Gretchen Rubin Explains How Mindfulness Can Make You Happier

Gretchen Rubin remembers driving from one place to another and not recalling details along the way. Another time, walking to her home office after a weekend spent taking her daughters to children’s parties, she suddenly felt as if she snapped back into consciousness. “That was a very eerie experience. It was like I was back, but where had I been?” she says.

Gretchen recognized that she had a great life. She was a Yale-educated lawyer turned writer who was married to the love of her life, with two wonderful young daughters, close relationships with her family and friends, and good health. But little things perturbed her. Small setbacks were inordinately disappointing. She wasn’t as happy as she could be. “I had everything I could possibly want—yet I was failing to appreciate it,” she notes. “I didn’t want to keep taking these days for granted.”

Thus began the rest of her life: a series of experiments in the pursuit of happiness, which she chronicled in her blockbuster bestseller The Happiness Project. But although the topic she studied was happiness, the entire project as well as the books that have followed—Happier at Home and Better Than Before—have helped her live more purposefully and mindfully.

[The Truth About Happiness Is…]

Knowing Yourself Live Happy book cover

As Gretchen threw herself into researching what made people happy, she realized she couldn’t follow someone else’s playbook. For example, although meditation makes many people more content, Gretchen knew sitting and focusing on a single thought wasn’t for her. Over time, she identified and challenged what she calls “true” rules (rules about what is considered universally true), common ways of thinking that tended to dictate her actions and decisions without her even realizing it.

For instance, she says, “Everybody loves shopping. I hate shopping, but it took a long time to understand that about myself. Everybody loves shopping. Everybody loves crossword puzzles. Everybody loves wine. I don’t love any of those things.” Gretchen came to realize that mindlessly applying the “true” rules resulted in decisions that didn’t necessarily support her happiness.

“It’s so easy to get swept up in what we assume is true, what other people think is true. So part of mindfulness is catching yourself having these thoughts, so you can decide whether you really want to accept them,” Gretchen says.

[15 Things You Should Give Up to Be Happy]

Gretchen tried other things to stimulate mindfulness. She posted sticky notes to help foster certain moods—“focused and observant” at her laptop and “quiet mind” in the bedroom, for example. She tried hypnosis (which helped), laughter yoga (which did not), and a “Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain” class (which was hard and stressful, but ultimately satisfying).

One more thing that helped Gretchen was keeping a food diary. She wanted to eat more healthfully and to lose a few pounds without going on a diet. She also wanted to stop eating the less than healthy snacks she mindlessly picked up, like low-fat cookies, individually wrapped candy, pretzels—“fake food,” she calls it.

After she recorded everything she ate, she saw how much “fake food” she consumed and gave it up cold-turkey. Gretchen then realized how much this habit contributed to feelings of guilt, self-reproach, embarrassment—and that she was much happier doing without.

[The Joy of Half a Cookie: Using Mindfulness to Lose Weight & End the Struggle With Food]

Noticing Negative Thoughts

Before she began work on mindfulness, Gretchen wasn’t even aware of the amount of mental time she spent going over her to-do lists, worrying about what-ifs, and reliving minor grievances. Gretchen now has lots of tricks to stop the negative thoughts: go to sleep if it’s near your bedtime, listen to a zippy song, hug your child, pet an animal, check an entertaining website. “But the problem with rumination is even realizing that you’re ruminating. It’s the constant practice of mindfulness—of just noticing what’s going on in your head—so you can say, ‘Oh my gosh, why am I allowing myself to be in this downward spiral?’ and then stop it.”

Gretchen admits she tends to have a temper, but mindfulness has helped. “I just behave myself much better now, because I’m more aware of things that are taxing me, like if I am hungry, too hot, or didn’t get enough sleep. The more aware I am of myself, the more I have forbearance or understanding for other people’s points of view. I have a long way to go, but I do behave myself much better.”

Although she’s constantly sharing what she’s learning through her books, blogs, and podcasts, Gretchen says she doesn’t preach to her family. Or at least not since her sister good-naturedly called her a “happiness bully.” But she’s seen them pick things up. “When I’m calmer, they’re calmer. When I’m thoughtful, they’re thoughtful.”

[Read Maria Shriver’s latest ‘I’ve Been Thinking’ essay]

She’s not there yet, though. “Mindfulness—I just think it’s so, so important. You’d think it would be so easy—just hang out with yourself all day. But it’s the great challenge of our lives, and everything else flows from it.”

Happy Act:

Break the Rules

What do you do on a regular basis simply because “everyone” likes it? If you don’t like it, stop doing it!

Carve your own path to happiness.


Excerpted from Live Happy: Ten Practices for Choosing Joy, by Deborah K. Heisz and the editors of Live Happy magazine. Copyright © by Live Happy, LLC. Published by HarperElixir.

{Image credit: Jeremy Cai, Unsplash}

About the Author

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Live Happy is a company dedicated to promoting and sharing authentic happiness through breakthroughs in science, information about health and lifestyle, and inspiration. Our mission is to impact the world through a happiness movement that inspires people to engage in living purpose-driven, healthy, meaningful lives. We're a magazine, website, event producer and movement about a timeless quest: Living a happy life.Understanding happiness takes an open mind. We are fortunate to be living in a time when the study of happiness is growing rapidly all around the globe. Led in large part by positive psychologists and their colleagues, this research proves previously elusive correlations, like the tie between compassion in the workplace and the bottom line. It also is breaking totally new ground, like the gene-level impact of positive emotions. Live Happy makes this science understandable and relevant. We report on innovative, cutting-edge research in the context of real life, authentic issues and common-sense realities.Applying happiness is easy to do and its effect multiplies with repetition. Once we understand the power of happiness, it changes our thinking, actions and conversations. Happier people are healthier, more satisfied with life and their relationships, and they live longer. By helping people have a happy home and family life, and experience creativity and joy, Live Happy brings the happiness movement to a whole new level, ultimately helping to make the world a happier place.

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