Tag Archives: research

Revealed! Three Great Books for March: Siblings, Great Reading, and High Fantasy (with Honey).

Because nothing boosts happiness more than a great book, each month, I suggest:

— one outstanding book about happiness or habits

— one outstanding work of children’s or young-adult literature–I have a crazy passion for kidlit

— one eccentric pick–a widely admired and excellent book that I love, yes, but one that may not appeal to everyone

Shop at IndieBound, BN.com, or Amazon (I’m an affiliate), or your favorite local bookstore. Or my favorite, visit the library!

For all the books I choose, I love them; I’ve read most of them at least twice if not many times; and they’re widely admired.

Bonus book this month: with Shea Olsen, my sister Elizabeth Craft has a new young-adult novel, Flower. The tag line? “She had a plan, then she met him.” Romance, temptation, secrets, college applications, celebrity...Check it out.

Now, for the three book-club choices. Drumroll…


A book about happiness, good habits, or human nature:

The Pecking Order: A Bold New Look at How Family and Society Determine Who We Are by Dalton Conley

This book asks a fascinating question: if we believe that adult development is largely shaped by genetics and nurture, how do we account for the wide disparities in the fates of siblings? This book tries to identify the different factors that influence how people’s lives unfold.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.


An outstanding children’s book:

Chalice by Robin McKinley

How I love the work of Robin McKinley! I keep hoping that this book will turn out to have been the first in a trilogy. I want to read more and more about this unusual world, with its powers and offices, awakened lands, and mesmerizing characters. Plus its celebration of bees and honey; I’ve always felt great symbolic power in bees and honey.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.


An eccentric pick:

Ten Years in the Tub by Nick Hornby

Because you’re reading this post, you probably love to read. And if you love to read, you’ll love Ten Years in the Tub. Hornby is known as a novelist (About a Boy; High Fidelity, etc.), and he also writes very idiosyncratic short essays about books. They’re called “reviews,” but they aren’t the usual kind of review. Hilarious, thought-provoking, original — I added a lot of great books to my library list after reading this book. Absolutely charming. Note: there have been shorter collections published, such as the one pictured in the image above. The complete set has been collected in Ten Years in the Tub.

Buy from IndieBound; BN.com; Amazon.


If you want to make sure you never miss a month’s selections, sign up here for the book club newsletter.

Remember, if you want to see what I read each week, I post a photo of my pile of completed books on my Facebook Page every Sunday night, #GretchenRubinReads.

I continue to read book after book on the subject of color — it’s odd to find myself fascinated by this highly specialized topic. It’s definitely contributing to my desire to buy giant sets of colored pens and colored markers — which I can now use in the coloring book I created! The Happiness Project Mini-Posters: A Coloring Book with 20 Hand-lettered Quotes to Pull Out and Frame hits the shelves in a few weeks.

What book are you most excited to read?

“My Laptop Is My Friend and My Enemy.”

Interview: Alan Burdick.

I’m fascinated by time, and our perception of time. Of everything I’ve ever written, I think this one-minute video, “The days are long, but the years are short,” is the thing that resonates most with people.

So I couldn’t wait to get my hands on Alan Burdick’s new book, Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation. It’s a fascinating, mind-blowing look at the curious qualities of time — how we understand it, how it affects our bodies, how it’s both an objective measurement and a subjective experience.

I just started this book yesterday, and I’m racing through it — it’s just my kind of book. What happens when a person lives in a cave, cut off from any light? Why does time seem to pass more quickly, the older we get? How is it possible that many people (like Alan himself) often wake up at exactly the same minute every morning? How can the years seem so short, and the days feel so long? And so on.

Alan is a staff writer and former senior editor at The New Yorker, and his writing has appeared in magazines from Discover to Harper’s to GQ. His book Out of Eden: An Odyssey of Ecological Invasion was a National Book Award finalist. So he’s a great writer to tackle such an immense and thought-provoking subject.

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

Alan: Until I began working on Why Time Flies, I hadn’t realized how deeply time is embedded in us. Each of our cells is basically a clock that beats out a firm twenty-four-hour rhythm; together these form bigger clocks — the liver, the kidneys — that also keep a twenty-four rhythm, and as group they’re responsible for running our physiology. Basically, the sum of me, and you, is a clock, and respecting its rhythm is essential to one’s health. So, for instance, I’ve stopped eating late at night, as that’s the least efficient time of day to metabolize food. And I try to get outside for at least a few minutes every morning, because exposure to daylight at that time of day ultimately helps me sleep better. It’s a matter of listening to the clock that is me.

