Gretchen Rubin

“The Things That Have Made Me Most Happy Started Out as Challenges I Wasn’t Sure I Could Handle.”

“The Things That Have Made Me Most Happy Started Out as Challenges I Wasn’t Sure I Could Handle.”

Happiness interview: Christine Koh and Asha Dornfest.

Two friends of mine have just come out with a terrific book, Minimalist Parenting: Enjoy Modern Family Life More by Doing Less. It's particularly thrilling for me to hold this book in my hands, because I remember talking to them about it when it was still just the beginning of an idea they were playing with. And here it is, out in the world.

It's a great guide for anyone who wants to have a happy home life, by keeping things simple, calm, and in tune with family values.

Asha is the force behind the terrific site Parent Hacks -- "forehead-smackingly smart tips that help you simplify family life, save money, and have fun." Christine is the founder and editor of Boston Mamas -- "a lifestyle portal for families in Boston and beyond."

I wanted to ask them both about their thoughts on happiness.

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

Christine: Running or some kind of physical activity. I mean, sometimes it’s hard to get out there (I don’t do the “dreadmill” so I’ve run in temperatures as low as 8 degrees this winter…eep!) and sometimes I drag a little when I’m out there, but I always feel happy when I’m done. Also, sleeping. Man, do I love sleeping.

Asha: Walking my dog always makes me happy. The combo of fresh air, seasonal change, dog antics and snippets of neighborhood conversation never fails to cheer me up. In the department of “not thrilled while doing it, but extremely happy with results,” processing the mail and paperwork on my desk. I dread it, and the pile of paper makes me anxious while it’s sitting there, but when I’m done I feel this rush of creative energy. Sometimes I find an uncashed check in the pile!

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

Asha: That happiness is more a mindset choice than a response to specific events. Yes, I’m happy when good things happen, but I also know that, when I’m in a “life dip” and am naturally feeling down, that I won’t be there forever.

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

Christine: I have a tendency to devote too much bandwidth to the (bad or questionable, in my opinion) behavior of other people. The best advice I ever got from my therapist was that you can’t control other people’s behavior, only how you react to the behavior. Repeating that mantra has helped me enormously time and time again; I now can let go of things more quickly.

Asha: Staying up too late (it torpedoes my patience!), and procrastinating about mundane household jobs.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? 

Christine: Doing something with my hands, such as crafting or baking. In January I set intentions to do more hands-on creative projects and spend more one on one time with my 8-year-old Laurel (who often gets the short end of the attention stick these days because of her sometimes demanding toddler sister Violet). I decided to block out Thursdays afternoons while Violet is in day care to be Thursdays with Laurel (I literally put it in my calendar as a recurring event so I wouldn’t schedule work things in that window). Because Laurel loves art projects, we end up crafting a lot. It is the ultimate happiness boost to shut off the computer and craft and chat with Laurel on Thursday afternoons.

Asha: Curling up with my family and watching favorite movies. The Lord of the Rings series (extended edition, plus all the extras) has a particular tonic effect!

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?

Christine: I am, without a doubt, the happiest I’ve ever been right now. In general, I’m a very cheerful person but my childhood was challenging and at times very stressful. And then just as I was leaving home for college, I became involved in an emotionally abusive relationship that unfortunately persisted for several years. I also spent 10 years in an academic career that I ultimately found myself very unhappy in. But now…my husband Jon is a gem – he’s unconditionally supportive and loving and he challenges me to process my history, which is necessary to move forward. And I’ve been calling the shots on my professional work ever since I left academia in 2006. And I have two wonderful, healthy kids. And friends + family + fantastic burritos and pastries in striking distance + so many good things. I feel so blessed.

Asha: My childhood and early adult years were amazingly happy. Looking back, I think it was partially a result my temperament (I’ve been called obnoxiously optimistic) and partially because those years were relatively stress-free. I sometimes think I grew up when I became a mother, because with that experience came both overwhelming joys and challenges. The early years of motherhood were some of the hardest of my life, and YET they have left me with a sense of confidence and humility and gratitude that has directly contributed to where I am now. I can honestly say I’ve never been happier or more thankful. And now I’m craving a burrito.

Is there some aspect of your home that makes you particularly happy?

Christine: My happiest place in my house right now is my bed. I’m not even kidding. And this is a recent development because finally, after dragging my heels for over a decade, I finally replaced our tired old bedding and bought a beautiful quilt + shams that I love. After a childhood of tight finances and then spending so many years as an academic indentured servant, sometimes I resist spending money on certain things, particularly if they don’t seem absolutely essential (as in, who else is going to see my tired old bedding?) and even if they’re not particularly expensive. Jon was the one who finally said, “You deserve to sleep under a bedspread that makes you happy. Don’t just look at the Target sale section; pick something you love first and then we can look at the price tag.” Just another reason I love that man.

Asha: The gas “log” in our living room fireplace. It doesn’t matter that it’s essentially a fake fire, with fake wood and fake “glowing coals.” Sitting there, watching it flicker and feeling its warmth, while listening to music and doing my work or hanging out with Rael and the kids…it’s heavenly.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Asha: It’s ironic -- the things that have made me the most happy started out as challenges I wasn’t sure I could handle at the time.

Anything else you would like to say?

Christine: My gratitude. To you for your friendship and inspiration. To your readers for being committed towards being happier, reading this interview, and opening their minds to change. I hope your readers will consider Minimalist Parenting – it was such a joy to write this book with Asha and we truly hope it helps people create degrees of freedom in their life.

Asha: I would just add that there are so many “right” ways to parent and find happiness. What I love most about your happiness discoveries is your first commandment: to Be Gretchen. The first step toward minimalist parenting (and happiness) is to know – and be – your true self.

Gretchen: Awww, thanks you two! Congratulations again.


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