Happiness Rules

As romance writer, I’m always on the lookout for ways to mess up my characters’ lives. My brother Dick’s rubric of making the hero choose between the competing demands of honor is an example (does Our Hero save the innocent child or his commanding officer?). That’s great grist for the fiction mill.

And it’s really, really no fun when those types of questions hit in real life. Do you keep the baby or give her up for adoption? Do you pull the plug on a marriage that isn’t working, or hang in there for the children? Take an erring spouse back? Take them back the third time? Do you let the woman of your dreams ride out of your life because political views separate you? In real life, we get into situations where all of our options have significant downsides, morally, practically and emotionally.

This is just part of life, but it’s a hard part.

To help me navigate those hard parts, I have Starfleet directives. They range from “don’t make decisions when you’re tired,” to “if you can sit on any decision involving money for 24 hours, then sit on it.” I’m impulsive and generous by nature. If I can recall that last rule, I can be impulsive and generous without also being foolish.

I think we all have these Starfleet directives, and we adopt them for our own sanity. We pay attention to the behaviors that make us feel good about ourselves, and to the ones that don’t. When we spot a pattern, we form a directive. Trouble arises when a directive outlives its usefulness.

As a young woman, I adopted a directive that if you love somebody, you don’t give up on them. I learned how to stick, no matter what. I had to unlearn that one when sticking became dangerous. My brothers would probably say sticking around a long as I did in some relationships was stupid. I’d let them say it, too…. Now.

At present, my directives are few and very general, starting with: Be kind and tell the truth. Pretty elementary-school-playground stuff, but meeting even that simple standard is enough of a challenge that I don’t think I’ll out grow it. I will test it though, because sometimes telling the truth isn’t kind, and sometimes being kind can involve untruths, or at least, silence.

So there are no perfect answers, but knowing what my answers are for now is part of what allows me to go through life with some confidence in my ability to cope with the curve balls. It’s not too great a stretch to say a good Starfleet directive or two can keep me out of a world of unhappiness.

What about you? Any wisdom you keep in your back pocket for when tough choices loom?

To one commenter below, I’ll give a signed Advance Reader’s Copy of “Lady Louisa’s Christmas Knight.”

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73 comments on “Happiness Rules

  1. I never quote others, but I read A Short Guide to Happy Life more than 10 years ago, and I could never get this quote out of my head. ” Don’t ever confuse the two, your life and your work. That’s what I have to say. The second is only a part of the first. Don’t ever forget what a friend once wrote to Senator Paul Tsongas when the senator had decided not to run for reelection because he’d been diagnosed with cancer: “No man ever said on his deathbed I wish I had spent more time at the office.”….

    this philosophy has served me well…

    • Spot on, Alexis. And when I’m at the point where I lay dying, I will not wish I’d taken on just a few foster care cases, but I might well wish I’d finished writing just one more romance novel.

  2. Do onto others as you would have them do onto you. Kill them with kindness. Smile and the world smiles too. All of these my mother said as we were growing up. At most times they just made me mad that is until I got older. They are very true.

    • I saw a bumper sticker somewhere that had a to do list like this: 1) Buy a great big sword. 2) Name it Kindness. 3) Use it to kill anybody who deserves to die.
      The one about not making decisions when I’m tired is a direct quote from my mom.

  3. if you do what you believe is right, then trust in yourself, your abilities, and your decisions regardless of what others may think.

    • My version of that: Do the next right thing, then the next right thing. You don’t have to build Rome in a day, but decisions made with integrity tend to compound over time.

  4. I try to never go to bed mad! I try not to judge people, something I sometimes find needs work! Lots of good food for thought in your blog today!

    • Susan, I know people who turn that “don’t go to bed mad” thing on its head. They say that if they stay up late, getting more and more tired and cranky as they try to hash through a problem, they usually go to bed mad anyway. If they acknowledge there’s a problem and retire to neutral corners, sometimes sleeping on the argument gives them a fresh perspective.

      I suppose it varies with the issue and the mad.

