Can We Be A Tiny Bit Happier?

with Gretchen Rubin

Is it possible to be happier? Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin wondered if she could discipline herself to take tiny steps in order to be more content with her actual life. But what about those of us facing something daunting or insurmountable or tragic? Is it possible for us to be happier?




Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the block-buster New York Times bestsellers, Outer Order, Inner Calm, Better Than Before, The Happiness Project, Happier at Home, and The Four Tendencies. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold more than 3.5 million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. She makes frequent TV appearances and is in much demand as a speaker. She is also a CBS News Contributor. Every Monday on CBS This Morning, the final “Before We Go” segment features her solutions and tips for living a happier, healthier, more productive life. On her weekly podcast Happier with Gretchen Rubin, she discusses good habits and happiness with her sister Elizabeth Craft. Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. She lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.


Kate Bowler:                          If you’ve been around here for any amount of time, you probably know that this podcast is pretty aggressively anti self-help because too often the self-help culture imagines you have ultimate control, that just by juicing or having a prayer ritual, or instituting new habits you can achieve perfection. Perfect homes, perfect marriages, perfect parenting, perfect abs. I’ve always wanted perfect ab. I think I would settle for one, but, you know, just follow these five quick, easy steps. But more often than we’d like, life comes apart. And what we thought was under our control is taken from our hands. We get sick, our kids walk away from our love, our parents age, our jobs and aspirations don’t work out. We realize we are human again today. I’m Kate Bowler and this is everything happens. So if I’m not a proponent of drunken control version of self-help, what exactly is possible? Are we capable of meaningful change? And if so, how much meaningful change? That’s why I am so excited to be speaking with someone today who wonders, too, how much is in our control, how much of life is constituted by our choices. And now that we’re being honest, is life a project? Gretchen Rubin is one of the most thoughtful observers of happiness. She’s been interviewed by Oprah and been an answer on Jeopardy! so, you know, kind of a big deal. She’s the author of bestsellers like The Happiness Project, The Four Tendencies and Better Than Before, which have sold millions of copies. And she has a delightful podcast called Happier that has been listened to over 100 million times. Gretchen, thank you so much for doing this with me, friend.

Gretchen Rubin:                              Oh Kate, I’m so happy to have the chance to talk to you, as always.

Kate:                                    Sometimes we can start on a path that demands like a million choices in a row. Like if you want to get somewhere, you’d better be up at 6:00 a.m. and then I’ll see you in 10 years if you’ve made every right decision and you started down a path like that when you’re just an incredibly successful person and who had to make a million choices in a row, like great grades, probably perfect grades, and then Yale Law and then editor of the Yale Law Journal, which is code for incredible and then clerking on the Supreme Court, even just saying that I want to watch your life as a television series, but then you felt like something needed to be changed. What was that turning point like for you?

Gretchen:                    Kate, in your book No Cure for Being Human, somebody says to you, is this is this a calling or is this a career or, yeah, yeah, yeah. And and you’re like and it was a calling. And I definitely felt the call to write. So I was working as a lawyer and I certainly enjoyed my, you know, being a clerk on the Supreme Court was a fantastic opportunity. But it was while I was there that I got the idea and I didn’t even know it was a book idea when I first got it. Yeah, but that is what ultimately led me to think, well, I could write a book. So I went to the bookstore and got a book called How to Write and Sell your Nonfiction Book Proposal and just followed the directions. And so for me, it was really about just this kind of I could no longer resist the desire to write.

Kate:                       Yeah, right. Like you discovered a new rule of gravity. You’re like, oh, OK. I guess I move in this direction at nine point eight square meters down.

Gretchen:                    I always think of it as being, you know, in Star Wars, where, like the Millennium Falcon is caught in the tractor beam. And they’re like, well, we have to turn off the engines because like that tractor beam has us like we can’t. I was like, that’s what happened to me. I was like, I felt that tractor beam pole. And I was like, well, I’m either going to I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer at this point. So I’d better give it my shot. Yeah. Yeah, I was at that point.

