Happiness: Deadlines, Running, H&M, and Novel-Writing.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, 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 recently read a terrific new novel by Sally Koslow, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx. It has a very interesting premise, which I don’t want to give away, but I will say that it explores an important aspect of happiness.

I raced through the book because I was enjoying it so much (it’s packed with sharp social observation, plus it paints a wonderful picture of New York City), so only after I’d finished it did I realize that the book is a great examination of drift.

In the novel, Molly has a life with her husband and young daughter, and she’s also having an affair. She loves and hates her life with her husband; same with the affair. She can’t decide whether to divorce her husband and marry her lover, or to end the affair, and she begins to drift in this state. Both fates have their appeal, and their cost.

Molly’s situation is resolved in a surprising way, which I won’t reveal, but it got me thinking about drift. I was interested to see what Sally Koslow would have to say about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Sally: Besides reading novels, which I love so much I decided to try and write one? Dancing, at which I most certainly do not excel, makes me giddy-happy if I’m hearing the right music, even if I’m alone in my kitchen alternating the same two moves my kids mock. So does escaping into a movie trussed-up with corsets and English accents or a well-written contemporary rom-com. Every time I watch Diane Keaton grin to herself while she’s pounding away on her computer in Something’s Gotta Give, a movie I can probably lip synch, I want to do the same.

Some activities make me happy once they’re over. I can’t say I adore running, but several times a week I take myself to the park for a long jog and invariably, when the rubber hits the road, my brain manufactures dialogue, plot points and metaphors, and as e.e. cummings wrote, the world is mud-luscious and puddle-wonderful.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Procrastination screws with my happiness, even though I know I get a contact high from accomplishment. For me, productivity demands infrastructure. I’d never have been able to complete three novels in the last five years if I hadn’t joined a writing workshop. It gives me feedback, but most important, the group harnesses me to deadlines, without which I’d still be muttering, “Maybe I’ll write a novel!” Being a magazine editor taught me that everyone, for almost everything, requires deadlines. I’m kind of an evangelist about this. Now if only someone would give me a deadline for organizing my photographs.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
Thornton Wilder’s Our Town is my all-time favorite play, and it inspired my current book, The Late, Lamented Molly Marx

Is there anything that you see people around you doing that detracts a lot from their happiness?
Envy is the buzz-kill of happiness. This is a theme I’m exploring in my next novel, where four women’s friendships wig out when they start tripping over their envy. (The original title was The Schadenfreude Club — we just changed it to With Friends like These, since not everyone knows the snarky German word, schadenfreude, which means taking pleasure in someone else’s misery.)

I know I’ve wasted too much time on envying people with more money or success. I wish I could say I’ve learned to short-circuit envy, but the best I do is try to minimize contact with happiness-suckers in favor of being with people I appreciate and who appreciate me. I got happier, for example, when my son switched from private to public school, where the parents took fewer vacations to Tuscany. I try to remind myself that while other women may look like they have it all, they may secretly covet X. For all I know, maybe every woman I envy secretly wants to be a novelist.

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?
I was a cliché high school and college kid who no doubt looked happy enough, but wrote yearning poetry and was often the girl at the party ready to cry. I was shy, and didn’t instinctively understand how to make friends. My early role model was Lois Lane, and it helped to cast myself as a reporter for school newspapers, where I was forced to ask people questions. This practice helped, but took me only so far—when I, a North Dakota hayseed, moved to Manhattan to work on Mademoiselle magazine, the culture shock rendered me practically mute. I forced myself to observe women who had a knack for making friends, and tried to model their behavior, down to noticing that it’s ordinary good manners to be friendly

During the last eight years, because of dumb luck I’ve lost two editor-in-chief jobs. This crashed my happiness, since I adored my work and believed I was put on earth to edit magazines. To keep my sanity, I started dabbling with writing fiction, which turned into novels—one lost job was running McCall’s, which got turned over to Rosie O’Donnell to start an eponymous magazine. That “you can’t make this stuff up” experience inspired my first novel, Little Pink Slips. I never expected novel-writing to become my new life’s work, and it has made me as happy as I’ve ever been.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy and didn’t?
One of my jobs came with—woo-hoo!–a clothing allowance. Although I’d been devoted to cheap-chic, when I got this perk I threw myself at the mercy of a personal shopper at Bergdorf’s, and let her talk me into suits which made me looked like a lady senator, not Sally. I’ll never say money can’t buy a certain peace of mind, but this experience taught me that scoring bargains at H&M makes me happier than posh shopping, which leaves me feeling not pampered, but phony and rip-offed, a sure recipe for unhappiness.

