Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin (2012)

In my family of devoted book-worms, there are times in which we all retreat into re-reading our beloved favorites. When things are hectic and time is short, when we feel rushed or harried or mentally drained, we all reach for books we know and love, books which we know will both soothe and entertain us. For my younger sons, it is the easy books from their younger years — ones they know will be quick to re-read and good for a laugh — our battered copies of Big Nate and Diary of a Wimpy Kid (sometimes even Captain Underpants if things seem particularly unsettled).

For my husband and teenage son, it is always the Harry Potter books, which they will read out-of-order and in random snippets here and there, as a way to settle down after days have have demanded a lot from them mentally.

But for me, it is always my worn, signed copies of the non-fiction books by my favorite author — and my happiness guru — Gretchen Rubin. This month has been trying on many levels, with work, family, and community projects demanding unusual amounts of my time, patience, and mental energy. To calm down and refocus myself, I picked up my copy of Happier At Home, and dove back into Rubin’s reflective, thought-provoking discussions of home. This book always engages and excites me, but I found it particularly poignant this month as my husband and I face a move to a new city. What I think of as my “home” and “neighborhood,” may being changing dramatically, but reading about a deeper, more philosophical approach to these ideals was both reassuring and invigorating.

Here is the repost of one of my favorite re-reads, Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin….

Originally posted September 30 2015 at https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/gretchen-rubin-part-2/

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Happier at Home focuses on the physical spaces we inhabit and the people with whom we inhabit them. Here Rubin looks at her belongings, her relationships, her neighborhood, and her work for ways to enhance happiness for all. (Being kinder and less rushed, holding doors, stopping to say hello: all small ways to strengthen happiness of family and strangers.) Reading along with Rubin, I began to see my small home and its treasures — both living and inanimate — in a whole new light.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

Our beloved painting by friend Rachel Zur, covering the entire wall in our living room.

How can our home be more “ours”…a better reflection of our past and better equipped for our future? The book inspired me to examine the possessions filling the shelves in our rooms. Which items really bring us joy and which ones are taking up physical and mental space in our lives? Out went the boxes of “freebies” (free plastic novelty cups, birthday party gift bag toys) filling two corners of our basement. Also in the donation bag went the dusty knick-knacks and junky souvenirs, freeing up room for collections — such as the rock and shell collection from our month-long honeymoon —  and photos that remind me of loved ones and favorite adventures. As for bringing us joy, the original art we have carefully collected since our wedding tops the list, in particular a gorgeous, wall-sized painting by our one-time neighbor and good friend Rachel Zur.

On a roll, I turned to Happier at Home again! Next up, more carefully creating spaces and sanctuaries in our home to nurture our pastimes and make our time spent at home more pleasurable. We upgraded the broken, minuscule TV in our bedroom to a large one we can actually hear and invested in several scented candles. Suddenly we feel like we are in a hotel room while we watch movies on Friday nights! We also rescued a large hammock from the neighbor’s donation pile, repaired and painted it, and now we all have a shady, relaxing place to read books outside on cool afternoons (perhaps with a glass a wine for the grown ups nearby.)

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love in October.

One of my sons reading in the hammock. He is getting a jump start on the Halloween-themed books we all love to read in October.

Determined to focus more attention on the relationships that fill my home with love (or tension), I resolved be more loving toward my husband, so it is easier for him to be more loving towards me. I resolved to offer my kids my full attention, so they can feel that their interests (Pokemon, Ironman, NFL football) are ones I also share and value, even if I have to occasionally fake my enthusiasm. This time of year also brings to mind how much our celebration of holidays — especially Halloween and Christmas — brings us all so much joy and gives us wonderful reasons to spend extra time together. I plan to redouble my efforts and cheerfulness about hanging decorations and watching holiday movies together, something we all agree makes the holidays more meaningful.

Two of my favorite pieces of advice from Happier at Home, however, are the ideas Rubin presents for finding our personal “holy places and private landmarks” and “practicing non-random acts of kindness.” Reading this passage, I literally felt a light-bulb go off! One of my favorite places in the region is a local nature preserve. Several times every week, all year long, we go there: to jog, hike, sled, watch turtles, make iMovies, or just enjoy a few moments of peace and quiet. I am amazed how much more I love the park now that I think of it as one of my personal holy places! Another is the small waterfront restaurant where my husband and I got married by the local clerk of court fifteen years ago. We love to drive past it and remind the kids where it all started!

