Q&A With Gretchen Rubin, Author of "Happier at Home"
There is a good chance that you know who Gretchen Rubin is.
She's the author of the #1 New York Times best-selling book, The Happiness Project — a captivating account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
And on her popular blog, The Happiness Project, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness.
In her new book, Happier at Home, Rubin embarks on a new project to explore how to make home a happier place.
Starting in September, Gretchen dedicates a school year—from September through May—to concentrating on the factors that matter most for home, such as possessions, marriage, time, parenthood, body, neighborhood.
The book’s title was inspired by a line from Samuel Johnson: “To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.”
In this MariaShriver.com interview, Rubin talks about the challenges of finding happiness in relationships, the unexpected sadness of self-knowledge, the paradoxes of happiness and the joys of Samuel Johnson -- and artfully dodges our What's Next question.
MS.COM: You started the new happiness project in September and I really liked what you said about September being the new January. What makes it such a great month to get focused and reprioritized and begin anew?
Gretchen Rubin: If you have children who are going to school, you are part of that rhythm again. Summer is over and you get that feeling of being back -- back at work, back at your desk, back to school. It feels like a fresh start. You have new notebooks, fresh pencils and a new opportunity to do things right. And even the change of the weather, if you live in that part of the world, kind of makes you feel like, okay now I can try again. So, September is a good catalyst for change.
MS.COM: For families with school-aged children, it’s much more natural to structure the “resolution calendar” starting in September, isn’t it?
Gretchen Rubin: Yes, absolutely. And so many people have said to me, “For me, September is way bigger than January.” And I think it’s great to have a lot of milestones in your year where you feel like it’s kind of a time to reflect and maybe try something new or try to push yourself a little bit. Your birthday is one, January is one, important anniversaries, the start of the school year in September…all of these can be useful milestones that will help you start fresh.
MS.COM: It was charming to see how enthusiastically your daughters embraced the project and even seemed to keep you in line from time to time. Have any of those family experiments become family routines? Are your daughters still insisting on warm greetings and farewells? Are they still knocking before entering your office?
Gretchen Rubin: Yes, I am surprised at how much they do that. They really do. Warm greetings and farewells we all do all the time, and it’s funny because you get used to it and so then you feel really dejected if it doesn’t happen. You think: where is everybody? I’m home and you wait for it. You really feel like you want to give it. You don’t want for somebody to walk out without you getting the chance to say goodbye. And the knock -- they are really good about knocking. Even my husband now knocks.
Most of these things that I try I do end up sticking with. All of the things I think are very manageable. I really only experiment with things that I think are very realistic, because I have to think, could I really do this as part of my ordinary day? If it’s out of my reach then it’s just not going to happen. It’s got to be practical.
MS.COM: For people who haven’t read the book yet, who are just being introduced to it for the first time, you take on a new theme each month -- possessions in September, parenthood in November, etc. Which area of your life were you able to create the biggest and most noticeable difference and what was your most successful experiment in this area?
Gretchen Rubin: That is such an interesting question. I never really thought about it like that, like where did I have the biggest jump. I do think that relationships are the most important thing to happiness. So I had several months where I worked in the relationship realm -- one was marriage, one was parenthood, one was family. So those combined probably made the most difference in my happiness.
A good example is that Wednesday adventures that I mentioned with my daughter. Every Wednesday, just my older daughter and I spend an hour or two together after school just having fun, doing something pleasant together. It had a huge impact in my sense of calm and sense of my relationship with my daughter, my sense of my time being spent wisely and having enough time for the things that were important to me.
MS.COM: In your chapter on marriage, you set out to bring more happiness to your relationship with your husband. You resolve to kiss more, give more praise and affirmation and share more responsibilities, but you are discouraged by how often you break your resolutions. I think many people can relate to this. Why do you think it was so challenging to work on the happiness of your relationship? And which of your resolutions worked the best?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I find that for myself I have an easier time adding good things like "giving more gold stars" or giving a kiss every morning or every night because I want to do that so when I think about it and really make up my mind to do it, I can do it. Unfortunately, the way human psychology works, bad is stronger than good. And we feel more things that are negative -- things that are criticism, things that are unpleasant, things that are frightening -- than we do things that are good. So you are going to remember criticism more than a compliment. And you’re going to be more interested in watching bad news than good news. It’s just how people are wired.
Even putting a lot of good stuff in my marriage, it felt like it was very important to try to really take the effort to expect myself to behave the way I should be able to behave. I have this very short temper. I speak in a sharp voice. I make this supposedly terrifying mean face when I get mad. I’m a big blamer. And it’s hard to stop that and I’ve done so many things to help myself be more patient, be more tender, be more light-hearted. I work at it and work at it. And I’m a lot better than I was, but I still struggle with it and I still fail. The point I'm trying to make is: anything that adds good is easier for me than things that take away bad.
