My current emphasis: how to make good habits and break bad ones (really)

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Interviews

When I’m writing, one of my bad habits is to imagine every criticism a reader (or reviewer or interviewer) could raise against my book. In this interview, I get my chance to answer that hostile reader.

Hostile reader: So many people these days write these “Year of…” books. You spent a year test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from pop culture about how to be happier. Don’t you think that gimmick is tired and obvious?

Gretchen: There are a lot of great names for this “year of” approach. I’ve seen it called “schtick lit” and “method journalism” and “stunt journalism” and “annualism.” Of course, this approach isn’t new. Thoreau moved to Walden Pond in 1845 (he did a two-year project, instead of a one-year project, but the idea was the same).

The “year of…” approach resonates with people. Whether it’s because we measure our lives according to the passing of birthdays or holidays, or because of the influence of the school schedule, a year feels like the right length of time for an “experiment in living,” to borrow Thoreau’s phrase. A year feels like enough time for real change to be possible – but manageable.

At a book conference recently, A.J. Jacobs (The Year of Living Biblically) and Robyn Okrant (Living Oprah) and I were joking that we should start a union for writers following this approach.

You admit that your book and your blog revolve around you. Why should I be interested in your happiness project?

My research showed me something surprising: although I found tremendous value in the scientific and philosophical works I studied, in the end, I gleaned more from books like Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning, and Anne Lamott’s Operating Instructions.

I’d expected that objective works, examining universal principles or citing up-to-date studies, would be more helpful than highly idiosyncratic personal accounts. And yet St. Thérèse’s efforts to remain cheerful as she waited for the Pope’s permission to enter a convent at the age of fifteen, and Samuel Johnson’s fervent, repeated, doomed resolutions to get out of bed earlier each morning, were more illuminating than the most carefully footnoted scholarly article.

The more you know an individual, the more you understand human nature and the more you understand yourself.

Also, it’s easier to learn by hearing about someone’s specific example than by studying principles in the abstract. Maybe you wouldn’t adopt my resolution to “Read more,” but you can feel inspired to “Cook more” or “Cycle more.”

How did you come up with the idea to write The Happiness Project, anyway? Were you just casting about for a way to capitalize on the current happiness craze?

One day, I had a sudden realization—I was in danger of wasting my life. On a rainy afternoon, as I was staring out the window of a city bus, I saw that the years were slipping by.

“What do I want from life, anyway?” I asked myself. “Well…I want to be happy.” But I had never thought about what made me happy, or how I might be happier.

I wasn’t depressed, and I wasn’t having a midlife crisis, but I was suffering an adulthood malaise—a recurrent sense of discontent, and almost a feeling of disbelief. “Is this really it?” I’d find myself wondering, and answering, “Yep, this is it.”

But though at times I felt dissatisfied, that something was missing, I also never forgot how fortunate I was. I had everything I could possibly want—yet I was failing to appreciate it. Too often, I failed to comprehend the splendor of what I had. I didn’t want to keep taking my life for granted.

In that single moment, with that realization, I decided to dedicate a year to trying to be happier. “I’ll start a happiness project,” I vowed. And I did.

Isn’t it artificial to get a book contract and then embark on a year-long stunt like this? How authentic can your experience have been?

Well, I didn’t get a book contract until after the year was over.

So basically you were already pretty happy, and your life was good. You must have had the least dramatic midlife crisis in all of American history.

Yes. I wasn’t depressed, and I wasn’t having a proper midlife crisis. I didn’t hit bottom, get divorced, or lose 200 pounds. I didn’t get cancer. I didn’t have to forgive any terrible wrongs. I didn’t even have to quit smoking. I was pretty happy.

That makes me typical. In a 2006 study, 84% of Americans ranked themselves as “very happy” or “pretty happy,” and in a survey of forty-five countries, on average, people put themselves at seven on a 1-10 scale. On scale of 0-100, people generally put themselves at 75.

