When it comes to being happy, what are 12 things you can do in the coming year to boost your bliss?
That’s what we asked Gretchen Rubin, author of “The Happiness Project,” the New York Times best-seller that gives us a way to organize our thoughts and provides a step-by-step strategy to create more happiness in our lives.
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1. Your brain on happiness: Tell us about the research on what your brain does when it’s happy.
Gretchen Rubin: Happier people are more resilient and more creative; they make better team members and better leaders; and they are healthier and have better habits. There is a ton of research that backs up these claims.
2. The power of a full purse: Can money buy happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: That’s the million-dollar question, right? In fact, people tend to give away more money, and are more likely to help out, when money isn’t an object. It’s funny—happiness has sort of a bad reputation when it comes to being rich. And some people truly think it’s selfish to want to be happier.
Here again, the research shows that happy people have the emotional awareness to turn outward and to think about other people, the problems of the world, and what is going around them.
In contrast, unhappy people tend to be isolated and preoccupied with their own problems because they are so unhappy. Being happy is really worthwhile, and even if it were selfish to be happy, we should be selfish! Research shows happier people tend to live more productive, connected lives.
3. Can a person be happy all the time? And should we aspire to that goal?
Gretchen Rubin: Some people think my vision or goal is for everyone to be happy 100 percent of the time. And that is just not true. In fact, it’s not realistic—and it wouldn’t even be good. There are many occasions when it’s okay to feel other emotions, to feel sad or resentful. These negative emotions are really important.
But, I do think that we might as well be as happy as we can be given our circumstances. For a lot of us there is a lot of low-hanging fruit, a lot of things well within our reach that could make us happier. So I can’t help but ask, “Why not do those things?”
On the other hand, you can’t kid yourself into thinking you should be skipping down the street while your mother is in the hospital. But are there things you can do to deal with difficult situations that will allow you to be as happy as you can be with what is going on in your life? It’s not that you’re supposed to be happy all the time and in all situations, but why not be as happy as you can be?
4. Balancing happiness: So there is happiness in finding balance in your life?
Gretchen Rubin: The weird thing is that happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy. Sometimes we do things that make us happy in certain ways, but these things also give us a lot of negative emotion.
For instance, I know a guy who had a really awful father. This father was so bad that two of his children had no contact with him. But, when his father was in the hospital, my friend was visiting him even though he hated going to see him in the hospital. He didn’t like his father, and his father had always been a jerk to him, so he was asking, “Why am I going? It doesn’t make me happy!”
I told him I thought that maybe he was visiting his sick father because that was his idea of being a good son. In essence, I said, “You want to do the right thing even to this father who wasn’t a great father, and this makes you happy in a way, because you are living your values. But it is not fun, and even though it’s not making you feel good, it’s making you happy in a different way.”
Happiness isn’t always pleasurable, but that doesn’t mean it’s not going to be what brings satisfaction over the long run of our lives.
5. The importance of novelty and challenge: The two keys to enduring happiness.
Gretchen Rubin: This is something that came as a big surprise to me. The research shows that novelty and challenge bring happiness, and that people who do new things and go new places, meet new people, learn new skills, tend to be happier than people who don’t.
I said that that was what the research showed, but that wouldn’t be right for me because I am one of those people who love familiarity and mastery. I eat the same foods every day, I rarely leave my neighborhood, and all I do is read and write. I am not a well-rounded person.
6. Take the challenge: Do something that scares you.
Gretchen Rubin: Exactly. That’s why I started a blog, which to me was enormously challenging, I am super un-techy, I knew nothing about blogging, and I knew no one who had a blog. I had never been a journalist, so I never wrote lengthy pieces. Everything about it felt off and hard and made me feel stupid, insecure, and frustrated as I was figuring out how to do it. Then I found out … it’s a huge part of happiness for me! I’ve learned all these new skills, I have a new identity as a blogger, and I have gotten so much out of it.
All of it was novel and challenging, and by pushing myself to blog, I got a huge boost of happiness. Novelty and challenge often make you feel anxious, insecure, out of place, uneasy, basically like an idiot, but in the end there can be a huge pay off. Even things like walking through a new neighborhood, or checking out a museum you’ve never gone to before, or going out of your way to make a new friend, or joining a group with a lot of people you don’t know can be rewarding. It’s been surprising to me how much these kinds of things really do boost happiness.
7. Make a change: What is one thing most people think will make them happy?
Gretchen Rubin: Money is probably the top answer. It’s also one of the most complicated issues within the subject of happiness. No, money cannot buy happiness, but it can buy many things that contribute powerfully to making you happy.
The thing about money that is interesting is that it has a bigger effect in the negative than the positive. In that way it is like health. When you have your health (and when you have enough money so that money is not a worry), you can take it for granted, and it stays in the background.
8. Can’t get no satisfaction? Re-think what satisfies you.
Gretchen Rubin: When you don’t have enough money, or you’re not in good health, it really weighs you down. So it is a bigger weight than it is a lift. It also very much depends on how you spend your money. One of the most robust findings is that the key to happiness is relationships, so if you spend your money to attend your college reunion or on a gift for your sister’s birthday, those kinds of things would probably increase your happiness.