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

Running — it’s good exercise, of course, but it also clears my mind. I’ve been a runner since forever, and now that my kids are old enough, we can all go to the track in the afternoon or on a weekend and run around it together, I love it.

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

That having and keeping a schedule can be liberating. I used to hate the idea of planning out my day, with certain hours set aside for writing, errands, and whatever else; it felt confining. But that sort of planning actually relieves me of the stress of deciding what to do next – which, in my case, can fill up way more time than it should. So once I’ve blocked out my day, I can actually relax into each block of time a little more, because I don’t have to spend any of that time thinking about what needs to happen in the next period.

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

Procrastination; I put stuff off, although I’m much better than I used to be. Some years ago I read Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, and that made a difference. I realized that, for me at least, procrastination is often a way of avoiding making a decision – and simply acknowledging that is the first step toward actually making whatever decision needs to be made. I also make a lot of lists now; by writing down all the things I need to do, I remove the distraction of trying to juggle all that stuff in my head. Plus I have the satisfaction of crossing something off a list.

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

One of the healthiest things I can do for myself is to wake up early, at maybe 5 a.m., and put in a couple of hours of writing before our kids get up. That’s the most productive window of my day. But I’m just not a natural early-riser; it’s so hard to get out of bed at that hour! Often, instead, I do the opposite: stay up really late and write until 1 or 2 a.m. That’s also a productive window for me – but it’s exhausting and it makes my next day start late. The key to my establishing the habit of getting up early is to avoid the temptation to go back to work at night after the kids have gone to bed. Like me, my wife is a journalist and writer, and it can be hard for us to unplug from the world, so I always keep a good book by the bed to help me turn off my work-brain.

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

An Obliger, definitely; I’m much better with a deadline set by someone else than with one I set myself.

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

My laptop is my friend and my enemy. It’s where I do my writing, and I’d be lost without it, but I also struggle constantly against getting sucked into its many distractions and wonders – email, Twitter, Facebook, the news, Wikipedia entries about anteaters, and the rest. So I try to block out a couple of hours during my workday when I literally turn off the Internet; the software app Freedom is great for that. Even then, though, I’ll start rooting around in my computer files, looking at old photos, cleaning out the hard-drive, anything to avoid the blank page. That’s the point at which I turn off my laptop, put a notebook and pen in my pocket, and go for a walk.

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.?

One night at dinner, when our kids were maybe 6 years old – we have twin boys, they’re now 10 – one of them said for the zillionth time, “Dad, hey dad …” and it suddenly hit me: I’m their dad. Obviously, I knew for years that I was a parent and a dad. But I still thought of me as just me: Alan, writer, editor at various magazines, ran track in high school, traveled after college in Central America, and all of the other memories. That was my identity, and it matched pretty well with the way that Susan, my wife, sees me. But suddenly I realized that here were two people very close to me who knew none of that: to them, my identity was dad.

That made me sit up straight. In the book I write about how, as I grew into the role of parent, I sometimes felt like I was dismantling a ship and using the planks to build a ship for someone else. The story of my self wasn’t just mine any more. It also meant that my habits, weren’t just mine anymore either, so I needed to work harder at developing some good ones — regular exercise, getting my full dose of sleep, writing at the same time every day. I’d gotten bogged down in the book, but that exchange with the kids pushed me to get reorganize, double-down, and finish. Also, by then, the boys were old enough to say things like, “I bet J. K. Rowling writes faster than you,” and that prodding helped, too.

Do you embrace habits or resist them?

I’m very good with habits once I start them – it’s the starting-them part that I resist!

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

For the first couple of years after our twins were born, our life was chaos; we were learning to be parents, twice over; both of us were trying to work; and we’d just bought our first house and were discovering how much work that entails. Somewhere in there my mother-in-law gave us some priceless advice: make your bed every morning. It seems like such a small thing, which is exactly why it’s so worthwhile. We start the day having accomplished one small task of self-improvement, so subsequent ones feel easier to achieve. And at the end of the day, if life is still chaotic, we have a well-made bed to crawl into. All these years later we still make our bed every morning, often together — it’s a like a gift to our future selves.

“To Exercise More, I Thought of the Moments When Getting a Workout Has Been the Most Fun.”

Happiness interview: Michelle Gielan.

Michelle Gielan spent much of her career as a national CBS News anchor, and now she studies positive psychology. She’s the founder of the Institute for Applied Positive Research and is partnered with Arianna Huffington to study how transformative stories fuel success. She is an Executive Producer of “The Happiness Advantage” Special on PBS and a featured professor in Oprah’s Happiness course.

So naturally I was curious to hear her view about happiness and good habits.

