Podcast 104: Have a “Life Story Conversation,” Ideas for Travel Beasts, and Dealing with the Emotional Toll of the News.

It’s time for the next installment of  Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

We’re coming up on our second anniversary of the show! To celebrate, we want to do an episode of highlights from the previous year. So if you have a favorite try-this-at-home, a great before-and-after story of something you tried, a favorite funny moment, let us know. Email us at podcast@gretchenrubin.com or call 77-HAPPY-336.

Try This at Home: Have a “life story conversation.” If you want to listen to the episode of The Onward Project podcast Radical Candor where they discuss this idea, check out episode 5.

Happiness Hack: Mary suggests, “When clothes are in bad shape, so that I can’t give them away, I pack them, and wear them one last time on the trip, and then leave them behind.” This is an especially great tip for under-buyers.

Happiness Stumbling Block: The news. So many people have emailed and called to say, “How do I manage the emotional toll of the news?” It’s a big question.

Elizabeth mentions Sarah’s Facebook group: #OurFirst100Days.

Demerit: Elizabeth’s battle with the game Candy Crush continues. Have you tried unsuccessfully to delete a soul-destroying app?

Gold Star: How I love the New York City subway system, especially the new stops on the Q line.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #104

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  • Courtney Hunt

    Thank you for this news discussion today. I suffer with anxiety issues so I’ve needed to take steps to minimize the impact of the daily news vortex. Like Gretchen, I believe it’s my civic duty to stay informed, which I do by reading the paper daily. But I don’t listen to the news (images are too vivid–I agree) and I weed it out of my social media to the maximum extent I can. I’ve heard various criticisms of that approach–mostly that I’m privileged to be able to ignore it. Any ideas for a response back to that?

    • merty

      It’s not really privilege if you are avoiding the news because of anxiety, it’s more like self-care. Anxiety can be very debilitating, as you know, and social media can be a black hole for productivity. I think there are a lot of Facebook activists, which is fine, but it’s probably more productive to dedicate the time you’d spend on social media to calling your member of congress, for example. Actually it takes less time and feels better.

      To counter the criticism of challenging privilege, which can be valid to an extent, I’d pick a worthy cause and devote time, money or energy to that.

      That argument, that I’m privileged to be able to ignore what’s happening now, really gets to me. I’ve struggled with depression for a long time, especially lately, and that feeling of guilt really triggers it. Guilt is a really unproductive emotion. All it does is make me feel like crap which then makes me unhappy and unpleasant to be around. So I’ve found it’s best to take action and do what Gillian mentioned above, start where I am and work on myself, then reach out to help others.

  • Le Genou de Claire

    About “Life story” conversation, I have a slight twist in the family/maybe a hack that can be used: we have this “tradition” in my family that instead of reading books before bed (probably the source of my now aversion to reading in general), my parents/grandparents told us stories about themselves. There are stories about “when grandpa almost run grandma over with his bicycle” or “when my dad and his friends hang one of the priests’ bicycle up on the ceiling of the school hall” or “when my mom failed her architecture entrance exam” or “when auntie & mom go biking to school and stopping by a movie theatre on the way” etc. etc. These tidbits give me a great perspective of where my family came from. Almost two years ago, my mom passed away, and during the wake and funeral, stories keep coming to me that filled the gap about my mom, from my family, friends, her ELEMENTARY school friends etc. both funny and touching. Now, I have a sense of each one of my family members, e.g. my dad, growing up I knew him to be the rock of the family, the cool-headed-reason person, but in fact he was quite a mischievous boy in his younger year, or my grandpa, although I never saw him played a musical instrument while he was alive, apparently he was a violinist in a jazz band (yes, jazz! it must be quite a feat) and now I know why he was always the one who sat right by me, giving his silent presence, when I practiced piano.

