Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life by Gretchen Rubin (Crown Archetype, 2012)
Before I finished The Happiness Project, I knew I wanted to read its sequel. You have to admire a person who can spend a year concentrating on her own happiness and then write a best-selling book about it. Twice. Seriously, I do admire Gretchen Rubin, whose simple-yet-profound ideas are inspirational and potentially life-changing, as I've found those of Don Aslett, Stephen Covey, Malcolm Gladwell, Mary Pride, David Allen, Marla Cilley, John Holt, Glenn Doman and others in my eclectic tribe of inspirational writers. If you're looking for formulas and specific techniques, however, you won't find them here. I read books like this for ideas and inspiration, preferring to throw them all into the mix of my thoughts and see what precipitates. As Rubin herself says, just because something is fun for someone else doesn’t mean it’s fun for you. But behind her approach to maximizing happiness are principles that are as universal as her applications are specific.
Enough review; on to the quotes!
As I thought about ways to cultivate a loving atmosphere at home, I reflected on my own childhood. One important element: My parents had never permitted unkind teasing in the form of mockery, name-calling, or put-downs—even when done in a joking way. ... Teasing ... has more negative weight than many people assume. ... Although the teaser believes he or she is conveying a spirit of warmth and playfulness, to the one being teased, the teasing seems more annoying and mean-spirited. ... True, some skillful people use teasing to help people feel closer to one another, to praise, or to broach a difficult subject. ... More commonly, however, I see people wince at teasing comments, or I hear teasers excuse rude remarks by claiming they're "just joking." But the test of whether I'm being funny is if someone else finds me funny; the test of whether my teasing is friendly is whether the teased person finds it friendly.
Finally, someone puts into print the way I feel about teasing, and especially mockery and put-downs.
If I hadn't already liked Gretchen Rubin from her previous book, she'd have won me over simply for articulating a story that could almost have been taken from my diary. People will cheerfully confess to all sorts of proclivities, but who will admit to being afraid to drive? That's positively un-American! I'm many years further on my phobia-fighting journey than she is, but it's still comforting to find a kindred spirit.
Ever since I was a teenager, I’ve been scared to drive. ... I postponed taking my driver's test until I'd already been sixteen for a few months—a shocking delay for a Midwesterner. When I lived in Missouri and in Washington, D.C., I did drive every day, but I was a nervous driver. Once I moved to New York City, I practically quit driving altogether; in fact, easy public transportation is one of my favorite things about living here. In New York City, having a car is a real luxury, so we're very lucky to have a car to drive, but I made Jamie do all the driving. ... I'm not a particularly fearful person. Flying doesn't bother me. I don't carry germ-fighting hand sanitizer in my bag. I don't worry about child abduction. I took the subway right after September 11, without even thinking about it. but driving! ... I'd adjusted to my fear of driving, but I knew that it cramped my sense of freedom and possibility. ... And although my fear of driving was very personal, it felt like a weight on my marriage, because it loaded too much responsibility on Jamie. Anytime we had to go anywhere in a car, and even when he was feeling sleepy or needed to take a work call, he had to do all the driving. To his great credit, he never once complained about it; he never reproached me for feeling scared or not doing my share, and on the few occasions when I did drive, he was encouraging and reminded me that I was a perfectly good driver. Which I was.
Rubin also understands my obsession with working, the oppression (pleasant as it paradoxically is, sometimes) of a burgeoning to-do list and an increasing sense of mortality. Perhaps both that and a driving phobia are more common than I think, but few that I know of will admit to either.
I always have the feeling that I should be working. I always feel pressed for time, as if someone were shoving a pistol in my back and muttering "Move, move, move!" ... I love all this work, and I look forward to working. But my feeling that I should be working, or my choice to work instead of doing other things that are also important, sometimes interferes with my long-term happiness. Because I feel this perpetual pull toward my desk, there has always been a tension between my work and other parts of my life. ...
More important than the particular activity ... was the decision to set aside a specific time to be together [with my daughter]. It would be hard for me to give up those prime work hours ... because I always wanted to work. I wanted more time to think, read, and write—or at least to answer a few emails. I itched to be reunited with my laptop. But I knew that looking aback, years from now, these hours would be far more memorable and meaningful if I spent them on an adventure with [my daughter].