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

Michelle: People will often say “You can’t change other people.” My research shows this societal belief is not only dis-empowering, it is scientifically false. There is a compelling case showing us that we actually change people all the time. And when we fully realize this, we start to see how powerful we are to get others unstuck, see that their behavior matters, and start taking steps to create happiness and success in their lives.

My favorite study showing how quickly we influence others was done at the University of California Riverside. Imagine being asked to sit in a room in silence for two minutes with two strangers. Definitely a bit awkward! That’s what researchers did with multiple groups of threes, testing their moods before and after they went into the room.

Time after time, the most non-verbally expressive person significantly influenced the moods of the other two people in the room. If that person was anxious or had crossed arms, he or she made others feel more stressed. Meanwhile a positive disposition where someone was smiling and appeared relaxed had a positive effect on the others. That is in just two minutes. Imagine what you could do with more time!

We change people, but oftentimes we get so focused on the negative people and their influence on us, we forget how powerful we are as positive people to influence others.

Q: 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.?

A: My big “double-aha” moment came while anchoring the national news at CBS News. It was at the height of the recession, and on top of the usual negative stories, my newscasts became full of especially heart wrenching stories of people losing their homes, jobs, and retirement savings. Starting the morning off like that could leave even the most optimistic person feeling helpless and hopeless. The lightning bolt came when we changed how we talked about the negative.

I realized there was a better way to broadcast the news that empowered people to believe they could overcome challenges. We created “Happy Week,” which I know you remember very well! You were one of the five experts we invited in to talk about ways to foster happiness in the midst of tough times.

We got the greatest viewer response of the year. Our viewers’ inspirational stories showed me: Change your story, change your power.

The second part of the “aha” was clearly seeing this power is not reserved for broadcasters and celebrities—we are ALL broadcasters. We are all constantly transmitting information to the people around us, and the messages we choose to communicate either create success or hold us all hold back.

I now understand what was happening at CBS from a research perspective. Starting our day off with a dose of negativity can have lasting effects. In this study I conducted with researcher Shawn Achor and Arianna Huffington, we found that just three minutes of negative news in the morning can lead to a 27% higher likelihood of you having a bad day—as reported 6 to 8 hours later. That negative mood and mindset can stick with us through our day, and we’re even feeling the effects as we cook dinner for our family that evening.

Meanwhile, as we did at CBS, focusing on solutions fuels progress. Our follow up study found that when someone comes to you to talk about a problem, if you move the conversation on to a discussion of potential solutions, you fuel their creative problem solving abilities on average by 20%–not to mention you make them feel better! You make them smarter and more empowered to tackle challenges.

Being in touch with the problems in the world or our lives is important, but even more important is to focus the brain on what we can do about them.

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

A: Venting. I think there is little harm in venting here and there about things, as we are all human, and it is good to express emotions. But too quickly, venting can turn into dumping garbage on the people around us. I try to only vent when I really need to process something, and let the rest go.

My research colleagues and I recently launched a large-scale study looking at people’s response to stressful events to determine the key predictors of happiness and success. After more than 5000 people took the Stress Responder Scale, we found that the most telling predictor was a person’s ability to move quickly from complaining to action. Those that vented but swiftly started creating an action plan are often happier, more successful and have more friends than those that get stuck. If your readers are curious about their stress response, they are welcome to test themselves here.

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

A: Working on a baby book for my son Leo! Since Leo was born, I have been writing notes to him about his life, milestones, and the adorable things he has done. I also paste pictures of him in the book with captions. He is almost 3 years old, and the orange journal (our happy color) is chock full of memories. It makes me so joyful each time I work on it, and I hope it will make him happy when he reads it when he is older.

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

A: I’ve learned to stop being so serious! Instead of running from the negative, I’ve started running towards the positive. For example, I recently wanted to exercise more, and instead of trying to remind myself about all the health benefits and designing an effective (but boring) workout routine, I thought of the moments in my life when getting a workout has been the most fun.

For me, I love dancing! So I signed up for an aerobics style dance jam class, and I’ve never had more fun! And wouldn’t you know it—I am there twice-a-week (religiously!) anytime I’m not traveling for work. Fun can be a great motivator, and positive reasons like that help me stick to a new habit.

Q: How do we change the habits of others? For instance, what if someone is not helping out around the house or our child is not studying enough, how can we use the research to make a positive difference in their behaviors?

A: Know that positive change is possible. It might not happen right away, but if you change your broadcast to them, that can have an effect on how they view the world. Let’s take that first example, because I imagine it can feel like a very relatable one for many of us! If your partner is not helping out around the house as much as you would like, you can try an experiment I encouraged a friend to do. It worked for her with great success!

