“Gratitude, Appreciation, Dale Carnegie — and Business Trips.”

Through a mutual friend, I became acquinted with Alexandra Levit and her writing – she’s a career columnist for the Wall Street Journal. Much of her work focuses on helping people find and succeed in meaningful jobs. Her brand-new book (we have the same pub date!) is New Job, New You: A Guide to Reinventing Yourself in a Bright New Career. It’s a great resource for anyone who is figuring out whether, what, and how to change careers.

A career shift is one of the most difficult, and also most rewarding, changes a person can make in a happiness project. Of course, these days, it can seem like a luxury to like your job – it’s enough just to have a job — or GET one! But if you’re in the position of deciding what to do, or whether to make a change, finding work you love is one of the biggest happiness boosters out there.

I went through this kind of transition myself, when I left law to become a writer. It was very difficult, but it has been a key to my happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Alexandra: Going out to a good restaurant or a beautiful natural spot with friends. Even if I’m feeling down and don’t feel like leaving the house, the act of getting ready and forcing myself to be social inevitably perks me up.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I know now that happiness is internal, not external. I used to believe that if I did X, Y, and Z, then I would be happy. But I’ve realized that you can have an objectively outstanding life (someone to love, something to do, etc.) and still be miserable. It’s not what you do but what you think/how you feel about what you do that’s the important variable.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Yes. I often point out things in my life that could be better, or irrationally compare myself to other people. I hold myself to an extremely high standard and leave very little cushion room for when the ups and downs of life just happen.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
My favorite happiness book – besides Gretchen’s [awww, thanks Alexandra!] – is How to Stop Worrying and Start Living by Dale Carnegie. It teaches us to take ownership of our thoughts and emotions and recognize that we have the power to control how we perceive situations. The wisdom is timeless.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
People around me seem to spend a great deal of time complaining without actually doing anything about an unpleasant situation. They also worry about things they can’t control or aren’t likely to happen. And I think that people don’t appreciate what they have, including their own success. Once one goal is met, they immediately move on to the next one without taking the time to celebrate the achievement.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
When I was a freshman in college, I was exceptionally unhappy. I was going through a lot in my personal life, and plus I think adolescent angst hit me a little late. It took me almost a year to get back on track. I think I was happiest in my late twenties, when I got married and found my passion career-wise. I consider myself to be pretty happy now, although I’m still getting used to being a parent and the tremendous emotions that come with it.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I absolutely work at it. I am a person who is prone to seeing the glass half empty, and I know this, so when I sense that my mood is getting low, I write down all of the things of consequence – positive and negative – that happened during a given week. Inevitably I’ll see that the list of positive things is much longer than the list of negative things, and it forces me to recognize that things are much better than I sometimes perceive them to be.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
One aspect of my life that has always surprised me in this respect is the business trip. I often dread trips involving an airplane and hotel room, but more times than not, my fondest memories of my work with a particular organization are made in the context of an off-site event. I think that I’m going to hate every minute, and then I end up having a blast!

* Over at RealDelia (“Finding yourself in adulthood”), Delia has an interesting post about a kind of happiness project: deciding that the only work she’ll pursue on Saturdays is to do yoga and read The New Yorker, to make sure those happiness-inducing activities don’t get pushed aside. I love it!

* Join the conversation about happiness:
Join the Facebook Page
Follow me on Twitter, @gretchenrubin
Sing up for the 2010 Happiness Challenge

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • Gretchen,

    Thank you so much for the (virtual) introduction to Alexandra. I have just put her new book on my ever-lengthening list of books to devour. As someone who left the practice of law to write (like you!) I am particularly interested in the connection between career shift and happiness. Veering off the safe, prudent professional path has been a major key to happiness for me as well. I didn’t realize it at the time, but walking away from law was not just about walking toward professional passion. It was about allowing myself to stumble a bit, and fumble for happiness. Looking back, and reading this post, I realize that saying goodbye to that high-wattage career was the first step in my own happiness project of sorts. So, for me, the fact that your two books debuted on the same day is kind of meaningful. Maybe a big part of happiness has to do with finding work that makes us happy and NOT doing work that drains joy from our lives?

