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2018-01-18T07:57:20.511Z
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Interview: Courtney Carver.

I love the subject of clutter-clearing. So, of course, I'm intrigued by the work of Courtney Carver -- her site declares: "Are you overwhelmed with clutter and busyness? It's time to create a life with more clarity, ease, and joy." Wonderful.

Her new book, Soulful Simplicity: How Living with Less Can Lead to So Much More is just hitting the shelves.

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

Courtney: Sugar! I’m so much happier without it but I love it. When I’m in a sugar rut, I’m moodier. When I quit sugar for long periods of time, I'm much happier. Like you, Gretchen, I'm an Abstainer when it comes to sugary treats:  it's easier for me to have none than one. When I've intentionally quit sugar for a period of time, I don't crave it or think about it that much after the first day or two. I love that feeling of not having to decide how much is too much because when I am eating sugar, I don't want one cookie, or one bite of dessert. I want it all. Why do I go back? Just thinking about it makes me less happy.

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

Courtney: My morning routine fuels better health, creativity, and productivity. It includes some combination of writing, meditation, reading, yoga and walking. Whether I practice my morning routine for 5 minutes...

In my book The Happiness Project, I describe how I belong to the three-person group "MGM" where we get together periodically to talk about issues, challenges, hopes, and frustrations related to our careers. I'm the "G" in the MGM, and the Ms are Michael Melcher and Marci Alboher.

We've been meeting now for a long time -- at least ten years. Many things have changed in our careers, and it's great for each of us to talk in a group that has been following the long arc.

Several years ago, Michael suggested that we do an exercise: the "Year-End Review, with Yourself." Marci wrote about this idea in this article in the New York Times.

We did the review several years ago, and it was very helpful. But for whatever reason, we didn't do it again until this year.

Yesterday, the three of us met for three hours. During that time, we each went through our 2017 calendars and wrote down accomplishments, frustrations, high points, and low points from both our personal and professional lives. We used colored markers, stickers, and great paper to make the exercise more striking.

Of course, 2017 was a very dramatic year for the world; in this exercise, I focused on my personal sphere.

Several things jumped out at me from doing this exercise:

  • it's easy to forget how much happens in a single year
  • boy, I had a challenging year--a fun year, but a challenging year
  • writing things down really did allow me to see patterns...

Interview: Melissa Nicholson.

The other day I posted about my color adventure in London: getting my colors analyzed. I'm doing everything I can think of to feed my obsession with color. I'm trying to follow that interest anywhere it leads, as a way to get myself to do the novel and challenging things that I know boost happiness.

In the process, I had a such an interesting conversation with Melissa Nicholson that I asked her to do an interview. She's the founder of Kettlewell, a clothing company that makes clothes based on color analysis, and that reflects her own conviction that color can be a major driver of happiness, energy, and self-presentation.

She had many fascinating observations and insights into the subject of color -- and also happiness, habits, and self-knowledge. For one thing, she has "perfect pitch" for color -- she can look at a color, and later in the day, exactly recall its hue. I can't imagine having that kind of memory for color.

(She's British, as you will see from her spelling of color.)

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

Melissa: Getting everyone together and dining with friends and family. It could be a Sunday roast at home or dinner out at a new restaurant. Nothing makes me happier.

Gretchen: What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years...

From F. Scott Fitzgerald's novel The Great Gatsby:

Recovering himself in a minute he opened for us two hulking patent cabinets which held his massed suits and dressing-gowns and ties, and his shirts, piled like bricks in stacks a dozen high.

“I’ve got a man in England who buys me clothes. He sends over a selection of things at the beginning of each season, spring and fall.”

He took out a pile of shirts and began throwing them, one by one, before us, shirts of sheer linen and thick silk and fine flannel, which lost their folds as they fell and covered the table in many-colored disarray. While we admired he brought more and the soft rich heap mounted higher — shirts with stripes and scrolls and plaids in coral and apple-green and lavender and faint orange, and monograms of Indian blue. Suddenly, with a strained sound, Daisy bent her head into the shirts and began to cry stormily.

