Authors@Google: Gretchen Rubin

Uploaded by AtGoogleTalks on 29.01.2010

Kim: Hi everybody, how are you doing, thanks for coming.
So it is my great pleasure to introduce a dear friend of mine, Gretchen Rubin who I
have known since 1996 when we worked at the federal communications commission together.
Gretchen has been an inspiration for me personally for many years.
I wrote my first novel in large part thanks to the advice that Gretchen gave me, which
was – I was in a job that I hated and she kept reminding me because I'm a flake about
it, don't forget to quit. [laughter]
So that was much appreciated. She helped me launch in 1999 the year of my
fantasy. So her advice has made a big difference in
my life and it will make a difference in your life as well.
Gretchen is the author of many books, one is power, money, fame , sex -- did I get that
one right?
Gretchen: Yes
Kim: I always reverse the order. She has written two wonderful biographies,
one of Winston Churchill, and one of JFK. Forty ways, she started a whole new genre
of biography. So you look at the person through many different
lenses. And you're very lucky to have her here to
talk about her research. Gretchen is one of the smartest people I know
and really great at reading tremendous amounts of information and then distilling it and
giving you the most important and useful tidbits. So welcome to Gretchen, thank you.
Gretchen: Thank you
Gretchen: Thanks so much, I'm so happy to be here.
And it's so much fun to be back here with Kim because we've been partners in happiness
for a very long time. So I'm gonna talk for about 15 minutes and
then and then we'll just do Q & A because that by far my favorite part, to talk about
happiness. And I'll start by talking about how I got
the idea to have a happiness project, and then some of the highlights of what I felt
like I learned. The moment when I decided to have a happiness
project was a very inconspicuous moment in my life.
I was stuck on a city bus because it was pouring rain and we were moving very slowly.
And I didn't have anything to do, so I had an opportunity for a rare moment of reflection.
And I thought, what do I want from life anyway? I thought, I want to be happy.
But I realized that I didn't spend any time thinking about whether I was happy, or how
to be happier, or even what I thought it meant to be happy.
So I thought, I should have a happiness project, and in a flash it hit me.
And I have sort of a lawyerly analytical mind, so I instantly envisioned themes and resolutions
and charts and to-do. And the very next day I went out and got a
huge stack of books and started to do my research. At first I just did the happiness project
for myself, to make myself happier, or to see if I could make myself happier.
Before long I realized it would make a good book, and that's -- I turned it into the book
that is the account of the year that I spent test driving the wisdom of the ages, the current
scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
I wanted to know if you really did all those things that you hear that you should do, would
it really work? Could you really make yourself happier?
As I started going, before I even figured out all the resolutions that I wanted to try,
I quickly realized that I needed guiding principles. More than things like sing in the morning,
or fight right, I needed big ideas that were gonna tell me how to act, and how to behave.
And the most important one -- There were 12, I called them my 12 personal commandments,
the first one, the most important one is to be Gretchen.
And you should feel free to substitute your own name.
But be Gretchen was this idea that I could only build a happy life on the foundation
of my own nature. So I really had to think about what was right
for me, what, what was gonna make me happy. There were a lot of things that were surprising
for me as I started trying to figure this out.
One thing was that although there was something that I was beginning to realize was very important
to my happiness, it was something that was completely ignored by the scientists who study
happiness. And by the positive psychology folks who talk
about happiness. They completely ignored this area of life.
Yet if I would look at magazines, books, television, there was a huge amount of interest in this
area of life. That was the issue of clutter.
I realized that for me, as for many people, outer order contributed to inner calm.
[cough] My first month's theme was energy.
Because I figured, well if I have more energy, all those other resolutions are going to be
easier to keep. And that's exactly what happened.
So I was trying to figure out what was draining my energy.
Things like not getting enough sleep. I realized that one of the drains on my energy
was this feeling that there was just this scum of clutter in my way.
There was things that didn't fit, things that didn't work, things that weren't in the right
place, drawers that wouldn't shut, closets that I couldn't stick another item into.
So I kept trying to find strategies to just get this under control.
One thing that worked for me -- and as I recalled, Kim said that this was a major thing that
worked for her was something called the one minute rule.
This is the rules that if you can do something in one minute, you have to do it without procrastinating.
If you can read a letter and throw it away, if you can put a dish in the dishwasher, if
you can just hang up your coat, you should just go ahead and do it and don't wait.
