7 Tips for Making Happy Decisions

Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin on creating your own personal happiness

We all have to make decisions about how to spend our time, energy, and money. Because of my happiness project, I now explicitly ask myself, “Will this decision make me happier?” I’m determined to get the most happiness bang for the buck.

Here are some questions I consider:

1. Is this decision likely to strengthen my relationships with other people? Strong relationships with other people are a key—the key—to happiness, so decisions that help me build or strengthen ties are likely to boost my happiness. Yes, it’s a hassle and an expense to go to my college reunion, but it’s likely to have a big happiness pay-off.

2. Will this decision provide me with novelty and challenge? Novelty and challenge make me happier—but they also make me feel insecure, intimidated, frustrated, and stupid. To get past that hurdle, I remind myself that in the end, I usually get a big shot of happiness. When I considered adding video to my blog, I reminded myself that the process of mastering the process would likely make me happier. And it has.

3. What is the opportunity cost of this decision? (“Opportunity cost” describes that fact that doing one thing means foregoing alternatives.) Energy, time, and money are limited. Even if a decision would bring happiness, if it means that I have to give up the opportunity to do many other happiness-boosting activities, it may not be worth it. I could dedicate many hours to learning about classical music, and in the end, I might enjoy classical music more, but that activity would crowd out too many other things that I want to do more.

4. Does this decision help me obey my personal commandment to “Be Gretchen?” I want to shape my life to reflect my temperament, interests, and values. I ask myself: Am I making this decision to “Be Gretchen,” or because I want to impress other people, pretend that I’m different from the person I actually am, or deny a truth about myself?

5. When I consider a particular course of action, do I feel energized or drained?

6. How happy are the people who have made that particular decision? 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. Going on a family trip to Disneyworld. Getting a hamster. Learning to use Instagram. Working as a paralegal. Volunteering. In evaluating the likely consequences of a decision, other people’s experiences of happiness—or lack thereof—can be very instructive for me.

7. I remind myself to “Choose the bigger life.” People make different decisions about what the “bigger life” would be, but when I ask myself that question, it always helps me see the right answer, for myself.

This list might help answer questions such as:

  • Should I join Facebook?
  • Should I buy a tent?
  • Should I throw a Labor Day party?
  • Should I buy a new kitchen table?
  • Should I sign up for Spanish lessons?

There’s no right answer or wrong answer — only the right answer for me.

How about you? Have you developed questions for yourself, or other strategies, to help make wise decisions?

Gretchen Rubin is the author of the New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Each Wednesday is tip day on her blog.

4 comments so far.

  1. avatar Joan Larsen says:

    First:  if you are fortunate to have a wonderful love in your life, you find yourself glowing.  Being so content with your personal life is the biggest life booster there can be.  When you feel love (and love back!), you feel good inside and usually the glow extends to others.  What happens?  Others are attracted to positive thinkers, to sunshine, and like attracts like – potential friends gather.  I have found that confidence makes many other things drop that may even increase your good life . . . but if, by chance, circumstances in family or elsewhere prevent all things good happening, the love you have in your life is, in itself, the pot of gold.  It gets you through so many external highs and lows that we all have on the road of life.

    Do we really think we can plan our own happiness?  In advance?  That is a lot of pressure.  What is more important is to get out of our houses into the world – a party, a reunion, travel, whatever is the spirit moves us.  Great expectations rarely work out in the way we planned.  But there is nothing wrong with hoping you are going to have a really good time.  Let what is going to happen, happen.  Go with the flow.  Avoid disappointment in the larger sense.

    There is nothing wrong with following the ideas for vacation or whatever of those whose interests and more seem similar to yours.  But put your own spin on it . . . add those things that are unique to you two.  It is the personal touches that will be the memories that remain much later, putting that smile on your faces.   THAT is what works! 

    In these hard economic times, so much more consideration has to be given when money is to be spent.  We all would love that job that completes us — for if we come home happy, it is contagious and wonderful at home.  Again, we often have to make the best of what we have right now.  Often, the challenge of making our job more rewarding gets our juices flowing.  Often, the getaway small trip for a few days makes us return with a new look on life – which in its own way equates with happiness !!!   Is it worth it?  I think so.  Doing anything positive increases your chances of some really good moments. 

    I have found that most of the great things in life — at least the great moments – have come unbidden.  Unplanned.  And aren’t they even more exciting when you don’t expect it???

    Just my thoughts.

    • avatar Linda Myers says:

      Many of my most favorite moments, have been the spontaneous ones. When taking a vacation, I plan the destination and maybe a couple of highlights – the rest is left in the moment.

  2. avatar Lila says:

    Oh, I wish parents and mentors would discuss the concept of “opportunity cost” with young people more often. Poorly understood and scarcely thought of… until somewhere far down the road when we look back and think, “I could have… if only I had not… ” or, conversely, “I wish I had… and then I could have done….” Or worst of all: “It’s not fair! I should have been able to…”

    As Gretchen writes, there is no right or wrong answer for our choices, but we do have to actually MAKE choices. We are all limited by the number of hours in the day and the inexorable flow of time, so we would do well to PLAN a little better sometimes, and to ACCEPT that we cannot do everything simultaneously.

    • avatar Joan Larsen says:

      Lila . . . our country’s economic condition as well as our only usually lesser status right now colors tremendously what we may say.  But in the whole of life I believe, it comes down to not be forever procrastinating, but actually making choices.  We feel better once we are no longer churning the possibilities over and over, but opening our own door and trying something.

      Will our choice make us happy?  I am an optimist and hope it will.  But early on, I really don’t think our children, newly grown or even later, are going to be too interested in what the parents think.  Often it is talking to a blank wall.  Could we be of great help with our own experiences under our belt?  Certainly.  BUT once education is over, learning is not over.  Sometimes watching can be painful, but with each choice our children learn LIFE LESSONS – which I think become far more valuable than college education as time goes on.

      I think that each of us having our share of a variety of times – personally and professionally – makes us grow and understand as people.  When I speak to people, I usually say that almost nothing is forever.  We will continue to have choices, make choices, go in all facets of life in other directions.  I personally think we should.  We become more knowledgable, more well-rounded. 

      What no one seems to tell us is — later in life — we do better if we are fully prepared for the sometimes horrific bumps in life that we will not be able to avoid.  The life lessons will hold us in good stead.

      The topic here is happiness.  .  . and as we travel the pathway of life, turn corners, sometimes reach the mountaintops that I have found quite a few times accidentally in my own journey, we suddenly feel like the heavens have opened and we are bathed with sunshine.  It is not ours to ask, what happened?  Instead, when the feelings of true happiness reign down on us, we should give thanks and consider ourselves blessed.
      This is a byproduct of our journey that is our best gift.