My happiness project was on a very ordinary scale. I realized that the biggest obstacle to my happiness was…me. My failings, my limitations. It was time to expect more from myself. I wanted to feel more gratitude and stop complaining. I wanted to behave better.

Before I started this project, I was fairly happy. One thing that surprised me was that as soon as I started to think about how to be happier, I realized how happy I was already. My appreciation for my life increased dramatically, once I examined it.

There are so few visible changes in your life as a consequence of your happiness project. Nothing’s different when you’re done.

True! It mostly happens inside. I went on an adventurous quest for truth, meaning, and happiness – without leaving my neighborhood.

You live a life of privilege. What do you know about how to be happy? What can anyone learn from you?

I am who I am. I write about my experience. You may find that interesting and helpful—or maybe not.

People with security and prosperity are being whiny if they aren’t happy. What about the millions of people who go to bed hungry or live on the streets?

Those are extremely important issues, and I’m not suggesting that they aren’t worthy of study and action.

The fact is, once people have a measure of security and prosperity, they turn their attention to more transcendent things. I have the luxury—and I know it’s a luxury—to worry about issues besides getting enough to eat and living in a stable democratic government.

It’s interesting to note, however, that being happy yourself makes you more likely, not less likely, to worry about those suffering people. Some people assume that happiness makes people complacent. Quite the contrary. Happy people are more concerned with the problems of other people and more likely to take action to help. So by making myself happy, I arm myself to be more effective in addressing the world’s significant problems.

You’ve written about large subjects like Winston Churchill and John Kennedy. Here you’re writing about the minutiae of life, the kinds of issues that show up on breakfast shows. Did you enjoy writing a book that was “All About You”?

Happiness is a vast subject that touches all parts of life — health, love, friendship, spirituality, children, fun, creativity, ambition…although I discuss these subjects through the lens of my experience, I try to shed light on these large matters.

I always tackle enormous topics in my books. I love the intellectual exercise of distillation—and happiness is an inexhaustible issue.

You have a very popular blog, and you’re also quite active on social media. Why do you think so many people are interested to read your random, unedited, daily musings?
I have to admit to being astonished—and thrilled—by the enthusiasm and size of my online readership.

Technology is giving writers new tools for reaching readers, but writing is writing. If I model my online work after anyone, it’s Samuel Johnson and his twice-weekly essays for The Rambler – which came out between 1750-52.

You obviously spend a lot of time working on your blog, posting on Twitter, engaging with your Facebook Fan Page, and all that. You have a monthly newsletter. Do real writers mess with that stuff? Don’t they focus on their writing, and not waste time emailing with readers?

Some writers embrace these new tools; some writers consider them a dangerous distraction, or at least a waste of time. My own view is that reading is changing, writing is changing, and books are changing—but people will always love to read.

It’s a delight to be able to engage with readers on the subject of happiness—even before my book came out. My online readers have been a huge source of ideas and insight.

You’ve been blogging for more than three years, five or six posts a week. We can read you for free. Why should anyone buy your book?

I’m so glad you asked that question! Here are several reasons:

  1. One smart friend who reads my blog and who read my book told me that she thought the blog was process, the book was conclusion. The ideas in the book are presented in a more digested, thoughtful way, and the book framework allows me to tell longer stories and explain more complicated ideas. Also, I show how different ideas fit together, which can be tough to do in one blog post.
  2. On the blog, I write about whatever subject interests me that day, so it skips from topic to topic. The book is organized by subject matter: Energy, Parenthood, Work, Marriage, Play, Spirituality, Mindfulness, etc. If you’re interested in particular subjects, you can focus there.
  3. If you’ve been enjoying the blog for years, and you’d like to share it with a friend, you can give the book as a gift. You can’t give the experience of reading a blog as a gift, but you can give a book.
  4. In a book, you can more easily take notes about what applies to you and your happiness project. Underlining, highlighting, and taking notes in the margin allow you to engage with the material. (You can do this electronically, of course, but many people still find it easier to do with old-fashioned pen and paper.)
  5. I’m much more forthcoming in my book than I am on my blog. I call my family members by their true names. I talk about juicy episodes that I’ve never mentioned on my blog (my experiment with hypnosis; the time I wrote a novel in a month). I reveal a very major fact about my life that I’ve never discussed on my blog.
  6. Many of my readers have written that they want to buy the book to show their support—a “thank you” for everything I’ve done for free. Which I very much appreciate!

