A Little Happier: A Happiness Lesson from the Classic Picture Book “A Bargain for Frances.”

I love teaching stories of all kinds, and I find them in all sorts of places. For instance, picture books.

In Russell Hoban’s brilliant picture book A Bargain for Frances, Frances the badger get tricked by her friend Thelma into making a bad bargain — skullduggery involving a “real china tea set with pictures on it in blue.”

In a thrilling moment of vindication, Frances tricks Thelma right back.

When Thelma complains that she will have to be careful when she plays with Frances, Frances observes, “Being careful is not as much fun as being friends. Do you want to be careful, or do you want to be friends?

An important question for adults as well as children. Sometimes, it’s not worth being friends if we have to be careful.

My close friend experienced this — have you?

Do you remember reading the Frances books? As much as I love A Bargain for Frances, I think Bread and Jam for Frances is my favorite.

I mentioned my list of my 81 favorite works of children’s and young-adult literature. It’s here — alas, it doesn’t include picture books. I should write a separate list for those!

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I Give My Own Response to the “Ask Amy” Advice Column in the Washington Post.

I’m always on the watch for anything out in the world that illustrates my Four Tendencies framework.

Many thoughtful readers and podcast listeners know this, and they send me links to anything Four Tendencies-ish.

I very much appreciated it when a reader sent me the link to this question in the Washington Post’s “Ask Amy” column.

To me, it’s a great example of an Obliger misdiagnosing the problem — to my mind, the writer’s problem is not “I’m lazy,” it’s “I need accountability.”

And “motivation!” Arrrrgh. Here’s a post I wrote, “Warning! Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation” — and I note that Obligers tend to be the folks who worry about motivation the most (to no avail, as illustrated below).

And the advice Amy gives is a great example of how people give advice — some helpful, but some not helpful — when they don’t understand the dynamics of the Tendency. Amy suggests many accountability strategies that could work, but without really understanding, in my view, why they would work better than other strategies, and why they’d work for this particular person, but wouldn’t work for someone else (e.g., a Rebel).

What do you think?

The question:

 Dear Amy: How do you help a lazy person to become more healthily active, when the lazy person is yourself? I’ve dealt with depression all my life and think I’ve made a lot of headway, (with the help of therapy) over the years. I’ve reached the point where there are things I can imagine doing and enjoying that will require some self-discipline and energy to achieve, such as saving money, or keeping my home cleaner and prettier. But inertia and daydreaming take over, and another day goes by, and another, and another. At work, by the way, I’m a great employee. I’m diligent and hard-working; I enjoy making my bosses happy with my efforts. I suspect that part of my problem is that I still lack motivation to make myself happy. Maybe my situation is a bit extreme, but I’m sure many of your readers struggle with finding the energy or the motivation to overcome one’s own laziness.

–Trying to Be My Own Magic Wand

The answer (which demonstrates that Amy is probably also an Obliger):

Trying to Be My Own Magic Wand: I give you major props for figuring out and describing your challenge, and for understanding that you hold the key to positive change.

Here are some ideas for small things you can determine to do, which will lead you in a positive direction:

Break down your desired efforts into very small and achievable components, such as “open and categorize today’s mail,” “clean the inside of the car” or (on a weekend) “pack up one box for donation.” Make a list and check off each item after completion. (Checking boxes off a list is surprisingly satisfying.)

Join a group. For me, singing with a local choir once a week helped to shake loose the inertia in the rest of my life.

Use a “buddy” to inspire and hold you accountable. Walking with a friend right after work a few times a week will give you more energy to face the challenge at home.

There’s an app for that: A fitness wristband and/or fitness app will help you to see your progress in real terms.

Flylady.net is a favorite starting point for many people seeking transformation through baby steps. Flylady says to start by cleaning and shining your kitchen sink.

Make your bed. Even if your bedroom is a mess, and even if you don’t achieve much else, your bed will be a pristine and clean space each day.

You are very good at working hard to please others. So plan to have company over for coffee or a meal. Knowing that someone will be in your home will inspire (force) you to tidy, clean and prepare.

This is good advice, but what I like about the Four Tendencies framework is that it explains why measures like this would work for this person — but not necessarily for other people. Amy is an Obliger, giving advice to an Obliger, so for the most part, the advice is fitting. But what if this question came from a Rebel?

