Gretchen Rubin's Blog

July 30, 2020

What I Read This Month: July 2020

For three years now, every Monday morning, I've posted a photo on my Facebook Page of the books I finished during the week, with the tag #GretchenRubinReads.


I get a big kick out of this weekly habit—it’s a way to shine a spotlight on all the terrific books that I’ve read.


As I write about in my book Better Than Before, for most of my life, my habit was to finish any book that I started. Finally, I realized that this approach meant that I spent time reading books that bored me, and I had less time for books that I truly enjoy. These days, I put down a book if I don’t feel like finishing it, so I have more time to do my favorite kinds of reading.


This habit means that if you see a book included in the #GretchenRubinReads photo, you know that I liked it well enough to read to the last page.


When I read books related to an area I’m researching for a writing project, I carefully read and take notes on the parts that interest me, and skim the parts that don’t. So I may list a book that I’ve partly read and partly skimmed. For me, that still “counts.”


If you’d like more ideas for habits to help you get more reading done, read this post or download my "Reading Better Than Before" worksheet.


You can also follow me on Goodreads where I've recently started tracking books I’ve read.


If you want to see what I read last month, the full list is here.


July 2020 Reading:

Red at the Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Short, gripping family story. Named one of Oprah Magazine's "Best Books of 2019," and a New York Times Notable Book of the Year.


Long Way Down by Jason Reynolds (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I initially hesitated to read this book, because it's written in verse—but I'm so glad I read it. Terrific. I love a twist. Winner of  the 2018 Newbery Medal and  2018 Edgar Award.


Dust Tracks on a Road by Zora Neale Hurston (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Haunting. Stay tuned for an episode of "A Little Happier" about a passage from this memoir.


Brother, I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Another great memoir, a family memoir. Winner of 2007 National Book Critics Circle Award and nominated for the National Book Award.


The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A strange, interesting novel, a sort of dark adult fairy tale.


My Garden (Book): by Jamaica Kincaid (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I have no interest in gardening, but enjoy reading gardening books. And I love the work of Jamaica Kincaid. (By the way, that colon is part of the title.)


Kindred by Octavia Butler (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Octavia Butler! Slowly working my way through.


The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death by Colson Whitehead (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A Pulitzer finalist. Along with The Biggest Bluff by Maria Konnikova (Amazon, Bookshop), this terrific book has inspired me to want to learn to play poker. Wish me luck.


The Summer of the Swans by Betsy Byars (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Betsy Byars recently died, so I was inspired to reread one of her most celebrated novels. Winner of the Newbery Medal.


Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid (Amazon, Bookshop) -- So fun to read about the sense of taste.


The Grounding of Group 6 by Julian F. Thompson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A friend told me about this YA novel. If you liked House of Stairs (Amazon, Bookshop), you'll like this, too. Very suspenseful. Teenagers, a boarding school, murder.


Ordinary Light by Tracy K. Smith (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A beautiful memoir of growing up. It was a 2015 National Book Award Finalist.


Dawn (Xenogenesis #1) by Octavia E. Butler (Amazon, Bookshop) -- More Octavia Butler! An extremely interesting future world. Each of the three Xenogesis novels (see below) was nominated for the Locus Award for Best Science Fiction Novel in the year it was published (1987, 1988, and 1989).


Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A very moving novel. Named as one of the best books of 2014 by The New York TimesThe Washington Post, NPR, and others.


Adulthood Rites (Xenogenesis #2) by Octavia E. Butler (Amazon, Bookshop) -- And again, more Butler.


Imago (Xenogenesis #3) by Octavia E. Butler (Amazon, Bookshop) -- And yet more Butler.


The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander (Amazon, Bookshop) -- This memoir of deep love and early loss reminded me of Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (Amazon, Bookshop) . (Personal note: I realized that the author's brother was my TA (teaching assistant) in law school.) Winner of the Pulitzer Prize and named Best Book of the Year according to the New Yorker, NPR, and many others.


The Like Switch: An Ex-FBI Agent's Guide to Influencing, Attracting, and Winning People Over by Jack Schafer and Marvin Karlins (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A re-read. A very practical, interesting book.


Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech (Amazon, Bookshop) -- How I love this book! Wonderful. A reread.

Winner of the Newbery Medal.


Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet A. Washington (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Gripping history, I couldn't put it down. Winner of the Book Critics Circle Award.


Untamed by Glennon Doyle (Amazon, Bookshop) -- An honest and open memoir of change.


The Theming of America: American Dreams, Media Fantasies, and Themed Environments by Mark Gottdiener (Amazon, Bookshop) -- This is related to my upcoming book about the body and the senses. I do love a themed environment.


The Clock Mirage: Our Myth of Measured Time by Joseph Mazur (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I skimmed the more theoretical parts of this book, but the parts I read were very interesting.


1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 30, 2020 08:00

July 28, 2020

How Can We Handle the Uncertainty about Whether and How Schools Will Re-Open?

