Gretchen Rubin
Author, "The Happiness Project"

Big Think Interview With Gretchen Rubin

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A conversation with the author of “The Happiness Project.”

Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Craft Rubin is the best-selling author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. Her latest book is titled Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives.

She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold more than two million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. 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.


Gretchen Rubin: Gretchen Rubin, writer.

Question: What was the “happiness project” you undertook?

Gretchen Rubin: The Happiness Project is the book that I wrote.  It’s an account of the year that I spent testing the wisdom of the ages, the current science **** studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.  I wanted to find out if you really did all of those things that you ought to do, would you really make yourself happier?  And I wanted to do it within the confines of my ordinary day.  I didn’t want to make a radical change, I just wanted to do everything – I wanted to change my life without changing my life.

Question: What were some the specific pieces of advice you tested?

Gretchen Rubin: One of the things that you see ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree on is that strong relationships are a key to happiness, maybe the key to happiness.  People who have more strong relationships in their lives just feel happier.  So, a lot of my resolutions were aimed at either strengthening existing relationships, things like – I would make resolutions like show up, be generous, remember birthdays, things that were supposed to strengthen my relationships, and then also to build new relationships.  So, I joined, or started 11 groups starting from the time I had my happiness project and from that I made a ton of new friends.  And then of course, I had a lot of resolutions aimed at the relationships in my family.  I wanted to have a tender, more light-hearted atmosphere in my house, and so I did a lot of resolutions that were aimed at strengthening my relationship with my husband and my two daughters.

Question: Which nuggets of ancient wisdom did you test?

Gretchen Rubin: Right.  Well, one of them was this idea that strong relationships will happen.  If Aristotle talked about the importance of friendships and people today are talking about the importance of friendships.  Another one, one of the most ancient precepts of happiness is this idea, know thyself.  In fact, the words “know thyself” are scribed at the temple of Apollo in Delphi.  And we all know the Shakespeare quotation, “To thine own self be true,” but it was only when I tried to be Gretchen, that was my resolution to myself, that I realize what a challenge it was really to be Gretchen.  I had to think about what made me happy.  Not what I thought should make me happy, or what I wished made me happy, or what made other people happy, but what I really needed to build into my life if I wanted to have a happier life.  So, that’s a place where the most ancient wisdom is still true today.  “Know thyself,” it’s still a challenge, it still works.

Question: Which ancient prescriptions for happiness did you find to be false?

Gretchen Rubin: Well, I’m not sure that this is so ancient, but definitely a theme within happiness thinking is this idea that if you chase happiness, or you seek happiness that you somehow undermine your ability to find happiness.  So, for example, John Stuart Mill wrote, “Ask yourself if you are happy, and you shall cease to be so.”  And I think that’s just completely wrong.  And I know it’s John Stuart Mill versus Gretchen Rubin, but I think you don’t hit a target by not aiming at it, and at least for me, when I started asking myself, am I happy?  I immediately realized I am happy.  I’m happier than I realized.  I was too distracted by minor irritations.  I was losing site of how happy I really was and so by asking myself if I was happy, I was actually lifting myself up and also helping myself identify what I could change in my life to help myself be happier.  So, that was something where I felt like this idea where you should not seek happiness is actually not a very helpful piece of happy advice. 

Question: What are active steps that ordinary people can take to improve their daily happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Well, there’s a million things.  There’s so many resolutions that can really work and one of the things is, I think that some people don’t want to start a happiness project because they somehow imagine that they’re going to have to come up with an hour of free time every day, which they don’t have.  There’s so many things you can do just within the structure of your ordinary life that don’t take a lot of effort. 

For some reason, and this is surprising to me, and I’m not sure why this is, but the resolution that over and over, people mention to me that something that helped them get started with their happiness project is to make your bed.  I realize that in a happy life, making your bed should play a very small part, I don’t know why this is so helpful to people getting started on a happiness project, but for some reason, making your bed – it’s concrete, it’s manageable.  There’s a big difference between having a bed that’s unmade and a bed that’s made.  That little bit of outer order in people’s lives seem to help them get started.  So, that’s a very small thing that you can do. 

Something I think that I really wanted for my happiness project and I think other people want too, is they want a way to bring the more transcendent values of life into their ordinary day.  And that can be hard to do.  In one of the resolutions that I found most interesting, most engaging that I think a lot of people have also found interesting is to imitate a spiritual master.  Now, the first question you have to ask yourself is, well, who is my spiritual master?  And that’s actually a very good question to ask yourself.  You should know who your spiritual master is.  It’s a very fascinating question to ask yourself and to think about all the people it could be.  Is it Gandhi?  Is it Mother Teresa?  Is it Warren Buffett?  There are all kinds of people who can be spiritual masters **** because you know it might be a great figure from history. 

