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Gretchen Rubin Reveals Happiness Secrets

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Gretchen Rubin spent a year test-driving happiness theories—from modern science to ancient wisdom to pop culture—chronicling her experiment in the #1 New York Times bestseller, “The Happiness Project.”

We recently asked Rubin to share her most surprising insights:

What were the most surprising things you learned about happiness during your research?
Gretchen Rubin: One of the things that really surprised me was that people who have novel experiences are happier. That’s interesting for me–I’m not adventurous. I like to do very few things, all the time. I like familiarity and mastery, and that’s what makes me happy.

This idea of novelty and challenge is tied to this notion of growth. People are happier when they’re learning new things. Novelty and challenge are part of growth—that’s something that really surprised me.

What else did you find surprising?
Gretchen Rubin: I really was surprised by how much, for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. Disproportionately. There’s something disproportionately cheering about getting things in order, clearing clutter, feeling your stuff is nicely put away nicely organized and you’re not under the crush of clutter.

In my next book (Happier at Home) I talk a lot about possessions. Everybody should have as much as they can productively engage with. If you have more than that, you’re feeling overwhelmed, and like you’re weighed down with junk.

Anything else that was particularly surprising?
Gretchen Rubin: One thing that surprised me about myself is how hard it is to be yourself and know yourself. This is the most ancient advice. “Know Thyself” is on the Temple of the Apollo at Delphi.

It was in a happiness project that I realized how often I was mislead by the way I wish I were, or what I think other people wish I were, or just sheer inertia, not making my own choices. The more that I really, consciously, thought about my interests, my values, my temperament, and made sure that my life was in line with that–it just sounds so obvious–but when you actually do try to do it, it is quite challenging. More than you might think.

If someone wanted to be happier, what would be the Number 1, No. 2, and No. 3 steps they should take?
Gretchen Rubin: Number One is to know yourself, and be true to yourself.

It’s more like Number One, One, and One. So, Number One: Ancient philosophers and modern scientists would agree, if you have to pick a key to happiness, that would be strong relationships with other people. Anything you can do to strengthen your relationships with people or build new relationships should make you happier.

Another thing I would say—to be very basic—is that I think that sometimes people get caught up in the transcendent, complex ideas about happiness, and they overlook the most obvious things. If you want to have a happy life, start with your own body: are you getting enough sleep? I speak to people and they say, I’m exhausted, I’m overwhelmed, I hate everything. Get enough exercise! It helps you sleep, it energizes you. It really helps people stay feeling happier.

Also, managed pain: Even low-level managed pain is a big drag on happiness. You need to see a doctor. Do you let yourself get too hungry or too hot? A lot of people have too much light in their office. Do you have too much noise? How can your physical experience be improved?

So that’s One, One and One: know thyself, strong relationships, and taking care of the body.

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