What do you think?

I have to say, I do love reading advice columns. How about you?

If you’re intrigued by the Four Tendencies framework, you can pre-order my book called (with a stunning lack of originality) The Four Tendencies.

I very much appreciate pre-orders — they really do make a difference for authors, by creating buzz among booksellers, the media, and readers. So if you’re be interested in the book, and you have the time and inclination, it really does give the book a boost if you pre-order. (Note that this message is tailored to try to appeal to all Four Tendencies.)

“It’s Important that I Carve Out Time in My Day, Every Day, to Think for Myself.”

Interview: Mike Erwin.

I got to know Mike Erwin a few years ago, when he invited me to speak to his class at West Point. He gave me a fascinating tour and explanation of what it’s like to attend West Point.

These days, Mike is the CEO of the Character & Leadership Center, whose mission is to produce better leaders through a deeper understanding of character. He is the Founder and President of the Positivity Project, a non-profit organization with the mission to help America’s youth build better relationships by recognizing the character strengths in themselves and others, and he founded and is Chairman f the Board of the veteran-support non-profit Team Red White & Blue. Mike deployed to Iraq twice and Afghanistan twice, and still serves as a Major in the U.S. Army Reserves, assigned to West Point’s Leadership Department.

Along with his co-author Judge Raymond M. Kethledge he’s written a book called Lead Yourself First: Inspiring Leadership Through Solitude.

As the title suggest, it’s about the importance of solitude for exercising self-mastery, focus, and leadership. It takes effort to find solitude each day, and the book shows through historical examples and firsthand interviews how helpful solitude is, to a wide range of leaders.

As someone who needs a lot of solitude and silence, every day, this argument resonates deeply with me.

Gretchen: What’s a simple habit that consistently makes you happier?

Mike: Running!  Especially on my own or pushing my 15-month-old in the stroller.  I love the sensation of my blood flowing, heart beat increasing—and then the mental energy that flows from it.

What’s something you know now about forming healthy habits that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?  

The biggest healthy habit I have developed in the past few years is my diet.  The most important thing I’ve learned is the need for planning.  When I plan well, my healthy habits follow.

Do you have any habits that continually get in the way of your happiness?

I wouldn’t say that this happens continually, but enough that it concerns me: comparison.  No matter how much I’m doing to make a positive impact in my community, the non-profit organizations I founded, for my church, family and friends—there is always someone doing more.  When I compare what I’m doing to them, it robs me of my joy and satisfaction.

Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)  

One habit that is super important to me is carving out time to think on my own.  My life moves really fast these days, with four children aged 7 and under, The Positivity Project growing rapidly (from 33 to 200 partner schools), my U.S. Army Reserve duty at West Point for three weeks and a book coming out.  In these times, it’s even more important that I carve out time in my day, every day, to think for myself.  My wife and I already cut out cable television about a year ago, but I make sure to spend time, sometimes just sitting in my office with the computer screen turned off, to process everything until I feel that I’m ready to reengage with my work, emails, etc….

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

Over the past few years, I have worked to break my habit of drinking soda 1-2 times per day.  I broke the habit by strictly limiting the decision to buy soda at the store while shopping.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

I am definitely an Upholder!  I am a list maker, am vigilant to accomplish what I set out to do–and hate letting other people down, even on something as simple as responding to emails in a timely manner. [I remember that the minute I met Mike, I immediately recognized him as a fellow of Upholder.]

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits? (e.g. travel, parties)

Travel!  I am on the road 7-8 days per month for my work and sometimes fly very early and have a 0345 wake-up—or get home after midnight.  Eating healthy is very difficult on the road, but I am able to maintain the good habits when I plan thoroughly and bring snacks with me.

Podcast 118: Design Your Summer (Again), Start a Podcast Club — and Are You the Difficult One?

Update: Elizabeth’s new podcast with her writing partner Sarah FainHappier in Hollywood — has launched! Very exciting. Listen, rate, review, tell your friends, tune in tomorrow to listen to episode 2 for a discussion of bullet journals. Subscribe here.

