Valentine's Day Idea: Sweat the Small Stuff

Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin

Here's a Valentine's Day thought. You want to be a better partner? Try being a happier person. And if you listen to the one of the country's top purveyors of happiness, it's not about champagne and chocolates.

Is the secret to happiness paying more attention to the mundane?

While the poets have long pondered its elusiveness, and scientists have plumbed neurochemistry and genetics for its underpinnings, Gretchen Rubin brings a smaller approach to the large question of finding happiness.

Gretchen admits up front that with Plutarch, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, St. Therese, and the Dalai Lama on the job - she doesn't have much to add to the reservoir of deep thinking about the nature of happiness.

"It's like dieting," she told me in a phone interview. "There's nothing new under the sun. Eat healthy foods and exercise and you'll be healthier. There's nothing new. Same with happiness. It's how you approach it. The question is how do you make it real in your own life."

Read More Of Jim Axelrod's Blogs on Happiness:

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Rubin told me the answer to making it real in our own lives can be found right under our own noses. Forget the sophisticated, high-minded musings and consult the mundane in our everyday lives instead.

For instance, she suggests checking out the link between happiness and a clean bedside table. Or the impossible-to-ignore benefits of stringing together a couple weeks of exercise. Or perhaps getting a little more sleep each night.  "Concrete actions are more effective when it come to the inner state I want to cultivate."

Take going to bed earlier.

"One of the things that was hard for me to do, was go to sleep earlier," Rubin recounted. "That was my fun time. If I went to sleep an hour earlier, well, that was an hour I couldn't read a book or talk on the phone with my sister, or watch TiVo with my husband. But after a week I knew it was better."

Rubin simply felt better, the same way she did when she dressed more warmly before leaving the house on a winter's day or keeping a tidier house.

It may not be some alchemy of the soul divined by communion with a white-bearded oracle on a cloud-ringed mountaintop. But Rubin's point is that mastery of the small things leave us feeling better about life. They are building blocks, freeing up energy for us to focus on more complicated obstacles like pursuing a graduate degree or finishing that novel.

Mundane tasks hold the potential of uncommon rewards. It's the power of getting something done. A reminder that, when it comes to shaping your life, you're in control.

The times in my life when I've felt least happy, were those when I felt I was powerless to change its course.

"Options, Jimmy," I can still hear my late father offering me his secret to life. "You've got to always have options. Otherwise you're going to feel trapped. And no one ever wants to feel trapped."

Small, but important achievements create momentum, proof of performance that real change is possible. Here's the real key to what Gretchen Rubin is getting at with her take on finding more happiness in life. Ultimately, there's one essential component - real change.

Rubin's approach has helped her corner a good part of the contemporary happiness market. She's the author of the best selling book, "The Happiness Project," and writes a blog,that offers up tips, techniques, and quotes on the subject of achieving more happiness. A Yale law school grad, and former Supreme Court clerk, hers is a first rate mind focused on the topic.

"It's easier to change your outer actions than your inner state of being," says Gretchen Rubin. "Everyone has a natural range according to his or her temperament," she explains, lapsing into the language of that noted psychoanalyst Winnie the Pooh. "Some people are more Eeyore-ish, and some people are more Tigger-ish. You can only build a happier life on the foundation of your own nature. But I believe everyone can make themselves happier."

For Gretchen Rubin getting down the path of big changes is a journey started with small steps.

So this Valentine's Day, I'm not going to tell you to forget the roses. But it wouldn't hurt if you make sure there's a clean bedside table for the vase. That's a happiness tip that might yield some benefits the other 364 days of the year.

Jim Axelrod is a CBS News National Correspondent. His book "In The Long Run" will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux in May.

  • Jim Axelrod

    Jim Axelrod is the anchor of the Saturday edition of the "CBS Evening News" and a national correspondent for CBS News, reporting for the "CBS Evening News with Scott Pelley" and other CBS News broadcasts.