“They’re such beautiful shirts,” she sobbed, her voice muffled in the thick folds. “It makes me sad because I’ve never seen such — such beautiful shirts before.”

As soon as I started writing about color, I looked up this passage from The Great Gatsby. It's one of my favorite passages about color.

The question, of course, is -- why is Daisy crying?

If you know any other beautiful passages describing color, please let me know. Color obsession continues!

“As I know more of mankind I expect less of them, and am ready now to call a man a good man upon easier terms than I was formerly.”

--Samuel Johnson, quoted in James Boswell, The Life of Samuel Johnson

As you've grown older, and had more experience of the world, do you think you are more or less likely to consider a person to be "good?" Do you expect more, or less, of people?

Because I study happiness, good habits, and human nature, I've done a lot of thinking about New Year's resolutions.

In fact, when I was identifying the Four Tendencies -- my framework that divides the world into Upholders, Questioners, Obligers, and Rebels -- thinking about various reactions to New Year's resolutions gave me an important insight into how people see the world differently.

So how do the Four Tendencies respond to New Year's resolutions? How can they meet any challenges they face?

Obligers:

Obligers often say, “I don’t make New Year’s resolutions anymore because I never manage to keep them—I never make time for myself.” They're discouraged because they've tried and failed in the past.

The solution is easy: Create outer accountability. Want to read more? Join a book group. Want to exercise? Join a class, work out with a trainer, meet a friend who expects company, think of the duty to be a role model for other people...there are hundreds of ways to build outer accountability. And that's what Obligers need. It's not a matter of motivation, setting priorities, putting themselves first; they must have outer accountability to meet inner expectations.

Questioners:

Questioners are good at keeping resolutions that they set for themselves, but they usually start them whenever the time seems right. Often, they won't wait for the New Year, because they object that "January 1 is just an arbitrary date. And it's not efficient to wait to do something that I could start now."

If Questioners struggle, it's usually because they're not convinced that this...

On the "Happier with Gretchen Rubin" podcast, Elizabeth and I have mentioned several items that might make good gifts. So, in case gift-finding is turning into a Happiness Stumbling Block for you, consider these:

Flying Wish Paper -- this is so fun to use. You see it fly into the air, and you get to make a wish. Very dramatic. Fun for the whole family, as they say.

Hard-boiled egg-maker -- how I love my egg cooker! I use it constantly. Hard-boiling eggs is a breeze.

Tabletopics Family: Questions to Start Great Conversations -- my mother brought this to the holiday table a few years ago, and we've really enjoyed the family conversations it has prompted.

Electric foot callus remover -- if you want to hear me laugh uncontrollably as Elizabeth describes giving this gift to her mother-in-law, listen here.

Pads of paper, mugs, post-it notes, etc. personalized with a person's name -- I use Zazzle.com, but I'm sure there are many places to get this done. I learned this tip from Elizabeth's gift-giving habits: adding someone's name, or a personalized image, makes an ordinary gift seem much more special.

Book weight -- Admittedly, this is a very specialized gift, but for the person who can use it, it's wonderful. It's a weight that will hold a book open to a certain page -- great for people like me, who need to refer to books and take notes. Perhaps if you know someone who is writing a Ph.D.,...

Interview: Robin Benway.

I've written many times about how I'm a huge, raving fan of children's and young-adult literature. I read these books as a child, and I continue to read them as an adult. I'm in three (yes, three) book groups where we talk about kidlit. (If you want to see my list of my 81 favorite works of children's literature, it's here.)

The other night, I attended the National Book Awards party, where Robin Benway won the 2017 prize for Young People's Literature for her book Far from the Tree. She's written several other popular, award-winning novels for young adults.

I have my copy of Far from the Tree, and I'm saving for my most delicious holiday reading -- can't wait to dive in.

Because I'm such a fan of YA literature, I wanted to hear what Robin had to say about happiness and good habits.

