All posts by Gretchen Rubin

About Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the New York Times bestsellers, Happier at Home and The Happiness Project. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. Gretchen has emerged as one of the most thought-provoking and influential writers on happiness to have emerged from the recent explosion of interest in the subject. Though her conclusions are sometimes counter-intuitive—for example, she finds that true simplicity is far from simple to attain, and that used rightly, money can do a lot to buy happiness—her insights resonate with readers of all backgrounds.

Portrait of an Obliger: William Shawn, Legendary Editor of The New Yorker

rossshawn-300x232Of all the insights and observations that I make about the nature of habits and human nature in Better Than Before (at least I hope I make them), I’m most proud of my Four Tendencies framework.

It was very, very hard to grasp this pattern in human character, but I have to say, now that I’ve identified it, I constantly see it on display in the world.  Those four categories (Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, Rebel) do capture something–something that strikes me as truly real. (Want to find out your Tendency? 65,000 people have taken this Quiz.)

I’m always trying to understand the Four Tendencies better, and looking for examples, and evidence comes to me when I least expect it. Continue reading

What’s Your Favorite Quote About Coming Home?

LittleHousecover-300x433When the fiddle had stopped singing Laura called out softly, “What are days of auld lang syne, Pa?”

“They are the days of a long time ago, Laura,” Pa said. “Go to sleep, now.”

But Laura lay awake a little while, listening to Pa’s fiddle softly playing and to the lonely sound of the wind in the Big Woods. She looked at Pa sitting on the bench by the hearth, the firelight gleaming on his brown hair and beard and glistening on the honey-brown fiddle. She looked at Ma, gently rocking and knitting.

She thought to herself, “This is now.”

She was glad that the cosy house, and Pa and Ma and the firelight and the music, were now. They could not be forgotten, she thought, because now is now. It can never be a long time ago.

– Laura Ingalls Wilder, Little House in the Big Woods (last paragraphs)

This is one of my favorite passages in all of literature. I think of it often, especially when I come home after a trip. “This is now.Continue reading

Are You Unnecessarily Severe with Yourself and Your Habits?

coffeepouring-300x169“All severity that does not tend to increase good, or prevent evil, is idle.

– Samuel Johnson, as quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

I often think about this remark by Samuel Johnson.

Because I’ve been so focused on habits over the past few years, during the writing of Better Than Before, people often talk to me about the habits they want to change.

And although I have so many strategies and ideas that I’ve identified to help people master their habits, to my surprise, I frequently find myself making the case against changing a habit. Continue reading

To Be Creative, What Are the Best Habits To Follow?

paintbrushwithcolors1-300x239This post is back by popular demand, because when I tell people that I’ve been working on Better Than Before, my book about habit change, one of the questions that people most often ask me is:“What habits are best for creativity?”They want to know what habits help people think creatively — and also, actually produce.

Often, people make the case for adopting a particular habit by pointing to a renowned figure who practiced that habit, with great success. For instance… Continue reading

Holiday Food Temptation? Try These 13 Tips

holidayknifeandfork-300x300I think a lot about habits, and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about habits related to holiday eating.

The holidays are supposed to be a festive time, but many people feel anxiety and regret around food and drink—the holiday season is so full of temptation.

I have to say, I enjoy the holidays much more, now that I’ve got a better grip on my habits, than I used to.

Here are some ways to apply the strategies of habit-change to this challenge: Continue reading

5 Traps that Can Destroy Your Good Habits

mousetrap-300x204Avoid these five habit traps — they can destroy your good habits.

When we’re trying to master our habits, it’s important to be aware of the justifications or arguments that we sometimes invoke that interfere with keeping a good habit.

They slip in so easily and quickly, it can be hard to spot them. Be on the look-out for these five popular lines of thoughts: Continue reading

My Intent is to Read More: 13 Tips for Getting More Reading Done.


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Of my hundreds of happiness-project resolutions, and of the habits I’ve tried to form, one of my very favorites is to Read more

Reading is an essential part of my work. It forms an important part to my social life. And far more important, reading is my favorite thing to do, by a long shot. I’m not a well-rounded person.

But reading takes time, and there aren’t many days when I can read as much as I’d like. Here are some habits that I’ve adopted to help me get more good reading done.

1. Quit reading. I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started. No more. Life is short. There are too many wonderful books to read.

2. Read books you enjoy. When I’m reading a book I love—for example, I’m now reading Charles Portis’s True Grit — I’m astonished by how much time I find to read. Which is another reason to stop reading a book I don’t enjoy.

Continue reading

Once Again: 6 Tips for Writing from George Orwell

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Last week, I posted six rules for writing from George Orwell, but that post was swallowed up by the internet. I was quite pleased by the number of people who wrote to ask where the list had gone, so I’ve decided to re-post it.