And this just removes sort of that superficial layer of clutter from you life.
Along the same lines I did something called the evening tidy up.
So for 10 to 15 minutes every night, I don't clean, I just tidy up.
I put books on the shelves, I put magazines away, put clothes away.
And then coming down in the morning, everything is just much more serene, and you just have
that sense of everything being in it's place.
And on my blog, and in my book, and in conversations with people, I talk about hundreds of resolutions.
And yet there is one resolution that comes up over and over again when I say to people
"what worked for you?" I'll say, "What have you tried?"
"What have I suggested?" "What works for you?"
This resolution comes up the most. And I don't know why, it does not seem like
the preeminent resolution for happiness. But it is the resolution to make your bed.
This is the thing that people mention to me the most often.
There's something about that little tiny accomplishment first thing in the morning.
There's a very tangible difference between a room that has a bed made, and a bed not
made. It doesn't seem like something that should
make a big difference, and yet this is the thing that comes up.
That was a surprise to me. Another thing that surprised me was that when
I started, I expected that the most useful resources were gonna be the things that were
the most universal. So, philosophical framework that applied to
all of human nature, or scientific studies that were done on large populations.
What I found was exactly the opposite. The things that -- the resources that were
the most helpful to me were the things that were the most idiosyncratic to other people.
Now someone like Thoreau did not call his movement to Walden Pond a happiness project.
But that is what I would call it. And from those very idiosyncratic accounts,
I learned the most about myself. The person who was my best guide, who, from
whom I learned the most about myself was Samuel Johnson who's a British writer, he lived 300
years ago. Dr. Johnson wrote the English dictionary,
a very brilliant yet extremely eccentric man. He and I have nothing in common.
But it was from Samuel Johnson that I learned the most about myself.
One thing, just a toss off comment that he made at one point was "abstinence is as easy
to me as temperance would be difficult." And when I read that I thought, that's me.
I can give things up cold turkey, but I cannot indulge in moderation.
And so that's what I call the abstainer, moderator split.
Abstainers can give thing up like 100%, like I don't eat cheese, I never order desert in
a restaurant. Moderators say "I can have 2 Hershey's kisses,
but not 10 Hershey's kisses." Or "I can have desert on a special occasion."
And it's not a question of which is better or worse, but just which one works better
for you. And it turns out that this is a really important
thing to know about yourself for a happiness project, because resisting temptation is something
that comes up a lot in peoples happiness projects. In fact the #1 resolution among Americans
for New Years is to lose weight. So knowing how you need to give things up
is very very helpful. A woman posted to my blog saying "I always
tried to be a moderator because I thought that's what you should try to do, but I realized
I was and abstainer." I decided to abstain from flour and sugar.
I lost 47 pounds, and it wasn't even that hard for me.
So again it's not a question of which one's better or worse, but just knowing your own
But cleaning clutter and resisting temptation are very mundane things.
Mundane things it turns out are very very important for happiness, they make a big difference
in happiness. But I also wanted to use my happiness project
as an opportunity to think about more transcendent values that I felt like got pushed to the
side in the turmoil of everyday life. Things that I didn't have time to think about.
And in particular, I really wanted to enjoy now.
I wanted to stay focused on the present, to really stay in the ordinary day and especially
my life with my two young daughters. I really wanted to appreciate their childhood.
I worried that there would be -- it would be very difficult to find a way to translate
that into something very concrete and measurable which is what I tried to do with all my resolutions.
But it turned out it wasn't that hard. The technique I hit upon was something called
the one sentence journal. A lot of people have the impulse to keep a
journal, and if you're like me, you do it for a week or two, then you abandon it because
it's too much work. And you feel like a failure.
The one sentence journal, I just write one sentence a day, or maybe cheat and write two
or three sentences. But it turns out that one sentence is enough,
and I look back on my journal from a couple of years ago, and it really brings back the
past in a way that keeps it very vivid. This turns out to be very important to happiness
because, from the research we know that one of the best ways to make yourself happy in
the present is to reflect upon happy times in the past.
And so things that keep happy memories vivid, like mementos or scrape books, or photo albums
or journals are really helpful because they keep your mind -- they keep those memories
And again and again all these resolutions came back to this idea of be Gretchen.
And the idea to be yourself is one of the most ancient precepts of happiness.
And the words "know thyself" are inscribed at the temple of Apollo at Delphi.