I adopted a resolution suggested by a reader who wrote from a research ship in Antarctica. Her team leader, she reported, had urged them to "Underreact to problems": not to ignore or minimize problems, but just to underreact to them. And surely the problems in my apartment were more deserving of underreaction than the problems arising on a ship in the Antarctic. By "underreacting to problems," and acting in a serene and unflappable way, I'd help myself cultivate a calm attitude. ...
Now, on the spectrum of problems [mine were] very minor. ... Nevertheless, underreaction was a real challenge. ... I didn't successfully manage to avoid a massive overreaction to the computer glitch [that cost me two full days of work].
I'm pretty much an underreactor when it comes to normal computer frustrations, but I don't even want to think about the loss of two days of work.
I considered the three major types of happiness leeches: The grouches, who are chronically unhappy, pessimistic, anxious, irritable, or needy. ... The jerks, who show no respect for others, who constantly challenge or find fault, behave rudely or cruelly, spread malicious gossip, embarrass others, indulge in mean teasing or pranks, boss others around, unfairly claim credit, withhold necessary information or dominate the conversation. ... The slackers, who don't do their fair share of the work. ... Not only do happiness leeches behave badly themselves, but they also spread their bad behavior. ... [W]hen we see others act like grouches, jerks, or slackers, we're more likely to imitate them. ... In my experience, the grouch is the most common form of happiness leech.
Of course, it's not always possible to avoid a particular happiness leech. ... I came up with a list [of strategies to use as protection against a person who is a constant negative influence]:
- Avoid being alone with the happiness leech. The presence of other people often dilutes his or her power.
- Communicate through email, if possible. I find it much harder to control my emotional reactions to people when I'm face-too-face with them. Email allows me to react more calmly.
- Keep a sense of humor. Over and over, I see that levity helps diffuse practically any difficult situation—which is too bad for me, because my sense of humor is the first thing that deserts me in a trying situation.
- Instead of contradicting pessimistic or negative statements, acknowledge them. Happiness leeches are often less emphatic when they feel that others recognize their views.
- Act the way I want to feel; behave the way I want to behave. Too often, when I find myself around a happiness leech, I ape that behavior—complaining more, making sharper criticisms. I want to live up to my own standards.
- Most important: Mind my own business. It's tempting to try to cheer up a grouch, but instead of trying to fix someone else's mood, I [remind myself] I can't make someone be happy.
Psychologist Robert Levine calculated the "pace of life" in many American cities by considering factors such as walking speed, bank teller speed, and speed of speech, and he found that the more hurried the pace of life, the less helpful people were apt to be: They were less likely to perform courtesies such as returning a pen that a researcher "accidentally" dropped or giving change for a quarter. New York City ranked as the third fastest city (after Boston and Buffalo) and the least helpful.
I get New York City, and maybe Boston, though in my experience New Yorkers walk faster than anyone. But Buffalo? Maybe they're walking fast in order to keep warm....
Someone else told me of the following e-mail strategy; forgive me, but I don't remember who. I have that problem a lot, now that there are so many sources of information in my life. The other day I eagerly told Jon about something that he gently pointed out I had read on his blog....
One friend told me he didn't answer email on the weekend. "But on Monday morning, how do you face the huge buildup you've accumulated?" I asked. "I check my email constantly, just to stay on top of it." ... "Actually," he confided, "I do read and answer email but my emails don't get sent out until Monday morning. That way, I enforce the expectation that I won't be answering email, and I don't get into back-and-forth exchanges over the weekend."
The sheer numbers of hours of deliberate training is the factor that distinguishes elite from lesser performers. Persistence is more important to mastery than innate ability, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is the willingness to practice, and while you can make a child practice, you can't make a child want to practice.
When I marvel at Joseph's ability, at 28 months, to count to 100 (and beyond) in four languages, or by twos, or by sixes, Janet reminds me that in his mind, numbers are a full-time job. When I visit Heather's kids, I'm constantly being asked to read books (which of course I love to do). Joseph, although he enjoys stories, is more likely to want to count with me. (At this point I'm probably too boring for mere counting, since he already can count in English. Grossvater scores by knowing Russian.) When Jonathan marvelled at Joseph's ability, I told him that if he thought as much about numbers as Joseph does, he'd probably be doing 10th grade math next year—and that's close to true.