I loved rules for writing: for instance, here are rules from Mindy Kaling, Kurt Vonnegut, Henry Miller, and Flannery O’Connor.

In one of his most famous essays, “Politics and the English Language,” Orwell writes that “the following rules will cover most cases”:

1. Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which are used to seeing in print.

2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.

3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.

5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent. (I’m charmed by his example: use “snapdragon,” not “antirrhinum.” Snapdragon is so much nicer.)

6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

I find these rules to be enormously helpful. It’s so easy to use tired, shopworn figures of speech. I love using long, fancy words but have learned–mostly from writing my biography of Winston Churchill–that short, strong words work better. I am ever-vigilant against the passive and against jargon, both of which are so insidious.

However, I have to be cautious with #3. I love to cut so much that I have to be careful not to cut too much. My writing tends to become very dense, so I have to keep some cushion. Sometimes, words that seem superfluous are actually essential, for the overall effect.

One thing that makes me very happy is to have a complicated idea and to feel that I’ve expressed myself clearly. I remember writing the ending to Happier at Home. I wrote the entire book to build to that ending–”now is now”–and what I had to say was very abstract, and yet, I felt satisfied that I managed to say what I wanted to say. One of the happiest experiences I’ve had as a writer was when I typed the final lines,  “Now is now. Here is my treasure.”

How about you? Do you use these rules–or any others?

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  • The holidays approach! May I self-promotingly make a gift suggestion? Happier at Home or The Happiness Project. Both New York Times bestsellers. Buy early and often!If you’d like to make a gift more special by personalizing it, I’m happy to help. Would you like a free, personalized, signed bookplate for copies of The Happiness Project or Happier at Home? Or signed Paradoxes of Happiness signature cards or Ten Tips for Happiness in Your New Home signature cards? Request as many as you want, here. Alas, because of mailing costs, I can now mail only to the U.S. and Canada–so sorry about that. And request quickly, if you want these for the holidays. I can be kinda slow.

7 Strategies to Feel Less Lonely

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One major challenge within happiness is loneliness.  The more I’ve learned about happiness, the more I’ve come to believe that loneliness is a terrible, common, and important obstacle to consider.

According to Elizabeth Bernstein’s recent Wall Street Journal piece, Alone or Lonely, the rate of loneliness in the U.S. has doubled over the past thirty years. About 40% of Americans report being lonely; in the 1980s, it was 20%. One reason: more people live alone (27% in 2012; 17% in 1970). But being alone and being lonely aren’t the same.

A while back, after reading John Cacioppo’s fascinating book Loneliness, I posted Some counter-intuitive facts about loneliness, and several people responded by asking, “Okay, but what do I do about it? What steps can I take to feel less lonely?”

I then read another fascinating book, Lonely — a memoir by Emily White, about her own experiences and research into loneliness. White doesn’t attempt to give specific advice about how to combat loneliness, and I don’t want to put words in her mouth, but from her book, I gleaned these strategies:

1. Remember that although the distinction can be difficult to draw, loneliness and solitude are different. White observes, “It’s entirely reasonable to feel lonely yet still feel as though you need some time to yourself.” Loneliness feels draining, distracting, and upsetting; desired solitude feels peaceful, creative, restorative.

2. Nurturing others — raising children, teaching, caring for animals — helps to alleviate loneliness.

3. Keep in mind that to avoid loneliness, many people need both a social circle and an intimate attachment. Having just one of two may still leave you feeling lonely.

4. Work hard to get your sleep. One of the most common indicators of loneliness is broken sleep — taking a long time to fall asleep, waking frequently, and feeling sleepy during the day. Sleep deprivation, under any circumstances, brings down people’s moods, makes them more likely to get sick, and dampens their energy, so it’s important to tackle this issue. (Here are some tips on getting good sleep.)

5. Try to figure out what’s missing from your life. White observes that making lots of plans with friends didn’t alleviate her loneliness. “What I wanted,” she writes, “was the quiet presence of another person.” She longed to have someone else just hanging around the house with her. The more clearly you see what’s lacking, the more clearly you’ll see possible solutions.

6. Take steps to connect with other people (to state the obvious). Show up, make plans, sign up for a class, take a minute to chat.

7. Stay open. Negative emotions like loneliness, envy, and guilt have an important role to play in a happy life; they’re big, flashing signs that something needs to change. The pain of loneliness can prod you to connect with other people. Unfortunately–and this may seem counter-intuitive--loneliness itself can make people feel more negative, critical, and judgmental. If you recognize that your loneliness may be affecting you in that way, you can take steps to counter it.

Most people have suffered from loneliness at some point. Have you found any good strategies for making yourself less lonely? What worked — or didn’t work?

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Revealed: My Next Book Will Be About…

HabitsRepeatFourWhenever I start a new book, I think, “This is the most interesting subject of all time. It’s sad, I’ll never enjoy writing another book as much as I enjoy this one.” Every time, I’m convinced. And then I change my mind when I start the next book.

