“Get Outside of the House. Literally Get Out and Smell the Roses.”

Interview: Anne Kreamer.

I met Anne Kreamer because I was a big fan of her book, Going Gray: What I Learned about Beauty, Sex, Work, Motherhood, Authenticity, and Everything Else That Really Matters. Not dying her hair any more was a sort of happiness-project for Anne, so that really caught my attention.

We soon discovered that we’d both grown up in Kansas City, and for a while, our parents lived just a blog away from each other (and knew each other). Small world!

Now Anne has a terrific new book: It’s Always Personal: Emotion in the New Workplace. It’s a very thought-provoking look at the role of emotions in the workplace; anger, fear, anxiety, joy, and empathy influence our productivity and our happiness at work, but we don’t often think about them as elements of our work lives. (Well, I suppose I do, nowadays. But I haven’t always done so, that’s for sure.)

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Anne: I love walking. If I’m walking in a city, the rich diversity of shops, people or street smells wafting out of restaurants stimulates me in ways that connect interesting new creative dots for me and if I’m walking in nature the rich loaminess of the soil, the chittering birds, frogs and insects calm me and connect me to my spiritual side. I find if I’m cranky or anxious, just walking out my door almost always lifts my mood.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

As hokey as it sounds, and I’m sure this is something that you’ve also discovered, I now know that happiness comes from my relationships – just hanging out with my husband or kids or friends is the best.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
A couple of years ago my husband and I had the opportunity to live in Los Angeles for four months and during that time we were so engaged in immersing ourselves in all the fabulousness the west coast offered, we quit watching any television news. I discovered that anytime I get caught up in the 24/7 news cycle I’m far less happy. I read extensively about what’s going on in the world, and listen to thoughtful public radio segments which give me nuance on world events, but television news just agitates me.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
I have one mantra with two parts that inspire me. I ask myself what would Maira or Michael do. Maira Kalman, the fabulous artist/designer/author, is a good friend and her embrace of life’s eccentricities is a model for me. And I never see her anything less than chipper. Michael is another friend who is deeply curious and open to experience. Just thinking about Maira or Michael makes me happy!

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
You and I share the love of children’s books. One of my daughters and I read lots of the same books so we immerse in one of them and talk about it.

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?
I’m increasingly convinced that being on-line or texting or tweeting too much is a big downer. So if I had one bit of advice for nourishing happiness it would be get outside of the house – literally get out and smell the roses.

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?

I’ve been unhappy several different times in my life and all of the times in hindsight were connected by a similar thread – I was doing the wrong thing for myself. I was very unhappy my freshman year in college because I was at a rural women’s college and wanted to be at a coed urban school. I transferred and bingo, much happier. My first job was in banking, a miserable fit, but it paid the rent and once I left to work in children’s television I was vastly happier. I think one of the real keys to happiness is following your inner voice and heart. Once you figure out how to do that things get a lot easier.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I don’t work on happiness per se, but I do work on developing a greater sense of inner peace. I have a morning chi gong and meditation practice that I’ve been developing for years.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
Before I quit working in corporate situations I had no idea that I’d find being at home so deeply satisfying. I really am surprised by how true it is that “just the little things” are the ones make me happy. Learning how to cook well, gardening, doing my kids’ laundry. All these things fill me with genuine joy. And for so many years I’d thought a big fancy job would be the key. Who knew?

In research for my book I discovered that the things that contribute to happiness at work are very similar to those one finds at home: rich personal relationships, a sense of purpose and a feeling of being valued just as one is. I believe that the more authentic we can be at work, the less we feel the need to put on our “armor” to walk into the job, the happier we will all be.

* I always enjoy reading Zen Habits. So much interesting material there.

* Check out my companion site, the Happiness Project Toolbox. Eight free tools to help you launch and track your own happiness project. You can post what you’re doing (public or private), and even ore fun, you can see what other people are doing!

