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How to be happy: Gretchen Rubin’s guide to everyday contentment

Gretchen Rubin's blog is one of the web's most popular self-help destinations. Clare Dwyer Hogg meets the first lady of good cheer and presents her top tips for a positive outlook.

Clare Dwyer Hogg
Saturday 14 January 2012 01:00 GMT
Rubin says: 'The more you pay attention to what makes you happy, the more you see the opportunity for change in small things.'
Rubin says: 'The more you pay attention to what makes you happy, the more you see the opportunity for change in small things.' (Anna Schori)

Gretchen Rubin suggests it's best to call her in New York at 6.15am her time. She'll have been up and about for a while by then. It might be hard to believe, but this early-rising, being-on-form-before-it's-even-light is one of the things that enables Rubin to have a better day. Keep reading: she hasn't always been like this – and the recent decision to shave off an hour's sleep a night didn't exactly come naturally. No, she says, it's a very deliberate strategic plan, with one goal in mind: happiness. It's part of her Happiness Project, which began as something very personal, and has grown into a much more public phenomenon.

It all started on a bus journey, when she had some time to think, and the admission to herself that while she wasn't unhappy, she wasn't as actively happy as she could be, given how good her life was. Why not? She was determined to find out, and gave herself a year to discover ways of being as happy as possible in the most normative of situations. Her memoir of that time, The Happiness Project, was published in 2010, became a New York Times number one bestseller, and rolled into a daily blog of thoughts and tips on happiness that is now read by over 300,000 people each month. "It's not self-help, it's self-helpful," she says, describing exactly why her writing is appealing and non-saccharine. It's probably something to do with the enormous amount of research into the subject that Rubin now conducts as part of her daily routine. "My whole life has been a search for structure to support my research habits," she says of this niche she finds herself in. "I follow my own interest, and read business books, ancient philosophers, essayists, novels, tons of science – I'll often find things said in a way I never thought of before."

This very writerly approach shows through in her posts: every day there's a quotation from thinkers like Aristotle ("Men are what they are because [of] their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse"), to writers like Stephen Spender ("The greatest of all human delusions is that there is a tangible goal"). In her approach, Rubin is something of a moral essayist for the 21st century, so it isn't a surprise when she says that she loves Samuel Johnson. "He was sort of doing the equivalent of a blog," she says, describing The Rambler, a periodical Johnson had published on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the 18th century, reflecting on life and how to live it. But while these intellectual ideas inform her thinking, it's her translation of them into the most practical of solutions that is the draw.

Getting up an hour earlier came about because she realised that getting everything done in a squeezed time-frame (children ready for school, making packed lunches, organising breakfast, not having time to drink her coffee) meant that, in lots of indiscernible but significant ways, she was starting the day off on the wrong foot. "It's the idea of mindfulness," she says. "It's so hard: I'm the least mindful person in the world, but the more you pay attention to what makes you happy, the more you see the opportunity for change in small things."

Waking her family up as a calm, showered Gretchen, coffee in hand, lunches made the night before, turns out to be one of those things. As is general household organisation. "Clutter is disproportionately important, for instance," she says of her general happiness level. "I don't understand why it seems to matter so much." As a result, she's invested a lot of thought, and blog posts, about how to get rid of it and maintain a different sort of environment. The tiniest elements of discontent – differing views from in-laws, dealing with criticism – are examined, thought through, and solutions offered. And the good news is that it's not all about the long-term game-plan: short-term strategies are celebrated. 'Seven tips to make yourself happier in the next hour' is a typical post (do a nagging task; lay some groundwork for some future fun), and her one-minute rule (if you can do an irksome task in less than a minute, do it) turns out to be strangely effective. As intangible as the concept of happiness is, Rubin is somehow tracing a path from the thinking of the greatest philosophers into the practicalities of daily living. "It's not hard," she says. "It's just about joining the dots."

Keep an easy diary

I started keeping a one-sentence journal because I knew I would never be able to keep a proper diary with lengthy entries. This way, it's a manageable task, so it doesn't make me feel burdened; it gives a feeling of accomplishment and progress, the atmosphere of growth so important to happiness; it helps keep happy memories vivid, and it gives me a reason to pause thinking lovingly about the members of my family. We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, and underestimate what we can do in the long term, if we do a little bit at a time. Writing one sentence a day sounds fairly easy, and it is; at the end of the year, it adds up to a marvellous record.

Make yourself happier in the next hour

Check off as many of the following as possible in one hour:

1. Boost your energy. Stand up and pace or take a 10-minute walk outside. Research shows that when people move faster, their metabolism speeds up; good for focus, mood and retaining facts.

2. Reach out to friends. Make a lunch date or send an e-mail to a friend. Having warm, close bonds with other people is one of the keys to happiness.

