Gretchen Rubin shares tips and takes your questions about how to be happy.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Jan. 15 2009 1:54 PM

Are You Happy Now?

Gretchen Rubin shares tips and takes your questions about happiness.

Slate blogger Gretchen Rubin was online at Washingtonpost.com to chat with readers about "The Happiness Project," a look into the year she spent test-driving scores of different strategies for being happy. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Gretchen Rubin: Hello everyone, I'm so pleased to be here. I'm looking forward to an hour of talking (well, typing) about happiness with all of you.

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Columbus, Ohio: Gretchen—What role have you found that religion plays in happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Such a fascinating question. In general, religious people seem to be happier than non-religious people—under various definitions of "religiosity," such as church attendance or professed spiritual beliefs.

You can see why this would be. Religion can be a source of many happiness-boosting elements in a person's life:
—provides answers to difficult questions, like what happens after death
—provides a framework in which people receive support, and just as important to happiness, GIVE support to others
—along the same lines, it gives people a sense of "belonging" which is very important to happiness
—connects people to something larger than themselves, transcendent values like gratitude, awe, art, meaning in suffering
—gives people rituals for celebration, grief, and daily life
—focuses people's attention on living a moral life

In a fascinating discussion of this issue in Diener and Biswas-Diener's book, Happiness, they argue that the nature of a person's religious beliefs seems to make a difference. People in religions that teach that believers in other faiths are condemned, for example, tend to have lower life satisfaction. People who believe in heaven and hell tend to be less happy than those believe only in heaven.

People who aren't religious can think about how to incorporate these values into their lives. For example, I follow a resolution to "Imitate a spiritual master." Everyone would pick a different spiritual master; in my case, it's St. Therese of Lisieux, even though I'm not Catholic. I was so thunderstruck by her memoir, Story of a Soul, that she became my model.

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Bethesda, Md.: Hi Gretchen,

I stumbled across your Happiness Project blog on Slate, and thanks for the help in finding perspective in my life.

Can you comment on the term itself? When I think of "happiness," I tend to think of "unseriousness," being flippant, unrealistic. Aren't we really talking about a whole range of things: self-respect, contentment, peace, etc?

Gretchen Rubin: Ah, the definition of the word happiness is a very large challenge in this area. There are about 15 different academic definitions and synonyms for happiness—subjective well-being, positive affect, hedonic tone, etc. You're right, the word "happiness" has an unscientific, glib connotation, unfortunately.

I went to law school and, boy, do I remember spending a semester talking about the definition of a contract.

I decided that for my purposes, I wasn't going to worry too much about precisely defining happiness. Like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart, who said of obscenity, "I know it when I see it," I decided that all of us have an idea of happiness that could work for us. You might emphasize peace, another person might emphasize contentment, etc.

I think a helpful way to get out of this puzzle is to say, not "How can I be happy?" (which also falsely suggests an end-point) but "How can I be happier?" I think the important thing is to take steps toward greater happiness, however you might define it for yourself.

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Boston: What's been your biggest surprise as you've worked on your happiness project?

Gretchen Rubin: What an interesting question.

One big surprise was the importance of my physical condition. Happiness can seem like an abstract, transcendent notion, but in fact, I found that getting enough sleep (very important!!), getting exercise, not letting myself get too hungry, not letting myself get too cold (I'm a person who is always cold), made a big difference. Partly because I felt happier, partly because feeling physically comfortable makes it easier to keep other difficult happiness-boosting resolutions like biting my tongue.

I was also very surprised by how much novelty and challenge contribute to happiness. Turns out that people who try new things, go new places, learn new skills, etc. are happier. This can be tough, because novelty and challenge also bring frustration and irritation—but if you can push through that, novelty and challenge can bring enormous happiness rewards.

This is because of the importance of the "atmosphere of growth" to happiness. If you feel like you're learning, growing, making something better, helping someone or something else to grow, that's makes a big difference to your happiness.

I'm a creature of routine, and I hate feeling incompetent, so I avoided novelty and challenge. Making an effort to push myself in that way has brought me surprising boost.

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Chevy Chase: What steps would you suggest for embarking upon one's own happiness project? My new year's resolution is to have more joy in my life.

Gretchen Rubin: To think about your own happiness, think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.

First, ask yourself—what makes me feel good? what brings me joy, fun, contentment, satisfaction?

Second, ask yourself—what makes me feel bad? what brings me anger, resentment, boredom, guilt, and regret?

Third, ask yourself—do I feel right about my life? Am I living the life I'm "supposed" to be living? Does my life reflect my values?

Finally, ask yourself—how am I changing, growing, learning? how am I helping others to change and grow?

These questions help you figure out where changes might boost your happiness, whether by adding or eliminating elements in your life. Next challenge: translate these changes into concrete, measurable resolutions.

For example, your resolution is to "have more joy in my life"—that's a worthy goal, but abstract, so it needs to be translated into actual actions that you can do. Maybe you love movies. You might resolve to "See a new movie twice a week," "Sign up for Netflix," "Start a film club with some friends," "Start a blog where I review one movie a week." Or whatever would work for you.

