Gretchen Rubin, an author of the book The Happiness Project, shares insight on how she became happier and offering advice on how others can brighten their lives.
Q: So do you feel happier now? And if so, what does that feel like?
A: Even having started this project with the goal that I become happier, I’m really surprised by how much happier I am. It really did work – much better than I thought. But I’m still the same person. When I’m in neutral, my neutral hasn’t changed. But my life is much happier because I have spent so much time thinking about how to do more of the things that make me happy and less of the things that make me less happy. My days go more smoothly and I don’t feel as guilty about losing my temper or nagging. I spend a lot more time on things I enjoy and find fun. I used to spend a lot more time on things I thought should make me happy or that I thought I should find fun or interesting, but now I just do what I actually want to do a lot more. It sounds easy, but it’s actually quite difficult. I do things like going to sleep earlier, which makes quite a difference.
Q: Is there something that makes you really happy that surprised you?
A: The children’s literature reading group thing – that was a multi-step process. Now I’m in two of these groups and they’re gigantic and I’m so happy about it. Other people have started them, too. And another person was telling me that she’s a self-hating romance book reader. I told her she should start a romance book club and stop pretending she doesn’t love it. You have to embrace it. A lot of people have ideas about what they should find fun or should be doing, but you’re a lot happier if you just do what you feel like.
Q: Has the Happiness Project changed the way you feel about yourself?
A: I feel less guilty about misbehaving – so that’s good. One of the reasons I wanted to do the project is because I thought it would be easier for me to behave myself better if I were happier – which is true. It’s easier to be patient and lighthearted and not lose my temper or be annoyed. Now I don’t feel bad about yelling at my kids and that kind of thing.
Q: So I guess the Happiness Project has also changed your relationships with others?
A: Yes. A lot of people feel that if other people would behave properly then they would be happier, and that the answer is for them to do a resolution. Unfortunately, you can’t change anybody but yourself. But if you change, a relationship changes and other people’s behaviour changes. If I’m lighthearted then my children are more lighthearted. If not nagging, then my husband isn’t as crabby. The only way you can do it is by changing yourself.
Q: Was there one particular person who turned out to be your most influential happiness guru?
A: Probably Samuel Johnson. He has a unique insight into human nature. I would read pages and pages of happiness research, and then just think that Samuel Johnson had way more insight into what’s really going on. For example, one thing he said that I got a huge response to, was that abstinence is as easy to me as temperance would be difficult. I realized that’s true for me, too; I can give things up cold turkey but I can’t indulge in moderation. I wrote about that on my blog, about abstainers and moderators, and it got a huge response. Moderators and abstainers are always trying to tell each other that they’re doing it wrong, but it’s not a question of what’s right and wrong, it’s a question of what’s right for you. A woman posted on my blog that she had tried to be a moderator for years, but after reading what I wrote she decided that she was really an abstainer. She said she gave up flour and sugar and lost 47 pounds – and that it wasn’t even hard.
Q: What was the biggest lesson you learned from this project?
A: The biggest lesson I learned is, first of all, that it is possible to make yourself happier. It’s an important lesson because some people say that you just always go back to the same place. I think everyone’s got a range, and you can be at the upper part of your range or the lower part and you always want to be in the upper part. The other most important thing I learned is that you can only really have a happy life on the foundation of your own nature. So the most important thing is to constantly ask, what’s true for me? Am I an abstainer or a moderator? Would I be happier if my house was cleaner? Would I be happier if I were reading romance novels with my friends? Would I be happier if I planned a big trip every month or if I changed careers? People don’t examine and know themselves enough.
Q: If you could give people one piece of happiness-related advice, what would it be?
A: The funny thing is, of all the resolutions I talk about, when I ask people what they’re tried the one thing they mention most often is the resolution to make your bed. I hear that over and over – that’s what they started with and it made them a little happier. It’s the first thing people grab onto as the gateway drug to a happiness project. Sometimes even knowing that something as small as making your bed can make you happier makes people happier. Small things can make you happier. Plus, the difference between a made bed and an unmade bed is huge.