Pre-Order eCard

The Happiness Project arrives in bookstores in December 29th, but you can give the gift of happiness in time for the holidays!

Let your friends and family know that your gift is on the way.

“A Non-Addictive Form of Vicodin, Non-Fattening Cheese Fries…or Writing.”

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.

I love it when I get to meet blog friends face to face, and I had a great coffee the other day with my friends who run the Drinking Diaries. They told me to check out Mommy Wants Vodka (note: her writing is a bit profane and explicit, just so you know), and I immediately wanted to ask “Aunt Becky,” a/k/a Becky Sherrick Harks, about her views about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Becky: Since I'm assuming that I can't fantasize here and say something outlandish like, “a non-addictive form of Vicodin that's magically transported into my medicine cabinet” or “non-fattening cheese fries” I will go with Option Number 2.

Writing. I love to write for my blog (Mommy Wants Vodka) and my audience who are an integral part of it. It's funny. I never realized that I had any sort of interest in writing. It was like waking up one day and realizing that I could speak perfect Persian without ever having taken one of those language courses. And now I find that I can't imagine my life without it. I'm trying to make a career out of it, not because I have to, but because I want to.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
At 18, I was pretty sure that happiness was juuuuuust around the corner. Just waiting for me. The next big thing was going to make me happy. If I could only land the perfect job or the perfect boyfriend or the perfect grades or the perfect whatever. I was waiting for other things and other people to make me happy. It took me years to learn that true happiness comes from within.

I will never be in control of what happens to me or around me, but I am in control of what happens within me and how I react to situations. Now I know that I alone can make me happy.


Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful?

My motto is something I read somewhere MANY years ago in the sort of new age-y type book that I really never read, but it's this: “Somewhere, someone is flying.”

For some reason, that image of someone evokes a fanciful happy blue carefree blue sky and reminds me that in the immortal words of the God (Mick) Jagger, “You got to scrape that shit right off your shoes.”

Dwelling does little good, after all. And somewhere someone IS flying.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I try to talk myself through it, kind of like the way they teach smokers to get through a craving, by focusing on something else completely. If I can distract myself from the sadness, or talk myself through it by reminding myself that I'm either being a) rational or b) irrational (depending, of course, on the situation) I end up feeling better.

Then, I focus the all of that energy on doing something productive with my hands. I tend to my massive rose garden or my orchids, I plant, I create something where there was nothing. Or I nurture something and revel in what I am growing. By filling the empty space with something, I feel whole again.


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?

We've all been dealt some pretty crappy cards in life at one point or another. I am the product of two alcoholics, and my childhood was not exactly a Norman Rockwell painting, if you can imagine it. But we can all walk around with a big red VICTIM painted on our forehead, expecting people to tiptoe around our feelings and give us special dispensation for our VICTIM status, or we can dust ourselves off, accept that it sucked pretty hard and move on.

The people who have the VICTIM on their foreheads are the ones that I see that are in a cycle of unhappiness because they're always blaming other people. It's hard to get over, I know. I know.

We all have skeletons in our closets. We might as well pull them out and make 'em dance.

* I always enjoy a visit to Zen Habits — great material on "simple productivity."

** If you're interested in launching a group for people who meet to do their happiness projects together, sign up for the starter-kit. More than 3,300 people have requested it. You might also like to check out the Facebook conversation for group leaders — that's a good resource if you're getting started.

A Little-Known Occupational Hazard Affecting Writers.

There’s a very common occupational hazard that affects writers, but I’ve never heard anyone talk about it: the desire to write outside your main field.

I know a journalist who took a sabbatical to write a novel, which turned into a short story. I know a science writer who is writing a play. I know a novelist who is writing a memoir.

This change can be exhilarating and fun, because it’s a new creative challenge – and that contributes to a happy life.

It can also be a bit of a pain, because these projects can feel…oppressive. With writing, often, there’s a strange feeling of compulsion. You just have to write about something. I remember hearing Kathryn Harrison remark on a panel, when asked how she chose her topics, “You really have surprisingly little control about what you want to write about.” I knew exactly what she meant. I had to write a book about power, money, fame and sex — when I was clerking for Justice O’Connor, I was writing that book on the weekends. A few years later, I felt I couldn’t go another day without working on a biography of Churchill.

Of course, you can choose what you write about. You just can’t choose what you want to write about.

For the last few years, for example, I’ve been desperately fighting the urge to write a book about St. Therese of Lisieux. I have a lot to say, and I think most of her biographers seriously mis-read her writing, and I’d love to set everyone straight. But I resist because I’m not Catholic, I have no doctrinal expertise, I don’t even speak French! No one would read my book – but how I would love to lay roses at the feet of my spiritual master, St. Therese.

Although I write non-fiction, three times in my life, I’ve had an uncontrollable urge to write a novel. My problem is that I’m not much of a storyteller, and these were “novels of ideas.” Which, I know quite well, is not a good way to write a novel. One novel was about the apocalypse, one was about why people destroy their own possessions (I later wrote a non-fiction book, Profane Waste, on this subject, in collaboration with artist Dana Hoey, and it worked much better in that form), and most recently, I wrote a novel-in-a-month about the happiness consequences of two people having an affair. (I describe this experience in The Happiness Project book.)

One of the reason I love Chris Baty’s novel-in-a-month approach is that for a writer, it can be a gigantic distraction, and therefore a work liability, to have these projects press on you. They get in the way of the work you really need to get done. It’s fun, it’s creative, it’s satisfying, yes, but writers, like everyone, need to be productive in the work for which they’re paid.

This has happened to me, yet again. I have this idea for a novel – but for once, in a nice change, it’s not a novel of ideas. Well, it is a little bit. But it has more plot than usual. And it actually has some real characters in it. It’s also a young-adult novel, which I’ve never tackled before, although I’m a huge fan of children’s and young-adult literature.

