The Secret to Happiness, According to Justice O’Connor

Years ago, when I was a lawyer, I clerked for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor – which was one of those rare, amazing, once-in-a-lifetime work experiences. There are many reasons that I don’t regret law school and my years as a lawyer before becoming a writer, and the chance to work for Justice O’Connor is one of them.

The other day, I was on the phone with the Justice. We were talking about her terrific new site, Our Courts, which teaches children about civics, and she’d also visited my website.

“I can tell you what I believe is the secret to a happy life,” she said.

“What’s that, Justice?” I asked. (Sidenote: when you speak directly to a Justice, you address him or her as “Justice” – e.g., “Justice, the cert petitions are here.” This, I always thought, must act as a frequent reminder to them about the value they are supposed to embody!) “What’s your secret?”

“Work worth doing,” she answered firmly.

“What about relationships?” I asked. From what I can tell, looking at modern science and ancient philosophy, if you had to pick a single factor as the one most likely to lead to a happy life, having strong relationships would be a strong candidate. Of course, most people form a lot of strong relationships at work.

“No,” she said. “Work worth doing, that’s all you really need.”

“Can I quote you?” I asked.

“Yes, yes,” she said.

Work worth doing. What do you think? Is that the one thing you need for a happy life?

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.

There Can Be No Joy in Living Without…

“There can be no joy in living without joy in work.” St. Thomas Aquinas

One of my very favorite sites is Leo Babauta’s Zen Habits. I find something valuable every time I visit. Leo also has a terrific site aimed at writers, Write to Done — great stuff if you’re doing any writing.

If you’ve signed up to get the happiness-project-group starter kit — which is for people who want to start a group for people doing happiness projects — it should go out today or tomorrow. At last! Keep me posted about how it goes; I can’t wait to hear about everyone’s experiences with these groups, and I want to do anything I can to help.

If you’d like to get a starter kit yourself, email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com], and I’ll add your name. (Use the usual email format — that weirdness is to thwart spammers). Just write “happiness-project group” in the subject line.

How to Be Happier: Stay Connected to Your Past.

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.

A while back, my husband and I noticed a characteristic we shared – neither of us did a particularly good job of staying connected with our past. It was true of us as a couple, too, once we got married. In each stage of life, we’d have good friends, but when we moved to the next stage, we found it difficult to stay connected to the people to whom we’d earlier been close. I’m not sure I would have remarked on this fact if I hadn’t seen the contrast to my younger sister – she does an outstanding job of staying close to friends from every stage of her life.

Philosophers and scientists agree: if there is one element that is the key to happiness, it’s having strong relationships with other people. Many of my happiness-project resolutions are aimed at helping me build or strengthen friendships: Show up, Make three friends, Join or start a group. (Here are some other tips for making new friends).

Also, remembering happy times in the past is a great way to boost happiness in the present.

My resolution to “Stay connected to my past” is meant to address both these sources of happiness. As a consequence of this resolution, I sign up for high-school, college, and law-school reunions without hesitation. I don’t begrudge the time I spend on Facebook. I make a big effort to keep my friends’ contact information up-to-date. I keep a one-sentence journal. I look for reasons to visit my old neighborhoods.

I went to Washington, D.C., this week to give a talk to the Yale Law School Association about “Blogging the Pursuit of Happiness.” (Trying to be strategic, I asked to come in January after my book comes out, but they don’t do book talks.) This trip made me happy for many reasons. I saw some of my blogland pals from that area. I visited the Slate offices and imbibed the heady Slate-y atmosphere. I cruised around Washington, which is a beautiful city, especially when everything is blooming.

But one of the things that made me happiest was the opportunity to “Connect with my past.” I loved being around a bunch of people from my law school. It was funny – I hadn’t realized just how much alums have in common, how many references, interests, and inside jokes we shared. Also, a bunch of friends from law school showed up, so that was especially fun.

Sometimes it makes me sad that I’ve left behind my lawyerly identity – there were many things I enjoyed about that time. Staying connected to that part of my past makes me happier – and so does staying connected to other parts of my past.

Of course, this resolution applies to aspects of your past that actually were happy. You might well choose deliberately to disengage with unhappy parts of your past.

Have you found any good strategies to stay connected to your (happy) past?

Josh Landis and Mitch Butler over at did a provocative video piece on happiness myths. It’s about happiness, and there’s a lot of interesting information in it — and it also gave me flashbacks to my book Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide.

Another thing that made me very HAPPY about my talk in Washington was that I met my very first super-fan in person! I see that people have signed up, of course, and that’s thrilling, but I was astounded actually to meet a super-fan face-to-face. It was great to meet you, Natalie!

Note to Super-Fans: hang in there; the new website is practically ready for you to see! (I think.)

Want to volunteer as a super-fan — to help with the pre-launch of my soon-to-be-unveiled fabulous new happiness-related website, and/or other various things? I’d be thrilled to hear from you. You can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.

Quiz: Are You an Over-Buyer or an Under-Buyer?

I’ve posted this quiz before, but I can’t resist putting it up again. This distinction encapsulates one of my very favorite (if not most weighty) personal insights into human nature: the difference between over-buyers and under-buyers. I also love the satisficer/maximizer distinction, but I didn’t come up with that one myself.