Right now, we're in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis, and it will continue and change for a long time. While everyone across the globe is affected, it's hitting people differently in different places. Countries are experiencing it at different times, and within the United States, states are being hit at different times. The crisis affects individuals very differently, too; people's fears and challenges vary dramatically. Wherever we are, we're all so grateful for the healthcare workers and all the essential workers who are doing such important work, so courageously, during this time.


On a recent live "Ask Me Anything" call with participants of my online video course The Happiness Project Experience, someone asked a question that's on the minds of so many of us these days: "How can we handle all the uncertainty about whether and how schools will open in the fall?"


For those of us with school-age children, it's a huge happiness challenge. And of course, even people who don't have children in school are affected by this question, because it has such tremendous consequences for everyone in a community. I feel this uncertainty myself, about what my own daughters will be doing when school starts again.


People face so many different uncertainties! They vary depending on where you live; how old your children are; whether you yourself are a teacher or work at a school; what your home situation is; what your work situation is; how your children get to school; how much support you have as a family; your family's medical condition; how your children fare in different circumstances...the list goes on and on. So it's not as if everyone is facing the same set of uncertainties—we all have our own unique collection.


Here are strategies that I'm trying to practice myself:


1. Don't waste my time and energy trying to lock in plans too early. In Shakespeare's play, Hamlet observes, "The readiness is all," and in law, lawyers talk about whether an issue is "ripe," that is, whether the facts are advanced enough to be ready for consideration. At least for me, right now, where certain key issues just aren't known or knowable, I'm trying not to spend too much time on planning. It's not efficient.


But here's the problem. Sometimes, we must plan, we need to worry. In that case....


2. Make a chart of possible futures. In episode 272 of the Happier podcast, Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz suggested making a flow chart. Even when it feels as if there are fifty possible school re-opening plans, there are really just a handful. Making a flow chart of the alternatives is also a way to give ourselves greater clarity on what issues might come up, and boosts a feeling of control. (For more insights from Dr. Elizabeth Schwarz, check out her site Tough Questions 4 Tough Times for more great answers and solutions for parents.)


3. Schedule time to worry. In episode 56, we talked about this counter-intuitive approach. Worrying has some positive aspects: it gets us to focus, it nudges us to plan, it helps us to think about different possible futures. But worry can also drain and overwhelm us. By scheduling time to worry, we free up all our other time to be worry-free, yet we're still making time for the positive aspects of worry.


Note: don't schedule time to worry around bedtime! Do it at a time when you feel calm and energetic. And keep pen and paper near by, because it's often helpful to...


4. Make a list. For me, making a list usually makes problems or uncertainties feel more manageable. Whether it's questions to investigate, items to buy, people to call, a timeline, or even just a list of open questions, it helps me to see words on a page.


5. Identify the problem. Instead of ruminating about all positive and negative outcomes and scenarios, I try to focus on what exactly might be the issues we'd face. Once a problem is identified, a solution seems clearer (even if I don't have that answer).


6. Look for a trusted authority. Especially for Questioners, who might feel overwhelmed by their urge to research and by their analysis-paralysis, it can be helpful to find a trusted authority. I have a few expert sources and individuals whose judgment and knowledge I really trust. I pay a lot of attention to what they say, and I'm very guided by their views.


7. Stay focused on my own family's values. It's easy to get distracted and overwhelmed by what other people are planning and doing. As a citizen, I want to know what's happening across the country, of course, but in my personal life, I'm trying to stay focused on what's right for us. And I remind myself that I don't have the full story about other people, so they may be making decisions for reasons that aren't visible to me.


8. Don't vent my frustration to my children. They have their own worries. I'm trying to acknowledge the reality of their feelings (see #9), and at the same time, I'm trying not to fuel the flames by talking about my own worries.


9. Acknowledge the reality of other people's feelings. When the people around me do want to vent, I try to listen and acknowledge what they're saying, instead of denying or re-directing it. I don’t deny feelings like anger, irritation, disappointment, or reluctance; instead, I try to articulate the other person’s point of view. Experts say that denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return. "You've been on Zoom for thirty minutes, but you feel like it has been three hours." "You thought you could explore the city this summer, instead you feel so cooped up." "You were looking forward to ____ in the fall, and now it's not going to happen."


It's perhaps counter-intuitive, but it's true: we help people feel happier by acknowledging that they're not feeling happy.


10. Reflect on what I'm grateful for. There's so much loss and suffering right now. It's hard even to grasp it. I take time every day to practice gratitude. Gratitude helps me maintain perspective, see silver linings, and show compassion for others. On the Chart of Possible Futures (see #2), it can help to make a list of any positive aspects to a particular future. For instance, my sister Elizabeth lives in Los Angeles, so a silver lining for her family is skipping the early-morning commute to school. More sleep, less frustration. It doesn't outweigh the fact of not going to school, of course, but it's something.


Have you found any helpful solutions for managing the uncertainty around school re-openings?


