Just 20 minutes on the phone with Gretchen Rubin and you will be inspired. The lawyer-turned-happiness-guru dedicated a year of her life to the pursuit of happiness. The resulting book, The Happiness Project, was a bestseller, as were her subsequent books, Better than Before and Happier at Home. Equally successful is Happier, the weekly podcast she records with her sister, Elizabeth Craft.
Is it possible to summarise the secret to happiness?
There is no template for happiness, there is only what is right for you and makes you happy. I think there are two universal truths. Firstly: self-knowledge. Know yourself, your interests, your temperament, and you can then shape your life to reflect them.
Secondly: relationships. The ancient philosophers and contemporary scientists agree that relationships are a key area to our overall happiness. We need those intimate bonds; to support and feel supported by the people in our lives; to feel like we belong.
What was the most surprising thing you learned?
How much people really do want to know the answer. I’ve lost count of the number of times people have asked me things like, is the secret to happiness getting up earlier? Going on holiday once every six months? They want a set, one-page answer.
What does happiness mean to you?
For some people, novelty is a real driver for happiness. I did not think that this would hold true for me. I like habit, order, routine, organisation, familiarity – I am not adventurous; I don’t relish random happenings. But when novelty fitted my personality, it turned out I loved it. I started a blog and a podcast - which was challenging, intimidating and outside my comfort zone...and I love doing both! Now had I tried to learn downhill skiing, for instance, that wouldn’t have been the right fit at all...
Your second book, Better than Before, looks at how routines structure and govern our lives, and how, by cultivating good habits, we can transform our lives. How?
Research suggests that 40% of our lives are shaped by our habits. They’re a really big part of our existence, so it’s clear that by getting them right, we can be happier. I’ve identified four personality types: Questioners, Obligers, Rebels and Upholders. Once you know which you are, you tailor your habits to suit your personality (take Gretchen's quiz here).
Are there particular habits that build a happier life?
1. Get enough sleep. It’s so important for your mind, energy, memory, moods, and productivity.
2. Eat and drink right.
4. Your surroundings and outer order. For most people, these are conducive to inner calm and contentment. The prime example of this is my friend who called me and said, “I’ve cleaned my fridge. Now I can switch careers.”
Can money make you happy?
Money in itself doesn’t make you happy, but there are many, many things that it buys which can: time, control, convenience, support, freedom... Like health, money is more of an influence in its negative. If you’re sufficiently wealthy, you don’t notice that you’re paying the bills, it’s only in its absence that it impacts upon your happiness. It’s also relative to your own experience: do you have more or less than the people around you? More or less than you used to have?
When are you happiest?
When I’m in bed, reading.
Your cockpoo, Barnaby, is quite the star of your social media feed. Has he been an education in happiness, too?
I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to get a dog, but the rest of my family convinced me – and I’m very glad that they did! Barnaby has added so much happiness to our lives. His constant affection, his funny adventures, his new tricks…we even have fun going to the pet store. He brings more life into our apartment, and is also a new experience for us all to share.
Who is the love of your life?
My husband, Jamie. I fell in love at first sight. I was working in the law library at University when he walked in. I said to my friend, ”Who is that?” and she said, “That’s Jamie Rubin” and I thought, “Ohhh-kayyy. Hel-lo, Jamie Rubin.”
(Love at first sight is not infallible or necessary to the future happiness of a relationship, but neither is it a conceit concocted by Hollywood. I have two friends who fell in love at first sight. One was married to someone else at the time, but as soon as she met the other guy, she said, “There’s going to be a big mess”. Within months she was divorced and they had married.)
What do you consider your greatest achievement?
People often say their children, but I think they’re their own achievement. So I would say switching from being a lawyer to a writer. It was a big switch and I really have made it work - and writing is a tough profession to make a success of these days.
When was the last time you laughed out loud?
Yesterday, when I recorded the podcast with my sister. She always makes me laugh. (She also keeps me calm - they let her come with me when we recorded Oprah and she was the perfect person to have in the green room beforehand.)
You’ve been interviewed by Oprah – how was that?
It was amazing: almost an out-of-body experience! I just tried to really engage, respond in the moment and not get distracted by thinking,” Oh my God, it’s Oprah.”
What advice would you give your 18-year-old self?
I would say: be Gretchen. It took me a long time to truly know myself. When I was younger, I did things and had adventures, and whilst I don't have regrets, I fell into them, rather than doing them mindfully. Life because easier when I knew myself. When you're young you have that sense of infinite possibility: that you can do anything, be anything - if you try hard enough and apply yourself. Now I know that's not true.
What one thing would people be surprised to learn about you?
That I’m left-handed. People often comment upon it with astonishment during book signings, as though they would never have expected it.
What book do you wish you’d written?
Oh, there are so many books I wish I’d written! When I bought Crowds and Power by Elias Canetti I so knew it was going to blow my mind that I couldn’t pick it up and actually read it for almost a year. And when I did [read it], it did blow my mind.
I cannot bear books with the theme of unjust accusation (you wouldn't catch me reading or watching Othello or Atonement, for instance, even though I know they're meant to be wonderful). It's a self-preservation thing because real life can be hard enough. And so a few years ago I instigated a new rule that if I wasn't enjoying a book or if I lost interest - I was 'allowed' to stop reading. (I used to be one of those people who thought that if you started a book, you had to finish it.)
This is probably one of the reasons I love children's literature so much - and I am obsessed with J.K. Rowling. I’ve read the Harry Potter books many, many times; and when I was in London, we took the Warner Studio Tour and saw the new play, 'Harry Potter and the Cursed Child'. The woman is a genius and a remarkable human being.
And what book have you written next?
The Four Tendencies – about the personality types I mentioned earlier, which is out in September. But before that, I’ve set myself the project of writing a little book in five days. It’s about colour – I’m obsessed with it.
Please can you tell us a little about your Secrets of Adulthood: a hit on Instagram.
Sometimes, even the simplest idea can feel like a revelation. I wanted to collect these “Secrets of Adulthood” and share them with other people—and learn more Secrets of Adulthood myself!
The one which has had the biggest response is 'The days are long but the years are short'. In fact, the thing which has resonated the most is my one minute video on this theme."
Summer or winter?
Half full or half empty?
Owl or lark?
Word you over-use?
London, I love that city.
Desert island luxury?
I love a really good massage. So is it cheating to say a very technically proficient masseuse (whose also a really good conversationalist, so I’ll have someone to talk to)?
Over or under dressed?
Can’t live without…