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A Secret to Happiness: Clean Off My Desk.

Posted Jan 11 2010 7:49am

One of the big insights I’ve gained from my happiness project is that for me (as for many people), outer order contributes to inner calm. I feel more serene and cheerful if my apartment and office aren’t too messy.

Something else I’ve learned from my happiness project is to be wary whenever I have the urge to “treat” myself, because often my treats don’t make me happy in the long run. One of my “treats” is to let piles of papers, clothes, books, and dishes pile up – which does indeed end up making me feel less happy.

I’ve been feeling overwhelmed this week. There are two kinds of stress: distress and eustress. Distress is the negative type of stress, and eustress is the positive form of stress, but both are taxing.

My first early-warning sign of stress – in this case, enormous eustress – kicked in. It took me years to identify my idiosyncratic stress indicator (actually, it was my mother who first pointed it out, when I was studying for exams in high school), but when I feel stressed, I start re-reading my favorite books from childhood, one after another. I never tire of these books, and their familiarity and their atmosphere comfort me. This week I’ve re-read the entire collection of Elizabeth Enright. What a joy!

To calm myself further, I decided to take an hour and clean my office. It had become a wreck, because I wasn’t taking the time to put anything away. I kept putting off little tasks, thinking, “It’s more important to answer my emails,” “I need to get this little piece written first,” “I need a break, I don’t want to deal with this now,” but finally, I got down to it.

I set aside an hour and tackled the mess. Methodically I entered reading notes, copied information, filed, wrote emails, tossed papers, took coffee cups to the kitchen, got rid of empty yogurt containers, etc. One of my daily habits is to take notes on a scratch pad – mostly to-do reminders – and these pile up quickly. I worked my way through the items on those sheets so I could toss them out.

I even dusted.

This morning when I came into my office, I felt a shock of relief. All those clean surfaces! No more stacks of papers and books teetering on the edge of the desk! No more feeling harassed by uncompleted tasks! It gave me a real boost.

As Samuel Johnson wrote, “It is by studying little things that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible.”

* A thoughtful reader sent me this article, Are wireheads happy? It is absolutely fascinating, and raises several important questions about the nature of happiness.

* The fact that the book The Happiness Project will debut at #2 on the New York Times bestseller list won’t feel real until I actually see it in the paper on January 17 (there’s a two-week reporting delay). But seeing the online report sure made it feel MORE real!
If you’re wondering whether you’re interested in reading the book yourself, you can…
Watch my Today show interview (and the bonus video story about my daughter)
Read sample chapters
Watch the one-minute book video
Listen to thirty minutes of the audiobook (read by me)
Read this review or this review
Buy the book

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