To check out all resources related to coping with COVID-19, click here.


3 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 28, 2020 07:00

July 21, 2020

What’s Your Favorite Example of “Pareidolia?” Or, Fun with Faces.

How I love thinking about the body, the senses, the mind!


As I continue my research for my next book, I'm constantly spouting off fun facts.


Here's one of my favorite little quirks of human nature: pareidolia.


Apophenia is the phenomenon that explains why we often interpret a meaningful pattern from random, impersonal, or coincidental information.


Nothing is more important to us than other people, so we're always on the search for the human face. Because we’re always looking for faces, and trying to make sense of them, our senses of sight and pattern combine to show us faces in very unlikely places.


Pareidolia is a type of apophenia that prompts us to spot a face in an inanimate object—whether that’s the Man on the Moon, a smiling face on a car, or the face of the Virgin Mary on a grilled cheese sandwich (which, by the way, sold for $28,000).



In the 1950s, the Bank of Canada pulled the “Devil’s Head” series of banknotes out of circulation, because people claimed that they could see a grinning demon in Elizabeth II’s hair.



We see these faces because face-like patterns activate the fusiform face area, the part of the brain responsible for processing faces. The brain so eagerly looks for faces that it finds them where they don’t exist.


I love the goofy faces that smile up at me from snow-covered cars or fire hydrants. Most often, I see these concerned faces glancing at me as I move around my apartment.



Do you often notice "faces" in faucets, clouds, the fronts of houses, or elsewhere? It's fun to find them.


1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 21, 2020 08:00

July 16, 2020

What a Single Life Saver Candy Can Reveal to You About Your Body and the Senses.

As I've mentioned (have I mentioned it?), my next book will be about waking up the mind through the body, through the senses.


What a delightful project it is!


As usual, as part of my research I'm using myself as guinea pig—and I'm also involving the innocent bystanders around me. For this particular experiment, I recruited my daughters Eliza and Eleanor to join me, and they were fairly enthusiastic, because this experiment involved Life Savers as a tool to explore the relationships among smell, taste, and flavor.


The fives tastes—sweet, sour, bitter, salty, umami—are quite different from flavor, which is a combination of taste and smell. Taste is an unusual sense, because while we experience flavor in our mouths, those flavors are mostly a product of smells.


As we eat, we smell our food twice. First, there’s orthonasal olfaction, the familiar kind of smelling that we do through our nose, when we inhale the smells rising from a plate of lasagna. But another kind of smelling is crucial to our sense of flavor: in retronasal olfaction, we also smell food when it’s in our mouth, because as we exhale, scents from the food are sent through an opening at the back of the mouth, up to the nose. In what’s called the “olfactory location illusion,” we think that the food’s flavor is coming from our mouth, even though much of that flavor is furnished by the nose. Sometimes people think that their sense of taste is impaired when it’s actually their sense of smell.



This relationship has been highlighted in the time of the pandemic. In some people, decrease or loss of the ability to smell is a symptom of COVID-19. Many people think they've lost their sense of taste, because that's what they notice, but in fact it's their sense of smell that's impaired. Now that I've studied the sense of smell, I realize what a terrible loss this is; although we often take the sense of smell for granted, it's an essential element to our sense of vitality, connection, and awareness.


We know flavors mostly through smell, and so if we can’t smell something, it changes the way things "taste."


To test this, I told my daughters, "Pinch your nose, shut your eyes, and put a Life Saver in your mouth without looking at it.”


I did the same. The candy tasted the way it usually did, I thought, with an intense general sweetness.


“Now let go of your nose,” I said. When I started to breathe normally, flavor flooded into my mouth.


Before, I realized, I’d tasted mere sweetness. Now that I could smell, the Life Saver’s flavor became much more complex and distinct.


“I think I have orange,” I said. “What color is it?” I stuck out my tongue.


“You’re right!” Eleanor told me. “Is mine red?”


“Yep.”


Try it yourself! Jelly Bellies work well too.


I love finding simple experiments that reveal the ways our senses work. Do you have any suggestions of experiments to try?


5 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 16, 2020 08:00

July 9, 2020

These Three Irrational Thoughts Keep Tugging on My Mind in the Age of COVID-19.

This is a strange time.


I love Joan Didion's haunting memoir The Year of Magical Thinking (Amazon, Bookshop), and I was particularly struck by her description of her irrational responses after the death of her husband, John Gregory Dunne. If I remember correctly (I can't find my copy of the book to check), she had the thought, "If it's three hours earlier in California, is John still alive there?" She was distressed by reading obituaries about John, because, she thought, "I had allowed other people to believe he was dead."


I absolutely understand the dream logic of those ideas.


And as the pandemic continues, I find myself having strange, irrational thoughts—which I recognize as irrational, yet tug on my mind.


