“Accept Yourself, and Expect More From Yourself”: A Q &A with Gretchen Rubin

I bought Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project in early 2010 after reading about it in a magazine, and within hours had covered it in my personal hieroglyphics of passionate response. Hearts, stars, underlinings, circlings, exclamation points, “I agree”s, “yes!”es, and smiley faces from my pen covered, decorated, and bedecked its pages, making it almost unreadable by anyone other than myself (these scribblings, however, just ensured that I’d buy more copies and give them as gifts to friends and family members rather than loan out my precious copy!). What a kindred spirit, I thought! And how is it possible that although we both did our undergraduate and graduate degrees at Yale, we both had family members in the legal world, and we were both devoted aficionados of children’s literature, we’d never met or crossed paths in any way? When, almost a year later, my publisher told me that Gretchen had sent in a wonderful blurb for my first book, THE ANTI-ROMANTIC CHILD, it was one of those moments you’ll never forget as a publishing newbie. We’d received no blurbs yet, and the first one we got was from Gretchen Rubin?! I hadn’t even known we’d sent her a galley. I was a huge fan of this author, and she loved my book!

Gretchen and I have since become online friends, and she recently sent me a copy of her just-published book Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life. I am delighted to report that I loved it even more than I loved The Happiness Project. I found it wiser, deeper, purer, more beautiful and true. I could not stop reading aloud from it to my husband and laughing hard, nodding vigorously, or putting my hand over my heart while I did so. It is so smart in the least pretentious and most accessible way and so endearing in its honesty and vulnerability and sweet Gretchen-ness. I felt an even more powerful sense of kinship with Gretchen- I too hate driving, need to “give myself limits to give myself freedom,” and love Little House in the Big Woods and the cozy, snug, sacred sense of home it embodies- and I also felt such gratitude to Gretchen for her reminders that we are all different and her refusal to give easy answers or one-size-fits-all solutions. Happier at Home is a true pleasure to read- reading it made me very happy indeed!- and a veritable storehouse of helpful tips, profound insights, adorable, charming, illustrative anecdotes, and compassionate solidarity with all of us who struggle to make ourselves happier- and that means all of us!

Gretchen generously agreed to answer an eclectic bunch of questions that I posed to her. Here’s our dialogue!

1) I absolutely love your formulation: “every day, I remind myself to accept myself, and expect more from myself.” This is a very difficult balance to strike, and one I think many people puzzle over how to achieve. How do you, Gretchen, simultaneously demonstrate self-compassion and encourage yourself to do better? What helps you to both know and accept yourself as you are (Be Gretchen!) and motivate you to do and be more (“Choose the Bigger Life”)?

As you say, this is a difficult balance. W. H. Auden articulates this tension beautifully: “Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.” It is really a matter of constant self-reflection and acknowledgment.

2) Your point that giving gifts to others is a great way to foster happiness in oneself really resonated with me. I’m a passionate gift-giver and buy gifts for my loved ones all year long, then store them in my filing cabinets until the occasion arises to give them! I’m always looking for new shopping venues to find unique, nourishing, and charming things. What are your favorite stores or websites to buy gifts?

Bookstores! Hardware stores and office supply stores. My favorite perfume stores (Frederic Malle, CB I Hate Perfume, Jo Malone.) In my family, we are often very specific about what we want as a gift, so it’s very satisfying to know that you’re giving something that someone REALLY does want.

3) Inspired by The Happiness Project and your work, I bought Bluebirds of Happiness from the wonderful Chinaberry catalogue for myself and my fiance for Christmas in 2011- they made exquisite, albeit fragile, stocking stuffers!- and then we gave our 3 children each a bluebird after our wedding in February 2012. These beautiful glass birds are such an easy and inexpensive way to bring joy to everyday life. What are some other objects or small items that you would recommend to parents or spouses looking for an inexpensive gift with maximum happiness boosting potential?

This is so specific to a person…I’m not sure there’s one suggestion that would be widely applicable.

4) Describe one possession of yours that gives you immense happiness every time you look at it.

My laptop. I take it with me everywhere I go, and everything that’s important to me is in there somehow.

5) If you could take only 5 books to a desert island, what would they be and why? Tough question, I know!

I simply can’t answer a question like this. I can’t choose! It makes my head explode. I have far too many favorites.

