Searching for Happiness? Start Here.
A graduate of Yale Law School, Rubin was married, had two daughters, and loved her second career as a writer. But she yearned for something more.
"I realized that I wanted to appreciate my life more, and the fact that I did have so many elements of a happy life," says Rubin, 44. "I wanted to expect more for myself."
This brief flash of reflection gave birth to research for the 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. During her research, Rubin pored over thousands of books and the words of thinkers ranging from Aristotle to Benjamin Franklin to Oprah Winfrey. She dug into history, analyzed philosophy, and put theories to the test as she experimented with ways to be happier in her day-to-day life, documenting her discoveries along the way.
In an interview with SecondAct, Rubin talks about her yearlong journey and what she's learned (and is still learning) about finding happiness.
SA: What was your life like before you started the project?
GR: The thing was, I was pretty happy. I think sometimes people assume that if you were to do a happiness project, you'd be coming from a place of deep unhappiness or some big crisis. But I think I was in a state of what I would call "midlife malaise," where you get to a point of saying "I'm a grown-up now, my life has basically taken form, and if I want something to change, I really need to make a change. It's not going to change on its own."
SA: Happiness is such an abstract concept to research. How did you approach the project?
GR: What I did was I divided the year into 12 themes. Each month had a theme of something that I wanted to work on. My themes were things like Energy, Marriage, Work and Play. And every month I gave myself three or four very specific manageable resolutions. So in the book, I explain why I'm picking this theme, why this resolution, and talk about what the science would say, what the great philosophers of happiness would say, and what my experience was when I tried to put it into action in my own life.
SA: What are some key points you learned through this process?
GR: I think there's a framework for thinking about your life that's very helpful. Ask yourself four questions.
1. The first is, what makes you feel good, interested, engaged or energetic? What do you actually look forward to in your life? That's something you want more of. So if you love working in your garden but you never find time for it, can you find more time to work in your garden?
2. Then the other thing is to say, what makes you feel bad? For me, it was more important to think about removing sources of feeling bad. So it's what makes you feel angry or resentful, or bored or scared. And say to yourself, why am I nagging my husband so much or why are our mornings so hectic and unpleasant? And think about what could you change that would relieve those bad feelings. What could you do differently?
3. The third thing is more abstract. That is the idea of what makes you feel right? Because people are happy when their lives reflect their values. So let's say you're working in a job where you don't believe in your product. That's a very fundamental [place] where your life doesn't reflect your values. You just don't feel right about it. Or, I have a friend who really felt like she wanted to live in a city, and she was living in the suburbs. She just felt like she was living the wrong life. It just wasn't right for her. She didn't feel like it fit.
4. The fourth thing is an atmosphere of growth. People feel happier when they're growing, when they're working towards something or fixing something or making something better, learning to do something new. If you feel like you're stuck or stagnant, think of something you've always wanted to learn how to do, and do it. Clean out the garage or get involved with a nonprofit or plan a big party.
SA: What did you do to put this framework into action?
GR: I started my blog, because I needed to test the idea that novelty and challenge bring happiness. I knew nothing about it, but step by step I built it into something and got this whole new identity for myself. And I started a children's literature reading group in my effort to "Be Gretchen." "Be Gretchen" was my first personal commandment. It's this idea that I really needed to embrace who I really was, not who I wished I were or thought I ought to be or what other people thought I ought to be. And one other thing is just getting more sleep. I've become a huge sleep zealot.
SA: What challenges did you experience with your project?
GR: There were tons of challenges. These resolutions are hard to keep. It's hard to turn off the lights. It's hard to stop nagging. It's hard not to gossip because it's fun to gossip. I really have a hard time taking time to play and to wander, so a lot of these things take effort to maintain.
SA: How did this project affect your relationships?
GR: One of the things you think about The Happiness Project is, well of course I would be happier if other people would only behave properly. And you want to make resolutions for other people to follow. And you think well, if you would do this and you would do that, then I'd be happier, and you should do that anyway, so why don't you already? So many resolutions were about the atmosphere of my house. I wanted a more tender, light-hearted, more calm, more cooperative, more romantic atmosphere in my house. And what I found is that when I did everything that I could to change in that way, the atmosphere of my house changed. And my husband and my children also changed. Because when I was calm and light-hearted, they became more calm and light-hearted. And when I was more cooperative with my husband and didn't nag as much and was less of a score-keeper, it's turned out better now. So I think you can only work on yourself, but it is true that you can change relationships by changing yourself.
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