You can be happier by reading this post


I'm pretty sure that the people who pay attention to happiness research are actually happier people. And happiness begets happiness. So I have a feeling that me just writing a post about happiness, and you reading it makes us all happier.

Here is why I think that:

Recently, Gretchen Rubin sent me her new book, The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.

Let me tell you now, I am not a huge fan of the book. She is writing about her life, but her life is not all that interesting. The thing about reading stories about people’s lives is that we like conflict. That's what every novel is, it's what every memoir is. If there's no conflict then there is no path to follow in a story line.

Gretchen's conflict in this story about her is how can she be happier. Gretchen reports that she is already happy. She has an investment banker husband, two seemingly just fine daughters, a nice apartment in Manhattan, former-model good looks, etc. She basically (as she says in her forward to the book) needs something to talk about at cocktail parties. So she is writing a book so she can talk about it.

What I realized, though, is that while Gretchen’s conflict doesn't make for great reading, it is good to surround yourself with people like Gretchen: People who are basically happy and want to talk about it. Because happiness is contagious. So I kept reading the book. And, you know what? I didn’t love the book, but I love that it made me think a lot more about the stuff she wrote about.

(Not that New York City is the place to be happy, by the way. It's not. It's not because people in NYC value being interesting over being happy — which probably presents a special problem to Gretchen at cocktail parties, but I won't go into that. Also, it's clear that happy people attract happy people because Live Science reports that people in New York City are more unhappy than the rest of the country.)

Tiziana Casciaro, professor at University of Toronto, does really interesting research about social skills. And one thing she told me is that it’s very hard to gauge your own progress in the social skills department, but if you are making a conscious effort to improve your social skills then it is a safe bet that they are, on some level, improving.

And there is research that if you focus on something every day, by either writing it down every day, or at least committing to prioritizing it each day — you are much more likely to achieve that.

I think the same is true about happiness. If you pay attention to the research, whether or not you consciously implement it, the mere act of accessing the information is commitment enough to instigate change in your happiness level. (You can type “happiness” into the search box on the sidebar of my blog to find the results of my own obsessive collection of research on this topic.)

The other thing that should make you want to talk about happiness and read about happiness is that to think that you can affect your own happiness is a fundamentally positive step. Optimism about the future is a keystone of happiness. And people who think they have control over the outcome of their life — that they are the locus of control — are happier.

If you say all the happiness research is tiresome and circular — which I have said before — it might be true, but thinking that way actually does not improve your happiness. (Although it does probably make your more interesting, because conflict and cynicism are interesting.)

Sonja Lyubomirsky, psychology professor at the University of California-Riverside, wrote a great book on all the tiny little things you can do to make yourself happier on a daily basis. The book is The How of Happiness: A Scientific Approach to Getting the Life You Want. It’s an inspiring book because the things we can do are so small, like, give someone a surprise compliment. But you don’t need to do that today. And neither do I. Because I think, for today, getting to the end of this post counts.

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  1. alison
    alison says:

    I love the idea that simply focusing on something can make it happen! It is an incredibly empowering thought, and so true when you really think about it. In fact, as I look back on my 45 years on earth, pretty much everything that has happened to me (once I reached the age of reason) has happened because I “brought” it into my life. This is true for both good and bad – so I think I am going to try and focus on the good and the happy stuff and only bring that into my life.

  2. Blondie
    Blondie says:

    I like Gretchen Rubin’s blog for the most part, but I have become seriously irritated with her endless self-promotion. And the faux modesty that usually starts with the word “Yoikes!” Today, she professes to be “in shock” that her book is doing so well. Yawn. We get it – your book is a hit. Let your success speak for itself. I posted a comment to that effect in her comments and she took it out!! So I guess all those rosy, you go girl comments are the product of some ruthless editing on her part, which only confirms my view that her blog is less about happiness than about marketing her books. I agree with Penelope that there are some good ideas in there, which is why I keep checking back. But lately the “buy my book,” “my book is hit” stuff is wearing extremely thin. It would be soooo much more interesting if she blogged about what happens when your dream comes true – does it really make you happy? Or is there some truth in Oscar Wilde’s assertion that there are only two tragedies in life: one is not getting what one wants, and the other is getting it.

    • Marshall Wayne
      Marshall Wayne says:

      I’m fine if she edits. She isn’t under any obligation to live her life by having people talk negatively about her in her own personal space.

      However I’ve seen many negative posts that people have written and she hasn’t taken them out.

  3. mordicai
    mordicai says:

    Anecdotally, I’m far happier in Gotham than I have been anywhere else. It might be because there are people here, so I met my wife here. It might be because there are jobs here, so I got one. It might be because there is a spread of cuisine, so I can get anything by walking around the corner. It might be because there is culture, things to do.

    Or heck, maybe I do value being interesting!

    ANYHOW you have become my favorite advice blogger. It happened!

  4. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    I have a theory that relates to this post so I’ll share. Remember that Seinfeld episode (no the theory is not entirely based on it just related) where Jerry discovers he is “Even Steven”… as in, he loses a pen and finds a new one randomly… throws $20 out the window and George finds it on the street below and brings it back up to him. I have a similar theory on life. I just call it the “apathy theory” b/c I can’t come up with a better title.

