Q & A with Gretchen Rubin: Best-Selling Author of The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin is a best-selling writer whose new book, The Happiness Project, is an account of the year she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and lessons from popular culture on how to be happy -- from Aristotle to psychologist Martin Seligman to Thoreau to Oprah.

We talked to Rubin about The Happiness Project, and after you read our interview with her, we guarantee you'll be a little happier about the prospects of -- well, being happier.

MindBodyGreen: Tell us more about the "Aha!" moment on a cross-town bus that led to The Happiness Project.

Gretchen Rubin: A crowded bus is an unusual spot for an epiphany. But as I was riding on the cross-town bus one rainy afternoon ride, I asked myself, "What do I want from life, anyway?" I thought, "I want to be happy. But I don't spend any time thinking about whether I am happy, or how I could be happier." On the spot, I resolved to dedicate one full year to my happiness project.

MBG: What about "happiness" is unique to New Yorkers? Are we bred differently when it comes to happiness?

GR: I can't speak to all New Yorkers, but some of the things about New York City that make me happy are:

  • I don't have to drive
  • There are tons of people around who do interesting things
  • Great institutions with extraordinary offerings
  • And most important, to me, is the sense of infinite possibility -- new places to explore; you can never run out

MBG: What was the biggest surprise you had while writing The Happiness Project?

GR: My biggest surprise was that of all the resolutions I suggest, the one that people repeatedly tell me helped them most was to "Make your bed." Go figure!

MBG: What was the most fun you had during The Happiness Project?

GR: One of my resolutions is to "Join or start a group." I've joined or started about 10 groups since I began my happiness project, and all of them have been huge engines of happiness -- in particular, my children's literature reading groups.

MBG: If there's one simple message you'd like to get across in this book, what would it be?

GR: You can make yourself happier. Don't get hung up on the word "happiness" and whether it's possible to be "happy." Just ask yourself, "Could I be happier? If so, how?" Then take concrete, manageable steps to be happier.

MBG: Biggest misconception about happiness?

GR: The biggest misconception about happiness? That it's selfish to try to be happier. Some people argue, "In a world so full of suffering, you can be happy only if you're callous and self-centered." Others maintain that "Happy people become wrapped up in their own pleasure; they're complacent and uninterested in the world."

Wrong. Studies show that, quite to the contrary, happier people are more likely to help other people, they're more interested in social problems, they do more volunteer work, and they contribute more to charity. They're less preoccupied with their personal problems. By contrast, less-happy people are more apt to be defensive, isolated, and self-absorbed, and unfortunately, their negative moods are catching (the technical name is emotional contagion). Just as eating your dinner doesn't help starving children in India, being blue yourself doesn't help unhappy people become happier.

I've certainly noticed this about myself. When I'm feeling happy, I find it easier to notice other people's problems, I feel that I have more energy to try to take action, I have the emotional wherewithal to tackle sad or difficult issues, and I'm not as preoccupied with myself. I feel more generous and forgiving. The truth is, happy people make people happy!

MBG: You wrote two great books in your "40 Ways" series – one on JFK and the other on Winston Churchill. Knowing what you know now, which of these two men was happier?

GR: What a fascinating question. Churchill probably had more great happiness, and also great unhappiness, in his life. He was a very emotional person, and he lived a long life filled with dramatic situations. JFK seemed more...even-keeled, even detached.

MBG: Favorite quote?

GR: Wow, it's so hard to pick just one. Right now, my favorite is by Robert Louis Stevenson: "There is no duty we so much underrate as the duty of being happy."

MBG: Guilty indulgence?

GR: Caffeine! I start at six in the morning with a giant tea and a Diet Coke, and go all day long, guzzling anything with caffeine.

MBG: If it were your Last Supper, what would the meal be? Where would it be? Who would you like to be there (from the past, present, or future)?

GR: Food? Warm chocolate chip cookies, homemade vanilla ice cream, and Diet Coke. People? I think I would choose my spiritual masters: Winston Churchill, John Kennedy, Samuel Johnson, Benjamin Franklin, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux.

MBG: Why should we run out right now and buy The Happiness Project?

GR: It really is possible to make yourself happier -- and it doesn't have to be a distant, difficult goal. You can start now! There are small steps you can take right away that will boost your happiness. In my book, I talk about what worked for me, and my account seems to help people figure out how they could do it themselves. A friend who read the book told me, "Your book really felt like it was all about me. I was thinking about MYSELF the whole time -- whether I was like you or not, whether the things that worked for you would work for me." So if you'd like to be happier, read The Happiness Project.

For more on Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project:


The Happiness Project on Amazon.com

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