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Why I Love Gretchen Rubin, and Highly Recommend her New Book, Happier at Home

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Sara Working Mom

"Abandon a project" will make me happier at home? Damn, it's true. I'm not a quitter but yet again, Gretchen Rubin changed my thinking and taught me five new things about connecting to my joie de vivre.

Gretchen Rubin has done it again. Her new book, Happier at Home (Crown, Sept. 4, 2012) is crazypants good. I took it with me on my vacation in August, and even though I was completely exhausted from completing my own book at the end of July, I stayed up way past my bedtime and read this book as if, well... as if it were 50 Shades.

To be honest, I didn't always adore Gretchen Rubin.

I didn't want to love her. I'm not a fan of the "self-help" genre. But I don't think she is, either. She's remarkably sophisticated. She doesn't dumb down or repeat. She gives you the goods right away -- to get your marriage in that "yar" position again or to reset your self-loathing about your body, or to use "attention" to enjoy motherhood (Who knew?). She soothes my quirky weirdnesses. Gretchen helps you get all spiritual without it tasting of saccharin.

Not sure what my problem was that kept me from reading Gretchen in 2008, but I'm sure my resistance was ego-related. When The Happiness Project arrived on the New York Times bestseller list years ago, I thought: "Really? A working mom/Yalie/lawyer from New York has things to teach me about happiness? She sounds self-indulgent."

Mirror, Mirror

Um, mirroring something important for me?

Turns out that Gretchen had a ton to teach me about happiness, and my resistance merely kept me small and stuck for a few months, until I finally picked up the book and devoured it in three days.

Full disclosure: No, she didn't pay me to say this. No, I don't get any cut in your purchase of her latest book. I simply believe this: Her book helps. It helps with the hardness of living. Of wifehood. Of motherhood. Of the quest for joie.

That Marriage Thing

Recently, I hung out on Ayelet Waldman's website, one of my favorite writers who speaks truth about motherhood. Not the cleaned up version, but the "Bad Mother" version, which suits me far better. She wrote about Anna Quindlen's new book, and how Anna is a bit of a trailblazer for her because she's 10 years older (I forget the math) AND has a happy marriage. I thought: happy marriage. Important. Am I doing enough to have a happy marriage?

I have a happy marriage. But we're the never-before generation that wants all things from all people, including our partners. My poor husband. I want him to give me equality, be my best friend and sounding board, set up the sukkah and manage the finances, respect my contributions, understand when my net income is down, allow me to write nights and weekends for... er, 18 months, and also deliver the yumminess in bed. That's a lot to expect from one individual. And then there's the plexing question that's always with me: Couldn't I do more? Be more? Show up better? Deepen our intimacy? Be more of a sex goddess? OK, I've gone to pole-dancing class and role-played, how do I do this whole partnership thing more authentically?

Happy at Home and Married

Friggin' page 64. Gretchen describes her husband asking her to "go get our mortgage documents." She asks blankly, "From where?" and I can totally relate.

Huh? That's your department. I'm in charge of playdates, pickup, birthday and slumber parties, kid gifts, healthy dinners, and... uh, mortgage... that's all you, Babe. Gretchen goes on in an incredibly real, loving way that just feels like the truth, and makes me lean in.

She says: "For a moment, I was tempted to play out this argument, to declaim" (author's note: Who uses this word any more, besides Pulitzer types?) "about why this 'we' bothered me, why he needed to be able to locate things, why it shouldn't always be my responsibility, but I caught myself. Did I really want to have this argument?"

Oh, God. She totally gets it. This is exactly the thing that trips me up in marriage and intimacy. How can I get over myself?

Oh, Gretchen, can't we have a decaf espresso or glass of zin, and dish wifehood and motherhod sometime soon?

Meanwhile, here's the bottom line: Both of her books are better than chocolate, and have far fewer calories.

Here's Our Interview:

Dr. Sara: Why did you decide to focus on home for this book about happiness?

