Happier Holidays: A Conversation with Gretchen Rubin

Eric Swanson recently sat down with bestselling author Gretchen Rubin to talk about her book Happier at Home (now available in paperback). He said “it was like talking to a really good friend—someone wise, funny, resolutely practical, and refreshingly honest.” Here’s Part One of the series. Check out Part Two: New Year Resolutions and Part Three: Feel More at Home, at Home.

Gretchen Rubin doesn’t shy away from admitting her own foibles or sharing her own discoveries.

There are a lot of books on the subject of happiness out there. A lot of research, too, for the Google-minded. But something about hearing a person’s particular story—and living through it with them—makes the information resonate more deeply. Following someone who is willing to take on the project of creating a happier home becomes an adventure. Narnia for every day.

It’s also, frankly, inspiring. Rubin breaks down her own journey in such a comfortable, easygoing way, that after finishing the book, I thought, “By gum, I can do that!”

For those who haven’t had a chance to read this wonderful book (which is coming out in paperback on December 31, 2013), Happier at Home tracks Rubin’s nine-month project to transform her home into a place that both calms and energizes her. A place where she feels safe and also free to take risks. A place that reflects her values and also allows her to appreciate the happiness that’s already there.

I had the great pleasure of speaking with Gretchen recently. It was like a master class in happiness. She’s just as exuberant, wise, and personal “live” as she is on the page.

And what a fountain of information!

For every “Well, how would I?” question I raised, she had a suggestion. Something practical. Easy to implement.

For example, she’s a big proponent of using scent to enjoy a little shot of happiness at home. “It’s free,” she explains. “It doesn’t take any time. It doesn’t take any mental energy. There’s no calories or carbs. It’s pure enjoyment!”

Want a quick shot of happiness? Open a bottle of vanilla extract and sniff.

And since scent plays a big part in the holiday season—evergreen, cinnamon, cocoa (I personally draw the line at eggnog)—our conversation naturally turned to practical ways we can sustain happiness at a time when we either open our homes to others or travel to other people’s homes.

It’s not unusual to experience a bit of stress when our everyday situation is disrupted. One bit of advice Rubin offers is to be aware of our own bodies, because our physical experience always colors our emotional experience.

“If you feel like it’s going to be stressful either to host or be hosted,” she suggests, “make sure you get enough sleep. Make sure you don’t let yourself get too hungry. Be sure to give yourself plenty of time so that you don’t feel harried and you’re just racing against the clock to get to the airport or wherever you’re headed.”

Such simple things are easy to forget when we head into a situation where visions of sugar plums collide with the realities of traffic jams, flight delays, and dear Aunt Violet’s holiday fruitcake.

Yes, Virginia, some people still serve fruitcake.

The subject of food, of course, led to ask about managing the holiday urge to eat and drink in a way that’s different from the way we usually do.

“It can feel festive to indulge,” Rubin explains, “but it’s not all happiness. If you’re overindulging and then feel remorseful about that, that’s a very bad feeling. So maybe you want to think about ways to take control of the situation— especially beforehand, when you can think it through.”

The same goes for drinking. Though it may feel jolly to fill up your own or someone else’s glass, drinking doesn’t always bring out people’s best side. “If you’re expecting to have a high-conflict dinner,” Rubin wryly suggests, “that’s maybe not the time to have four glasses of wine.”

So: Sleep. Eat. Give yourself time. Plan ahead.

A few modest suggestions to help make this season a little bit brighter.

Next up: Start the New Year in a home that feels like home to you.

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