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The Happiness Project
Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project is an account of her year exploring what it means to be happy and test driving many of the various theories and techniques out there designed to make you happier. Rubin's background as a former editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal and Supreme Court clerk for Sandra Day O'Connor should reassure you that she has the critical chops to absorb, synthesize, and simplify research in a way that one doesn't see too often in self-help books. She manages to be warm, frank, and incisive -- not an easy combination.
The book that grew out of her efforts and the blog she started to track her progress are both full of good advice, not the least of which is to be yourself – you need to find what makes you happy and that is not necessarily going to be something that has made someone else happy.
The most valuable aspect of her project is perhaps the method she developed to form and track the resolutions she made: "Commit to concrete, measurable actions." With the New Year approaching, this piece of practical advice, make your resolutions things you can define and measure easily, is something that should inform all your resolutions — at least if you want to create resolutions you can keep.
In addition to the book there's her blog, weekly videos on youtube and The Happiness Project Toolbox.
I spoke with Gretchen briefly about happiness and health. An excerpt from her book follows that interview.
Interview With Gretchen Rubin
TheDoctor: Your book, The Happiness Project, offers wide-ranging view of what happiness is, presenting quotations by many people in many different disciplines. Eventually you come up with your own working definition, though you begin with a simple, "I'll know it when I see it," idea.
What's your current view of happiness? Has it developed further as a result of your project? Do you think people tend to have a view of happiness that's too simple or too shallow?
Gretchen Rubin: I don't think it’s useful to spend too much time worrying about arriving at a final, absolute definition of happiness. We all know when we are happy and when we aren't. And we each will have our own definition of happiness. It's more useful to focus on what makes you feel happier.
You began your happiness project with resolutions related to health — you focused on energy — getting enough sleep and exercise. What kind of difference did being rested and more physically fit make?
Sleep was a big issue for me. Being rested makes such a difference. You feel you can take on the more challenging things that will boost your happiness, like planning a dinner party for friends or beginning a project. If you are tired, those sorts of things, or pretty much anything, just seem like more stress, more trouble.
What's the relationship between health and happiness?
Health is like money, when you have it, you tend not to think about it very much; you take it for granted. When you don't have it, it can affect your happiness greatly. The physical experience of our body will always shape our experiences. Happiness can seem like a transcendent, abstract idea, but a great place to start is with your own body: getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, managing pain, not letting yourself get too hungry, and all the rest.
One of the things that distinguishes your book from many self-help books out there is its willingness to present the paradoxical side of happiness – that it doesn't always make us happy.
Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy. I think people know this — they know having a happy life doesn’t mean being happy every single minute of the day. Many of the big things that bring happiness can also bring frustration, disappointment.
What are some of the smaller or easier things you did that had an impact on your happiness?
First: Kiss more, hug more, touch more. It's so simple and it definitely adds to happiness. I'm talking about appropriate touching, of course! Second: Jumping up and down is a one of my newer methods that's not in the book. Whatever you are feeling, after you've jumped up and down a few times, you are going to feel different. Third: Singing in the morning helps, too.
People make health resolutions all the time — to eat less, eat better, quit smoking, drink more water and less alcohol, exercise. But keeping them is a different story. Why are resolutions — written and tracked — so important?
That was one of the most important things I learned. I discovered how important it was to create resolutions that were concrete and to write them down and keep track of how well I was following them. We all have made resolutions like, "I want to get more joy out of life," but at the end of the day or week, how do you measure that?
It's so much easier to decide, "I am going to turn the light off by 11 pm," or "I will take a 20 minute walk three times a week" or "I will join a wine-tasting group" and then track that. You need to break big, abstract resolutions down into pieces you can accomplish. That way, you get the benefit of being able to actually tell how well you are keeping your resolutions and the pleasure of seeing your progress.
What are some happiness-killers?
People who think happy people are just not that smart, that they are mindlessly happy and not thinking of others or the problems in the world. The truth is that happy people are more likely to volunteer, more likely to donate money to charitable causes, more creative, more productive, more likely to give more of themselves to others. Unhappy people tend to be preoccupied with their own problems, and so are less likely to give of themselves, their time, their energy.
What can someone who is facing a health challenge do to increase happiness or at least help offset the burden of illness?
On my blog I’ve heard from a lot of people who are struggling with chronic pain, a disability, or a frightening medical diagnosis. Because of this challenge to their happiness, they tell me that they find it helpful to focus a lot on how to be happier — the little steps they can take, within the areas they can control, to boost their mood, energy, and sense of calm. Sometimes it’s not possible to feel happy, but you can make yourself as happy as you can be, under the circumstances. And that way you better equip yourself to deal with whatever you’re facing.
Excerpt from The Happiness Project
Act More EnergeticTo feel more energetic, I applied on of my Twelve Commandments: "Act the way I want to feel." This commandment sums up one of the most helpful insights that I'd learned in my happiness research: Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact we often feel because of the way we act. For example, studies show that even an artificially induced smile brings about happier emotions, and one experiment suggested that people who use Botox are less prone to anger, because they can't make angry faces. The philosopher and psychologist William James explained, "Actions seems to follow feeling, but really action and feeling go together; and by regulating the action, which is under the more direct control of the will, we can indirectly regulate the feeling, which is not." Advice from every quarter, ancient and contemporary, backs up the observations that to change our feelings, we should change our actions.
Although a "fake it till you feel it" strategy sounded hokey, I found it extremely effective. When I felt draggy, I started to act with more energy. I sped up my walk,. I paced while talking on the phone. I put more warmth and zest into my voice. Sometimes I feel exhausted by the prospect of spending time with my own children, but one tired afternoon, instead of trying to devise a game that involved my lying on the couch (I've managed to astonishingly resourceful in coming up with ideas), I bounded into the room and said, "Hey, let's play in the tent!" It really worked: I did manage to give myself an energy boost by acting with energy.
By the end of January, I was off to a promising start, but did I feel happier? It was too soon to tell. I did feel more alert and calm, and although I still had periods when I felt overtaxed, they became less frequent.
I found that rewarding myself for good behavior — even when that reward was nothing more than a check mark that I gave myself on my Resolutions Chart — made it easier for me to stick to a resolution. Getting a bit of reinforcement did make a difference…
…I was astonished by the charge of energy and satisfaction I got from creating order. The closet that had been an eyesore was now a joy; the stack of papers slowly yellowing on the edge of my desk was gone. "It is by studying little things," wrote Samuel Johnson, "that we attain the great art of having as little misery, and as much happiness as possible."
I could see, however, that I'd have to remind myself continually to keep my resolutions. In particular, I noticed a decline in my order-maintaining zeal by the end of the month. I loved the big payoff of cleaning out a closet, but keeping the apartment tidy as a Sisyphean task that never stayed finished. Perhaps the "one-minute" rule and "evening tidy-up" would keep me attacking clutter regularly, in small doses, so that it couldn't grow to its previous crushing proportions.
From the book The Happiness Project. Copyright ©2009 by Gretchen Rubin. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
December 8, 2010
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