Kate:                         We are so often told that we have to wait for some kind of feeling of arrival to have to take a risk like go through retirement, I was always, I think as an academic, I always just figured it would be like I would have some kind of feeling, like I would I would I would my brain would have reached some kind of like peak or like this mythical break in our work schedule. We always imagined that someday it’s going to be better

Gretchen:                        in the summer, over the holidays, next year, once the kids go back to school, I’m going to calm down. Yes. Open time.

Kate:                            Yes. Oh, the myth of open time. My best friend and I have a joke, just like a phrase we use whenever we try to ask each other, like a thoughtful prompt in question to be kind of like, hey, sweetie, maybe you could make this change in your life. The kind of advice, honestly, that you give when you’re like, hey, this is a this is a nudge toward, you know, sanity. And we always go, oh, I mean, in all your free time and in all your free time is are like yeah is our hilarious joke about the fact that the world just never seems to open up and tell us, I don’t know, just like give us a second to decide who we might be if we’re not just propelled naturally.

Gretchen:                      Yeah I know. I mean some people kind of resist New Year’s resolutions or things like that, but I love any kind of external prompt to stop and think, yeah, because you’re whether it’s a big important anniversary or, you know, milestone birthday, I feel like it is it’s just so easy to get swept up in the urgency of the to do list and not think about the bigger questions like, yeah, is this what I really want anyway or might or my neglecting more transcendent values because I’m just sort of taking care of the day to day, then I think like, oh, it’s not good to just think about your happiness all the time. And I’m like, well, at least for me, like, I never thought about it because I just never step back to say, like, is there any way that I could be happier? Is there any low hanging fruit? Is there any. Yeah, just stuff within my easy reach that I could do. Yeah. Because I just never asked myself that question.

Kate:                             I think it was maybe in the Angela Duckworth’s book on grit, but I remember thinking about that question of feeling like propelled because I was always maybe over propelled through the world and I lived in kind of like middle distance where it was always it was always some day, wasn’t today, wasn’t quite tomorrow. And and it wasn’t honestly till I was so sick that I couldn’t, I just I physically couldn’t do that, that I started thinking about some of the questions you’re describing. It was some of that like, how do I get at those bigger will I have I’m not sure I’ll have all the time in the world to get to those big questions, but now that I’m a bit humbled by my circumstances and, you know, now that I’m taken apart, is there a person maybe I’m supposed to that I should be instead? Because I’m not entirely sure how to live if I’m not. Just doing everything that’s in front of me.

Gretchen:                               But I think that there’s so much value in your work, Kate, is because you’ve sort of been forced to think about those big questions and you can kind of take us through your thinking and your experience. And then I think that helps us to think about doing it ourselves. Yeah, certainly. You did not want to volunteer, unfortunately, but but you but you are so good at helping other people think through those questions.

Kate:                                    Thanks, Gretchen. I get a lot of messages from people who are just kind of similar, who are also kind of undone. Like they’ve lost somebody that they love or they get they lose their job or they lose a dream or their or even just like their relationship ends or their kids move out. And this world that they loved no longer exists. And then they are, like so many of us, are forced into a kind of reevaluation that we don’t even necessarily have time for. Like I’m just thinking with all of the, you know, intense squeezing of our pandemic lives into smaller and smaller economies. I think the the weight of these questions are huge and it’s hard in our limited economies to give ourselves permission to ask them. You also wrote something really that I thought were kind of surprised me, said one of my goals for the Happiness Project so the the sort of breaking down of these of life into possible steps was to prepare for adversity, to develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened. I didn’t want to wait for a crisis to remake my life. I thought hat was really kind of bad ass, to be honest.