Gretchen: Samuel Johnson wrote, "To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition, the end to which every enterprise and labour tends." Now, it's debatable whether that's true for everyone, but it's certainly true for me. For me, my home is the foundation of my happiness. What did I expect from my home? I wanted it to be a place of love, comfort, calm, and exploration -- but my home didn't always feel as homey as I wished. I decided to do another happiness project, and this time, focus on the aspects of my life that shape my experience of home, such as possessions, time, body, neighborhood, marriage, and parenthood.The book's title, Happier at Home, is a reference to that line of Johnson's. I'm a hardcore devotee of Dr. Johnson.

Dr. Sara: You experimented with many resolutions -- which was your fave?

Gretchen: Oh, I loved so many of them. "Give warm greetings and farewells," "Celebrate holiday breakfasts," "Create a secret place," "Be a tourist without leaving home." And certainly one of my favorites was to "Cultivate good smells." I've become obsessed with the sense of smell. A beautiful fragrance is quick, easy, and delightful -- an instant fix of happiness. Unlike many pleasures, it can be enjoyed in an instant, with no cost, no energy, no calories, and no planning. In a flash, I can enjoy the fresh smell of a grapefruit, or the fragrance of clean towels, or the exciting smell of a hardware store (for some reason, no matter where you go, all hardware stores have that same smell).

Dr. Sara: We all strive to bring more simplicity to their lives. Is this something you address in Happier at Home?

Gretchen: I discovered that simplicity is very complex! Many of my resolutions do address simplicity, but I realized that for me, it was also important to resist the simplifying impulse, because if anything, I cultivate too much simplicity -- not a disciplined, thoughtful simplicity, but one created by indifference and neglect. I always have to fight my urge to do nothing. If I didn't have to consider my husband and daughters, if I didn't have my mother to coach me along, I'd be living in a studio with bare walls, crooked blinds, and a futon on the floor, forever. I've always been this way. After I graduated from college, I shared a house with three friends. After the first year, one of my housemates said kindly, "The thing about living with you, Gretchen, is that you don't subtract, and you don't add. You never leave a mess, and you never bring home a dessert or call the cable guy." Which was so obviously true that it didn't even hurt my feelings.

Dr. Sara: Gretchen, my love, if you had to provide a list of 10 super-basic, very manageable and crazypants things that people could do to start boosting happiness at home, what would you suggest?

Gretchen: Super-super-basics? Here goes:

  1. Get rid of anything you don't use or don't love.
  2. Jump! You'll get a quick jolt of energy and cheer.
  3. Give warm greetings and farewells whenever people come and go from home.
  4. Under-react to problems.
  5. Cultivate "shrines" -- places in your home that celebrate the people, places, and activities you love.
  6. Go for a walk each day.
  7. If there's a task you dread, do it for just 15 minutes. You can stand anything for 15 minutes.
  8. Control the cubicle in your pocket.
  9. Always put your keys in the same place.
  10. Accept yourself, and expect more from yourself

Dr. Sara: Is there a happiness mantra that you've found helpful and can quickly transform our lives with?

Gretchen: My first personal commandment is to "Be Gretchen." The more my life reflects my true nature, interests, and values, the happier I become. Of course, to "know yourself" is one of the most ancient precepts of happiness -- "Know Thyself" is inscribed on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi -- but it's not easy. Why is it so hard to know myself, to be myself? A mystery. But it's a key to happiness.

There you have it, Lovies. Be Gretchen (as in: be yo'self. radically, drunkenly, wholeheartedly yo'self). Don't pick the damn fight with your beloved partner. Be shriney. Underreact, or as Viktor Frankl famously said, find the gap between stimulus and response, and therein lies your freedom. It's not that hard. And love up Gretchen Rubin. Buy her book, not because I said so, but because she will amplify your joie de vivre.

Sara Gottfried, M.D., is a practicing integrative physician and author of the forthcoming book, The Hormone Cure (Scribner/Simon &Schuster, 2013). You can follow Dr. Sara on Twitter, connect with her on Facebook, watch her videos on Youtube, and subscribe to her newsletter.

For more by Sara Gottfried, M.D., click here.

For more on happiness, click here.

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