Gretchen Rubin: the super-mum of happiness

Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project started off as a blog on the Huffington Post, following Rubin’s attempt to become happier over the course of a year. The blog was turned into a best-selling book, which conquered the New York Times bestseller list, first in hardback and now in paperback. It is a publishing phenomenon, in large part thanks to Rubin's hard-work: her blog is updated every day with new tips, research, resolutions, interventions, videos and wise quotations on how to be happy. Clearly, she puts a great deal of work into it, and her readers love her for it. Makes me feel rather lazy...

In some ways, The Happiness Project is the perfect self-help book for my mum, also a smart and energetic former lawyer who is always making lists, always making resolutions, always in the middle of a major domestic overhaul of the apartment. In fact, Rubin's book also starts with a spring-clean of her apartment. Her book and blog are bursting with tips on how to connect more with your children, how to stop nagging your husband, how to fill your home with good smells and positive vibes. But, like the best mums, there's a flinty edge to it, and there's also much more culture and intelligence than in most self-help books. She draws on Samuel Johnson, Tolstoy, Nietzsche, Simone Weil, and clearly loves and appreciates good literature. This is not the typical flaky self-help book full of folksy poems, bumper sticker proverbs and misquotes of Native Americans.
Gretchen was kind enough to speak to the Politics of Well-Being about what works, what doesn’t, and why the 18th century depressive genius, Samuel Johnson, is her patron saint of happiness.
First of all, congratulations for getting to the number one spot in the New York Times paperback list. Did you expect the book to be such a success?

I really didn’t know what to expect. The book industry is so unpredictable. Sometimes you’re writing a book that you think is terrific but it doesn’t find an audience. What’s really helped this book is word-of-mouth - people recommending it to other people.

There are so many happiness books, films, movies and articles out there. Why did people respond so well to your book in particular?

You’re right that a huge amount has been written and talked about happiness recently. I think my book took a lot of the happiness research, and asked what it would mean in your ordinary day, how would you translate it into your regular life. We learn more through stories than through general information. And people like to see the little steps you can take towards happiness. I love really radical happiness projects, like Thoreau moving to Walden to live in a forest. But most people aren’t going to take such radical steps. I didn’t want to either. But you can still take steps.

Another thing that strikes me about your book is that you don’t set yourself up as a ‘happiness expert’. You’re on the same level as the reader, exploring what works and what doesn’t with them.

Yes, that’s definitely true. I’m not a happiness expert.

How much do you think you changed through your year-long project, and since then?

I changed a lot. I mean, I feel that, deep down, in my core self, I’m still the same person I was. I was a 7 [on the happiness scale] and I’m still a 7. But my whole life experience is very different. I've got the same job, the same family, everything fundamental is the same. But I have many more friends and acquaintances, particularly through the blog, which I never imagined would take off to the extent it has. My life now feels richer, and also simpler, and more in line with who I am. I would say that everyone has a natural range of happiness, but I am now more consistently at the top of my natural range.

But to what extent do you think your enhanced satisfaction and happiness now is because you’ve written a best-selling book, and are a public figurehead for the happiness movement? I mean, that success is not available to everyone.

Well, I wouldn’t say that is necessarily what gives me the most happiness. That means I have a lot more emails to answer, a lot of people expecting me to answer their questions and solve their problems. I would say what contributes more to my happiness is things like my children’s literature reading group. I get enormous, unmitigated pleasure from that. I don’t think you need to have written a best-selling book on happiness for your happiness project to be successful. Someone asked me if I would have been so happy if, at the end of my year-long happiness project, the book hadn’t got published, or hadn’t been a success. I don’t think I would have been happy about that, but I got a lot of happiness just from doing the project, regardless of whether it succeeded.

You’re now to some extent a writer of self-help, having started off in law and academia [Rubin worked at the Supreme Court and lectured at Yale Law School]. How strange is the self-help industry? Are there some phonies in it, and some authentically wise people?

