Learning About Happiness From Gwyneth Paltrow

How to be happier.
Feb. 23 2009 6:12 AM

Learning About Happiness From Gwyneth Paltrow

Yesterday’s New York Times had an article from Bob Morris, " Martha, Oprah … Gwyneth? ," about Gwyneth Paltrow’s emergence as a lifestyle guru.

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I’m not interested in cooking, so I've paid no attention to Gwyneth Paltrow’s new PBS show with superchef Mario Batali, "Spain … on the Road Again," but I had checked out her Web site Goop to see whether it had any useful happiness-project information. (I was mystified by the name; the article explained that G.O.O.P. are her initials.)

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Goop has attracted a fair bit of mockery, and when asked about that criticism in an interview, Paltrow observed, " People get a hit of energy when they are negative about something ."

I was quite struck by the truth of this statement. I’d never thought about it that way before. Yes, she’s right, people do get a hit of energy when they’re negative about something.

Many of my happiness-project resolutions focus on trying to nudge me to being more positive and less critical: Give positive reviews, don’t talk about my aggravations, leave things unsaid, no gossip, cut people slack , be easy to please, have a heart to be contented, etc.

It turns out that it’s surprisingly difficult to be positive and enthusiastic—it’s tiring . And being critical does supply a jolt of energy. I don’t know why, and it’s unfortunate, but it’s true.

In the end, though, being overly critical doesn’t boost happiness much. Self-image is shaped in large degree by our actions, and somewhere each one of us has a little Jiminy Cricket doing an evaluation: "Spiteful, destructive, unenthuasiastic, querulous …" (On the other hand, I think some people pride themselves on being very critical, and it actually enhances their self-image. Hmmmm ... I need to think about this more.) At the same time, the more negative we are toward others, the more negative they are toward us. Have you noticed that people who are very gossipy and critical are often quite paranoid and defensive? There's a reason for that.

Paltrow’s observation—that being negative gives an energy hit—underscores a key point. When I’m tired, I’m far more likely to do things that drag on my happiness. I eat junk food, I speak too sharply to my family, I skip exercising, I don’t make the effort to help other people—neither strangers nor friends. And I’m more likely to be automatically negative.

I’ve become increasingly convinced about the importance of energy to happiness. When I started my happiness project, my first set of resolutions was aimed at boosting energy (get more sleep, exercise better, etc.—eventually I also largely quit drinking ), because I figured I’m better able to keep my resolutions when I have more energy. I don’t need to write a snarky response to someone’s snarky comment on my blog or criticize someone’s parenting decisions or point out my husband’s shortcomings to him or pointlessly trash a book or movie to get that nasty hit of energy.

*Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the "at" sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write "Resolutions Chart" in the subject line.