6) I wholeheartedly share your passion for children’s literature and your belief that reading it is one of the best spurs to happiness and one of the most effective antidotes to melancholy. What are your daughters’ favorite books? Are there any books that you loved as a child that they didn’t much care for? Any newer books they introduced you to?

Hmmmm….I guess I just don’t think in terms of “favorites.” Too hard! We have books that we love. My older daughter doesn’t love high fantasy, so
while I love something like the Narnia books, she doesn’t.

7) As the former associate editor of the Johnsonian Newsletter, I was thrilled to see that Samuel Johnson both gave you the title of your book and informed its pages in all sorts of profound and surprising ways. When and how did you discover Johnson and why is his writing so appealing, thought-provoking, and inspiring to you?

When I read Samuel Johnson, I feel as if I understand myself better. In a few sentences, he can illuminate very complex aspects of human nature. He’s like Orwell, in that you can’t predict what his arguments will be or how they will unfold. And, of course, he’s funny. He’s a great patron saint for people doing happiness projects, because he made and broke so many resolutions throughout his life. For instance, when he was 55 years old, he wrote:

“I have now spent fifty-five years in resolving; having, from the earliest
time almost that I can remember, been forming schemes of a better life. I
have done nothing. The need of doing, therefore, is pressing, since the time
of doing is short. O GOD, grant me to resolve aright, and to keep my
resolutions, for JESUS CHRIST’S sake.”

From Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson

8) What piece of music or song invariably makes you feel happier?

I don’t have much of an ear for music, I have to confess, and when I do love a song, I have a bad habit of wearing it out–I listen to it too many times, and then don’t love it as much. But for a long time I’ve especially loved Fat Boy Slim’s “Praise You.” I love it (and it always reminds me to appreciate my husband). When I was writing Happier at Home, I was obsessed with the song “Raggle Taggle Gypsy,” though it doesn’t make me feel quite “happy.” In my mind, I have a category of things that I love that contain what I call “symbols beyond words,” and this song is in that category.

9) What are 3 quick happiness boosts that you’d recommend to:

new parents?

Get enough sleep. Under-react to a problem. Remember these Secrets of Adulthood: You know as much as most people; most decisions don’t require extensive research.

someone going through a difficult time professionally?

Get enough sleep. Stay connected to friends. Try to keep a sense of humor.

a new college student?

Get enough sleep. Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself. Be [insert your name here]

someone with a cold or other mild illness?

Get enough sleep. Manage pain and discomfort. First things first.

10) I moved recently (combining two apartments and two households), and wow has it been tough! Knowing that moving is typically associated with great unhappiness both reduced my anxiety and made me itchy for concrete strategies to ease the seemingly inevitable stress. Six months after moving, we are still in the process of making our new apartment homey, and after reading Happiness at Home, I realized that my husband has unwittingly been creating what you call “shrines” (so far, we have Music, Fun and Games,Children’s Literature, and Family)! What advice do you have for people who are in the process of transitioning from one home to another? What are some quick and easy ways to make a new space feel homey, and happy? What are some long-range strategies or approaches for designing a happy home?

Go through your stuff as you pack and get rid of everything you don’t use, don’t need, or don’t love. Don’t move it to the new place! Don’t keep things that are part of a fantasy of who you are (e.g., a bread-maker) but aren’t actually used, needed, or loved. Find ways to spotlight possessions that make you happy. Be very wary of letting things into your home–once there, they’re very hard to remove. Don’t “store” much–things that are “stored” are generally never used (except for seasonal items), so why are you keeping them? I highly recommend Christopher Alexander’s book A PATTERN LANGUAGE for a new way to think about designing spaces. It blew my mind.

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the #1 New York Times and international bestseller, The Happiness Project—an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. On her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness. In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place. Starting in September (the new January), Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood. The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”

Gretchen Rubin’s newest book, Happier at Home, is now in stores! You can follow Gretchen at http://happiness-project.com

 

A Q &A with National Book Award Winning Author Kathryn Erskine

 

In November 2010, my editor, Claire Wachtel, sent me an email that went something like this: “book about girl with aspergers just won Natl Book Award.  called Mockingbird.”  I immediately bought the book and read it through a haze of awe-struck tears.   I became a Mockingbird proselytizer, buying multiple copies and sending them as thank-you gifts to my literary agent and my editorial team at Harper, recommending it with fervor to every sensitive reader I know.  On a whim, I sent Kathryn Erskine a galley of my book and thought “there goes nothing; how many books must she receive?”   Then one day many months later, a friend emailed me :”did you see that Kathryn Erskine just gave your book 5 stars on GoodReads?!”   That was an amazing moment!  I contacted Kathy via Good Reads and thanked her for making my day;  she wrote back immediately and sent me a generous blurb, which appears inside the paperback version of The Anti-Romantic Child.  Kathy has since published a very different kind of YA novel, The Absolute Value of Mike, which my 13 year old Benj devoured, chuckling and laughing uproariously and nodding as he did so.   I’m honored that Kathy has agreed to answer my questions about her favorite books for people of all ages, and the music, visual art, movies, food, and places that inspire and nourish her.

