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.

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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!

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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?

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

Fourteen tips to avoid nagging.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: Fourteen tips to avoid nagging.

In marriage, or any partnership, chores are a huge source of conflict. How do you get your sweetheart to hold up his or her end, without nagging?

One of my best friends from college has a very radical solution: she and her husband don’t assign. That’s right. They never say, “Get me a diaper,” “The trash needs to go out,” etc. This only works because neither one of them is a slacker, but still — what a tactic! And they have three children!

This is something to strive for. But even if we can’t reach that point, most of us could cut back on the nagging. Here are some strategies that have worked for me:

1. It’s annoying to hear a hectoring voice, so suggest tasks without words. When the Big Man needs a prescription filled, he puts his empty medicine bottle on the bathroom counter. Then I know to get it re-filled.

2. If you need to voice a reminder, limit yourself to one word. Instead of barking out, “Now remember, I’ve told you a dozen times, stop off at the grocery store, we need milk, if you forget, you’re going right back out!” Instead, call out, “Grocery store!” or “Milk!”

3. Don’t insist that a task be done on your schedule. “You’ve got to trim those hedges today!” Says who? Try, “When are you planning to trim the hedges?” If possible, show why something needs to be done by a certain time. “Will you be able to trim the hedges before our party next week?”

4. Remind your partner that it’s better to decline a task than to break a promise. The Big Man told me that he’d emailed some friends to tell them we had to miss their dinner party to go to a family dinner—but he hadn’t. Then I had to cancel at the last minute. Now I tell him, “You don’t have to do it. But tell me, so I can it.”

5. Have clear assignments. I always call repairmen; the Big Man always empties the Diaper Genie.

6. Every once in a while, do your sweetheart’s task, for a treat. This kind of pitching-in wins enormous goodwill.

7. Assign chores based on personal priorities. I hate a messy bedroom more than the Big Man, but he hates a messy kitchen more than I. So I do more tidying in the bedroom, and he does more in the kitchen.

8. Do it yourself. I used to be annoyed with the Big Man because we never had cash in the house. Then I realized: why did I get to assign that job? Now I do it, and we always have cash, and I’m not annoyed.

9. Settle for a partial victory. Maybe your partner won’t put dishes in the dishwasher, but getting them from the family room into the sink is a big improvement.

10. Re-frame: decide that you don’t mind doing a chore — like putting clothes in the hamper or hanging up wet towels. Suprisingly, this is easier than you’d think.

11. Don’t push for the impossible. The Big Man knows that there’s no way I’ll do anything relating to our car, so he doesn’t even ask.

12. No carping from the sidelines. If your partner got the kids dressed, don’t mock the outfits. If you want something done your way, do it yourself.

13. Think about how money might be able to buy some happiness. Could you find a teenager to mow the lawn? Could you hire a weekly cleaning service? Could you buy prepared foods? Eliminating conflict in a relationship is a high happiness priority, so this is a place to spend money if it can help.

14. Remember that messy areas tend to stay messy, and tidy areas tend to stay tidy. If you want your partner to be neat, be neat yourself!

I admit that these tips are practically useless, however, in a situation where one person is absolutely oblivious for the need for chores to be done. I have it easy, because if anything, the Big Man is more chore-oriented than I am. If a person simply does not care, it’s practically impossible to get him or her to participate.

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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 Chris Brogan.

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.

There’s something peculiarly compelling and instructive about hearing other people’s happiness stories. 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, than by any other kind of argument. I ask the same set of questions in each interview, the better to compare different people’s experiences.

One of my favorite Zen sayings is “When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.” I’m usually inclined to scoff at that kind of notion, but I’ve found it to be uncannily accurate.

A great example of this happening to me is Chris Brogan. When I started my blog, I had no idea what I was doing. I was trying a lot of different things, and seeking information from a lot of different places.

On my desk, I still have a copy of an email I printed out from May 25, 2006, from Chris, with various pieces of advice which I followed slavishly. I don’t even remember how I happened to get in touch with him, but he was a huge help.

Chris is a guru of community and social media — he can be found all over the internet, but especially on Chris Brogan.com.

He had no reason to take the time to help me, but he did – and his help made an enormous difference when I was starting out. As you’ll see in one of his answers below, this kind of effort is a deliberate happiness-inducing strategy that he follows.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Chris: Going to a bookstore makes me very happy. I love the possibility all wrapped up in those pages.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Chris: I know that confidence matters so much more than we let on, and that I wished I used that knowledge more when I was 18.

Gretchen: Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Chris: I’ve picked up the bad habit of letting things go until the last minute, and this means that there’s no margin for error, and far too many self-imposed deadlines. I need to replace this habit. Soon.

Gretchen: Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
Chris: I tend to remind myself that I only know MY way to do things. I can dabble in other people’s way, but mine has brought me this far.

Gretchen: If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity?
Chris: My favorite comfort food is plain pasta (elbows is fine) with butter and parmesan cheese. My other thing to do when I’m really down is to help others. I go on huge bursts of reaching out to folks to be helpful, because it reminds me that there are others worse off.

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?
Chris: I think that people detract from their happiness when they introduce undue complications into their lives. I fall into this trap often. I over-book my schedule. I make promises that are difficult to deliver. I try my hardest to stay simple

Gretchen: Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
Chris: I feel happy more often than not. I feel happiest lately when I achieve a breakthrough of some kind or another, or when my children reach a milestone. Both seem equal in my eyes.

Gretchen: Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Chris: This is a great question. I do. Right now, the way I’m doing that is by retooling my work life. I’m thinking on how I can do something that’s more centered around my interests and principles, and further, how I can work the hours and style that suits me best. I’m not yet ready to pull the trigger on this new lifestyle, but when I do, I suspect happiness will be an outcome.

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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.