But then I think to learn about your spiritual master, to know more about your spiritual master and also to think, well I’m attracted to this person for some reason.  There’s something that this person is saying that is resonating with me.  How can I translate those values into my life?  What would that mean in terms of my life because maybe Gandhi had a very different kind of life, but what would it mean for me.  And I think that’s really a fascinating thing for people to think about.

Another thing with the transcendent value translated into everyday manageable terms, I think a lot of people want to – they have the urge to memorialize.  They want to hang on to the present.  They want to find a way to remember what’s happening now.  And I felt that very strongly, especially with the childhood of my two young daughters.  I really wanted to find a way to create a record of it.  And in my life, like many people, I tried to keep journals, and I had abandoned them because they’re too much work and I would end up feeling like a failure and not keeping up with them.  What I started was a one sentence journal.  I just write one sentence every night.   Some little observation, some little detail from the day.  And for some reason, that’s enough.  I look back and I’ve been keeping it for a couple of years and when I look back, I think, I remember what the time was like.  I remember what it was like when we went to the Museum of Natural History all the time, or I remember my younger daughter was still using her purple and yellow sippy cup.  And it really brings back the time.  And there’s something really satisfying about keeping that very manageable journal so that you feel like you are hanging on to the present and appreciating now in a better way.

Question: Who is your spiritual master?

Gretchen Rubin: My spiritual master, much to my surprise, I wasn’t expecting her to be my spiritual master, is Thérèse of Lisieux.  I’m not Catholic; it's because I read Thomas Martin’s "Seventh Story Mountain"; it led me to read St. Thérèsee’s spiritual memoirs, "Story of a Soul."  And I was just overwhelmed by this book.  She lived about a little more than 100 years ago.  She died at the age of 24 of tuberculosis and she lived much of her life in a cloistered convent in France.  So she and I have nothing in common.  And yet when I read "Story of a Soul," I was immediately enthralled by it.  I immediately went out and read dozens of biographies of St. Thérèse.  And she is truly my spiritual master, and I think about her all the time.  And she is very funny, which is good, and her whole point is to say that you can do little things and it’s through the little things that you can achieve great things, and that you can do it within the confines of your ordinary life.  And by figuring out that St. Thérèse was my spiritual master, and also learning more about her and thinking about what her lessons meant for me in my life, even though we just couldn’t be more different, really has been a huge part of my happiness project.

Question: What are some bad first steps to take in pursuing happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Well, there’s a couple of mistakes that I think people make with resolutions.  First of all, it’s easy to make a resolution that sounds specific, but is not really specific because the thing with resolutions, the more specific you are with yourself; the better able you are to hold yourself accountable.  And that accountability is really the key to the resolutions.  So, something like, “I’m going to eat healthy.”  Now, that sounds specific, but what are you really asking of yourself?  You should say things like, “I’m going to pack my lunch and take it to work every day.”  “I’m going to eat salad three times a week.”  You should be very specific with yourself so that you know whether you are keeping your resolution. 

A lot of people tell me that they have the resolution to get more fun out of life.  If you get more fun out of life you’re going to be happier, but what does that really mean.  How do you – what do you do different in your day, in your routine that’s going to make you feel – get more fun out of life?  So, you want to say to yourself, “I love old movies, therefore to get more fun out of life; I will rent and watch one classic movie every weekend.”  And then if you do that, you’ll know whether you’re keeping your resolution.  And if you keep it up for a couple of months, you’re going to feel like – wow, I’m getting more fun out of life.  So, it’s good to be very specific. 

And I’ve also noticed something about resolutions.  There seems to be this distinction among people.  Some people really want to make ‘Yes’ resolutions.  And some people seem fine with making ‘No’ resolutions.  I’m a person who’s fine saying ‘No.’ I like saying to myself, “no gossiping,” “no nagging.”  And that’s easy for me and for some reason, it doesn’t – I don’t feel I have to rebel against that.  But I’ve noticed that a lot of people do much better when all their resolutions are framed as ‘Yes.’  Not something like, “I’m going to give up French Fries,” but something like “I’m going to eat three vegetables every day.”  “I’m going to hug more, kiss more, touch more.”  “I’m going to listen to more music.”  They do better when they frame things in the positive. And I think this is just part of human nature.  Some people do better that way and some people don’t mind saying ‘No.’ I kind of like the limitation, or feel like I’m accepting these limits.  Part of it, again, all these things about a happiness project really, you have to think about your own nature and what works for you and when you do better. 