But first, in the spirit of this blog’s ongoing theme of resilience, here’s one of my favorite quotations from Mockingbird:

“I don’t think I’m going to like it at all. I think it’s going to hurt. But after the hurt I think maybe something good and strong and beautiful will come out of it.”
Kathryn Erskine, Mockingbird

Questions about Books:

What are some of your favorite books for

babies/toddlers (birth-3)?

I think reading babies and toddlers to sleep with any children’s books is wonderful, but for active engagement I’d want to include GOODNIGHT MOON by Margaret Wise Brown, BROWN BEAR by Eric Carle (and any Eric Carle books), GOODNIGHT GORILLA, and anything with color and rhythm.

young children, ages 3-6?

Dr. Seuss and anything with rhyming, engaging language.  There’s a world of wonderful picture books out there.  Here are just some of my recent favorites:

MOUSE WAS MAD, Linda Urban

THE BOY WHO HARNESSED THE WIND, William Kamkwamba

HALF PINT PETE THE PIRATE and PIRATE PRINCESS (and others), Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

IS YOUR BUFFALO READY FOR KINDERGARTEN? and TEACH YOUR BUFFALO TO PLAY DRUMS, Audrey Vernick

JOSIAS, HOLD THE BOOK, Jenn Elvgren

DUMPLING SOUP, Jama Kim Rattigan

ME…JANE, Patrick McDonnell

JO MACDONALD HAD A GARDEN and PIRATE vs. PIRATE, Mary Quattlebaum

HOW ROCKET LEARNED TO READ, Tad Hills

A TIME TO PRAY, Maha Addasi

CROCODADDY and JACK OF ALL TAILS, Kim Norman

ME WITH YOU and SURFER CHICK, Kristy Dempsey

TIA ISA WANTS A CAR, Meg Medina

FLY FREE, Roseanne Thong

ALFIE THE APOSTROPHE and PENNY AND THE PUNCTUATION BEE, Moira Donohue

MARTIN DE PORRES: THE ROSE IN THE DESERT, Gary Schmidt

young readers 6-10?

They tend to love series at the early elementary age, so books like THE MAGIC TREEHOUSE (Mary Pope Osborne), THE BUDDY FILES (Dori Hillestad Butler), and CLEMENTINE (Sara Pennypacker) are great for the younger set, as well as beautiful stand alones like THE WATSONS GO TO BIRMINGHAM 1963 (Christopher Paul Curtis), HOUND DOG TRUE (Linda Urban), BECAUSE OF WINN DIXIE (Kate DiCamillo), LOVE THAT DOG (Sharon Creech), and SAVVY (Ingrid Law).  As they get older, there’s the HARRY POTTER (J.K. Rowling) and INKHEART (Cornelia Funke) series, two of my favorite, and a whole wealth of wonderful novels … I could go on forever so I’d better stop now!
YA readers?

Here goes, to name just a few:

THE BOOK THIEF, Markus Zusak

BUCKING THE SARGE, Christopher Paul Curtis

CONVERTING KATE, Beckie Weinheimer

FEED, M.T. Anderson

SPUD, John van de Ruit

THE GIRL WHO COULD SILENCE THE WIND, Meg Medina

LIZZIE BRIGHT AND THE BUCKMINSTER BOY, Gary D. Schmidt

RESTORING HARMONY, Joelle Anthony

PURPLE HEART, Patricia McCormick

HEART OF A SAMURAI, Margi Preus

BAMBOO PEOPLE, Mitali Perkins

MILLIONS, Frank Cottrell Boyce

LOST BOY, LOST GIRL: ESCAPING CIVIL WAR IN SUDAN, John Bul Dau

A LONG WALK TO WATER, Linda Sue Park

NOW IS THE TIME FOR RUNNING, Michael Williams

SEEDFOLKS, Paul Fleischman

grownups?

