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Gretchen Rubin on How to Find Happiness in the Ordinary

Gretchen Rubin on How to Find Happiness in the Ordinary

Elizabeth Oldfield, writer and host of The Sacred podcast, is joined by bestselling author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin. 29/05/2024

In this episode, Gretchen speaks about her love of children’s literature, why St Therese of Lisieux is her spiritual teacher, and why we might need a seminary for accidental gurus.

What does fully aliveness mean to you?

Elizabeth 

Gretchen, we are going to go deep fast and we are doing a special series of this podcast. We’re very interested in people’s values. And I will get to that in a moment. But first I want to ask you what fully aliveness means to you? I think you might have thought about this a bit more than your average person. 

Gretchen Rubin 

No, absolutely. And I recently wrote a book called Life in Five Senses. Because being fully alive, to me means being awake to the moment and I realised that I have a real tendency to just march around, you know, distracted, stuck in my head, and to be fully alive means to, you know, notice a passing scent, or a distant sound, or the feeling of the wind on my face. But my inclination is to ignore all those things. So I have to work very hard to stay in the moment.  

Elizabeth 

That’s really helpful and I’m sure we’ll come back to it. But as I said, I’m fascinated by people’s values. We often ask what is sacred to someone, but we’re really trying to just dig for people’s deep principles. I know you have a kind of personal manifesto, you know, 12 personal commandments. If you had to boil it down to some really key principles that you try and live by, what would they be? 

Gretchen Rubin 

That’s such a good question. And I think it’s something to ask ourselves over and over. But if I had to pick, like the core values, I think one is integrity. And for me, integrity means I think what we often think of as being like truthful with other people and upholding our values, but also knowing yourself. I think that integrity for me means like, who is Gretchen? What does it mean to be Gretchen? That’s one of my 12 Personal Commandments. So being true to myself, as well as being true to other people. One is compassion, so I think always asking ourselves, like, how do other people see things? What are other people’s experiences? How do I misunderstand how someone else could see a situation? Because so often, I realise, I think that I see things objectively, and I absolutely do not see things objectively, I’m always coming from my own perspective. So, compassion is realising how much I need to think about how other people might be coming to it and understanding their experience. And then finally, is a thirst for knowledge. I feel like just wanting to learn, and which again, goes to compassion, wanting to expand my understanding, whether that’s like scientific research, or human nature. Just trying to constantly notice the obvious, I think it’s very hard to notice what’s happening right in front of us. So, I spend a lot of time trying to just think about the ordinary day and the ordinary exchange and sort of ordinary things happening around me. 

Elizabeth 

Yes, that’s so beautiful. And I think that really does come through in your most recent book, the beauty and the dignity and the value and the holiness really, of our ordinary lives. How we can kind of make holy, make sacred to the things around them with the power of our attention. I wonder if there have been moments in your life either with that one, or with some of your other values, where you’ve had to really use a deep value to make a decision, because I have a working theory that we don’t really know what our deep sacred values are until they feel threatened, until we’re invited to compromise on them maybe or, you know, we could take one path in life that would not involve staying loyal to our values. Does anything bubble up for you, moments in your life where you’ve had to choose to live by your values, or maybe failed to as we all do? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, there’s one that sticks out very much and I’m not an I didn’t listen to is one of my values. Here’s another value cropping up! So, one of my sort of mottos for myself is to choose the bigger life. Whenever I can’t make a decision, I think to myself, well which decision represents the bigger life? And it’s funny, what I found is over and over, you can have kind of your pros and your cons list equally balanced. But if you say, well, which one represents the bigger life? It’s very clear which one is the right answer.

So, this came up for me because I have two daughters and they so wanted a dog. They were begging for a dog, and they were big kids – they were teenagers. And so, we hadn’t had a dog for a long time. And my husband was like, yeah, ‘we can get a dog that’s fine with me.’ But for me, I was like, ‘Well, I know all the happiness research says that getting a dog makes you happier and healthier’, and I had a dog growing up and I loved my dog. But it’s so much effort and inconvenience, I dislike doing errands, you can’t go away on a trip. Like it’s just this whole other thing to worry about. And I thought I just don’t want all that hassle. So, to me, the pros and cons felt very balanced. I just couldn’t make a decision because if you get a dog, it’s a big commitment. I was like, we might live with this dog longer than we lived with either of our daughters. I mean, it felt like a really, really big commitment. But then finally, I remembered to ask myself, well choose the bigger life. And while I think for some people, a bigger life would be not having a dog because they could use that time and energy and money in other ways that might be more valuable to them at this season in their life. Maybe they’d get a dog at another time, but for right now, the bigger life was not having a dog. It was 100% clear to me that in my family, in our situation, the bigger life was to get the dog. And we got the dog and, of course, I’m so happy we got the dog. Our dog, Barnaby, added so much to our lives, I can’t believe that I was on the fence. But really having that kind of core idea to choose the bigger life was what allowed me to move forward. Because, you know, it’s always easier to just stick with the status quo. So I’m not sure that we would have gotten a dog if that hadn’t occurred to me.