So this is something that I think can help people stick to their resolutions better.

Question: Does interacting with readers on your blog make you happier or less happy?

Gretchen Rubin: Having my blog has given me such a gigantic engine of happiness.  I just can’t even imagine life now without my blog.  So, I love my blog.  I’m really lucky because I have amazing leadership.  I see some of the comments that other blogs get and it seem like all the smart, nice, interested, engaging people are over on my blog because I have an excellent community of people who really are – really have a lot to say and a lot to add by **** huge amount about happiness and just how these things play out in different people’s lives.  That’s been a gigantic benefit. 

The thing about a blog and about a book is it’s a very different kind of writing.  The blog is wonderful when you just have a 300-500 idea.  Just one idea that you want to get out there.  And I also like writing a blog because I skip around.  One day I’m interested in loneliness, one day I’m interested in unconsciousness over claiming, another day I’m interested in how to keep yourself cheerful if you lost your dog.  And so I can move around very easily and take advantage of interesting things that maybe would be a whole chapter in a book, but are interesting and thought provoking ideas. 

A book is a better way to develop a complicated idea, or to tell a big story and to show how ideas weave in and out of each other, which is something that comes up a lot in happiness because all these ideas are interconnected.  So, the blog is good for that quick hit, that quick idea, and I love the reader engagement, and then the book allows me to take these ideas and really develop them at much greater length and to tell longer stories.  Somebody told me though that they thought the blog was more about process and the book was more about outcome because they’re sort of a more reflective attitude that you have when writing the book because it’s more coherent, it’s more pulled together, it’s more thematically organized and it’s certainly more edited.  A blog is something that, everyday there’s a new thing and that’s part of the fun of it, you’re just constantly moving forward.  A book really gives you more time to reflect and think hard on things very, very deep.

Question: What is happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: What is happiness?  Now, I’m a lawyer, so I have happy memories of spending a semester in law school arguing about the definition of a contract.  And if anything, happiness is even a more elusive concept than that.  And so, I got into this and I quickly realized, I’m not going to spend my time trying to find a final definition to happiness.  It turns out there are more than 15 academic definitions of happiness.  And you can spend a lot of time arguing, is it about satisfaction, is it about peace, is it about bliss, is it momentary, is it long-term?  And I realized, it didn’t really matter.  What I wanted to think about was, could I be happier today, this week, this month?  How could I be happier?  Whether my happiness is not exactly the same thing as your happiness, it doesn’t really matter.  And what I’ve also noticed is the term happiness, or happy is intimidating to some people.  Some people deny that it’s even possible to be happy, or to achieve happiness.  Happiness sounds like this magical destination that you arrive at and then everything is sort of solved, or it’s different.  So, I think it’s easier to think about being happier.  Even people who deny the possibility of being happy, if you say do you think you could be happier?  They’ll say, “Yeah, I could be happier.”  Sometimes I think it’s easier to think about being happier, for what ever that means to you then worrying about what is happiness and what would life be if I finally achieved this ultimate happiness?

Question: Do we place too much emphasis on happiness in America?

Gretchen Rubin: Well, to me, I don’t agree with that.  I think that it’s natural and I think appropriate that when people have reached a certain level of prosperity and security, they turn their attention to higher things.  And we’re very fortunate that we’re in a position to worry about things like self-realization, or job satisfaction.  And I don’t think that it’s – I think it’s only right to think about those kinds of issues.  I don’t know what would be better spent thinking about.

Question: How can we break the cycle of wanting something else whenever we get something we want?

Gretchen Rubin: There’s something called the “arrival fallacy.”  And the arrival fallacy is the belief that, if only I could get that job, then I would be happy.  Once I take that vacation, then I will be happy.  And usually when you reach that destination, it doesn’t bring this big bang of happiness that you expect.  But I do think that there is something about happiness where you feel like you’re always reaching out for it.  And one of the positive ways to address this is what I call an atmosphere of growth.  People feel happier when they feel like they’re progressing.  When they feel like something in their life is growing or getting better.  One of the ways you see this is, people have a strong preference to get raises, and in fact, studies show that they will choose to make less money overall in order to be paid in a structure where they get paid more and more over time rather than get paid less over time, even if they would make more money – if they took that second route, which doesn’t make sense from an economic standpoint, but it makes a lot of sense if you understand that people want this atmosphere of growth in their life.  But it doesn’t only have to be money.  It could be something like learning to do something new, learning French, learning Photoshop, making something better, cleaning out your garage.  Fixing things that don’t work, teaching somebody something, helping your child learn is one of the thrills of being a parent; training your dog, helping something grow, planting a garden, gaining new skills.  Anything like this where you feel this atmosphere of growth.  It’s a wonderful engine of happiness and it something that’s available to people even when maybe they feel like other parts of their lives are out of control, or aren’t working, or of they can find someplace in their life where something is getting better, where they feel like something is improving, in some way they are growing and it’s going to help them feel happier.