Gretchen:                            Well, you know, it’s funny because one thing when I was working on the Happiness Project, one thing that concerned me was when people sometimes feel like it’s superficial and like, oh, I’m thinking about, you know, making my bed. And this is really trivial in the face of everything that we should be thinking about in our lives. But I felt it for myself. I wanted to try to do whatever I could within my own powers to make my life happier, healthier, more productive, more creative while I had the wherewithal to think about it so that when something difficult arose, I sort of be better able to handle it. And what’s interesting is I’ve talked to a lot of people who have been in these really tough situations, and they and they do say like it’s good to sort of try to get your house in order when you can, because then you’re sort of in a better place when you don’t have the time and the energy to think about it. And sometimes it just makes things easier. Yeah. When you’re when you have to think about other larger matters. Yeah. You know, because like you say, it always seems like tomorrow will be easier.

Kate:                                  It’ll be all tomorrow’s going to be great tomorrow. Yeah. Tomorrow I’m going to get that zero inbox and everyone’s going to be happy with me and I’ll have figured out all my health and tomorrow is amazing. Yeah. Yeah. But today I just have to grind it out and that’s what I need to do today. And I’ve. But yeah. And then. And then. And then. And then there’s just this lingering sense. Yeah. I guess I always did have the illusion that, that this other life would create itself in some way and there’s this feeling, though, right in our lives that just feels like to me it always feels like hunger, you know, and there’s that lovely quote from Henry David Thoreau about he goes into the woods and he tries to live this experiment in which he’s trying to live differently. And he writes, “I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life.” And it’s such a beautiful description of that kind of hunger, right? But that, but we know we don’t want to waste this, but we don’t always know where to start.

Gretchen:                               Well, it’s interesting that you say that because the book that I’m working on now is all about the five senses. And I think it’s the same thing where I’m like, I’m absent minded. It’s slipping by I’m not paying attention because to me, I always knew I need to make something systematic. Like I can’t just think to do something I have to, like, put it on the calendar because that’s the kind of person that I am, even happiness. I kiss my husband in the morning and at night I’m like, that’s on the list to make. I have to put everything on my list. And I thought, yeah, I just I want to make sure that I see I don’t want to miss a sound. I don’t want to overlook a texture. I want to. And there I am mixing my sensory metaphors as we do it because again, it’s that it’s that really experiencing what’s happening to us, because it’s so easy to just kind of be in a fog and feel like it’s all drifting away. Yeah. And you’re like, where did the summer go? Where did kindergarten go. Yeah. So I spend a lot of time trying to just like experience what’s happening right now.

Kate :                                  Yes. For people who are like in this, Everything Happens community are people who have like pretty limited or like really stretched thin, either because they’ve gone through something or they’re in a profession that asks everything from them and they’re like careworn. You know, I know that you’re very practical in the way that you think about like small steps that can create, like the feeling of more-ness.

Gretchen:                          I’m like the Ben Franklin version of that, I’m very practical.

Kate:                                    I love that.

Kate:                                    Can you give an example of something you’ve tried that we could all use as a kind of refresher right now?

Gretchen:                             Well, you know, I think it’s easy to be like I want to be more rested, like I want more energy. But to me, I’m always like, well, take that down to those practical, actionable thing. Like, what’s something that you can actually do? For instance, set an alarm to go to bed and a lot of people stay up late because they jacked themselves up watching TV or doing work email or whatever, and they feel perfectly wide awake until midnight. But actually it would be much better off if they went to bed at like ten or eleven. And you know that because you’re like most adults in the seven hours of sleep, I can do the math. Yeah, my bedtime should be ten thirty. But our kids have a bedtime and a lot of adults in the bedtime and it’s good and your phone can remind you, just like it reminds you to wake up and you can get yourself a snooze alarm. And so, you know, I’m always like, start with the basics, like, are you getting enough sleep or are you getting a little bit of exercise? Are you getting morning light? Do something to look forward to? Like is your day just a dreary list of to do or do you have some things that you honestly anticipate?

Kate:                              Do you find without the work you’re doing right now on the senses? I love the idea that there’s like that we can rediscover embodiment because I you know, I tend to really live in my head and then I just drift away. Yeah. And it’s hard to come back. I know in the pandemic, people maybe had these small joys like gardening or things that really brought them back to their bodies again.