    Basically my point is, it is human nature to struggle/want for more.. no matter how much we already have. More money, more sex… and essentially this all boils down to.. more happiness. No one seems to ever be truly (and I mean truly) content with their spot in life aka level of happiness. This tends to make us…. well un-happy. And the further away from our goal we get.

    What we don’t realize is that if we were ever truly sublimely happy… 100%… all the time… we’d be miserable! (and so the paradox unfolds)

    Maybe it’s just me and that I’m a realist (aka pessimist), but whenever things are going really, really well in life, I get anxious. I’m always waiting for the other shoe to drop. I’m waiting for the evil Yin to come along and balance out all my good Yang. Because in the end I think life even the universe itself is a very “Even Steven” kind of being.

    That’s why I actually, even if only for a flickering moment, relish the moments I’m sad, or depressed or feeling ugly/fat. Because I know eventually it will pass, or something else will come along that I will be able to find joy in. (The key to this being that A. I’m able to find joy in the first place and C. I’m able to find joy even in the very very small things/moments of life.)

    It’s like when your mother used to comfort you when you were sad as a child saying, “Well honey if you never felt sadness you wouldn’t know how good it feels to be happy”.
    And the reason I call it the apathy theory is in a way I feel as long as you can learn to be happy in this “even-ness” you will stop struggling to obtain something you wouldn’t even want if you ever got it.

    Maybe this makes no sense, but honestly it makes sense to me and helps me keep my life and emotions in check… cumulatively balanced right in the middle where they should be.

  5. Jess @ Openly Balanced
    Jess @ Openly Balanced says:

    I wonder how the happy v. interesting dynamic relates to careers, specifically interviews. It seems that while happy people would make better employees, interesting people may actually end up performing better in interviews.

    (Also, I love the New York City data. So many of my New York friends are incredibly interesting but profoundly unhappy people. I wonder how DC compares.)

  6. Justin Wehr
    Justin Wehr says:

    Penelope, I wonder why it is that you care about achieving happiness. Is it that happiness as an emotion is something you find pleasurable and therefore desire to have more of in your life, even if it disappears quickly? Or is it that you think happiness signals that what you have done is good? (Or don’t you think about it all and just assume that happiness is in and of itself obviously “good”?)

    I realize I am getting thick into convoluted philosophical topics here but I would love to see you explore these questions in a post.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Well. It’s actually a problem for me. I think I am drawn more toward interestingness than happiness. But I think I wish I weren’t.

      I have never been surrounded by happy people until I lived in Wisconsin. (Check out the list of happiness where NY is at the bottom. Wisconsin does quite well :)

      I am at a crossroads, maybe. Trying to figure out what I want. I am convinced, though, that you can only have one guiding you — happiness or interestingness.


      • Jess @ Openly Balanced
        Jess @ Openly Balanced says:

        “I am convinced, though, that you can only have one guiding you – happiness or interestingness.”

        I don’t know if I really understand where you’re coming from on this.

        Unless you’re striving to be interesting to yourself (and aren’t we all pretty much interested in ourselves automatically?), then being interesting is fundamentally a subjective thing, defined by other people’s metric of what is interesting. Being guided by happiness, you might become interesting to a whole range of people who would have been uncompelled by your attempt at “interesting.” Also, there is variance in what makes people happy. I would be totally disinterested in someone who was guided by happiness into working on quantum physics. If that same person was guided by happiness into riding horses or musical theater, I would find them very interesting.

        The world is broad and diverse, and some people may be drawn to happiness in the same way that you are drawn to interesting. In this sense, being guided by “interestingness” is just trying to play everyone else’s game instead of living your own life and letting other people either be interested or not, depending on who they are.

      • Belinda Gomez
        Belinda Gomez says:

        Being interested is far more valuable than being interesting. Outer directed, not inner. Looking at and listening to others, rather than thinking about what you are going to do and/or say next.

        Most people aren’t actually all that inherently interesting, but having someone be interested in them, makes them so.

  7. Penelope Trunk
    Penelope Trunk says:

    Jess. Clarifying: The choice is between wanting an interesting life and a happy life. I cover this a lot in the New York City post I link to from today’s post.

    Basically, in New York City and in some other, large cities, people pay a high premium — in convenience and cost of living — in order to be surrounded by interesting things and interesting people. In most of the rest of the country, it’s easier to live there, and people are happier. But there is not nearly the range of interestingness (restaurants, jobs, culture, diversity of population, etc) that there is in NYC.

    Most people know where they fit- – intuitively.


    • Jess @ Openly Balanced
      Jess @ Openly Balanced says:

      Thank you for clarifying!

      I agree that, as you mention in a later comment, there is a difference between being interesting (having people be interested in you) and being interested (living a life you find interesting).

      But you can also frame this in a way that doesn’t make it happy versus interested. What if Madison people want to have interesting lives just as much as New York people do, they are just interested in different things? Interest is subjective. For some people, “living an interesting life” might mean things that a large city has to offer. But if “an interesting life” means rural grassroots political organization, studying the lifecycle of quail, or developing cellulosic biofuels from prairie grasses, New York might hold very little interest for you. Yet theoretically you would not find your life less interesting for having pursued the things that genuinely interest you.

