SPP: I actually wanted to ask this introductory question because I wasn’t familiar with the book “The Happiness Project” until recently when Jon said “Hey, I have somebody that wants to talk to you for the podcast. So I started looking into it just a few days ago and really just the idea of it I find fascinating because the idea is very similar to what I’ve been doing for about the past year and a half. So I wanted to just ask you in your own words could you tell us exactly what “The Happiness Project” is? Just kind of an overview of what it is and how you came up with it.
Gretchen: Well I came up with the idea for “Happiness Project” 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. I thought what do I want from life anyway? And I thought I want to be happy. But I realized I didn’t spend any time thinking about where I was happy or how I could be happier. In an instant I thought I should have a happiness project. It was this huge idea that filled my mind.
I ran out the next day to the library and got a huge stack of books about happiness and started my research. What I decided to do in the end, it took me all day to map out the whole thing, but from the very beginning I knew that I would have resolutions and charts and themes. And what I ended up doing was I decided I would spend a year test driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
So 12 months gave me 12 themes and for every theme, whether it was work, marriage, friendship, energy, I gave myself three or four very manageable concrete resolutions aimed at making change that I thought would make me happier. So one of the questions was well I would pick this resolution or that resolution because I’d read this science or this philosopher, and how would it really work out?
And I also wanted to do things within my normal routine because I love reading about people’s radical happiness projects like Thoreau “Moving to Walden Pond”, but I have two little kids, my job, my responsibilities, my husband; I can barely get away for the weekend. So I wanted to do things just within my ordinary routine that didn’t take any much time, energy or money; they were just things I could do as part of my ordinary day. So that’s how I had the for the “Happiness Project”.
SPP: I had a similar experience and it was in a similarly boring moment where it was just like life is good I mean in comparison to most standards of the world I have nothing to complain about, but things just seemed a little dull. In that time I spend a lot of time reading philosophy, psychology. I really looked in a lot to Martin Seligman.
SPP: I can never pronounce his name but Csikszentmihaly the guy that talks about Flow.
Gretchen: Yeah Mihaly Chsikszentmihaly. Yes I practiced that many times.
SPP: I guess I wanted to know, do you incorporate a lot of that New Age kind of philosophy and psychology into your book and kind of how did you research that? What did you come up with regarding the science of being happy?
Gretchen: Well I think maybe the term New Age is maybe what you mean really is positive psychology, sort of the new research around happiness.
SPP: No that’s exactly it. I actually thought about going applying to the school at Penn State to try and take that class. Gretchen: Yeah.
SPP: So yeah exactly that.
Gretchen: No I looked at a lot of it and I found it very, very interesting. In the last 20 years or so there’s been a huge academic interest in happiness. So there’s all sorts of new studies, not only just sort of from psychology, but also an economist and sociologist all looking at the questions. Although a lot of times they don’t use the word happiness because it’s a little scientific. They use words like subjective well being or positive aspect, less poetic terms. So I was very interested in researching all that and seeing what their findings are.
For example, one of the things that the scientist kept saying was that novelty and challenge make people happier, and I just didn’t think that was true for me. I don’t like to travel, I eat the same food every day, I rarely leave my neighborhood, and I love to do the same thing all the time. So I thought well for me familiarity and mastery bring happiness, but the science kept saying “Oh novelty and challenge bring happiness.” That’s why I started my blog was because I needed to do something novel and challenging and when I started it I was incredibly intimidated. It was like nothing that I had ever done before, but I wanted to test it. Because of the whole idea of my book was that I was going to test out these ideas.
I was actually 100% wrong and I completely changed my views. I was absolutely convinced by the science when I applied it to my experience that novelty and challenge do make people happier. So that was an example where there was a finding, a scientific finding, and when I put it to the test I really found that it was borne out by my own experience. So I was very interested in the science. I still am very interested in science.
SPP: How would you define your book “The Happiness Project”? Would you say it’s a self-help book an account into what made you happy or something completely different than what I just described there?
Gretchen: I would describe it as self-helpful. It’s the account of my happiness project. The only person I’m prescribing to is myself, but I think a lot of people do derive from it ideas from the things that they would try for their own happiness projects. Some of them were in that it’s the account of the year, but it’s not a full account of my life during that year, it’s really just the account of what I was doing as part of a happiness project. So it’s a very limited kind of account of what happened during that year.
