Do One Thing at a Time: An Interview with Rachel BertscheI got to know Rachel Bertsche because I stumbled upon her blog, MWF Seeking BFF, which is all about the challenge of making friends as an adult. Making and keeping friends is is one of the most common, and also most significant, happiness challenges; friendship is very, very important to happiness, but as adults, we often don’t have the time and opportunities to build and strengthen those relationships.

Rachel’s book, MWF Seeking BFF: My Yearlong Search for a New Best Friend, just hit the shelves.

In it, she talks about her adventures as she tried to meet and make friends after she moved to a new city. The relationship between friendship and happiness is a constant theme in the book, so I was eager to here more about her views on hapipness.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?

Rachel: Spending time with friends. Even if I’m exhausted and want nothing more than to go home and crash on the couch, when I force myself to go out and spend an hour or so with friends (and this time together can take any form—a dinner date, going for a walk, even watching TV side by side) I feel so much happier afterwards. In fact, a 2004 study found that 85% of adults feel happier, less stressed and more energized after spending time with friends—and yet 62% of those people said they spent less time with friends than ever before.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Oversleeping! I work from home, which makes it a lot easier to hit the snooze button over and over. Now I do it almost every morning and can’t even remember it when I finally wake up. I loved sleeping in as a teenager (who didn’t?) but now whenever I wake up an hour later than planned, I have that strange nagging feeling as if I’ve forgotten to do something. And I feel like I’ve missed a vital hour of the day. When I wake up on the earlier side, having still gotten enough sleep, I always have a better “time to face the day!” feeling when I wake up.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve found very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?

I’m a huge fan of The Happiness Project (both book and blog) [awww, thanks Rachel!] so I try to keep many of your lessons in mind, including to “Be Rachel.” These days, a mantra I am trying to adopt is “Do One Thing at a Time.” I find that so often my mind is working on overdrive, and I’ll start one project, get distracted, start another, and forget to go back to the first. It only serves to make me more overwhelmed. This mantra is still new, so I’m not sure if it is contributing more to my happiness yet, but I think it will.

The happiness-related book passage that has always stuck with me is from AJ Jacobs’s The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World. In it, he tells the fable of a Middle Eastern potentate who called all the wise men of his kingdom together and tasked them with gathering all the world’s knowledge in one place. In the end, that knowledge came down to one sentence: This too shall pass. I like to remember that if, as Jacobs says, the Black Plague passed, and the Hundred Years’ War passed, then when I’m having hard times, those will pass too.

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?

Not to harp on the friends point, but having spent so much time researching and focusing on friendship, I’m especially attuned to it. And what I see people doing that adds a lot to their happiness is making time for friendships. Since I work from home, I spend a lot of time in the nearby coffee shop. I love watching people get together for a quick catch-up. When they greet each other, their faces light up, they hug and laugh, and they just look so happy! I often feel like I’m in that scene of Love Actually, when Hugh Grant is watching everyone in the airport reunite and he says “Love, actually, is all around us.” As I write this, there is a group of friends—men and women—laughing together at the table next to me. Even watching them gives me a little happiness boost.

On the flip side, not making time for friends can really detract from happiness. Research shows that during our teenage years, we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time spent with friends is less than 10%. That’s a pretty big jump, and can make us feel lonely or unfulfilled. If you are married with kids and you have a job and an endless list of errands to run, it’s likely that time with pals slips off the to-do list. It can feel more like a luxury than a necessity. But just a little bit of time with the gals (or guys) can go a long way towards our overall health and happiness.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?

I’ve always considered myself a pretty happy person, but I’ve definitely had my swings. Some of the happiest times in my life were spent at summer camp. I went to an all-girls summer camp in Maine for eight weeks, from when I was eight to when I was 16. I used to feel a happiness rush the moment I stepped off the bus onto the campgrounds in June. I think it was the knowledge that for the next two months, all that was expected of me was to have fun. Suddenly there wasn’t the pressure of grades, or the social drama that seemed to accompany school. For two months I played sports, acted in the plays, had cookies every day at 10:15, went swimming, and sang a lot of songs. It probably won’t surprise you to read that my best friend in the world went to camp with me, so that increased my happiness plenty. Camp basically provided a double-happiness boost: it removed the stress of trying to excel in school or extra-curriculars that existed in my “regular” life, and gave me 24/7 friend time!

The most unhappy I’ve ever been was when my father died. And even then it wasn’t exactly unhappiness, but sadness, which I’d argue are two different things. I didn’t feel like I had an unhappy existence, I was just dealing with something sad that happened to me. I became happier by letting myself feel the sadness, and grieve, and not rush myself to feel better. It didn’t get less sad that my father died, but it became easier to be happy despite having lived through that one crummy thing. It took time. You can’t always force yourself to be happier, I don’t think. You have to let yourself feel unhappy for a bit, and if you recognize your feeling and acknowledge it, you can have your sad moment and then move on.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?

Yes! All the time. My husband calls them my “kicks.” As in “What kick is Rachel on this time?” Like you, I love having little rules or resolutions that I’ll commit to for a time. Unlike you, Gretchen, I’m not great at always sticking to them. But I try. I love your one-minute rule, for example, though I don’t always remember to adhere to it. I often try out different rules/resolutions and see if they add to my happiness. So that could be as broad as “work out 5 times a week” or as specific as “buy one magazine I’ve never read before whenever I’m in an airport.”

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy, didn’t – or vice versa?

Well, I definitely suffer from the arrival fallacy that you have written about. Whenever I achieve something I’m working for, I tend to already be thinking about the next thing, and thus I don’t get the satisfaction out arriving at the milestone that I should. I’m working on that though. Also, shopping. I often get excited to buy something new—a purse, clothes, a gadget—but once I have that object in my house, it never really gives me the happiness boost I expect.

On the other hand, being a Big Sister (through Big Brothers Big Sisters) is something I decided to do because I thought it would make someone else—my “little”—happy. As it turns out, it might make me happier than it makes him. My husband and I do it together as a couples match, so we have a “little” together. We take him to the movies, the park, the library, or just to lunch. Spending time with our little ALWAYS makes us happy. There’s something about that 10-year-old energy that is infectious, and the feeling that we might be making a positive contribution to his life is amazing. So that’s something I did in order to boost someone else’s happiness, but instead I improved my own.

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Want to sign up for the 2012 Happiness Challenge? The link is ready! Sign up here. Studies suggest that if you take an action, such as signing up, you’re more likely to keep your resolutions. For the Challenge, in a weekly video, I’ll discuss a Pigeon of Discontent to consider tackling as you think about your own happiness. If you’d like to see my personal Resolutions Chart, as an example, email me at [email protected].