But, if you are spending your money on, say, cocaine, or on your 15th pair of boots that you are never going to wear, the happiness you get is likely fleeting.
Picture a really expensive set of cooking knives. For a person who cooks, those knives would bring a sense of joy every day, and they might just be the best thing that person ever bought. But, someone else might buy the same set of knives and never use them; they serve merely as a sort of furniture to make their kitchen look fancy. This second person is not going to get as much satisfaction from the purchase as the first person.
So the questions to ask yourself about money and happiness are: How are you spending your money? To what end are you spending it? What kind of person are you? Is your money contributing to your happiness?
9. Do one thing: Can making one change make all the difference?
Gretchen Rubin: Yes! Get enough sleep. There is so much interesting research on sleep. Among the findings are that we adjust to being sleep-deprived, and that people who are sleep-deprived don’t even realize how far off they are from their natural need for sleep.
People will say, “I train myself to get by on five hours of sleep,” but most adults need about seven hours. If you feel overwhelmed or drained, nothing feels fun, and you have trouble making decisions, then you need to think about what time you are going to bed.
10. Hate chores? Follow the one-minute rule: Or don’t do it.
Gretchen Rubin: Anything I can do in less than a minute I do without delay: Hang up a coat, put the dishes in the dishwasher, print out a document and file it, read a letter and throw it away, carry a cup from one room to another, make the bed.
Doing this removes the clutter in your life, which keeps you from feeling overwhelmed and drained by it. If you clear the clutter, you don’t have to hunt around for your keys, or you get your phone charged because your phone is in the right place. I think the one-minute rule is very helpful.
11. Climb inside your body: Feel what you are feeling.
Gretchen Rubin: Your physical experience is always going to color your emotional experience. Especially if you are starting up something new, it’s so easy to run yourself ragged and burn yourself out. Getting enough sleep, getting a little bit of exercise—not training for a marathon, but going for a 20-minute walk, especially outside—is going to give you a lot more energy and keep you alert.
Also make sure you don’t get too hungry. A lot of times people who have very bad eating habits lose all self-control when their blood sugar drops. One of the best things you can do to be healthier is to eat only when you are hungry. When you do that, you’ll be much less likely to grab a bag of potato chips.
12. Take time for yourself: Do what you really like to do.
Gretchen Rubin: Are you feeling distant from the people who are most important to you? Do you feel you never have time for yourself? Do you feel you work all the time and never have any fun, or that you are wasting all of your time on things that don’t matter? Do you feel there are no transcendent qualities in your life, that you have lost your spiritual life, or that you have lost a connection with the more grand, eternal matters of life?
Answer these questions for yourself, and figure out what is missing and what you want more of. Then identify concrete, manageable steps to get there.
A lot of times I think that when people want to embark on a happiness project, they set up what they think is a specific goal, but actually it’s abstract. For example, if you want to be more mindful, that is a very abstract goal. How will you know if you did well at the end of the day? You need to turn your mindfulness goal into something that is very concrete, like this:
- Be more mindful. For 10 minutes every morning I will meditate, or for 15 minutes when I get home from work, I will sit down, close my eyes, and think about my day. I will put an app on my phone that reminds me to be mindful.
- Eat healthier. What does that mean for you? Stated like that, it isn’t very specific. Restate it so that your goal includes specific intents: Eat breakfast every day. Pack a lunch instead of eating out every day. Or eat a salad for dinner every day, give up candy, or whatever this goal would mean to you. It has to be very concrete.
- Network more. This is too vague. The goal should instead be something like: “Twice a week I will make a lunch date with someone that I want to network with.” Or, “I am going to start a group of like-minded people and discuss our workplace challenges.”
Make it personal, and keep checking in with yourself: Are you happy?
Gretchen Rubin: A lot of people ask how I have changed since I embarked on “The Happiness Project.” My fundamental nature is the same. I am still Gretchen, but my experience in my life is just so much happier. I have more fun, more friends, more enthusiasm, more love. I have a lot more friends from all the things that I do. And I have less guilt, less remorse, less anger and resentment because I have done a lot of things to get rid of behavior that causes me negative emotions.
Of course it’s satisfying to know I wrote something that resonated with a lot of people. I have a lot of good new habits, too. I’ve discovered that you don’t have to fly across the world or attend a meditation retreat to be happier. Some people love to do that, but the stuff I talk about is stuff that you can do as part of your ordinary day. It is really surprising how much of a difference these small changes can make.
Are you ready to start your own happiness project? To learn more about Gretchen Rubin’s strategy, and her 9 Tips for Keeping Resolutions, click here.
The Inkandescent Happiness Project 2015: Rubin has given us permission to start a monthly Happiness column on Be Inkandescent magazine starting in January. Each month, we’ll give you tips to help you keep up on your personal project. Happy New Year!