Written by : Gretchen Rubin

Word Power

Gretchen Rubin

Small changes in word choice can have a big effect.

Words matter, and as we take steps to boost our happiness, the very words we choose are surprisingly important. That’s because different words appeal to different people. For instance, when I decided to take actions to make myself happier, I started a “happiness project.” I love a “project”; I want to roll up my sleeves and begin.

There's no "right" word

Some people, however, disagree. “It sounds like homework,” a friend objected. “It reminds me of the science project I hated in sixth grade.” My friend loves art and design, so perhaps she might frame the same process as “design my life.” Or someone who loves travel and exploration might “start my journey.” In fact, some people bristle at the word “happiness” itself. They prefer to talk about peace, serenity, satisfaction, fulfilment or contentment.

Happy happy, joy joy

As for me, I have an issue with the word “joy.” “So, Gretchen, tell us about how you try to live a more joyful life.” For me, the word “joy” evokes a rare, intense emotion; I don’t feel joyous very often, and I don’t expect to feel joyful in my ordinary day. But for someone else, “joy” might be the right word.

Also, by emphasizing different values, the words we choose can make a habit more or less appealing. “Playing the piano” sounds like more fun than “practicing the piano”; “engagement time” sounds more interesting than “email time.” And what sounds more attractive, a “personal retreat day,” “catch-up day,” “ditch day” or “mandatory vacation day”?  Would you rather “take a dance class” or “exercise”? Some people embrace the word “quit,” as in “I’ve quit sugar.” Some are put off by its overtones of addiction.

Setting the right tone

The differences in word choice may seem subtle, but they’re significant. I had a note posted in my office that read, “Creative and confident,” but I changed it to “Creative and enthusiastic.”

“Confidence” has an overtone of posture and self-consciousness; it relates to the way I’m seen by others or the way I view myself. “Enthusiasm,” on the other hand, expresses the way I feel about something or someone else—it’s energetic, positive, generous and outward-turning.

Raising the bar by lowering the bar

Along the same lines, I once made the resolution to “lower my standards,” but before long, I changed it to “lower the bar.” “Lower my standards” suggests settling for mediocrity, while “lower the bar” suggests the removal of obstacles, which is what I aim to do.

I’m fairly argumentative, and I would argue with people about why my vocabulary is the most helpful. But I’ve come to understand that just as everyone is different because we each have our own mix of temperament, interests and values, different vocabularies are appropriate as well.

Figure out what works for you

So if you’re trying to make a change in your life, think about the words you choose. Pursue your dream, sprint toward a finish line or cross an item off your to-do list—whatever strikes a chord with you.


GRETCHEN RUBIN is the best-selling author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, and is currently working on her latest book, Before and After, scheduled for release in 2015. She is considered one of the most influential writers on happiness today, and has become an in-demand speaker and keynoter. Gretchen has also made appearances on the Today show, CBS Sunday Morning and Booknotes. You can read about Gretchen’s adventures in the pursuit of happiness and habits on her blog at GretchenRubin.com.

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