Gretchen Rubin is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun and Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life.
She also runs the very popular blog The Happiness Project.
I’ve posted a lot of research on how to be happier here on the blog. What I found so fascinating about Gretchen is that she went out and tested these things for herself to see what worked.
Gretchen and I spoke about what she learned, the value of negative emotions and which scientific happiness boosters didn’t work.
My conversation with Gretchen was over 45 minutes, so for brevity’s sake I’m only going to post edited highlights here.
If you want the extended interview I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
How Did You Start Your Happiness Project?
I came up with the idea at a very inconspicuous moment in my life. I was stuck on a city bus in the pouring rain, and I had one of those rare opportunities for reflection that you don’t usually get in everyday life. And I thought, “What do I want from life anyway?” I thought, “I want to be happy.”
I thought, “I should have a happiness project.” And that was the phrase that I used to myself, the Happiness Project. I went out the next day and got this giant stack of books from the library to start some research on “Can you make yourself happier?”, and “What would you do to make yourself happier?”
What Did You Learn During The Project?
I think a great place to start is with energy, because if you have more energy everything becomes easier. And asking more of yourself will become easier. So having energy comes from getting enough sleep and getting exercise. You don’t have to train for the marathon, but just getting out there.
Giving yourself a quitting time is very helpful. Every night designate a quitting time, and stop working. Don’t always feel like you should be working, or you could be working, or always be checking in — unless you really have a job where you have to. Most people don’t, honestly.
Contemporary scientists and ancient philosophers agree that the key to happiness is strong relationships with other people. So anytime you’re thinking about a resolution, whether to do it or not, or how to spend your time, energy, or money — anything that broadens your relationships or deepens your relationships is something that’s really probably going to make you a lot happier.
Getting control of your stuff. For many people, outer order contributes to inner calm. So taking the time to clean out your closets, clean out your fridge, clean off your desk, file things, throw things away, fix things that are broken, make your bed, etc.
Negative Emotions Are Vital Too
There are many circumstances in which it is not appropriate to want to be happy, where we couldn’t be happy even if we tried. We wouldn’t want to be happy given what was going on. And often these negative emotions, like guilt and envy, are very helpful in helping you understand where your life doesn’t reflect your values, or how you can change things to make yourself happier. So, negative emotions have a very important role to play in a happy life.
Whom do you envy? Envy is a very uncomfortable emotion; some people don’t like to feel it, so they often deny that they feel envious. But when I was switching from writing one of the big tipoffs for me was that I would read about people that I knew who had cool law jobs, and was sort of mildly interested. And when I read about people who had writing jobs I felt sick with envy. And I thought, it’s because that’s what I want. So that was a clue for me.
How Do You Start Getting Happier? Begin With Fundamentals
Getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, spending more time on relationships, having fun. That’s where I would say to start. I think many people allow themselves to be overwhelmed, and drained, so they don’t have the physical and emotional wherewithal to deal with problems; whether that’s not getting enough sleep or exercise, or not managing their time.
Which Books Should You Read To Learn How To Be Happier?
- The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz.
- The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky
- Happiness Hypothesis by Jonathan Haidt
- The Life of Samuel Johnson by John Boswell
What’s The Most Surprising Thing You Learned During Your Happiness Project?
The thing that I suspected, but that I was surprised at how true it turned out to be, was that it really is possible for most people to make themselves happier, just within the confines of the ordinary day. It does not take an extreme act of willpower; it doesn’t take a lot of time, energy, or money; it doesn’t take a lot of clearing out two hours on your calendar to do some gigantic undertaking. It turns out most people have a lot of low-hanging fruit. They have little things that they can do very easily; yet really without a lot of effort, that are going to make a significant difference to them.
One of the smallest things that we changed at our household that’s had a huge influence on the atmosphere of our home is a resolution to give warm greetings and farewells. It’s one of the rare resolutions where I tried to get other people to follow as well. I think all of my other resolutions are just things that I do, but not trying to influence other people’s actions. But this one we made a family resolution. And this very small thing, giving a warm greeting or farewell, like just getting up, really saying hello, saying goodbye, giving somebody a hug or a kiss really engaging with them for just ten seconds as they come and go, makes this huge difference. And I’ve told people about this, and everybody knows what I’m talking about.
If you want the extended interview (where Gretchen discusses which happiness techniques did *not* work, and reveals one of the biggest causes of unhappiness) I’ll be sending it out with my weekly newsletter on Sunday.
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