The happiness of reading whatever I like – like the work of George Orwell.

Last night, for no particular reason, I was seized with the desire to re-read one of the most memorable paragraphs I’ve ever read, which appears in George Orwell’s essay “Reflections on Gandhi,” in A Collection of Essays.

I got out the book and read the paragraph. Then I read the essay, “Charles Dickens.” Then I read the essay, “Raffles and Miss Blandish.”

And all at once, all I wnted to do was to re-read everything that George Orwell ever wrote. (With the exception of Burmese Days – I’ve never read that, because it’s about unjust accusation.)

Now, before my Happiness Project, I would have rejected this impulse. I would have told myself, “It’s good to re-read, of course, but it’s a waste of reading opportunity to re-read so much by one person, at the same time,” or “I have too much work-related reading to do, and those books should take priority.”

One of the main subjects of my Happiness Project is “Books,” and I devoted the month of September to reading, writing, and making books. My resolutions included “Read at whim,” “Re-read,” and “Find more time to read.”

So instead of fighting the impulse to read Orwell, I’m giving in to it. First up, The Road to Wigan Pier. I’ve read it twice before, now can’t wait to start it again.

Similarly, not too long ago, I followed the same approach with St. Therese. There was a period when the only books I wanted to read were about St. Therese, and I allowed myself to read one after another, even though it didn’t seem to make much sense.

It would be nice to have a justification – to believe that my subconscious mind realizes that I should immerse myself in Orwell or St. Therese for some writerly or happiness-related reason. Maybe that’s true. But maybe not. And I’m not requiring myself to have a justification, it’s just enough that I want to read Orwell right now.

Just thinking about it makes me happy.

If you’re wondering what Orwell wrote about Gandhi that started me down this path, here is the paragraph that I looked up:

Nor did he [Gandhi], like most Western pacifists, specialize in avoiding awkward questions. In relation to the late war, one question that every pacifist had a clear obligation to answer was: “What about the Jews? Are you prepared to see them exterminated? If not, how do you propose to save them without resorting to war?” I must say that I have never heard, from any Western pacifist, an honest answer to this question, though I have heard plenty of evasions, usually of the “you’re another” type. But it so happens that Gandhi was asked a somewhat similar question in 1938 and that his answer is on record in Mr. Louis Fischer’s Gandhi and Stalin. According to Mr. Fischer, Gandhi’s view was that the German Jews ought to commit collective suicide, which “would have aroused the world and the people of Germany to Hitler’s violence.” After the war he justified himself: the Jews had been killed anyway, and might as well have died significantly. One has the impression that this attitude staggered even so warm an admirer as Mr. Fischer, but Gandhi was merely being honest. If you are not prepared to take life, you must often be prepared for lives to be lost in some other way.

At a reader’s suggestion, I went over to check out First30Days. There’s great information there related to happiness, especially on the issue of how to bring about a change in your life. HOW and WHY people are sometimes able to start exercising, start saving, stop eating potato chips, quit smoking, etc., but sometimes not able to stick to change although they wish to, is a very important question.

I’ve started sending out short monthly newsletters that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Eleven tips for broaching difficult subjects.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 11 tips for broaching difficult subjects.

We’ve all had to start conversations that we dreaded having – everything from asking for a raise to asking for a divorce to asking for help with the laundry. These strategies help the conversation go more smoothly — at least, that’s the hope.

1. Don’t stall. Let’s say you need to call an acquaintance whom you haven’t seen in a few years to ask for a favor. Don’t chat and chat, then casually mention the favor at the end. You’re not going to fool him about why you called. It’s better to say something like, “It’s so great to talk to you. I really want to catch up and hear everything that’s been going on for the last few years, but first, I have to tell you the reason I called.” Otherwise, the person on the other end tends to feel wary and distracted.

2. Don’t start off angry. If you have to make some sort of charge, of dishonesty or bad service or a screw-up, work yourself into a mild state of mind. Anger inspires anger; accusations inspire defensiveness. Explain the situation in a straightforward way. Joke around. Show that you’re a reasonable person.