      Let’s assume for a moment that people in Madison do not actually find their own lives less interesting. Maybe they are happier than people in New York not because they are guided by happiness, but because their interested life does not cost them so dearly.

      As always, loving your blog and the conversation your posts inspire!

      • Nichole
        Nichole says:

        No offense to our beloved author, Jess, but I think you hit the nail on the head. And the type of people who are “drawn” to big cities and think they are interesting (and Penelope, you do seem to be in this category) don’t always get that the rest of us can find our lives in “flyover country” just as interesting as they find the city life. Personally, I think my life has plenty of “interest”….and as I get older and “wiser”, less and less *drama*, which seems to be abundant when there are more people and places around. Good call, Jess!

      • KateNonymous
        KateNonymous says:

        Agreed–there are lots of ways to be interesting and interested. The world is a big place, after all, and a view that allows only New York (and its ilk) to be interesting is actually really parochial. And not interesting.

  8. Bonnie
    Bonnie says:

    Gretchen’s book hit #2 on NYT list!

    I really enjoy Gretchen’s blog, especially for her pragmatic writing style I’m not drawn to feel-good, new-agey writings on happiness and it pleases me that her take on the topic is a bit dry.

    The “happiness book” market seemed already to be saturated, so I’m really glad that Gretchen was able to promote her book so well and find a huge audience.

    The comment above over people in nyc choosing interesting over happy struck a chord. I think this is rampant. Guess where I live?

  9. anantha
    anantha says:

    The focus on “interestingness” , according to some schools of philosophy leads you to the outside physical world, while happiness (or a better term might be peace of mind/ calm state) can be reached through introspection and meditation.
    The apathy theory someone mentioned is the inner detachment which the same philosophies talk about that helps you attain the “calm state”.

  10. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    In addition to my comment above… Have you ever read the book, “The Four Agreements”?

    I’m not a religious/spiritual person and even though that book can be a bit heavy on the spiritual side at times (not religion but spirituality) it really does help explain a lot about seeking validation in other people’s opinions (they call it “validating your own dream” in the book) which is what I think this happiness/interesting discussion comes down to.

    Being interesting or being consumed with being interesting is a “validation of your own dream” topic.

    While being happy should be a black and white topic only you can discuss with yourself. Am I happy? you ask yourself… yes or no. If no or even if you are unsure it’s really only something YOU can control and it really only relates directly to YOU. Even though we all tend to believe external influences can make or not make us happy… really it’s all only in YOUR head. Even if we receive outside negative influences we can choose how we deal with them thusly making ourselves happy or not.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      What I’m talking about is not being interesting. It’s about being interested. Very different.

      Example: New York City is full of people who pay very high housing costs to be surrounded by things/people who interest them. This ends up being a self-selecting process of people who are interesting all living in one place. But their goal, I think, (because I’m an optimist) is to be interested, not to be interesting.


      • Belinda Gomez
        Belinda Gomez says:

        Nope. A truly interested and intellectually and emotionally curious person can find value anywhere, with any company.

        But if you’re just looking for others to reflect your own self back, well, then you need to be surrounded by those who are looking for the same.

  11. Kerry Kimble
    Kerry Kimble says:

    Just out of curiosity, before the Farmer started the Happiness Train up again, did any of the techniques you tried after he split up with you actually work? Those would be ones I’d be interested in looking at more closely, although generally, I think happiness is vastly harder to achieve in scenarios of acute pain, no matter how evolved one is. I think its something you cultivate over time, not a gizmo you grab at the blog store.

    It’s quite horrifying to think that interestingness and happiness are mutually exclusive. I’m happy I disagree with you about this.

  12. Lori
    Lori says:

    yes, I’ve been interested in Gretchen’s work, and yes, like the other poster, I HATE the recent weeks of insane self-promotion. But I have been following her project, somewhat.

    I live in suburbia. Its boring. But I love being around happy people. Until the only conversation becomes the color of the next mani/pedi for my co-workers. I draw a blank stare when I mention de Kooning or even something from today that is avant garde that is NOT on tv (if I’m lucky enough to even KNOW something avant garde, usually from the nytimes or online). So there is the conflict. Today I am not happy because I am looking for a better job and I am worried about not having enough food for the kids. But this isn’t making me interesting, just whiny.

  13. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    If you surround yourself with interesting things… because you want to have an interesting life (so you can be interested in your life and the things in it)… wouldn’t, by default… you be an interesting person? Isn’t that why there are SO many interesting people in NY?? It’s kind of the chicken and the egg thing.

    If you think being interested in your life and being happy with your life are mutually exclusive I would have to disagree. I would think wanting to be interested in your life is, in the big picture, going to give you a happy life.

    I must say (in case it wasn’t obvious already) I have only posted a couple times before (on other blog topics of yours) but this one I find SO very interesting. I also really and truly enjoy your blog for many of the same reasons everyone else does, but also because you read and respond to the comments section.

    Thanks for helping me have a little more fun at “work” today!

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Jessie, people who want things around them to be really interesting are maximizers. And maximizers are not happy. This is pretty well established research. (Again this is covered in the post I link to about NYC. And it’s covered really well in a New York magazine article by Jennifer Senior about happiness.)

