Blog Posts by Gretchen Rubin

  • A Post that I Simply Can’t Resist Writing

    LostHorizon1937_thumb2For the most part, I make a big effort not to tell "cute things my daughter said" stories to anyone but the grandparents. I have a list of topics that are often boring to other people, and this subject definitely has a place there.

    But I simply can't resist telling these two connected stories.

    Every Sunday night, we have "Movie Night," when we watch a family movie. A few weeks ago, I chose the 1937 movie Lost Horizon (a great movie if you haven't seen it).

    My eight-year-old daughter was so delighted with the movie and the idea of Shangri-La that she was inspired to write a sequel, about what happens when Robert Conway returns to that magical land. "I'm going to call it 'Lost Horizon: Everyday Life in Utopia,'" she told me. Everyday life in Utopia! I love that phrase so much. It's my new motto for my happiness projects.

    I'd told her about the word "utopia" and what it meant. Some days later, I was reading aloud to her from Madeline L'Engle's A Wrinkle in Time. I explained

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  • Want to Snack Less and Concentrate Better? Try This!

    Coffee-Stirrer-SUOkay, humor me here. This sounds silly, but it really works. Try the resolution to "Chew on a plastic stirrer."

    I've found that I snack less, and concentrate better, when I chew on a plastic stirrer-the kind that you get to stir your to-go coffee.

    I picked up this habit from my husband, who loves to chew on things. His favorite chew-toy is a plastic pen top, and gnawed pen tops and little bits of plastic litter our apartment.

    But he also chews on plastic stirrers, and at some point, I decided to give this practice a try. I've been astonished at how helpful this small habit is.

    I keep these stirrers in my office and backpack, and whenever I sit down at my computer, I pop one between my teeth. An occupational hazard with writing is to write while eating, smoking, or drinking-usually things that aren't very healthy-but having the stirrer in my mouth diminishes that urge. True, my urge to snack has plummeted since I've started eating along the lines suggested by Gary Taubes's

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  • I Love Lists. Such as This List About What Gives Objects “Life.”

    nautilus-shellIn The Phenomenon of Life, vol. 1: The Nature of Order, Christopher Alexander asks, "Can we find any recurrent geometrical structural features whose presence in things correlates with their degree of life?"

    He identifies fifteen features that appear again and again in things which have "life"-whether that thing is a sketch by an Impressionist, a wooden door, a Norwegian storehouse, a Japanese tea bowl, the Golden Gate Bridge. Or natural things, like a giraffe's coat, palm fronds, a spider's web, Himalayan foothills, muscle fiber.

    1. Levels of scale
    2. Strong centers
    3. Boundaries
    4. Alternating repetition
    5. Positive space
    6. Good shape
    7. Local symmetries
    8. Deep interlock and ambiguity
    9. Contrast
    10. Gradients
    11. Roughness
    12. Echoes
    13. The void
    14. Simplicity and inner calm
    15. Non-separateness.

    It's not always easy to understand, but just looking at all the illustrations is a wonderful exercise. I'm a word person, not a visual person, and this book

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  • Do You Agree that These “Patterns” Make Places Beautiful and Comfortable?

    raisedflowersI've written before about Christopher Alexander's brilliant, strange book, A Pattern Language. Few books have made such an impression on me and the way that I think. The book sets forth an archetypal "language" of 253 patterns that make the design of towns, buildings, and-most interesting to me-homes the most pleasing.

    This book doesn't need to be read from front to back; I often just flip through it and study the parts that resonate with me-and look at the pictures, too, of course.

    I'm a very text-centric person, and not very visual, and this book helped me to identify the elements about spaces that I like, or don't like. I'm able to see the world in a new way, and as a consequence, I've been able to do some things differently in my own space, to make it more enjoyable.

    Here's a list of some of the "patterns" that I love most-and I even love the aptness of the phrases used to describe them:

    Half-hidden garden-this is an example of something that I love but just

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  • How Will You Make Your Own Summer? I Plan to Read for Pleasure

    booksinsuitcaseFriday was the last day of school for my two daughters. They wore special outfits, I took pictures, lots of excitement.

    The last day of school is always bittersweet to me; it's fun to head into the summer, but it's always a little sad that another year is over. I'm always reminded that "The days are long, but the years are short." (The one-minute video I made about this feeling is probably the thing, of everything I've ever written, that resonates most with people.)

    The end of the school year is also significant to me because I still measure my own life by the school calendar. September is the other January-which is why, for my second happiness project in Happier at Home, I did a project from September through May. September is a new beginning, and the June/July/August season feels separate from the rest of the year.

