The Happiness Project

Running, Conversation, and a Blue Sweater

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

I was very happy to get the chance to meet Jacqueline Novogratz, the founder/CEO of the Acumen Fund , a nonprofit venture fund that uses philanthropic capital to build businesses that serve the poor in the developing world. It’s a very interesting strategy for making a difference in the world—”Patient Capital,” which means – rather than giving money to worthy causes or focusing on markets only – strategically investing in building enterprises (e.g., providing water, housing, energy) that make poor people’s lives better. So far, Acumen has invested about $40 million in forty enterprises in South Asia and East Africa, which has meant more than 25,000 jobs and services delivered to tens of millions low-income people.

She recently wrote a terrific book, The Blue Sweater , that tells the story of how she left banking to start work as a “social investor.”

The Second Splendid Truth holds that:
One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy;
One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself .

Jacqueline struck me as a very happy person—and partly, she says, that happiness comes from knowing that she’s doing work that is meant to boost other people’s happiness, by giving them lives of greater health, security, and opportunity.

I was very interested to hear more of her thoughts about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Jacqueline: I love to run in the early mornings, especially with a friend or sibling. I love watching places wake up. I love experiencing nature (even a small part when I’m in the city). I love starting the day with stories and laughter. I love sitting on the floor with women in low-income communities and listening to their stories.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That life is never perfect, and that it is often in its imperfection that we discover life’s greatest beauty.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
Commit to something bigger than yourself. For commitment will set you free.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
Running, of course, or a long conversation with a good friend or family member.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
People who live in the future rather than the present often seem to find happiness elusive. I remember a story my mother told me about being a young mother visiting my father who was on a furlough from Viet Nam in Hawaii. She met four older women who were sitting around a table by the pool, sipping cocktails. The women had each made big plans with their husbands to go on Hawaiian vacations “when they retired.” All of the husbands had died before the vacations were taken and so the four women decided to go together anyway, though all regretted having put their dreams off to a day that never happened.

At Acumen, I’m often approached by young people who want to express dissatisfaction in their careers and dream of changing the world. At the same time, they feel they can’t do it until they’ve “repaid their debt, earned enough money to have real freedom, gained all the skills they need.” People, of course, can’t make change until they are ready to do so. But the happiest people on earth are following their true passions, and that always entails taking risks, being uncomfortable and making sacrifices. And those risks and sacrifices only become more difficult as we get older….

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
I work on being all I can be and surrounding myself with people who also feel that way, who want to live out loud and give back somehow to the world; and that makes me happy.

* How fabulous! I just discovered Future Me , a site that allows you to send an email to yourself in the future. One of my favorite ways of making decisions is to think about what, in five years, I’ll have wished that I’d done. One fascinating feature of the site is the ability to eavesdrop on what other people have emailed to themselves – and that reminds me of the fabulous site…Wait! Can’t say until tomorrow. Stay tuned.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email 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.