It’s not particularly productive to be in too deep as an over- or under-buyer; both offer certain advantages but also some definite drawbacks.

Does one of these descriptions fit you?

You’re an over-buyer if …

–You buy several summer outfits for your as-yet-unborn baby, then it turns out he outgrows those clothes before the weather warms up.
–You often lay in huge supplies of slow-moving items like shampoo or cough medicine.
–You often make a purchase, such as a tool or tech gadget, with the thought, “This will probably come in handy.”
–You have a long list of stores to visit before you travel.
–You find yourself throwing things away—milk, medicine, even cans of soup — because they’ve hit their expiration date.
–You buy items with the thought, “This will make a great gift!” without having a recipient in mind.
–You think, “Buying these things shows that I’m responsible, organized, and thoughtful.”

You’re an under-buyer if…

–You buy saline solution, which you use every morning and night, one bottle at a time.
–You often scramble to buy an item like a winter coat or bathing suit after the point at which you need it — and often, these items are sold out by the time you show up at a store.
–You’re suspicious of specialized objects and resist buying things dedicated very specific uses: suit bags, special plastic plates and cutlery for children, hand cream, rain boots, hair conditioner.
–You often need to come up with a makeshift solution, such using soap because you’ve run out of shaving cream, because you don’t have what you need.
–You often consider buying an item, then decide, “I’ll get this some other time” or “Maybe we don’t really need this.”
–If you must buy something, you buy as little as possible—say, by putting $10 of gas in the car.
–You think, “Not buying these things shows that I’m frugal and not a consumerist sucker.”

Me? I’m an under-buyer.

Under-buyers feel stressed because we don’t have the things we need. We make a lot of late-night runs to the drugstore. (I constantly run out of saline solution.) We’re surrounded with things that are shabby, don’t really work, or aren’t exactly suitable.

Over-buyers feel stressed because they’re hemmed in by stuff. They often don’t have enough storage space for everything they’ve bought, or they can’t find what they have. They feel oppressed by the number of errands they believe they need to do, and by the waste and clutter often created by their over-buying.

So under-buyers—buy what you need, without procrastination! Don’t wait for the first morning of your ski trip to buy ski gloves!

Over-buyers—think it over before you whip out your wallet! You don’t need a ten-year supply of toothpaste!

What do you think? Do you recognize yourself in either of these categories?

Happiness: Reading in the Tub, Escaping from Cubicles.

By far the best part of the SXSW conference was meeting other bloggers whom I’ve read but never seen face-to-face – such as Pamela Slim, who has a terrific blog, Escape From Cubicle Nation (one of the top career blogs), and whose book Escape from Cubicle Nation is just about to hit the shelves.

I was lucky enough to get a copy of her book early, and the thing I most love about it is that it’s very specific. It is packed with useful information and suggestions for actions you could take right now to work on your career. I don’t need to escape from a cubicle, and nevertheless I found it hugely helpful.

Because of the strong relationship between happiness and work, Pam has done a lot of thinking about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Pam: I love to read books in the bathtub. If I am tired, or grumpy, or stressed, climbing into a hot bath with a good book is an instant mood shifter. The type of book is important if I am feeling really low. It needs to be exceptionally well-written, creative and uplifting. Favorite bathside reads are The War of Art by Steven Pressfield and If You Want to Write by Brenda Ueland.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
I am stronger than I thought I was at 18. And I don’t have to change myself to please anyone. That was a lesson that took about ten painful years to learn. But once I did, I got really clear that the only way to be truly happy was to be very clear with my boundaries.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
I sometimes let stressful thoughts swirl around in my head for too long, which causes anxiety and makes me feel grumpy. When I notice that I am making myself unhappy, I step back, examine the thought (like “things are never going to change” or “this situation is hopeless”) and turn it around to something more true and useful (like “things are always changing, and for the better” or “no situation is hopeless – there is always a way out.”) When I change the thought, the feeling changes, and my mood lifts.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
I adore the Buddhist Loving Kindness Meditation and use it all the time if I am feeling stressed:
May you be happy
May you be well
May you be free from suffering
May you be safe

I also love a particular part of a Navajo prayer, which I learned from my husband:
With beauty before me, may I walk.
With beauty behind me, may I walk.
With beauty above me, may I walk.
With beauty below me, may I walk.
With beauty all around me, may I walk.

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?
I think that many people, including myself sometimes, look for happiness in the future. They think they will be happy once they have a certain level of financial success, or their blog traffic doubles, or they get lots of clients, or they find a man (or woman) and get married. In reality, wherever you go, there you are. So by finding joy in the present, in its beautiful imperfection, any future goal that you accomplish will just be a cherry on top.

The fabulous Sister Project is an enthralling collection of material having to do with sisters and sisterhood, very broadly imagined. Fascinating.

Want to volunteer as a super-fan — to help with the pre-launch of my soon-to-be-unveiled fabulous new happiness-related website, and/or other various things? I’d be thrilled to hear from you. You can click here or email me at gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [dot com]. Just write “super-fan” in the subject line.