As for the non-random acts of kindness, I was very moved at Rubin’s call to help people with what they actually need rather than jumping in with “random” acts that might be meaningless or even unhelpful. It means much more, I realized while reading, to offer people specific help with immediate needs — giving my seat on the bus to a pregnant woman or helping an older shopper load bags into her car at Trader Joe’s — in contrast to more random or anonymous acts (paying for the car behind us to cross the bridge). Non-random acts bring me closer my neighbors and allow me to know my help was appreciated. After all, Rubin points out, the man in the car behind us on the bridge could be a millionaire!

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The Four Tendencies by Gretchen Rubin (2017)

The Four Tendencies: The Indispensable Personality Profiles That Reveal How to Make Your Life Better (and Other People’s Lives Better, Too)

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As frequent readers of this blog are well-aware, I am an enormous fan of Gretchen Rubin’s work — not only her books, but her blog and podcast as well. In fact, you can follow the tag “Gretchen Rubin,” on this website for reviews of several of her books.

The Four Tendencies serves as a follow-up to Rubin’s 2015 Better Than Before, where she delves further into her signature personality framework to offer advice to readers on how to create accountability structures that best help you shape your habits to meet your goals…what ever those goals may be. (You can read a review of Better Than Before here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1Ds )

At the heart of the book is the Four Tendencies framework a tool that tries to identify “how a person’s responds to outer and inner expectations.” Based on those responses, Rubin groups us into one of four categories (from page 6):

  • Upholder — Responds readily to outer expectations and inner expectations
  • Questioners — questions all expectations; they meet an expectation only if they believe it’s justified, so in effect they respond only to inner expectations
  • Obligers — respond readily to outer expectations but struggle to meet inner expectations
  • Rebels –resist all expectations, outer and inner alike

You can take the quiz here https://www.surveygizmo.com/s3/3706759/Gretchen-Rubin-s-Quiz-The-Four-Tendencies

Dividing the book into four distinct sections, Rubin tries to distill the best practices, unique tips, advice, and strategies that allow you to exploit your natural inclinations to make setting goals and keeping habits as easy as possible. Not easy, but easier. Rubin argues that fighting against our core personality traits make reaching goals an uphill battle, but making subtle adjustments that take our tendencies into account can smooth the way by working with our strengths rather than against them.

In addition to advice aimed directly at readers — great advice, I might add, which is concrete and immediately applicable — there is a wealth of information about how we can work with and best encourage those of other tendencies. There are scores of examples about how one might support a spouse, child, co-worker, client or patient of another tendency. After all, an argument that most motivates an Upholder will send a Rebel running in the other direction.

As an Upholder, it is easy for me to stick to routines; meet commitments to myself and others; and to say “no” to things I do not want to do or I think are unnecessary. These are all traits that are hugely beneficial to me…but can seem rigid to others. Furthermore, because it is easy to create and stick to habits, I am often unsympathetic to people who struggle to do things for themselves. Reading Rubin’s work has made a huge difference in the way that I view the decisions of others and infinitely more accepting of the fact that other people need more support to meet their goals than Upholders like me.

As the wife and mother of two Obligers (so far…my younger sons are still too little for me to guess their Tendency), I used to resist and (honestly) resent how much they needed me to prod them to act and monitor them as they tried to form new habits. After discovering Rubin’s framework, I realized that by taking a few extra moments to remind them of workouts or appointments can make it enormously easier for them to complete them…if they think I am watching and keeping track of them, they can see things through with less effort. (On a side note, a Questioner friend who I used to butt heads will all the time about her constant changing of plans — would this restaurant be better? should we do x instead of y? why not meet later? — and her endless questioning of my decisions. I now get along with her much better now that I know this is just a quirk of her personality; not a comment on how little she trusts my judgement.)

The Four Tendencies is self-help at its best: non-judgemental, direct, and easy to incorporate ideas for “knowing yourself better” so that you can live your best life. And so that you can encourage your friends and family life their best lives, as well.