Instead of focusing on all the things that her husband was not doing, for one week she didn’t say a word about that and simply started praising him for all that he was doing right. We call this strategy “spotlighting the right.” Even though he plopped his dirty gym bag on the dinner table she had just cleaned, she closed her eyes to it and said “Thank you so much for ordering pizza tonight. It gave me a chance to spend extra time with the kids.”

She praised him even for the smallest positive things he was doing, and by Wednesday of that week he was fixing a leaky pipe, and on Saturday he cleared the dishes (which she could only remember him doing when his mom was in town!)

She was strengthening his identity as a helper, and helpers help. If you want a particular behavior from someone else, try spotlighting those times when he or she is already doing it. People are pulled towards the best in themselves, and spotlighting the right is a much stronger approach than nagging.

This is one of the strategies my husband and research partner Shawn Achor and I share in our new PBS program INSPIRE HAPPINESS. We created a (free) Wake Up & Inspire Happiness Video Workshop based upon the program, and we invite everyone to join us.

It focuses on small ways you can change your personal broadcast to inspire happiness and success in others—making the choice of happiness easier for you at the same time.

Why Am I Obsessed with the Subject of Beautiful Colors?

Periodically, I get obsessed with subjects.  And nothing makes me happier than a new obsession! It’s energizing and exciting.

Sometimes, this obsession leads to a book — like The Happiness Project or Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill. Sometimes it stays a private obsession — like my obsession with beautiful scents.

Sometimes the subject is a big, obvious subject, like the subject of habits in Better Than Before, or sometimes it’s more obscure, like my long obsession with the question “Why do people destroy their own possessions?” which became the book Profane Waste.

It’s a wonderful, mysterious feeling to become wildly interested in something new. A new part of the world lights up for me, a previously ignored section of my beloved library becomes familiar, I have a new way to connect with people, and my bookshelves start to fill up (which is a mixed blessing).

Now, why am I so intrigued with the subject of color? No idea.

I know the minute my obsession started. On our podcast Happier, in episode 71, Elizabeth and I suggested the try-this-at-home of “Choose a signature color,” which sparked so much response that in episode 75, we did a deep dive into color. I got hooked.

However, despite my fascination with the subject of color — or perhaps because of it — I haven’t been able to choose a signature color (though I think if I did, it would be purple).

I love reading about color, taking notes on color, looking at color. It’s so much fun, it’s a great treat.

Oddly, it’s a treat that also feels like more work. I spend time doing research and taking notes, which is “fun” but is also a busman’s holiday. I also feel obligated to do my reading, so instead of picking up a novel I’m dying to read, say, I think “I really need to spend some time this afternoon reading about color.”

Of course this sense of obligation is completely self-imposed. As George Orwell wrote in the brilliant book The Road to Wigan Pier, “But what is work and what is not work?  Is it work to dig, to carpenter, to plant trees, to fell trees, to ride, to fish, to hunt, to feed chickens, to play the piano, to take photographs, to build a house, to cook, to sew, to trim hats, to mend motor bicycles?  All of these things are work to somebody, and all of them are play to somebody.  There are in fact very few activities which cannot be classed either as work or play according as you choose to regard them.”

Or as Tom Sawyer put it more succinctly, in Mark Twain’s novel The Adventures of Tom Sawyer, “Work consists of whatever a body is obliged to do, and…Play consists of whatever a body is not obliged to do.”

But why is color my Play? I’m extremely un-visual, so perhaps part of my pleasure comes from tapping into an underused aspect of my existence –as I did with the sense of smell.

And the writing about it! Much of it is extremely dry, but some of it is beautiful and thought-provoking. In the end, no matter how tied something may be to the physical senses, I still can only appreciate things through reading.

“All my life I’ve pursued the perfect red. I can never get painters to mix it for me. It’s exactly as if I’d said, ‘I want rococo with a spot of Gothic in it and a bit of Buddhist temple’—they have no idea what I’m talking about. About the best red is to copy the color of a child’s cap in any Renaissance portrait.” — Diana Vreeland

“If you cover a surface in red; where is the surface now? Under the red? Over it? The red itself?” –Bernard Cohen

“Colors must have a mystical capacity for spiritual expression, without being tied to objects.” –Johannes Itten

“The fact is, that, of all God’s gifts to the sigh of man, colour is the holiest, the most divine, the most solemn…the purest and most thoughtful minds are those which love colour the most.”  –John Ruskin (a bit self-congratulatory on my part!)