But what’s the point of view? I imagine it like a movie, distant third-person narrator, but I need to locate it in my main character’s point of view…but then how to handle the gradual reveal of the secrets I want to emerge slowly?

And how do you kill someone without killing him? I need one of my likable main characters to kill another of my characters, but not really kill him. Any ideas? For example, in Harry Potter, one character dies but doesn’t really die; another character is killed, but isn’t really killed, because he was already mortally injured. In Star Wars, Obi-Wan Kenobi tells Darth Vader, “If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.” He gets killed, but not really killed. I think I need to re-read Plutarch’s Lives and Polti’s The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations…maybe there are some ideas there. (Speaking of Polti, has anyone ever updated his scheme, to provide more modern titles to illustrate his thirty-six situations?)

I can’t say describe the plot, because it would sound utterly ridiculous, as is always true of fantasy novels. Let’s just say there are no dragons, but there could be dragons. People have super-powers. It has a lot to do with honor and vows, and it would let me write about “symbols beyond words,” one of my untapped major interests. Tree. Horse. Blood.

But I really don’t have time to be fussing with this right now!

I mentioned this dilemma to a friend while we were waiting in line to see New Moon on Friday night (yes, I went the first day, I love the Twilight saga). She’s an editor and a YA writer herself, and she said, “You should just write it! That’s the happiness project thing to do!”

She’s absolutely right. It would make me very happy to write that novel, and I could again follow the scheme in No Plot! No Problem to get it done. But while it would be fun, it would also be draining and difficult and distracting. Plus, I would really try to make it good, but it probably wouldn’t end up being good – and if I go to the trouble to write a book, I really want it to be good. It would be “play,” in that I’d be doing it for fun, but it would use up precisely the same energy that I use for “work.” More time at the keyboard, can I stand it? Of course, it might energize me as well.

Two additional factors loom in the background: first, I’m extraordinarily lucky to be a working writer, debating whether to do this extra project for fun. I never forget that. Second, the writing world as we know it is collapsing. I’m not sure how to factor that fact in.

So what to do? I can’t see past the publication date for The Happiness Project, looming so close and yet so far on December 29, so I think I’ll hold on to my idea, try to come up with a way to kill my character without killing him, and promise myself that I’ll make a start on this novel this summer, if I still feel the urge.

* So much fun to read through 1000 Awesome Things — and the book is coming out soon, too.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

“The Truest Mark of Being Born with Great Qualities Is…” — What?

“The truest mark of being born with great qualities is to be born without envy.”
–François de La Rochefoucauld

* I spent a lot of time cruising around the great site Parenthacks this morning. Good stuff!

* Check out the Happiness Project Toolbox — it lets you track your own happiness project, online. And you can see what other people are doing, which is fascinating.

Try Fun, Quick Exercises to Boost Your Creativity.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

One of my favorite resolutions, because it’s so much fun to keep, is Read at whim. Instead of trying to be very targeted about my reading, as I once tried to be, I let myself read whatever I want to read.

The other day, at coffee with my blogpals Caren and Leah from the great site, Drinking Diaries, Leah highly recommended Blake Snyder’s Save the Cat: The Last Book on Screenwriting That You’ll Ever Need. She wasn’t writing a screenplay, but she said that the book was extremely helpful for writing any kind of story.

I’m not writing a screenplay, or a novel either, but it sounded intriguing, so I picked up a copy. And she’s right, it’s a fascinating look at storytelling.

Save the Cat also included a terrific exercise to foster creative thinking. Doing these types of games can boost happiness — even for people who don’t consider themselves to be particularly “creative.”

This kind of playful thinking is – fun! It’s fun to mess around with ideas, to have new thoughts, to come up with a great idea. It’s stimulating. It might even inspire you to write a screenplay or start a novel. (Shameless teaser: in my forthcoming book, I talk about my experience of writing a novel in a month, inspired by the book, No Plot? No Problem!, written by Chris Batyk, also the founder of National Novel Writing Month. Yes, I wrote a novel as long as The Great Gatsby in thirty days.)

Sometimes creativity exercises are a bit boring – what’s the one with the candle, the cup, the matches? – but these exercises by Snyder, meant to jump-start ideas for movies, are very amusing:

1. Funny _____
Pick a drama, thriller, or horror film and turn it into a comedy.

2. Serious _____
Likewise, pick a comedy and make it into a drama. Serious Animal House – Drama about cheating scandal at a small university ends in A Few Good Men-like showdown.

3. FBI out of water.
This works for comedy or drama. Name five places that a FBI agent in the movies has never been sent to solve a crime. Example: “Stop or I’ll Baste!”: Slob FI agent is sent undercover to a Provence Cooking School.

4. _____ School
Works for both drama and comedy. Name five examples of an unusual type of school, camp, or classroom. Example: “Wife School.”

5. Versus!!
Drama or comedy. Name several pairs of people to be on opposite sides of a burning issue. Example: A hooker and a preacher fall in love when a new massage parlor divides the resident of a small town.

6. My ______ Is a Serial Killer
Drama or comedy. Name an unusual person, animal, or thing that a paranoid can suspect of being a murderer.

Feeling creative helps boost happiness, and it’s also true that while people often associate brooding melancholy as the spirit most appropriate to creative outpourings, research shows that people are more creative when they’re feeling happy. If this sort of thing appeals to you, check out Blake Snyder’s website. It has great information and exercises for screenwriters.

* I love this video of a pebble frog. Ah, nature! It looks like CGI, but it’s real.

* Ah, that teaser caught your interest, and you want to pre-order The Happiness Project! Great! Here’s the link to all your favorite bookstores.