      People who are maximizers — want the best most interesting, etc. — do not actually feel the need to be happy. So, for example, if you ask a bunch of New Yorkers if they are happy, they will likely philosophize with you about what is happiness, what is the value of happiness, etc. If you ask a bunch of people in Wisconsin if they’re happy, they’ll just say yes.

      Clearly I should have written the blog post on this topic. Maybe I’ll come back to it. But, in general, if you are very concerned about being happy, you are probably not truly concerned with having an interesting life. I have found, though, that people who want interestingness accept this just fine, and people who are very focused on happiness cannot accept that their life is not interesting. (Gretchen is a great example of this, actually.)


      • Alli
        Alli says:

        One more thing related to your reply here. I’m not sure that people from WI saying they’re happy means they’re happy. I think social norms dictate that they self-identify as such. I think the same could be said of certain “interesting people” in NYC. They know they are supposed to think happiness is cliche.

        OK, two more things. “People who want things around them to be really interesting” are not the same as people who are interesting.

      • D
        D says:

        I don’t buy it. Interesting vs. happy is just a watered down version of the tortured artist myth.

        Further, New York is generally not even in the top half for statistics that measure happiness much more objectively — divorce, depression, drug addiction, suicide etc. If New Yorkers are trading happy for interesting, they are winning that arbitrage rather easily.

        I suspect the real culprit is that they have an even more idealized vision of what “happiness” is, and so rate themselves below average, much like competent people tend to underrate their abilities more than incompetent people.

      • Alexandra
        Alexandra says:

        I was very excited this morning to find the two blogs (BC & Happiness Project) I follow most closely collide.

        As evidenced by the disparate subjects of my two favorite blogs (happiness; intentionally provocative career advice with a dose of drama & self-reflection), I disagree that people are drawn toward either happiness or interestingness at the expense of the other.

        It all boils down to one's definition of happiness.

        I can see how the two could be mutually exclusive if you define happiness as contentment. I had a comfortable, relatively happy life in Boston but got antsy and moved to Budapest because I wanted to experience new things. Since then I have met many "interesting" people whom I never would have met had I stayed in Boston, seen places I never even knew existed, and get a kick out of the bizarre language, food, and customs. At the same time, I am decidedly not content. Grocery shopping is difficult at best. I have superficial relationships with many of my coworkers. I am homesick.

        But my definition of happiness permits my being uncomfortable and confused. So I can actually say I am happy here. But definitely not content.

        Many people admit in retrospect they were happiest during a journey to achieve a goal. And I would think journeys are interesting – as long as they are to pursue something you care about.

        Perhaps this is all rationalization about choices I have made, but it seems very dangerous to think life cannot be both happy and interesting.

        (And for the record, my third favorite blog is, so maybe I shouldn't draw too many conclusions from my blog preferences.)

      • Thanh Lu
        Thanh Lu says:

        Happiness eludes us. Just think with the end in mind, at your death bed, would you want your life to be full of happiness or interesting?

        Pursuing a happy life is very one dimensional, limiting and self-serving because it ends with the self. Pursuing an interesting life is living fully and experiencing more than happiness.

        Happiness is just one emotion and yet people get so stuck on it. What about other worthwhile emotions such as honor, resilience, sympathy, lost, love, etc.?

        Sometimes there is a need to be happy, sometimes there’s a need to suffer. I rather be multidimensional, including but not limited to being happy.

      • sweetgirl
        sweetgirl says:

        After reading your New York post, I realized I’m a maximizer and what it meant. And I realized after reading your comments today that it’s the reason I’m not happy. I had my boyfriend take the NY test and he failed. I asked him which ones and when he told me the maximizer one, I was SO turned off. I guess I don’t understand people who don’t want the best. And sadly, as much as I love him he is not interesting anymore (I used to think I just wanted him to read books and be artistic but now I know it really boils down to him not interesting me).

        I love him and I’m scared we’ll never break up and I’m scared we’ll be married into uninteresting life forever. It seems like having the interesting does make us happy but in a different way than “comfortable” happy people. I know there’s different degrees of maximizers but is there a word for someone so torn in between…the people so paralyzed, they can’t even make decisions? I hope you come back to this topic soon. In the meantime, I’m gonna try to figure some things out. Thanks Penelope.

  14. Alli
    Alli says:

    Maybe “happy” is more subjective than we act like it is. For some, it could be simply the contentedness you feel in a brief moment when you’re able to clear your mind. Or maybe it’s the energy you feel when you come out of that moment. Maybe it just depends on what’s “good enough” for you.

    And why does happy have to be constant? Maybe happiness is fluid and you take it where you can get it. Maybe the in-between is what makes happiness–whatever it is to you–worth anything at all.

    I think interesting people can be happy, if we don’t pretend happiness means the same thing to everyone. For example, many interesting people (at least ones I find interesting) are people who take risks of some kind. They probably do this because taking risks makes them happy, even if just for a second. Maybe that’s all we can hope for.

    That said, interesting seems pretty subjective, too.

  15. Le
    Le says:

    Hello Ms P

    So in amongst all this have you read ‘The Secret’. After an active period of two years avoiding reading the book I am now. And while it does not all sit comfortably with me, the main premise (I think) that ‘what you think you become’ is totally sound.