SPP: I know this is going to be a really hard question to answer, but do you think people can truly become happy. If so, what improvements did you see in your life after completing your own happiness project?
Gretchen: Well I think one thing that makes it easier to tackle that question. Instead of thinking about being happy or achieving happiness to think about being happier. Because whenever you say happier, happiness people think that there’s like a magical definition, there’s a finish line they need to cross. Then once they get over there life is going to be very different. They need to get there and what would that be like? How would they stay there 24/7? Would that mean that you’re a 10 on the 1 to 10 scale, or whatever, people get very distracted about whether is that possible or is happiness even real, is it possible to be happy?
So I think I found that people respond they’re much more willing to think about a happiness project when you talk about being happier. Say like today, next month, next year, there’s things that you can do to be happier. I also think it’s helpful because at some times in our lives it’s not possible to be happy because situations are such that it’s just an unhappy time. So maybe it’s not possible to be happy at that time but is it possible to be happier? Are there things that you can do that would help you feel as happy as you can be given the circumstances, which I think actually helps you because if you’re as happy as you can be then you help give yourself the emotional energy and the reserves that you need just to meet a challenging time.
So they’ve instead of worrying about are they going to achieve happiness, they’ll say “Okay well can you be happier?” Also because people about 50% of happiness is inadequately determined and that 10% to 20% of it is only circumstances, which is things like age, education, income, marital status, health, things like that. So a bit percentage of it is really not within our control, and that’s just a fact. On the other hand, a very big percentage of it is within our control within our happiness level that we can affect the way that we act and the way that we feel and think.
So instead of worrying like could everybody get to a 10 just to say like, well just given who you are and where you are in your life right now, can you push yourself up to the top part of you range instead of pressing yourself down to the bottom part of your rang with the way that you think and the way that you behave. So that’s how I try to think about it, more like how you’re going to be within your natural range, rather than trying to get everybody sort of to the same level.
SPP: Now can you give examples of what you did to kind of give us a concrete idea of the things you would do during this happiness project? And then kind of even more importantly what do you feel like actually worked, actually changed your happiness? What did you expect might change you but it didn’t? Kind of what flopped?
Gretchen: Well I tried a ton of different things and most of them worked because I picked things that I was inclined to think would work. So for example, I started with the theme of energy because I figured well if I had energy everything else would be easier. It’s not that energy’s the most important but I figured it would sort of help me with other things down the road. So for that one I worked on getting enough sleep, which is hugely important to happiness, and health and energy super important to get enough sleep. It sounds so easy, it sounds so basic and yet like I think it’s so important.
One of the things that I did, and funnily enough of all the resolutions that I mentioned this is the resolution that is most often mentioned to me by other people as something that they tried and that helped them be happier. Again it sounds so trivial, make your bed. For some reason this really helps people. I did Imitate a Spiritual Master which is one of my favorite resolutions. You have to identify your spiritual master and then think of how you would imitate the person in your own life. So my spiritual master is Saint Teresa Leseur. So I’m practically a Saint Teresa Leseur expert at this point and try to imitate her as much as I can. I keep a one sentence journal.
One of the things that I repeat to myself is that the days are long but the years are short and by keeping a one sentence journal I was able to keep a journal in way that was manageable because I knew I couldn’t keep a regular journal.
SPP: I love that.
SPP: Because I have tried. I probably have 10 journals with one page filled in.
Gretchen: The thing is you got to keep lower the bar. That’s one of my big things lower the bar, whatever it is lower the bar. So one sentence I can do and it turns out that one sentence is enough. I look back it, now I’ve kept it five or six years, I look back and it just brings back memories so vividly. So that’s a great resolution. Sing in the morning is a great one because mornings if you have little kids can be a very difficult time. So the singing I help keep myself feeling calm and cheerful and energized and going to sleep earlier helps too.