  5. When faced with tough choices, I ask myself…1) Who will be affected with my decision? 2) Can I live with my choices? If I didn’t make the right decision,if given the chance I try to go back and correct my error. Because there is a certain kind of peace that comes upon me when the right decision is made.

    • I will sometimes do a “least bad” analysis. If I don’t know what I want to do, then I try to figure out what all the options are that I’m clear I don’t want to choose. Sometimes I can back into a good decision that way…. and sometimes not.

    • One of my old bosses used to preach a discipline of “minimize your regrets: make sure the decision you make is the one you will least regret if things don’t work out!”

  6. I try to conduct myself in an honest fashion, be kind to living beings, stay out of trouble and live an honorable life. My father had a saying, “Keep your nose clean;” I tried to teach it to my sons and my ESOL students (who had to think about the meaning for awhile).

      • I always behaved because I didn’t want to disappoint my mother…one of the reasons Her Grace resonates with me so completely!

  7. I had to learn to trust my instincts. This was difficult because I learned early on that my voice had no value and others were more important. Now, I go with my gut when making a decision. Once I can identify what my conscience/gut/voice of God is saying, I do it. Well, most of the time anyway.

    • YOU said a mouthful, Olivia. I realized far too late that I tend to focus on what words people are using, rather than how they’re behaving and how their behavior makes me feel. Sometimes, “I love you,” is a weapon wielded against self-awareness.

  8. A couple I’ve learned the hard way, as usual. First: Go with your gut instinct, it’s usually 100% right. Second: In a relationship, and this was told to me by the person I learned the hard way about: If he leaves you for someone else he wasn’t worth having to begin with.

    • Molly, I can’t tell you how many divorce clients I’ve told, “If he’ll/she’ll cheat on you, they’ll cheat on their cheat. Move ON, you’re better off without this aggravation.”
      Easier lectured than done, of course.

  9. I have to say on this subject that I always say never say never. Until you have lived in someone Else’s shoes or walked their path in life, never say ” I wouldn’t have done that”.
    I always said there are things I don’t think I could forgive but as I age and get wiser I’m not sure there is anything I would not forgive my loved ones for.
    And by the way sure hope I win the book 🙂

    • Donna, I wish I had a whole box full of Louisa’s. Seems Christmas is always in style, and I can echo your sentiments. I hope I’m a nicer, less judgmental person as I mature.

  10. In my own life I have the utmost confidence that my problems will always work out…perhaps not the way I want but they always do and that keeps me steady.

    • Weathering a few storms can give us confidence. I do know I watch some of my friends shooting around the room backward over financial troubles or relationship blues, and I think, “That was me, ten or fifteen years ago. What a LOT of work, to be so upset!”

  11. Hi Grace –

    I loved your post! I think all of us when tough times strike can take the opportunity to make it a challenge instead of a set-back.

    When my tough time came I found the wisdom to face the challenge. When I was diagnosed with cancer just before my youngest son left for his first year in college. At that point I knew I had to find the strength to live the life I had not the one I wished I had.

    Instead of letting it discourage me I decided to embrace my journey and make it a positive. I adopted the motto “I too busy to be sick! I have things to do and places to go!” I found the courage to go forward to the future instead of think “if only”.

    My physician had told me I couldn’t drive for 5 weeks after the surgery so 5 weeks one day later I drove from Rhode Island to South Carolina to see my son marching in the parade at the Citadel during Parents Week-end!

    6 years later I found out I needed quadruple by-pass. This time I couldn’t drive for 6 weeks. That was fine but “I too busy to be sick! I have things to do and places to go!” 6 1/2 weeks later I again drove to South Carolina to see my future daughter-in-law receive her degree in Nursing from Clemson University and proudly see her recognized for being #1 in her nursing class.

    Years later my best friend was in the hospital up in Boston when she had just gotten out of surgery for cancer when her physician came in and told her she needed to set up a schedule for her chemo. She reached over and picked up her purse, pulled out her day-planner. She looked at her physician and then down at her day-planner and said “What days do you have available because journey and make it a positive. I adopted the motto “I too busy to be sick! I have things to do and places to go!”

