On a recent episode of the Happier podcast, Elizabeth and I discussed how we love to read books that explain how things work. We’d assumed that this was some idiosyncratic aspect of our natures—but as so often happens, when you ask around, you find out that you’re not as idiosyncratic as you assume. We got so many great suggestions from our audience. Here are just a few:

  • The Evolution of Useful Things: How Everyday Artifacts—From Forks and Pins to Paper Clips and Zippers—Came to Be as They Are by Henry Petroski
  • Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal by Mary Roach
  • The Song Machine: Inside the Hit Factory by John Seabrook
  • Dog Is Love: Why and How Your Dog Loves You by Clive Wynne
  • How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They’re Built by Stewart Brand
  • The Way Things Work by David Macaulay
  • Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange
  • Paved Paradise: How Parking Explains the World by Henry Grabar
  • At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
  • Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly by Anthony Bourdain
  • Unraveled: The Life and Death of a Garment by Maxine Bedat
  • Hotbox: Inside Catering, the Food World’s Riskiest Business by Matt Lee
  • The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House by Kate Andersen Brower

Understanding how things work makes me happier, because this knowledge makes my everyday life more interesting, increases my appreciation for other people’s efforts, and reminds me of how much research and care goes into all aspects of my existence. Even from something like my own stomach!


5 Things Making Me Happy​

This week, I had a big realization. There’s a proverb that I don’t agree with, but often hear repeated, and certainly understand: “You’re only as happy as your least happy child.” It occurred to me that an equally powerful proverb—at least for children—would be: “You’re only as happy as your least happy parent.” It reminds me of a line from Robert Louis Stevenson in “An Apology for Idlers”: “There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy.”

Many people have been discussing “eldest daughter syndrome” lately. Whenever I talk about my Four Tendencies personality framework, one of the most common questions is: “Is a person’s Tendency influenced by their birth order?” My answer comes as surprise to many people: No, because in fact there’s very little evidence to suggest a link between birth order and personality characteristics.

Happiness Hack: To reframe a task, activity, responsibility, or decision, consider the words and metaphors you use: Do you play the piano or practice the piano? Do you have to do it or do you get to do it? Listen in this recent Little Happier episode.

My sister loves a sound bath; she finds them even more relaxing than a massage. (In a sound bath, you lie in a calm place and listen to tones and vibrations from singing bowls, chimes, etc.) As I write about in Life in Five Senses, I enjoyed going to one sound bath, but don’t feel the urge to go again. So, like just about everything, some people like the experience, and some don’t. But what about the health claims? This New York Times article sums up what’s been established.

I read many excellent books in April, and Old God’s Time by Sebastian Barry particularly stood out because, in my family, we often swap book recommendations, and my mother told me several times how much she loved this novel—so of course I had to find a copy myself. It’s a beautiful meditation on love, family, and secrets…it’s not like anything else I’ve ever read. It has an uncanny element that is very powerful.


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This week on Happier with Gretchen Rubin


We talk about why it’s helpful to try to avoid avoidance, and why “planned maintenance” is more effective than “unplanned maintenance.” Plus we share a hack for making cooking easier and faster, as well as many suggestions from listeners of excellent books about how things work.

Listen now >


Kim Scott

Kim Scott is a former tech executive who writes about modern management strategies. She co-founded a company called Radical Candor, is a business management speaker and coach, and co-hosts two podcasts. Her latest book, Radical Respect: How to Work Together Better, just hit shelves this week.

Q: Can you suggest something we might try to help ourselves to become happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

One of the sources of unhappiness in life is denial. Denial feels like the elephant in my brain. It takes up all kinds of space and energy. Getting that elephant out of my brain has helped me become a lot happier. One of the things I’ve done to move that elephant along is to solicit criticism from the people I love most in my personal life, and from people at work. In particular, I have found that asking people to point out my biases is helpful. Doing that is kind of like starting to run. At first it feels bad, and it is a struggle. But once I build stamina, learning about my own biases is exciting. If I don’t want to be biased, then I need to be aware when I have said or done something that is biased, so I can stop doing or saying it.

Q: In your own life, have you found ways to tap into the power of your five senses? (For instance, I often take a sniff of a spice jar as I pass through my kitchen to help ground me in the present moment.)

In the morning, I really like to go outside in the driveway and face the sun and throw my shoulders back. I have a dog, so taking him out to poop gives me the excuse I need to do this. The warmth of sun on my face makes me feel more relaxed. The feeling of adjusting my shoulders and straightening my back makes me feel more determined. I find that even if I take only 30 seconds to be aware of how that feels, I can approach the day with more optimism. And because it is a habit, when I do it, I remember a few particularly good days and a few particularly bad days when the sun and my stance came together to grant me a feeling of agency. And whether it’s a good moment or a bad moment, I feel more connected to myself.

Q: Is there a particular motto that you’ve found very helpful? (I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

“Comparisons are Odious.” My father used to say this to my sister and me when we squabbled as kids. My second grade teacher still laughs about how I said that when she was comparing two people in our class. Much later, I thought of my father’s wisdom when I read this quote from Simone de Beauvoir: “What people have endlessly sought to prove is that woman is superior, inferior, or equal to man . . . To see clearly, one needs to get out of these ruts; these vague notions of superiority, inferiority, and equality that have distorted all discussions must be discarded in order to start anew.”

Q: What simple habit boosts your happiness or energy?

If I can get enough sleep, take a 45 minute walk outside, and have a meal with someone I love, I usually feel reasonably happy, even when things aren’t going great. If I don’t get enough sleep or exercise and I miss too many dinners with my family, I feel unhappy even when things are going great. I need to be careful when I travel for work, because few things are more disruptive to sleep, exercise, and time with loved ones.

Q: Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison changed my life. I think the miracle of all novels is that they build our capacity to understand the world from a new perspective, they help us get outside of our own minds and for a while inhabit another mind. We can’t really understand ourselves if we can’t get out of our own heads; so the magic of a great novel is that it helps us feel more connected to others, and therefore more connected to ourselves—less alone in other words. Song of Solomon was a novel that did that for me at a time when I was very lonely and badly needed to feel that sense of connection. And, because I loved the book so much, when Toni Morrison came to teach at my university, I applied for her course. That also changed my life. It changed the way I read American literature, and the way I understand our country. If you want a sample of the class I took, you can read Playing in the Dark. But read Song of Solomon first.

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Every Friday, Gretchen Rubin shares 5 things that are making her happier, asks readers and listeners questions, and includes exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes material.