    Now I do this with my son, instead of reading books before bedtime, I tell stories about me and my family to him, and now he’d ask me, “Tell me about the story when you, Oma and Auntie went on vacation to the mount Krakatoa” etc. There may or many not be “the moral” in the stories nor coherent theme (career, life, etc.) but nonetheless these stories are more important/meaningful than any other stories my son could ever hear in his lifetime.

  • DrPeppie

    Gretchen, you asked Elizabeth what it is about Candy Crush that hooks her. In this New Yorker article from last year, Casey Johnston explains the appeal. Games that “require less hand-eye coördination than strategy and knowledge of the rules” (a lot of mobile games fall into that category) enable users to enter quickly that highly prized state that psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls “flow.”


    These kinds of mobile games deliver us from boredom and impatience—times when we feel out of control—and they soothe our anxieties, at least in the short term. Of course, there’s also a booming industry built on these “benefits.” But I think we can afford look sympathetically and generously upon this phenomenon and the people who play.

    For myself, I can say that the one mobile strategy game I play has served as kind of a sandbox for new habits. I always want to save more, and the game I play has shown me that it makes the most sense to hoard the in-game currency and spend only strategically, not impulsively. I have also learned—viscerally, tactilely—that wealth is the accumulation of many small, habitual actions, not one big windfall. And I know that I’m capable of better “financial” hygiene—because I manage it in the virtual world. In a moment where our real bank balances are as digital as the gold coins in our mobile games, that’s kind of a big lesson to learn! Maybe I can be a saver, or an underbuyer like you, after all!

    • Joyce Dall’Acqua Peterson

      Please share the name of this game! I was going to say that a book, even a fun one like the history of SNL, isn’t going to be a complete replacement for Elizabeth’s CC habit (she’s unlikely to have an 800-page book in her bag when waiting in line at the supermarket), so why not play a game that can improve your life in some way? I’ve dumped my old time-waster for Duolingo, a totally free language-learning platform that has little five-minute quiz-drills, just enough to get me through those antsy moments.

      • DrPeppie

        Well, it’s sort of silly, but the game I’m playing is Disney Tsum Tsum. These faddish games hadn’t ever appealed to me, but I happen to do textual research on one of the source tales that Disney has adapted. I guess that was my cerebral way into something a little mindless! A friend made me aware of the game, and I have to admit I got hooked pretty much straightaway.

        I’m not familiar with Candy Crush (or Farmville, etc.), but from what I understand, these are level-up games that rely less on skill than on “strategy and knowledge of the rules.” What’s interesting is how one then creates one’s own additional rules in the course of playing and refining the approach—for example, the way I hoard the (virtual, not real) in-game currency and spending only strategically.

        In other words, Tsum Tsum is not designed to enrich one’s life skills, but incidentally I see ways in which it has. Other games that I enjoy include Dots and Shades, which are simpler and maybe more meditative. They aren’t quite as “sticky” (or habit forming) as Tsum Tsum, long term, but they’re great on airplanes!

        Duolingo, on the other hand, sounds like an intentionally life-enriching app!

  • Gillian

    An interesting episode this week!

    About the Happiness Hack related to worn out clothes that aren’t good enough to donate: I also wear things until they are falling apart because I hate to send anything to the landfill. Recently, I learned that the Swedish (international) clothing company, H&M, will accept all used textiles for recycling – not just clothes but also household textiles like bedding, towels, table linens, etc. and not just clothes bought from them but any clothes. You can take a bagful of textiles to one of their stores and you will receive a $5 gift certificate for use in their store. I’ve never found anything suitable to buy there so I’ve donated the coupons to my local Christmas Bureau to give to someone in need. You can check out their website for info about the program.

    By the way, on a related note, being an underbuyer is a very good thing – it means you consume less and have a smaller eco-footprint (and therefore a smaller carbon footprint). It’s the only way to be a responsible citizen of Planet Earth.

    Yes, the news these days can be very depressing and upsetting. I’m spending a lot more time than I used to watching CNN. Just before I listened to your podcast, I listened to an item on a current affairs program on Canada’s CBC radio network. It seems that since Trump came to power, there has been an increase in gun sales and in the sale of nuclear fallout shelters! Back to the 1950s & 60s! That really cheered me up!! I fully agree with your ideas that taking action can be helpful – join a march, donate to a cause you care about, etc.