And we all know the Shakespeare quotation about "to thine own self be true".
But it was only really started to try to be Gratchen that I realized how far I was from
understanding what that meant. Because I thought what could be more obvious
to me then what I find fun? What could be more obvious to me than what
I find interesting? But when I really examined it, I realized
how far I was from really understanding who I was.
But again, I could only build a happy life on the foundation on my own nature, so I had
to think about things like, what kind of environment did I need?
Well I needed to have an orderly environment. How was I going to resist temptation?
Well I needed to be an abstainer. Or how was I going to put these certain –
these values into action. I was gonna keep a one sentence journal.
So the last point I want to make is, having done a happiness project myself, I really
think everyone could benefit from having a happiness project.
Because to take the time and to make the effort for it to reflect about your own nature, and
to think about what's important to you. And how to put those values into the forefront
of your ordinary life is something that's going to make you happier.
It certainly made me happier. And now I want to do the fun part which is
the Q&A. So I'm gonna open it up for questions, and
I'd be happy to hear what you have to say about happiness.
So my first question I will ask myself which Is a question that I get a lot is
What do I do for people who don't – who say you can't be happy?
That happiness doesn't exist. I get this a lot.
When I was writing about Winston Churchill, nobody denied the existence of Winston Churchill,
but many, many people deny the existence of happiness.
So if you find yourself in that skeptical camp, I would say this.
And I had this argument with Chris Anderson who is the editor and chief of wired, and
wrote the book free. A very smart guy.
And he said he didn't really think that happiness was a possibility.
And I said well, do you think you could be happier.
Happiness can seem like a distant destination, or sort of a vague goal or someplace that
you arrive, it's not clear what it is. So if you can't think – if you don't want
to accept happiness, just think about whether you could be happier.
And somehow that seems more manageable, and something that you don't have to grapple with,
this philosophical issue about happiness. So just think about being happier.
So maybe it's a happier project.
Any other questions?
Gretchen:Did you ever get rid of all your clutter?
Oh, so the question was did I ever get rid of all of my clutter.
Gretchen: Oh
Gretchen: I never got – one of the – It turns out that clearing clutters a great
way to self medicate. Because if you really need like a, you need
to give yourself a hit of happiness, you can clean out a drawer, or clear out your closet.
And I have never managed to come to the end of my clutter.
I always find some new area that I can do. But I was visitng my sister this weekend.
And she's really really messy. And I, the first thing I said was We are gonna
clean out your closet. And I just got a huge buzz from it.
It's easy – it's more fun to clean out other peoples closets clutter because you don't
have the emotional issues with it. It's just the fun of getting rid of stuff.
So no, but I – even as much as I love to clear clutter, I still always do have clutter.
>> Thank you for coming. My question is, you say be true to yourself,
but what if your true self make other people miserable, like…
>> So do you have to take that into account?
>>Like OK, I might be happy, but everyone around me is miserable.
Gretchen: Like what kind of thing? Like what would be an example?
>> I just know people who seem to be in this world, and they're doing great, but everybody
else has to deal with them. And so I just wonder…
Gretchen: yeah
>> In your, in your study, and in your research, if the people around you being happy has any
influence on your own happiness. Gretchen: yeah.
Oh, so the question is how do, how do you, how do – what's the relationship between
other peoples happiness and your own happiness, and can you be happy yourself, even if it
sort of destroys that happiness of the people around you.
And this raises a bunch of really important question about happiness.
One of them is that – how important is self sufficiency to happiness?
Because it's very clear that we, that other people contribute to our happiness.
And yet it's also true that we sort of have to be emotionally self sufficient.
Bob Dylan said something about one of his wives, I forget which one, that he, one of
his favorite things about her is that she had her own built in happiness.
And that she didn't need him or anyone else to make her happy.
And I think that's definitely something to strive for, like a person who's just happy
themselves. That being said, there's something called
emotional contagion, which is that people infect each other with emotions.
And unfortunately negative emotions are more contagious than the positive emotions.
So people definitely catch emotions from each other.
Which is one of the reasons that people prefer to be around happy people.
Sometime people think that people find happy people annoying, and irksome.
But in fact people are attracted to happy people because they catch that mood from them.
If a person is happy, and the other people around them are unhappy, that's probably a
very bad sign about how they're living their life.
Because usually happy people, happy people make people happy.