You tried many different happiness strategies. What didn’t work?

Lots of things. I never could keep a food journal—I just couldn’t remember to write things down. Laughter yoga left me cold. I was annoyed by my gratitude journal.

Why didn’t you provide more references to the scientific studies you used?

I really debated the question of whether to provide exhaustive references to my source material.

My previous books were heavily footnoted, but I wanted The Happiness Project to have a more informal, conversational atmosphere. I kept extensive notes myself, and in general, if I didn’t provide source material, it’s because the material I’ve mentioned is widely available and easily searchable.

I don’t expect that people will turn to my book for the authoritative review of the scientific literature. Instead, I try to show how a person could put useful information (from a wide range of sources) to work in real life. I wanted to stay focused on that aspect. After all, my authority—such as it is—doesn’t come from my scientific expertise, but from my reflections on my own experience.

Speaking of science, you often make pronouncements about happiness that aren’t backed up by any scientific evidence. Why should we take your word for it?

When I started my project, I was enthralled by the science. I imagined that the new happiness research would be the main source of ideas for my book. Now, though, although I read the science, and I’m fascinated and stimulated by it, I use it as just one element in my thinking.

For one thing, just in the time that I’ve been following the happiness research, many conclusions that seemed settled have been called into question. So the findings aren’t necessarily stable. Also, the science has arrived at some conclusions that I just don’t think are accurate. I don’t care what study you show me, children do bring happiness. Money is a factor in happiness. Etc.

I try to stay open to ideas and insights wherever they come from – from novels, from philosophy, from popular culture—rather than thinking that one type of source can explain it all. For me, reading Tolstoy has shed more light on happiness than reading scholarly articles.

Is it worthwhile to read the research? Absolutely. Does science hold all the answers to happiness? I don’t think so.

Happiness is hardly an original topic these days. A new happiness book or magazine cover story comes out every day. Why should anyone read your book? After all, you aren’t a scientist or an academic or even a real journalist.

The Happiness Project stands out from the many other books about happiness because it not only presents the theories and research about happiness, it explains how to put this knowledge to use. Yes, people see an overwhelming amount of information about happiness, but what should they actually do? They need an interpreter. Instead of just discussing the concepts, I tell stories about how I put the concepts to work.

Your happiness project is focused on you, so you don’t claim that it’s universal. And you can’t claim that your thinking about happiness is particularly original. So what’s the point of your book?

The laws of happiness are as fixed as the laws of chemistry. I’m trying to understand and embrace them; I’m not making them up. I’m not going to come up with something more profound than “Know thyself” or “The greatest of these is love.” Everything important has been said before; in fact, it was Alfred North Whitehead who said, “Everything important has been said before.”

The challenge comes from understanding how to put great truths into action ourselves, in our own lives. My first Personal Commandment is to “Be Gretchen.” How, exactly, do I do that? How do I keep my resolutions? That’s the challenge of a happiness project.

It’s like dieting. We all know the secret: eat better, eat less, exercise more. It’s the application that’s the challenge.

You say you test everything, and yet you don’t try two of the most important strategies: anti-depressant medication or therapy. Why did you ignore these? Are you anti-drug or anti-therapy?

I’m a big believer in the power of medication and therapy, especially for people fighting depression (which I consider a category separate from ordinary unhappiness and happiness). But for The Happiness Project, I wanted to see what strategies would work for me, apart from medication or therapy.