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

Robin: Walking my dog in the morning and afternoon. I think I enjoy it more than he does! As a writer, it's easy to stay inside in front of the computer all day, but with Hudson, I get to go out and chat with my neighbors, see what's going on in the neighborhood, get the gossip, etc. I also talk to my mom most mornings, either via phone or text, and she always makes me laugh. I look to her as a model for being a happy person because she...

I love giving books as gifts -- during the holiday season, and throughout the year. I constantly recommend a million books, but there is a handful of books that I find myself giving over and over, because they've had such an influence on me.

Here are the seven that I most often give as gifts:

1. Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes.

As I write about in Better Than Before, this book changed my life in dramatic ways, and all for the better. It also changed my father's life. I hand this book out constantly. It's easy to read, interesting, and (for me) utterly convincing.

2. A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander.

I'm not a visual person, and this book was a revelation to me; it allowed me to understand space and design in an entirely new way.

3. The Visual Display of Quantitative Information by Edward Tufte.

Yes, I know, it's the worst title ever, but it's a gorgeous, brilliant book that changed the way that I think about information. I just gave this book to a friend last week.

4. The Secret History by Donna Tartt.

This is the novel that I give someone who's stuck in the hospital and needs to be distracted. It's so absorbing and exciting.

5. Selected Essays by George Orwell.

I admire Orwell's writing tremendously, and am always trying to encourage other people to read his work.

6. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine...

O world, I cannot hold thee close enough!    Thy winds, thy wide grey skies!    Thy mists, that roll and rise! Thy woods, this autumn day, that ache and sag And all but cry with colour!   That gaunt crag To crush!   To lift the lean of that black bluff! World, World, I cannot get thee close enough! Long have I known a glory in it all,          But never knew I this;          Here such a passion is As stretcheth me apart,—Lord, I do fear Thou’st made the world too beautiful this year; My soul is all but out of me,—let fall No burning leaf; prithee, let no bird call. -- Edna St. Vincent Millay, "God's World"

The other day, I wrote about my decision to have color adventures while I was visiting London.

Before I left New York City, I'd made a plan to visit the Lycurgus Cup in the British Museum.

As reluctant as I usually am to have spontaneous adventures (Upholder), I did have an unplanned color adventure during my visit.

I got the idea for this adventure from the brilliant journalist Hannah Betts. Talking to Hannah was a fantastic experience, because she's so funny and thought-provoking, and because she knows my work so well. She's a Rebel who has embraced her Tendency in a big way, with great results -- it was very fun (and gratifying) for me to hear about her experiences.

It turns out that Hannah is also very interested in color, and she convinced me to get my colors analyzed, to discover my "season." You can read her piece about this kind of color analysis here, "What Clothes Season Are You? Are you spring or winter? The 1980s trend of getting your ‘colours’ done is proving a hit with a new generation."

I'm not very good about making spontaneous plans, or adding new items to an already crowded to-do list, but I thought, "This is a color adventure! I should do it!" She made it easy by telling me exactly how to go about it.

So I made an appointment...

'Tis the season to buy presents, and most of us can use some good suggestions. So be warned, I’m going to make a plug for my various creations -- books, journals, calendar, coloring book, and even mugs.

The Happiness Project was a #1 New York Times bestseller, on the bestseller list for more than two years, translated into more than 30 languages, and was even a question on the quiz show Jeopardy! (Which was quite surreal, I must admit.) I spent a year test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific research, and lessons from pop culture to figure out how to be happier.

Happier at Home is about how to be...you guessed it...happier at home. Of everything I've ever written, this book is my sister Elizabeth's favorite. Time, possessions, neighborhood, clutter (of course), the sense of smell -- I got to write about so many great subjects in this book. Also a New York Times bestseller.

Better Than Before is all about how to make or break habits -- so if you know someone who's planning to make 2018 a happier, healthier, more productive year, this book might be a big help. It turns out it's not that hard to change your habits -- when you know how to do it in the way that's right for you. Also a New York Times bestseller.

The Four Tendencies is my newest book, and is all about a personality framework I discovered. When you know if you're an...