Becoming a Writer and the Value of Children’s books

Elizabeth 

That’s so beautiful. You alluded to having a dog when you were growing up? I would love to hear a bit more about your childhood, and particularly the big ideas that were in the air as you were running around: religious, political, philosophical, probably unspoken, rather than explicit. What were the things that were forming you?

Gretchen Rubin 

I had sort of a very typical childhood, you know, two parents, I have a sister who’s five years younger than I am and a dog. I lived in Kansas City, Missouri, which is right in the middle of the United States, and in sort of a suburban house. So very much what if you were just sort of thinking of like stereotypical childhood – that was my experience. Though, I guess there really is no stereotypical childhood. But it was, you know, a sister two parents a dog, we didn’t have a white picket fence, but it wouldn’t have been out of place. The overwhelming thing that I think about from my childhood is just my intense love of reading. I was late learning how to read, but the minute I started, I just couldn’t stop. Many of my happiest memories involve going to the library every week, we were never allowed to buy books unless we were like going on a long car trip and that was always really exciting. I remember that going into the bookstore, getting to pick my stack of books. I still have as an adult, a real love of children’s literature and young adult literature. And I’m actually in two book groups with other adults where we talk about children’s literature and young adult literature because some adults to have a taste for it, just in the way some adults have a taste for mysteries and thrillers. So I think this love of reading pervaded my childhood and really shaped my intellectual life and the life of my imagination. And I loved that feeling that there was this adult world of culture and experience that I was groping my way toward, it felt mysterious and enticing. And so gave me a real feeling that that was a world that one day I could join and it gave kind of a magic to books that I don’t really have now as an adult. I don’t have that sense of, one day I’ll be part of this because I am part of it! Which is great, but there was just a real quality to reading those books as a child. 

Elizabeth 

Yes, I loads of things making sense, I have a series on my Substack called ‘What Children’s Stories Tell us About our Values’, where I go back to our most beloved children’s books and I say, when we’re trying to work out what our values are and the things we want to define our life, it can be quite hard as an adult, right in the in the thick of life and achievement and pressure. But when you’re a child, when you’re, you put it so beautifully, slightly outside the adult world, the kind of life that you long to live is really at the surface. And the things that we are drawn to in books, I think it’s really good data about ourselves. And for me, it was all about adventure and particularly, like self–sacrificial love. People who could, you know, lay down their life for their friends, and it’s everywhere in children’s literature that heroic, you know, the Frodo thing, Harry Potter thing. My favourite children’s book is called The Mousehole Cat about this sailor who goes out to sea to find fish for his village that’s starving and makes friends with the storm cat. Those themes just speak to our hearts. Do you have a sense of the ones that you love? Or, why you loved what you loved? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, it’s interesting, because I like a theme that’s related to your theme, which is the child earning for the for the family. So books like Ballet Shoes, where the child finds a way to contribute or books where the children have to survive, like The Boxcar Children. One of the things I really enjoy about children’s literature is, especially more traditional children’s literature, is that it does tend to be quite didactic. And I like didactic fiction so that really appeals to me. I think people feel like they can do that a bit more in children’s literature. And I always say to adults, there’s such great masterpieces in children’s literature, if you at all have a taste for it, you know, go back to it, reread it, or read what’s new, because, you know, we’ve gone through this golden age of children’s literature. There’s so much amazing children’s literature that has been written since I was an adult that I wish more people tapped into. Because I do think that it’s a kind of literature that stands on its own. And what is the difference between children’s literature and young adult literature and adult literature? It’s something that is very hard to put your finger on. I’m not sure it’s always clear and some books move back and forth in the way that they’re viewed. But I think you’re right, it sort of reveals our values in a different way, and sometimes a more explicit way. 

Elizabeth 

Yes. I speak to a lot of writers, and they often have this beautiful thing of talking about books and word and imaginative worlds in their childhoods, but you didn’t follow a direct line to writing being your life, you were a lawyer first, what led you into that profession initially? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, looking back, I did everything that you would do to prepare yourself to be a writer. You know, I majored in English, I always would write papers, instead of taking tests if I could choose. As a child I had, and I still have them in my office right now right above my head, these blank books where I would write down all quotations that I love from books that I was reading. But, you know, I went to law school for all the wrong reasons. I was like, well, I’m good at research and writing and it’s a good preparation, it’s great education, I can always change my mind later, this will keep my options open. My father is a lawyer, he really likes it. So I just drifted into law because I didn’t know what else to do with myself. And I’m very glad that I did it. You know, in the end, I had a terrific experience and I’m really glad that I did start my career in law, it shapes my writing to this day.

