In a Foreign Country, Do You Enjoy Visiting a Grocery Store?

Somehow, I’d never noticed how interesting I found it to visit grocery stores in foreign countries.

For some reason, this didn’t occur to me as a “real” thing to do, so I never thought about it — and never went out of my way to visit a grocery store when I was traveling.

The other day, though, some friends and I got in an animated discussion about the joy of visiting grocery stores while traveling.

And I realized, “This is a real thing, other people feel the same way! It’s fun to visit a grocery store in a foreign city. It deserves to be a proper stop, just like a museum or a monument.”

It’s a window into a different culture. It’s fascinating to see the unfamiliar packaging and food items.  I still remember the first time I saw unrefrigerated soft cartons of milk in a French supermarket.

Now that I’ve consciously realized how much I enjoy doing this, I’ll make sure to do it on every trip.

How about you? Do you like to visit grocery stores when you travel? Are there other things you like to do, as well as the traditional sight-seeing, as a way to engage more deeply with a new place?

Having new experiences boosts happiness, but it’s not always easy to figure out ways to allow the newness to penetrate.

Speaking of traveling, here are 9 questions to ask to show your interest in someone’s big, life-changing trip.

Do You Love the Excitement of Being Snowed In?

“For the first time in this house I’m to be snowed in for the day. How exciting and moving that is, the exact opposite of an outgoing adventure or expedition! Here the excitement is to be suddenly a self-reliant prisoner, and what opens out is the inner world.”

–May Sarton, The House by the Sea

I’ve never before read anything that captured the sense of excitement that comes from being snowed in.

Do you feel this, too? Of course, if children are staying home for a snow day, that’s a source of tremendous excitement too.

I’m slowly working my way through May Sarton’s Journals.  I wish I’d discovered them when I was writing Happier at Home, because she is so interesting on the subject of what makes home feel homey.

How I Do My Research: Is “Despite” Actually “Because?”

People often ask me, “How do you do your research?”

I’m a kind of street scientist. I don’t have a lab full of undergrads eating marshmallows to study; I rely on my own observations.

Really, I feel more like Samuel Johnson or William Hazlitt or George Orwell, in the way that I analyze human nature. I love reading the science, and I think about the science all the time, but in the end, I pay the most attention to what I see around me. And what I read — not just science, but memoirs, biographies, novels.

I tell people this, and they say, “But how do you draw any conclusions?”

I can never think of a good answer. I just read a lot, talk to people a lot, take gigantic amounts of notes, and ponder. I look for patterns. Certain actions or remarks strike my attention, often for reasons that take me months to identify.

But it did occur to me that I’ve hit on one very useful analytic technique, without quite realizing it.

If I’m stumped by something I see, I substitute “because” for “despite,” and see if a proposition makes sense.

For instance, one thing that puzzled me tremendously when I was writing Better Than Before was the number of people who trained for the marathon as a way to get into the habit of running. But over and over, people told me, they’d had a great experience training, they’d successfully run the marathon — and then they’d stop running! This seemed counter-intuitive to me. Wouldn’t hitting a big goal like completing the marathon make people more committed to their habits? These people didn’t make sense.

Then I realized: I’d been thinking, Despite the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” What if I thought, “Because of the fact that they successfully ran the marathon, these runners quit running.” Eureka! For the first time, I was able to grasp the great danger posed by finish lines in forming habits. (To read more, check out the chapter on the Strategy of Reward in Better Than Before.)

This technique works surprisingly often.

Despite the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise” becomes Because of the fact that Americans are eating less fat than before, obesity levels continue to rise.” This was a huge Lightning Bolt for me! For more on this, read Gary Taubes’s Why We Get Fat.

A friend told me about taking her father to the doctor, and although the doctor emphasized the importance of following his instructions for taking medicine, and how he’d be monitoring to see if the medicine had been taken, her father wouldn’t take the medicine. “Despite the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take the medicine.” Could it be that “Because of the fact that the doctor ordered him to take the medicine, and checks up on him, her father won’t take his medicine.” Yes! Her father is a Rebel.

I’m sure my legal training was helpful here. In law, you always have to make the contrary argument, to push as hard as you can to make the opposite points, to make your case as strong as it can be.

