Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project

"Middlemarch, Improvisation, and a Little Bit Married."

Happiness is...Improvisation!

Posted Jan 26, 2010

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my study of happiness, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. I’m much more likely to be convinced to try a piece of advice urged by a specific person who tells me that it worked for him or her, than by any other kind of argument.

I can't remember how I met Hannah Seligson. Were we introduced by the indefatigable connector Marci Alboher? I'm not sure. In any event, I was especially pleased to meet Hannah because the subject of her new book, A Little Bit Married, is so important to happiness -- because of the relevance of marriage to happiness. Her book focuses on the trend for people to be in long-term unmarried relationships, that is, to be "a little bit married," but not actually married.

Gretchen: What's a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Hannah: Reading something that transports me into another world! I was so happy when I was reading Lauren Collins's fantastic piece about Justice Sonia Sotomayor in the January 11th issue of The New Yorker. I got totally lost in the descriptions of Sotomayor's judicial philosophy, the small details of her life (she invites clerks over to play hold 'em and drink whiskey!), and, more generally, the narrative of how she became the first Latina Supreme Court Justice.

I'm also reading Middlemarch, which I'm slowly making my way through. It takes you right back to provincial life in Britain in the early 1830s. One of the major themes in the book is marriage. As you can probably tell by the subject of my book, A Little Bit Married, I'm interested in courtship rituals and how they have changed over time. For women back then there was no choice but to get married. Who else but a husband could support them? Now that women don't need to get married to assure economic support, courtship and dating structures have evolved-like the open-ended long-term relationship.

What's something you know now about happiness that you didn't know when you were 18 years old?
That happiness is an improvisation. You figure out what works for you. It's a process of tweaking. There's no set of rules, per se. And scripts, whether they are for dating or careers, can be a death sentence to happiness. As for the dating scripts, my thinking on this component of happiness was sparked, in part, by the research I did for A Little Bit Married. Modern conversations take lines like this for granted: "Well, if I really love her, shouldn't I feel butterflies in my stomach every time she walks into the room?" But legions of experts who research relationships say the butterflies aren't the indicator of a good and lasting relationship; it's putting in consistent investments of emotional and physical energy and staying committed to keeping that spark alive.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you've found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to "Be Gretchen.")
Be here now is a mantra I've found helpful. It reminds me, quite literally, to stay in the moment. I'm prone to fret about what has happened or what will happen.

My other mantra is Let go of expectations. A very smart psychology researcher named Jean Twenge told me when I interviewed her for A Little Bit Married that a great source of unhappiness among young people today, particularly in their relationships, is that we always expect something better, we're always looking for the best. But what's so wrong with thinking you deserve the best all of the time? Twenge says it leads to a lot of disappointment, the on-switch for unhappiness.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Some of my research for A Little Bit Married focused on the "best practices" in marriage. That is, what people in happy marriages get right. Here's the highlight reel:

-- They strive for equality. Four Pennsylvania State University psychologists in their book, Alone Together, which looked at data from two studies done on marital quality in the US (one in 1980 and one in 2000) found that people with conservative views toward gender roles (think: Ozzie and Harry) tend to have less marital happiness, less marital interaction, and more marital problems than couples who have a more egalitarian view of marriage.

-- They do their marriage homework. Couples who took a pre-marriage class called Prevention and Relationship Enhancement Program (PREP) were found in a five-year follow-up to have higher levels of positive communication and lower levels of negative communication than the control group.

-- They feel understood by each other. It's not just about plain vanilla communication. Dr. David Olson, a professor of family social science at the University of Minnesota, found in his national survey of 21,000 married couples that happy couples are more likely to say they feel understood when discussing problems.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn't -- or vice versa?
Yes. I've been surprised by how happy being A Little Bit Married has made me! Some of the research certainly hinted at the fact that for women cohabitation might not be a wellspring of happiness. For example, women tend to do more housework when they move in with a significant other and they also tend to gain weight (the "mate gain"). There's also the psychological side--many female A Little Bit Marrieds said they felt like they were in relationship purgatory, or stuck in a frustrating holding pattern waiting for the guy to propose. Men, on the other hand, reap so many benefits from marriage lite and marriage-married men see their health improve and their income increase. Plus, in many cases, men still set the marriage timetable, skewing the power dynamics. But then there's a gray area that acknowledges the gender politics, but doesn't get stuck on them, where people, like me, are carving out relationships that scale quite nicely into this life stage and are really happy about it!

* Want to launch a group for people doing happiness projects together? I'm in a group like that myself, and I love it! If so, sign up here for a starter kit to help get you going.