Gretchen Rubin: serious about happiness

The bestselling author of The Happiness Project talks about the discipline of happiness – and what you should avoid doing

Science writer David Levine interviewed author Gretchen Rubin about her work on May 14 in New York City at the headquarters of the American Society of Journalists and Authors (ASJA). The event was co-sponsored by Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and ASJA.

You can read Levine's report here and also watch a video of the interview, which was streamed live by ASJA.

Watch David Levine's interview with Gretchen Rubin.You might not be able to change your job or genetics, but research has shown that making small changes in your life can make you happier.

After making that point early in our interview, Gretchen Rubin turned to the audience.

"The number one small change that people have told me has made them the happiest is to follow the resolution to make their bed," she said, before asking:

"How many people here make their bed?"

Most raised their hands.

Then she asked, "Does anyone here make their bed in a hotel room on the morning they check out?"

A few did.

To those she said, "We'll talk later."

With humor and candor, Rubin answered my questions about her findings and experiences in pursuing the often illusive quest for happiness.

Rubin is best-known for her 2009 book The Happiness Project: or Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. It was an international bestseller that reached number one on The New York Times bestseller list, staying on the list for over two years. It has been published in more than 30 languages.Rubin is not the typical person one would expect to study happiness. She is not a psychologist, a neuroscientist or a religious scholar. She is a lawyer who attended Yale as an undergraduate and Yale Law School, where she was editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal and winner of the Edgar M. Cullen Prize, and who clerked  for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.

Rubin's approach to happiness was careful and planned – lawyerly.

I asked myself if I could make myself happier, and I decided I could. Then I looked at what happiness was and what changes in my life I could make to be happier.

The chapters of her book are set by month goal and topic. The February chapter is "Remember Love (Marriage)." June: "Make Time for Friends (Friendship)." October: Pay Attention (Mindfulness).

But despite possessing Ivy League credentials and a lawyer's predilection for detail and documentation, there was nothing stuffy or technical about her presentation. She was friendly, engaging and down-to-earth, and while living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, she comes across more like a Midwestern soccer mom (she was born in Kansas City, Missouri). She charmed us with her stories and impersonations of her friends and family, as she talked about her year pursuing happiness.

I asked Rubin what the biggest surprise was in her exploration of happiness.

"I learned that most people don't take into account happiness when they are making decisions about their lives," Rubin said. "I know I didn't. We all want to be happy, but few of us base decisions about a new job or relationship in terms of whether it will make us happier. And we should."

Rubin is very disciplined. She gets us at 6 a.m. daily and writes The Happiness Project blog six days a week. She encourages her readers to interact with her via email, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn. "I respond to all emails," she said. "I respond to reader's remarks on social media if I have a point to make."

And while she isn't a scientist, she backs up many of her observations with science and has "read every book on happiness."

Is happiness genetic?

So does it help to grow up in a "happy household"?

Rubin said research has shown that happiness has a genetic component, but that about 50 percent of the difference in happiness among people results from relationships, physical health and careers. "Growing up in a household that is supportive and stable helps, but if things go wrong in your relationships or health, these can be game changers which can affect your happiness," Rubin explained.

Rubin is a fan of social media: "It allows people to have looser and more distant connections and keep in touch. If you are looking for a job, you are more likely to get a connection through a friend of a friend. Social media lets you interact with more people than you ordinarily would."

But she warns that social media is an intensifier. "If you suffer from social comparison, seeing your friends' wonderful vacations or great relationships on Facebook can make you unhappy," she said. "On the other hand, if you are shy about initiating contact with people, social media can be a useful tool and help you connect."

Rubin's view on money and happiness differ from the traditional view that money can't buy you love or happiness. "Money cannot buy or guarantee happiness. But money spent wisely can make a serious contribution to a happy life because it gives you the luxury of not having to worry about money and a sense of control over your life."

Are you a Tigger or an Eeyore?

"Do people make you happy?" I asked? Rubin has become well known for her quiz Are You a "Tigger" or an "Eeyore"?

Based on characters from Winnie the Pooh, Tigger is always happy and optimistic while Eeyore is grumpy and pessimistic.

Both of their views of life are right. Tiggers want Eeyores to cheer up and Eeyores want Tiggers to be more realistic. And they drive each other crazy! You can't change the nature of people as it leads to antagonism and drains one's energy. And the sooner you learn that, the happier you will be.

Rubin is candid about her marriage (her husband did not join her in her happiness project), her children (yes they can drive her nuts) and what worked and didn't work for her. "I tried meditation. I was bored silly. My friends swear by it, but it didn't do anything for me."

She feels strongly that compared to depression, loneliness is not discussed enough.  "Loneliness is the largest barrier to happiness I know, but it is rarely discussed."  For those who are lonely, Rubin suggests joining a group, such as a book club or taking a class at a gym. "Social media can help you as well. But it is better to be with people ... unless they are driving you nuts."

I closed by asking Rubin if her journey made her happier. "I was not unhappy to begin with," she said. "I learned that if you can incorporate those small things into your life that make you happy each day, you will appreciate your life more."

Rubin ended with a quote by the late American novelist John Gardner, who said, "Every time you break the law you pay, and every time you obey the law you pay."  Happiness is hard work, Rubin said. It comes at a price. "I get up at 6 am every day. I pay for my happiness every day."

Rubin's next book will be out in 2016. It's about how we make and break habits. For a preview, read her blog post on the loopholes we use as excuses to not reaching our goals, and watch her video The 4 Ways to Successfully Adopt New Habits. [divider]

Video: The 4 Ways to Successfully Adopt New Habits


You can watch David Levine's interview with Gretchen Rubin here.


Elsevier Connect Contributor

David LevineDavid Levine (@Dlloydlevine) is co-chairman of Science Writers in New York (SWINY) and a member the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). He served as director of media relations at the American Cancer Society and as senior director of communications at the NYC Health and Hospitals Corp. He has written for Scientific American. the Los Angeles Times, More magazine, and Good Housekeeping, and was a contributing editor at Physician's Weekly for 10 years. He has a BA and MA from The Johns Hopkins University.

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