    On the question of whether we have a right to try to be happy in such turbulent times or when those around us are suffering, I love the following quote from Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert:

    “All the sorrow and trouble of this world is caused by unhappy people. The search for contentment is, therefore, not merely a self-preserving and self-benefiting act, but also a generous gift to the world. Clearing out all your misery gets you out of the way. You cease being an obstacle, not only to yourself but to anyone else. Only then are you free to serve and enjoy other people.”

    So, yes, do try to be as happy as you can under the circumstances. And there is always hope that the person causing all the grief will take things so far that he will be impeached. I do so wonder what stories the Russians could tell about him!

    • Stella Jervis

      Wow, that’s so cool! I’ll definitely be donating to H&M from now on. Thanks so much for the tip.

  • Thank you for addressing the news in this show! UGH! It has been really hard lately. I removed the Facebook app from my phone because I realized that my feed, which has been dominated by news commentary from my friends lately (I mostly agree with them, so this isn’t about seeing news commentary I disagree with) and I found it really distressing. I was trying to explain it to my mom, and she said, so wisely “the news is bad enough without having it mediated by the heightened emotional responses of your friends.” BOOM. That’s it! I’m reducing my FB time a lot lately. I am reading the NYT a little bit, and some other legitimate news sources, but I’m trying to stay away from the upsetting emotional conversations/debates on FB.

  • Mimi Gregor

    I don’t watch or listen to the news at all, as I get too upset and depressed. I get the newspaper daily, and if something looks as if it may upset me too much, I self-censor and skip over it. I don’t consider it my “civic duty” to stay informed on things that will only cause me pain. My being depressed will not make the world a better place — least of all, my own world. My husband is a news junkie, and if there is something that I must know that I may have missed, he always keeps me informed.

    • Gillian

      I’m afraid I disagree with you on this one, Mimi, and agree with Gretchen that being informed is a civic duty. Frustrating and depressing though it often is, it’s the price we have to pay for living in a democracy. An uninformed electorate is what put Donald Trump into your White House. Although a little break from it all can be a good thing once in a while when it becomes too overwhelming. I’m afraid that the bizarre happenings these days do suck me into spending more time than usual on the issues. I normally don’t turn on the TV during the day but these days I often turn it on while I have my lunch, just to see what the latest episode is, and end up sitting there in amazement for a couple of hours.

      • Mimi Gregor

        We no longer live in a democracy. It is now a kakistocracy (rule by the least competent, most unscrupulous individuals.)

        • Gillian

          I do have to agree with you there! We, the people, were asleep at the switch and somehow allowed the jerks and the corporations to take over. It’s bad enough here in Canada (where we might have a small chance to regain the country) but it seems to me that it is even worse in the US. It will take some sort of a revolution down there.

          • Mimi Gregor

            I’m hoping that this will prove to people once and for all the folly of staying away from the polls at election time because “it’s obvious who will win” (Yeah. So it seemed.) or because they don’t like either candidate (Sometimes you have to hold your nose and pick the lesser of two evils. I’ve only REALLY liked a presidential candidate once in my entire lifetime of voting. The rest of the time I vote against the other guy.) or because they are “too busy”. (Yeah, and yet they find time to watch TV or peruse FaceBook.) Maybe people will even get galvanized into changing things. (Snap out of it, Mimi! You’re delusional again!) I’ve gotten more and more cynical, I fear. I only hope that people will exceed my dim expectations of them.

        • Aunty Penny

          I’ve never heard the word kakistocracy before – that’s an excellent word I will be adding to my vocabulary! 🙂 (I love learning new words)

          • Mimi Gregor

            We have a local writer, Bob Yearick, who writes a monthly column called “War on Words” in our local magazine that I always look forward to. That was the word of the month this month. He writes about the misuses of words, grammar, and punctuation in a very witty manner, and has a book out with the same name as his column.

