From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, 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’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.
I “met” (virtually) Nilofer Merchant through my friend Michael Melcher, of The Creative Lawyer fame. Nilofer is an authority on leadership and on helping businesses become more successful, and her book, The New How: Building Business Solutions through Collaborative Strategy, just came out a few days ago. I was curious to hear her views on happiness.
What is a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Drinking coffee from my Wonder Woman mug. My step-daughter gave it to me a while ago as a joke. But it has become a bit of a ritual to use it – and remember, we are all wiser and stronger than we think we are – we are all wonder woman.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Once each of us can actually can love ourselves for who we are — warts and all (this is the important part) — we can then be open to real happiness. Until then, happiness remains on the other side of a moat filled with judgment, self-doubt, and crocodiles, ever so far away.
Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Over-committing. When I sleep too little, travel too much, don’t eat well or exercise or spend time with friends because I’ve said yes to too many meetings or projects…. then I get tired, cranky, and lonely. If I don’t take care of myself, then everything gets viewed through a tired, cranky, lonely lens (I know, I know — surprise!). I get over-committed easily by wanting to say “yes” (for fear the opportunity will never come again) when I really need to say “not now” and have faith that the right things will be there when it’s the right time.
Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a happiness quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?
A quote that captures a point of view shapes my happiness: “If you are irritated by every rub, how will you get polished?” – Rumi. This is my way of saying that even this challenge or frustration could be helping me in ways I cannot yet see.
If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost? Or, like a “comfort food,” do you have a comfort activity? (mine is reading children’s books).
I actually have a box which I called “break-glass.” It has notes, cards of things I’ve accomplished, and movies that make me feel stronger like GI Jane or Erin Brockovich. I call it “break-glass” because I think…”in case of disaster or fire, break glass.” Going through this box always gives me a boost. And the funny thing about what’s in the box is I always find notes or ideas of things I once dreamed of and struggled with that are now in my rear-view mirror. It gives me perspective, which is usually the thing that is missing when I’m blue.
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?
I love it when people are “students of the game.” They say to themselves, “What will I learn or gain from this experience?” rather than focusing on how they’ve failed or bombed. It’s all about having the perspective that what happens next is what matters. We all fail, and the thing is we all don’t learn from those failures.
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?
I have been unhappier at times… like getting fired by Carol Bartz (now of Yahoo, then of Autodesk). I got separated (and ultimately divorced) from my then-husband the same week. So yeah, that was pretty much bottom. I was living out of alignment with my values. I acted like a mean person to my colleagues, more interested in my own advancement than OUR advancement, and saw that people fundamentally distrust me. I made a series of radical life changes to get re-grounded and set about living a good life, not aiming for a wealthy or powerful life. I have found that living with personal integrity is the key to my personal happiness.
Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Happiness is, in my mind, a mental choice. We’ll all have adversity, challenges, and setbacks, but we get to decide how we’ll handle them. We get to decide to view things as opportunities. We get to decide to be nice. We get to decide who we work with and what kind of ways in which we’ll work. When I’m not over-committed, I generally can keep perspective and make good choices.
Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?
I just finished publishing a book (The New How), which I had to rewrite three solid times. When the first editor trounced (and I don’t use that word lightly!) my work, I felt like a terrible failure. I was desperately unhappy because I wanted the work to be both done and good, right away. I was over-committed (since I hadn’t planned to rewrite again and again), I wanted to return to leading my firm, and I was really, really tired of looking at this body of work. But now, I’ve seen how the process of rewriting and re-crafting to be more clear, more concise, and more engaging made the result so much better. Something that made me really unhappy (writing it over and over again), in the end made me really happy. I’m glad it didn’t go out in the first revision. And I’m glad my second editor could see the diamond amongst the other stuff, and work with me keep chiseling away to get rid of distracting material and complete a product I’m glad I worked on.
* I’m no foodie, but I always enjoy stopping off at Eating For Beginners — “on food, farming, and raising a family.”
* 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 gretchenrubin1 [at] gmail [.com] — and don’t forget the “1″. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.