I'm in London to promote my book The Four Tendencies, and to make my explorations of London even more fun, I decided to have some color-related adventures while I'm here.

Now, why color?

I spend most of my time reflecting and writing on human nature -- happiness, habits, the Four Tendencies, and so on. But I've also developed an obsession with the subject of color. My interest in color has become so strong that I'm even going to try to write a little book about color, My Color Pilgrimage.

Yesterday, I went to the British Museum for the first time -- how had I never been before? And I was able to see for myself the astonishing Lycurgus Cup.

Most likely, this Roman cup dates from 4th century A.D., and it shows King Lycurgus of Thrace entangled in grapevines, for crimes against Dionysus.

The cup is extraordinary because it has very unusual color properties: it's the only complete example of "dichroic" glass, which changes color when held up to light.

When the light is seen in normal light, it looks opaque green. But when light shines through it, it turns red.

The cup is exhibited with a light that slowly turns on and off, so I could watch the cup turn from brownish-green to red and back again. It's breath-taking.

Apparently, even though the museum acquired the cup in the 1950s, scientists couldn't figure out how the...

Hello from London! I'm here after a whirlwind stops in Dublin and Belfast -- I want to go back to both places for a longer visit.

It's often noted how travel expands the mind and our sense of possibilities, and how it shakes us out of routine and familiarity. And like many cliched ideas, it's very true.

When I travel, I try to pay a lot of attention to the differences around me. Little things, like the sound a phone makes while ringing, the sound of a siren (though I think that London has changed its siren tone so that it sounds more familiar), the feeling that I don't know how to cross the street safely, or where to look to find the name of the street.

There are differences in vocabulary too. I accidentally got a big laugh when I gave a talk a few nights ago. I was discussing how Questioners can help themselves to do something that's inefficient or unjustified, by thinking of their second order of justification. As an example, I said, "I talked to a Questioner who said, 'My grandmother doesn't like for me to wear pants. Even though I prefer to wear pants, and think her rule is silly, I don't wear pants when I'm with her, because it makes her happy, and that's important to me.'" Turns out that in the U.K., "pants" means "underwear." Yikes. I meant "trousers!"

Visiting London always gives me new appreciation for New York City's grid system of streets. Those straight,...

According to a study commissioned by the huge bookseller Barnes & Noble, Thanksgiving Eve--which this year falls tomorrow, on Wednesday, November 22--is the busiest reading day of the year.

It's a very popular (and therefore stressful) travel day, and many people turn to books and periodicals to make traveling more pleasant.

My family usually celebrates Thanksgiving in New York City, so I don't have any travel-related reading time.

In general, though, I love to read on airplanes. I made a rule for myself: when I'm in transit, I don't work; I read for pleasure. This rule means that I get much more reading done, plus I enjoy traveling much more.

I can't read during car trips, however -- I get car-sick. Can you read while riding in a car?

If you're traveling tomorrow, do you plan to do some reading? What book or periodical are you taking?

If you'd like to see my one-pager on tips for getting more reading done, it's here.

'You know, I haven't been able to look at flowers the same way since I learnt about the Fibonacci sequence,' Violet says, stroking the pink daisies with her thin white hand as we walk along the wall. 'I don't know which is better: simple beauty with no explanation, or knowing exactly how and why seed pods are organized.'

--Scarlett Thomas, PopCo

This comment reminded me of the conversation Elizabeth and I had on episode 105 of the "Happier" podcast, about the question of "Do you prefer childlike wonder or adultlike wonder?"

Which do you prefer? I prefer adultlike wonder, myself. The more I know about something, the more I enjoy and appreciate it.

How I love the novels of Scarlett Thomas! I'm working my way through everything she's written. I can't recommend her work highly enough. It's thrilling to discover a new author.

The most important thing I've learned about happiness, habits, and human nature? There's no one magic, one-size-fits-all solution that works for everyone.

We've all heard the expert advice: Do it first thing in the morning! Do it for 30 days! Start small! Give yourself a cheat day!