Gretchen:                              No, absolutely. And I think one of the reasons that breadmaking became such a thing was because every sense is satisfied. The feeling, the kneading, the punching, the yeast, the baking bread, the crunchiness, the delicious flavor, the feeling of doing something yourself. I mean, I think I think it was incredibly, sensorily satisfying.

Kate:                                         I did do one kind of joy, happiness related sensory thing over the pandemic, which is I had lost so much of my sense of taste because of so much chemo. And it was such a it was just such a bummer where like everyone is like, oh, I taste the blah, blah, blah. And I was like, yes, me too. So what I did was I found a local wine store that would humor me and I just kept I ordered like ten of the same grape. And then I would just have these little taste tests with, you know, like we could only have things outside. So I just have these little taste outside. I really relearned like, oh, I’m like not bad at identifying a French Sauvignon Blanc right now because I think to me, it was like a fun little project to sort of learn how to describe things. And my friends are so great at being like, oh, I taste brininess. And I was like, oh, I would never taste brininess, but now I kind of got it. So it did make me feel more, it was just such a such a fun way to learn. We just kind of returned to ourselves in a strange way when we can rediscover such small pleasures.

Gretchen:                                  Well, and I do think it can also be kind of a refuge because you can always sort of turn to the experience of your body and like the beauties of nature or very simple things. And it is it is it’s satisfying in a very kind of primal way. It doesn’t really take anything out of us. And one of the things I love about it is especially something like scent, which, as I said, is one of my favorites. You can’t bookmark it. You can’t save it for later. You can’t glut yourself on it. You can’t overdose on it. You know, you can’t you could spend too much on perfume, but you don’t even need to. You could smell vanilla. You could smell grapefruit like. We have to do it right now, you got to smell that gardenia right now, and you can’t even keep doing it for long because pretty soon your your nose and your brain will turn it off. And so it is something that really it does tie you to the moment in an energizing way.

Kate:                                  That is a perfect account of the now and also every Christmas Hallmark movie where they’re like describing smells. They’re like, oh, and the cinnamon for this year’s bake off.

Gretchen:                       Here’s something fun: ketchup is a perfect food. You can have all five tastes in ketchup.

Kate:                                  What?!

Gretchen:                         It’s sweet, it’s sour, it’s salty, it’s umami and bitter. There’s bitterness in there too. I always forget about bitter. Yeah. It’s got to, it’s got everything that’s very unusual. Margaritas have four but they don’t have the umami. So it’s like, I mean just in research shows that just about all of us have ketchup in the fridge. So if you need like a quick hit to your body, just a little taste of ketchup and just think I took it for granted. Simple ketchup is the perfect food.

Kate:                                 I’ve had a ketchup taste test before. Actually, I had one a couple of months ago because I have a little pod of kids that I’m going to like full five senses them on it.

Gretchen:                        Yes! Don’t overlook ketchup now. What a great taste test that is so fun. I love a taste test.

Kate:                                       You and I have a lot invested in the question of what’s possible for us. And we know right now that people are especially tired and and lonely and overwhelmed. And I wonder if we could maybe walk through some of the objections to the idea of becoming happier, because you can almost hear people say, like, you don’t understand, my life is genuinely impossible. And I think we both care a lot about that middle place that we’re both trying to find. So first, we have to agree to the premise that it is possible to make ourselves happier. I wondered if you could tell me a bit about Setpoint theory.