So I have many, many resolutions that I tried. I think the resolutions that worked the least well is I tried laughter yoga, which many people swear by like millions of people all over the world do it. I said I would try it three times before I decided if it worked for me, but I was so miserably self-conscious that I only went one time. And I was like you know what this is never going to make me happy no way, so I gave that up. So that was a total flop for me though others like it. I also tried hypnosis because I thought oh this will be like a passive shortcut. No it didn’t work. It was really about like mindfulness training, which is very arduous, which I’m like okay fine I’ll do mindfulness training but the hypnosis part of it didn’t do anything for me. And gratitude this is like in the top things that people recommend that people should do to be happy. It just bugs me. I did not like keeping a gratitude journal.
And I’ve said read studies saying you shouldn’t keep a gratitude journal everyday it’s better to just do it twice a week, that it’s more effective. So maybe that would have been better, but by the time I read that I had already sort of gotten cold on the idea of a gratitude journal. I think gratitude is very important and I have other gratitude strategies that I follow, but the actual gratitude journal which is one of the most awesome given pieces of advice in my experience in the happiness field did not work for me. So those were some things that did not work.
SPP: I wanted to see how much of your happiness actually focused around creativity, because you brought up the one sentence journal, and also making the bed. I don’t know why but that just stuck with me so much. That when I make my bed and I feel like I’m in a clean organized environment I’m able to do more creative things. I don’t know if it’s just that the catalyst that actually gets me thinking not having to worry about having to clean up things. But one of the videos that I came across on Facebook was you talking about being creative every day and not to wait for creativity to hit. Did you find that you being creative led to more happiness through this project?
Gretchen: Absolutely. What I think is true also about creativity is not only do you have to do it all the time but the more you do what you actually feel like doing, the more closely you’re in line with your own interest, the more creative you can be. So a huge thing that I worked on in my Happiness Project was to be Gretchen and to really make sure that my life as closely as I could make it reflected my nature, my interest, my values. Things that did not reflect those things should fall away.
Through the exercise of the Happiness Project my life did come more into line with our interest, temperament and values. I felt myself becoming more creative because the thing is like when what you’re doing is very natural to you, you have more energy, you’re more engaged, and you have more ideas, like you’re more enthusiastic. I feel like I just went from a drinking straw to a fire hose in terms of how much I can do and how much I can master and just how productive I can be, because I don’t spend very much time forcing myself to do things. So that just taps into kind of my natural energy and it’s very self- reinforcing.
But I want to come back to the point that you made about because it seems sort of counterintuitive that making your bed would be really the counter to creativity. But one thing that I noticed and I think it’s really not acknowledged very much in the science of happiness. But I think what’s really, really true about human nature is that for most people out of order contributes to inner calm, more than you would think.
It does not seem like making your bed should affect how much work you can do, and yet there is a relationship there that’s disproportionate. And over and over people say to me “Oh my gosh, I cleaned out my closet and I feel so much better. I cleaned out my garage now I can quit my job.” Or there’s something about getting control of your stuff and feeling like everything doesn’t work or it’s not in the right place or that you don’t really need or you really don’t know what to do with it. You kind of figured that out and get rid of it. It seems to just give people this huge surge of good cheer and energy and the feeling of being able to tackle something big.
Again it’s more than it seems like it’s better. I completely agree in a happy life a messy coat closet or a crowded desk is trivial, and yet it seems to matter more than it should. So I think if you feel kind of paralyzed or blocked just cleaning up can make a big difference.
SPP: I agree. I used to think it was just my way of procrastinating where if I was working from home and I’d be sitting on the couch and have some work in front of me I’d be like, oh I’m going to do the dishes real quick, clean up my counter space, that kind of thing. But I found that after doing that I felt better about myself and I felt I was able to actually focus on the work, as opposed to everything that was surrounding me. So I completely agree with that.
You had mentioned if there was something that wasn’t fulfilling your, I guess creative desire to go ahead and try to drop it, or whatever it may be. Do you think that people have to be creative within their jobs or do you think that you can separate work and life and actually be creative enough outside of your job and still be happy?
Gretchen: You know what I think it’s hard whenever you try to kind of think of things separately like the work/life balance or I think it’s easier just to think about what do you want to do and making sure that you’re making time for the things that you want to do. And maybe that time obviously isn’t something that you could do at work, so then you’re going to have to find time to do it in your free time, or maybe it is something that can come into your work but more focusing on.