But I really do believe this may be the most fascinating subject ever. It’s the subject of habits. How do we make and break habits–really?

It was my interest in happiness that led me to the subject of habits, and of course, the study of habits is really the study of happiness. Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative. When I talk to people about their happiness challenges, they often point to hurdles related to a habit they want to make or break.

My habits research started as part of my ongoing happiness research—I often spend a lot of time studying happiness-related sub-topics, such as pain or the sense of smell—but I just kept pushing deeper and deeper into habit formation. Everything I read was so fascinating! The more I learned, the more I wanted to know—but also the more baffled I became.

I had many questions that seemed quite obvious and pressing to me, but strangely, few of the experts seemed to recognize them. For instance:

  •  Sometimes, people acquire habits overnight, and sometimes, they drop longtime habits just as abruptly. Why?
  • Why do practically all dieters gain the weight back?
  • It’s understandable why we have trouble acquiring habits of activities we don’t want to do, but why is it so hard to make ourselves acquire habits that we do want to do?
  • Why do some people dread and resist habits, and others follow them eagerly?
  • Why are people often so unmoved by consequences? Many graduate students take several years to write their dissertations, and stay ABD (“All But Dissertation”) even though they’re much better off finishing faster. One-third to one-half of U.S. patients don’t take medicine prescribed for a chronic illness.
  • Do the same strategies that work for changing simple habits (tooth-flossing) also apply to complex habits (drinking less)?
  • Do the same habit-formation strategies apply equally well to everyone?
  • Why is it that sometimes, even though we’re very anxious—even desperate—to change a habit, we can’t? A friend told me, “I have a lot of chronic health issues, and I do a lot better when I don’t eat wheat or dairy. But I do. Why? These foods make me feel lousy. But I eat them.”
  • Certain situations seem to make it easier to form habits. Why?
  • Why do we indulge in a bad habit even when we’re painfully aware that we’re doing it? I’d heard that sequence in my own head: “I shouldn’t. I told myself I wouldn’t. I want to. I have to. Watch me.”
  • Most importantly, what are the overarching strategies that allow us to change our habits—or help someone else to change a habit—whether that habit is exercising more, taking medication, doing homework, turning off the TV, or anything else?

I searched unsuccessfully for the answers, until one day a thought hit me: “I should write a book about habits! I’ll figure out the answers to these questions.”

And so I am. I’ve written the entire first draft, in fact.

The book’s title is Before and After, because that’s what we all want from our healthy habits—to go from before to after.

In Before and After, I identify the sixteen strategies that we can use to make or break our habits. Some are quite familiar, such as Monitoring, Scheduling, and Convenience. Some took me a lot of effort to identify, such as Thinking, Identity, and Clarity. Some are more complicated than you might assume, such as Rewards and Others. The most fun strategy? Treats. The funniest chapter? The chapter on Safeguards (I include a list of the loopholes we invoke to justify breaking our healthy habits, and they are hilarious.)

The book will hit the shelves in 2015, and if you want to be notified as soon as it’s available for pre-order, sign up here.

Here on the blog, I’ll continue to write generally about happiness, and in particular–as you may have noticed reflected in a few design changes–what I’ve learned about habits. My work on the four Rubin Tendencies came out of my habit research, for example. I was struggling to understand why people seemed so different from each other, when it came to their attitude and aptitude for habit. Why did I find it fairly easy to adopt a new habit, and I love my habits, but other people detest habits? Or they want habits but can’t form them? Or can form them in some situations, but not others? I wanted to solve that riddle—which required me to come up with a framework to capture the variations in human nature.  (It took me months to figure this out.)

I identified the abstainer/moderator distinction before I started to focus on habits, but the habits analysis helped me understand the implications of that distinction much better.

I’ve always loved “Before and After” stories, in books, magazines, and TV shows. Whenever I read those words, I’m hooked. The thought of a transformation—any kind of transformation—thrills me. And that’s the promise of habits.

I’m going to add a new feature to this site (I hope): I’d love to feature people’s stories of their own “before and after.” It’s so helpful to hear about other people’s experiences, and how they’ve managed to change their habits for the better. If you have a before-and-after story to share, you can send it to me here. I may not be able to run them all, but I’ll certainly read them all.

Habit allows us to go from before to after, to make life easier and better. Habit is notorious—and rightly so—for its ability to direct our actions, even against our will; but by mindfully shaping our habits, we can harness the power of mindlessness as a sweeping force for serenity, energy, and growth. Habits allow us to look back at the end of each day and see that we’ve undertaken the actions that reflect our values—without even having to think about it.

Before and after! It’s what we all crave.

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  • If you’re thinking, “But Gretchen, I’m dying to read Before and After. I can’t possibly wait until 2015!” well, fear not. In the meantime, you can read my most recent book, Happier at Home.
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