    Have you blogged about The Secret and I missed it, or is it on the Tim Ferris list of your life (things I love to hate – tougue in cheek).

    Anyways I for one would love to know what you think about The Secret …

    And yes happiness begets happiness … One great lady (Terry Hawkins) once said ‘fake happy till you are happy’ sounds glib but she’s pretty much on the money for me anyway.

    As an aside I made a decision some ten years back to knock all the energy sapping, permenatly unhappy, high needs in a negative way people out of my life – it was a sound decision. Made room for the Happy Shiny People I know surround myself with. Best to you as always le

    • MJ
      MJ says:

      THANK YOU – I’ve noticed this too but her commenters on her blog tend to only fawn (to be fair, as most commenters on most blogs do). Over time as she’s discussed more and more of her happiness questions, interests, what she finds fun, etc. it seems like she doesn’t find life very interesting or fun at all (with the exceptions of St. Therese and children’s literature). The mixture of inability to enjoy much, saccharine commentary and “Zoiks!” turned me off – I won’t be buying the book.

  16. Amber
    Amber says:

    I agree with Penelope on the impossibility of pursuing both a happy life and an interesting life at the same time.

    The tenor of an interesting life is electric, like a high voltage fence that you don’t know when will be on. There’s a lot of energy that always straddles some line between excitement and anxiety. An interesting life is intense, restless, cacophonous, full of risk and adrenaline and crackle.

    The tenor of a happy life is rhythmic, like a warm river, an enveloping heartbeat. A happy life is saturated, comforting, mellifluous, full of radiance and lightness and joy.

    I wonder though if you have to choose one for good, or if you can move back and forth between them, either by choice or by circumstance.

  17. neko
    neko says:

    For the past 20 years, I’ve lived in the DC area (moved out here after school in Madison(!): it’s been interesting as HELL.

    Worldclass museums; fabulous restaurants; eclectic music venues; political intrigues: Washington has it all.

    But … after 20 yrs of “interesting,” I’ve started daydreaming about/longing for some good ol’fashioned peace & quiet and “happiness” ….

  18. T.Scott
    T.Scott says:

    I do believe that being around happy people makes you happier, and happy people are drawn to each other. One thing I would add is I think it is important to make yourself happy.

    Personally, thinking about all I’ve been through and all the stuff that I’ve done in my life makes me happy, as well as being around happy people; I guess I find happiness in the struggle. A beautiful struggle, if you will.

    I find happiness in material things, sure, but I’m happy when I’m with friends that remind me of where I’m from and what we’ve been through, when I’m with my girlfriend and can think about building a future with her, and when I’m alone and can organize thoughts, make plans, and find solutions.

  19. Maureen Anderson
    Maureen Anderson says:

    In response to Amber’s comment, I think being interested is part of being happy, of being alive.

    Energy, excitement, anxiety, risk and (I love this word) crackle–those are some of the ingredients. As are rhythm and comfort and so on, the parts where you get to rest up between anxiety attacks, if you want to look at it that way.

    It’s the texture, how much of one ingredient at the expense of another, that makes everyone’s recipe for happiness different. I doubt that “interested” is devoid of the happiness equation, unless you’re dead–it’s just a matter of degree.

  20. Naomi
    Naomi says:

    Argh. Why are you always trashing NYC just cause you were forced to leave?

    I think the rest of this country is just as depressed as NYC, except New Yorkers don’t give a crap about pretending everything is fine all the time. And, New Yorkers actually care about the world, and let’s face it, there are a lot of things to get pissed off at in the world. I think you are confusing being nice to being happy. New Yorkers are not nice, and they tend to be sarcastic.

    People from suburbans are less likely to admit they are unhappy, less likely to come out of closet when they are gay, less likely to get out of a horrible marriage, and less likely to be proud of who you are when you are anything but White/Christian.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s my point. It’s all self-reported. New Yorkers don’t self-report to be happy. It’s not a high priority to them. People in the midwest self-report to be happy. It’s important to them to see themselves as happy.

      This isn’t about who has found the good life or whatever. It’s about how we report our lives to other people. It’s about outlook.

      Also, why do you take from this that I’m down on NYC? I don’t feel that way at all.

      – €“Penelope

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That’s my point. It’s all self-reported. New Yorkers don’t self-report to be happy. It’s not a high priority to them. People in the midwest self-report to be happy. It’s important to them to see themselves as happy.

      This isn’t about who has found the good life or whatever. It’s about how we report our lives to other people. It’s about outlook.

      Also, why do you take from this that I’m down on NYC? I don’t feel that way at all.


  21. Kelly
    Kelly says:

    I definitely fall on the side of interested and live in NYC. I have had meetings all day regarding employees viewed as “complacent” and “lazy”, and I think all these are euphemisms for “happy in the status quo.” This is viewed as a large corporate problem and something to be changed by making those employees less happy, i.e., more engaged and less secure. And not gonna lie, I too see complacency and never going outside a comfort zone as a problem, not a happy place.

    That said, I would overall categorize myself as happy, and certainly not UNhappy or depressed, should pollsters come calling. Because challenge and stimulation and variety and culture are what make my life interesting, and that makes me feel happy. I think it’s just a different way of looking at the word. Elsewhere it can mean “secure” or “comfortable”, and I am very not interested in feeling comfy all the time.