I did a funny quiz on my blog which was, it was around Thanksgiving, and it was called
“Are you the difficult one?” And it was a quiz for people to know are you
the one that everybody else finds difficult. Because I suspected that a lot of difficult
people don't know that they're the difficult one.
They don't realize that they're the one that everybody else is incredibly annoyed by.
And the thing that was really sad is there were like ten questions, and three or four
people posted like “Oh No, I answered yes to almost all your questions.”
So they were realizing that they were the difficult ones.
So the relationship between other people's happiness and your own happiness is really
really important. And I think you have to think about both.
>> Through your study, can you share a couple of like tips and tricks that are fundamental
to either your happiness, or to like everyone's happiness?
Gretchen: Right, so what are some fundamental tips and tricks that, for everyone's happiness?
Well one of the things is you can, should always start with your body.
Happiness can feel very transcendent and vague and abstract, but like say to yourself,
Am I getting enough sleep? Am I getting enough exercise?
Am I managing pain? Things like that.
Because if you're not – If you don't have those things, it's much much harder to feel
happy. So that's a good place to start for everyone.
Another thing is, scientists and philosophers and religious leaders, everybody agree that
strong relationships with other people are a key to happiness.
So whenever you're thinking about your time, your money, your energy, a good question to
say is Is this gonna strengthen my relationship with
other people? So if you're thinking about whether to spend
money on going to your college reunion, or buying a dining room table, you should say,
What thing is gonna strengthen my relationships with other people?
Because that, those are the things that make you, that tend to make you happier.
Also studies show that people tend to be more happier with experiences rather than stuff.
And so, what happens with stuff is that you get, you get accustomed to it.
You adapt to it, and so at first you really enjoy that new car, or that new, you know,
television set. But pretty soon you're used to it and you're
right back to where you started from. With an experience, it's sort of something
that you can gain from forever. Though, having said this, I do think that
sometimes when people discuss this, they overlook the fact that if you make – if you spend
your money on stuff in the right way, it can make you very happy.
For example, if you're a big cook and you buy an expensive wonderful set of kitchen
knives, that could bring you pleasure every night for years.
That would be a very good thing. I have an insanely expensive blender, and
I was – to the thing like I can't believe that you could charge this much for a blender.
And I love that blender so much. Every time I use it, I'm like “I love my
blender.” [Laughter]
Because I make smoothies every night, and having a really really good blender really
gives me satisfaction. But if you're just buying that blender because
you're like “Oh, I'll look cool if I have this fancy blender.”
And then it's just sitting there and you never use it, that's a really stupid way to use
your money. Because it's not gonna give you any happiness.
So, so I gu – so I guess the point there is whenever you're making choices, think about
– again it's this idea of Be Gretchen. What's really important to you?
Because if you're just doing something because it's what other people do, or you know it
seems like the right idea, you're not gonna get that much satisfaction out of it.
But when you really look at your own processes and your own nature, then you can make decisions
that are gonna work for you.
You were talking a little bit about how children can bring a lot of joy, but painful joy.
Gretchen: Yeah [Laughter]
>> And so I wondered if you could talk a little bit more about why happiness and joy inside
your heart are not exactly the same thing.
Gretchen: This is one of the great questions in happiness.
And there's been a lot of talk about this idea that children – if you look at peoples,
if you look at the research, it seems tha children don't bring happiness.
And, and yet when you say to people “What make you happy?”, they, the, by far the
biggest answer is my children or my grandchildren. And so, so what is it about happiness and
that way. And I think the answer is that sometimes happiness
doesn't make you feel happy, And things like puppies or new born babies,
it's very clear how they are interfering with your sleep or your freedom, and they're expensive,
ad they're like you know, there's a million chores to do.
And spousal satisfac – like conflict between spouses like skyrockets.
And yet they bring you incredible happiness. So sometimes the hap – things that bring
you happiness in ways that aren't always immediately apparent in the short term, or even, there's
this feeling that you're living your life the way you want to live it.
And that brings us satisfaction that isn't always captured I think by happiness studies.
I mean my state, New York state scored 51, because they counted DC as a state lowest
in happiness. And I thought, that's just not right, like
how is that possible. So I thought there's gotta be something New
York State that's not being captured by that study.
Because New York is fantastic. [Laughter]
And so sometimes the studies I think don't always capture the richness of the experience
because of the way that they do it.