I never thought of my book as a self-help book - more self-helpful. But it’s definitely put me in that camp. I found myself in that camp. And in the memoir camp, and in the efficiency camp. Most of the people I know are journalists, like political or foreign correspondents, or they’re novelists, so they’re not really in the self-help world. I now know more people in the personal development world through my blog, so it’s mainly virtual connections. And most of them are in Positive Psychology, which is more on the academic side rather than the hardcore self-help side.

So, out of all the tips and interventions you’ve tried, which were the most effective?

That’s a good question. I think ‘Join or start up a group’. We know from the research that what makes us happiest is strong relations with other people, and you can build that through joining or starting up groups. I’ve now started up three children’s literature reading groups, a group for mothers who write, and I also run a New York organ donation group, and take part in a bloggers’ group.

Other things would be singing in the morning, not nagging, taking time for projects with my children. I wanted to create a certain atmosphere in the home - tender, light-hearted. And ‘getting enough sleep’. I’ve become a sleep zealot!

What tips didn’t work?

I tried laughter yoga. I felt so miserably self-conscious that I gave up after one go, despite promising to try it three times. I also tried a Gratitude Journal, which is supposed to be the cast-iron best method for improving happiness. It drove me nuts.

What philosopher or writer did you find most useful for happiness tips?

I love Samuel Johnson. He wasn’t always that happy in his own personal life, but he’s one of my patron saints of happiness projects, because he made and broke resolutions so many times. And there’s a quote of his which is an epigraph for the book. It haunts me. I think about it all the time. ‘He who would bring home the wealth of the Indes must carry the wealth of the Indes with him.’ It’s like a koan. It’s very ambiguous, but I think it means you can only find what you already have. Johnson also taught me to be an abstainer, versus a moderator. He wrote: ‘Abstinence is as easy for me as temperance would be difficult.’ That’s the same as me. I can either eat no Orio cookies, or 10. There’s no in-between. I love Johnson’s essays. They’re like George Orwell’s essays - you never know where they’re going to end up. He always seems to argue against the conventional view, or argue on both sides.
You obviously love some culture that is not particularly cheery, like The Sopranos, for example, or Anna Karenina. Do you think misery is more artistically interesting than happiness?

I think it’s artistically easier. It’s very challenging to make happiness look anything but sentimental. It’s an enormous struggle for an artist. It’s much easier to make it dark. And it’s usually more dramatically interesting. There’s a wonderful quote by Simone Weil. Let me just find it. [Goes off to find it.] Here it is: ‘Imaginary evil is romantic and varied; real evil is gloomy, monotonous, barren, boring. Imaginary good is boring; real good is always new, marvelous, intoxicating.’ If The Sopranos had shown a happy family, no one would have watched it. It’s fun to watch, but wouldn’t have been a great family to live in.

What do you think are the literary classics of happiness?

Gilead, by Marilyn Robinson. Michael Frayn wrote a crazy book called A Landing On The Sun. Ian McEwan’s book, Saturday, is in some ways an examination of different types of happiness. Elizabeth von Arnim’s Enchanted April and Lawrie Colwin’s Happy All The Time are both beautifully happy books.

One thing that strikes me about your blog is the amount of energy that goes into it. You blog six days a week, you post a video a week. You have a Facebook page, you have a happiness projects tool-kit website. Do you think that writers should expect to put that much energy into publishing and marketing these days?

For me, I’m fortunate because the subject lends itself to the work I do online. It’s so vast, there’s always new research, new movies, new novels and so on. And people bring their own analysis, their own experiences. It wasn’t strategic, I didn’t plan to do a blog. And this approach wouldn’t work for all subjects. It wouldn’t work for my book on Churchill, for example. Does a writer need to do all this? It sure doesn’t hurt. But every subject has a different audience. I know some writers who do a lot of stuff, and some who don’t.

So what’s next?

I’m writing another book on happiness. It’s called Happy At Home, which is from another quote by Samuel Johnson: ‘To be happy at home is the ultimate result of all ambition.’ I realized that home is at the centre of happiness. What would I change in the home if I really wanted the home to bring happiness? It's due out in August 2012.

Thanks very much for the interview Gretchen! She's an inspiration to bloggers and writers. Have a look, for example at one of Gretchen's videos, that she posts every week on her blog: