Savvy Speaks with The Happiness Project's Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin
June 25, 2008

We at The Savvy Source are devotees of Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project.  Gretchen manages to weave comments on parenting seamlessly into the rest of her musings on how to be happy, and she somehow pulls off being smart, down-to-earth, inspiring, self-aware and approachable -- all at the same time!  She's, in a word, savvy. 

If you don't know her yet, you'll love meeting her.  If you do, you'll really swoon at our (virtual) sit-down with Gretchen that follows!

This month's Being Savvy theme is All About Me me being mostly our preschoolers but sometimes, blessedly, ourselves too.  What is the one most important thing a parent can do to be happy?

This may sound too simplistic, but I think one of the most important things is to get enough SLEEP. It's so tempting to stay up late, to enjoy the precious adult time after the kids go to bed, but if you're like most people, you should go to sleep earlier especially if you can't count on sleeping through the night. 

Everything seems harder when you're tired. Studies show that sleep deprivation is one of the leading causes of mood disorder at work, and I think the same thing is true for the tough work of being a parent. So step away from the computer, turn off the TV, put down the book, and turn off the light!

We hear it all the time:  I just want my kid to be happy.  But how do we really do that it?  Is that what we should be hoping for?  What can we do now to help our kids grow up into teenagers and adults who are happy?

Well, I think that there is a certain amount of normal social pain that goes with being a kid. It's especially tough to be a tween and a teen. We, as parents, can't take that away, and it probably wouldn't be good for our kids, if we could.

That said, I think that respecting children's own natures is critical to helping them be happy. We, as parents, help them understand themselves. We can give them the sense of being loveable and accepted. We can make them feel secure in their world.

Children's happiness is so gratifying that I think some parents overindulge their children, just from the gratification of seeing the joy in their faces. But alas, the more you give, the less bang for the buck you get and they get. I have to hold myself back from bringing home little treats. I know that a treat only stays a treat when it's rare and unexpected.

Of course, grandparents get to do whatever they want!

Some of the hallmarks of your personal Happiness Project seem readily adaptable to families.  How would you advise a family to create a personalized set of your Twelve Commandments?  Or resolutions?  Or month-by-month goals?

I recommend asking yourself two questions:

1. As a family, what brings us happiness? How and when do we have fun? What do we enjoy doing?

2. As a family, what makes us unhappy? What situations make us argue, nag, and whine? When do we experience bad times?

Once you've focused on the good times and the bad times, think about how you could have more of the former and less of the latter.

So, for example, we love traditions. With this in mind, I've gone out of my way to develop more traditions: Restaurant Night, Movie Night, semi-annual granddaughter-grandfather lunch at grandfather's office, April Fool's tricks, and I plan to inaugurate Holiday Breakfasts (which reminds me, I need to buy some 4th of July stuff to decorate the table).

I also realized that we always suffered when anyone was allowed to get too hungry. All of us, my husband and I included, get extremely crabby when we haven't eaten recently. So now I pay a lot more attention to that aspect of life. I never leave home without kids' snacks. If I feel myself getting hungry, I eat right away. If someone is having a melt-down, I get out the jar of almonds. This sounds a bit silly, but it turned out that this simple step actually made a noticeable difference. Even with my husband.

Like your Secrets of Adulthood, do you have a list of Secrets of Parenthood? 

Yup!

-Most people aren't interested in hearing at length about your children.

-As soon as you develop a schedule, your child will outgrow it.

-You are as good a parent as most people.

-What you do most days matters more than what you do once in a while.

-You can't profoundly change your children's natures by signing them up for classes or nagging them. (This Secret is phrased far more elegantly by Montaigne, who wrote, Natural inclinations are assisted and reinforced by education, but they are hardly ever altered or overcome.)

-The days are long, but the years are short.

Maybe your readers will send in their Secrets of Parenthood. I'm sure it would be invaluable to learn from other people's experiences.

What about a First Splendid Truth of Parenting?  (Perhaps it's the same as the First Splendid Truth in the rest of your life, and that's the splendidness of it.)

The First Splendid Truth of Parenting is bittersweet:  The days are long, but the years are short. Whenever I'm annoyed about my younger daughter's resistance to toilet-training, or her tantrums, or my older daughter's bugging me about getting her ears pierced, or about all the Polly Pockets shoes that litter our apartment, I remind myself this will all be over so, so soon, and then I'll be as wildly nostalgic for the Watch me do another somersault phase as I am for the baby-food-from-a-jar stage now.

The corollary to the First Splendid Truth: take pictures! Keep a one-sentence journal! Make time for traditions and projects that mark time in a special way! I splurge and have professional photographs taken of my girls once a year. The quality of the pictures is so superior to what I can take myself -- there's nothing on which I spend money that brings me greater joy.

How has your Happiness Project made your whole family happier?

One of my main goals for the Happiness Project was to make the atmosphere of my house more loving, more tender, and more fun. To do that, I follow resolutions like, Quit nagging, Follow the one-minute rule, Take time to be silly, No snapping, Think of small treats or courtesies, Leave things unsaid, Sing in the morning, Cultivate rituals and traditions, Listen, engage, put down my book! Acknowledge the reality of other people's feelings, Be a storehouse of happy memories, and Take time for projects.

All of the resolutions, and many others, have added a lot to the happiness of my whole family. These aren't hard to do, but I had to decide to follow them, and follow through.

But I can see that they absolutely do make a difference. My household seems more filled with love and fun, less with griping, snapping, and exasperation.

Your podcast How to Be a Light-Hearted Parent is a delightful commentary on our days as parents.  We especially like your adoption of key preschool classroom rules like you get what you get and you don't get upset as house rules.  Are there any other lessons from your daughters' preschool experiences that feature in your approach to a happy life?

My daughter's preschool experience highlighted for me the importance, to small children, of predictability and order. The nursery school teachers keep an unfaltering schedule with a well-established home for every toy or book.

So at home, I strive to keep a highly predictable schedule, especially for bedtime. Easier said than done, right? I also try to keep my daughter's belongings not in great order, I have to confess but at least organized enough so that she knows where to find what she wants.

I can tell that my daughter is very reassured by knowing what to expect and where to find her particular treasures.

Other helpful mantras: Sit square in your chair, Inside voices, and One per customer.

Also, just as nursery school is designed with the capacity of the children in mind, I try to be realistic about what I can expect from my kids. For example, during holidays, the grandparents often argue that they can stay up late, just this once. Or that they can eat dinner with the adults at 8:00 and they'll be fine. Or maybe we can go to the pool, and eat lunch, and then go to the zoo. Nope! Everyone is happier, in the end, if we remember what keeps little kids on an even keel.

We are big fans of your One-Minute Movie.  It's on our short list of Coolest Things the Internet Brought into Our Lives, honestly.  How can you remember to keep the lovely perspective in the movie during some of those especially long days?

This is tough. When day-to-day life is so overwhelming, it can be hard to step back and remember how precious this time is. I think it requires a fair bit of mental discipline to remind yourself how fleeting are the days of Cheerios and princess costumes.

One of the reasons I loved making that movie was that the act of doing it helped me keep that thought uppermost in my mind. It was also a snapshot of a particular moment, now gone.

If there were just three things you could tell your kids about how to make themselves happy, what would they be?  Are they the same things you'd tell your closest friend about how to make herself happy?  If not, what would you tell her?

The three things would be the same.

The first, and most important, is Be yourself. Why is this so hard? I have no idea. But my resolution to Be Gretchen is a constant challenge. It's so important, though, to knowing what job you should seek, what education you should seek, what you should do with your leisure timeeverything. As parents, we can interfere with our children's attempts to be themselves.

The second thing is to Get plenty of sleep and exercise. These aren't profound, but they're critically important to a happy life. Sleep and exercise bring energy and a sense of well-being that make it easier to do all the other things that bring happiness. A lack of energy makes it seem hard even to do things that should be fun.

The third thing is Make time for friends and family. The wisdom of the ages, and the current scientific studies, show that our relationships with other people are the KEY to happiness. Children are going through different developmental stages in their relationships, of course, but for them, too, loving and stable relationships are critically important.

 

From the Parents

  • Parent # 1

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    over a year ago

  • Parent # 2

    none

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 3

    I just desired to drop in and mention howdy to everyone. I wanted to acquaint myself, my name is Josh. I decided to post now because I think message board as a whole is very useful and informal place. I enjoy reading all of the issues and topics here and being that I am not much of a poster, I decided to make my very first topic. I recently created my very first website and felt the need to share it with all and get some constructive feedback. The site is http://computerrepair101.wetpaint.com - computer repair

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 4

    Thank you for a wonderful and thought-provoking project! My husband and I spent some time recently discussing the strengths and characteristics of our two very different daughters. We had fun speculating what they might grow up to be or where their artistic, musical or athletic talents might lie. But mostly, we enjoyed reflecting on the uniqueness and beauty of the here and now. Thank you, Gretchen, for the eloquent description of your family happiness project.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 5

    Thank you for introducing me to the Happiness Project. A "Secret of Parenting" I would add is "Choose Your Attitude". Whether you have a good day or a horrible day depends as much or more on how you look at things that happen as what happens. It's not always easy to choose to be relaxed and happy, but it is well worth it. In addition to improving your life, choosing to have a positive attitude sets a great example for your children as well and prepares them for dealing with the challenges life is sure to throw their way.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 6

    Another great mantra to come out of preschool is "You get what you get and you don't throw a fit!". The kids catch on to this one pretty quick!

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 7

    Gretchen comes across as very thoughtful and earnest about self-improvement and improving the lives of those around her. Although you haven't asked for it, here is one of my Secrets of Parenting: Your kids are always watching. That is to say, don't yell at your kids to stop yelling; don't ask yourself why your tween daughter is self-conscious about her looks and her body when you can't stop obsessing about your weight and you tell her you need implants because it will make you feel better about yourself. Kids are masterful at picking up on actions--they speak louder than words.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 8

    Thank you so much for bringing us more of Gretchen's wisdom. She is truly a bright light in our snark-filled world.

    over a year ago

  • Parent # 9

    I was inspired reading most of Gretchen Rubin's commentary though I would have to disagree with her unyielding emphasis on routine. While I think it's true that younger kids in particular thrive on predictability, I don't see the harm in shaking things up once in awhile for a good cause. If a special relative were in town, for instance, I would personally allow my child to stay up a bit later. Sure, he'd probably be cranky the next day, but for me, spending time with family would outweigh the need to maintain strictly to routine.

    over a year ago

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