Who wants to be happy? Or happier?
Everyone. That’s why I’m expecting the book The Happiness Project, released last week, to be a bestseller. (You can buy it here.) Author Gretchen Rubin is with us today to talk about the book, her wildly successful blog — also called The Happiness Project — and advice for aspiring authors.
First, a bit about Gretchen. A graduate of Yale Law School, Gretchen realized she wanted to be a writer while clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She went on to write and publish four nonfiction books, including two biographies. (She also penned three novels, which she claims are terrible. They’re locked in a desk drawer.) Gretchen lives in New York City with her husband and two young daughters.
Welcome, Gretchen! Can you tell us about your book? How'd the idea come about?
The Happiness Project is an account of the year I spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, the current scientific studies, and the lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. I consider the work of everyone from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Seligman.
I had an epiphany one day, while I was riding the cross-town bus. “What do I want from life, anyway?” I asked myself. “Well, I want to be happy,” But I realized I didn't spent any time thinking about what happiness was, or whether I was happy, or whether I could be happier. “I should have a happiness project!” I thought. And I started the next day.
To take steps to be happier, it helps to aim to make concrete, manageable changes in your life. If you try to “get more joy out of life” or “be more optimistic,” it can be hard to put those into practice. It's easier to make changes that are easy to monitor like, “Make my bed,” “Go for a twenty-minute walk each day,” “Start a book group,” “Call my grandmother every weekend.”
If you had to pick one thing — just one – as the key to happiness, philosophers, religious leaders, and scientists agree: it's strong bonds to other people. If you're thinking about how to spend your time, money, or energy to be happier, think about using it in ways that strengthen your relationships. This is the best bang for the happiness buck. Show up. Help other people. Keep traditions. Take photos. Throw a party. Make a lunch date. Go running with a friend.
More than 35,000 people subscribe to your blog! Why do you think it's so successful?
I'm so thrilled that the blog resonates with so many people. I think it's successful because everyone wants to be happier, and a lot of the things that interest me or that challenge my happiness are shared by other people. How many people face a problem with nagging in their life – either because they are a nag (which is no fun) or being nagged (also no fun)? I write about my own experience, and a lot of people identify with that.
You'd already published four books when you decided to write The Happiness Project. What did you learn from writing those books that helped you write this one? What was the publishing process like? Did you go through same agent who sold the other books? Were you able to sell this one on proposal?
I've always had the same agent. I did sell this one on proposal. My publishing process with Harper has been fantastic from beginning to end.
I learned from my previous books that I really needed to take responsibility for trying to help readers learn that my book was going to hit the shelves. My determination to do this dovetailed perfectly with the rise of all the amazing tech tools that now exist to connect readers and writers. Because of my earlier experiences, I appreciated the value of things like blogs, Twitter, Facebook, etc. to me as a writer. Fortunately for me, they also work beautifully with my subject.
Writing my book was a very traditional experience. I sat in a library near my house and worked on my laptop in a silent room for hours each day. But I also spent, and continued to spend, a lot of time reading and writing online.
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors?
The most important thing for a writer, I think, is to have something to say. When I see people struggling, it's usually because they want to “write” but have no subject. Find your subject. This is harder than it sounds.
On your blog, you help readers start their own happiness project. What exactly does that mean?
Having a happiness project means trying to work systematically at making your life happier. You can try to get more good things in your life, or you can try to eliminate bad things in your life. You can go to more movies, or you can make that doctor's appointment you've been procrastinating about (for my own happiness project, especially at the beginning, I worked more on eliminating sources of bad feelings).
To do that, you have to examine your life and your nature carefully. What do you really find fun? This is surprisingly hard to identify for a lot of people. What's making you feel bad? You have to be honest with yourself. Once you know the changes you want to tackle, you have to turn them into concrete, manageable resolutions.
So, if you yell at your kids in the mornings, and you feel bad about that, you might make resolutions like “Go to sleep thirty minutes earlier and get up ten minutes earlier.” “Get my briefcase packed the night before.” “Make kids' breakfasts the night before.” “Sing in the morning.” “Don't try to read the paper until the kids are gone.” Or whatever. What kind of changes would make a situation happier?
Again, it helps to think small and concrete, rather than vague and transcendent. It may seem trivial to try to achieve happiness by re-organizing your sock drawer, but it's the little things in life that shape our existence. Tackle the small things, and the big things come into grasp.
I have a lot of tools to help people start their own happiness projects – if people are interested, they can check here.
Readers: What steps are you taking this year to be happier?