  • Stella Jervis

    I get my daily news from Skimm–their website is skimm.com. I love their format–super quick news sound bites, so I’m kept in the know but without it being a major time sucker. I also really like the voice of Skimm, quirky and fun. I deactivated my Facebook account. It’s hard to stay away from all that, and sometimes I miss it, but the news commentary was just too much, and it was stressing me out instead of giving me joy. I miss getting my updates from everyone, but the good news is I’ve been sending random emails and texts to friends I haven’t talked to in awhile, which feel much more authentic.

  • nancy

    Re: episode 104. I was terribly dejected to hear about politics on The Happiness Project podcast on my commute in dreary Seattle traffic. Of course I already know I’m Catholic, but I have discovered over the past few years I am a clinger and now most recently a deplorable. Egads, “expect nothing and live frugally on surprise.” (Alice Walker.) I’m so depressed. I think music in my only refuge.

    • I thought that they addressed the topic very respectfully and inoffensively. If it’s something they’ve been hearing about from so many listeners, it’s worth addressing.

  • I never listen to or watch the news. I get most of my news from social media. To deal with the recent events, I decided to take the Facebook app off my phone. And this has helped a ton! Since Facebook is no longer on my phone, I don’t check it in the evenings or on the weekends. I checked it a couple times during the work day because I use it for my business, but I don’t see most stuff now. It has definitely helped me feeling calmer.

  • LoriM

    I think Facebook is my soul-destroying app. No, that’s a bit strong. But my FB newsfeed of late has been most discouraging as my friends debate each other re: politics, not always politely. I tried deleting FB off my phone but of course deleting the shortcut icon doesn’t REALLY delete it, and even UNINSTALLING the app, I can still access FB thru my phone’s browser. And I really like keeping up with friends (and celebrities, podcasts, etc.) there. So – my battle continues. I try not to go on it when in the presence of my husband, so that’s a good rule for me.

    Really intrigued with the life story conversation at work. I work in a small, friendly office but discussions – with bosses, especially – never go very deep or personal – not sure they SHOULD, so this is interesting to contemplate. I have thought of taking a poll of my bosses and colleagues to ask each one what is their favorite/least favorite part of their job. I think this could be helpful as we share and prioritize our work. I’m getting close to an early retirement, so I really have nothing to lose in bringing up these conversations. Maybe at the monthly birthday party, I could start the conversation? Scary. I do need to listen to the Radical Candor podcast still to see what they have to say about this.

  • Lisa Groshong

    I loved this episode but was dismayed by the wasteful advice to landfill dingy old clothes while traveling. Many charities, including Goodwill, will accept textiles not suitable for resale to turn into rags or paper pulp. I collect my grossest old clothes along with sewing scraps in a bag specifically marked “rags” to donate to my local secondhand clothing store. Old t-shirts are also easy to cut up and make great household rags as an alternative to paper towels.

  • Kara

    Your conversation about what feels good and bad about playing Candy Crush made me think of Brene Brown’s life-changing book The Gifts of Imperfection, especially her discussion of numbing behaviors. If something feels good but eventually makes you feel “glazed over,” you can be sure you’re using it to numb yourself, rather than care for yourself. Sometimes a single behavior makes you feel that way, sometimes it’s the difference between two cookies and a whole box of cookies. Similarly, I’m also reminded of Gretchen’s advice to create a “menu” of healthy treats for times you need to unwind (or are anxious from consuming too much news!), and go for a walk, try a new recipe, call a friend, get your nails done, etc. etc. etc. Thanks for another great episode!

    • Maggie

      I was thinking about making a menu of healthy treats, too! I got Gretchen’s day by day calendar for my birthday in January and that was yesterday’s tip!!!