First, I have the feeling that we're in a temporary alternate universe. It's very interesting to watch everything play out, but at a certain point, a giant finger will push the "rewind" button, and we'll all zip back to the time before everything changed, and we'll resume the previously scheduled programming. Like the movie Sliding Doors, this has been an experiment in what-if, just-imagine, and what-would-you-do.


Second, I have the oddest feeling that all this is somehow optional. I'm being a good citizen and opting in to this experiment, but it's voluntary. At some point, I might opt out.


Third, I have the unshakeable sensation that no time is passing. I see the seasons change, school has ended and plans for the fall have been announced, we've had family birthdays; and yet I feel like I'm suspended in a present moment that keeps stretching but doesn't flip to the next moment.


All of this is utterly irrational, of course. And I know it. Time is passing, it's irreversible, I can't opt out.


At least I realize that I'm having these irrational thoughts, so I can recognize and try to adjust for them—but I do still have them.


There's another line of irrational thought that I don't experience, but I've heard from many people—including my sister Elizabeth—who do. That's the feeling that "This doesn't count. We're in a global pandemic, this is unprecedented and unplanned for, nothing counts during this time." It's true, of course, that this situation is unprecedented and unplanned for, and we all face uncertainty in every direction, but at the same time, everything counts. (This idea also comes up in the context of the "This Doesn't Count" Loophole that I write about in Better Than Before, my book about how to make and break habits.)


Everything reminds me of a favorite quotation, and during this time, one line in particular keeps ringing in my head, from the Roman poet Ovid: "Be patient and tough; one day this pain will be useful to you." As terrible as this time is, I'm trying to learn from it—and I can't learn from this pain if I'm not seeing it clearly.


Have you found yourself having irrational thoughts or responses to the current situation?


For all resources related to coping with COVID-19, click here


11 likes ·   •  1 comment  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 09, 2020 07:00

July 3, 2020

The Fourth of July Is a Yearly Reminder to Reflect on the Highest Ideals of the United States.

Whether it's New Year's Day, Mother's Day, Valentine's Day, a birthday, or an anniversary, I’m a big fan of using holidays and dates as milestones, as prompts for reflection or action.


The Fourth of July is a great example of how we can use a holiday to remind us to think about our deepest values. Of course, on every day of the year we should be thinking about our values—but I do think it's helpful to have a nudge from the outside.


And this year of 2020, more than many other years in our national history, has been a time when many people have been thinking deeply about questions such as: "What are the true values of the United States?" "How must we, as a country, change and grow in order to live up to those values?" and, "What can I do, in my own life, to ensure that I and my fellow citizens are living up to its highest and most noble ideals?"


We live in a historic time. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought these issues to the fore, and even more so, the crucial protests and actions arising for racial justice.


There are many ways to articulate the ideals of the United States, and one familiar example comes from the the Declaration of Independence. I still remember memorizing part of it in seventh grade, including this paragraph:


We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.


How our understanding of these words has changed since they were written in 1776! They were written long ago, during the founding of the United States, and their meaning has changed over time, and they will continue to change. We will never reach the end of understanding.


We want "liberty and justice for all," and now is the time to make that happen.


I often write about my "America Feeling," about the feeling I get when I vote, when I serve on a jury (twice), when I read the Declaration of Independence. The America feeling is an intense, transcendent feeling that often gets me choked up.


Here are a few of my favorites "A Little Happier" episodes about the America Feeling. You can read them or listen (they're all about 3-4 minutes long):



I Experienced My "America Feeling" at the Beaches in Normandy.
I Get Choked Up When I Hear the Song "Edelweiss" from "The Sound of Music."
My "America Feeling" and the Statue of Liberty.

All of these "Little Happiers" are very appropriate to today, but perhaps this one is the very most fitting: "A Happiness Lesson from the Broadway Show "Oklahoma!" The song ends with Aunt Eller singing:


I’d like to teach you all a little sayin’

And learn the words by heart the way you should

I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else,

But I’ll be danged if I ain’t jist as good!


This song gives me such a strong America Feeling that I tear up every time I hear it. Because it's one of the great dreams of the United States: "I don't say I'm no better than anybody else, but I'll be danged if I ain't jist as good."


Now more than ever, the Fourth of July is a time to reflect on what must happen so that our nation can fulfill its promise.


I've been thinking and reading about this question non-stop. How about you?


3 likes ·   •  3 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 03, 2020 06:00

July 2, 2020

Maria Konnikova: “Our Brains Simply Aren’t Equipped to Spot Falsehood. And That Can Be a Troubling Thing.”

Interview: Maria Konnikova.

I've known Maria Konnikova for several years—how we met, I don't recall. She's the author of two New York Times bestsellers, The Confidence Game (Amazon, Bookshop) and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes (Amazon, Bookshop). Her latest book, The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win (Amazon, Bookshop), just hit the shelves.

I do love a self-experiment. While researching The Biggest Bluff, Maria became an international poker champion and the winner of over $300,000 in tournament earnings—and inadvertently turned into a professional poker player.