Question: Who are some of the happiest people you’ve observed, and what makes them happy?

Gretchen Rubin: Well, happiness is hard because it’s very subjective.  I know the people that seem happiest to me, but whether they are actually – what they’re really like inside is really hard to say.  Now, for example, my father is somebody who seems very, very happy.  But because of all this work that I’ve done on happiness, when I see people like that, I don’t assume now that they are just naturally that way because I realize that there are a lot of practice to that, there’s a lot of effort that goes into being that kind of person.  And it’s very interesting, I posted on my blog about being one of these people that is one of these happy people and how there’s a dark element in human nature where we somehow seem to want to sometimes attack that and bring those people down, or make them confront the way that their optimism isn’t true or that their positive reviews aren’t warranted, and I don’t know why that is.  But now that I see how much benefit and energy we get from happy people, I really think that you really need to try to protect it and encourage it and not try to drag those people down.

It was interesting; several people posted on my blog saying that they were those people and they didn’t understand why people seemed to want to cling onto them and draw from them and their energy, but on the same time also seem to almost want to destroy it.  So, I think when you find those happy people in your life, you should really try to support them and to help them be happier rather than somehow trying to contradict them, or mock them, or tease them relentlessly, which just seems to be the reaction that a lot of people have.

Question: What can the rest of us learn from these positive-outlook people?

Gretchen Rubin: Well one of the things that I learned from my father is that my father just has a huge amount of enthusiasm for even the smallest things.  And there was this one very telling episode where I was home in Kansas City and my mother said to my father, he walked in home from work and she said, “We’re going to have pizza for dinner tonight.”  And he said, “Wonderful, wonderful.  Do you want me to go pick it up?”  And I thought, that’s the spirit.  You know, it’s like whenever somebody says, instead of just saying, “Sure, okay.”  Say, “Wonderful!”  And then say how can I help.  What can I do?  Like, embrace it.  And having this enthusiastic response really adds to people’s happiness.  Sometimes we feel like being very discerning.  Being very critical.  It makes us seem sophisticated, and knowledgeable.  And it’s true that people do assume that people who are critical are smarter than people who are uncritical.  But it actually takes more social courage to be enthusiastic.  It’s harder to embrace something and to praise something than it is to criticize something, or mock something.  And it’s certainly more fun to be that way, and it’s much more fun to be around people like that.  You can catch people’s enthusiasm.  And you can also catch their lack of enthusiasm.

Question: What makes you happy?

Gretchen Rubin: One of the things that I had to do in my happiness project was that I wanted to be Gretchen.  That’s my first personal commandment is to be Gretchen.  And one of the things that I did in order to be Gretchen is I acknowledged that I had a passion.  And it was a passion that I had sort of swept under the rug.  I didn’t acknowledge that I had this passion because it didn’t fit with the idea I had of myself, or the way I wanted to present myself to the world.  I have a passion for children’s literature.  Young adult literature.  I love it.  I’ve always loved it.  And I don’t love it because I’m reading it with my daughters; I love it for its own sake, for myself.  But I wanted to feel like I was presenting myself as this very adult, very educated, very sophisticated.  I love Tolstoy, I love Virginia Woolf, and I do, but I also love YA and children’s literature.  But I realized for my happiness project that life’s too short.  I don’t have too so many passions that I can squelch one and not lose something from it.  I needed to find a way to bring this into my own life.  So, what I did is first of all, I just spent much more time letting myself read these books.  But then I started a book group for people who loved children’s literature.  And this book group has become such a gigantic engine of happiness for me.  I meet with all these people, I’ve made new friends.  They’re all bookish people, many of them work in the book publishing industry, they love these books, I mean, you can sit around and talk about the fine points of Phillip Pullman’s trilogy, or early Anne of Green Gables.  But people who really, really know their stuff, who love these books.  So, I get to follow my passion, I make all these new friends, and that group got so large we had to close it and I started a second children’s literature group and now that group is big.

And so that was a way where by following a resolution, to be Gretchen, I really allowed myself to acknowledge who I really am, what I really find fun, what I really like to do, and from that, I gained new friends, a new passion, and a gigantic amount of fun.

Recorded on February 16, 2010
Interviewed by Austin Allen