3. This is obvious, but pick your moment. The Big Girl chooses to pester me with her pleas to get her ear pierced just before school, just before bed, or when I’m rifling in the refrigerator with a wolfish look. She couldn’t pick worse times. Look for a moment of calm, lack of interruption, and physical comfort. Also, if the conversation will be particularly painful to the other person, choose circumstances that are the most comfortable for him or her, not for you. Sometimes, when you’re dreading saying something, you just want to blurt it out and get it over with — but by waiting, you might get a better result. (See #8 on this, too.)

4. Think about why the subject is difficult for you. Do you hate to talk about money? Do you shrink from doing anything that smacks of self-promotion? Do you dislike confrontation? Are you afraid of someone? Are you concerned about damaging a relationship? One of the most helpful of my Twelve Commandments is “Identify the problem.” If you examine why you’re dreading a particular conversation, you might be able to tackle it in a different way, or re-frame the issue in a way that’s less upsetting.

5. Are you certain you need to discuss the difficult subject, at all? Often, you do. Sometimes, you don’t. Will it really serve a purpose to have the conversation?

6. Don’t ruminate about worst-case scenarios. It’s tempting to imagine every possible way a conversation could go – each worse than the last. But this usually isn’t helpful. I have a strong tendency to do this, and never once in my experience has the conversation unfolded with any resemblance to what I imagined. It sometimes goes just as poorly as I’d feared, but never in a way that I’d predicted. So unless you’re doing constructive strategizing, don’t allow yourself to indulge in negative fantasies.

7. In direct conflict with the above tip — it can nevertheless be useful to ask yourself, “What’s the very worst that could happen?” Someone could tell you “No,” or laugh in your face, or cry, or yell, or talk about you behind your back. Are these outcomes really so dreadful? Often, bluntly considering the worst-case scenario is actually reassuring. But do this in a focused, realistic, limited way. Don’t spend hours playing out horrible scenes in your mind.

8. Can it wait? If you’re reacting to something that has just happened, can you postpone the confrontation for a day or two? You might well feel calmer after some time has passed, and even if you still need to have the conversation, you might be able to broach it more productively.

9. Use notes. When you’re emotionally overwrought, it can be hard to remember exactly what was said. If your boss made criticisms of your work, what EXACTLY did he or she say? If you’re at the doctor’s office, what EXACTLY did the doctor say? In some cases, like going to the doctor, you may even want to bring another person with you to help process information. You might also want to bring notes to have a list of the points to cover. You might be so eager to end the conversation that you’d rush out of the room too soon, or you might forget everything you wanted to say or ask in the heat of the conversation.

10. Write a note instead of having a conversation. When writing, you can pick your words exactly, and by communicating that way, you allow the other person to react privately, with time for reflection. Or you can write a note alerting the person to the fact that a painful conversation is necessary.

11. It sounds simplistic, but if you know you’re going to broach a difficult subject on a particular day, get plenty of sleep and exercise in the period before. Feeling energetic, well-rested, and calm in body will put you in better spirits.

Obviously, the tips aren’t universally applicable. You wouldn’t take notes when confronting your teenager, and you wouldn’t bring your spouse to your performance review. But by thinking constructively about how to broach a difficult subject, you might make it less painful and more productive, for everyone.

What techniques am I forgetting? What has helped other people in tough situations?

A thoughtful reader (who, apparently, was also at my college reunion) sent me this link to Seth Godin’s terrific blog, in which he writes about Is It Worthy?. He asks himself, “Is this the best I can do?” Fascinating.

I’ve started sending out a short monthly newsletter that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

Happiness Interview with Unclutterer’s Erin Doland.

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 her, than by any other kind of argument.

Today’s interview is with Erin Doland, who is editor-in-chief of the wildly useful, popular, and amusing blog, Unclutterer. Unclutterer is about “getting and staying organized.” It’s funny; it’s realistic; it’s helpful. I never visit without getting a huge jolt of clutter-busting energy, always welcome.

