If you want to be happy (or happier), but don't know how, Gretchen Rubin knows how you feel. She went on a year-long quest for joy that she chronicled in her book, The Happiness Project. Beliefnet spoke with the author on how to find happiness in the middle of your everyday life.
You're a wife, mother, writer, Yale University graduate with a Juris Doctorate degree... Why start a project on happiness? You address this in your book that someone where you stand has a lot to be happy about already.
I didn’t start my happiness project from a place of unhappiness. I was pretty happy. I think that resonates with a lot of people. People feel happy, but they want to appreciate it more, live up to it and not take it for granted. It’s so easy in every day life to focus on the little annoyances instead of thinking about what a happy life you have. I was just on a bus in a moment where I thought, ‘What do I want from life?’ And I thought, ‘I want to be happy.’ I realized I didn’t spend any time thinking about happiness. So, I thought, ‘I should have a happiness project.’ And it came to me like that.
One of the most beautiful things I found about your book is that you didn’t change your surroundings. You didn’t do an Eat Pray Love thing where you travelled the world. Why did you decide to find happiness at home?
Part of it was just my nature. I wouldn’t want to do an adventure like that. Even if I wanted to, I couldn’t. I have two little kids. I wanted to give myself the challenge of saying, ‘What can I do in my ordinary routine to make myself happier?’ Because I really felt like I could find things to do and I certainly did. A lot of people say, ‘I don’t have any extra time, money or energy.’ The thrilling thing I discovered about a happiness project is that you don’t really have to have extra time, money or energy. A lot of these things are just things you can do in your regular routine. You have to make yourself decide to do them, which takes some effort, but it’s not like you have to move across the country or radically change their life.
Explain the first commandment of your happiness project: “Be Gretchen”.
It’s funny, because what could be more obvious than to be yourself and know yourself? This is the most ancient piece of happiness wisdom. It’s on the temple of Apollo at Delphi: “Know thyself.” I realized that I didn’t always know myself or live my life according to my own nature. The more I thought, ‘How could I become Gretchen,’ the happier my life became. It began to reflect my interest, values, temperament much more closely.
I always found it amazing that we’re the person who we spend the most time with and yet we can be such a mystery to ourselves.
One of my favorite things is to try to figure out indirect ways of getting insight into myself, because you can’t see yourself directly. For example, when you lie, you’re indicating that there’s something important enough to you that you’re not going to tell the truth about it. A friend of mine said that she realized she had to get control of her children’s television habits when someone asked her, ‘How much television do your children watch?’ She lied about it. She said, ‘I realized when I lied about it that I knew that I wasn’t comfortable with it. Because if I really was comfortable with it, I would have just said. Other people would have.’ Or like envy. When you think about who you envy, that’s a clue what you really want. When you think what you envy in other people, it can be an indirect glimpse of what’s going on. Sometimes we don’t want to admit to ourselves what we really think.
You’ve spoken to many people since this book came out on happiness and people share with you how the book has affected them. What have you found is the biggest, yet the most simple truth about happiness that people miss?
That’s a very good question. I don’t know if people are missing this, but I think that in the end, the most important thing is your relationships with other people. You should always think of your life in terms of, ‘Is this going to strengthen my relationships or not?’ If you think about how to spend your time, energy or money, how will this affect your relationships? I think people know that. I think they need to be reminded of that.
What people don’t know is that a lot of people are troubled by the feeling that it’s selfish to want to be happy. They worry that if they have the elements of a happy life and they want to be happier, that they’re spoiled and preoccupied with themselves in a way that’s not laudable. Or they think that in a world that’s so full of suffering, it’s not morally appropriate to be happy. But the thing is, if you look at the research and think of your experiences with other people, it seems very clear that happy people make people happy. Happy people are more likely to volunteer; they give away money; they’re better leaders; they have better relationships with their friends and family; they’re healthier; they’re more connected to other people and people are more attracted to them. I don’t think it’s selfish to be happier, because it’s by being happier that you give yourself the emotional wherewithal to turn outward.