Gretchen:                            Yeah. So what research suggests is that about fifty percent of happiness is genetically determined. So some people are born Tiggers and some people are Eeyores. And that’s pretty much hardwired. Then about 15 to 20 percent is life circumstances. So that’s health, education, income, marital status, things like that, which we sort of have some control over. Maybe, or not. And then the rest is very much the result of our conscious thoughts and actions. And that’s really what I focus on. It’s sort of like given what my life is today, are there things that are easily within my power without spending a lot of time, energy or money that I can do that I think would make myself be happier? So it’s working in that range because that’s really where we have some control. Now, could you say it’s sometimes in our lives it’s not possible to be happier? Absolutely. And I don’t know what people think like, oh, you know, what I’m arguing with the Happiness Project is that everyone should be ten on the one to ten scale. Twenty four, seven. That’s not realistic. And it wouldn’t even be a good life because obviously in many times in our lives, we’re experiencing other emotions. And that’s powerful and that’s important. And but it’s sort of like given who I am and where I am, are there things that I can do to make myself happier? To me, that seems worthwhile, because if you could be much happier by you know, you’ve been meaning to make time for friends for years and then you finally find a way to do it in a manageable way. Well, to me, I’m like, you should take your shot. Now, set point theory suggests that everyone has a set point and they kind of will always drift back to it. You know, as circumstances change, I think it’s more helpful to think of a set range. So maybe, you know, someone who’s, you know, on the seven to ten range and then maybe, you know, somebody who’s like on the four to seven range. But whatever kind of range is, I do think that there are things that we can do within our ordinary day without taking a lot of time, energy or money that can push us up to the top of our range instead of pushing us down to the bottom of our range.

Kate:                             That small space between the idea that like nothing is possible and everything is possible. I mean, you know that like so much of my just intellectual gentle rage-fest is like spent just trying to talk people out of the everything is possible as both like a self-help genre and is just like a series of especially religious and spiritual cultural scripts that we have like. And then, you know that like and I think we find that people like that the harder their lives get, the more they’re kind of fed this endless diet of hyper agency with like you just need to. Yeah, like and I, I love them much gentler place that you’re finding in the middle here, which is like a limited agency. Like what is possible inside this range that isn’t like Herculean or like adorable Eeyore who just his tail falls off and he just he’s never gonna find it right, never. Right.

Gretchen:                               Well, and it’s sort of like given everything that’s true, are there things that you can do? And I think that for most people there are some things they can do. You know, a lot of it is just sort of deciding that you’re you’re making an effort, for instance, like, you know, something a lot of people say is they spend all this time scrolling, scrolling, scrolling. If you were like, I would rather like pick a TV show that I love and really make time to, like, watch one episode a night until I go through all seven seasons and really enjoy that time and kind of make it special again. Now is my time to get to watch the office or whatever, rather than just kind of like passively falling into a habit that it’s not any more difficult to watch the TV show. It’s more purposeful, but you’re not really asking yourself to do more because maybe you have no more to offer.

Kate:                               Yeah, I do find that just a little purpose around a plan. Like right now I feel very overwhelmed in my life. I really don’t have a lot of extra there’s a little bit of crying in the shower a lot lately. And so, you know, it’s just one of those seasons and and you’re trying so hard to get out of it. But it’s just it is like the weight of it is. So today I took three minutes. I decided that it would be absolutely adorable to have my best friend’s two little kids. I love them. And they play together with my son all the time. And they have not seen Cruella yet, the movie. And I thought, wouldn’t that be so fun? So I ordered three sets of Dalmatian puppy ears and costumes and I ordered myself Cruella wig. And I’m going to have them over on Friday and we’re going to order pizza. And that to me feels like it cuts through the noise of just how hard things are right now.

Gretchen:                                     Yes, that little bit of whimsy you’re elevating the moment you’re sort of creating. Yeah. You’re elevating something from just, hey, why don’t you have the kids come over and we’ll stick in a movie to like this is a thing!

Kate:                                     It’s a thing! Yes. And we can’t have things all the time. But just a few things does feel

Gretchen:                             like I’m a huge fan of food dye. You can trick out so much stuff and play so many hilarious pranks with a little food dye. So, you know, and again, it’s not that it’s so hard, but you have to have the thought of like, oh, April Fool’s Day why don’t I dye the milk green so that when my kids pour it out in the morning, they’ll be horrified?

Kate:                                Yeah.

Gretchen:                        You just take that moment to think, yeah, why don’t I out why don’t I think of a little something to do.

Kate:                                Yeah, yeah. Yeah.

Gretchen:                        Or Cruella Day.