Keep those haiku coming! As we discussed in episode 117,  this month we’re posting our haiku on #happierhaiku. It’s so much fun to see everyone’s contribution. (And yes, if you’re wondering, “haiku” is the form for both singular and plural.)

Our next Very Special Episode will be dedicated to listener questions about the Four Tendencies, so if you have questions or comments, send them in. (Don’t know your Tendency? Take the quiz here to see if you’re an Upholder, Questioner, Obliger, or Rebel.)

Try This at Home: Design your summer. We’ve talked about this idea before, in episode 27 and episode 67. The challenge is to design the summer to be what you want it to be.

I plan to make lunch dates and to work on My Color Pilgrimage, my book about color.

Here’s the Robertson Davies quotation that I love:

“Every man makes his own summer. The season has no character of its own, unless one is a farmer with a professional concern for the weather. Circumstances have not allowed me to make a good summer for myself this year…My summer has been overcast by my own heaviness of spirit. I have not had any adventures, and adventures are what make a summer.”
— Robertson Davies, “Three Worlds, Three Summers,” The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies

Happiness Hack: Simon suggests, “Start a podcast club. Like a book club, but for podcasts.”

Elizabeth mentions The New York Times podcast club on Facebook. It’s here.

Know Yourself Better: Are you the difficult one?

I mention the great books by professor Bob Sutton: The No A*** Rule: Building a Civilized Workplace and Surviving One that Isn’t and his forthcoming The A*** Survival Guide: How to Deal with People Who Treat You Like Dirt. (I’m omitting certain words not out of prudery, but to avoid triggering a filter.)

Reading his books got me thinking…how do you know if you’re the difficult one? If you disagree with some of these questions, or would add different questions, let me know.

–When you do something generous for others, do you think it only right that your generosity will allow you to make decisions for them or direct their actions?

–Do you often find that when you do something nice for people, they seem ungrateful or uncooperative? For example, you offered to host Thanksgiving dinner, but no one appreciates it.

–Do you think it’s important to express your true feelings and views authentically, even if that means upsetting other people?

–Do you find that people seem resentful and angry when you offer helpful criticism or advice?

-Do you enjoy a good fight?

–Do you often find yourself saying defensively, “It was just a joke!” Along the same lines, do you find yourself remarking on how other people don’t have a sense of humor, or can’t laugh at a little teasing? [Elizabeth and I talk about the dark side of teasing in episode 32.]

–Do people tend to gang up against you – when you’re arguing one side, everyone takes the other side, or when one person criticizes you, everyone else chimes in?

–Do you find it funny to see other people squirm?

–Do you think it’s useful to point out people’s mistakes, areas of incompetence, or previous track records of failure?

–Do people volunteer to act as intermediaries for you, rather than let you do your own talking? Your son says, “Let me talk to my wife about it,” rather than have you two talk.

Listener Question: Katy asks, “How do I overcome my under-buyer reluctance to buy things that I know would make me happier?”

If you wonder if you’re an under-buyer or an over-buyer, here’s a description.

Elizabeth’s Demerit: She’s been using her “floodrobe” and not hanging up her clothes.

Gretchen’s Gold Star: Gold star to listeners and readers who have sent me links, videos, podcasts, images, and posts about the subject of color. I so appreciate it. All fodder for My Color Pilgrimage!

Two Resources:

  1.  If you love great quotations, like the one I read from Robertson Davies, you can sign up for my free “Moment of Happiness” newsletter, and I’ll send you a quotation every day about happiness or human nature. Email me or sign up here.
  2. I have a group of Super-Fans, and from time to time, I offer a little bonus or preview or ask for your help. Want to join? Email me or  sign up here.

If you want easy instructions about how to rate or review the podcast, look here. Remember, it really helps us if you do rate or review the podcast — it helps other listeners discover us.

I do weekly live videos on my Facebook Page to continue the conversation from the podcast — usually on Tuesdays at 3:00 pm ET. To join the conversation, check the schedule.

As always, thanks to our terrific sponsors

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Happier with Gretchen Rubin - Podcast #118

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Want a new podcast to listen to, with the same vibe as Happier? The Onward Project is the family of podcasts that I’ve launched, for podcasts that are about “your life–made better.” The first shows are Side Hustle School and Radical Candor. Elizabeth’s show with her writing partner, Sarah Fain, just launched! Check out Happier in Hollywood.