On the flip side, although we often enjoy activities more when we're good at them, facility doesn't guarantee enjoyment, whether in work or play. In fact, being good at something can sometimes mask the fact that it's not enjoyable. I was very good at lawyerly work, which I suspect delayed my realization that I wanted a different career.
I can identify with that. I started college as a physics major, because the heroes of my favorite books were scientists, and I did well in physics in high school. (I did well in chemistry and biology, too, but physics was the last high school science course I took. Heather says her favorite color is green because her "favorite color" was always the color of the bulb in her night light, and green happened to be the color when she gave up using a night light. Like mother, like daughter, I guess.) It wasn't until my junior year, when the classes got a lot harder, that I realized that not only did I not understand physics, I didn't actually like it enough to put the necessary time into it. I had only enjoyed it in high school because it had come easily to me.
In his book The Relationship Cure, relationship expert John Gottman emphasizes the importance of responding to "bids"; when someone makes an attempt to connect with a touch, question, gesture, comment, or look, we should answer with a comment, a laugh, or some kind of acknowledgment. To be attentive and playful is best; to be nonresponsive, critical, or sarcastic is hurtful.
When I was writing my biography of John Kennedy, I'd been struck by a remark that he made to his aide Dave Powers: "So much depends on my actions, so I am seeing fewer people, simplifying my life, organizing it so that I am not always on the edge of irritability." I hadn't just been elected president, but I also often found myself on the edge of irritability, and I, too, wanted more tools for self-mastery.
Every once in a while, I spend the day without stepping foot outside our apartment, and I consider it a great treat.
One of Rubin's resolutions was "Embrace good smells." Her research led her to Demeter Fragrance Library.
I was intrigued by a reference I'd seen in Rachel Herz's fascinating book The Scent of Desire, where Herz mentioned the naturalistic, unusual scents created by Demeter Fragrance. I looked up Demeter Fragrance online and was staggered by its offerings. Bamboo. Clean Windows. Dust. Bourbon. Snow. Grass. Laundromat. Lilac. Frozen Pond. Gardenia. New Zealand. Steam Room. At first I thought wistfully, "I wish I could smell some of these myself." Then I realized—I could! As an under-buyer [someone who hates to shop and tends to buy less than is optimal for her situation], I have to remind myself that, yes, I can buy things. ... I started putting scents in my online shopping cart: Bonfire, Pure Soap, Salt Air. Bulgarian Rose, because I love the smell of roses.... And I had to order Paperback.
I could so do that. I know this sounds weird and out of character to anyone who knows me. I don't wear perfume, and I don't like smelling perfume on someone else. I've never been into scented candles. Or incense—except in church and for a brief teenaged fling in the 60's. Even when it wasn't masking the smell of marijuana (which in my case, trust me, it wasn't), incense was the thing. But I do love natural scents—lilac, roses, gardenias, garden soil, fresh-baked bread, newborn baby, the air after a storm—and, like Rubin, I find odors to be strongly evocative of memories. The Demeter scents I would love to try include, but are by no means limited to, Gardenia, Wet Garden, Vanilla Cake Batter, Tomato (more the scent of tomato leaves on your hands than the fruit itself), Thunderstorm, Salt Air, Snow, Holy Water, Ginger Cookie, and Earthworm. However, I will pass on Mildew, and Turpentine.
I looked for ... ways to cultivate a thankful frame of mind—for instance, about money. Money, like health, affects happiness mostly in the negative: It's easy to take it for granted unless you don't have it, and then it can become a major source of unhappiness. We had enough money to feel safe ... and this feeling of security was one of the greatest luxuries that money could buy. To remember this major contributor to my daily happiness, every time I sat down for another session with my checkbook and a big stack of household bills, I thought, "How happy I am to be able to pay these bills," instead of thinking, "What a drag to sit down to pay bills."
Now is the time ... to be happier—not once I've finished my manuscript, not once I've caught up on my email. Elias Canetti observed, "One lives in the naïve notion that later there will be more room than in the entire past." If there's not time now to decorate graham cracker houses, or to kiss Jamie good-bye, or to visit the Eleusis panel at the Metropolitan Museum, I must make time.