Like one of the things I realize is that I was always telling myself I don’t have time for that. Whether I was at work or whether I was not at work I would be like I don’t have time for that, like I don’t have time to read that link, I don’t have time to chat with my friend, I don’t have time to follow-p that article that doesn’t have anything to do with anything I’m supposed to be working on, like I don’t have time for that. Then I decided that I would change that and now I tell myself I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me. Because what I realize is a lot of times I would say “Well I don’t have time for that.” But what I really meant is I don’t want to do that, or I don’t care about that that’s not my priority.
And when I say to myself “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me” it sort of says, okay well it’s up to me to decide what’s important to me, because if it’s important to me I have time for it. I think again like if you want to write a book, if you want to learn how to water paint, if you want to learn how to use photo shop, if you want to train your dog, if you want to plant a garden, if you want to figure out a new software program, rather than trying to say like, okay how am I going to fit this in? How is this going to be part of my day? And also I think labeling things as creative can be intimidating for some people. Like either they feel like it’s got to be of a high enough value. Like oh this isn’t creative because it’s not, because it’s kind of too stupid, or they feel like it has to be really good or they can feel intimidated by it.
Somebody I know was saying that he never asked people what’s your passion because he felt like a lot of people were really made uncomfortable by that. Because they felt like well it’s not really a passion. That word suggested such a burning love that a lot of people just felt – and then they felt like oh God I’m so lame and uninteresting and boring and I have no inner resources, I have no passions. But usually once you start talking to people you realize oh they do have passions but they’re not calling them that.
So I think sometimes instead of worrying about is this my creative side or is this my work side? Also I think people setup false choices with happiness. Like I either need to quit my job and write that novel and risk financial disaster, or I need to be stuck in the same job for the rest of my life with financial security. It’s like really these are the only two options because probably there’s a lot of things in between. Or I can have a few real deep friends or I could have a lot of really shallow superficial friends. Well that’s not really the case because there’s all different kinds of friendship and it’s not a question like that.
So I think when you’re thinking about things like creativity and work and how to think about those two things it’s easy to fall into false choices and it’s also easy to sort of characterize things in a way that can be intimidating.
SPP: I had a question geared up and then as you go I’m like oh that’s a great point. So I just want to reiterate the think you were saying about how when people say follow your passion that can be a big burden. Because that was something I struggled with for awhile because I got to the point where I was like I don’t have a passion.
SPP: There’s nothing I can do every day. I don’t care what it is I can’t do it every day. But like you said there are things you’re interested in and as long as you keep those involved in your life I just really, really like that point, so I wanted to reiterate that for our listeners. Going back a little bit further, you said the phrase “Be Gretchen”.
SPP: I think that in my personal experiences I took about a year off, moved to Scottsdale, didn’t have an office job, we started the podcast, I managed the band, I created a business plan, just a bunch of things I wanted to do. Out of everything that’s come out of it the one thing I think was the most important was being more comfortable in my own choices and my own, like you said what you enjoy. Do you think that was the biggest thing that came out of your Happiness Project was just being more comfortable with yourself and knowing yourself better, as cliché as that might sound.
Gretchen: Exactly yes 100%. It does sound like a cliché and it also sounds like well what could be more obvious than to know yourself and yet it is so hard to know yourself. It’s so easy to be swayed by what you wish you were like or what other people think you ought to be like or what you just assume is true, if it’s true for other people then it must be true for you. The words know thyself are on the temple of Apollo Adelphi this is the oldest advice about happiness, and yet it’s so important. The thing that I realized is the more that I do follow that resolution to Be Gretchen the more what I do comes naturally, and therefore I naturally do it better, which is gratifying. I also find that other people’s judgment doesn’t matter as much, which is funny because you would think that a lot of the reasons that people aren’t themselves is because they’re worried what other people will think. Like other people will think it’s childish or other people will think it’s immature, other people will think it’s irresponsible, other people will think it’s not impressive.