    If Alexandra’s answers to your thoughtful questions here are any indication, her book is indeed worth reading. As a fellow author and avid proponent of conscious career shifts, I hope Alexandra is enjoying some of the sweet success and plum praise you are in the wake of publication. (Speaking of praise, check out my site for a review of your fine book!)

    As always, thanks for a great post. And for making me think.

    Insecurely yours,

  • Gretchen:

    Alexandra Levit is a great writer, and I’ve enjoyed her work for a while.

    But I am actually commenting here to tell you I read your book last night cover to cover, and think it’s fantastic. I was familiar with a lot of the material from reading your blog regularly, but the book really does put it in a new perspective.

    As you’ve often suggested, reading the STORY of how another person figured something out, is powerful. I like to make New Year’s resolutions and lists but this year I had been unable to clarify things on paper. Oddly enough, it was realizing how different you and I are, that caused a breakthrough.

    I have a lifelong urge to make little goal charts and plans. This never, ever ends well for me, because I am not a Type A. (Is there such thing as Type Z?) But right after I finished your book, a whole new system occurred to me, one that better suits my nature. In fact, as I wrote/sketched the system in my notebook, I sat through my subway stop and by the time I looked up, I was 40 blocks from home.

    I cannot recommend the book enough– I’m now re-reading blog archives with a different depth of understanding.

    Thanks, Gretchen! Oh, and by the way, at Christmas, my cousin said she noticed you and I are Facebook friends and told me she is a huge fan of your blog. I’m going to click over to Amazon now, and send her a copy of the book!

  • shebell

    alexandra said that she often compares herself to others, creating unhappiness.

    so how do we stop comparing ourselves to others? and always coming up short. i compare my marriage to other people’s marriages and wish mine was better all the time. i don’t even know for sure how their marriage is but i pretend to know.

    i also compare myself to others constantly- thinking they are better than me, doing more than me, smarter than me, more friendly, have more friends, etc. it’s not helpful to do this. i know this. in fact it’s hurtful. but i keep doing it.

    in general i’m a pretty happy, nice and easy going person. but i do let little stupid things like comparing myself to others, bother me. any suggestions?

  • PNWGal

    Especially enjoyed this interview and wanted to say congratulations on your book success!

    • gretchenrubin


  • Dale Carnegie wrote some excellent books. How to win friends and influence people is in my top 10 books and I’ve read lots of books!

  • Great website. So much to read. What a great idea.

  • “irrationally compare myself to other people” I think this is the essence of why so many of us are unhappy in life – my goal this year is to try to stop comparing and start enjoying who I am . 🙂

  • I want to get both of your books NOW. 🙂

  • amy

    Gretchen, Thanks for another great post. So interesting the connection between work and happiness. I think though that the most important point that Alex makes is that happiness is internal and not external. Your blog (and my happiness project) has illuminated that I have all the life ingredients of happiness (health, wonderful loving family, fantastic friends, job) but I have not appreciated it. Keeping a daily gratitude journal and resolution chart has made me reflect on my life and appreciate all that I *do* have. Looking forward to meeting you on Thursday night on the UES at Barnes & Noble. Your book is absolutely the best!! – Amy

    • gretchenrubin

      See you tomorrow night! and thanks so much for your very kind words!!!

  • “It’s not what you do but what you think/how you feel about what you do that’s the important variable.” Oh boy, are these words true! Thanks Gretchen and Alexandra for these thought-provoking words. What we think and feel greatly affect whatever we do and experience in life — including our jobs. It’s not always easy, but it’s good to realize that we are capable of taking control of them.

    I, too, am critical of my decisions and actions most of the time. It’s a constant struggle for me to stop comparing myself to others and accept that I’ll get to wherever I want to be even at my own pace. Choosing to be happy and forcing myself to face the music often help in getting me from one point to the other. 🙂

    P.S. Go to http://www.makemorelivemoregivemore.com for more ideas on finding happiness and success in business and in life.