 

 

 

Lonely by Emily White (2010)

I have always loved reading memoirs. I find that one person’s deep journey into her or his personal experiences uniquely informative, all the more so if those experiences are vastly different from my own. Memoirs offer us an opportunity to think — sometimes for the first time —  about how different lives have been lived. Lonely is a perfect example of reading a memoir that brings into focus something that I never thought too deeply about before: loneliness. Lonely is raw, vulnerable memoir that brings the author’s battle with chronic loneliness into the light for intense examination.

“Given the choice, [loneliness] is not a journey I would have gone on. I would have preferred to have lived a life of connection, one in which loneliness did not assault me on a daily and yearly basis. But we don’t get to choose the main facts of our lives. Loneliness was something I was born into, something that claimed me as its own.  The only thing I could do in response was to try to follow and understand it, to chart it as fully and cleanly as I could. If it was clutching me, the last I could do was twist in its grip and really look at it. If I couldn’t ward it away, I could at least see it as clearly as it saw me.” 6

Like everyone, I have suffered from bouts of loneliness on and off through my life, but my experiences are what White terms “situational loneliness:” short-lived moments of loneliness that arise out of a huge life change, such as a move or a new career. White’s affliction of chronic, lifelong loneliness is vastly different; a state of living that is physically and emotionally dangerous and puts the sufferer at great risk for illness, depression, anxiety, and (paradoxically) even more intense bouts of social disconnectedness.  This work opened my eyes to a struggle that so many face, but that I was largely unaware was such a huge and lasting challenge.

White’s book is a honest description of her own battles with loneliness; first as a child of divorce, then as a college student battling depression, and finally as an adult lacking in deep and meaningful relationships. From the beginning, White disputes the common belief that loneliness is a “punishment” for social awkward or inept people, but rather a sense of social disconnection that causes the person to feel unhappy and isolated.  She paints a picture of herself — and a cast of fellow sufferers who populate the book through interviews conducted and reported on by White — as people with adequate social skills but who nonetheless find great difficulty in forging deep and lasting social bonds.

It is also further noted that solitude and loneliness are not the same thing.  Even though those who identify as lonely do admit to being comfortable with a certain amount of solitude, there is a line in which lonesomeness is no longer nourishing. White writes, “the relationship between loneliness and solitude can be hard to delineate: the former is often seen as canceling out the legitimacy of the latter, as though a lonely adult or child is simply not entitled to want or need time alone. But the feelings of isolation that accompany loneliness are entirely different from the more sated and creative feelings that accompany solitude.” (13)

“What lonely people find is that they are drowning in absence. They have to struggle with the unnerving sense of being too much on their own, and having to rely on themselves in an effort to meet their own needs. And once the self has been searched and patted down for a sense of companionship — which is something it can’t provide — the the lonely person is left with is a worn out sense of insufficiency.” 28

White’s book  draws not only on her personal experiences, and that of her interviewees, but from a vast trove of data from research studies and social-psychology experiments which back up her claims of the risks lonely people face. These risks include impaired physical health, mental and emotional strain, anxiety, stress, and fear.  She notes that the human need to connect with other people — to share, touch, talk– is a deeply rooted, biological need that has serious consequences for those who are lacking. The longer the state persists, the greater the risks and the harder the sufferer must work to overcome their fears to reach out to others. “Loneliness can start to feel rooted in your life, as central and definitive as your work or your marriage.” 81

Although she does not spend too much time on making distinctions between the types of loneliness — lonely for a romantic partner; lonely in a new city; lonely for someone to have deep conversations with; lonely for a person’s ‘quiet presence’ — they are mentioned through out the book as separate but equally important connections to restore. White highlights all of the ways we need to find like-minded people to share our lives with in order to remain healthy and happy

“What I needed was someone at home with me, some whose breath I would hear as I sat reading, whose footfalls would sound in the hallway, whose voice would reach me from an adjoining room. I needed the strong, steady companion that a friend, lover, or family member could offer and without it my loneliness persisted.” 73

A truly thought-provoking discussion of a problem so deeply stigmatized it is almost overlooked, but one that is clearly an enormous challenge for millions of people suffering without being able to voice their need for fear of social condemnation.