It didn’t even occur to me to want to be a writer because I thought of as a writer as someone who wrote like novels, or plays, or poems, which I didn’t want to do. Somebody who was a journalist, which I did not want to do. Or someone who was sort of an academic writer who was writing like a PhD type thing, or a sort of a scholarly biography and didn’t want to do that kind of thing. So it didn’t even occur to me, the idea of sort of creative nonfiction, which now is so widely accepted, you don’t even think of it as a as a category. I just, I didn’t really see that for myself. So, it took me a while before I had an idea that was the kind of thing that I could write and that happened when I was a lawyer. So that’s how I made the switch, I finally had an idea that made me realise, hey, maybe there’s a book I want to write and I could be the person who could write that book. 

Elizabeth 

How scary or painful was it as a transition? Did you have to work up to it? 

Gretchen Rubin 

You know, that’s a great question. And looking back, it wasn’t as scary as probably it should have been. One of the things is, my first book was called Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide, and I started researching it and doing like all the note taking while I was still working. So, I had done all this work and then I went to the bookstore and got a book called How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book and I just started following the directions. And at a certain point it occurred to me well, you know, I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer at this point. So I really need to take a shot, I need to either fail as a writer, or make it as a writer, you know, I need to just give it a shot. And my husband and I were moving from Washington, DC to New York. So there was sort of this obvious break, where it’s like, well am I going to get another job in law? Or am I going to really make this my central work concern to get an agent – that was what I needed to do at that point, which is the hardest part of becoming a writer is to get an agent. But I was very fortunate in two ways. One was that, often when people are making a transition, they know where they want to leave, but they don’t know where they want to go. So they’re like, I know I don’t want to do this, but what am I going to do next? That is the big mystery. And that is an extremely difficult and often painful question to confront. But for me, I wanted to write this book, it wasn’t that I even wanted to be a writer. I’m like, I want to write this specific book and I’ve already taken hundreds of pages of notes. So I felt something pulling me toward it and it was very specific, so I think that made the transition much easier. And it was also easier for me, because everyone around me was very supportive and encouraging of the idea that I was going to make this big transition, and that I was going to try something. And now that I’m a parent myself, I realised how remarkable this is because I think as parents, we often we want our children to be safe. We don’t want them to risk failure, we don’t want them to feel rejection, we want them to like stay on the path of most obvious success. And, and so I think it can be hard sometimes to be encouraging when somebody’s like, ‘I’m going to throw everything away and start something new!’ And my parents were very much like, ‘Exciting, what are you going to do next?’ And my husband was also making a big switch. We met in law school, he was in law, and he decided he wanted to switch out of law too. So, he was switching into the world of finance, and so it was kind of nice that the people around me were supportive.

Elizabeth 

You went on to write several other books, and biographies and other things. And then the one that people think of as kind of your breakthrough book, The Happiness Project. I’ve heard you talk about kind of happiness as your theme, you know, the thing that you’re working away at, and you’ve written about the way external order affects our happiness, and our habits affect our happiness and our kind of tendencies and the way we’re motivated, affect our habits. And I’m going to do a terrible, terrible thing, which I’ve already done to slightly by asking you to boil down your values, which is to ask, and it will change I’m sure depending on what you’re thinking about, if you had only one piece of wisdom to impart to someone who said, ‘Gretchen, tell me what you know about happiness.’ And you were only allowed to say one key thing. What would it be? 

Gretchen Rubin 

See, usually I dodge this by giving two. I say you can say this, or you can say that, but you’re really pushing me to pick one…

Elizabeth 

I will have lots of grace for you but follow your heart.

Gretchen Rubin 

Okay well, I would say there’s two ways you can answer this with one answer – there’s sort of two routes. One is if you were going to say: what is the one element of life that is the most important for happiness? I would say relationships. Ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that to be happy, we have to have strong enduring relationships. We need to feel like we belong, we need to be able to confide we need to be able to give and get support. When you ask people who work, if they’re happy, it’s people who say, ‘I have a friend at work’, or, ‘My manager really cares about me.’ If you look at the people who say they’re happy in life, they’re people who say they have a lot of deep relationships. So, anything that we do to broaden or deepen our relationships, any way that we’re using our time, energy, or money towards relationships is something that is almost certain to make us happier. So that’s one answer.