Kate:                                 What about the idea that to be happier you have to really change everything. I know you’ve touched on this. Like I’m just imagining in our cultural lore we have a lot of like midlife crisis myths about people who sort of drive their life off a cliff to make a big change or, you know, that that in a way that to really to really be happier, you might have to walk away from your life as if you’re walking away from a burning building you’ve set on fire and and the big leaps and huge life changes, especially in a moment like that, like right now, seems quite implausible. You’ve really thought about this in a much more granular way.

Gretchen:                            Some people only want to go big or go home. They’re only attracted by the idea, like I’m going to run a marathon in 2021 and I’m going to blow your mind. And here I go. And they do it. And it’s amazing. But I think for more people, yeah, certainly for me, I never left my neighborhood. It was all in the interstices. It was all part of my ordinary life, which I love. I didn’t want to transform it. And really, I couldn’t have transformed activity, responsibilities.

Kate:                                      I’ve always been told that there’s a huge distinction between the words happiness and joy. And yeah, I found that I had really always gravitated toward the word joy because that is something I distinctly recognized as a gift, like something that kind of either bubbled up. And, you know, in the Christian tradition, it’s also been something that, you know, that I have experienced sort of internal kind of like the feeling of like laughing where you feel surprised, but also just that sometimes I feel joyful at times that are absolutely garbage. And that has always felt to me like something that came from outside of of me. So.

Gretchen:                             Like grace.

Kate:                                      Yes, that’s exactly right. Yes. So in in really thinking about our conversation, I decided to do a little bit more actual thoughtful thinking about, you know, well, my own tradition says about happiness. I just see like the definition. And I realized I was wrong. Like there is a really long tradition of defending happiness and that the word that they use and the mystic definition is flourishing and that we’re meant to seek the flourishing of ourselves and others. But that, of course, they have a few little caveats, like we’re supposed to seek the flourishing of others and not just ourselves. And so how do we rescue happiness from, say, individualism?

Gretchen:                                  Well, the way I think about. It is one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. And one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself. If you look at people who are are happier, they tend to be healthier, they are more likely to volunteer, they’re more likely to donate money and time, they make better team members and make and better leaders, they have healthier habits. And so there’s sort of this idea that if you work, think about your own happiness all the time, you’re going to be sort of complacent and drinking daiquiris by the beach. In fact, what you see is that happier people are like, isn’t there a more efficient way to distribute malaria nets? I think we all need to do that. So a lot of times we’re more able to be selfless when we’re happy because we have more emotional wherewithal to turn outward and to think about other people and the world. And it’s certainly true that one of the best ways to make ourselves happier is to try to think about how do we help others and how do we make good in the world and how do we live up to our highest values. That is a kind of happiness that never palls. I have a friend who was going through a terrible time. Like everything. Her boyfriend broke up with her. She got rejected from a program. She lost her job. And I said, How did you get through it? And she said, I was addicted to doing good deeds. It was the thing that made me feel better. Yeah. So was it selfish to do good deeds? Like, who cares if it’s just like makes me happy to see people doing good deeds, especially if it’s me. Yeah. So I think feed into each other.

Kate:                                         I mean even just the premise of what you’re describing about how I mean that’s just that there’s so much of our lives that we can’t change. There’s this narrow window of possibility in which we can act on behalf of ourselves and others. I think just being close to people who have that incredible reality in mind, that makes me feel less overwhelmed about why I can’t fix my life. That feels like I am no longer like anybody else’s project. I’m just like a co-human in that framework. And then and then, dear God, I want the like all the tiny steps that you’re describing.

Gretchen:                                 I think you’re right to point out that in some ways, like it is a fiction that we can make a list and go through it, but, it’s is it helpful to try when we can as long as we don’t blame ourselves or think it’s our fault when we can’t.

Kate:                                           I, well, because, my dear, I always give your work to other people when they don’t believe they can try anymore. So I think we’re both on the bookends of this same question is I want people, when they read your stuff to think I am in my body today. I am in this life today. There are maybe only a few small things that I get to have any control over and that there is love and there is the dignity of choice. I mean, yes, we are not entirely made of our choices. We’re not just math that adds up to some mythical number every day, but there is that little bit in there where I want I want us all to try. I really do. Only just I mean, if only just for each other. And sometimes trying just looks like asking for help. I mean, trying just means being honest sometimes about our limitations and then being willing to receive a little bit of, you know, encouragement or compliments about my hair, like there are certain days that will take me over the finish line, but I I think we’re both we both care a lot about small math.