    So now that school is over, my summer has started-but fact is, my summer is a lot like the rest of my year. We go on some family trips, and my daughters'

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  • Consider These Questions Posed to You Upholders, Questioners, Rebels, and Obligers

    four-ornate-columnsI'm still obsessed with the four categories I've developed-which, for lack of a better name, I'm currently calling the Four Rubin Tendencies.

    These categories describe how people tend to respond to expectations: outer expectations (a deadline, a "request" from a sweetheart) and inner expectations (write a novel in your free time, train for a marathon).

    To learn more about the Four Rubin Tendencies, read here and here. In a nutshell:

    Upholders respond readily to both inner and outer expectations

    Questioners question all expectations, but will follow expectations if they think the expectations are sensible (effectively making all expectations into inner expectations)

    Rebels resist all expectations

    Obligers meet outer expectations but struggle to meet expectations they impose on themselves

    I'm still working on refining these types, and I'd love to hear what you have to say about the following questions. Obviously no one would answer all these questions,

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  • Do You Want the Tenth Bite of Ice Cream More Than the First Bite, or Less?

    biteicecreamI've been continuing to ponder the abstainers vs. moderators distinction.

    In case you haven't been breathlessly following this line of argument: in a nutshell, when facing a temptation, abstainers do better if they abstain altogether, while moderators do better if they indulge a little bit, or from time to time.

    The other day, a friend who is a true moderator told me, "I got a sundae from my favorite ice cream store, and it was so, so good. But after the tenth bite or so, I could hardly taste it anymore. I had a few more bites, then it turned into a puddle, and a friend of mine finished it for me."

    To me, this is a very foreign way of acting. The difference between my friend and me made me wonder if this is a distinction between abstainers and moderators, and I'd love for you abstainers and moderators out there to weigh in on this question.

    Moderators, does your desire often diminish as you eat? Does it drop off in intensity? Or have you not noticed this phenomenon?

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  • Who Are Your Patron Saints? Here Are Mine

    winston_churchillPeople often ask me, "Come on, what's the key to happiness? If you had to pick one thing, what would you say?"

    I think that question can be answered in several ways, depending on what framework you use.

    But one answer would certainly be-self-knowledge. It's the Fifth Splendid Truth: We can build a happy life only on the foundation of our own nature.

    But it's surprisingly hard to know yourself! So how can you sneak a glimpse into your own nature?

    You can ask yourself: Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? The answers to these questions reveal the way in which your life doesn't reflect your values.

    You can ask yourself: What did I do for fun when I was ten years old? You'd probably enjoy as an adult a version of what you enjoyed as a ten-year-old.

    You can ask yourself: What do I actually DO?

    You can ask yourself: Who are my patron saints? (A "patron saint" is a saint who has a special connection to a person, place, profession, or activity, or in more casual terms, a

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  • Do You Embrace These Contradictions? They’re Important for Happiness

    contradictionnopetsI love Secrets of Adulthood, fables, teaching stories, koans, and paradoxes-or anything that smacks of paradox. For instance, I get a big kick out of the page of my bank statement that reads, "This page intentionally left blank." No, it's not blank. It has that notice printed on it!

    As I've worked on my happiness project, I've been struck by the contradictions I kept confronting. The opposite of a profound truth is also true, and I often find myself trying to embrace both sides of an idea:

    1. Accept myself, and expect more of myself.

    2. Use my time efficiently, yet make time to play, to wander, to read at whim, to fail.

    3. Take myself less seriously-and take myself more seriously.

    4. Someplace, keep an empty shelf, and someplace, keep a junk drawer. If you want to see my empty shelf with your own eyes, watch here at minute 6:41-some people are dubious about whether I actually have one.

    5. Think about myself so I can forget myself.

    6. Paying close

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  • Don’t Assume that Everything is so Different These Days

    wilder11_lgI'm a fanatical reader of children's literature, and one of my favorite authors is Laura Ingalls Wilder. In fact, Happier at Home's conclusion-which I think, in all modesty, is one of the best things I've ever written in my entire life-centers on the last few sentences from Little House in the Big Woods.

    A thoughtful reader suggested that I might enjoy Little House in the Ozarks, a collection of the pieces that Wilder wrote for regional newspapers and magazines. Heck yes! I got my hands on a copy right away.

    I found much that interested me, and I was particularly struck by one paragraph.

    "We are so overwhelmed with things these days that our lives are all, more or less, cluttered. I believe it is this, rather than a shortness of time, that gives us that feeling of hurry and almost of helplessness. Everyone is hurrying and usually just a little late. Notice the faces of the people who rush past on the streets or on our country roads! They nearly all have a strained,

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