The Happiness Project

“You Don’t Have To Live Your Life the Way Other People Expect You To”

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.

Chris Guillebeau has a terrific blog, the Art of Non-Conformity , “unconventional strategies for life, work, and travel.” For example, one of the unconventional goals he has set for himself: to try to visit every country in the world. So far he has visited more than 100. I myself do not have the wanderlust gene, and I get a vicarious pleasure from reading about other people’s strenuous travels (a pleasure untroubled by any desire to do so myself!).

He’s also interested in “the convergence between highly personal goals and service to others”—a very happiness-project-y concern. Like me, Chris is a member of the fantastic LifeRemix network (lots of great blogs gathered there).

Chris and I have many interests in common—yet we’re also quite different from each other—so I was very curious to read his answers to these questions about happiness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Chris: Afternoon coffee breaks. It’s not the most unconventional ritual, but it works for me. I try not to attempt much in the way of productive activity between 2 and 4 p.m. most days. I’ve found that if I spend that time reading and relaxing, my post-afternoon work (and happiness level in general) will be much better.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That I am allowed to be happy. I used to be a fairly unhappy, resentful person. Part of that came out of a difficult childhood, so it wasn’t necessarily all my fault, but I also believe that after a certain point you have to be responsible for yourself. When I started taking responsibility for my own life and not following the same path I saw other people taking, I became much, much happier. The shift was huge.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Trying to be responsible for everything and everyone. This is an impossible quest, of course, and whenever I try and fail, I become unhappy.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”)
I tried reminding myself to be Gretchen, but that was confusing. :)

I really like the motto: “You don’t have to live your life the way other people expect you to.” It’s something I’ve latched on to and used as the mantra for my crusade on convention.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy—if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
As I alluded to earlier, I used to be a very unhappy person. I became happier by a) carefully examining a number of areas of my life that were not creating happiness for me, and b) taking a series of small-to-big actions to change that. Over time it worked very well. I feel like I’m in the 92nd percentile of happiness these days. I think I’d like to go to about the 98th, so I’m working on that.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Yes. For me it begins with an active process of goal-setting where I spend a full week every December thinking about what I want to accomplish over the next year. I review what went well in the present year and what didn’t. Based on that analysis, I’ll set three to five goals each in eight to 10 categories for the next year. I then spend much of the next year focused on the things I identified as being important to me.

Note: If this process sounds excessively rigid or formal, it’s really not. I’m more right-brained than left, and this kind of goal-setting is meant to be a creative, free-flowing exercise that I am also free to alter during the year.

I also spend a lot of time traveling, which generally makes me happy depending on the context and what else is happening. I usually go to at least 20 countries a year, including a number of off-the-grid places like Pakistan and Syria. That part might not work for everyone, but for some reason it suits me nicely—so I’ve learned not to question it too much.

* I met Amy Krouse Rosenthal at a BBQ this summer, and it was only later that I realized that A) she wrote one of my favorite picture books, Little Pea , and B) her ” The Beckoning of Lovely ” video is very happiness-project-y. It’s really worth checking out.

* As I posted yesterday , I’m trying to figure out the level of interest for a book tour. If I did a book event in your town, and you’d come, it would be very helpful if you’d either post a comment below or drop me an email at grubin[at]gretchenrubin[dot com] . (Sorry about the weird format—trying to thwart spammers). Just write “tour” in the subject line and be sure to include the name of your city! Thanks very much to all the people who already answered; the information is enormously helpful.