But you could also approach this question in a very different way. And you could say, ‘Well, the key to happiness is self–knowledge.’ Because the only way that we can build a happy life is on the foundation of our own nature, our own temperament, our own values. As we were just talking about, our own values are such an important thing. Am I living up to my own values? Do I know my own values? Have I done enough self–reflection, to shape my life to reflect me not just some boilerplates set of expectations that I’m getting from other people. We need to accept ourselves and also expect more from ourselves and only we can understand those things that are intention. And so I would say, answer A) is relationships and answer B) is self–knowledge. They’re both right. But there are sort of different approaches to that that central question. 

Elizabeth 

Yes. And I suppose that that’s somewhat indivisible, aren’t they? Because knowing ourselves helps us be better friends, parents, colleagues? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Absolutely! Well, that’s true. I hadn’t thought of that. Maybe I will say there’s one answer, but there’s like an extremely important subset within that answer. And that’s how I dodge it next time. You get one big answer. Okay. You’re thinking like a lawyer? 

Spirituality, morality and meaning: From St Therese of Lisieux to Thomas Merton

Elizabeth 

Yes. Good. That’s not something that is often said to me, I’ll be honest! Which sort of brings me on to my next thing, really? Which I? I haven’t having met you, I’m less worried about asking this question because I think it will make sense to you. But I have a bit of a confession, which is that I feel like I can see a quite a transition between your previous books, and this one. And I’ve done a bit of a deep dive and listened to lots of podcasts and read your earlier books, all of which I knew a bit of and I thought, yeah that’s helpful, practical, very applicable, very accessible, stuff about habits, and how to live, and how we make choices, and how we’re disciplined. Completely useful stuff, but I didn’t feel a deep connection with it. Partly, I think, because you and I are quite different. And part of the project of this podcast is having conversations across difference. And I’m pro different I love different I find people different from me very fascinating, and I want them in my life. But you say again, and again, ‘I’m quite disciplined, I like structure. I like repetition.’ I’m just temperamentally the opposite! So, reading books, it just feels quite functional and practical and what I’m craving for is sort of existential meaningfulness. You know, that’s what motivates me. What is the story that we’re part of? What is propelling us forward? Questions of spirituality, really. And then I read your most recent book, and it was like, ‘Oh, hello!’ Something is – and feel free to push back on this because you may well narrate what’s happened very differently. But it felt like to me, what I wrote down in my notes was a spiritual turn. That this sense of wrestling with mortality, and wrestling with what it means to be in the present? What does it mean to savour? What does it mean to pay attention? And even towards the end of the book, spirit language comes in, soul language comes in. I may have kind of missed it in your earlier work, I haven’t read every single word you’ve ever written! But as a kind of thesis, how does that sit with you? Does it feel to you like there’s something on the move, something changing? Or maybe that just happens with every book you write?

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, that is such an interesting observation! I feel like, it’s funny because you know, my books are sort of what I show to other people, but sometimes it’s hard for me to know kind of what is seen by others and what’s just like racketing around in my head. So to me that those kinds of concerns feel very present. Like you know, St Thérèse of Lisieux you know, I just think about her all the time. And so, I maybe I feel like I’m thinking about…

Elizabeth 

Do you mind if I interrupt you, can you say more about her, and that? What do you mean? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Okay, so St Thérèse of Lisieux it is sort of my spiritual teacher, which is a question I always say to people like, who’s your spiritual teacher? Very much a question along your line! I’m not Catholic, and for people who don’t know, St Thérèse is a saint in the Catholic Church. She’s also a doctor of the church so she’s in a category of sort of super saints. She died very young at the age of 23, she spent much of her life in a cloistered convent. And when she was a nun, her biological sister was her mother in the structure of the convent. And so, under discipline, this sister–mother asked Thérèse to write the story of her spiritual life. And so Thérèse did, and this book called Story Of The Soul, which is her spiritual memoir. And again, she died at age 23. In France, of tuberculosis. And I mean, I have read it, I don’t know, five times, seven times. I’ve read like 15 biographies of Thérèse, I have a book of the photographs that were taken of her. I’m thinking maybe I’ll go visit Lisieux and see there’s, you know, all her relics and all this stuff. And I found my way to her in a very odd way. Thomas Merton, who’s very misanthropic and a very complicated person, I’ve gone deep into Thomas Merton as well. He mentioned Story Of The Soul and mentioned St Thérèse in kind of a very reverential way. And I’m like – how is it that Thomas Merton, given who he is, is talking about St Thérèse in this way. And what’s funny, this memoir is not something that it will appeal to everyone but it’s, it’s so profound, I get something different from it, every time I read it. She’s very funny, you don’t think of a saint as like having a good sense of humour! And so, you know, it just sort of was running through my head all the time, “I choose all”, or, “when one loves one does not calculate”, or, you know, the lily and the rose versus the violet. And so to me, that’s very apparent in my head. But I think that you’re right in my writing, maybe that isn’t always as apparent and maybe it did come through more. I’m getting older, and I think as you get older, you’re just naturally thinking more about mortality and the ends of things, so maybe that also brought it forth. But that’s interesting that you perceived it to be a shift. It didn’t feel that way to me, but now I want to go back and reflect on that. That’s very interesting. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah, even as the book goes on, it felt like a deepening into something. And we all read what we’re looking for, right? So, I have this particular set of lenses where I’m very attuned to people wrestling, metaphysically, or with their spirituality, or these kind of depth questions. So those will always stand out on the page to me. But I think also, it’s because we come to each other with these stories, don’t we? We come with these preconceptions, and I think I had put your work in the kind of ‘atomic habits, small changes’ box, all of which is great and really useful for people, but at the edges of which I have always found a bit off–puttingly male, frankly. And it’s sort of underlying anthropology seeming to sort of see a human being as a machine that if we can just do the right bits, and fix the right bits, and tweak the right bits and optimise that we will be able to be a sort of… you know, transhumanist efficiency machine.