* I’m a big fan of Alexandra Levit’s blog Water Cooler Wisdom, which is a terrific resource for “up-to-the-minute career advice from one who has survived the trenches,” so I was very pleased to see that she posted about the Happiness Project Toolbox.

* I send out short, free monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 24,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line.

A Problem in Happiness: Drift.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the problem of drift in happiness. Drift is the decision you make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which you don’t take responsibility. (“Drift” isn’t an actual psychological term, like situation evocation or emotional contagion; it’s just a word that I use).

I fear drift. Drift feels small, but once unleashed, drift is a powerful, often almost unstoppable, force.

An engaged friend couldn’t have made it more plain that she didn’t want to get married. I asked her, “Imagine that something happened, and you couldn’t get married next month. Your fiancé absolutely had to move to China for a year, alone, or you had to have a big operation. How would you feel?” “Relieved,” she said. And yet she went through with the wedding, and got divorced a year later.

I drifted into law school. I didn’t know what else I wanted to do, it seemed like a legitimate, useful way to spend a few years, it would keep my options open…I didn’t really think much about the decision. As it turns out, I’m very glad I went to law school – drift sometimes does lead to a happy result, which contributes to its dangerous appeal – but I didn’t approach law school mindfully. And many, many people who go to law school are not happy they went.

Just taking one drifting step can you set you in a course that’s very hard to stop. In my case, I drifted into taking the LSAT (the law-school application test). “Why not, might as well, could come in handy, maybe I’ll be glad I did,” etc. This is a good example of the fact that drifting doesn’t always mean taking the easier course; it was a lot of trouble to prepare and take the LSAT, but it was still drift.

Some situations look like drift but aren’t. You may be following a pathless path — and that’s fine, if that’s what you intend to do. Or you may have to choose between multiple courses, with their pros and cons, and you can’t decide which you want, and while you’re deciding, life continues rolling along. This isn’t drift, because you’re actively weighing your options. Sometimes, it’s helpful to postpone making a decision, either because you get more information or because your own preferences reveal themselves. However, if this goes on too long – and it’s hard to know what’s too long – it can become drift.

The tricky thing about drift is that people rarely want to admit to themselves that they’re drifting. So what’s a good way to catch yourself in drift? I tried to make a list of warning signs for myself:

— Thinking “This situation can’t go on,” but then it does go on.
— Complaining a lot about a situation without working to find ways to make it better.
— Hoping that some catastrophe or upheaval will arise to blow up a situation, e.g., fantasizing that you’ll break your leg or be transferred to another city.
— Feeling that other people or processes are moving events forward, and you’re being passively carried along.
— Getting the urge to do or have something because the people around you are doing it or want it. One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “Just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you – and vice versa.”

Have you ever caught yourself in drift? What are some other warning signs?

* I always find a lot of great material to read at Beyond Blue, a blog about “a spiritual journey to mental health,” and I was interested in a recent post, Depression happens to successful people.

* 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.

Forgive an Accident. Which Is Harder Than It Sounds.

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 happiness-project resolutions is to “Forgive an accident.” Now, you might think, why should I try to forgive an accident? After all, if something is an accident, there’s nothing to forgive. Accidents happen, we all know that.

Yes, I know that. Accidents happen. But I still find it hard not to be annoyed – and to act annoyed – in the face of certain accidents. Reminding myself of my resolution helps me to respond in the right way.