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My Best Advice for Graduates: 12 Tips for A Happy Life

It’s graduation season.

I’m particularly aware of this, because my daughter Eliza is graduating from high school in two weeks. The days are long, but the years are short.

I’m trying to hold back the urge to follow her around the apartment giving her little bits of advice and wisdom. To relieve my mind, here’s what I would tell her, or anyone graduating from high school, college, or graduate school:

1. Know yourself

Something that’s clearer to me every day is that there’s no magic, one-size-fits-all solution for building a happy, healthy, and productive life. You have to know yourself: your temperament, your interests, your values. For instance…


The better we know ourselves, the more readily we can construct a life that will work for us.

2. Beware of drift.

“Drift” is the decision we make by not deciding, or by making a decision that unleashes consequences for which we don’t take responsibility.

You go to medical school because both your parents are doctors. You get married because all your friends are getting married. You take a job because someone offers you that job. You want the respect of the people around you, or you want to avoid a fight or a bout of insecurity, or you don’t know what else to do, so you take the path of least resistance.

The word “drift” has overtones of laziness or ease. Not true! Drift is often disguised by a huge amount of effort and perseverance. For me, law school was drift, and it was hard every step of the way, from the LSAT to my clerkship with Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to the New York Bar exam. In the end, I’m happy I did go to law school — and that’s another tricky thing about drift. Sometimes drift does make you happy. But don’t count on it.

One of my drift-related Secrets of Adulthood is “You can choose what you do, but you can’t choose what you like to do.” And here’s another one: “Approval from the people we admire is sweet, but it’s not enough to be the foundation of a happy life.”

One of the problems of drift is that we try to deny we’re drifting. To see if you’re drifting, take this quiz.

3. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I cribbed this from Voltaire, and I remind myself of it often.

I can’t let the perfect, fantasy Gretchen crowd out the actual, real Gretchen.

I remind myself that the 20-minute walk I take is better than the 3-mile run I never start; having friends over for take-out is better than never having people to an elegant dinner party.

4. Write (and re-write) your own set of personal commandments.

One of the most challenging—and most helpful and fun—tasks that I did as part of my Happiness Project was to write my Twelve Personal Commandments. These aren’t specific resolutions, like “make my bed,” but the overarching principles by which I try to live my life.

I think this is a great exercise — to distill your core values and hopes for yourself into a succinct list, so that they’re very clearly in your mind. And then you can re-visit them periodically, so you can update them as you grow older and your life changes.

As an example, here are my Twelve Personal Commandments:

1. Be Gretchen.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way I want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

5. Identify the problem.

This idea seems so obvious, but it has been the one of my most important insights. Now I’ve disciplined myself to ask, “What’s bugging me? Why is something not working? What’s the problem here?”

A friend hated her law job so much that she was ready to quit. But when she “identified the problem,” she realized she actually hated her commute. She started listening to audio-books, and her life improved dramatically.

Usually there isn’t such an easy, dramatic solution, but nevertheless, it astonishes me how often it works.

I could never get myself to hang up my coat, and when I “identified the problem,” I realized that I didn’t like putting things on hangers. I added six hooks to our closet door — and problem solved.

6. Take care of your body: exercise regularly, get enough sleep. 

I’ve done hundreds of happiness and habit interviews from successful, creative people. Almost all of them mention the importance of a regular exercise routine — and also that they wish they had started this habit sooner. They also frequently mention the importance of getting enough sleep.

Our physical experience always colors our emotional and intellectual experience. If we’re feeling exhausted or sluggish, it’s hard to be happy and productive. Get enough sleep, and get some exercise, and you’ll find it much easier to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.

7. Don’t expect to be motivated by motivation. 

I really dislike the word “motivation.” I try never to use it. And here’s why: People use the term to describe their desire for a particular outcome (“I’m really motivated to lose weight”) as well as their reasons for actually acting in a certain way (“I go to the gym because I’m motivated to exercise”). Desire and action are mixed up in a very confusing way.

People often tell me, “Yes, I’m very motivated to achieve this aim,” but when I press, it turns out that while they passionately wish they could achieve an outcome, they aren’t doing anything about it. So what does it mean when they say they’re “motivated?” No idea.