MS.COM: Throughout the book, it seems your overarching resolution is to Be Gretchen. That’s the way to happiness, you say. But you also suggest, which I thought was really profound, that there is a sadness to that resolution…a sadness that comes from admitting your limitations, your indifferences, all of the things you wish you were that you’ll never be. Can you explain that a little bit for our readers?
Gretchen Rubin: One of my splendid truths is that you can build a happy life only on the foundation of your own nature -- your own interests, your own temperament, your own values. The more closely your life reflects that, the happier you are. Your life reflects who you are. But it’s really easy in life to be very swayed by the way you wish you were or the way you think you ought to be or the way other people think you ought to be or just the way you assume everybody is. You think: everybody likes music, everybody likes drinking wine, everybody likes shopping, everybody likes sushi, everybody likes skiing -- and so the more that you acknowledge yourself and know yourself, the more you have to say what you are and what you aren’t and that can be very poignant because it means admitting that there are a lot of things that, although you sort of intellectually recognize their value, they don’t really do it for you.
And so for me there were a lot of things like that. Take fly-fishing. I like everything about fly-fishing except actually doing fly-fishing. I think it sounds so peaceful. I like the idea of being out in nature, it’s very contemplative, it’s this skill you can work on, it takes you to interesting parts of the world, but I have no desire to do it. I wish that I did, I wish that I were that kind of person that wanted to go fly fishing, but I’m not so I just have to give up the fantasy that that’s the kind of person I am. But it’s weirdly easy to start acting as if it’s true and get lured into thinking that you’re a different person from who you really are. But it’s hard because sometimes you do feel like you can push yourself a little bit further and that’s good but then there’s the natural barriers of your personality and past that you really can’t go.
MS.COM: You also write about the paradoxes of happiness and one of them is that happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy and it’s so counterintuitive but I think it bears some explanation. What do you mean by this and do you have a real life example of that?
Gretchen Rubin: The word happiness is very elusive to define. There is something like 15 academic definitions of happiness. If I were a scientist, I couldn’t say something like happiness doesn’t always make me feel happy. The good thing is: I’m not a scientist, so I can say it and sort of embrace the paradox. And I think people understand what it is because some of the things you do in order to make yourself happy don’t give you a feeling of joy and excitement. They can even give you very negative feelings. Often that’s because you are living according to your values. And living according to your values is something that does make you happy; it’s an essential element of happiness. But it doesn’t always make you feel good right in the moment so you could be choosing to visit your grandfather who has Alzheimer’s and its very very sad and depressing but you feel like that’s what you want to do because that’s staying true to a value.
MS.COM: You’re a big fan of Samuel Johnson, and one of his lines was the impetus behind the new book. What is it about him that strikes your fancy and if our readers wanted to have the best introduction to his writing, what is the book that they should get?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I’ve got to say Samuel Johnson is not for everybody. He wrote in the eighteenth century and you can tell when you read it. If I were to even say what’s the gateway drug to Samuel Johnson I would say either Boswell’s Life of Johnson, which is one of the most famous biographies of all time. It’s like the greatest hits of Samuel Johnson. And Boswell writes about all these great conversations and great observations that Samuel Johnson makes. It’s a very very amusing book and Johnson was just brilliant and had deep insight into human nature so it’s full of things that are charming and super fascinating. Or, if you enjoy essays, he wrote a series of them for the Idler and the Rambler...Samuel Johnson's Selected Essays is the greatest hit of his essays. Those are also wonderful.
MS.COM: So what’s next for you? Are you happy enough now?
Gretchen Rubin: Well, I have a super secret idea for my next book, which I’m too superstitious to say what it is. I will say that it’s not happiness exactly but it’s extremely related to happiness, so everything that I have been thinking about and writing about is relevant. Every book that I write, at the end I am filled with sadness and I think never again will I ever enjoy a book that I have written as much as I’ve enjoyed this book.
So I am really excited to get going on that. But it’s not time yet. Now, I am still very focused on Happier at Home and getting it launched to the world and engaging with readers on the subject, which is so fun for me now because I’ve been at this for a long time, but now I will be able to hear from readers and find out what resonates with them. I'm always interested in what rings a bell with people -- what do they act on and what do they pick up on. I write about it on my blog and I get a good sense from that, but when the book lays it out with greater length and greater complexity, then I really get a sense of how people are responding. That’s fascinating to me.
Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including the blockbuster #1 New York Times bestseller The Happiness Project. Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized that she really wanted to be a writer. Raised in Kansas City, she now lives in New York City with her husband and their two daughters.