—it was always a surprise,” says Suzanne, now 62. “It didn’t take any extra money or effort, and it gave us each an hour and a half extra that day. We both loved it, but I got the better end of the deal—she’s a fantastic cook.”

Share a Journal

Writer Melissa Walker, 29, and her mother have a beautiful way to stay in touch: They connect by writing letters in a journal, which they send back and forth. Melissa got the idea when she was 23 and far from home.

“My dad and I would talk on the phone—Mom would say hi but was often rushing around to get dinner. I thought it would be a great way to hear some of her inner thoughts.” Since Melissa’s dad died a few years ago, their routine has become even more special.

“Now we often write memories—little ‘thought of Dad today because?’ stories,” Melissa says. “And it makes me feel connected to both my mom and my dad on some level.”

Retreat Once a Year

A decade ago, Sandy Shapiro and three friends from junior high celebrated their 35th birthdays by going to a dude ranch in Arizona. They ate lots of steak and potatoes, talked nonstop, and decided they’d do it again in 5 years.

“A few months later, one of my friends got stage 3 uterine cancer,” Sandy says. “There were marital issues and babies born, and it became clear that life was too short—we needed to meet every year.” So each winter, they get together for 3 or 4 days. “These women are like family. The loyalty and love is really intense,” Sandy says. “It’s so nice to come back to that on a regular basis.”

Daily Habits to Lift You Up

  • Instead of flicking on the news when you wake up, start with 5 minutes of your favorite music. It’s a wonderful way to move more smoothly from your dreams into a creative, productive day.
  • Every evening, empty your pocket change into a jar; when the jar gets full, give the money to a favorite charity. You’ll declutter your nightstand and purse while keeping in touch with the things you value.
  • After a day at work or doing errands, pause for a transition as you enter the house. Keep a pair of comfy slippers in the entryway so you can shed your business shoes and persona, or light a scented candle in the living room and take a minute to enjoy the fragrance.

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