    She was given a chance of living for 3 more years. She died 8 years later! A few weeks before she died she bought me a day-planner of my own and inside there was written “Thank You! You were right! “I was too busy to be sick! I had things to do and places to go and grandchildren to watch grow up!”

    • Attitude counts for so much, and grief is no place to spend your entire life. AARP did an article not long on depression in the elderly. There was one group free of depression, no matter how old they were, how broke they were, how long they’d lived alone: cancer survivors. They’re some of the wisest people on the planet.

  12. If you have the choice, NEVER make an important decision on a Friday afternoon, particularly with a committee. Group think on Fridays in never good, and you will only have to redo it on Monday.

    • Polly, I’ve also heard that though we can be more creative sitting in a group, the best way to access that creativity is to have everybody list ideas in silence, one after the other. Write it down and pass it around… the only decision I like to make on Friday afternoon is to leave work early.

      • Remember the quote that has been attributed to Mark Twain: The Bible does not say, “In the beginning God appointed a committee…”

  13. I’m so excited for Lady Louisa!!! I respect & admire you and your career so much! You are the first & only author that has ever responded to an email I sent you. Your books are such a great mental vacation for me. Keep sending me your characters that take me away! Remember the old commercials, Calgon take me away…well you are so my calgon. 🙂

    • Amy, I am so flattered. I DO recall those commercials and I haven’t owned a TV for 25 years at least. My Calgon authors include Mary Balogh, Loretta Chase, Judith Ivory, Carolyn Jewel, Jo Bourne, JR Ward, Meredith Duran and Julie Anne Long… NONE OF WHOM write fast enough.

  14. I guess mine would be to never judge a person until you have walked a mile in their shoes..and to always think about if i could live with the results of my desicion

    • That one has stood the test of time. It’s simple, but not easy, particularly when those people don’t look like us, talk like us, dress like us, worship like us… not easy at all.

  15. Mine is pretty simple too but I tell all my friends this when they are in difficult situations.

    Do the best you can to make life easier for yourself, your friends, and your family. But life is hard and seldom perfect. So no matter what happens, don’t be too hard on yourself. Remember that you’ve tried your best.

    • Suzi, I can’t count the books where the big turning point is the hero or heroine watching somebody they love go through the same circumstances the protag faced years before. The loved one is due all manner of compassion, the younger protag?
      Insight strikes, love can wedge its toe in the door.

      We all really are trying our best most of the time.

  16. In January of 2007, I made a mistake. A huge mistake. I divorced the only man I ever wanted to have children with, and got pregnant by a guy I really didn’t like all that well. Fast forward to October, and my twin daughters arrived, three weeks early, but healthy. Their father had left me, and good riddance. My ex-husband started talking to me again, more out of boredom than anything else, I suspect. We became friends, after a fashion, something we hadn’t been in a long time. By May of the following year, (2008) we were making plans for him to come visit me and the girls, to see if that spark was still there. It was. That year at Christmas, my car broke down, and I had to use all my saved up money to put a down payment on a new used car. My ex-husband spent about $300 on Christmas presents for my girls, because I couldn’t give them the Christmas they deserved. I knew then that I had made a mistake in divorcing him. We re-married in July of 2009, and almost a year later, we had our little boy. My life has been so blessed since he and I got back together. My daughters don’t know their real father. (He never tries to see them.) They think my husband is Daddy, and he is, in every way that matters. He is the true hero in my love story life. Every day he does something silly or corny that makes me fall for him all over again. He’s not romantic by nature, but for our second wedding anniversary, he bought me a gold necklace with a pearl charm. He said it was because we were married in June, which was the birth of the rest of our lives together, and the pearl is the birthstone for the month of June. Most women I have shared that story with get slightly indignant, feeling that he should want to shower me with diamonds. But why should I get the same overused gifts all women get? The pearl means more to me BECAUSE of the meaning behind it than any diamond ever could. He makes me feel loved, protected, cherished, and safe. And he ALWAYS knows how to bring me out of the worst of my depressions. I am so lucky in loving him and having his love in return.