Anything on the YA list and TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  Some great reads include Alexander McCall Smith’s series, THE NO. 1 LADIES’ DETECTIVE AGENCY, MAJOR PETTIGREW’S LAST STAND by Helen Simonson, ROOM by Emma Donoghue, THE GOOD DAUGHTER by Jasmin Darznik, and THE SECRET LIFE OF BEES by Sue Monk Kidd.
What is the one book you think every writer should read?

It’s a toss up between Stephen King’s ON WRITING and Anne Lamott’s BIRD BY BIRD.  They’re both part memoir and part craft advice, and both excellent.

What is the one book you think every parent should read?

RAISING CHILDREN WHO THINK FOR THEMSELVES by Elisa Medhus, particularly today when we seem to have grown overprotective of our kids who are capable of so much more than we expect from them.

What is the one book you think every human should read?

MAN’S SEARCH FOR MEANING by Viktor Frankl.  And, of course, TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD by Harper Lee.  (Sorry, I couldn’t help adding that.  I’m not very good at picking ONE book, am I?)

Questions about Music:

I love the Playlists section of your website, where you share the songs you listened to while working on your books.  Can you tell us a little more about how music inspires you and informs your writing?

Although I don’t listen to music while I write–I need silence–I always create playlists of songs that I associate with a novel in progress.  They’re songs that make me think of the characters, the time, the place, or somehow remind me of the story.  Then, I listen to that playlist while I’m driving or walking so I can keep the story present in my mind.  Often, I’ll come up with ideas or solutions to problems while listening to the playlist.  It’s kind of fun to post them on my blog (which reminds me, I’m behind in doing that) and also to hear what songs others come up with for my novel.  Sometimes book groups will send me their list of songs for the novel which I always find fascinating.

Do you play an instrument?  If not, what instrument would you most like to play?

I play flute a little bit.  I’m thinking of taking up the ukulele because guitar was a little difficult for me and I think the uke would be more manageable.  I love the violin, though, and if there weren’t such a learning curve that my family (and I) would have to suffer through, I would probably try it.
Who is your favorite singer/songwriter and why?

It’s so hard to pick one.  It depends heavily on my mood.  I like the Scottish twins, The Proclaimers, anything by Miriam Makeba, Motown, classic rock, and young start up bands like La Crosse, Wisconsin’s Neon.

Who is your favorite composer and why?

Again, it’s so hard to choose just one.  I love the security and predictability of Vivaldi, Boccherini and Bach, and any of the classical pieces transcribed or written by guitarists Andres Segovia, John Williams, or Julian Bream.

Questions about Other Forms of Nourishment:

I know that you are a chocoholic like me!  What are your favorite kinds, forms, and brands of chocolate?

There are so many!  I still enjoy my childhood favorites like Cadbury’s Fruit & Nut and Reese’s peanut butter cups, but I’ve matured to dark chocolate, particularly Ritter Sport with hazelnuts, anything Fair Trade (Divine, Dagoba, Green & Black’s) and best of all, Gearhart’s, my local chocolatier.

Who is your favorite visual artist?

My daughter.  :o)

What are your some of your favorite movies?

Mostly funny, but with heart, like The Princess Bride, The Full Monty, Galaxy Quest, classics like To Kill a Mockingbird, documentaries like Lost Boys of Sudan or small indies such as The Dish, The Station Agent, and Waking Ned Devine.

What are some of your favorite places in the world?

Scotland, Italy, Guam, Maritime Canada, Boyds Mills, PA, the woods near my house, my desk when the house is quiet and I can write.

Kathryn Erskine spent many years as a lawyer before realizing that she’d rather write things that people might actually enjoy reading.  She grew up mostly overseas and attended eight different schools, her favorite being the Hogwarts-type castle in Scotland.  The faculty, of course, did not consist of wizards, although . . . how did the headmistress know that it was “the wee redhead” who led the campaign to free the mice from the biology lab?  Erskine draws on her life stories to write her novels including Quaking, an ALA Top Ten Quick Pick for Reluctant Readers, Mockingbird, 2010 National Book Award winner, The Absolute Value of Mike, a Junior Library Guild selection, and the upcoming Facing Freedom (Fall 2013).

 

Follow @PriscillaGilman on Twitter

Connect with Priscilla Gilman on Facebook

Get Priscilla’s Q&As and blog pieces in your inbox

Enter your email address: