ave you ever wanted to be happier in different aspects of your life? Maybe pursue a new interest? Turn your writing into a career instead of a hobby? Find more leisure time for reading or crafts? Or focus on getting into shape and staying healthy? As women, there are so many things we juggle—work, family, friends, domestic responsibilities—but how do we make our own happiness a priority?
Gretchen Rubin asked herself that same question and decided to conduct an experiment, a happiness project. She chose 12 areas of personal focus to coincide with each month of the year: Vitality, Marriage, Work, Parenthood, Leisure, Friendship, Money, Eternity, Passion, Mindfulness, Attitude, and Happiness.
Gretchen took on the personal challenge and the exhaustive research to discover how we can be happier in our lives. She is the author of 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—an 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. On The Happiness Project blog, she reports on her daily adventures in the pursuit of happiness.
A graduate of Yale and Yale Law School, and editor-in-chief of the Yale Law Journal, Rubin was clerking for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized that she really wanted to be a writer.
Her bestselling Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK are succinct, provocative biographies. Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide is biting social criticism in the form of a user’s manual. She also has three terrible novels safely locked in a desk drawer.
Raised in Kansas City, she lives in New York City with her husband and two young daughters.
WOW! caught up with Gretchen just days before her book was released on December 29th and she graciously agreed to share her story with us.
1.What inspired you to begin a happiness project?
A few years ago, I had an epiphany on the cross-town bus. I asked myself, “What do I want from life, anyway?” and I thought, “I want to be happy”—but I never spent any time thinking about happiness. “I should do a happiness project!” I realized. And so I have.
2.And what did you hope to change about your life?
I wanted to expect more from myself as a wife, mother, writer, friend, citizen. I wanted to appreciate more deeply my ordinary life. In the end, most of my happiness project focuses on these two big goals.
3.How did your family and friends react to your idea?
They were cautiously optimistic! And over time, they became increasingly engaged in the things that I was test-driving.
4.At the beginning of The Happiness Project, you created a 12 Commandments list. Things like: “Be Gretchen.” “Do it now.” “Enjoy the process.” How did your commandments list help you on your happiness project adventure?
My Personal Commandments helped me to focus on the main principles I want to guide my life. These aren’t specific resolutions, but rather guiding ideas for the way I wanted to approach decisions and to act.
I remind myself of each of the commandments each day, even now!
“By taking the time to get your clutter in order, you increase your sense of calm.”
5.In The Happiness Project, you have so many great concepts about ways to increase happiness in your life, so I’ve chosen one of my favorites from each month to ask you about.
In January, you tackled Vitality—with the idea of boosting your energy by Tossing, Restoring, and Organizing. Please tell our readers your thoughts about mental clutter and the different varieties of physical clutter.
For most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. So by taking the time to get your clutter in order, you increase your sense of calm. I follow the “one-minute rule” (don’t delay doing anything that takes less than a minute—hang up your coat, read and toss a letter) and the “evening tidy-up” (take fifteen minutes each night to tidy up—close cabinets, put dirty clothes in hamper, put away books and magazines). Over time, these two rules do a lot to reduce the surface clutter of life.
Mental clutter comes from the drain of unfinished chores. Each time you tackle a nagging task, you give yourself a huge boost of energy. It never fails! So tackle that to-do list.
6.February was Marriage month. You talked about No Dumping and “health concordance.” Please explain how they both relate to happiness in relationships.
With “no dumping,” I vowed not to burden my husband with petty gripes. Sure, I would turn to him if I faced a major challenge, but I would keep my minor grumblings to myself. That keeps the atmosphere between us cheerier.
Health concordance is the phenomenon in which couples become more like each other in term of things like smoking, exercise, eating habits, visiting the doctor. Husbands and wives rub off on each other!
7.In March, you focused on Work. Your goal to Aim Higher included the concept of seeking newness for the challenge and novelty. How did that theory play out for you?
I decided to test this theory by starting a blog—a goal that felt very novel and challenging, and also intimidating and anxiety-invoking, for me! But just as the theory holds, my blog became a huge engine of happiness for me, as I mastered it. It also gave me many new relationships with people—another great source of happiness.
8.You turned your attention to Parenthood in April with the intent to Lighten Up and Take Time for Projects. How did the experience with your children relate to your concept of the 4 Stages of Happiness?
There are four stages of reveling in a moment of happiness:
-- anticipate with pleasure,
-- savor the moment as I experience it,
-- express my happiness to myself or others, and
-- reflect on a happy memory.
When I’m with my children, I try to engage in all four stages with them. That way, we get more happiness bang for the buck. For instance, I used to begrudge the time I spent on photo albums—but no more. I realize they are extremely important in helping us reflect on happy memories.
9.May, the month for Leisure, had a section about Finding More Fun, and, as in other sections of your book, you shared some comments from readers of your Happiness Project blog. My favorite was “…it dawned on me: I can DO ANYTHING I want, but I can’t DO EVERYTHING I want.” What are your thoughts about this limitation?
It’s so true—we have to choose, we have to set priorities. We also have to recognize what’s really fun for us. It’s surprisingly easy to lose track of what you find fun. Not what other people find fun, what you find fun. For example, here are some activities that are not fun for me, but are fun for many other people: skiing, drinking wine, shopping, cooking. On the other hand, I wrote a novel in a month—that was fun for me.
10.In June, you focused on Friendship. I found your personal experience with “triadic closure” very interesting. Please share the theory and your experience with WOW! readers.
“Triadic closure” describes our tendency to befriend the friends of friends. That means, if you want to have more friends in your life, a great place to look is at the friends of your friends. Also, with triadic closure, you build a social network instead of isolated friendships, and that’s easier to maintain—and also more fun!