Have you ever discovered that a “Despite” is actually a “Because?” Or do you have other techniques you use to figure things out?

Video: Why Having Clarity of Values and Clarity of Action Helps Us Keep Our Habits.

I’m doing a video series in which I discuss the various strategies that we can use for habit-formation. I posted videos for the other twenty strategies a while back, but somehow, I never posted about the Strategy of Clarity! A very important strategy. So, voila.

Habits are the invisible architecture of everyday life, and a significant element of happiness. If we have habits that work for us, we’re much more likely to be happy, healthy, productive, and creative.

My book, Better Than Before (can’t resist adding, bestseller) describes the multiple strategies we can exploit to change our habits.

I spend a lot of time thinking about questions such as, “How do we change?” “Why is it so hard to make ourselves do things that we want to do?” ( for instance, why is it so hard to make myself go to bed?) and “How can we stick to our resolutions?“

I realize now that a big challenge is clarity. Often, if there’s something that I want to do, but somehow can’t get myself to do, it’s because I don’t have clarity. This lack of clarity often arises from a feeling of ambivalence–I want to do something, but I don’t want to do it; or I want one thing, but I also want something else that conflicts with it.


Lack of clarity, and the paralysis that ensues, seems to be common. Here’s a list of aims in conflict that I’ve heard. Do any ring a bell for you?

  • I want to eat healthfully. It’s wrong to waste any food.

    I want to give 110% to work. I want to give 110% to my family.

    I want to work on my novel. I want to exercise.

    I want to spend less time in the car. I want my children to participate in many after-school activities.

    Making money is not important. Making money is important.

    I want to be very accessible to other people. I want time alone to think and work.

    I want to be a polite guest. I want to avoid sugar.

    I want leisure time when I come home from work. I want to live in a house that’s clean and well-run.


Have you experienced this — a paralysis that comes from conflicting values?

I have to admit, I’d been researching and thinking about habits for a long time before I grasped the significance of the Strategy of Clarity. It’s very, very important.

Podcast 34: Have a Difficult Conversation, and a Talk with Lisa Randall, Harvard Physics Professor (and Rebel). Plus, Hard-Boiled Eggs.

It’s time for the next installment of  “Happier with Gretchen Rubin.

Update:  Elizabeth, the ever-loyal sister, gives a plug for the new jacket for the paperback of my book, Better Than Before.  I love the new art — I hope you like it, too. Buy early, buy often!

Also, I’ve been experiencing a backslash backlash.  No backslash! I will not make that mistake again! To look up an episode here on my site, use (or whatever number you’re looking for).

We also feature more great listener responses to my sixteen-year-old daughter Eliza’s request for advice in episode 30.  So helpful and fascinating. (Actually, Eisenhower said, “Plans are worthless, but planning is everything.“)

Plus, if you’d like to get an email alert every time we release a new episode, you can sign up here.

Try This at Home: Have an uncomfortable conversation. I mention Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. To read more about this topic, check out my book Happier at Home, chapter on “Family.”

InterviewLisa Randall. She’s a Harvard professor who studies theoretical particle physics and cosmology. Her new book, Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: the Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe, will hit the shelves in a few weeks; it’s already garnered lots of buzz and starred reviews. (Fun fact: Time magazine named Lisa one of the “100 Most Influential People” in 2007.

For those of you interested in the Four Tendencies framework (and aren’t we all?), Lisa talks about being a Rebel. Her Try This at Home…very Rebel!

Gretchen’s Demerit: I talked to Barnaby in a mean voice. I’m trying so hard to do better.

Elizabeth’s Gold Star: Hard-boiled eggs are helping Elizabeth to keep her blood sugar level down. (A good example of using the Strategy of Convenience for habit change.)

Happier with Gretchen Rubin #34 -- Visit to listen

Call for comments, questions, observations!

Starting next week, we’re going to spend four weeks talking about my Four Tendencies framework for human nature. We’ve already had many thought-provoking responses, but we want more.


Please, send in our questions and comments by voicemail, email, etc. What’s your experience with yourself, spouse, child, patient, colleague, boss, friend, etc? We’re dying to hear from you.


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