In the very short space of this interview, Erin managed to hit several MAJOR and important points about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Erin: Creating something tangible. Whether it’s cooking dinner, knitting a sweater, or writing a post for Unclutterer, I find great joy in making things. When I’m finished, I can stand back and say, “I made that!” Even if what I make tastes awful or looks ridiculous, I always learn through the creation process. The act of fabricating something tangible puts me in a better state of mind than when I started.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Erin: Happiness doesn’t have an age limit. When I was 18, I assumed that once I had larger responsibilities and was an “adult” that happiness would be replaced by loathing and intense solemnity. Thankfully, I was wrong.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Erin: If there is laundry needing to be washed, dishes on the kitchen counter, or some other mess in my house, I spend a lot of mental energy stressing about it. When my energy is tied up thinking about how I need to do a chore I don’t want to do, I stop planning or executing more enjoyable activities. When my home is in order, however, then I’m free to spend my time and energy on the things that truly matter. The less clutter and disorganization in my life, the easier it is for me to enjoy all of life’s rich possibilities.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you find very helpful? Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
Erin: The phrase that propels me is Carpe Vitam, which is Latin for Seize Life.

I have a rare genetic skin disorder called Epidermolysis Bullosa Dystrophica. Many people with my disorder can’t be touched or can’t experience daily life without serious injury, and some don’t live past puberty. I have a severe form of the disorder, but it’s mildly expressed. What I mean by this is that if you were to be a casual acquaintance of mine, you may not notice that something is different about me. The reality is, however, that there is something different and it affects every aspect of my life.

[Note by Gretchen: I’ve met Erin, and as she says, I had no idea this was true for her. Another reminder that we should CUT PEOPLE SLACK at all times; we don’t know what they’re dealing with.]

Since I was diagnosed at eight months of age, I have been allowed to live unabashedly. My parents never once told me I couldn’t do something because I was different. They let me get hurt, discover my boundaries, and explore alternatives when one way didn’t work. They didn’t want me to grow up believing that a full life was for other people–they wanted me to know that I could live my life it to its fullest. So, I seize life. Carpe vitam.

Gretchen: 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?
Erin: I have found that people who believe that there is a limited supply of happiness in the world are usually miserable. They believe that for one person to be happy, it has to be at the expense of someone else. As a result, they can never be happy for others. Also, when happiness does befall them, they believe that it comes with a catch or they’re waiting for the other shoe to drop. They don’t allow themselves to enjoy their brief moment of happiness.

I see happiness much like a candle. If someone comes and lights her candle off of yours, it doesn’t extinguish your candle’s flame. The two of you can sit and share in the glow together.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Erin: Wonderful things can happen unexpectedly, but we also can plant the seeds to foster possibilities. I like creating small moments that spark the opportunity for a smile or bit of laughter. I’ll dance with my husband in the middle of the afternoon to the sounds of a stranger’s blaring car stereo. I’ll send someone a card when an e-mail would have been sufficient. I’ll research wacky roadside attractions and bizarre restaurants before heading out on a road trip. If I need time to myself for rejuvenation, I’ll plan for it on my schedule–it is my responsibility to care for myself.

A helpful reader sent me this link to TIME‘s Lisa Takeuchi Cullen’s blog post on Work In Progress, Positive thinking leads to…job dissatisfaction? Zoikes, I’m still thinking this one over!

I’ve started sending out a short monthly newsletter that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

The happiness of a new family tradition: Restaurant Night.

One of my resolutions is “Cultivate rituals and traditions.” We recently started a delightful new one (I’ve decided that “new tradition” is no oxymoron in our house.)

It’s called “Restaurant Night.” The Big Girl suggested it a few weeks ago, and we’ve done it twice, and it was a huge hit.

Our Restaurant Night in Saturday; in New York City, at least among the people I know, adults make nighttime plans during the week, and spend the weekend evenings with their family. This seemed odd to me at first; in Kansas City, adults mostly go out on Fridays and Saturdays.

So from now on, every Saturday night, we figure out what kind of “restaurant” we will be. For our first restaurant – Italian – the Big Man and the girls made pizza. We set the table properly (somewhat unusual for us). I got out a few votive candles — candles go a long way to establishing a “restaurant” atmosphere — and some red and white checked tin trays that have an Italian feel. The Big Girl made a menu and decorated a blackboard sign with the restaurant name, “La Nina.” The Little Girl and I stayed in character as customers for the whole evening, while the Big Man acted as customer/chef and the Big Girl was waitress/customer. We even changed our clothes to dress up (the Little Girl chose to wear a princess costume).

The second Restaurant Night had a Mexican theme: the restaurant was “Hola,” serving salmon tacos.

There were several aspects of Restaurant Night that make it a success.