When she's not writing books, Maria is a regular contributor to The New Yorker, and her writing has won numerous awards. She's also the host of the podcast The Grift , a show that explores con artists and the lives they ruin.

I couldn't wait to talk to Maria about happiness, habits, and creativity.

What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?

Daily morning yoga. I always start my day with an Ashtanga practice, and it sets the perfect tone for everything that comes after. I'm in a better frame of mind, more calm and mindful and centered. My body is more limber and ready for the day. I'm ready to take on the world!

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?

Just how important it is to focus on experiences—to learn to savor and fully take in everything around you. I think I let a few too many things pass me by when I was younger. I was always in one rush or another to reach some milestone. Now, I try to plan ahead as little as possible and just take it day by day, fully experiencing each and every one.

You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?

Most people are baffled by my takeaways on deception. They are convinced it's possible to tell, reliably, if someone is lying or not. It isn't. I've spent years on this, first in the world of con artists and, more recently, in the world of poker. We tend to be no better than chance at figuring out if someone is telling the truth or not. Our brains simply aren't equipped to spot falsehood (Is that person really happy to see me? Did they really miss my party because they were busy, or was it just an excuse? Think of how many white lies we encounter daily, and how much of a drain to our self-esteem it would be if we picked up on each one). And that can be a troubling thing.

Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?

It took me a long time to start exercising daily. I hated going to the gym, and it never stuck. It's not until I found a routine that I could get behind on every level, yoga, that I found I could stick to it. Philosophically, I see that it does much more for me than just keeping me fit, so it's very easy to keep going. I want to do it, and miss it when I don't. It doesn't seem like a waste of time, the way that running on a treadmill always did. For me, it was all about finding the activity that actually suited me.

Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?

Ha. Rebel, all the way. I knew that before, but I just took the quiz and I think I may be as Rebel as they come. I've never been able to work in an office—and had five (!) jobs my first year out of college before I realized the corporate world and I simply weren't meant to be. And don't ever try to tell me what to do. It ain't happening.

Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)

For my new book, The Biggest Bluff, I spent more time on the road than I ever had before. In 2018, I traveled for a total of about eight months. That's a lot of time away. So, I had to be incredibly mindful of making sure I was still leading a healthy lifestyle. At home, I cook almost all of my meals (all, these days). So, eating well is tough on the road. I try to only eat food where I see every ingredient. If there's sushi and sashimi at my destination, I'm all set. Otherwise, it can get tricky. But I try to book hotels with either kitchens or, at the least, good fridge space, and I go shopping first thing, to get healthy snacks, lots of fruit, and the like. I also travel with my own oatmeal and travel teapot! I also always pack a travel yoga mat, so that I make sure to keep my daily practice no matter where I am. The hardest thing is sleep and time zone changes. When I flew to Macau, I don't think I ever really adjusted. I do my best to follow good sleep hygiene practice, but this is the toughest thing for me to get right.

Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?

It was more of a slow lightning strike. The inspiration for my latest book was a series of life setbacks—a sudden autoimmune condition that left me unable to leave the apartment; the sudden death of my grandmother; multiple people in my family losing their jobs at once. It made me realize how much of a role chance plays in life. It fully opened my eyes to the extent that things we think we control are actually far outside our abilities to direct.

Is there a particular quotation that has struck you as particularly insightful?

The quote I used to open my first book, Mastermind , is one that has guided my life ever since I first discovered it. It's from W. H. Auden, one of my favorite poets. "Choice of attention—to pay attention to this and ignore that—is to the inner life what choice of action is to the outer. In both cases man is responsible for his choice and must accept the consequences. As Ortega y Gasset said: 'Tell me to what you pay attention, and I'll tell you who you are.'" It seems endlessly relevant.

Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?

The Little Prince . From the moment I first read it as a child, it took my breath away. And I've returned to it many, many times since—in Russian, the way I first read it, in French, in English—throughout my life, taking new lessons each time. It's a masterpiece—and a master guide for how to live your best life.

In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?

Yes. Two. First, that writing is easy and you don't have to work hard. Second, that writing shouldn't be well compensated, because, come on, it's art! It should be free. Writers need to eat. And writers should be paid for their work. And there's no myth more dangerous than that of the starving artist who must starve to create.



Author photo courtesy of Neil Stoddart and PokerStars
3 likes ·   •  1 comment  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on July 02, 2020 06:00

June 30, 2020

What I Read This Month: June 2020

For three years now, every Monday morning, I've posted a photo on my Facebook Page of the books I finished during the week, with the tag #GretchenRubinReads.


I get a big kick out of this weekly habit—it’s a way to shine a spotlight on all the terrific books that I’ve read.


As I write about in my book Better Than Before, for most of my life, my habit was to finish any book that I started. Finally, I realized that this approach meant that I spent time reading books that bored me, and I had less time for books that I truly enjoy. These days, I put down a book if I don’t feel like finishing it, so I have more time to do my favorite kinds of reading.


