Tag Archives: happiness

“I’ve Always Been Obsessed with Questions, and with Asking the Right Question.”

Interview: Jim Ryan (or should I say James E. Ryan?).

I’ve been friends with Jim for a long, long time. It’s interesting, as you get older, to see how people appear and re-appear during your life. It’s reassuring to realize that even if you don’t see someone for years, when your paths cross, you still have that same deep friendship to rely on.

We once hung out in the Silliman courtyard at Yale — now Jim is the Dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and he’s also a very distinguished lawyer.

I was very excited to read Jim’s new book. It’s already a bestseller, which is not surprising, given that it was based on a wildly popular commencement speech he gave that went viral. (You can watch an excerpt here.) Wait, What? And Life’s Other Essential Questions is a very engaging, thought-provoking book about the five essential questions that can help us build a happy, productive life.

Spoiler alert — the five questions are:

  • Wait, what?
  • I wonder if . . .
  • Couldn’t we at least?
  • How can I help?
  • What truly matters?
  • (plus there’s a bonus question)

 

As you can tell from the description of the speech and the book, Jim is a very wise person — which is an odd thing to say about someone, perhaps, but it’s true.

In fact, if you want to hear me tell the story of how Jim gave me some very wise advice when I was applying for my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, listen here. Jim probably doesn’t even remember that conversation! Which was so helpful to me, and which I’ve remembered so many times.

If you’d like to watch Jim’s terrific interview on CBS This Morning, it’s here.

So I couldn’t wait to hear what Jim would say about happiness and habits.

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

Jim: Running. I used to hate running when I was younger. I played a lot of team sports, and we only ran to warm up or if we were being punished. Over time, though, I grew to love running and about eight years ago started training for marathons with my wife, Katie.  We will be running our seventh consecutive Boston Marathon this April.

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

You have to focus on what you will gain from the habit and not focus solely on what you might have to give up.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

Absolutely.  The single worst is checking email more than I need to or should.  I know it’s a distraction, but I have a hard time breaking the habit.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)

I would say the ones for both health, productivity and creativity, and in some ways they are connected.  I mentioned running earlier.  This habit is related to health, for sure, but it also keeps me productive and creative—I find I think most clearly while on a long run.  The idea for my commencement speech about questions, which became the basis for my book, came to me while running.  I also carve out time a few mornings each week for writing, which is easiest for me to do first thing in the morning.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit–or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

I started eating much healthier about 8 or 9 years ago. I stopped drinking a coke every day, and I started eating a lot more salad, including at breakfast.

I committed to trying it for a month, and it made me feel much better, so it became pretty easy to adopt.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am definitely a Questioner—as you can probably tell from my book! {Yes, it’s so obvious that Jim is a Questioner — in fact, his whole book is designed around questions! I love seeing the Tendencies play out like that.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties, kids)

Travel, for sure. I find travel for work disruptive of a lot of good habits, including eating well, getting enough sleep, and exercising. I have yet to figure out good travel habits.

Have you ever been hit by a “lightning bolt,” where you changed a major habit very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

Yes!  I read Raymond Carver’s haunting short story, “A Small, Good Thing” [in the collection Cathedral] which is about a baker who harasses parents who ordered a birthday cake for their son but never picked it up or paid for it—because the son, unbeknownst to the baker, was hit by a car and died after the cake was ordered.  It made me break a bad habit of assuming I knew enough about other people to make judgments about them and their performance across a lot of contexts.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I embrace them, but it’s an ongoing process, for sure.  I’m not yet a creature of habit, for better and for worse.

Has another person ever had a big influence on your habits?

My grandfather. Whenever we visited him, we participated in his morning routines—of going into town to get the paper, check the mail, etc. I loved the regularity of it, and I admired how his following this routine or habit seemed to give him both a sense of calm and a sense of purpose.

So what inspired the speech that became the basis for the book?

I have always been obsessed with questions, and with asking the right question.  I’ve always thought of questions like keys—just like using the right key, if you ask the right question, you can unlock all sorts of mysteries about yourself and others.  The five essential questions I described in my speech and in Wait, What? are, to me, like five crucial keys on a key ring.  You will need other questions from time to time, but you never want to be without these five. In fact, asking these five questions of myself and others, I realized while preparing the speech and writing the book, has become a habit of mine.