“I knew a wise guy who used to make fun of my painting, but he didn’t like the Abstract Expressionists either. He said they would be good painters if they could only keep the paint as good as it is in the can. And that’s what I tried to do. I tried to keep the paint as good as it was in the can.” — Frank Stella

I’ve learned new words, like “ombre.”  I have a much greater appreciation for painting.  I’ve learned some odd history — like the existence of killer wallpaper. My love of color has given me an excuse to buy giant sets of fine colored markers and pencils. It has given me something new in common with a few of my friends whom I’ve discovered, to my surprise, are also color-obsessed.

I realize that just as a romance usually fades out or ends in marriage, probably my love of color will abruptly burn itself out or turn into a book (I already have a title picked out: “My Color Pilgrimage.”). Who knows? I’m just trying to enjoy this beautiful, beautiful obsession for as long as it lasts.

If you have any suggestions for books I should read, paintings I should look at, movies I should watch, websites to follow, articles to read, or anything else, I’d love to hear them. I’ve received so many great tips from readers.

Have you ever become intensely interested in a subject? Why? Have you stayed interested for a long time, or have you moved on to other subjects?

Why It Doesn’t Matter Much Whether You’re a Man or a Woman, for Happiness and Good Habits.

When it comes to figuring out happiness and good habits, I don’t think it matters much if you’re a man or a woman.

It’s easy to assume that certain aspects of ourselves matter more than they do. For instance, birth order. People believe that birth order has a big influence on personality — but research has disproved this. Birth order just doesn’t matter for personality.

Now, whether you’re a man or a woman matters in some situations, sure.

But in general, in my observation, for any particular person, individual differences swamp gender differences.

In my own work and research for The Happiness Project and Better Than Before, I came to believe this more and more strongly.

In my experience, women, especially, often assume that they are the way they are because of being a woman. “I’m like this, and I’m like this because I’m a woman, and most women are like this.” But to me, it seems that this points to some aspect of their personality that’s not related to gender.

My first and very strong clue about this came when I was devising the Four Tendencies framework. I’d noticed that many women said to me, “Why is it that busy moms like us can’t take time for ourselves?

And I’d think, well, I consider myself a busy mom, but I don’t have trouble taking care of myself. So why am I different?

Now I know: this feeling of “not being able to take time for myself” isn’t a female thing, it’s an Obliger thing. Obliger men feel this way, too, but they don’t ascribe it to gender.

Because of my strong conclusion that gender matters a lot less than people assume, I was fascinated to read the two pieces: Wired’sNetflix’s Grand, Daring, Maybe Crazy Plan to Conquer the World” and Fortune‘s “Netflix Says Geography, Age, and Gender are ‘Garbage’ for Predicting Taste.”

When Nexflix tries to figure out what will appeal to viewers, it ignores geography, age, and gender: “in general, the variation within any population group is much wider than the collective difference between any two groups.” So whether  a person is a man or a woman isn’t useful information for Netflix, when they’re trying to understand their customers.

The fact is, people often make sweeping generalizations about what “women” and “men” are like — but research suggests that these assumptions aren’t correct. The article “Men Are from Mars Earth, Women Are from Venus Earth,” summed up research done at the University of Rochester:

“From empathy to sexuality to science inclination to extroversion, statistical analysis of 122 different characteristics involving 13,301 individuals shows that men and women, by and large, do not fall into different groups. In other words, no matter how strange and inscrutable your partner may seem, their gender is probably only a small part of the problem.”

This wrong belief matters to happiness and habits, I think, because it means that people often misunderstand their own experience, and for that reason, can’t tackle a challenge in the most effective way.

If I think “I can’t take time for myself because I’m a woman,” I may not try to do anything about it. If I think “I can’t take time for myself because I’m an Obliger,” I may decide, “I need accountability to get myself to go to the gym, so I’d better sign up with a trainer/join a running group/take a class.”

More and more, I see that it’s very, very hard to appreciate how other people might see the world in a different way.

People often say things like, “Well, of course, sometimes all of us just need to throw all the rules out the window and just indulge ourselves.” “All teenagers rebel.” “If people would just read the report and understand the facts, they’d follow this program.”  “No one wants someone looking over their shoulder all the time.” “It’s not healthy to be too rigid.” “If something’s important to you, you should be able to do it without any reminders.”

But these generalizations just aren’t universally true. They’re true for some people.

I think it’s much more helpful to say, “What kind of person am I? What’s true about me?” than think “We women struggle with…” or “We men always…” Because when we’re trying to understand ourselves, gender doesn’t provide a very helpful guide.

Agree, disagree?