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7 Insights from Gretchen Rubin on Cultivating Happiness in Uncertain Times

Feeling unhappy? Happy? Anxious? Numb? An expert helps us make sense of it all.

By Tory Hoen

The idea of focusing on happiness in the midst of a global pandemic might seem futile—or even insensitive—but it’s also essential. “It’s that old idea of putting on your own oxygen mask first. It really does help,” says Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and co-host of the Happier With Gretchen Rubin podcast.

On Instagram Live, I virtually sat down with Gretchen to discuss ways we can find happiness and learn more about ourselves during this challenging time. Listen to the full conversation here, and read on for seven key takeaways.


There’s no “right way” to manage your time and energy right now.

“When it comes to being happier or healthier or more creative or more productive, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. So if you feel puzzled or frustrated because some [system] is working well for someone else, and it’s not working for you, don’t beat yourself up. Some people will think, ‘I have no self-control or willpower. What’s wrong with me?’ But in fact, it might be that you just need to set things up in a different way. It’s hard to do that right now when so much has changed and so many of our systems have been disrupted.”


Cut everyone—including yourself—some slack.

“There are people who say, ‘I want to get up early, and I want everyone in my house to get up early, because that’s how you start the day right!’ But guess what? Some of those people might want to sleep late, because people are different. And what works for me may not work for you. My personal COVID-19 mantra is ‘put down the clipboard,’ because my way of dealing with uncertainty is to become very structured and have a to-do list; but not everyone in my household operates like that. So I have to remind myself, ‘This is a helpful way for me to comfort myself, but it’s not a medicine that works for everyone.’ Keeping that in mind allows us to have more compassion for each other—and for ourselves.”


This is a rare opportunity to gain self-knowledge.

“In this moment, we can learn a lot about ourselves: what we like, what we don’t like, how we do our best work, how we handle anxiety and uncertainty. This experience is hitting people differently. Some people (like me) love structure, and we feel unbounded when there’s too much freedom. But other people are realizing, ‘Actually, the spontaneity of this moment is great for me.’ I created the “Four Tendencies” quiz, and it’s a really fun way to learn about yourself and other people, so you can better appreciate each other’s perspectives.”


It’s okay to feel unhappy sometimes.

“There are certainly times in our lives when it’s not possible to be happy, and it’s not even appropriate because of something that’s going on. But we can still strive to be as happy as we can be under the circumstances. That strengthens us and gives us the wherewithal to deal with difficult, challenging times. It’s important to prioritize things like getting enough sleep, getting some exercise, and allowing ourselves fun distractions—for me, that’s watching reruns of The Office. Cultivating little moments of happiness is much more productive than staying up all night frantic and burning ourselves out. So even when it’s not possible to be ‘happy,’ I think we can try to be happier.”


But if you do feel happy, that's okay too.

“It’s easy to feel like it’s not morally appropriate to feel happy or to focus on our individual happiness, given the dire circumstances surrounding us. But in fact, research shows that people who are happy are more interested in the problems of the world—and they’re more sensitive to the problems of the people around them. So they donate more money, they volunteer more time, they’re more likely to help out a friend or a family member in need. They make better team members and better leaders. They tolerate frustration better. They have better habits. There’s a misconception that, ‘If I’m happy, I just want to drink mojitos on the beach all day,’ but actually, happy people are often the ones to say, ‘We need to distribute malaria nets more effectively!’ When we’re happy, we’re able to turn outwards and think about other people, as opposed to being preoccupied with our own problems.”


This could be a good time to reflect on your career and invest in your future work.

“Now’s a great time to invest in the little things that will pay off in more productivity and efficiency later. Maybe you need to update your resume, edit your LinkedIn profile, or download some software that will help you work more effectively. Or maybe there are tasks that have been bogging you down—that drudge work that hangs over our heads and clutters our space. For a lot of people, ‘outer order leads to inner calm,’ and that’s true with our work lives, too. So maybe you want to unsubscribe from all those trash industry newsletters that keep filling up your inbox, or finally go through those old files. Often, things that could be done at anytime are done at no time—so why not do them now? This is also a good time to reflect on bigger changes—like major career shifts, or a move to another city—but you don’t necessarily need to act on those things right now, given that so much is already in flux.”


A little happiness a day goes a long way.

“There are the big things you can do to cultivate happiness (like building strong relationships and self-knowledge), but the little things are great when you need a quick lift. Listening to a favorite song is one of the simplest ways to boost your mood, as is exercise. It doesn’t have to be a five-mile run. Even walking outside in the sun for 10 or 20 minutes gives us focus and helps reset our circadian rhythms—which is important if you’re having trouble sleeping. Coloring books, crossword puzzles, playing with your dog—these are such worthwhile activities. Oh, here’s a fun thing to do: Go eat some ketchup! Of the five taste sensations, ketchup has four—sweet, salty, sour, umami—so it’s really satisfying. There are so many ways we can give ourselves a little lift.”

Tory Hoen

Written By

Tory Hoen

Tory Hoen is a Brooklyn-based writer and editor. She spent five years as the Creative Director of Brand at MM.LaFleur (where she founded The M Dash!) and has written for New York Magazine, Fortune, Bon Appétit, and Condé Nast Traveler. She loves doughnuts and inter-species friendships.

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