11.Money was next on the slate for July when you worked to Spend Out and trust abundance—not to cling “to stuff, to ideas.” How did these concepts function within your happiness project?
I have a tendency to hoard, and I often end up wasting things by “saving” them—e.g., I’ll buy new underwear but keep wearing my old worn-out underwear, because I want to save the new pairs. By “spend out,” I want to use things up, put things into use. Also, I don’t want to keep score—as I often do with my husband. Instead, I want to do what I can, to spend out, and not constantly keep track, “Well, I did this, so you have to do that.”
“If you want to try to help other people, you’re wise to work on your own happiness, too.”
12.For August, you tackled Eternity, and talking about viewing happiness as a worthy goal, despite how selfish some people may consider the pursuit. Please share what you’ve discovered about how individual happiness creates a universal good.
Studies show that happy people make people happy. Although some folks assume that happy people are smug and self-centered, in fact, they’re more interested in the problems of the world, more likely to volunteer, more likely to help out, more likely to give away money than are less-happy people. They make better leaders so are more effective when they act.
For this reason, if you want to try to help other people, you’re wise to work on your own happiness, too.
Some people assume that you have to pick one or the other: your happiness or others’ happiness. But that’s a false choice. You can think about what you need to do to be happy yourself, and also worry about the happiness of others.
This is summed up in my Second Splendid Truth: One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.
13.Passion, the topic of September’s chapter, included Make Time and Master a New Technology—two imperatives for writers. How did you put these into practice during your happiness project?
I learned how to blog. I learned how to podcast. I learned how to upload images from my own camera. My growing sense of mastery gave me a big boost of happiness.
I also examined my habits to see if I was wasting time anywhere. Time is precious, so I really wanted to make sure I wasn’t devoting a lot of time, by inattention, to something that wasn’t a real happiness priority.
“Acting automatically means that we may not be acting in line with our true principles.”
14.When October came and it was time for you to focus on Mindfulness, you mentioned some of your counter tendencies, like multitasking and running on auto-pilot. How can changing those behaviors help improve happiness?
Acting automatically means that we may not be acting in line with our true principles. For instance, I realized that I constantly told myself, “I’m in a hurry.” This made me feel rushed and anxious all the time, and made it hard for me to enjoy the present. Once I realize that I was on auto-pilot with that idea, I deliberately changed my mantra to “I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.”
15.For November’s Attitude project, you talked about creating a “mental area of refuge.” Please share that concept with WOW! readers.
An area of refuge is some pleasing idea that you can return to when you’re feeling anxious, angry, etc. You might think about your children, or about a happy memory from the past, or ideas for a novel you want to write, or the plot from a favorite movie, or the tune of a favorite song…anything that helps distract you and refresh you.
16.In December, you wrapped all your monthly goals into a neat package called Boot Camp Perfect. What can you say you learned from the entire experience? Are you significantly happier now?
I AM happier! I really have come to believe that small steps, made consistently, can pay off in major ways. I wanted to change my life without changing my life, and I did! Small adjustments and efforts are surprisingly effective. But first, you have to examine your life, your own nature, and your current state of happiness, in order to ascertain what you need to do for your happiness project.
17.When did you decide to turn your personal project and experiences into a self-help/inspiration book for others?
You know, I don’t really quite remember! I started the project for myself, but before too long, I realized that I would also love to write a book about it. The idea to start a blog came later.
18.Did you submit a nonfiction book proposal to an agent? Or did an agent discover your blog? How was your overall publishing experience?
I’ve had the same agent, Christy Fletcher, since I became a writer. I talked the idea over with her before writing a proposal, and we worked on the proposal for a long time before I submitted to publishers. She was the one who suggested I try starting a blog!
I’ve had a fantastic publishing experience with this book. My editor Gail Winston and the entire team at Harper have been so smart and effective.
Ask yourself: what would make you happier? Cleaner closets, less yelling, more fun? Make it happen in 2010!
Each month, I’ll propose an area of life to tackle, and over the next four weeks, I’ll suggest concrete, manageable resolutions to help you boost your happiness.
Studies show that taking an action, like signing the Happiness Project pledge, will help you hold yourself accountable for your resolutions.
20.What final pearls of happiness wisdom do you have to share with WOW! readers?
If you had to pick one key to happiness, just one single element of life, it would be to have strong relationships with other people. If you want to be happier, start there. Make new friends, deepen existing friendships, draw closer to your family, join a group, help other people, and you will see a boost in happiness.
Gretchen, thank you so much for sharing your happiness project experiences with WOW! readers.
For more information about Gretchen and The Happiness Project, check out her blog, book tour schedule, and become Gretchen’s Facebook fan.
Annette Fix is the author of The Break-Up Diet: A Memoir. She speaks at national writer's conferences and hosts online and in-person workshops: “Online Author and Book Promotion,” “How to Get the Right Agent for Your Manuscript,” and “Memoir 101: Drawing from Your Life to Create Your Story.”
Annette blogs about writing and book marketing at www.annettefix.com. She is the former senior editor of WOW! Women On Writing.
Enjoy this interview? Check out some of Annette’s previous interviews on WOW!:
The Truth About Writing Memoir: 20 Questions with Judith Barrington
Secrets for Your Success: An Interview with Literary Agent Wendy Sherman
Time to Write: An Interview with Kelly L. Stone
skirt! Rules for the Workplace with Kelly Love Johnson
Storytelling in a Reader’s Theater with Wendy Kamenoff
The Voice of Comedy: 20 Questions with Lori Alan
Humor in the 10 Items or Less Lane: An Interview with Hillary Carlip
Book Groups Unite!: An Interview with Book Group Expo Founder Ann Kent
Give Children Their First Book: An Interview with Kyle Zimmer