London - Gretchen Rubin suggests it’s best to call her in New York at 6.15am her time. She would have have been up and about for a while by then. It might be hard to believe, but this early-rising, being-on-form-before-it’s-even-light is one of the things that enables Rubin to have a better day.
Keep reading: she hasn’t always been like this – and the recent decision to shave off an hour’s sleep a night didn’t exactly come naturally. No, she says, it’s a deliberate strategic plan, with one goal in mind: happiness. It’s part of her Happiness Project, which began as something personal but has grown into a much more public phenomenon.
It all started on a bus journey, when she had some time to think, and the admission to herself that while she wasn’t unhappy, she wasn’t as actively happy as she could be, given how good her life was. Why not? She was determined to find out, and gave herself a year to discover ways of being as happy as possible.
Her memoir of that time, The Happiness Project, was published in 2010, became a New York Times number one bestseller, and rolled into a daily blog of thoughts and tips on happiness that is now read by more than 300 000 people each month (http://happiness-project.com/).
“It’s not self-help, it’s self-helpful,” she says, describing exactly why her writing is appealing and non-saccharine. It's probably something to do with the enormous amount of research into the subject that Rubin now conducts as part of her daily routine.
“My whole life has been a search for structure to support my research habits,” she says of this niche she finds herself in. “I follow my own interest, and read business books, ancient philosophers, essayists, novels, tons of science – I’ll often find things said in a way I never thought of before.”
This very writerly approach shows through in her posts: every day there’s a quotation from thinkers like Aristotle (“Men are what they are because (of) their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse”), to writers like Stephen Spender (“The greatest of all human delusions is that there is a tangible goal”).
In her approach, Rubin is something of a moral essayist for the 21st century, so it isn't a surprise when she says that she loves Samuel Johnson. “He was sort of doing the equivalent of a blog,” she says, describing The Rambler, a periodical Johnson had published on Tuesdays and Thursdays in the 18th century, reflecting on life and how to live it. But while these intellectual ideas inform her thinking, it's her translation of them into the most practical of solutions that is the draw.
Getting up an hour earlier came about because she realised that getting everything done in a squeezed time-frame (children ready for school, making packed lunches, organising breakfast, not having time to drink her coffee) meant that, in lots of indiscernible but significant ways, she was starting the day on the wrong foot.
“It’s the idea of mindfulness,” she says.
“It’s so hard: I’m the least mindful person in the world, but the more you pay attention to what makes you happy, the more you see the opportunity for change in small things.”
Waking her family up as a calm, showered Gretchen, coffee in hand, lunches made the night before, turns out to be one of those things. As is general household organisation.
“Clutter is disproportionately important, for instance,” she says of her general happiness level. “I don't understand why it seems to matter so much.” As a result, she's invested a lot of thought, and blog posts, about how to get rid of it and maintain a different sort of environment. The tiniest elements of discontent – differing views from in-laws, dealing with criticism – are examined, thought through, and solutions offered.
And the good news is that it’s not all about the long-term game-plan: short-term strategies are celebrated. Seven tips to make yourself happier in the next hour' is a typical post (do a nagging task; lay some groundwork for some future fun), and her one-minute rule (if you can do an irksome task in less than a minute, do it) turns out to be strangely effective.
As intangible as the concept of happiness is, Rubin is somehow tracing a path from the thinking of the greatest philosophers into the practicalities of daily living. “It’s not hard,” she says. “It’s just about joining the dots.”
Here are some of her insights:
Keep an easy diary
I started keeping a one-sentence journal because I knew I would never be able to keep a proper diary with lengthy entries. This way, it's a manageable task, so it doesn't make me feel burdened; it gives a feeling of accomplishment and progress, the atmosphere of growth so important to happiness; it helps keep happy memories vivid, and it gives me a reason to pause thinking lovingly about the members of my family.
We tend to overestimate what we can do in the short term, and underestimate what we can do in the long term, if we do a little bit at a time. Writing one sentence a day sounds fairly easy, and it is; at the end of the year, it adds up to a marvellous record.
Make yourself happier in the next hour
Check off as many of the following as possible in one hour:
Tips for maintaining friendships
Realistic rules for boosting productivity
An accumulation of tiny tasks combine to make me feel overwhelmed.For that reason, many of my most important, daily personal productivity rules are very low-tech and simple. I confess: I can't touch each piece of paper just once; I can't return every e-mail within a day; I can't always maintain a clear desk. Nevertheless, I've found some realistic strategies for getting things done. If I can keep little chores from piling up, I feel more capable of tackling bigger tasks.
How to get along with the in-laws
Happiness boosters that do more harm than good
Beware if you are tempted to try any of the following
*. Staying in your pyjamas all day: Sometimes this can be a fun thing to do, but if you're feeling lethargic, powerless, or directionless, not getting dressed is going to make you feel even worse. Put on your clothes – including your shoes – so you feel prepared for whatever the day might offer. While you're at it, make your bed.
How to deal with a lousy day
We’ve all had terrible, horrible, very bad days. Here are some strategies I use:
Learn to deal calmly with criticism
I have a very hard time being criticised, corrected, or accused – even of the smallest mistakes. Here are some of the strategies that I try to use to accept criticism.
– The Independent