  • Victoria

    Your discussion about the life story conversation got me thinking about a concept called “coherent narrative” which I use as a counsellor in my work. The basic idea is that piecing together your life story, particularly your earliest years, and making sense of it, however good or bad it was, is extremely valuable. Indeed, among many other things, it can help you to parent your children in a way that they can form a secure attachment, which is invaluable to them throughout life. There’s a really good video by Dr Dan Siegel about this, where he explains a questionnaire called the “Adult Attachment Interview” – here’s the link, if anyone is interested:


  • Maggie

    I really appreciated today’s podcast!

    To your Happiness Stumbling Block – I know the news has been a real stumbling block for me lately, and I was so glad you addressed it on your show this week.

    I really appreciated you saying that we can’t just put our heads in the sand. I also appreciated your willingness to acknowledge this issue. I know that you have a large following that probably comes form a diverse background of political persuasion, but I love that your practical ideas and delightful stories can bring so many people together (at least we can all agree that we want to be happier, right?!)

    I know that when you bring up anything political it can be polarizing and upsetting to some people, so I appreciate you courage and care for your listeners by addressing this anyway. I’ve had a tough week and your show made me cry (in a good releasing stress way, not in a sad way!).

    Thank you!

  • AndrewandBertha Pilgrim

    Interesting podcast as usual. I love listening to you both. This episode tied in the news and the subway in New York and it reminded me of a post that I read last week that did just that but not with a gold star for the subway but a demerit. The lady in questioned was harassed until she got off the train.


    Unfortunately, some are experiencing increasing difficulties on the subway. The real question we must ask ourselves is what would we do if we saw these things happening? The subway signs say: “If you see something, say something.” but does that mean we sit in silence while bad things happen to other people?

    I hope my stronger side would help me to speak out. I think I would ultimately be happier with that.

  • Cynthia Whittington

    Thank you for your advice regarding dealing with the news. I would like to add that I’ve stopped getting the news on the weekends. Missing it for two days will not cause the world to disintegrate, but taking a break definitely improves my mood. 😉

  • bridgejr

    I’ve been trying to read instead of wasting time on my phone, but I don’t always have my book with me. So I put the Kindle app on my phone where the social media app I’m addicted to used to reside. I downloaded a free version of “Anna Karenina.” I figure that if I rechannel the time and energy I used to waste into reading the classics, I’ll get through all the Russian novels plus Proust in no time 🙂

  • Sally_Jones

    I had a good laugh at replacing Candy Crush with reading. I am currently taking 3 accelerated college classes and am having trouble focusing on them. I have have been having fears of not doing well and never finding a job again (currently I am jobless) and have been down the rabbit hole with books and just yesterday I had considered handing my Kindle to my husband and asking him to hide it. I know from the first 5 weeks that I can structure my days to get 95% of
    my work done while the kids are at school and only have to do a bit at
    night when they go to bed. If I do ask him to hide it until my classes are done (I am at the end of week 6 of a 10 week schedule), I will ask for a temporary reprieve on the weekends.

  • RE: the topic of whether it’s selfish to seek joy when times get rough, I love this quote from the Dalai Lama, from “The Book of Joy” –

    “It helps no one if you sacrifice your joy because others are suffering. We people who care must be attractive, must be filled with joy, so that others recognize that caring, that helping and being generous are not a burden, they are a joy. Give the world your love, your service, your healing, but you can also give it your joy. This, too, is a gift.”

  • Amanda Derosier Millette

    Re: Life Story Conversations. After listening to your podcast I too plan on having one of these conversations with my sister. She and I are 11 years apart. I was six when she graduated high school. She went away to college and worked every summer and then after graduating high school moved away for work. I think because of this she and I have a very strained relationship and really don’t talk much, though I think we both would like to have a better relationship, I think perhaps seeing her life through her eyes might help bridge all those years that we haven’t been under the same roof. Thanks for the suggestion!

  • Deb DQ

    Is there any further guidance you can point me to, regarding life story conversation? I checked out Radical Candor’s episode on the topic and am still a little unclear on how to conduct one of these conversations. Are there any guiding questions or construct? Thanks much!