But what I find is like the more that I just do what I feel like doing, and I’m like well my justification is that’s me, that’s what I like that’s what I want, the less I care about what other people think. Because if you’re doing something because you think other people will approve its super important to you that they approve, because that’s the reason you’re doing it. And if you do what you want because that’s what you want to do it doesn’t matter. Also I found weirdly people back off faster. It’s like if you’re like well okay I’m just going about my business doing my thing, whatever you think. People are just sort of like okay, we’ll let your free flags lie, and that’s you whatever. It’s funny I guess there’s less judgment because there’s just sort of less purchase for it.
So I think it’s one of the things that I absolutely underestimated how important. Like you say, it’s like an organizing principle that pervaded everything that I did. I didn’t really understand that almost until I was over and I could look back and understand that it was at the core of so many things that I did, and yet why is it so hard. I love Secret of Adulthood that are based on it just because something is fun for other people doesn’t mean that it’s fun for you.
This is something like so many people say to me like well of course skiing is fun, drinking wine is fun, shopping is fun, crossword puzzles are fun. I don’t enjoy any of those things they are not fun for me. People literally cannot understand. I had a big argument with somebody who was like it is fun to drink wine. I’m like it’s fun for you it’s not fun for me. And he just couldn’t understand it. Nothing is inherently fun. I have a friend who loves the SAT she’s a grownup and she takes all these practice SATs, she’s got a whole Web site called Perfect Score Project, she’s an obsessive SAT, for her it’s play, she can’t get enough of it.
I’m like you know what because some things are fun for people and some things are not fun for some people. It’s like there’s nothing inherent in what it is. So I think sometimes we just assume well I guess I’m just a person who just isn’t very fun loving. It’s like yeah because if you’re not doing anything you really enjoy it’s not going to be that much fun.
Gretchen: If all your friends go to ballgames and you’re not interested in sports you’re going to be like oh gosh I just don’t get any fun out of anything. Because what you’d really rather be doing is watching French films from the 1950s it’s not going to make you happy to go to a baseball game.
SPP: I completely agree with that. The next question I had for you was what do you think the main obstacle for people being happy is? It sounds like it’s judgment or perceived judgment from others. You might be worried that people think that you’re a dork for liking something or you’re not cool or what you’re doing is not actually fun, where to you it should only matter that you think it’s fun.
Gretchen: Yes I just went through this with perfume. I got really obsesses with the sense of smell and if you get very obsessive with the sense of smell you very quickly get led to the world of perfume, because that’s where all the excitement in the world of smell is in perfume. So I got very interested in perfume. A big part of me was like I shouldn’t be interested in perfume because that makes me seem really materialistic. I’m not.
I’m not one of these ladies that go around to perfume counters all the time. Or then I felt well maybe it’s kind of babyish because I like solo for perfumes, which are perfumes that smell like one flower. I’m like maybe I should like more complex perfumes, maybe that’s more sophisticated. Or I would say to myself, well of course I like this perfume everybody says this is a great perfume, this perfume has five stars. This is a famous perfume. I was like you know what I don’t really like that perfume.
So I realized that like all of my pathologies were coming out around perfume. I had to say to myself Be Gretchen, embrace it, let it be, enjoy what you enjoy. Don’t worry about what other people think or what you should think just what do you like. I realized that now and I’m obsessive with perfumes to the point that I worry that I’m boring everybody that I’m around because I want to talk about it all the time. Everybody’s getting totally into it, all the people that I’m around are all excited and want to go and try it out. It turns out when you’re enthusiastic about something other people can get into it. It’s exciting when somebody’s really interested in something. To a limit you can’t talk about it forever.
I realized nobody cares. Nobody cares if I have a sophisticated interest in perfume. Nobody’s judging me for the fact that I want to go out and buy some perfume because I read about it. Nobody cares. The only person that I would be limiting is myself because I would be preventing myself from having this exquisite enjoyment of something because I feel like I shouldn’t. It’s like no let it go. Just follow your instincts. And every time I do that I make new friends, I have no experiences, and my whole life is enriched. I say “Gosh I keep learning this lesson over and over again.” It’s hard to be yourself, it’s hard to know yourself, and yet you can only build a happy life on the foundation of your own nature. If other people think you’re a dork who cares? That’s another one of my secrets of adulthood is that the admiration of the people that we respect is so sweet but it is not enough to do the foundation of the happy life. The fact that your parents are excited that you’re going to law school is not going to make it a good choice for you in the long term. It feels good when the people around you are impressed or approve or when they think it’s cool, but in the end it’s like you’re stuck with your own choices. The closer they are to what really makes you happy the happier you’re going to be.