>> Hi, thanks for coming. So you mentioned negative emotions and sort
of how they are contagious emotions. And so I wondered if you had any tips for
sort of self insulating. So if there's like lots of people with negative
emotions around you.
Gretchen: this is a big, big question. And it's what do you do with the people that
are really negative. And unfortunately, the unfortunate thing about
being one of those people is that people start wanting to pull away from you.
And so, which then leaves them to be even more defensive and irritable and things like
that. A very interesting fact is that you would
think that lonely people would be less judgmental and more open, and more accepting.
But in fact, lonely people are more judgmental and more defensive.
And so again, it's like you're lonely and so you're doing things that are going to antagonize
people. Whereas people who are more happy and more
socially comfortable are more able to open themselves up to friends.
So this question of what do you do when you're like trying to stay positive and stay cheery
and you're surrounded by people who are bringing you down is a big one.
And I wish I had a great answer, because I don't.
And on my blog I one time -- I wrote one time about this – that there's specific prayer
where it's like Jesus – It's a famous prayer, you know preserve your dying ones, heal your
sick ones and it goes on and on. And the last line is shield your joyous ones.
And I thought, why pray for the joyous ones, they're fine.
[Laughter] But then I realized you know there are these
joyous ones in life. And, and everybody gets energy from that joy.
And yet there's something in human nature that people try to drag them down.
And you'll see it happening, like people try to tear them down.
People try to dampen their spirits their enthusiasm. People try to tell them that they're wrong
where they take a positive view. And so I think if you're one of the – and
all these people posted like “I am a joyous one, and I don't understand why people are
always attacking me. And somebody said, “I had to break up with
my boyfriend because on the one hand he was, he was, he was hanging on to me like a drowning
sailor, you know, clinging for life, and yet he was also trying to always squash my, squash
my good cheer. And until -- I guess I would say, if you have
one of those joyous ones, I have a joyous one in my life, and now I go out of my way
to preserve that. That atmosphere of that joyous one, and not
to attack it. Cuz there is that impulse to do it.
And another thing is I wish I knew a good way to insulate yourself from that, from that,
from that negative. And again it's this idea of emotional self
sufficiency. Like can you be happy enough in yourself that
you could just let it sort of wash away. But it's very difficult.
Which is why a lot of times those people just become more isolated and then they feel even
less happy.
One more? And then
>> Well actually I have a couple quick questions
Gretchen: Oh
>> And you can pick which one you want to do.
Gretchen: OK
>> One was I was wondering about with the happiness set point
The other question was about our modern medicated way [inaudible]
has changed our way to develop natural happiness.
Gretchen: The first question is about the happiness set point.
And this is the idea that people are basically have a set point of happiness, and that things
make them go up or down but they basically go back to the set point.
And it seems true that happiness is about 50% genetically determined.
And some people are just naturally more Tiggerish, and some people are naturally more Eyoreish.
And that's hard wired. Then about 10% to 20% is life circumstances
which is things like health. occupation, income, marital status, gender, things like that.
And then the rest is very much influenced by the things that you do and the ways that
you think. So I think that -- A more helpful way to think
about the set point is to think that we all have a range.
And some people are here, and some people are here and there's not much you can do about
that. But there's definitely things that you can
push yourself up to the top of your range or push yourself down to the bottom of your
range. And we were talking earlier about somebody
who has a job that they hate. If you've ever known somebody who had a job
that they hated, and then had a job that they loved, you realize it's not the case that
people are just always at the same happiness level.
I mean, what you do with your life can have a huge implact -- impact on how high you are
and how low you are. So for my happiness project, I was more thinking
like well, I'm about a seven. I would say that that's what most people are,
I'm about a se -- I am about a seven, but I want to be at a high seven and not a low
seven, and I can definitely do that. And then the other question was about medication,
and then I'll end here. I am a huge believer in medication.
I think if people are depressed, they need serious help.
And if medication can help them, that's really really important.
And I don't know enough about whether people are overly medicated or how that, how that
-- you know when people decide to make -- to take medication.
But I guess
Somebody once said -- you know, the thing is -- As soon as countries become prosperous,
then they all get this anti-depressant medication. And so were just spreading this idea throughout
the world. But then somebody else said, well it just
shows that as soon as people can afford it, they pay for it.
So, so I don't know, I think it's a very important question that's very complicated.
But anyway, thank you. It was so much fun to be here, it made me
very "happy" to come to Google. So thank you very much.