Gretchen Rubin 

Yes I know exactly what you’re talking about!

Elizabeth 

And honestly, I think it probably was never there in your work. But the process of talking to people different from myself means again, I’m confronted with my prejudices. And that was one of my prejudices. And then particularly this last book – can I just read you a little bit that I thought was so beautiful? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Oh yeah, well I would love that!

Elizabeth 

It’s not it’s not to denigrate that the ordinary I think you’re making a very profound point that, when we pay attention to the ordinary, we can hallow our lives. And it’s in between, you know, suggestions to think about your paint colours, and really smell a candle, and think about what music you need – these vary every day, applicable things. But then you have this meditation on a traffic cone, where you say right at the end, “The impressions that rose into my mind as I gazed at that cone were just as intense as the sensations of my body. In this moment, I felt a sudden affection towards the people around me with a tenderness that expanded to encircle the world. All those people with all their faces and songs, and jokes, and luck. I was wide awake with so much sensation pouring in that I felt electrified by it. Then, with a fresh gust of wind, rain began to fall, the light from the sky darkened, and the traffic cone faded back into an ordinary street object. The moment passed, but it lives again now and will again and will forever for at least for as long as I live. Look, look, look. Stretch out your hand.” And you saying you read Saint Thérèse of Lisieux make some that make much more sense. 

A seminary for accidental spiritual gurus

Gretchen Rubin 

Yeah well, it is funny because I am always groping toward the transcendent through the practical. Because I think that one thing that is an obstacle for people’s, sort of, transcendent connection is that they are so weighed down by things that, to me in my ordinary, orderly rigid way, I’m like you can get rid of that you can deal with that. If you would get enough sleep, you would be laughing more. And so I think I always am, like, let’s get the things that are that are standing in our way out of our way. And then we can get to higher places, because I think people just feel what weighed down by all this stuff that is just inconsequential and yet, it’s an obstacle. I’m so glad that spoke to you! Because that was one of the most profound moments of my life, certainly, and writing that was one of the most gratifying, creative undertakings. It took me a long time to write that (as you can imagine) to say exactly what I wanted to say. And I felt that I did say exactly what I wanted to say, so I’m so pleased that it resonated with you. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah, I could see it on your face, being back there as you heard it. Does it feel more vulnerable and exposing to write about those kinds of transcendent things? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Yeah, for sure. Yeah. More than the practical things. It’s funny, though, but I take such great delight in like, the five tastes of Heinz ketchup, you know! That I do feel like there’s sort of a delight in that too. But yes, it does feel much less vulnerable, for sure.

Elizabeth 

One of the people that I had on last series is called Katherine May, who wrote a book called Wintering, who was just a very delightful, thoughtful, wonderful woman who in some way is also just thinking aloud about what a good life looks like – what is wisdom? How do we pay attention to the world around us? Her most recent book is called Enchantment, they resonate with each other in some ways, because there’s just this sense of… There’s a there’s a prayer, I pray a lot, which is “God, help me receive the gifts I’ve already been given.”

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, that’s why I wrote The Happiness Project!

Elizabeth 

Yes! Let’s say more about that, and then I will say what I was going to say about Katherine May.