    I also suspect happiness is fleeting – it consists of a thousand, or a million, little moments of bliss over the course of a lifetime. They are wonderful moments, and to be cherished, but they are moments only. Whereas having interesting environmental elements is enduring.

    But, as studies show, that’s just how I’m wired.

  22. ABDPBT
    ABDPBT says:

    It’s not that you cannot be happy and interesting at the same time. It’s that you cannot be happy and intellectual at the same time. But I don’t think you choose, I think you just are.

  23. Marni
    Marni says:

    I tried it today. It worked. I was extra nice to everyone at a place that I hate going to because it depresses me(Publix grocery store). But I had fun because I felt like I made everyone’s day and that made me happier. Smiling is definitely contagious!

  24. Heather
    Heather says:

    Well I find it a bit depressing that you can reduce Gretchen’s work to a project that will make good cocktail party conversation. What I see is Gretchen’s drive in pursuit of the truth. Some of the stuff she uncovers is so fundamentally human that it doesn’t just apply to a well adjusted, affluent, happily married good looking woman. Her work is a synthesis of writings and musings from early times to the present day. I can see how what she turns up would annoy moody, self absorbed, malcontents. It depends what you find interesting. I think you need quite a lot of drama to stay engaged Penelope. There are lots of people who are engaged and interested in everyday human life.

  25. sl
    sl says:

    Penelope, I for one am not a huge fan of the recent books out on happiness, but this post reeked of jealousy. Rubin’s book (and yes you are obviously entitled to your opinion) just made #2 in the nytimes list…how bad can it be? Also your constant putdowns on new york and new yorkers don’t make you seem like you’ve moved passed all that and are so much happier in the midwest (which I do hope you are), it makes you seem petty and jealous and like you regretted leaving. If you are so glad why constantly bring it up? Just saying.

    • William Bruce
      William Bruce says:

      “Rubin’s book […] just made #2 in the nytimes list – how bad can it be?”

      Is this (rhetorical) question as obvious in its fallacious reasoning as I suspect it to be, or do I need to weigh in on the aesthetic sensibilities of the democratic marketplace?

      As for the other issues, I believe that Ms. Trunk has addressed them in prior comments and posts.

      • MJ
        MJ says:

        “It’s popular – How bad can it be?” You mean, like Stephanie Meyer, our era’s Dickens/Austen/Dostoyevsky/Yeats all in one? Cuz she sold a lot too… Oh yeah, and don’t forget Dan Brown, that paragon of literary grace either…

  26. Hans M.
    Hans M. says:


    I doubt this blog is about secretly selling something. Its about helping in some way and give wise advises. I dont like the style of writing with giving some examples like books and more – then just dont read it.


  27. pete
    pete says:

    Oh Penelope, let’s get to the guts of the issue – if everything is back on with the Farmer, then for how long?

    I don’t want to sound negative yet I can hear some pain from here, and I’m in NZ for cryin’ out loud.

    Tell me I’m wrong, please tell me I’m wrong.

    I hope it’s not the old rollercoaster again.


  28. terra mar
    terra mar says:

    great comments. i would add that being ‘happy’ while our lives are in crisis – health, financial, emotional etc. is also possible. Happy in that case is acceptance, hope, knowing there is stuff to learn and keeping moving, even if in baby steps, toward the sunny side.

  29. Tina
    Tina says:

    Great post, Penelope! (So what’s new???)

    Thanks for reminding me about that book on The How of Happiness. I have that book; I just retrieved it.

    I think you’ve got a key to happiness: we need to feel that we have a fair degree of control over our future. Without that, our happiness is at risk.

    (I can cite you a study that pretty much proves this, if you like.)

    Again, thanks for the great post and reminder!

  30. DebExo
    DebExo says:

    Penelope, I agree that happiness is about how we “report our lives” and I would argue that our happiness quotient is true whether our lives are filled with “interestingness” and/or “simplicity” and/or “suburbia” and/or “urbanism” and/or “fill in the blank”…whether I live in New York (I don’t I live in Boston) or in a small town in West Michigan (I used to live in Grand Rapids Michigan), I take myself with me…happy me or not-happy me and that knowledge can suck…so I am going to experiment with choosing happiness and optimism because the opposite, no matter where I have lived, eats away at my soul!

  31. steven germain
    steven germain says:

    If you are right that optimism about the future is a key factor in happiness then it’s interesting to consider the impact of race. The rate of premature births among african american women is higher than for whites regardless of socio- economic status, whereas in Africa the rate of premature births is much lower – essentially the same as for white woman in the US. Middle managers in business report higher levels of stress than more senior managers despite having lower work loads. Happiness may have much to do with perceived levels of control over one’s life – viewed through that lens much of what Gretchen and you say makes sense to me…

  32. Barbara Hunter
    Barbara Hunter says:

    “A man is about as happy as he makes up his mind to be.” Abraham Lincoln

    Fifty-plus years of living have taught me that ol’ Abe is right about this one.

