Five minutes with Gretchen Rubin

Gretchen Rubin is a lawyer-turned-author who’s now pursuing happiness, by test-driving every principle, tip, theory, and scientific study she can find on the subject, and writing a book about her experiences as she goes.

Sources of inspiration stretch from Aristotle to Oprah Winfrey, and her quest is being charted on her blog, the Happiness Project.

Her online journal has recently explored how happiness relates to physical attractiveness, whether children makes us content, and what Voltaire has to say about living a good life – among a bewildering array of other investigations.

As well as experimenting with her life and recording the results, Gretchen has also been kind enough to talk to Mind Hacks about her motivations and discoveries.

What was your motivation for starting the Happiness Project?

One rainy afternoon, I saw that I was in danger of wasting my life.

As I was staring out the window of a taxi, a realization jolted me so violently that I jumped in my seat. I suddenly saw that years were slipping by, and I was ignoring the great fundamentals of my life.

“What do I want?” I asked myself. “Well…I want to be happy.”

But I never thought about what made me happy, or how I might be happier, or even what it meant to be “happy.”

I’d always vaguely expected to outgrow my limitations. One day, I’d magically stop twisting my hair and wearing running shoes every day. I’d remember my friends’ birthdays, I’d fix up our apartment, I wouldn’t let my daughter watch TV during breakfast. I’d read make more time for reading. I wouldn’t lose my temper any more, I’d spend more time laughing and having fun, I wouldn’t nag my husband, I wouldn’t be scared to drive.

But now, it dawned on me that I was already grown up-and I wasn’t living up to the level that I should expect of myself. If I wanted to be happier, I’d have to do some work.

“I need to think about this,” I reflected. “I should have a happiness project. Or maybe,” I thought, “I should write a book about a happiness project.” Eureka!

In the last few years, there’s been a big interest in the psychology of happiness. Most of this research is done in restricted experimental conditions. How successfully has it generalised to your life?

One of the challenges of the Happiness Project is translating scientific findings into real life, but it has turned out to be easier than I expected. So when a study discusses the importance of social bonds, I figure out how to strengthen my own friendships. When marriage expert John Gottman reports on the importance of responding to a spouse’s “bid for attention,” I admonish myself to “Put down my book!”

I’ve discovered that making such changes really do have an impact; when I changed my life in order to incorporate the elements that, according to the studies, supposedly boost happiness, those changes actually did make a difference.

So far, what has surprised you most in your quest for happiness?

It has surprised me how much work it is to be happy. I’ve found that I am truly much happier when I have an orderly apartment, see lots of friends, take time to be silly with my husband and daughters, read for fun, exercise regularly, go to sleep at a decent hour…and on and on. All this takes a lot of time and discipline. But it really does pay off in terms of happiness.

If you could recommend one book on happiness, what would it be?

My favorite general book on happiness is Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis. It’s very engaging and covers a lot of ground. A particularly thought-provoking book on happiness is Barry Schwartz’s The Paradox of Choice. A wonderful American classic about happiness and self-transformation is Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography.

If you could ask researchers to answer any question about happiness, what would it be?

In everyday life, a very common source of unhappiness for people is their weight, and yet this issue doesn’t come up in academic discussions of happiness. Discuss.

Name three under-rated things

Children’s literature – I love, love, love children’s literature.

Toasted whole-wheat pita with salsa – delicious, nutritious, filling.

Spending time with friends – it’s easy to forget how happy just hanging out with friends will make you. Take time to see the people you love.

Be happy, Gretchen

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