Gretchen Rubin 

Oh, I didn’t mean to interrupt you! I mean, one of the main reasons that I wrote The Happiness Project is I’m like, I don’t have enough gratitude for what I already have. And so, I really wanted to not be distracted by the sort of minor inconsequential troubles of every day and really have that that deep appreciation for everything that I had. Because it’s easy to lose touch with that, at least for me. This is why I have to write books like this! As a discipline to you know to stay focused on it. But what were you saying about Katherine May?

Elizabeth 

Yeah, it’s hedonic adaptation, isn’t it? I think its all of us, this terrible glitch in our… and I think it’s only us, because it’s terrible…

Gretchen Rubin 

Or the negativity bias, where you’re more focused on what’s going wrong, or you’re thinking about your to–do list and this future focus. Yeah, this negativity focus for sure.

Elizabeth 

So Katherine May and I reflected and another person that’s been a guest on the podcast, and I’m in conversation with is Oliver Burkeman, who’s written…

Gretchen Rubin

Oh, I love Oliver Burkeman!

Elizabeth

Yes, isn’t he amazing, 4000 weeks. I’m going to be doing some stuff with him for my book that I’ve got coming out in May, because we’re both sort of obsessed with what wisdom means now in this world. But both of them have found themselves in this strange position of, sort of Guru adjacent. They’ve written these books, which, similar to you are really about their own – what do I think wisdom looks like? How do we treat time? How do I deal with hard times? How do I get enchantment in my life? But now, having written about them so powerfully and beautifully and intelligently, they now have lots of people coming to them and saying, you know, ‘Teach us! Teach us! What does it mean to live a life? Teach us Gretchen? What does it mean to live a happy life? What does happiness look like?’ And Katherine and I joked about a sort of seminary for accidental spiritual gurus. 

Gretchen Rubin 

That is hilarious, yes! 

Elizabeth 

I think this is needed because in a time when actually religious affiliation is going down, there’s some good reasons to be sceptical about traditional religious leaders – traditional forms of authority in all kinds actually – the people that we used to follow and used to teach us for some good reasons and some bad reasons, fewer people access them. And so we’re looking for podcasts and books to teach us wisdom and teach us how to live and people who write brilliant books can find themselves catapulted into these positions. And so yeah, I was reflecting with Katherine that there’s no training for that!

Gretchen Rubin 

I am so onboard, the seminary for accidental gurus! I am so on board. Because here’s the thing that I wish, I wish that or that there was like an ordinary tradition, ritual of blessing. Because I feel this intense desire to give a blessing, which seems incredibly arrogant, and I would think, well, if I was a minister giving a blessing, it would be it would be elevated, but I’m just me. But I wish there was a way that an ordinary person… It’s like, oh, I’m thinking of you or something like that. Have you read the novel Gilead by Marilynne Robinson?

Elizabeth

Many, many times.

Gretchen Rubin

There you go, okay. Because you know, how the main character talks about giving a blessing and putting your hands on someone and blessing them. And I read that I was like, I so feel this desire to be blessed and to bless in that way. But there’s no way outside of a religious context in which that is at all acceptable. But maybe in the seminary of accidental gurus, we could come up with a way to do that! Because I think people crave it both ways, it’s to bless and to be blessed. And it’s one of the things that I feel is missing. Okay, sidebar on Gilead – amazing book!

Elizabeth

Oh, my goodness!

Gretchen Rubin

I think she’s maybe the best novelist in the United States today.

Elizabeth 

And one of the one of the only ones who has written novels that take spirituality and even the deep religious instinct seriously, that makes sense for those who that is not part of their life, or it’s not their language. It’s one of my deepest frustrations that we don’t know how to talk, these things are beyond words. Our deep longings for transcendence are so hard to put into everyday stories.

Gretchen Rubin 

What a great question. I would love to reflect on novelists who do that, like Wendell Berry comes to mind as someone who does that to some degree…  

Elizabeth 

Graham Greene.

Gretchen Rubin 

Yeah, well for sure, Graham Greene. Absolutely. 

Elizabeth 

Its on one hand, right?

Gretchen Rubin 

Yeah, Flannery O’Connor, of course. Reading the letters of Flannery O’Connor. Yeah, her fiction. Something like Wise Blood, I find it so mind blowing that I almost can’t stand it. I almost can’t stand to read her fiction. It’s like, it’s just so charged. But, reading The Habits of Being, her collection of letters – you have to read this! If you’ve haven’t read it’s so good. And it’s all about these issues. Because she’s trying to think, how do I address spiritual issues basically for unbelievers?