  33. Jessica
    Jessica says:

    This post came at the perfect time for me. First of all it is winter in New England and that is always a gloomy time. But secondly, I’ve been feeling like my career isn’t going anywhere and that my work isn’t accomplishing anything. Then I read this line “to think that you can affect your own happiness is a fundamentally positive step.” So true! I woke up this morning and said to myself – I am going to stop worrying about if I am advancing in my career fast enough and continue working hard and finding ways to make my work more interesting. I will also appreciate what a wonderful like I have. And it worked! I’ve been happier all day!

  34. ScottS
    ScottS says:

    I think the entire ‘happiness’ conundrum is that it is not an absolute and is super hard to define. An earlier poster said that it’s a personally black and white yes or no question you can ask yourself at any given time. I disagree. I suspect that it’s actually very hard to even tell if you’re happy at any given time. What does that even mean? To me, data about self-reported happiness is suspect for that reason.

    What I’m trying to say is that some things just require perspective. We’ve all had experiences that seemed just awful at the time. Say, for example, you’re on your honeymoon and the rental car breaks down. You’re lost in a strange place and don’t know what to do. If you asked yourself at that minute if you’re happy, you’d say no. But when you’re having dinner on your 10th anniversary, it’s pretty easy to look back and say how happy you were on your honeymoon. Is either perspective wrong?

    At the end of the day, it’s all a matter of what you choose to focus on. Abe Lincoln was indeed right. And it’s why being around happy people can make you happier. Nothing changes, you just either consciously or sub-consciously focus more on the positive.

    I’m also not convinced that the opposite of happy is sad. If I can define that, then I may have it figured out!

    One final disclosure: I also live in Madison, but I’d be a helluva lot happier if they’d figure out how to plow the %$#^%@ streets here!!

  35. Jenny
    Jenny says:

    Ho hum. Another book about happiness by someone who is basically happy.
    I started Sonya Lyubomirsky’s book, after rejecting another on the same topic (due to a few crappy reviews on Amazon). Well, Sonya helpfully makes comments about how married people are happier than single people (no kidding?), and how as the mother of two gorgeous kids, the pleasure of hugging them does not wane due to hedonic adaption.
    Thanks Sonya, now I’m feeling really HAPPY about my life.

    I suspect I won’t enjoy Gretchen’s perfect life, either.

    La la la la la la.

  36. Melani Ward
    Melani Ward says:

    Love this post and have read most of the comments. Personally I think the locale issue is irrelevant. What’s the saying? No matter where you are, there you are.
    Happiness per se is not my thing. It’s not that I’m not interested in being happy it’s just it’s not really something I’ve had to think about and try to be in my life. I’m just pretty happy without too much effort no matter what’s going on. (And lest you think that means my life has been a bed of roses…it has not.) We all have our “thing” or things. For some it’s money. For some it’s career or relationships or sex or…. For some it’s happiness and in an attempt to reach the holy grail of happiness they will study, read, meditate, buy shit, binge, purge, find out exactly how to get it. But if that’s there thing then it’s very possible that the pure state of happiness will elude them. Sure, they may find ways to be more happier at times but it might not always come as easy as it does to people like me. For some people happiness may just be one of the lessons they are in some way here to learn.

  37. Scotty Morrison
    Scotty Morrison says:

    Thanks P. Another one that I read last year that was a good read (since he is also a fellow cynic) and takes a semi-scientific approach (Happiness Institute, interviewing people in countries that have the highest levels of happiness etc.) is Eric Weiner’s The Geography of Bliss.

    I have “gypsy” lived/moved our family back and forth to colorado and northern california (many times) seeking that elusive quality of life and zen state and no matter where you go, there you are and can find it or miss it. Much like peace of mind, it’s what makes YOU happy and I do think that those that are are predisposed to be optimistic are focused on the journey and the now rather than the destination. A recent life coach session confirmed this (cheaper than a shrink).

    Ok back to the salt mine.

  38. Philotera
    Philotera says:

    Personally, I think happiness is overrated. This is because, culturally, we seem to have an ideal of happiness based on a norm that never existed. A life of perfection where your husband is an investment banker, your kids are adorable, and you have near-model good looks. Maybe you live in the suburbs. Maybe a city. In reality, your husband is likely having an affair and your kids hate you because they think you’re stupid. Or will when they hit 13.

    So you make up a story about your life and delete comments that deny your wonderfulness.

    Sure, I could be wrong. But here’s the twister. I’m 55 heading toward 56. What I’ve learned is that happiness is a transient state. It lasts moments, maybe a few days. I put my money on interesting, which has its ups and downs but is what truly makes a life and for good party conversation. For the good of my soul, I strive for contentment. Happiness I get in small doses. I make a beautiful scarf. I sell a short story. My husband came out of his coma. I like my son’s GF. My business makes money.

    Interesting you can rely on. Happiness, not so much. Contentment is work.

  39. elisabeth
    elisabeth says:

    This week I have been thinking of the LATimes article (,0,6672202.story) that discusses how more people are unhappy with their jobs than are happy. I suppose there are workplaces where most people are unhappy and workplaces where more people are happy – using the idea that happiness is contagious (and unhappiness too). I don’t know why I keep thinking about this article, but maybe a lot of people are considering happiness right now.

  40. coffeewithjulie
    coffeewithjulie says:

    Someone has probably already said this, but you are so popular that I can’t read all the comments — there are so many!