If you’d like to see Jim’s interview on the CBS Morning Show, watch here.

Do You Pull April Fool’s Day Pranks? I Pranked My Daughters–But Not for Long.

In The Happiness Project, I write about one of my favorite resolutions — to celebrate minor holidays — and Elizabeth and I have also talked about this a few times on the Happier podcast. I’ve been gratified to hear that many people also have fun celebrating these little, colorful-yet-not-much-work occasions. (I love it when people send me photos.)

Today is April Fool’s Day, and I played a trick on my daughters (my husband is traveling for work). It’s a Saturday, and they’ve been on spring break, so I went into their rooms at the time when I wake them up on school days, and went through the whole morning routine as if it were Monday morning.

For a few minutes, I managed to fool them in their grogginess, but pretty quickly they realized what I was up to.

Reflecting on my last few years of April Fool’s Day pranks, I’ve learned something about myself: I do better with a sight gag, like the time I dyed the milk in the carton bright green, and then poured it over my daughter’s cereal (see image), than I do when I’m misleading them. I’m a terrible liar and can’t fool them for long.

I love these kind of easy, fun traditions. They build happiness because they mark the passage of time in a special way, they’re memorable, they’re light-hearted, they contribute to a sense of group identity.

Do you play April Fool’s Day pranks? What are some good ones? I’m already collecting ideas for next year.

“I Wish My 18-Year-Old Self Had Realized That Incrementalism Is ‘OK.’”

Interview: Robb Wolf.

I often write about how I eat a low-carb, high-fat diet. As I describe in Better Than Before, I experienced the “Strategy of the Lightning Bolt” after reading Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat, which convinced me of the health benefits of avoiding carbohydrates — I changed practically everything about the way I ate, overnight, after reading that book. (If you’d like to listen to the podcast interview with Gary Taubes, about his new book The Case Against Sugar, it’s here.)

Because of my interest in eating low carb, I got to know Robb Wolf. Robb comes at the issues of diet, eating, and nutrition from the Paleo perspective. It’s a different philosophy of eating, but in the end, we eat mostly the same way, so it’s interesting for me to hear about it.

Robb has a popular podcast, The Paleo Solution, and he has new book that just hit the shelves called Wired to Eat: Turn Off the Cravings, Rewire Your Appetite for Weight Loss, and Determine the Foods that Work for You.

Wired to Eat emphasizes that it’s important to figure out how to eat in the way that works for you. It also discusses the importance of things like sleep and movement in trying to eat more healthfully.

As I’ve written and spoken to people about their happiness and habits, the issue of “wanting to eat healthier” comes up again and again as a habit that people struggle with; they’d know they’d be happier and healthier if they ate healthier, but they find it tough. (Sound familiar?)

So I was curious to hear what Robb had to say.

Gretchen: You’ve done fascinating research. What’s the most significant thing you’ve concluded on the subject of habits?

Robb: This may seem a bit far afield to your readers but one of the best insights into habits and human behavior came to me when I started looking at this topic from the perspective of evolutionary biology. If we think about the environment that forged our genetics, we can get a sense of some important “hard wiring” that may seem to defy logic in the modern world. Let’s consider healthy eating as an example. It’s easy to vilify overeating, to make this tendency some kind of character flaw, but in our not so distant past it made good sense to eat anything one could find and then to REST. All organisms that move to eat follow a process called “Optimum Foraging Strategy” which is just a fancy way of looking at the energy accounting an organism must maintain to go on living. If a given critter (in this case let’s say us) consistently burns more energy than it finds in the environment…it dies. So, humans are literally wired to “eat more, move less.” This is a completely normal and even healthy state of affairs when living in an ancestral environment, but with modern culture and technology we can order a nearly infinite variety of foods to our door, and barely expend any energy at all. It is now incredibly easy to overeat and we experience a host of health problems as a consequence. This evolutionary biology perspective can help with habits in that if we are not starting a process from a perspective of guilt or shame (which is common when folks are contemplating diet and lifestyle changes) we stand a much better chance of making that process of change stick.

