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Mood Swing

A guide to everyday contentment


Gretchen Rubin suggests it's best to call her in New York at 6. 15am her time. She'll have been up and about for a while by then. It might be hard to believe, but this early-rising, beingon-form-before-it's-even-light is one of the things that enables Rubin to have a better day. She hasn't always been like this - and the recent decision to shave off an hour's sleep a night didn't exactly come naturally. No, she says, it's a very deliberate strategic plan, with one goal in mind: happiness. It's part of her Happiness Project, which began as something very personal, and has grown into a much more public phenomenon.

It all started on a bus journey, when she had some time to think, and the admission to herself that while she wasn't unhappy, she wasn't as actively happy as she could be. Why not? She was determined to find out, and gave herself a year to discover ways of being as happy as possible in the most normative of situations. Her memoir of that time, The Happiness Project, was published in 2010, became a New York Times number one bestseller, and rolled into a daily blog of thoughts and tips on happiness that is now read by over 300, 000 people each month. "It's not self-help, it's self-helpful, " she says, describing exactly why her writing is appealing and non-saccharine.

This very writerly approach shows through in her posts: every day there's a quotation from thinkers like Aristotle (" Men are what they are because [of] their characters, but it is in action that they find happiness or the reverse" ), to writers like Stephen Spender (" The greatest of all human delusions is that there is a tangible goal" ). In her approach, Rubin is something of a moral essayist for the 21st century, so it isn't a surprise when she says that she loves Samuel Johnson. "He was sort of doing the equivalent of a blog, " she says, describing The Rambler, a periodical Johnson had published in the 18th century, reflecting on life and how to live it. But while these intellectual ideas inform her thinking, it's her translation of them into the most practical of solutions that is the draw. Getting up an hour earlier came about because she realised that getting everything done in a squeezed time-frame (children ready for school, making packed lunches, organising breakfast, not having time to drink her coffee) meant that, in lots of indiscernible but significant ways, she was starting the day off on the wrong foot. "It's the idea of mindfulness, " she says. "It's so hard: I'm the least mindful person in the world, but the more you pay attention to what makes you happy, the more you see the opportunity for change in small things. "

Waking her family up as a calm, showered Gretchen, coffee in hand, lunches made the night before, turns out to be one of those things. As is general household organisation. "Clutter is disproportionately important, for instance, " she says of her general happiness level. "I don't understand why it seems to matter so much. " As a result, she's invested a lot of thought, and blog posts, about how to get rid of it. And the good news is that it's not all about the long-term game-plan : short-term strategies are celebrated. 'Seven tips to make yourself happier in the next hour' is a typical post (do a nagging task;lay some groundwork for some future fun), and her one-minute rule (if you can do an irksome task in less than a minute, do it) turns out to be strangely effective. As intangible as the concept of happiness is, Rubin is somehow tracing a path from the thinking of the greatest philosophers into the practicalities of daily living. "It's just about joining the dots. "


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