    So this is what I want to say to your statement that “I'm pretty sure that the people who pay attention to happiness research are actually happier people” — I don’t believe that one bit.

    I am by nature what people call a negative person (but what I call a realistic person). And I am precisely the kind of person who would go to the self-help section of the bookstore and buy a book on how to be happy. My hubby on the other hand would never, ever in his life buy such a book. Why? Because he is a happy person. It doesn’t even cross his mind to read a book on how to be happy. Why would it?

    It’s a desperate attempt to read books on how to be happy. I really don’t think it will make a reader more happy. I think one would be just as miserable before the book as after it.

  41. Diana
    Diana says:

    I used to believe that you can be happy or unhappy anywhere. That was ages ago. Now I know that your environment, if it doesn’t suit you (mine isn’t interesting at all after 50 years), it can make you very, very unhappy. And it can make happiness hard to come by. You can exhaust some environments of their interest.

    I also think there is a difference between happiness and contentment. Contentment can come from having an external stress relieved, like living in the country after the rush of a crowded city, but that isn’t necessarily happiness. That is just relief. Maybe it’s a relief for some people not to worry about finding things of interest. I can’t do that for long. That’s why I read blogs like P’s.

  42. cultured ape
    cultured ape says:

    I think the project of studying what makes us happy is the most important project we can possible undertake. The discussions on these blogs are part of it. I’ve been facing the interesting/happy tradeoff, and I think it depends on our level of risk-taking, which is inherent and is influenced by age and experience. At 24 I was not ready to commit to my girlfriend, now at 26 I am ready to give up long adventures and live with her whereever we would find ourselves. Of course, I can not be certain in how it will turn out, and whether I will actually be happy, but I think if you are convinced that you will be happy chances are very high you will actually be happy.

    For me the problem now is though, that although she said she would marry me 2 months ago, right now she tells me to fuck off. So there’s that. I might be forced to be more interesting by her rejection.

    Now that I think about it, the interesting part is based on perceptions. Perceptions of ourselves and in the eyes of other people that we find interesting. Some at least seem to be wired to pursue that path, which is probably more adventurous. Or maybe it is perception of ourselves in the eyes of people we think we should be like, and that’s the basic ingredient that drives all behavior. If you are religious you want to look at yourself and be like god has explained to be and like other religious families. If you aren’t religious, you stumble around, probably more towards the hedonistic, selfish and interesting side, and maybe you wise up like me and realize it’s not about perception of yourself or comparison to others, but about the individual bonds you make with people, and ideally with one person you want to be with for the rest of your life. In the end I don’t think there’s anything more meaningful than that.

  43. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    I read the Happiness Project blog and I bought the book because I liked the idea of a relatively ordinary person trying to make their relatively ordinary life happier – nothing revolutionary, just consciously putting a focus there. About a third of the way through the book, though, I put enough puzzle pieces together to realize that she’s hardly ordinary – from her telling, she’s had a stable, functional even happy family from the beginning AND, from a little Googling, she’s not just financially secure, she’s part of a rarified class of people who truly don’t have to worry about money in the most expensive place in America (which has to have been carefully tamped down with editing).

    I happen to think both of those things would make a huge difference to your general sense of happiness, and the fact that she has both in place explains why her big happiness revelations are along the lines of “get more sleep” and “be less of a nag”. You’re right – for those of us who are forced to look at darker things, this is boring stuff. Maybe for people who just don’t think about happiness, or think about their lives in general, it’s a wake-up call.

    I have no clue why Gretchen sent the book to you, presumably expecting a glowing review, or no review at all. You are not her target audience.

  44. Yvette
    Yvette says:

    “You can have it all, just not at the same time.”

    That was advice to working mothers, but it’s also true for the interesting vs. happy life choice.

    I had a very interesting first 30 years of my life. I almost died a couple times, changed jobs a lot, moved every two years, had a lot friends & hobbies, etc.

    The second 30 years will be less interesting but much happier. I call it my boring life, and it’s great. I love my little home, I have a sailboat, I walk to work, I have a little garden, I read a lot….

    In the choice between interesting and happy, as I got older interesting became less fun than the joy of calmness, contentment, old clothes, settling down, and comfortable and predictable routines.

    I think you can have both, just not at the same time.

  45. Tiffany Monhollon
    Tiffany Monhollon says:

    We are watching This Emotional Life, and are in the middle of Rethinking Happiness. Dan Gilbert is the host. Anyway, you can stream all three episodes online – very interesting, and I love the way it’s based on features of people who exemplify the different things they examine – anxiety, fear, relationships, etc.

    Curious if anyone else here has viewed these and what they think. :)

    • thatgirlinnewyork
      thatgirlinnewyork says:

      we’ve been loving this series, too! a little too celebrity-laden, but i can appreciate that they thought they thought it would keep viewers interested. celebrities: they’re just like us!

  46. Ben Casnocha
    Ben Casnocha says:

    It’s amusing that people attack Gretchen or anybody else for “self-promotion.” They expect free, daily content for years, and when the blogger tries to pitch their book during the week of launch, it’s disgusting self-promotion. Please.

    90% of blog readers are freeloaders who don’t want to pay for anything or be pitched on possibly paying a penny for something.

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