  17. I suppose I err on the Truth..I just want to know the Truth no matter what…And I don’t understand Secrets…If it has to be a secret it can never be a good thing. And worse than everything I believe. I have a uncanny ability to know more than I want to, ask my husband and children. Ultimately I am in control of my own Happiness, which, does Not make me Happy, sometimes. I’m glad I found you as an Author, your books do make me HAPPY! LOL

    • Peggy, I once came across by John Bradshaw about secrets in family systems, and his take on it was that most secrets are “open” secrets. We usually know when our spouses are straying, our children are making bad choices when off at “band practice” and so forth. We don’t acknowledge that we know consciously, but we know.

      The more I think about that theory, the more it rings true. Sounds like you are somebody was a very accurate BS meter, and you don’t indulge in much self-deception either.

      Which means if you say you like my books, I believe you!

  18. My theory of happiness is that you can’t be happy if you’re actively working at being miserable — and vice versa. Being happy is often a choice, and one that is sometimes easier to refuse if life isn’t going your way.

    AND I would be very happy today if I had a new book by Grace to read…


    • Bill, the older I get, the more I agree with you about happiness being a choice, for most of us. There are mental illnesses, there is grief, there are hard, hard times. Absent those oppressions to the spirit, we do have a lot of latitude about our outlook. Whether the glass is half full or half empty, a drink of water is seldom a bad idea.

  19. I love your kindness directive. We would all be served well if that was our only directive. The one I’ve tried to implement this year is “Make a difference” wherever you can. Be generous whenever you can. If it comes down to giving less or more, choose more.

    Boy howdy, would I love to win a copy of that ARC. I’ve been in Burrowes withdrawal mode since Maggie. Pretty soon I’ll have to start over with the Heir to get me through.

    • Livia, I’m in so many forms of withdrawal, one for each of my keeper authors. I think it’s part of why I write, because I need to distract myself from all the deprivation I endure between new keepers. Have I sent you a Louisa excerpt?

  20. I like to stick with simplicity. I have a sign up in my office that I look at every single day that says, “When God closes a door, He always opens a window.” So I try to always keep my eyes open for the windows…

  21. Not sure I have any strict rules I live by because every hurdle that comes along should be handled as a separate issue. And what works for me may not work for you. How I have learned to handle the valleys in my life as changed as I’ve gotten older. I’m sure due to some experience at living and having gone through other situations in the past. I’m not sure I could verbalize how I handle the rough spots, but hope I show by example. You just need to get on with it!

    • Sue, do you have a poster that says, “Keep Calm and Carry On?” If it can get a nation through WWII, maybe it will work for the rest of us. We will attribute the sentiment to you.

  22. Mine is. If I get a good gut feeling about something then Go with it. This has usually worked out right each time.
    Lady Louise sounds great.You are so clever.

    • Jayne, in your profession, instincts probably develop that defy medical science. Then too, you are the mom of an adolescent, and that calls for a lot of trusting your gut–and verifying anyway.

  23. One my directives is watching how my horses and cats respond to a person, and how that person responds to them. Nice to my critter kids? Accepted by them in turn? Very good. No to either means a person to avoid or watch carefully. Critters have taught me so much about living well.
    The other is “This too Shall Pass.” Change is inevitable.

    Thank you for offering us all a chance for an ARC!

  24. Mine’s pretty simply nowdays: I have a decorative little picture near my desk of some beach somewhere in the world, the water washing up on the sand. And in the sand, someone has written with a finger the word “Believe”. It sometimes seems pretty corny, and sometimes hard to practice, but I tell you what–it works. 🙂

    • Twenty years ago, Cora Lee, I would have said, “hokey, sentimental, Disney, sappy,” blah, blah, blah. In the intervening two decades I’ve gotten less arrogant. Our thoughts have weight, our wishes can sign, if we… believe.

  25. One of the things I try to remember is that when you do the right thing, it seems like something good will happen to you a little ways down the road. Kind of like the the show “My Name is Earl”

  26. My guiding principle is “Don’t be a jerk.” Or when the really difficult situations arise, “Choose the least jerky option.”

    • I would like to think my jerk quotient is low, but it’s a contagious malady. When people starting acting like jerks to me, it’s REALLY tempting to jerk back at them. Good thing dueling has gone out of fashion.