The podcast that brought Emily White’s memoir to my attention, Episode #110 of “Happier with Gretchen Rubin and Elizabeth Craft,” can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2017/03/podcast-110-lonely/

A thought-provoking examination of the different strategies for battling loneliness, by author Gretchen Rubin, can be found here: http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2013/11/feeling-lonely-consider-trying-these-7-strategies/  and here http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/01/lonely-5-habits-to-combat-loneliness/

Better Than Before by Gretchen Rubin (2015)

Spurred on by my enjoyment of re-reading Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home (here: http://wp.me/p6N6mT-1zq ), I picked up my copy of Better Than Before and re-read it as well. Better Than Before is Rubin’s outstanding book about changing habits — how to form good ones and break bad ones — in which she lays out a plan to help readers accomplish our goals by encouraging us to deeply examine ourselves for clues on how to make our changes stick. Self-knowledge, Rubin argues, allows us to harness the power of who we are to help us become who we want to be.

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Originally posted October 1, 2015

In Better Than Before, Gretchen Rubin offers us concrete ways to stop doing the things we we found out we want to stop (nagging, shouting when I’m in a hurry) and start cultivating the habits we want in our life (start a blog!)

Where her earlier two books focused on strategies Rubin tested in her own life, Better Than Before seeks to help readers find exact methods that will lead them to personal success in creating better, healthier habits. Identifying what we want to change is the easy part! What next? The book asks us to study our “Tendencies,” those idiosyncrasies and personal traits that guide our daily decisions (are you a morning person or night owl? do you like large groups or private activities? do you need to be accountable to others or are you good at self-monitoring?) to help us pick pathways to habit formation that suit us best. Know thyself! As the author wisely points out, a night owl who signs up for a 6am Spin class might find it hard to cultivate the habit of attending the class.

You can take Rubin’s quiz right now to find out your Tendency! http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2014/03/quiz-are-you-an-upholder-a-questioner-a-rebel-or-an-obliger/

Once we have sorted ourselves into our Hogwarts houses (or Four Tendencies, as it they are called in the book), Rubin peppers us with dozens of strategies we might employ to develop those good habits. We can find ways to schedule our good habits; monitor our progress; hold ourselves accountable; and identify the “loopholes,” or excuses, we are likely to use to block our path. The ideas outlined are practical and simple to start (regularly forget to take your vitamins? do it with the never-missed morning cup of coffee every day.) And the volume of ideas she presents means that we can discard any practice we feel certain will not work for us, and try the next!

As an unabashed Upholder who easily sticks to new habits and who is obsessed with keeping track of all of those habits on various calendars and apps, I love that the book confirms my instincts for staying on track. More importantly, I see the great wisdom of the book for people who are not Upholders and for whom how to create new routines can seem a mystery. A simple formula can be found! Set a goal + adjust for your tendency (the “variables” in your personality) + plan for ways around your weaknesses and excuses  = and a successful routine of good habits can be created.

We can know ourselves, identify our excuses, track our progress, and end up with habits that make us happier, right now, today, by following Rubin’s examples and advice. And who doesn’t want that?

Happier…On Vacation

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Photo my husband captured on our beach trip of the full moon over the Atlantic Ocean.

“We should be working to discover the laws of our own nature. I had to build my happiness on the foundation of my character; I had to acknowledge what really made me happy, not what I wished made me happy.”

I cannot think of a better way to spend a beautiful, relaxing family beach vacation than to relax, oceanside, and deeply contemplate happiness. Last week, I did just that by re-reading my three favorite non-fiction books of all time: The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and Better than Before…all by Gretchen Rubin.

Even after multiple re-readings (my copies are dog-eared, heavily underlined, and battered from use) Rubin’s books still offer me deep insights into the nature of happiness. Throughout the week, read-aloud passages from her book sparked deep and heartfelt conversations with my family about ways many ways we can welcome more happiness into our lives and the lives of our loved ones. I cannot begin to explain how, well, happy it makes me to be reminded that I can have a profound affect on everyone around me simply by making small decisions every single day to be more kind, loving, enthusiastic, and fun.

Here are my three original posts about her books, enjoy!

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/29/gretchen-rubin-part-1/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/09/30/gretchen-rubin-part-2/

https://ivejustfinishedreading.wordpress.com/2015/10/01/gretchen-rubin-3/

Wildflower by Drew Barrymore (2015)

“Happiness is a choice; a choice you have to make every single day.”

