Were Our Ancestors Right About Happiness?

Question: What was the “happiness project” you undertook?

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Gretchen Rubin: The Happiness Project is the book that I wrote.  It’s an account of the year that I spent testing the wisdom of the ages, the current science **** studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.  I wanted to find out if you really did all of those things that you ought to do, would you really make yourself happier?  And I wanted to do it within the confines of my ordinary day.  I didn’t want to make a radical change, I just wanted to do everything – I wanted to change my life without changing my life.

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Question: What were some the specific pieces of advice you tested?

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Gretchen Rubin: One of the things that you see ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree on is that strong relationships are a key to happiness, maybe the key to happiness.  People who have more strong relationships in their lives just feel happier.  So, a lot of my resolutions were aimed at either strengthening existing relationships, things like – I would make resolutions like show up, be generous, remember birthdays, things that were supposed to strengthen my relationships, and then also to build new relationships.  So, I joined, or started 11 groups starting from the time I had my happiness project and from that I made a ton of new friends.  And then of course, I had a lot of resolutions aimed at the relationships in my family.  I wanted to have a tender, more light-hearted atmosphere in my house, and so I did a lot of resolutions that were aimed at strengthening my relationship with my husband and my two daughters.

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Question: Which nuggets of ancient wisdom did you test?

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Gretchen Rubin: Right.  Well, one of them was this idea that strong relationships will happen.  If Aristotle talked about the importance of friendships and people today are talking about the importance of friendships.  Another one, one of the most ancient precepts of happiness is this idea, know thyself.  In fact, the words “know thyself” are scribed at the temple of Apollo in Delphi.  And we all know the Shakespeare quotation, “To thine own self be true,” but it was only when I tried to be Gretchen, that was my resolution to myself, that I realize what a challenge it was really to be Gretchen.  I had to think about what made me happy.  Not what I thought should make me happy, or what I wished made me happy, or what made other people happy, but what I really needed to build into my life if I wanted to have a happier life.  So, that’s a place where the most ancient wisdom is still true today.  “Know thyself,” it’s still a challenge, it still works.

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Question: Which ancient prescriptions for happiness did you find to be false?

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Gretchen Rubin: Well, I’m not sure that this is so ancient, but definitely a theme within happiness thinking is this idea that if you chase happiness, or you seek happiness that you somehow undermine your ability to find happiness.  So, for example, John Stuart Mill wrote, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you shall cease to be so.”  And I think that’s just completely wrong.  And I know it’s John Stuart Mill versus Gretchen Rubin, but I think you don’t hit a target by not aiming at it, and at least for me, when I started asking myself, am I happy?  I immediately realized I am happy.  I’m happier than I realized.  I was too distracted by minor irritations.  I was losing site of how happy I really was and so by asking myself if I was happy, I was actually lifting myself up and also helping myself identify what I could change in my life to help myself be happier.  So, that was something where I felt like this idea where you should not seek happiness is actually not a very helpful piece of happy advice.

Recorded on February 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen

For one year, Gretchen Rubin tested the wisdom of some of history’s leading experts on happiness, including Aristotle and John Stuart Mill. Did their advice hold up?

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