But here's the thing: those approaches work well for some people, some of the  time. They don't work all the time for everyone.

The most important thing is to know ourselves, and what works for us.

One place where I've seen this issue arise? With to-do lists.

Over and over, I see the advice, "Write down your to-do list, set your priorities, work your way through the items, this is the way you'll get things done most successfully."

But I've been talking to people about this advice, and I've discovered that to-do lists just don't work for many people. They make them, they try to use them, they fail.

And they often think, "Something's wrong with me, I have no will-power, I can't stick to a list, why can't I use this simple tool that works so well for so many people, what's my problem?"

To which I say: "There's nothing wrong with you. How could we tweak the tool, to see if there's a way to make it more effective for you?"

Since I've started looking for new approaches to the to-do list, I've found several versions that work for people:

To-do list:

If the classic to-do list works for you, terrific. I make them all the time myself, and find them...

In my study of happiness and human nature, I'm always striving to identify fundamental principles.

For instance, I identified the Eight Splendid Truths of Happiness.

The First Splendid Truth is: To be happier, we have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

The First Splendid Truth accounts for a paradox I noticed within happiness: sometimes, happiness doesn't make us feel happy. (This is the kind of statement that a scientist couldn't say, but I can.)

I was reminded of this paradox this morning, during a conversation with a friend.

"Are you going to your mother's house for Thanksgiving?" I asked. "Looking forward to it?"

"Yes, I am," he said, "but I'm not looking forward to it. I'll be doing all the work, because no one else can be relied on to do anything, and I don't really like spending time with most of my family."

"So why do you go?"

"It's important to my mother, she wants us to have these times together," he said with a shrug. "So I do it, even though it means passing up invitations to spend the holiday with my friends, which would be much more fun."

Right. Because sometimes happiness means living up to our values, even when it makes us "feel bad" to do so, or doing things to promote other people's happiness, even when it doesn't make us "feel good."

My friend is willing to "feel bad" by being bored, annoyed, overworked, and unappreciated with his family, and to give up...

Wordsworth describes his response to remembering beautiful country landscapes when he's in towns and cities:
...[O]ft, in lonely rooms, and 'mid the din Of towns and cities, I have owed to them, In hours of weariness, sensations sweet, Felt in the blood, and felt along the heart; And passing even into my purer mind With tranquil restoration:--feelings too Of unremembered pleasure: such, perhaps, As have no slight or trivial influence On that best portion of a good man's life, His little, nameless, unremembered, acts Of kindness and love."
--William Wordsworth, "Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey, on Revisiting the Banks of the Wye during a Tour, July 13, 1798" Funny, it's only now that I'm realizing the aptness of "Wordworth's" name. His words are truly worthy! How have I never noticed that before? Wordsworth's reflections on this landscape remind me of my resolution to "Find an area of refuge" -- that is, to find a few phrases or memories or scenes that fill me with peace, or exaltation, or good humor. That way, when I find myself spiraling down into boredom, anger, or sorrow, I have an area of refuge. And by doing so, I may make it easier to perform little, nameless, unremembered acts of kindness and love. Do you have a memory like this?

Chuck Palahniuk wrote a piece about life on a Navy submarine. As he was leaving the sub, an officer asked him to write a good piece; fewer and fewer people saw the value in the kind of service he valued most. Palahniuk writes:

I saw the value. I admire those people and the job they do.

But by hiding the hardships they endure, it seems the Navy cheats these men out of the greater part of their glory. By trying to make the job seem fun and no-big-deal, the Navy may be repelling the people who want this kind of challenge.

Not everybody is looking for an easy, fun job.

Chuck Palahniuk, “The People Can,” Stranger Than Fiction: True Stories

I'm haunted by this last line. I agree: I suspect that sometimes, when we try to convince people to undertake a certain job, activity, or aim as pleasant and fun (or even manageable), we might dissuade people who might otherwise be interested.

Not everybody is looking for a fun, easy job.

Agree, disagree? Can you think of examples about yourself or someone else, when a person was attracted to a difficult, arduous task?