First, it’s a fun and easy tradition, and traditions enrich family life tremendously.

Second, the game makes it easier to enforce good manners and helpful table courtesy. The Big Girl as Waitress was happy to jump up and fill people’s water glasses.

Third, it gives shape to the day. We pick a theme, we pick a specialty food to cook, we pick a few appropriate decorations. That was all it took to make dinner into a MAJOR source of fun for everyone.

Have you found any easy ways to make ordinary activities more fun for your family?

I always enjoy stopping by Ben Casnocha‘s blog. He has an interesting point of view and links to lots of thought-provoking material.

I’ve started sending out a short monthly newsletter that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.

YOUR Happiness Project: Don’t say it.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you should 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 useful happiness finding is that we tend to regret the things we don’t do much more than the things we do. According to Daniel Gilbert in Stumbling on Happiness, one explanation for this is that when we act, we can comfort ourselves with the thought that we learned a lot, even from a negative experience. It’s harder to make ourselves feel good about inaction.

I think this is generally true, and I often remind myself of this – for example, when I was deciding whether to go to my reunion, I considered the fact that I’d probably regret not going than I’d regret going.

However, there is a MAJOR and CRITICALLY IMPORTANT exception to this rule. And that is the decision to say something rude or mean. DON’T SAY IT. You won’t regret it. This is a place for inaction.

We’ve all heard the saying, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.” This is so, so, so true. I can’t begin to count the times when I’ve said something, or written something, that I wished I could retract. It feels good for a moment to make that snarky comment, but then I bitterly regret it.

This is easier said than done, however.

For example, yesterday, I discovered something that the Big Man had done, out of inattention, that made me very angry.

I called him at work, and said “What have you done??!!” He hadn’t realized what he’d done, so I told him, but then he had to get off the phone for the rest of the day, so we didn’t really have a proper confrontation about it.

No surprise, the Big Man usually isn’t particularly eager to explore his missteps, so I kept thinking, “I’m going to tell him, ‘I need you to admit that this was a big mistake!’” “Just acknowledge that you screwed up!” “What were you thinking, how did this happen?” “This was your responsibility!” etc.

Then it occurred to me – I could say nothing. I’d brought the issue to his attention, and he knew what had happened. Now I could just let it go.

Can I actually do that? I really don’t know. So far, I haven’t said anything more about it, but it has taken superhuman self-control, and I don’t know whether I can keep it up. I’m going to try, however. There’s no real purpose to be served, other than satisfaction of my anger, and having an argument will sour the atmosphere of our house.

Relatedly, I’ll say this, too:

It’s true that a terrific happiness-project resolution is “Don’t say it.” Don’t say “I told you so,” don’t say “I was right,” don’t say “You screwed up majorly,” etc.

But if you’re on the other side of this situation, as the wrong-doer, it’s enormously helpful if you take the blame, if it’s deserved. If the Big Man would say to me, without prompting, “Hey, I wasn’t paying attention, and this happened, and I’m really sorry,” my anger would dissipate.

When I started working, my father told me, “If you’ll take the blame, you’ll get the responsibility,” and that’s absolutely true. There’s something enormously satisfying and comforting to people when a person accepts blame. By trying to deflect blame, you fan people’s angry feelings; by accepting blame (when appropriate), you discharge it.

I wish the Big Man would own up to his mistake. But I can’t control him. The question for myself is: given the situation, how do I choose to act? Do I bring it up, do I chide him? No, I choose not to say it. At least I’m going to try.

As Publilius Syrus wrote, “I have often regretted my speech, never my silence.”

***Update: after I wrote this, the sore subject came up naturally (I didn’t bring it up), and the Big Man said, “It was totally my fault.” And that was all it took to put the issue to rest. My hero.

My goodness, I’m dying to see this documentary, My Messy Life, which I read about on Gimundo — a journalist exposes his messiness. I’m a bit obsessed with the psychological effects of clutter and clutter elimination, so I’m really curious to hear what he has to say.

I’ve started sending out a short monthly newsletter that will highlight the best of the previous month’s posts. If you’d like to sign up, click on the link in the upper-right-hand corner of my blog. Or just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. No need to write anything more than “newsletter” in the subject line. I’ll add your name to the list.