What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

When I start feeling cranky and like life is working against me I have found that a few minutes of gratitude goes a long way towards making me feel better. I do this every night before bed and it is incredibly calming and also keeps me grounded in all the good things I have in my life.

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

Something I wish my 18-year-old self had been aware of is that incrementalism is “ok.” For much of my life I tackled things with a perfectionist attitude and what this did is set me up for failure in anything that I was not inherently good at. If I struggled a bit at something I’d get self-conscious and default back to those things I’m good at. Not a great way to add new habits and skills to one’s life!

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I’m pretty strongly a Questioner. I love seeking out information from folks that are better versed in a topic than I am but I tend to run their advice or teaching through the following filter: Does it make sense? When I implement the recommendations, does the process work? I rarely, if ever, dismiss something out of hand, but I will stress-test the concept and see if it holds up to scrutiny. I’m also always looking for ways to improve upon the original teaching or advice.

Podcast 109: Pay Attention to the Light, a Fun April Fool’s Tradition, and a Demerit for Talking Too Much.

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

Update: My daughter Eliza turns 18 years old! Unbelievable. If you want to listen to Eliza Starting at 16, it’s here; if you want to watch my one-minute video “The Years Are Short,” it’s here. I know now, even better than when I created that video, how truly short the years are.

Try This at Home: Pay attention to the light.

I mention the very interesting book Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick; you can read my interview with Alan Burdick here.

And here’s the beautiful quotation I read: “Light, that first phenomenon of the world, reveals to us the spirit and living soul of the world through colors.” –Johannes Itten

Happiness Hack: Our listener Kim suggests celebrating April Fool’s Day with a “Junk Dinner” of junk food.

Know Yourself Better: Do you like seasons, or do you like constant good weather?

Listener Question: Our listener Trish asks: “what is happiness anyway? How do we measure it?”

If you want to read more about this question, I discuss it at greater length in The Happiness Project.

Demerit: In a conversation with a friend going through a difficult time, I talked too much.

Gold Star: Elizabeth gives a gold star to the notion of changing doctors.

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #109

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Want to know what to expect from other episodes of the podcast, when you listen to the award-winning Happier with Gretchen Rubin?” We talk about how to build happier habits into everyday life, as we draw from cutting-edge science, ancient wisdom, lessons from pop culture—and our own experiences (and mistakes).  We’re sisters, so we don’t let each other get away with much!

Want a new podcast to listen to, with the same vibe as Happier? The Onward Project is the family of podcasts that I’ve launched, for podcasts that are about “your life–made better.” The first shows are Side Hustle School and Radical Candor. Elizabeth’s show with her writing partner, Sarah Fain, will be Happier in Hollywood, so stay tuned for that.

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For the International Day of Happiness: The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned About Happiness.

Tomorrow (Monday, March 20), is the International Day of Happiness (there’s a day for just about everything, isn’t there?).

That got me thinking. I’ve been researching, thinking, and writing about it for a decade now: what’s the most important thing I’ve learned about happiness? How can we help ourselves to become happier?

And I realize that my crucial insight is that the answer is…It depends.

It depends on the kind of person we are — our interests, our values, our temperament, our circumstances.

It’s so easy to fall into the trap of thinking there’s a “best” way, or the “right” way — but it just depends.

For instance, maybe you know you’d be happier if you exercised regularly, or if you spent less time on your phone, or if you finished your Ph.D. thesis, or if you yelled at your kids less, or if your house were less cluttered.

How do you do that? It depends…

 

And so many other factors.

Very often, though, we’re told we “should” be able to do something, or that something “should” make us happy.

We should be made happier by …

  • travel
  • wine
  • shopping
  • spontaneity
  • music

 

Those aren’t major sources of happiness for me.  I see their value, they do bring me some happiness, I understand that they’re very important to other people, but for me, meh.

If pressed for a universal answer about how to become happier, I do think there are some aspects of happiness that are true for just about everyone.

We need self-knowledge.

This is what I’m talking about above. When we know ourselves, we can shape our lives to suit what’s true for us.

We need relationships.

To be happy, we have to have enduring, intimate bonds with others; we have to feel like we belong; we have to be able to give and get support.

 

If someone asked you, “What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about happiness?” what would you answer?