Also, you don’t talk about sex at all. How can you write about happiness and ignore sex?

The Happiness Project is the account of my own idiosyncratic happiness project. I write about the issues that are problems for my own happiness.

Sex wasn’t an obstacle to my happiness (lucky me), so it wasn’t something I addressed in the book. Everyone’s happiness project is different, so other people might well tackle sex.

In the same way, I don’t talk about volunteering. “Do good, feel good”—volunteering for a cause you believe in is a good thing to do, and it also makes you happier. I already was volunteering for a cause, so I didn’t talk about that in the book.

Isn’t “happiness” really an illusory goal? What does it mean to be “happy”—can you even define it?

Researchers used various terms, such as subjective well-being, positive emotionality, and positive affect; one study identified fifteen different academic definitions of “happiness.”

In scholarship, there’s merit in defining terms precisely. When it came to my project, however, spending a lot of energy drawing a distinction between “positive affect” and “subjective well-being” didn’t seem necessary. I decided instead to follow the hallowed tradition set by Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who defined pornography by saying, “I know it when I see it.”

I think we all know what it means to be happy for ourselves—and if we have slightly different conceptions, that’s okay. The important question is: what steps can we take to be happier? Instead of asking “How can I achieve happiness?” ask yourself, “How can I be happier?” I’ve found that even people who utterly reject the notion of “happiness” do believe that it’s possible to be happier.

So maybe you should have called your book “The Happier Project.”

That would have been more accurate, yes!

Didn’t it ever occur to you that spending so much time working on your personal happiness was, well, selfish and self-centered?

Yes, it sure did. In fact, I did a series on the Ten Myths about Happiness, and the most pernicious myth is No. 10: “It’s Selfish and Self-Centered to Try to Be Happier.”

This idea comes in a few varieties. One holds that “In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you’re callous and self-centered.” Another one is “Happy people are wrapped up in their own pleasure; they’re complacent and uninterested in the world.”

But it turns out that happier people are more likely to help other people, they’re more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They’re less preoccupied with their personal problems. They’re friendlier. They make better leaders.

By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (technical name: emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn’t help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn’t help unhappy people become happier.

I’ve certainly noticed this about myself. When I’m feeling happy, I find it easier to notice other people’s problems, I feel that I have more energy to try to take action, I have the emotional wherewithal to tackle sad or difficult issues, and I’m not as preoccupied with myself. I feel more generous and forgiving.

As I worked on my happiness project, one of my biggest intellectual breakthroughs was the identification of my Second Splendid Truth. There’s a circularity to it that confused me for a long time. At last, one June morning, it came clear:

    One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.

Everyone accepts the first part of the Second Splendid Truth, but the second part is just as important. By making the effort to make yourself happier, you better equip yourself to make other people happier,as well. It’s not selfish to try to be happier. In fact, the epigraph to the book The Happiness Project is a quotation from Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

You paint a pretty rosy picture of the people in your life – your husband, your parents, your in-laws. Why aren’t you more forthcoming about their flaws? If they have any.

Oh, sure, they have flaws. One thing I realized about my happiness project is that I have to work on myself. I’m the only person whose actions and thoughts I can directly affect. It’s not useful to mull over my criticisms of the people around me.

Now, I’m extremely fortunate that conflict with my family isn’t a big source of unhappiness for me. I don’t have lingering anger or resentment of my parents; I get along very well with my in-laws; I’m very close to my sister. I don’t have any scores to settle. So my happiness project wasn’t focused on those issues.

Obviously, too, I didn’t want my book to become a source of unhappiness within my family!

You’ve said, “‘The Happiness Project is more than a book or a blog; it’s a movement.’” On what do you base such a grandiose claim?

I’m trying to convince everyone to start a happiness project. I’ve discovered if you actually do all the things you know you should do (go to bed on time, exercise, stop nagging, stop gossiping, make your bed, take time for fun, help other people, etc.), you really can make yourself happier.

