Gretchen Rubin is a happiness expert, known for her books  The Happiness Project, Better than Before and Happier at Home. She’s not the person who comes to mind when seeking a go-to source for  inspiration for civil affairs.  Yet, on several of her recent podcasts and podcast  extras, she hit the nail on the head for gaining clarity for civil participation.

On December 26, Rubin published one of her quick podcast extras entitled: What Would an Englishman Do?  In it, she tells a tale she uncovered while doing research for  one of her earlier, less popular works called Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill.  As the story goes, the British Wartime Ministry of Information was wondering why they had no pictures of the sinking of the Bismark in their archives.  The conclusion was that no Englishman would want a “snapshot” of such a great vessel sinking.  The story caused Rubin to ponder: “How, in my own life, do I live up to the highest ideals of the United States?”

For some, our highest ideal may be keeping the country an open harbor of refuge for immigrants as promised by the Statue of Liberty.  For others, it’s the First Amendment and right of free speech, or the Second Amendment and the right to bear arms, or just the right to vote in a democratic and free society, or the ability to work hard and be the next Horatio Alger story, or even all of the above.

Once you’ve decided on the highest ideals, the Little Hinge question is: How can you live up to them without becoming overwhelmed with the magnitude of the tasks at hand? For inspiration, we turned to tips from Rubin’s other works.

  1. Declutter for Clarity. It’s clear we are a materialistic society, and most can agree that endless shopping is not a high democratic ideal. Go through your email stream and consider deleting as many store alerts as you can. The goal is to create space for important messages to be more easily seen, and better see organizations who need your money spent on them rather than new shoes.
  2. Get a Curator.  Museums are special for many reasons, not the least of which are curators — people who put in the time and attention to pick the best items to see on any one visit.  A new app called is free and aggregates all your email subscriptions at one time to allow you to either unsubscribe, keep as individual messages, or roll up to the app.  Within less than five minutes I had unsubscribed from 87 lists, without having to open 87 different emails and click on 87 different unsubscribe buttons. Even better, I rolled up another two dozen that now show up as one scrolling list in one email each day, helping me to curate the messages I see in one easy open. Rubin would term this a ‘happiness hack.’ This allows me to more easily see the messages from civil liberties organizations I do want to see that might otherwise have gotten lost in the clutter.
  3. Know Your Type.  Rubin has introduced a new construct called the four individual tendencies. According to her, knowing your tendency helps you set yourself up for success by better understanding how you hold yourself accountable for achieving a task, or changing a habit. As an example, if you’re an Obliger, which many of us are,  you need outside accountability to help you achieve a task.  So, if you want to go to a protest, you may need a buddy. The key is to work within the framework of who you are to achieve the results you want, or to get you involved in ways you want.
  4. Prepare for Inspiration. In an earlier podcast, Rubin introduced the concept of Mis-en-place, the French term for preparing all ingredients before starting to cook. How can you prepare to be a more involved activist?  Go back to step one an curate your inbox, Facebook group sign ups, subscription services and other incoming messaging to give you the information and inspiration to foster personal action. You can’t donate to a charity if you don’t know it exists. You can’t join a march if you don’t know when it’s going on.  Prepare your space to receive the messages that can help you find things to do, communities to join, and groups of like-minded individuals.

A teaser for Rubin’s book Better Than Before states: “When we change our habits, we change our lives.” Perhaps the potential is even greater — when we change our habits, we can affect and change the lives of millions of others. It all starts with small steps, perhaps just knowing your tendency and decluttering a few emails.  Next thing you know, you might be stepping out at a rally, or even stepping up to run for office! Stranger things have happened.