SPP: I find it weird I’m always searching, I don’t know if it’s to be happier, but it’s just to be more fulfilled. It’s just this constant, and I almost think of it as an annoyance because it’s just always there. I’ll talk to my dad about it. I want to find the perfect job and I’ll talk to my dad about it. He’ll say “You know when I was a kid there’s no such thing as a perfect job just having a job”, that kind of thing.
SPP: So I came up with this theory that this newer generation, say Millennials or maybe one before that is kind of the first one that’s really had to dive into happiness, because we’re kind of the first ones that can afford to. We know we’re not going to starve most of you. You can go back to your parent’s house if you need to, or whatever it might be. So we have this extra time where we don’t really have to worry about survival as much as what makes us happy. Have you ever thought about that? Or why you wondered so much how to be happier?
Gretchen: Well I haven’t really thought about it in terms of the generations, but it is true that a lot of people say to me “Oh well it’s this very American preoccupation, people just have too much time and they watch too much television and they sit around worrying about whether to be happy, it’s a very indulgent thing.” I think it’s just the opposite. Like you say when people – even we had this economic downturn and there’s a lot of unrest in the world, but basically the Americans it’s an incredibly safe prosperous place. I mean look at history. We are so fortunate.
I think when people have that prosperity and safety it’s natural for them to think of higher things.
Gretchen: What would you rather have them be worrying about than things like self-knowledge, self-expression, self-mastery views to me is very appropriate focus for people’s attention. Because when you’re not worried about just having food the next day where the rent check is going to from urgently then you can think about these other values. I think that’s quite right. One of the myths about happiness and something that I think really worries people is that it’s selfish to want to be happier. That either I’m so lucky I have all the elements of a happy life I must be a spoiled brat if I want to be happy. Or to think well in a world so full of suffering it’s not morally appropriate to want to be happier.
So people feel like it’s very wrong to think about wanting to be happier. But the fact is the research shows us, and I think your experience will show you the same thing, happy people are more interested in social problems and more interested in the problems of the people around them. They give away more money, they volunteer more, they’re more likely to do things like help out at work when a colleague is under a lot of stress, they have better relationships with their friends and their family, they have healthier habits, they’re in better health.
When we’re more happy we have the emotional reserves to turn outward and to think about other people and to think about the problems of the world. When we’re unhappy we’re more isolated and defensive and preoccupied with their own problems. Unhappy people think about themselves more and they talk about themselves more than happy people do. So the idea is that if it’s selfish to want to be happy then we should be selfish if only for selfless reasons, because really being happy yourself arms you to work towards the happiness of other people. And certainly the desire to be happy in your own work like you say, to feel fulfilled in your work, work is a huge part of life.
It’s like how we spend a gigantic percentage of our time. And it’s certainly worthwhile to try to make that as happy a circumstance as it can be. Probably I think for most people the happier at work probably the more productive and creative and efficient and helpful they’re going to be. So I don’t think it’s a waste of energy or time to do that.
SPP: Gretchen first I wanted to thank you so, so much for being on our podcast. You’ve been awesome to interview. It’s been a great time. I know Chris thinks the same thing. But I wanted to see if you had any Web sites. I know you have the www.happiness- project.com, but if there’s anywhere else that you wanted our listeners to go to, your Facebook, Twitter page or if you have other Web sites you can go ahead and let them know.
Gretchen: Yep I’ve got a very active Facebook page which is just GretchenRubin my author page, and then on Twitter I’m @GretchenRubin. Then I also have a companion site called www.happinessprojecttoolboox.com where I have these eight tools that you can use if you want to have your own Happiness Project online. Then I also have a monthly newsletter you can sign up through my blog. I love quotations, happiness quotations, so you can sign up to get a happiness quotation every morning in your email, if you want that. You can also go through my blog and my Facebook page. So there’s a lot there if people want to learn more, follow up more0.
SPP: Great. Thank you so much. We really appreciate it.
Gretchen: Oh I so enjoy talking to you. This is tons of fun.