Unpacking Acedia: Using attention to fight distractions and apathy

Elizabeth 

Yeah. That’s the question of my life! I have this question – my mind is just going on nine different directions! Let me take a breath. On blessing, I am going to send you some a connection with to two former guests on the podcast, who are friends once called Vanessa Zoltan, and one is called Casper ter Kuile. And they have a podcast called…

Gretchen Rubin

Yeah! 

Elizabeth

Ah yeah, come across them? Vanessa’s whole thing is you can just bless people that it doesn’t have to be in a religious context. At the end of that podcast, I say, ‘Right, we’re going to pick a character, and we’re going to bless them.’ And it really means just we’re going to honour them. We’re going to honour their courage, we’re going to honour their bravery, we’re going to honour their kindness, whatever it is that we’re seeing in them that we want more of in the World, we are going to honour that and we’re going to use the language of blessing to do it. So I’m like, let’s just do it. Let’s bless each other. Let’s just, take that mantle and move into it and maybe, that’s your next book. Maybe you can lead us into blessing in the World. But I wanted to kind of land us in attention as this theme that is so key in the five senses and it’s so key I think in what makes a life well lived. And I have a particular interest because the Fully Alive book that I have coming about is loosely structured around the seven deadly sins and the sin of acedia. Which is, you will know well but we usually translate that Latin word as sloth. But it actually means something much more like well, many things but – distraction, apathy, listlessness, joylessness, failing to attend to the important things of life.

Gretchen Rubin 

With kind of a hopelessness. I always think of it as having kind of an element of hopelessness to it. 

Elizabeth 

Yeah, yeah. It’s so rich. It’s like, shalom, right? It’s sort of peace, but also not just peace. It’s something much bigger than English can hold. But I was thinking about acedia a lot reading your book, because I start with a sin and then say, what’s the opposite? What are we wanting to move away from? Acedia. What are we wanting to move towards? Attention and attention to the things we want to define our lives. You know, our deep values, your personal commandments maybe? Could you say a bit about attention as a habit, or a practice, and there’s loads on this in your book, but what are the things that you are holding most dear to you about attention that you would you would love other people to learn about in this incredibly contested life that we live where attention is a very scarce commodity, and we absolutely have to fight for it. 

Gretchen Rubin 

Yes, and I feel like I’m prey to all the distractions that we all are. And, in my own nature, I’m very up in my head. And so, I’ll be walking on a beach during the sunset, and I’ll be so busy, like rewriting a paragraph in my mind. I can focus very deeply, which is a strength but also a weakness, because all of that gets blocked out and I’m just, you know, focused on my head. And so, there’s many practices that people use to try to pay more attention. But for me, I really found that it was really trying to pay attention to the five senses, because that is what is happening right now. And often when I pay attention to my five senses, then I engage more deeply in what’s happening around me. And there have been sort of moments where this became clear to me. I remember many, many years ago, when my daughter was 10 years old or something, we walked into a department store and she said, “Oh, I love that department store smell!” And at that time, I thought, well, I never noticed that a department store has a particular smell. But of course, just like a hardware store has a very particular smell, or a wine shop has a very particular smell or different, you’re standing in front of the produce in a grocery store. And that has a very particular smell. But I just never noticed it.

So, I think there are a lot of ways that people pay attention, but for me it’s like, what does it smell? What do I see? What do I hear? How do things feel? Now I’ll reach out and touch a lot of textures that I used to not do just because that is a way that I am able to be like, this is happening right now. Let me pay attention, I don’t want to pass through this unnoticed. And it’s hard. I still have to really remind myself to do that every single day because I just start drifting into my inner chatter. One of the things that I did for the book, but I still do now because I love it so much as a practice of attention, is I’m incredibly fortunate that I live within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum. And so I go every day that it’s open. And this, for me, always reminds me like come back to the present – what’s happening right now? Really look, really listen. And that’s a way to kind of let my mind off the leash and just explore and play but also stay in the moment. What’s changing? The Metropolitan Museum changes all the time when I went rarely, I thought it was always the same. Now I realise it’s changing all the time. So for me, that is a really kind of grounded, accessible way to pay attention to the moment. Because I think that’s an idea that many people say that they want but it’s very hard to put it into practice, because it’s an abstract idea. And we’re constantly being pulled out of the moment. 

Elizabeth 

Yes, and it was really beautiful listening in to your writing about that practice, this sort of almost daily pilgrimage to us to see beautiful things but to be looking for different things every day, to be a hallowing that practice. And it made me think about the kind of monastic… I live in a sort of very small, intentional community that draws a lot on monastic thinking and the phrase that’s often used in monastic circles and the Jesuits use it a lot, which is “No formation without repetition.” I think that we’re so allergic to repetition in general, in our culture, I am naturally very allergic to it because we think it’s a sort of scarcity, we get bored easily, you know you talk about smell blindness. But that message of, actually it takes a long time for things to change you and the commitment to things over time is the way we live our values, is the way we live the kind of life we want to live. And it probably comes easier for you than for a lot of people, but you have done a lot of research into how people are motivated. For those of us who do find repetition as a way of training our attention difficult, what might help? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Wait have you taken The Four Tendencies quiz? Because I’m wondering if you’re a rebel. 