  • Ana

    Gretchen, I see where your mind is these days…I assume you mean your parents lived a BLOCK away from each other? Great interview, I enjoyed reading it.

    • gretchenrubin

      gosh, how funny. Yes, BLOCK!

  • Sandyzellis

    …our parents lived just a “blog” away from each other? That sounds like a metaphor for modern life, not life in the last century!

  • Emma

    hmm… I’m at a rural women’s college! But it’s perfect for me.

    Each to his own, I guess!

  • I can see how one might find great joy in cooking and gardening, but laundry? You’ll need to go back and ask Anne how she manages to find joy in the drudgery of laundry! I for one am drowning in it these days with three little ones underfoot . . .(In fact, I was just whining about my laundry overload and my failed attempt to batch process it here: http://www.doing-too-much.com/2011/04/be-wary-of-batch-processing.html.)

    • Grace

      Ever since I read the following sage advice from Gretchen, I have put it into practice and I can happily report that it works! Gretchen advises to: “put the word ‘meditation’ after the activity that’s bugging you”. If nothing else, it makes me smile to myself for once again whinging about some dreadful repetitive task. Now I do ‘laundry meditation’ every weekend – and no one interupts me, because they are afraid I will suggest they participate! Total me time!

  • JaninOC

    Anne’s comment about being happier by avoiding the 24/7 TV news cycle and instead reading extensively and listening to public radio for nuanced news resonated with me. Over time I am finding much more calm in my life by getting my news from a variety of sources such as news magazines (print or online) and NPR. By gathering news of the world in this way, I’m finding I have a much more thoughtful perspective that contributes greatly to my happiness.

  • photopoppy

    Oddly enough, giving up coloring my hair was sort of a happiness project for me, too, 3 years ago when I did it.

    It started out as me simply not wanting to spend an hour of my free time sitting around smelling like peroxide instead of doing something much more enjoyable, like curling up on the sofa reading (and not worrying about trying to keep the dye off the sofa!)

    But it’s turned into me having highlights in my curly hair for the first time EVER – having strands of silver woven through my hair makes my hair shine in the light more than it has ever done before, and I love the way it looks!

  • BergiePowers

    I also find walking to be the best relaxation activity. Physical and mental clarity, yum.

  • Barry @LQS

    Great interview, Gretchen! I completely agree with Anne and JaninOC’s point about the 24/7 news cycle – I found the same thing myself. For me, it was two-fold. One part of it was the information – I found myself getting too upset about things that didn’t matter or I couldn’t control. The other part was focus – I got so distracted jumping from one story to another that I couldn’t be in the moment and focus on the task at hand. I still allow myself some NPR on my way to work, and that’s all. It strikes the balance of being informed and getting on with my day. And I’ve been much happier for it!

  • So true about the “armor.” I’ve been doing lots of research on people who love their jobs, and it seems like any time you’re comfortable — in work and in life — it’s easier to put your energy toward being productive and thriving. I also agree about the tv news part…NPR does it for me, and I find the information soaks in a lot better when I’m not getting distracted by the images on TV. Can’t wait to link other people to this interview!

  • Djo

    I’ve used Anne’s book on going gray as a guide and friendly companion for managing my anxiety as I let my hair lead the way of accepting my naturally aging body. Your interview with Anne similarly hit the mark on some transitions I’m making after leaving a high-stress job and as a result recognizing the joys inherent in living the simple life. I also agree with the thoughts on distraction inherent in electronic communication, except I have found communication like this to be a true inspiration – my hat is off to Gretchen and Anne, thank you!

  • Great interview and you mentioned that Anna lived in the same city and just a blog away and finding about a person who is very inspiring as Anna would have been a happy moment for you.

  • Ginnyrosselli

    Once when I was young and working in a doctor’s office, I remember an old woman who commented ” everyday I go out just to shake the dust off”.

  • susan

    I’d love to see you do one of these interviews with yourself Gretchen!

  • Wonderful interview. Danica Kombol told me about Anne and her great work. Love the Happiness Project too.