Be Happier at Home: Make the Positive Argument

This post will soon reveal a wonderful piece of marriage advice, courtesy of Gretchen Rubin, the author of the blockbuster bestselling book The Happiness Project.

But first some backstory: I spent months (okay, years) envying Gretchen, and especially her career success. For quite a long time, I mired in it, allowing that envy to drain me of energy, purpose, and life force. Then, however, Gretchen became friendly with a few other bloggers I know. A good friend prodded me to ask Gretchen to coffee, suggesting that meeting her in real life might help me to overcome the envy. I resisted, mostly out of fear of rejection. My friend, however, was relentless. She just wouldn’t let it drop. So one day I did it. I asked Gretchen to coffee.

And Gretchen said yes.

My friend was right. Meeting Gretchen allowed me to see her for what she was: a human being who absolutely deserved every good part of her life. That casual coffee turned into a friendship. When I chaired a large journalism conference in New York this past spring, I asked Gretchen to keynote. Soon I found myself introducing her on stage, saying, “When people think of happiness, they think of Gretchen Rubin.” (See photo, right, taken at the American Society of Journalists and Authors conference).

And it’s true.

Gretchen’s latest book hit bookstores today. Called Happier at Home, it’s exactly as it sounds. In it she launches a second happiness project. This one centers on her home life: marriage, parenthood, extended family, design, neighborhood, time, organization, and so on. She generously gave me a copy about a month ago. There’s a lot to this book but, in this post, I’m zeroing in on what she has to say about marriage. If you want to know the rest: buy and read the book, people.

Even for marriage, I’m writing about one very specific strategy, something that only spans a page and a half of the book. It’s this: Make the Positive Argument. Like most of us, Gretchen sometimes found herself mired in negativity—for instance whenever her husband stared at his phone while she was trying to talk to him. Her thoughts would go to that, “He isn’t very thoughtful” place. Been there? I sure have.

When that happens, she makes the positive argument. So instead of reminding herself of all of the reasons he’s not thoughtful, she tells herself all of the reasons he so is thoughtful. In other words, she mentally argues the polar opposite viewpoint. I first read about this technique in Chade Meng-Tan’s Search Inside Yourself, and I find it intriguing. If you’ve ever been on a debate team, then you understand the strategy. I haven’t been on a debate team, but I did once take a media law class. Many times our professor would give us a case to argue. It didn’t matter what our personal views were on that case, we had to argue the opinion he assigned to us. Then once we made that argument, we did it all over again—arguing the reverse opinion. It taught me that one can find evidence for or against just about any belief if one searches diligently enough.

Still, I had some questions. The following is an email exchange between me and Gretchen.

Me: How do you get in habit of doing this? I’m guessing there are times when a person gets angry and the idea of “making the positive argument” is the last thing in her mind. How does she train herself to think that way, especially when filled with negativity?

Gretchen: This is always a challenge. I mean, I can count to ten if I REMEMBER to count to ten, but that’s the tricky part. With “make the positive argument,” I somehow find it easier to remember to do. I start fussing and fuming in my mind about something, and then it occurs to me to consider the opposite argument. It’s almost uncanny how effective it is. Also, I tend to use this when I’m off thinking, not when I’m in a moment of conflict. It’s more about dealing with the way I think than the way I interact with my husband – though it does end up affecting the way I interact. Because I’m less resentful and smug.

Me: How do you strike a balance between making the positive argument and being assertive? Aren’t there times in a marriage when you just need to lay out your feelings and say, “This hurts”?

Gretchen: Absolutely. One of the central challenges of a happiness project is to figure out when, out of love, you can make a concession, swallow angry words, or do more than your share, and when, out of self-consideration, you need to draw a line. For me, it’s pretty clear when I’m right to behave in one way or the other. I recognize that I’m lucky, however, because my husband is a fair, reasonable guy, and that makes it easier to go the extra mile. I don’t worry that he’ll take advantage of me.

 Me: Are there times when you just can’t make a positive argument. Perhaps your spouse has committed a major marital sin or all of the evidence really is stacked in your favor. Or does making the positive argument help, even during times when you are right and your spouse is seriously wrong?

Gretchen: I think this is a technique that helps you get clarity on reality in your own mind. It helps you take a different perspective on situation.  You think that you are right and your spouse is seriously wrong – if you argue to yourself, “I’m not so right, and my spouse isn’t so seriously wrong,” do you get a different answer? Maybe no, maybe yes.

So give it a try. See what happens.

In her book, Gretchen also pledges to kiss her husband twice daily. It’s a promise that I found intriguing, especially in light of my current romance project. I think I might put it into practice. More about that in a future post.

If you are interested in buying the book, you can use the below link. I’ll get about a nickel or so for every purchase.


IMPORTANT NOTE: Every month I award one lucky reader an awesome $50 gift card. The Reader of the Month sponsor for September is Dotty Evens, a marriage counselor. In September her sponsorship will award one reader with a $50 card. To win, all you have to do is comment a lot on the site. Like me there was a time when Dotty wasn’t happily married. Like me, she did everything possible to change that situation, and she succeeded. She has a wonderful e-newsletter that offers her tips and tricks for a happy marriage. In each issue, she answers a frequently asked question about marriage, such as, “How can I rebuild trust after infidelity?” She offers great advice, and it’s free. If you sign up for the newsletter, you get a free, bonus report that details the 5 tactics she used to save her marriage. Sign up for the newsletter here to get your free report. You can also connect with her on Facebook and Twitter.

4 comments… add one

  • Gay September 4, 2012, 4:32 pm

    It’s so funny how you can train yourself to shift perspective. It is mind-training. I believe in what you’re saying, but would love some examples. It’s so easy for me to forget everything isn’t all about me. Breathing at a time like that, just slowing down, supports the shift, don’t you think?

    And yes, kiss your husband twice a day. Maybe ask for a hug? Or, better yet, give a hug? YES!

    • Alisa September 5, 2012, 8:17 am

      Gay– for me, one of my common ones is: “He’s always late. Why does he always do this to me?” So then I shift and ask, “Is he always late? Was he late yesterday? The day before? The day before that? So am I saying that he’s usually on time?”

  • cj renzi September 5, 2012, 8:01 am

    A marvelous post. I found that in nearly every case where my feelings are hurt about something my wife did, I had misunderstood her intentions. Had I simply asked myself, or her for that matter, what she was thinking I would have easily avoided any hurt feelings. Now I have another tool to use on myself. I’ll consider the positive argument and see how it goes. Thank you.

  • TB at BlueCollarWorkman October 10, 2012, 8:34 am

    From a man’s perspective, this isn’t such a bad idea either. When my wife nags me to pick up my socks that are on the floor again, she gets mean with her tone. Instead of yelling at her right away, it’s not a bad idea for me to take a sec and think about the other side of it. Like… she’s trying to make a nice home for me and the girls. She’s taking care of me and washing my stuff. Etc. THe trick is of course, to not fly off the handle right away, but to stop and make my brain take the other side. THis’ll be hard to try.


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