In fact, people aren’t motivated by motivation.

Expert advice often focuses on motivation, by telling people that they just need more motivation to follow through. This may work in a certain way, for certain people (see below), but not for everyone.

The bad result of this advice is that some people spend a lot of time whipping themselves into a frenzy of thinking how much they want a certain outcome, as if desire will drive behavior. And it rarely does.

Instead of thinking about motivation, I argue that we should think about aims, and then take concrete, practical, realistic steps to take us closer to our aims.

Instead of thinking, “I want to lose weight so badly,” think instead about the concrete steps to take, “I’ll bring lunch from home,” “I won’t use the vending machine,” “I won’t eat fast food,” “I’ll quit sugar,” “I’ll cook dinner at home at least four nights a week,” “I’ll go to the farmer’s market on Saturdays, to load up on great produce.”

Of course, in my book Better Than Before, I argue that the great thing about habits is that you don’t need to feel “motivated!”

In my forthcoming book, The Four Tendencies, I do talk about how thinking about reasons for action can help some people to act, and how desire does help some people to act — but that’s not the same as motivation.

For Upholders and Questioners, thinking about reasons helps.

For Rebels, thinking about desire helps.

For Obligers, outer accountability is the crucial element. What does this mean? It means that Obligers are the least likely to be helped by thinking about “motivation.” And guess what? They’re the Tendency that talks most about motivation! They keep trying to amp up their motivation, and then they get frustrated because that doesn’t work. Nope. Obligers should focus on systems of outer accountability.

We really can’t expect to be motivated by motivation.

8. Give time and energy to keeping relationships strong.

Ancient philosophers and modern scientists agree: the most essential key to happiness is strong relationships with other people.

We need enduring, intimate bonds; we need to feel like we belong; we need to be able to confide; we need to be able to get and give support.

Anything that tends to deepen or broaden relationships is likely to boost happiness. Things like:

  • attending reunions
  • going to weddings
  • remembering birthdays
  • keeping up a group chat with your friends who are spread across the world
  • starting a book club
  • making friends with the friends of your friends (this is called “triadic closure”)
  • having a standing yearly date to get together — for a few years out of college, my friends all got together for an Ides of March weekend. Somehow, we stopped, and I’ve always regretted that. Along those lines…
  • if someone’s important to you, make concrete plans to see them; remember, something that can happen at any time often happens at no time.

9. Ask yourself, “Whom do I envy?”

Envy is a very unpleasant emotion, and we often don’t even want to admit to ourselves that we’re feeling envious.

But negative emotions play a very important role in a happy life, because they warn us that something needs to change. When we envy someone, it’s a sign that that person has something that we wish we had for ourselves. And that’s useful to know.

When I was considering switching from law to writing, I noticed that when I read in my college magazine about people who had great law careers, I felt a mild interest; when I read about people who had great writing careers, I felt sick with envy. That was an important clue.

10. Remember, everyone makes mistakes.

Everyone makes mistakes; it’s inevitable. And if you’re not failing sometimes, you’re not trying hard enough.

11. Know your “tell.”

In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

And it’s common for people to have a  “tell” in everyday life, too.

For instance, my “tell” is that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. Under all circumstances, I love children’s literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know ourselves – but it’s not.

Recognizing and watching for your “tell” can help you manage yourself better.

12. Collect your own Secrets of Adulthood.

For years, I’ve been collecting my “Secrets of Adulthood,” which are the scraps of wisdom I’ve managed to grasp as I’ve become an adult. It’s fun — and helpful — to keep track of these.

For instance…

  • Outer order contributes to inner calm.
  • Working is one of the most dangerous forms of procrastination.
  • Over-the-counter medication is surprisingly effective.
  • Self-regard isn’t selfish.
  • Most decisions don’t require extensive research.
  • Things often get harder before they get easier.
  • It’s easier to keep up than catch up.
  • Soap and water removes most stains.
  • We can’t make others change, but when we change, a relationship changes.
  • Don’t let yourself fall into “empty”: eat when you’re hungry, put gas in the car, keep some cash on hand.

What advice would you give to a graduate? Or what useful advice did you receive, when you were graduating?