Drew Barrymore writes an adorable and light-hearted memoir about several pivotal but unconnected moments in her life; beginning with her preschool years and weaving back and forth through various parts of her adult life. Barrymore’s fans have always loved her for the kindness and love she injects into her film roles and the stories she tells in this memoir confirm that she just as kind and loving as we had hoped.

Despite a tumultuous childhood, much of it spent living on her own, and a rocky early film career, she holds no ill-will or hard feelings towards anyone, not even her supremely neglectful parents. She holds up everyone in her life as important even if their contribution was small or conflicted. With a wisdom that few people will ever posses — certainly few people will possess as children — Barrymore learned that that her safety and success depended in large part on being able to seek out safe mentors and humble herself enough to ask for their guidance. These mentors, she tells us, were like hand-picked family members who could take the place of the unstable biological family she was born into.

Barrymore appears to embody the quintessential California free-spirit life views including the idea that all experiences serve to teach her important life lessons, especially the hard ones. She also honestly believes that everyone should be forgiven for their flaws and celebrated for what they had added to her life, even if it is a challenge to define what that addition might be. She faces her life as a businesswoman, actress, and mother with optimism and a conviction that she has (and will continue to) learned from her mistakes — and the mistakes of her parents and peers — and she is determine to apply what she has learned along the way in order to make every day is better than the one before.

This is a book of unflinching positivity which makes it a nice departure from other overly self-important Hollywood memoirs. At the same time, it is much sweeter and less cynical than the the recent best selling memoirs of female comedians such as Amy Poehler, Tina Fey, and Mindy Kaling (although I loved all of those books, especially Kaling’s second Why Not Me? http://wp.me/p6N6mT-4f)

NOTE: I listened to Barrymore read her e-audio book and found her to be a very silly and dramatic performer. She laughs, cries, shouts, and uses funny voices to great effect and it made for a lively listen.

barrymore pic

Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach (org 1995)

In the mid-nineties, my mother was in the heart of her “Oprah worship” years. She devotedly watched The Oprah Winfrey Show every single day and if she could not (which was rare, as she curated her schedule to be home for her show) she taped it using our rickety VCR.

She was a member of from the very first of Oprah’s Book Club and read every single selection and tuned in to watch the book discussion on the show. When the book Simple Abundance was selected for the book club, my mother went out and bought a copy, something she never did because we had an amazing library in our town which had copies of every book we could hope to read.

The book begins on January 1 and offers readers one short reflection or mediation for each day of the year. My mother read Simple Abundance and was moved by its message: that there are lessons to be learned everyday simply by paying attention, and honoring, the things and people around us. I was a teenager who had just gone away to college when my mother discovered the book and was sent a copy to — presumably — read night and reflect on my life. Sadly, I sat it on a shelf where I did not open it for many years. As you know, eighteen-year-old’s know all there is to know about life and do not need instructions, advice, or reflection…not from their mothers, not even from Oprah.

Something profound happened when I finally did pick the book up, on January 1 many years later as a new wife and mother living in a town more than three thousand miles away from family and friends. To my shock, I fell in love with Simple Abundance. I loved how its daily meditations — never more than two pages — allowed me a chance to pause and think about the magical things that had happened that day, even when it seemed (before reading the passage) that nothing of import had occurred at all. The book represented a kind of self-reflection and meditation that fit right into my life as it was, no new age music or meditation instruction required. All the author asked was that I think about the special gifts each day, each season, had to offer and be thankful for them.

Last month, mid-December, amid the craziness of the holiday season I asked my husband if he could help me locate my copy of Simple Abundance. I had a sudden yearning to read one of its passages each night of 2016. How glad I am to have dusted that old treasure off!

The six daily reflections that I have read so far have been calming and uplifting all at once.  The goal she sets out for us this January is not to create resolutions but rather “embrace the gentle yearnings of your heart…gradually become the curator of your own contentment.”

I love how accessible her language is and how she weaves her everyday life into the reflections — one passage on the magic of watching snow fall, another on the special quality of conversations by a fireside, later come reflections on hearing the first spring birds return or harvesting food from your garden.

While the language can be a bit new-agey and there are some references to guardian angels and a”Higher Power,” that does not diminish the sentiment of the book, which is to highlight that power of pausing each day to find the unique gift it has brought to your life.

That sounds like a wonderful way to start –and end — the year.