Six tips for designing your happiness commandments.

The Happiness Project Blog Logo

One very useful—and also challenging—thing I’ve done as part of my happiness project is to formulate my own commandments, i.e., the precepts that I want to guide my actions and thoughts. Here are my Twelve Commandments:


1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act as I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out. (this is my most cryptic commandment; here’s an explanation)
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

In my experience, designing your list of personal commandments is extraordinarily helpful in working for happiness, so think about what your list might be. Here are some tips to help you get started:

Five of my Twelve Commandments are quotations from other people. My father repeatedly reminds me to “Enjoy the process.” A respected boss told me to “Be polite and be fair.” A good friend told me that she’d decided that “There is only love” in her heart for a difficult person. “No calculation” is a paraphrase of St. Therese, and “Act as I want to feel” is a paraphrase of William James.

So pay attention. What words repeat themselves in your ear? What was the offhand comment that you’ve found unforgettable? “No deposit, no return” is nothing more than a sign on a soda machine, but if it’s a memorable and powerful phrase for you, go with it.

When I was working on my biography of Churchill, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill, I was repeatedly struck by the literary quality of his life—how rich it was in symbols, foreshadowing, motifs, all the elements of the novel.

I came to believe that this was true of my life, too, I just wasn’t paying attention. As Keats wrote, “A Man’s life of any worth is a continual allegory—and very few eyes can see the Mystery of his life…a life like the scriptures, figurative.”

Some people’s commandments can be better expressed through metaphor. Consider Howell Raines’ commandments, from Fly Fishing Through the Midlife Crisis:

“Rule One: Always be careful about where you fish and what you fish for and whom you fish with.
Rule Two: Be even more careful about what you take home and what you throw back.
Rule Three: The point of all fishing is to become ready to fly fish.
Rule Four: The point of fly fishing is to become reverent in the presence of art and nature.
Rule Five: The Redneck Way and Blalock’s Way run along the same rivers, but they do not come out at the same place.”

This might be true for you.

Aim high and fight the urge to be too comprehensive. My commandments help me most when I review them at least daily, to keep them fresh in my mind, and to do this, it helps to keep the list short and snappy. In fact, twelve commandments may be too many. Maybe I only need two, “Be Gretchen” and “There is only love.”

After all, Jesus got down to two commandments. When asked, “Master, which is the great commandment in the law?” Jesus answered, “Thou shalt love the Lord they God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy mind. This is the first and great commandment. And the second is like unto it, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself. On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” Matthew 22:36-40.

A reader emailed me that she was trying to come up with her own set of commandments, but it kept turning into a to-do list. I had the same problem. Remember, this isn’t a place for things like “Put your keys away in the same place every night.” But maybe that resolution fits into a larger commandment you’d like to observe.

Each person’s list will differ. A friend told me that “Say yes” would be a terrible addition to his commandments, because he tends to over-commit. His list says, “Say no.” For another person, “Say yes” might be at the top of the list. You need to think about YOURSELF, your values, your strengths and weaknesses, your interests.

Take your time and think hard. It took me months to come up with my Twelve. This takes some reflection.

Looking at other people’s commandments can be a great source of inspiration. Here are some that I’ve found intriguing:

Forget the past.
Don’t think about things too much.
Do stuff.
Talk to strangers.
Stay in touch.
Do your least favorite part of the job first.
Avoid debt.
Love your mother.
Dig deep.
Show and tell.
Forgive yourself.
Create something that wasn’t there before.
Notice the color purple.
Adorn yourself.
Be in awe.
Help others.
Be silly.
Make footprints. “I was here.”
No fear.
Take it in.
Expect a miracle.
Play the hand you’re dealt.
Recognize my ghosts.
Be specific about your needs.
React to the situation.
Keep proportion.
Do what matters.
Stay calm.
Go outside.
Feel the danger (many dangers, like a bad diet or drunk driving, don’t feel dangerous)

What are your personal commandments? Please consider posting them. I’m sure it would be very valuable for me and other readers to be able to see them.

From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.



Like what you see? Explore more about this topic.

Interested in happiness, habits, and human nature?

From renowned happiness expert and New York Times bestselling author Gretchen Rubin, the “Five Things Making Me Happy” newsletter is one of today’s most popular newsletters. You’ll get a weekly round-up of what’s making Gretchen happy, as well as practical tips, research, and resources about how we can make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

Subscribe to Gretchen’s newsletter.

Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.