Gretchen:                                   Yeah, I think you’re so wise to point out and I always like am reminding myself, like, you have to recognize the limits, but at the same time, why not grasp what you can. Yeah, because it feels like a shame to miss the opportunity to put on the put on the Cruella costume and make it something fun. It’s like you don’t want to miss that opportunity. Yeah. Yes. But maybe sometimes it’s beyond what you can do and you just have to say today is not that day. Yeah. Maybe this is not the year for that. Yes. But maybe I can find something else. Maybe I can dye the milk green. No, it’s a tension. It’s and it is a tension.

Kate:                                    Yes. In the framework of good, better, best. They’re sticking the landing on better and we’re both giving up best. And sometimes those will be days which you just need to be carried in that direction. And other days we carry other people. There is just a little bit of space there where we get to try. And that I mean, that’s why I’m the person who accidentally tears up when I watch like a woman do a pull up at the gym. Every time I see someone try, I feel odd. I really do. I feel like, you know, it is really hard in this world to be a person and it is really hard to try. And it feels kind of lovely to be right up close to it.

Gretchen:                                    Yeah, I know exactly what you mean. Or like seeing little kids learning to walk when you’re like, oh, they’re just relentless. They’re going to get it figured out.

Kate:                                     Well, I think it sounds like you have a lovely tender heart that really does want us all to notice and pay attention enough to feel, for a second, that little bit of dignity in our day, and that’s a big feeling. Gretchen, thank you so much for this conversation, this was such a joy.

Gretchen:                            Kate, I feel like we could talk all day. The funny thing is we have never met in person.

Kate:                                     That doesn’t make any sense. That doesn’t make any sense. Yeah, but we will, though. We will.

Kate Bowler:                       So what do you think, can happiness be a project? I love the distinction Gretchen draws. A lot of life is out of our control. Genetics, life circumstances, tragedies, systemic injustices, global earth plagues. But for that tiny percentage that is in your control, maybe there are some small changes that might make us a little happier. And in doing so, that delight might rub off on others. That space of limited agency is where I’d love to learn to live, where I can ask what is possible today? So dear ones, here is a blessing for permission to try. Blessed are you, my dear you, whose life has unraveled in so many ways and it may seem, well, daunting, maybe even impossible, to think about what to do next. The bills that need to be paid. The doctor’s voicemail that needs to be heard. The night time, loneliness you feel. Blessed are you trying to put aside the everything is possible mentality. You have taken yourself off the hook for perfection or the illusion that when things go south you must be doing something wrong. And blessed are you who need to be reminded that yes, a lot of things aren’t fixable, but here’s something I might try. Taking that tiny step that might make today a smidge lighter, maybe not easier or necessarily better, but lighter. Maybe we can be a bit more generous today or go to bed earlier or ask a new friend to grab coffee or take a walk instead of doom scrolling Twitter or turn off our work email this Saturday or pick up a paintbrush for no reason at all except joy. Maybe we be people who anchor ourselves to the now with our hands holding the steering wheel and our nose smelling that gardenia and our eyes delighting in that kid’s toothless smile with our breath in the here and now. Our work on the Everything Happens podcast and with the Everything Happens initiative is made possible because of our partners and generous donors Lilly Endowment, the Duke Endowment, Duke Divinity School and Faith in Leadership, an online learning resource and a huge thank you to my team who makes this work not only possible, but fun. Jessica Richie, Harriet Putman, Keith Weston, Gwen Heginbotham, Katie Mangum, AJ Walton, Katherine Smith, Mary Jo Clancy, J.J. Dickinson and Jeb and Sammi. And if you’d like to be a human with me, come find me online at KateCBowler. I also have a weekly email that might be the right dose of love and courage you need. Sign up at This is Everything Happens with me, Kate Bowler.

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