Here are just two examples:

1. When we were flying to Kansas City to spend Christmas with my parents, my daughter lost her “functional appliance.” If you’re not current with the latest parlance of orthodontia, this is like a fancy retainer. My daughter is supposed to wear it at all times, except when she’s eating. We were on the plane, she took it out to eat, and the next time she looked for it, it was gone. We all looked, couldn’t find it. We think it must’ve been thrown away when the stewardess took her food tray.

I was annoyed: she wouldn’t be able to wear this thing again until we were back in New York and had managed to replace it; getting a new one would be expensive; it would be inconvenient.

2. Recently, my husband left his wallet in a cab. The second he reached the sidewalk, he realized he didn’t have his wallet, and he raced down the street to stop the cab, but it was gone. He waited anxiously for two days before he had to admit to himself that it really wasn’t coming back. Before that, however, we had to cancel our credit cards.

I was annoyed: we’d put a lot of recurrent and online charges on one of the lost cards, so that number had to replaced many times, by me.

In each situation, I could feel the accident-causer bracing against my possible annoyance, and it was very, very hard to resist the temptation to say things like, “You should’ve been more careful!” “Now we’re going to have all this hassle to fix this!” “How could you have not noticed that you didn’t know where it was?” etc. But I realized – what was the point? My daughter felt terrible, my husband felt terrible. In general, they’re both very responsible (my daughter had never lost her F.A. before, and my husband had never lost a wallet before). They obviously hadn’t done these things on purpose. Why make a bad situation worse?

In each case, once the moment passed, I was very glad that I reacted mildly. (I even came up with a good idea about credit cards: now we have a card that never leaves the house that we use for online charges.) When you’re feeling bad about something you’ve done, it’s awful when someone adds to that feeling – you feel defensive, resentful, and misunderstood. I didn’t want to cause that.

Also, one of my Personal Commandments is to Act the way I want to feel; although we think we act because of the way we feel, in fact, we often feel because of the way we act. By acting calm and forgiving, I help myself to feel calm and forgiving, instead of annoyed.

The resolution would be more accurately phrased as “Let go of an accident” or “Forget an accident” but somehow I need the little extra kick supplied by the word “forgive.”

How about you? Have you ever felt tempted to react harshly to something someone did, even though it was an accident?

* I loved this little video on Gimundo — especially because I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how to use photographs to keep happiness-project resolutions like “Take time for projects” and “Be a treasure house of happy memories.” The Black Lake Island project and Taking tourist photos of my own romance, for example, both use photographs.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 24,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.

True Rule: Rock the Boat.

I’ve started a feature — the True Rules series. These are concrete lessons that come out of people’s specific experiences. Whether you agree with these rules or not, they’re fun to consider.

I was very excited to have lunch with the brilliant Debbie Stier in her office at HarperStudio, which is part of my publishing house, HarperCollins. A few weeks ago, I’d been in a meeting she led, and I’d immediately realized that she was a treasure trove of information about how to use online tools – and specifically, how to use them as a writer.

I came away from the meeting with a long list of things to read and experiment with. One of Debbie’s suggestions was to “Use more video!” so I asked her if she’d give me a True Rule for my video series. Here’s her True Rule:

In case you can’t watch the video, Debbie says: “My True Rule is that you should rock the boat. Don’t let fear stop you, don’t let what other people might think stop you, just push it as far as you can go – rock the boat, take risks, and experiment.”

* Two friends of mine started a fantastic new blog, Drinking Diaries, “where women spill their drinking stories.” I was pleased when they asked me to do a guest post — I wrote about Why I stopped drinking alcohol (more or less).

* Check out my companion site, the Happiness Project Toolbox. Great tools to build your happiness — and the chance to see what OTHER people are doing!

Fourteen Tips for Running a Good Meeting.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 14 tips for running a good meeting.

Nothing can drain the happiness from you faster than a long, unproductive meeting. You’re bored; you’re not getting anything done; emails are piling up while you sit, trapped.

On the other hand, a productive meeting is exhilarating. A long time ago, when I was working in Washington, D.C., I remember a friend who worked at the Department of Justice saying, “Jamie Gorelick runs a meeting so well, it brings tears to my eyes.”

