-I worked on my novel and felt good about it.
-I easily requested the book I wanted through interlibrary loan.
-I saw a cool raptor soaring over the highway when I was at work.
I recently skimmed through the book The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work by Shawn Achor. Much of what he said was common sense, although — as he points out — just because we know something is good for us, we don’t always do it. Achor emphasizes that success does not lead to happiness, as we are often taught to assume. Instead, if you are happy, success tends to follow.
This is very important for us writers to remember. Happiness will not necessarily come as soon as you get an agent, or a book deal, or a title on the best seller list. Instead, we should focus on being happy with our writing and our lives right where we are now.
Well that’s all fine and good, you might say, but how do you go about getting happy, as if it’s such an easy thing to do? Achor has some ideas, and much of them have to do with the fact that we are creatures of habit. Being happy, like being healthy, has a lot to do with getting into good habits.
One habit he recommends is fairly easy: each day, write down (or say out loud) three happy or positive things that happened to you. It sounds cheesy, but the more he explained it, the more I could see the advantage. I thought about how often I get home and immediately start complaining to my fiance about what annoyed me or went wrong in my day. Why not do the opposite?
Our brains are built to look for patterns. When you start getting into the habit of combing through your day for positives, your brain becomes more adept at noticing and storing happy things. These days we hear a lot about the plasticity of the brain and its ability to change. If you keep up the habit of listing happy things each day, your brain may actually start noticing and remembering positives more easily than negatives, giving you a happier outlook overall.
I’ve been doing the three happy things list for over a week now. (Although I tend to think of it as three positive things. To me “happy” carries the connotation of elated feelings and crazed smiles. I needed something a little bit more low-key and achievable.)
Anyway, sometimes the items on my list are really basic like “the cheese in my grilled cheese sandwich melted perfectly” or “I enjoyed listening to Serial on the way home from work.” Simple, I know, but I think it’s important to appreciate nice moments.
And then, for a few days in a row last week, I had the following as one of my three positive things: “I felt good about my novel.”
A word about my novel. It’s the one my agent and I have been working on for over six months now. It’s been through so many rounds of revisions that reading it makes me want to puke. Then in December I got some pretty harsh feedback on it from a prestigious editor. At that point I basically said, “the entire thing is garbage. The characters suck, the plot sucks. I need to just throw it out and start all over.”
I didn’t do that, but I did make some pretty significant revisions. I changed the whole thing from first person to third. I removed a character and altered a few others. I completely changed the protagonist’s relationship with her mother. I wrote some new chapters. I killed a bunch of my darlings.
And, for the first time in a long time, I actually felt good about my novel. The harsh criticism had been the exact push I needed to make the novel better.
“I need to remember this feeling,” I told the women in my writing group. “I need to remember that I’m feeling good about my novel. Writing is an emotional roller coaster, and soon enough I’ll be back at the bottom thinking that my writing sucks. I need to remember that right now I’m happy with it.”
Lucky for me, I have a way to remember this feeling: my three daily positives. They say you remember things better when you write them down. I’m hoping that writing down my three positive things each day will not only train me to notice the positives in my life and help me become a happier person, but that they will also help me remember the times I’m feeling good about my writing. I can store up those memories and use them as a cushion for the days when I feel like banging my head against he wall in frustration. I know those days will come when I feel bad about my writing. But I also know they will pass.