My book is the account of one person’s happiness project. My hope is that by reading what I tried and what worked for me, other people will be inspired to launch their own happiness projects. And people have been inspired.

First, all over the U.S. and the world, groups have launched for people doing happiness projects, where they can pursue their happiness projects together. Chicago, Dallas, Philadelphia, Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., Enid – and Johannesburg and Singapore – just to name a few. (See the complete list here, and for a starter-kit for launching your own happiness-project group, see here.) There has been tremendous enthusiasm around these groups.

On my blog, The Happiness Project, there’s a section called Share Your Experience. There, many people have written about how doing a happiness project of their own has made them happier.

Dozens of people have started blogs that point directly to The Happiness Project as their inspiration. These blogs track their progress as they do their own happiness projects.

My blog has a gigantic readership. It ranks in the prestigious Technorati Top 2K (i.e., it ranks in the top 2,000 of all blogs) and has a Google PageRank of 6. It’s carried on Slate and The Huffington Post and also RealSimple.com, PsychologyToday.com, Intent.com, Yahoo! Shine, and elsewhere.

The Happiness Project Facebook Fan Page is a lively center of discussion, as is the Happiness Project Facebook Group. Many thousands of people get my monthly newsletter.

The action on my companion site, the Happiness Project Toolbox, shows people’s eagerness to get started on their own happiness projects, and their curiosity about other people’s projects.

I think this activity indicates that the Happiness Project approach resonates with people and inspires them to take steps to be happier in their own lives.

If people want to start their own happiness projects, how can they get started?

I provide a lot of material to help people get started.

In the Appendix of my book, The Happiness Project, I outline how you might think about starting your own happiness project.

On my blog, I regularly post tips and suggested resolutions for boosting happiness.

I’ve created a super-fun, super-helpful website, the Happiness Project Toolbox, that provides tools to help people create and track their happiness project. They can also see what other people are doing, which is addictive!

If people want to see my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, they can email me at grubin@gretchenrubin.com (just write “resolutions chart” in the subject line).

Before you were a writer, you were a lawyer. You clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, you were the Editor-in-Chief of the Yale Law Journal. Wasn’t it wrenching to leave behindyour impeccable legal credentials to start a writing career from nowhere?

I had a great time as a lawyer, but eventually, the pull toward writing became irresistible. I’d decided I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer.

My sister, Elizabeth Craft, is also a writer – she’s a well-regarded TV writer and writer of YA novels—and her example helped me to take the plunge.

Every Wednesday you post a list of tips on some happiness-related tips. Personally, I find this “tips” approach too simplistic—it’s a dumbed-down way of presenting analysis. In my writing, I’d never be so reductive. That said, what are your top five tips for lasting happiness?

  1. As basic as it is, think about your body. Get enough sleep, get some exercise, don’t let yourself get too hungry.
  2. Figure out ways to have fun. Learn how to do something new, make time for hobbies, preserve happy memories, get into the spirit of the season.
  3. Act the way you wish you felt. If you’re feeling annoyed, act loving. If you’re feeling tired, act energetic. If you’re feeling shy, act friendly. It really works.
  4. Get rid of things that make you feel annoyed, angry, or guilty. Make that appointment to get a skin cancer check, call your grandmother, replace a light bulb, clean a closet, answer a difficult email, stop nagging.
  5. Whenever possible, connect with other people. Show up. Make plans. Join a group. Go to a party. Help someone. Philosophers and scientists agree: close relationships with other people are perhaps THE key to a happy life.

What’s your next project?
I’m not sure. In the past, by the time one of my books actually hit the shelves, I was hard at work on the next one. But I still have a lot to discover and say about the topic of happiness. So my next project may be about happiness, as well.

Once the book is out, how long will you keep doing your happiness project?
For the rest of my life.