3. Rid yourself of a nagging task. Answer a difficult e-mail, make that dentist's appointment... Crossing a chore off the list gives an energy rush.

4. Clear your desk. Sort papers and stow supplies. An tidy environment creates a more serene mood.

5. Lay the groundwork for future fun. Studies show that having fun on a regular basis is a pillar of happiness, and anticipation is an important part of that.

6. Act happy. Put a smile on your face right now, and keep smiling. Research shows that even an artificially-induced smile has a positive effect on emotions.

Tips for maintaining friendships

Use social media. Technology lets me keep in touch with more friends in a wildly more efficient way. But...

Show up. Nothing can replace seeing someone.

Think about what type of social activity brings you happiness, then make it happen.

Keeping in touch can feel like a lot of work. One strategy that works for me is to write "This made me think of you" e-mails.

Cut people slack. Try not to take it personally if a friend cancels plans, forgets about something important, etc. We tend to view other people's actions as reflections of their characters, and to overlook the power of the situation to influence their action. Don't assume your friend is thoughtless and uncaring; maybe he's just overwhelmed by the demands of a new boss.

Realistic rules for boosting productivity

I confess: I can't touch each piece of paper just once; I can't return every e-mail within a day; I can't always maintain a clear desk. Nevertheless, I've found some realistic strategies for getting things done. An accumulation of tiny tasks combine to make me feel overwhelmed. If I can keep little chores from piling up, I feel more capable of tackling bigger tasks.

For that reason, many of my most important, daily personal productivity rules are very low-tech and simple.

Follow the 'one-minute rule'. I don't postpone any task that can be done in less than a minute. I put away my umbrella; I glance at a letter and toss it; I put newspapers in the recycling bin. Because the tasks are quick, it isn't too hard to make myself follow the rule, but it has big results.

Observe the 'evening tidy-up'. I take 10 minutes before bed to do simple tidying. Mornings are more serene and pleasant, because I'm not running about like a headless chicken.

Ask, "Why do I need this?" before keeping anything.

If there's something you don't want to do, prepare all necessary preliminary steps the night before, and make yourself do it first thing in the morning. I dislike making even the easiest phone calls, so I always steel myself to do those.

Unsubscribe. We find our way onto e-mail lists of all sorts; it takes five seconds to unsubscribe and weed out inbox clutter.

Keep a daily note pad of phone numbers, URLs, Don't forgets... all loose ends that clutter surfaces and then vanish. Now anytime I make a note, I discipline myself to write it there. At the end of the day, I copy anything important, then bin the paper.

How to get along with the in-laws

1. Remember: it turns out that familiarity breeds affection. The more often you see another person, the more intelligent and attractive you tend to find that person.

2. Avoid pointless bickering. If you and your in-laws fight about something, like politics or religion, try to agree to disagree.

3. Mindfully articulate, and act in accordance with, your own values. If you do, people's remarks don't sting as much, and strangely, the person often backs off.

4. Children can be a big source of contention. Try to keep perspective. My philosophy is: "If it's not harmful, I'll let others take care of my daughters their own way".

5. Remember grandparent privilege. When I was little, my grandmother would buy us junk food and let us stay up until midnight watching TV. Did this do us any lasting harm? No.

6. Focus on the positive. At the very least, your in-laws are the parents of your spouse. Wait, you might think, these tips are all about how to behave! Well, guess what? You can only change yourself.

Happiness boosters that do more harm than good

Beware if you are tempted to try any of the following

1. Letting yourself off the hook

I'm happy I've given up junk food. When you're feeling down, you might be tempted to let yourself off the hook. In fact, sticking to a resolution will boost your sense of self-esteem and self-control.

2. Turning off your phone

Studies show that extroverts and introverts alike get a mood boost from connecting with other people.

3. Expressing your negative emotions

Many people believe in the 'catharsis hypothesis' and think that expressing anger is healthy-minded and relieves their feelings. Not so. Studies show that expressing anger only aggravates it. Once I get going, I can whip myself into a fury.

4. Staying in your pyjamas all day

Sometimes this can be a fun thing to do, but if you're feeling lethargic, powerless, or directionless, not getting dressed is going to make you feel even worse. Put on your clothes – including your shoes – so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you're at it, make your bed.

Tips if you're chronically late

Feeling as though you're always 20 minutes behind schedule is an unhappy feeling. Are you late because...

You sleep too late? It's time to think about going to bed earlier. Sleep deprivation is a real drag on your happiness and health.

You try to get one last thing done? If you always try to answer that extra e-mail or put away one more load of laundry before you leave, here's a way to outwit yourself: take a task that you can do when you reach your destination, and leave early.

You hate your destination so much you want to postpone showing up? You're giving yourself a signal that you need to think about making a change in your life.

