A Little Happier: I Can’t Find It Outside Myself If I Can’t Find It Inside Myself.

I love fables, parables, paradoxes, and teaching stories of all kinds — and I also love koans.

A “koan” is a question, story, or statement that can’t be understood logically. Zen Buddhist monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment.  I’ve found that thinking about a koan stimulates mindfulness. Because koans force me to challenge the usual, straightforward boxes of meaning, they push me to think about thinking.

I’m always looking out for koans. For instance, when Pablo Picasso told an art dealer, “I often paint fakes.”

There’s a “koan” I love so much that I used it as the epigraph to The Happiness Project (choosing the epigraphs is probably my favorite part of writing a book).

It had great significance for my happiness project. In John Boswell’s The Life of Samuel Johnson, Boswell quotes Johnson remarking:

“As the Spanish proverb says, ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indies must carry the wealth of the Indies with him, so it is with travelling, –a man must carry knowledge with him if he would bring home knowledge.’”

Put another way, by Henry David Thoreau, in his journal entry from August 30, 1856:

“It is in vain to dream of a wildness distant from ourselves. There is none such. It is the bog in our brains and bowels, the primitive vigor of Nature in us, that inspires that dream. I shall never find in the wilds of Labrador any greater wildness than in some recess of Concord, i.e. than I import into it.”

I think this means: I can’t find abundance, or adventure, or knowledge, or happiness outside myself unless I can find it inside myself.

Agree, disagree?

Listen to this mini-podcast episode by clicking PLAY below.

Check out Yogi Tea. When it comes to enjoying life, little moments — like drinking a delicious cup of tea — can make a big difference.

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Happier listening!

  • Danbee Shin

    I’m a longtime subscriber of the podcast and use Overcast. I just wanted to let you know the “A Little Happier” episodes always get abruptly cut off around the 01:30 mark, which is a great shame because these shorter, thought-provoking episodes show us a little (couldn’t resist) more of your intellectual side! It would be great if you could get this glitch fixed. Thank you!

    • gretchenrubin

      Thanks for letting me know! We’re aware of this issue with Overcast. I hope they can fix it! That doesn’t seem to be a problem with other podcast platforms, if you’re open to trying a different one.

      Gretchen Rubin

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      My podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin
      My books:Better Than Before —New York Times bestseller
      The Happiness Project —#1 New York Times bestseller
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      • Danbee Shin

        Thanks, Gretchen! I might come onto your website to listen to these on the page — the Megaphone embed (embedment?) works well.

    • Mary

      I also have this problem using Stitcher.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I so agree! People seem to be ravenous to acquire the latest styles, the latest upgrades, the biggest houses and most expensive cars, thinking that it will make them happy. When it doesn’t, they think that they need more stuff instead of looking for the reason that it doesn’t make them happy. And the reason is: stuff can’t make you happy. Neither can “the right person”. Neither can finally getting that promotion or recognition in some way. It may bring you fleeting moments of exhilaration, but they are always that: fleeting. The only way to true happiness is to go within oneself, not going outside oneself. It’s not easy, like buying a new outfit. It requires work. But it is the only way to lasting happiness.

  • Janet

    no outside. no inside. not two.

  • Judy

    hmmm, interesting. I think some of this depends on whether or not your needs are being met. If they aren’t you would probably find it difficult to give OR get happiness/abundance/knowledge/adventure. If some are being met you might be able to take in the adventure/knowledge, but not give any.

  • Carla

    I guess I interpreted that Spanish proverb a little differently. I read it as, if you want these things at the end of the journey, then you will have to carry them. They won’t bring themselves; you must shoulder the weight.

    I think both interpretations are meaningful in our lives.