While riding a bus through Manhattan, mother of two Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany. Looking out the rain streaked windows, she asked herself a simple question: “What do I want from life?” She decided to embark on what she called a “happiness project” to discover what happiness is and how to achieve it—tackling a new set of resolutions each month (i.e. “ask for help,” “keep a one-sentence journal,” etc.). Over the next year, Rubin chronicled her journey on her blog, which formed the basis for her new memoir, “The Happiness Project.” Rubin took time out from her national book tour to talk about what she learned, and what we can learn, from her journey.
What is happiness?
There’s no academic definition. I decided, just as Justice Potter Stewart said about obscenity, I know it when I see it. I know happiness when I see it, and I know when I’m feeling happy.
Isn’t happiness also an attitude—a question of your perspective?
I think that’s very true. People often say to me that happiness is a choice. I find that hard to put in practice in real life. I need to translate it into a specific action. When something is making me unhappy, I find a way to think about it so that it makes me happy. So instead of thinking, “Oh, what a bummer, I have to make the bed,” I think, “Oh, I love making the bed!” This is actually surprisingly effective, and works more often than you think would be possible.
How is a happiness project different from other happiness-seeking endeavors such as those chronicled in books like “Julie and Julia” and “Eat, Pray, Love”?
I think they’re all forms of happiness projects and I think it’s a great example of how happiness projects can look very different from each other. My project was one where I didn’t want to leave my own kitchen—where I wanted to change my life without really changing my life. I wasn’t going to move to another country. Elizabeth Gilbert went to the ends of the earth; she did something very radical. That wasn’t going to work for me—it wasn’t what I wanted and it wasn’t even possible, given the reality of my life. Different approaches work for different people.
You claim that money “can help buy happiness.” What do you mean?
It can buy a lot of the things that contribute to happiness if you spend the money in the right way. Money can help make you healthy, strengthen your relationships with other people—going to a college reunion, going to visit your sister, for example—or it can help you learn a new skill, something that would give you great joy. One study showed that people who buy experiences tend to be happier than people who buy stuff—a trip to Thailand is going to make you happier than a new dining room table.
How has the past year impacted your relationship with your husband and children?
It’s been great. I didn’t explicitly drag them into it—they had no assignments, there was nothing that they had to do, because in a happiness project, you can only change yourself. I spent a lot of time thinking about how to have a more tender, lighthearted atmosphere at home and also to take time for family projects—keep photo albums and mementos—and I think my family has really benefited from that. I have tried to be calm and patient, to have a good sense of humor, to sing in the morning, make holiday decorations. It’s just a happier atmosphere in our house.
As a parent, how did
you negotiate focusing on your own self-improvement with taking care of
your children? Was it difficult to balance the two responsibilities?
A huge number of my
resolutions were aimed at trying to be a better parent, so no, I didn’t
find a conflict.
activities could families share in order to boost their own happiness?
One thing is
to take time for fun—to think about what’s fun for you. For example, do
you like running around outside? Going to museums? Board games? Playing
Wii? I realized that the more I am enjoying myself with my children, the
more fun we’re all having. It’s not them or me. Every Sunday, we have
movie night where we think of a movie that we would all like to watch.
Then it’s fun for everybody. Also, little celebrations like holiday
breakfasts with little decorations. My kids get a big kick out of it. I
enjoy it, it’s easy, and doesn’t take a lot of time. It can make life
feel more joyful and playful.
What advice do you have for people looking to begin
a happiness project of their own?
Think about what you want more of and
what you want less of and how to get there. Start extremely small, very
concrete, in little steps. People with good intentions sometimes make
vague resolutions, like “I want to have more fun out of life.” What does
that mean? What have you done today? Steps like “I love watching old
movies, therefore I will rent and watch one old movie every weekend” is
very specific so that you know whether you’re doing it or not.
What would you say to
critics that claim “The Happiness Project” is overly self-indulgent?
There is an argument
that in a world so full of suffering, it is selfish to want to be happy.
Another argument is that happy people are smug and complacent and that
they are interested in nothing but themselves and their own pleasure.
But what the studies show, and what is reflected in real life, is that
it’s just the opposite.
Happy people are more
interested in the problems of the people around them and social
problems. They give away more, they volunteer more, they’re more likely
to help out a colleague. When people are unhappy, they become
desensitized and isolated and preoccupied with their own projects. When
people are happy they have the emotional wherewithal to turn outward.
Happy people make people happy!