      A lot of what professional mediators do is stop that escalating bad behavior by modeling a more sensible response. You can stop a war if you can corral that jerk-back response creatively enough.

      Excellent point, Nicole.

  27. Being the introvert I am, I sometimes think nice things about another person–how helpful she has been, what lovely earrings she is wearing, how beautifully she has just read in church, etc., and sometimes I walk away with my thoughts intact. I am learning to say them aloud, knowing how much a word of praise or appreciation, especially from a stranger, can cling warmly about me for hours after it has been spoken.

    • Mary, thanks much for stopping by, and yes, the unspoken compliment is a missed opportunity. And yet, when we do manage to wedge a kind word past our shyness, doesn’t the sun just come out in the eyes of the receiver?
      And that sun shines on the one who gave the compliment too.
      And in light of same: Your books got me through more tough single-mom days; more broke, daunting weeks; and tired, lonely weekends than I can say. Thanks exceedingly. Long may you write (and please say hi to His Grace for me when next you happen upon him).

  28. I’m always eagerly waiting for your next wonderful book, Grace!!!

    So many of the sayings that have been posted are ones I try to live by. I think one that I’ve been saying a lot this week (it’s only Tuesday) is, “You can’t control every situation or everyone’s opinion or reaction, you can only control what you do in that moment.” I spend so much time trying to control and fix things and sometimes….I just can’t. I just have to control what I do and not worry about everything and everyone.

    • I like the way Jo Bourne puts it when she’s trying to describe how to deal with bad reviews, something along the lines of, ‘you’re not going to convince somebody who hates Brussels sprouts to like Brussels sprouts by talking to them about Brussels sprouts… “

  29. This is one topic where I need advice instead of offering it. I really hate it when a tough choice needs to be made and my mind is unsure. I’ve tried the list thing, pros and cons. I’ve tried following my gut, not always right. Guess the best thing is to talk it through with someone whose opinion I value, and hopefully, get a different slant on things that hadn’t occurred to me.

    • That nicely introduces next week’s topic, Bonnie, which the people I need around me to be a happy Grace. Quality not quantity has also worked for me when it comes to friends, and often a good listener doesn’t need to do anything but reflect what we’re saying them so we can hear ourselves think.

  30. When I was a very young woman I read ‘Katherine’ by Anya Seaton; one of my first romance novels and to this day still one of my favorites. The novel, set in the 14th century, is based on the real life love affair between John of Gaunt, the Duke of Lancaster and his mistress Katherine Swynford. Their children, born before they married and later made legitimate by royal decree, became the ancestors of most of the British royal family. Katherine’s motto was “Id est, quo id est” or “It is what it is”.

    We often cannot control the twists and turns of life but we can control how we react to them. Happiness, to me, is a choice and a flat tire or gravy on the silk shirt I just had dry cleaned cannot ruin my day unless I let it.

    My father also handed down two really good pieces of advice: ‘Don’t live to work, work to live’ and a classic one that I’ve passed on to my two daughters who are now using on their kids: ‘The older you get the smarter I’ll get’. As a teenager I didn’t believe a word of it but as an adult I now realize how right my dad was!

    • So that’s where that came from! I wonder if the medieval connotations of the phrase were the same as the ones we trot out for it.
      And yes, our parents to do wiser the older we become. My parents are 91 and 88, and they’re a pair of frickin’ genuises.

  31. with all the tough times I have been having lately… I don’t know what helps me except when I see a book I have been waiting for come out and I can go underground with the characters I so much adore!

  32. A couple of rules I try to live by are as follows:

    1. Don’t expect more than you are willing to give, but never settle for less.

    This is something I have tried very hard to teach my children.

    2. Grace Burrowes should publish at least one book per month to satisfy her fans’ excessive craving for excellent historical romance. 🙂

  33. Michaela, I could not agree more. In 2013, we’ll average one title a month, though there will be batches in April and October. My editor will be watching closely to see if this boosts sales, or makes for a “saturation lag.” It will be interesting too, to see if books fired off like that catch any foreign sales interest.