Meetings come in all shapes and sizes, so not all of these strategies will be useful, but here are some things I try to remember when I’m in or running a meeting:

1. Very obvious: Start on time, and end on time. Once people see that meetings are starting late, the bad habit builds, because people see there’s no point in showing up promptly. Here’s one solution for late starts: a friend worked at a law firm that started fining partners $100 if they were late to a meeting, which turned out to be very effective. If the meeting has to run long, say, “We’re not through with the seven points, so can everyone stay fifteen extra minutes to wrap up?” That way, people know that the end is in sight.

2. At the same time, remember that it’s helpful to spend a little time in chit-chat. For a long time, I didn’t believe this to be true, and I tried to be hyper-efficient, but now I realize that it’s important – and productive – for people to have a chance to relate on a personal level. People need to build friendships, they need a chance to show their personalities, they need to establish rapport. Meetings are very important for this process.

3. If some people hesitate to jump in, find a way to draw them out. Ability to grab the floor doesn’t necessarily correlate with capacity to contribute.

4. One of the most insightful things my father ever told me was, “If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you the responsibility.” Meetings often involve blame-giving and blame-taking, and although it’s not pleasant to accept blame, it’s a necessary aspect of getting responsibility (if deserved, of course). Proving my father’s point, one of my best meeting experiences ever was a time when I took the blame – rightly – for something done by a team of people working with me. Doing this ended up dramatically increasing my organizational credibility on all sides.

5. Share the credit. Along with blame, a meeting is also a great place to give people credit for their ideas and accomplishments. Be quick to point out great work or to call for a round of applause for a colleague. For some reason, people often act as though credit is a zero-sum goody, and if they share credit, they’ll get less themselves. From what I’ve seen, sharing credit not only doesn’t diminish the number of gold stars you get, but adds to them – because people so admire the ability to give credit. (Gold star junkie that I am, I pay close attention in this area.)

6. Making people feel stupid isn’t productive, and it isn’t kind. A friend has a good suggestion: “Be cheerfully, impersonally decisive.”

7. Have an agenda and stick to it. If possible, circulate the agenda in advance, along with anything else that needs to be read to prepare for the meeting. Make sure people know if they should bring anything. Along the same lines…

8. Never go to a meeting if you don’t know why you’re supposed to be there! This seems obvious, but it’s a situation that arises surprisingly frequently.

9. Standing meetings should be kept as short as possible and very structured. Have rules for canceling the meeting when appropriate – if such-and-such doesn’t happen; if only a certain number of people can attend, etc.

10. Don’t say things that will undermine or antagonize other people. Turns out they do in fact notice this, and they don’t appreciate it. If you wonder if you’re an offender, check yourself against this list.

11. Be very specific about what the “action items” are (to use the business-school term). Who is agreeing to do what, by when? Make sure someone is keeping track of what is supposed to happen as a consequence of the meeting, and at the meeting’s end, review these items so it’s crystal clear to everyone. Follow up by email.

12. If a meeting is long, schedule breaks when people can check their email and phones. Otherwise, they get very distracted by feeling they’ve been out of touch for too long (for some people, this takes about ten minutes), and they start sneakily emailing under the table. As if no one will notice. Which they do.

13. Meetings should stay tightly focused. If people want a chance to discuss side issues, theoretical problems, or philosophical questions that aren’t relevant to the purpose of the meeting, they should set up a separate meeting.

14. Here’s a radical solution: no chairs. In Bob Sutton’s terrific book, The No A**** Rule, (printed that way not out of prudery but to avoid spamblockers), he points to a study that showed that people in meetings where everyone stood took 34% less time to make an assigned decision, with decisions that were just as good as those made by groups who were sitting down.

What am I missing? What are some other strategies for improving meetings?

* BoingBoing is a “directory of wonderful things,” and it truly is. You never know what you’ll find, but there’s always a lot of interesting stuff there.

* For more discussions about happiness, join the Facebook Page.