COVER STORY: DECEMBER 2014
SING IN THE MORNING. CLEAN YOUR CLOSETS. FIGHT RIGHT. READ ARISTOTLE.
Author Gretchen Rubin Challenges Us to Be Happier in 12 Months
By Hope Katz Gibbs, Publisher
Gretchen Rubin was a young lawyer clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized that what she really wanted to be was a writer.
Since then, she has written several books, including the bestselling “Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill,” and her uber-popular “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.”
Best-selling author Dan Pink said of the book, “This is a rare book that will make you both smile and think—often on the same page.”
We couldn’t agree more, so it was a pleasure to interview Rubin from her home office in New York City and find out about the project she devised that has made strides and changed lives—her own and others’.
Scroll down for our Q&A. Click here to listen to our podcast interview.
Be Inkandescent: So let’s get down to business! In your book, “The Happiness Project,” you talk about having an epiphany one rainy afternoon on a city bus. Tell us about that moment.
Gretchen Rubin: It was pouring rain, and I was on a city bus that was moving very slowly. I looked out the window and thought, “What do I want in life anyway?” In the rush of life, you rarely take the opportunity to step back and ask yourself big, transcendent questions. And when I did, I thought, “Well, I want to be happy.” I realized I didn’t spend any time thinking about whether I was happy, or if I could be happier.
In a flash I decided I should have a “happier project” —that was the phrase that occurred to me. The next day I went to the library, got a huge stack of books, and started researching happiness. I wanted to know what everybody knows about what can make you happy, or how to make yourself happier, and I wanted to try everything to see if it really works.
At first the project was just going to be for me. I was finishing writing a biography of John F. Kennedy, and happiness research was just something I was doing for fun for myself. But the research is so rich and fascinating that I found myself spending more and more time on it, and finally I thought, “Maybe this should be my next book.” The book asks: Can you make yourself happier? And if so, how can you make yourself happier? It’s really compelling.
Be Inkandescent: In the 12 months that followed, adventures ensued. What inspired your list—from boosting your energy in January, to getting serious about play in May?
Gretchen Rubin: I figured that a year was long enough for real change to happen, and short enough that it felt manageable. Since there are 12 months of the year, I decided to figure out what elements in my life contribute most to my happiness—and focus on some of them each month.
Be Inkandescent: Some of your choices are a little out of the norm.
Gretchen Rubin: That’s right. For example, a lot of people would include adventure in their happiness project. I know that I am not a very adventurous person, so that is not something that would make me happy.
I decided to start my happiness project with energy, because I figured if I had more energy, then everything else that followed would seem easier, which I think is very much the case with all of us. When we are feeling overwhelmed and drained, it is very hard to take the time to do things, even when you know those things are going to make you happier.
I also wanted to focus on different aspects of my life that make me happy—such as my marriage, work, play, and parenthood (I have two daughters). Just figuring out the list was a very helpful intellectual exercise.
Try it. If you were going to pick 12 things in your life that you want to work on, what would they be?
Be Inkandescent: Talk about your desire to be a better parent.
Gretchen Rubin: This was really important to me. I realized that I was losing my temper very quickly; apparently I make a terrifyingly mean face.
I wanted to be more tender, more attentive, and sillier. A lot of the resolutions I made were around that—to try to be different and to make a different atmosphere in our home. I think my resolutions about parenthood really made a big difference, to me and to my family. When I lighten up, they lighten up, too.
Be Inkandescent: Was there any particular month you really found to be happy, and another you didn’t?
Gretchen Rubin: That’s an interesting question. I think all of the months were challenging, because I was picking things I wanted to change, or things I wanted to do differently. But it’s tough to say sometimes whether some things were easy or hard.
For example, going to bed on time. Is that hard or is that easy? After all, what is so hard about going to bed on time? But in practice, it is kind of hard—not that it’s difficult to do; it’s that you have to make up your mind to do it and stick to it.
Some things were easy and very fun, like my choice to kiss my husband every morning and every night. That is very easy, and very nice.
The bottom line is that being happy boils down to the decision to expect more from yourself, figuring out the fine line between the natural limitations of your nature, and the places that you should expect more.
Be Inkandescent: What does it mean to be happy?
Gretchen Rubin: I started my career in law, and I have happy memories of spending an entire semester arguing about the definition of contract. If anything, defining and understanding happiness is even more elusive. There are actually 15 academic definitions of happiness, and you can spend a lot of time arguing about contentment versus bliss. I feel that for most people, it’s not that helpful to worry so much about what happiness is. It’s actually easier to think about being happier.
Does money buy happiness? And what do the brain and body do when you’re happy? Read all about it.