Elizabeth 

I have taken it a while ago, but I’m the person that needs very strong internal motivation and is terrible with external motivation. What’s that one? 

Gretchen Rubin 

That could be a questioner or that could be a rebel. So, if somebody told you to do something, “would you say why should I do it?” Or would you say, “You can’t tell me what to do?”

Elizabeth 

Well, I would say, “Why?” I would say, “Is it in line with my values? Is it going to help me become the kind of person that world needs?” I’m totally up for it. Otherwise, absolutely not. I can’t be bothered. 

Gretchen Rubin 

But you really value spontaneity, and you don’t like habits, right? 

Elizabeth 

Yes, although I mean a long period of soul work, I think I am actively trying to change the bit of me that is resistant to repetition because I am convinced there is no formation without repetition.

Gretchen Rubin 

I think that you’re a rebel. Take the quiz and see if you’re a rebel. Read the journals of Thomas Merton…

Elizabeth

I love Merton!

Gretchen

Because he was a difficult, complicated guy, right?

Elizabeth 

I don’t love all of him. But I love his core!  

Gretchen Rubin 

What was his core? But anyway, he was a rebel. Obviously he was a Cistercian monk. So anyway, that’s a sidebar. But if you’re a person who values what can be gained through repetition, but you sort of resist repetition, I think the thing is, how could you achieve the same aim in a way that’s right for you? So, you could say something like for me, the repetition is going to be that I go for a 20 minute walk every day, and really pay attention to what I see. But I’m going to go different places every day and the repetition comes from the repeated practice. But you make it feel more interesting to yourself or more enticing by saying, like, I’m going to do this to explore my neighbourhood, or I’ll do it at different times of the day so it will be a different experience. Because for me, things become more interesting as they are exactly repeated. But I think you’re exactly right, that for some people that feels very confining, and also sort of like a wasted opportunity. Like the world is so rich, why would you do the same thing over and over and over again, when there’s so many things that you’re not tapping into? Which is also completely valid. And so I really think that there is no one right way and there is no one best way and that we all have to find a way that’s right for us. And so you can think about an aim, and we can agree on an aim but have very different paths to arrive at that aim, because people are just very different in their nature and their values. To me, the repetition is extraordinarily appealing and engaging. But I can see that why, for some people, that would be off–putting. 

Elizabeth 

I think my final question for you Gretchen is, is happiness still your theme or is it evolving? 

Gretchen Rubin 

Well, I think my theme has always been human nature. That’s my overarching theme. Even writing a biography of Winston Churchill, he’s such a gigantic figure that you can see human nature more easily just because it’s on such a giant scale. Happiness is one of the aspects of human nature that is the most interesting to me and then everything comes off of that. But I really feel like when I’m talking about happiness, it’s like, are you living the life that you want to live? Are you doing everything within your nature and your circumstances and your possibilities to have the life that you would like to have, whatever that means for you? And just exploring human nature and what that looks like for different people. So I think that is still my theme. And I always write about myself, because it’s hard enough to know myself, I use myself as sort of the data point. Speaking of the accidental gurus, I find that it’s very easy to give advice to other people and I know exactly what advice to give to other people. But then when I try to take that advice myself, I often find that it’s more complicated than I thought. And I can tell from what people write, I’m like, have you tried to take this advice? Because I think many gurus do not try to take their own advice. There are many unprincipled gurus and many, many gurus who it doesn’t even seem to occur to them to try to practice what they preach. Because when you try to actually do it, it turns out to be pretty complicated, I find. So I always test it out on myself and the people around me to see what I get.

Elizabeth 

Yeah, that would maybe be Module One of the seminary of accidental gurus, 

Gretchen Rubin 

Yeah, the seminary of accidental gurus!

Elizabeth 

Gretchen Rubin, I have so enjoyed speaking to you for this special, Fully Alive series of The Sacred Podcast. Thank you so much for your time and your wisdom. 

Gretchen Rubin 

Thank you so much. I so enjoyed our conversation.


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Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth Oldfield

Elizabeth is host of The Sacred podcast. She was Theos’ Director from August 2011 – July 2021. She appears regularly in the media, including BBC One, Sky News, and the World Service, and writing in The Financial Times.

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Posted 29 May 2024

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