I copied Ben Franklin's virtue chart—I have a chart with all my resolutions running across the top, and the days of the month running on the side. Each day, I score myself. That way, I keep myself accountable for my resolutions.

This approach has worked really well for me. The key elements, though, are CONCRETENESS and ACCOUNTABILITY. In my experience, that's an effective way to bring about consistent change. Which is not easy to do.

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Gulfport, Miss.: I'm a single female in my 40s and I've struggled with anxiety, especially anxiety about my health, for years. I moved back to Mississippi after more than 15 years in San Francisco, and shortly after moving my mom died suddenly, Hurricane Katrina hit, I broke up with my boyfriend and was jobless.

The job situation is back on track but I feel so stuck. I wonder all the time if I have some dreaded disease. I get weird symptoms—they usually check out as nothing dire—and I can't seem to find a way to make myself feel happy, safe and hopeful.

My mom was my only family member, apart from distant relatives outside the U.S. My therapist and I have identified my abandonment fears but can't figure out what will put me on a more positive track. Is there something you can recommend?

Gretchen Rubin: Wow, you are facing some serious happiness challenges. It sounds as though you are really thinking about how to address this.

I wish I had a terrific answer. Here's something to think about. One of the findings that really interests me is that, although we think we ACT because of the way we FEEL, we often FEEL because of the way we ACT. So an almost uncanny way to change your feelings is to act the way you WISH you felt.

I know, this sounds ridiculous, but it really, really works.

So if you want to feel safe, healthy, and hopeful, try to act as if you did feel that way. "Fake it 'till you feel it." maybe start with health—try to walk energetically, speak energetically, do physical things.

Along the same lines, if you feel like you wish you had more support, give support to someone else. Sign up to be an organ donor. Give blood. Volunteer. Clean out your closets and give things to a thrift shop. Although we think that getting support is a key to happiness, and it is, giving support is just as important. Showing yourself that you are strong enough to help others might reassure you. And doing a good deed for someone else is practically the best way to boost your happiness.

It can be hard when you feel drained to make these kinds of steps, though. Start small and see if it helps.

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Albany, N.Y.: Being happy sounds awful. It sounds like it's a lot of work and it sounds like happy people are insufferably smug. Is there an easier, less smug-inducing alternative to happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Happiness has such a bad reputation! It's interesting, though—although there's a sense that happiness brings complacency and smugness, actually, happier people are more likely to volunteer, to donate money, to be concerned about the problems of others, to help others. They are actually less smug.

If you think being happy sounds awful, maybe you could strive for "subjective well-being." is that more enticing?

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Pittsburgh: I have recently settled on the label "ethical nihilist" for my self. Is there anything you can say to me to give me even a glimmer of a hope for happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Happiness researcher Tal Ben-Shahar describes three "fallacies":

1. the "arrival fallacy"—the belief that when you arrive at a certain place, you'll be happy (get that promotion, etc.)

2. the "floating world fallacy"—the belief that immediate pleasure, cut of from future purpose, can bring happiness (I don't think anyone seriously espouses this, not even advertisers)

3. the "nihilism fallacy"—the belief that it's not possible to be happy.

Sounds like you subscribe to #3—but I'm not sure why.

One thing many people argue is that it's selfish and self-absorbed to worry about your own happiness, in a world so full of suffering. But that's kind of like eating what's on your plate because kids are starving in India. Your unhappiness doesn't help anyone else—and in fact, as I mentioned in another answer, happy people are more altruistically inclined. So happiness is not a selfish goal.

I have Four Splendid Truths (the urge to have numbered truths came out of my research into Buddhism), and the Second Splendid Truth is:

One of the best ways to make YOURSELF happy is to make OTHER PEOPLE happy;
One of the best ways to make OTHER PEOPLE happy is to be happy YOURSELF.

Maybe you're an ethical nihilist because you think that's the most upright position to take. You might think more about whether that's really true.

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Evanston, Ill.: What demographic is the most happy? Most sad?

Gretchen Rubin: One demographic that faces a big happiness challenge is people in chronic pain. As you can imagine, this is very hard. The death of a spouse is very tough on happiness, also job loss.

In a finding that surprises some, it seems that people are more likely to rate themselves as "very happy" as their income rises. And vice versa.

One of the findings that interested me most was that in a survey of 45 countries, on average, people put themselves at 7 on a 1-10 scale, and at 75 on a 1-100 scale. I.e., most people are pretty happy. In the United States, specifically, in a 2006 study, 84% said they were "very happy" or "pretty happy."

It will be interesting to see how the recent economic upheaval affects people's happiness across the U.S. and the world. We have a lot of great psychological mechanisms for dealing with bad events, but I think this will show up in the studies as having had a big impact on people.

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Gretchen Rubin: I see that my hour is up. Thanks so much, everyone, for this conversation about happiness. An inexhaustibly interesting subject.

Have a very HAPPY 2009, best wishes, Gretchen

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