This habit means that if you see a book included in the #GretchenRubinReads photo, you know that I liked it well enough to read to the last page.


When I read books related to an area I’m researching for a writing project, I carefully read and take notes on the parts that interest me, and skim the parts that don’t. So I may list a book that I’ve partly read and partly skimmed. For me, that still “counts.”


If you’d like more ideas for habits to help you get more reading done, read this post or download my "Reading Better Than Before" worksheet.


You can also follow me on Goodreads where I've recently started tracking books I’ve read.


If you want to see what I read last month, the full list is here.


June 2020 Reading:

A few special notes from June: In episode 277 of the Happier podcast, I talk about my decision to have the Summer of Black Authors (and postpone my Summer of Virginia Woolf to the Autumn of Virginia Woolf). Each week on the podcast for the summer, I have a segment called "Spotlight on a Black Author." Of course, I'm reading books by many additional Black writers as well, as you'll see in the list below, and I'm also working to educate myself more on issues of racial equality and criminal justice through reading.


If you have any great reading suggestions for me, send them my way! Though I must say my to-be-read pile is getting alarming. Especially now that my library has opened for pick-up.


Broken Places & Outer Spaces: Finding Creativity in the Unexpected by Nnedi Okorafor (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Elizabeth and I chose this short, thought-provoking memoir for our Instagram Live book club. I'm also a big fan of Okorafor's adult and young-adult fiction.


The Fire Next Time by James Baldwin (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A classic that I wanted to re-read. Fortunately, I already owned it, because it's sold out everywhere.


Look Both Ways: A Tale Told in Ten Blocks by Jason Reynolds (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Coretta Scott King Honor book, National Book Award finalist, NPR Best Books of 2019. A great children's book with an interesting structure: each chapter is about a different child or set of children walking home from school.


If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A haunting novel. I can't get it out of my head.


White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism by Kevin M. Kruse (Amazon, Bookshop) -- An illuminating look at the history of Atlanta.


The Changes: A Trilogy by Peter Dickinson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Peter Dickinson, how I love his work. The twist at the end of the unusual dystopia trilogy made it all worthwhile.


New Kid by Jerry Craft (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Newbery award winner -- I don't often read graphic novels, and I really enjoyed this one about the challenge of being the new kid at school


Why Time Flies: A Mostly Scientific Investigation by Alan Burdick (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A re-read. I love reading about time, and this is one of my favorites.


All the Lives We Ever Lived: Seeking Solace in Virginia Woolf by Katharine Smyth (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I read this as preparation for my Summer (now Autumn) of Virginia Woolf. An interesting take on a memoir.


The Tears of the Salamander by Peter Dickinson (Amazon) -- More Dickinson. He doesn't have many more novels for me to read! Though I can switch to his adult fiction.


The Undying: Pain, Vulnerability, Mortality, Medicine, Art, Time, Dreams, Data, Exhaustion, Cancer, and Care by Anne Boyer (Amazon, Bookshop) -- A powerful memoir of cancer—the subtitle says it all.


The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (A Hunger Games novel) by Suzanne Collins (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I love The Hunger Games, and I love Machiavellian characters, and I really enjoyed this prequel to the Hunger Games trilogy.


Deacon King Kong by James McBride (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Oprah's Book Club Pick. A wonderful, sprawling novel with lots of engaging character and suspense about why they're doing what they're doing.


Piecing Me Together by Renée Watson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Coretta Scott King award, Newbery Honor, NPR Best Books of 2017. An interesting main character grappling with the reality and idea of "opportunity."


Group: How One Therapist and a Circle of Strangers Saved My Life by Christie Tate (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I love reading about other people's therapy, so was fascinated by this account of unconventional group therapy and its life-changing consequences (in galley).


Bloodchild and Other Stories by Octavia E. Butler (Amazon, Bookshop) -- OCTAVIA BUTLER, HERE I COME. I loved these stories, so thought-provoking. Butler has been on my reading list forever, and now I plan to read several this month.


Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism by Safiya Umoja Noble (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I spend a fair amount of time with tech people, and the subject of the injustice of algorithms comes up a lot, so I was interested to read more deeply on this important subject.


Michael Jordan: The Life by Roland Lazenby (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Although I know nothing about basketball, like many people, I loved the documentary series Last Dance, and I became very intrigued by the character of Michael Jordan—and particularly, trying to figure out his Tendency. So I read this biography, which didn't shed much light on that question. I think Jordan is either an Upholder or a Rebel, and I can't tell which! What do you think?


Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Named one of the best books of the year by the New York Times, Washington Post, Time, CNN, etc. A beautiful, thought-provoking book—and a page-turner. It would make a great book club book, especially for a spirituality book group. What is mercy, what is justice?


Spirits That Walk in Shadow by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Amazon) -- A re-read. I love, love, love Hoffman's work.


Genesis Begins Again by Alicia D. Williams (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Coretta Scott King award, Newbery Honor, NPR Favorite Book, Kirkus Best Middle Grade. Powerful, haunting, about many things. I was particularly interested in the main character's complex, deep love for her difficult father.


Magpie Murders by Anthony Horowitz (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I don't read mysteries very often, but this unusual double (or is it triple?) novel of mysteries was super-enjoyable.


A Walk Out of the World by Ruth Nichols (Amazon) -- A re-read. This was a book I read when I was very young, a classic fantasy.


The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Desmond Elliott Prize shortlist. An indomitable character dealing with extremely difficult circumstances.


My Brother by Jamaica Kincaid (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I sense a Jamaica Kincaid kick coming on. A short, compelling memoir of her brother and her family, and a meditation on how and why their lives turned out so differently.


Heavy: An American Memoir by Kiese Laymon (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Best Book of 2018 by New York Times, NPR, New York Times critics, etc. I loved this memoir—interestingly, it takes the form of an address to his mother, with whom he had an extremely difficult if fundamentally loving relationship. It's a page-turner about so many things. I can't stop thinking about it.


Mom, the Wolf Man, and Me by Norma Klein  (Amazon) -- A problem novel from the 70s! Need I say more? It holds up well.


We Are Never Meeting in Real Life. by Samantha Irby (Amazon, Bookshop) -- I love Samantha Irby's essays. Hilarious.


Negroland by Margo Jefferson (Amazon, Bookshop) -- National Book Critics Circle award, New York Times Notable Book, Best Book of the Year by the Washington Post, etc. A memoir with an unusual structure about race, identity, privilege, family, and many other things


Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah (Amazon, Bookshop) -- Named one of the Best Books of the Year by the New York Times, NPR, San Francisco Chronicle, etc. Outstanding, brilliant, hilarious, profound memoir of his childhood in South Africa. Trevor Noah is a remarkable person.


Time Travelers, Ghosts, and Other Visitors by Nina Kiriki Hoffman (Amazon) -- Re-reading Hoffman (see above) made me look to see if I'd missed any books by her, and fortunately, I found this book of short stories.


5 likes ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on June 30, 2020 09:56

June 25, 2020

Emily Anthes: “I Spend All Day in My Head, with Abstract Ideas and Words…It Feels Really Nice to Do Something with My Hands.”

Interview: Emily Anthes.


Emily Anthes is a science journalist and author. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Wired, Nature, Mosaic, Nautilus, Slate, Businessweek, Scientific American, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Aeon, Psychology Today, and elsewhere. She is the author of Frankenstein’s Cat: Cuddling Up to Biotech’s Brave New Beasts and Instant Egghead Guide: The Mind.


Her new book is The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness.


I've long been fascinated by the question of how our surroundings influence our happiness and habits—this theme comes up in many of books, such  The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, Better Than Before, and of course, Outer Order, Inner Calm.


So I was very interested in Emily Anthes's work, and couldn't wait to talk to her about happiness, habits, and our surroundings.


Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?


Emily: I love to cook. I spend all day in my head, with abstract ideas and words that might not see the light of day for months, if not years. So it feels really nice to do something with my hands—and something that has tangible and immediate rewards. I like to cook all sorts of things, but I have a special fondness for bread baking. There’s something about the transformation from sticky ball of dough to airy loaf of bread that feels almost alchemical. I’ve made countless loaves of bread, but still, every time I remove one from the oven, it seems like magic.


You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?


My new book, The Great Indoors, explores how our indoor environments—our homes, offices, schools, and other spaces—influence our health, behavior, and happiness. When I began the project, I knew that our indoor environments mattered. (That’s what sparked the project, after all.) But I was surprised at just how *much* they mattered. Our buildings shape our lives in all sorts of ways that aren’t immediately obvious. Researchers have found, for instance, that women who give birth in sprawling hospital wards are more likely to have caesarean sections than those who give birth in compact ones, that kids who live in quieter homes are better readers than those who live in noisy ones, and that people who live on the upper floors of an apartment building are less likely to survive heart attacks than those who live closer to the ground. The layout of your office shapes your social networks, the view from your hospital window affects how quickly you recover from surgery, and the temperature in a room influences your cognitive performance. And that’s just a small smattering of examples. The indoor environment affects us in all kinds of ways that we rarely think about. (Though I suspect we’re all thinking about it more these days!)


Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?


For the last decade or so, I’ve managed to get myself to the gym three times a week. I still don’t love it—and don’t think I ever will—but one thing that helps me stay motivated is listening to gripping audiobooks, especially mysteries and thrillers, when I work out. Wanting to find out what happens next is often enough to nudge me to get some exercise.


Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?


I am not surprised to see that I’m an Upholder—that’s absolutely what I would have guessed. I’m pretty disciplined and rule-bound, even when it would serve me to be a bit looser and more spontaneous. That’s something I’m working on.


Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)


Working from home is both a blessing and a curse. In some ways, it’s made it easier for me to have healthy habits—I’m able to go for long walks with the dog, go to the gym in the middle of the day, and embark upon long, leisurely cooking projects. But in other ways, it’s an enormous challenge, especially for work-life balance. It’s hard to maintain that balance when you work where you live (and live where you work)—something that I’m sure a lot of people have discovered in recent months. I feel like there’s always more work I could be doing, which makes it hard to “turn off” my work brain, and to really decompress and disconnect.


Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?


“All you have to do is write one true sentence.” That’s what Ernest Hemingway would tell himself when he was struggling to get going on a new writing project. And I’ve found it helpful to remind myself of that when I’m staring at a blank page. Writing an entire book can feel overwhelming, but really, all you have to do is write one true sentence. And then another. And then another.


Has a book ever changed your life—if so, which one and why?


The first one that comes to mind is Phantoms in the Brain, by V.S. Ramachandran, which I read when I was in middle school. Ramachandran is a neuroscientist, and the book chronicles his innovative attempts to help patients with phantom limb pain. It’s the book that made me fall in love with science in general, and neuroscience in particular. It’s a testament to how amazing and strange the brain can be, and it made me realize that science isn’t this static set of facts, but a never-ending process of asking and answering questions.


In your field, is there a common misperception or incorrect assumption that you’d like to correct?


Journalists aren’t especially popular these days, and there’s this assumption that we play fast and loose with the facts, that we don’t care what we write or who it affects. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Every journalist I know cares deeply about truth and accuracy and has literally lost sleep over the possibility of getting something wrong. We’re not perfect, of course, and we do sometimes get things wrong, but we try extremely hard not to, and it’s gutting to make a mistake in print.



1 like ·   •  0 comments  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on June 25, 2020 06:00

June 18, 2020

Marta Zaraska: “I Live in France, So Picnics Are a Big Thing Here—and I Absolutely Love It.”

Interview: Marta Zaraska.


Marta Zaraska is a science journalist whose work has appeared in the Washington Post, Scientific American, New Scientist, The Atlantic, Discover, and many other outlets. Her new book, Growing Young: How Friendship, Optimism, and Kindness Can Help You Live to 100, just hit the shelves. The book is "a research-driven case for why optimism, kindness, and strong social networks will keep us living longer than any fitness tracker or superfood."


I couldn't wait to talk to Marta about happiness, health, and relationships.


Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?


Marta: Spending time in nature with my friends. I live in France, so picnics are a big thing here—and I absolutely love it. Call friends, pack some cheese, baguette, a bottle of wine, and head to the fields, a forest, a chateau park. Always makes me happy!


What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?


That it matters for your physical health. I thought that happiness was just about my mental wellbeing, my psyche. Yet it actually affects us on a very biological level. Studies show that happy people live anywhere between four and ten years longer than those who are less satisfied with their lives. Happiness, and in particular eudaimonic happiness, so finding meaning in life, can lower risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke. It can change certain parts of our brain, such as the insula, and can even affect our gene expression.


You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?


I used to be obsessed with healthy nutrition and exercise. I still think it’s important, but after reading hundreds of research studies and talking to dozens of scientists while researching Growing Young I came to realize that I’ve been putting too much time and effort into finding the best organic foods and most beneficial exercise routines, while disregarding things such as optimism, kindness, or simply holding hands with my husband. And these are the things that sometimes are even more important to health than nutrition or physical activity. Studies show, for instance,  that building a strong support network of family and friends lowers mortality risk by about 45 per cent. Exercise, on the other hand, can lower that risk by 23 to 33 per cent.


Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?


I’ve learned to patiently let other people into traffic when I’m driving. And yes, it is a health habit! It’s my small random kindness contribution—which actually can really boost your health—it reduces stress and even improves your antibody production in the blood.


Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?


I’m an Obliger—I guess I’m really not very good at keeping my resolutions when no one holds me accountable. I managed to give up sugar completely for months, but it only worked because in the early days I told my husband to oversee my progress (and shame me if I broke the rules!). I’m back to eating sugar now, however—the pandemic was too much, especially that we are in the very epicenter of France’s outbreak. I’ll have to try again.


Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties, email)


Sheer amount of work, especially these days. I’m a working mom, so it’s never easy, but now with the coronavirus pandemic I have homeschooling on top of my regular writing job, so keeping healthy habits is an uphill battle—at least when it comes to diet or exercise. But I do try to remember about my “other” healthy habits, such as hugging my husband or video-calling my family and friends (much better for your wellbeing and health than texting!).


Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?


“He who has a why to live for can bear almost any how”—it’s a quote from Nietzsche and I have it hanging in my office. For me the “why” is to do my modest share in preventing catastrophic climate change so that my child, and all other young people, can still enjoy our beautiful planet in the future in a relatively unchanged state. I think about it whenever I feel down or unmotivated, and it truly lifts my spirits to know there is something bigger than me that I believe in.



4 likes ·   •  1 comment  •  flag
Share on Twitter
Published on June 18, 2020 06:00