How to deal with a lousy day

We've all had terrible, horrible, very bad days. Here are some strategies I use:

1. Resist the urge to 'treat' yourself. Often, the things we choose as 'treats' aren't good for us. The pleasure lasts a minute, but then feelings of guilt deepen the lousiness.

2. Try doing something nice for some-one else: 'Do good, feel good'. Be selfless, if only for selfish reasons.

3. Distract yourself. Watching a funny movie or TV show is a great way to take a break.

4. Tell yourself, "Well, at least I..." Yes, you had a horrible day, but at least you went to the gym, or walked the dog, or read your children a story, or did the recycling.

5. Remind yourself of your other identities. If you feel like a loser at work, send out an e-mail to engage with childhood friends. If you think members of the PTA are annoyed with you, don't miss the exercise class where everyone likes you.

6. Keep perspective. Ask yourself: "Will this matter in a month? In a year?". I recently came across a note I'd written to myself years ago, that said "TAXES!!!!!!!!". I dimly remember the panic I felt; it's all lost and forgotten.

7. Write it down. When something horrible is consuming my mind, I find that if I write up a paragraph or two about the situation, I get immense relief.

8. Remind yourself that a lousy day isn't a catastrophic day. Be grateful that you're still on the 'lousy' spectrum. Things could be worse.

Beat clutter in five minutes

It's a Secret of Adulthood: for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. Having a clutter-filled home makes me feel overwhelmed. Everywhere I look, I see little chores. Pretty soon, it's easier just to add to the piles than to try to attack the problem. That's another Secret of Adulthood: tidy areas tend to stay tidy, and messy areas tend to get messier. These tips each take no more than five minutes. I mostly follow these, and I'm a lot happier when I do:

1. Make your bed.

2. Get rid of the newspaper each night.

3. Find a place where you can give things you no longer need.

4. Be cautious about letting yourself 'store'.

5. Never accept anything free, unless you're thrilled with it.

6. Hang up your coat!

Learn to deal calmly with criticism

I have a very hard time being criticised, corrected, or accused – even of the smallest mistakes. Here are some of the strategies that I try to use to accept criticism.

1. Listen to what a critic is saying. Really listen, don't just nod while you formulate your retorts.

2. Don't be defensive. This is the toughest step for me. With my writing, I always have to take a deep breath before meeting with an editor, to remind myself, "This person is helping me. I want to hear how to improve". Act the way you want to feel! It's really uncannily effective; acting friendly and eager to learn makes me feel friendlier and more eager to learn.

3. Don't fire back by criticising your critic. Your comments will just sound defensive, and you'll escalate the exchange. This urge is very difficult to resist.

4. Delay your reaction. Count to 10, take a deep breath, sleep on it, wait until the next day to send that e-mail... any kind of delay is good.

Good deeds that take less than 5 minutes

Do good, feel good' is one of the great truths of happiness – but you may be thinking, "Sure, good deeds would make me happy, but I barely have time to get through the essentials of my day. I don't have time to do any good deeds!".

Be friendly. I've decided that there are five degrees of social interactions with strangers: hostile, rude, neutral, polite, and friendly. I find it difficult to be downright friendly to strangers, but I always find myself energised by a friendly interaction. It only takes a minute to exchange a few pleasant words, but it makes a real difference.

Say "yes". If you can, and if you should, say "yes".

Say "no". My sister, who works as a writer in Hollywood, once told me, "'Yes' comes right away; 'no' never comes". Meaning that when she's pitched an idea, if she doesn't hear "yes" right away, it means they don't like the idea. I've found this precept to be widely true. If someone is waiting for your "No", put them out of their misery.

Do someone else's chore. Try not to keep score, not to focus so much on everything coming out 'even' – like division of chores.

Transform the school run

Three tips for keeping school-day mornings calm and cheery.

1. Get enough sleep yourself. I'm good at putting my kids to sleep at a decent hour, but not so good about doing it myself. It's tempting to stay up late, but 6.30am comes fast, and being overtired makes the morning tougher.

2. Sing. It's hard both to sing and to maintain a grouchy mood.

3. Say "no" only when it really matters. Your child puts on a red shirt with orange trousers and green shoes? Sure. Samuel Johnson said, "All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle".

Avoiding procrastination

Nothing is more exhausting than the task that is never started.

Remember: most decisions don't require extensive research. I often get paralysed by my inability to make a decision, but by reminding myself that, often, one choice just isn't that much different from another choice, I can usually get started.

Suffer for 15 minutes. You can do anything for 15 minutes – and 15 minutes, day after day, adds up surprisingly fast. That's how I finally dug myself out of the crushing (if virtual) load of digital photos on my computer.

Protect yourself from interruption.

Do it first thing in the morning. Don't allow yourself time to reflect. Just do it.

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