Question: What are active steps that ordinary people can take to improve their daily happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, there’s a million things. There’s so many resolutions that can really work and one of the things is, I think that some people don’t want to start a happiness project because they somehow imagine that they’re going to have to come up with an hour of free time every day, which they don’t have. There’s so many things you can do just within the structure of your ordinary life that don’t take a lot of effort.
For some reason, and this is surprising to me, and I’m not sure why this is, but the resolution that over and over, people mention to me that something that helped them get started with their happiness project is to make your bed. I realize that in a happy life, making your bed should play a very small part, I don’t know why this is so helpful to people getting started on a happiness project, but for some reason, making your bed – it’s concrete, it’s manageable. There’s a big difference between having a bed that’s unmade and a bed that’s made. That little bit of outer order in people’s lives seem to help them get started. So, that’s a very small thing that you can do.
Something I think that I really wanted for my happiness project and I think other people want too, is they want a way to bring the more transcendent values of life into their ordinary day. And that can be hard to do. In one of the resolutions that I found most interesting, most engaging that I think a lot of people have also found interesting is to imitate a spiritual master. Now, the first question you have to ask yourself is, well, who is my spiritual master? And that’s actually a very good question to ask yourself. You should know who your spiritual master is. It’s a very fascinating question to ask yourself and to think about all the people it could be. Is it Gandhi? Is it Mother Teresa? Is it Warren Buffett? There are all kinds of people who can be spiritual masters **** because you know it might be a great figure from history.
But then I think to learn about your spiritual master, to know more about your spiritual master and also to think, well I’m attracted to this person for some reason. There’s something that this person is saying that is resonating with me. How can I translate those values into my life? What would that mean in terms of my life because maybe Gandhi had a very different kind of life, but what would it mean for me. And I think that’s really a fascinating thing for people to think about.
Another thing with the transcendent value translated into everyday manageable terms, I think a lot of people want to – they have the urge to memorialize. They want to hang on to the present. They want to find a way to remember what’s happening now. And I felt that very strongly, especially with the childhood of my two young daughters. I really wanted to find a way to create a record of it. And in my life, like many people, I tried to keep journals, and I had abandoned them because they’re too much work and I would end up feeling like a failure and not keeping up with them. What I started was a one sentence journal. I just write one sentence every night. Some little observation, some little detail from the day. And for some reason, that’s enough. I look back and I’ve been keeping it for a couple of years and when I look back, I think, I remember what the time was like. I remember what it was like when we went to the Museum of Natural History all the time, or I remember my younger daughter was still using her purple and yellow sippy cup. And it really brings back the time. And there’s something really satisfying about keeping that very manageable journal so that you feel like you are hanging on to the present and appreciating now in a better way.
Question: Who is your spiritual master?
Gretchen Rubin: My spiritual master, much to my surprise, I wasn’t expecting her to be my spiritual master, is Thérèse of Lisieux. I’m not Catholic; it's because I read Thomas Martin’s "Seventh Story Mountain"; it led me to read St. Thérèsee’s spiritual memoirs, "Story of a Soul." And I was just overwhelmed by this book. She lived about a little more than 100 years ago. She died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis and she lived much of her life in a cloistered convent in France. So she and I have nothing in common. And yet when I read "Story of a Soul," I was immediately enthralled by it. I immediately went out and read dozens of biographies of St. Thérèse. And she is truly my spiritual master, and I think about her all the time. And she is very funny, which is good, and her whole point is to say that you can do little things and it’s through the little things that you can achieve great things, and that you can do it within the confines of your ordinary life. And by figuring out that St. Thérèse was my spiritual master, and also learning more about her and thinking about what her lessons meant for me in my life, even though we just couldn’t be more different, really has been a huge part of my happiness project.
Recorded on February 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen