AMA Transcript: Gretchen Rubin on happiness, habits, and human nature

AMA Transcript: Gretchen Rubin on happiness, habits, and human nature

Gretchen Rubin is a relentless explorer of happiness, habits, and human nature.

Her best-selling books on these subjects include Outer Order, Inner CalmThe Four TendenciesBetter Than Before, and The Happiness Project.

Rubin also has a top-ranked, award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin. Each week, she discusses concrete strategies and hacks about how to make your life happier.

So when Rubin joined us for an exclusive Ask Me Anything inside our book-club, our readers seized the opportunity to learn from her unconventional wisdom to improve their lives.

Here are a few things Rubin discussed:

  • The biggest misconceptions about Happiness

  • How to develop healthier relationships

  • How does technology affect our Happiness

  • How to deal with the habit of procrastination

  • How to channel negative emotions

  • And of course, the age-old: Can money buy Happiness?

If this stirs your interest, keep reading, because here is the unabridged transcript with all of Gretchen's thought-provoking, absorbing answers:

Q: In all your years of exploring happiness, what did you discover as some of the biggest misconceptions about it?

Gretchen Rubin: One big misconception is that there's one "right" way or "best" way to work toward happiness. For instance, you often hear, "If something's important to you, do it first thing in the morning." But science shows that some people are morning people, and some people are night people. It's largely genetically determined and a function of age. For a true night person, first thing in the morning is NOT the best time to do something that requires effort or focus. I'm a morning person, so it's good advice for me, as a way to be happier .. but not necessarily for you.

Q: I took your four tendencies quiz. You’ve written about 4-5 books that deal with the subject of happiness. Which one of your books should I read if I want to learn how to develop healthier relationships?

Gretchen Rubin: Hmmm .. you took the quiz, so you know your Tendency. If you think that might be at the root of issues with relationships, you might find The Four Tendencies most helpful. For general relationship discussion, The Happiness Project. If you're particularly focused on relationships at home, then Happier at Home. Happy reading!

Q: What I like most about your work and books is that they focus on happiness as a day-to-day process. Still, I am tempted to ask you if you think there is a universal “key” or “secret” to happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: If I had to say ONE key, I'd say relationships. Contemporary scientists and ancient philosophers agree that we need strong, intimate bonds with other people. Anything that tends to deepen or broaden our relationships tend to make us happier.

Q: What's your advice for building strong and healthy relationships?

Gretchen Rubin: I often remind myself that "frequency is more important than duration" for contact. Sometimes we think that we should only connect with people with a long phone call or a long, clever email or brilliant text. In fact, we tend to feel closer to people when we're in frequent contact about even the more mundane details of our lives. And showing up is important (however that might look these days). Making an effort, staying in touch, moments of consideration ... all this is important.

Q: What kind of ideas do you talk about in your most recent book Outer Order, Inner Calm?

Gretchen Rubin: What a fun question! I think it's the ENERGY and FOCUS that come from clutter clearing. Especially these days, when it's easy to feel drained, overwhelmed, and stuck, clearing out space or re-imagining how best to use our environments can be really revitalizing. Over and over, people tell me how great they feel after they create outer order.

Q: Do people ever switch Tendencies? For example I'm a textbook Questioner, but is there a chance that I can become like an Upholder through immense efforts of will?

Gretchen Rubin: I'm a believer in the genetic roots of personality, and I do believe that we're born with our Tendency hardwired. It's very unusual for someone to switch Tendencies, and it seems to come from some kind of massive upheaval, not from wanting to do it.

But it's straightforward to create circumstances that will allow you to include more of another Tendency's strengths in your life. As a Questioner, by focusing on WHY you want to do something and WHY IT MAKES SENSE TO YOU, you can shape your actions to be very Upholder-like.

Q: What is your favorite medium of reading? Do you prefer reading a book in print, on a Kindle, or do you prefer audiobooks?

Gretchen Rubin: Oh, I'm really old school. I prefer paper books, always.

Q: When we talk about happiness, it's usually a relative term, as different people find happiness in different things. But is it the equivalent of peace?

Gretchen Rubin: I started my career in law, and I remember spending an entire semester on the definition of "contract." Happiness is an even more elusive concept. There are more than 15 academic definitions of happiness. I think the looseness of the term is helpful, because we can all bring our own conception to it. For a person who wants to focus on peace, life satisfaction, fulfillment.. they can do so.

Q: What I've noticed is that you're an author who likes to engage directly with her readers. Most authors are hard to reach, but you’re very accessible. I was wondering why you took that route, and how has that experience been for you. Is it overwhelming at times to stay connected to so many people, or is it empowering for you?

Gretchen Rubin: Because my subject is human nature, I feel so grateful and lucky that I can engage with so many people -- I can hear far more of people's experiences, examples, questions, frustrations than I could ever encounter in real life. So I find it enormously gratifying and also intellectually enriching to be connected.

Also, it's as if the world is my research assistant! My next book is about the body and the senses, and every day, people send me interesting articles, reading suggestions, and observations. At times, I need to step away from it, just to give myself some silence and focus, but in general, I love it.

Q: I have listened to many of your talks. You seem to be a natural when it comes to public speaking. Can you tell me if it was challenging for you at first, and you kind of grew into it after you became a successful author? Or were you always this good at public speaking?

Gretchen Rubin: Thanks so much for the kind words, that's very nice to hear. When I was in school, we had to do a lot of presentations, and I think that helped me to be less nervous when I started. I do always just about memorize what I'm saying -- I really like to have a plan, know the time, and not have to worry about what I'm going to say.

Also, counter-intuitively, a friend told me that it's easier to memorize a very long talk than to rely on notes or slides. SO TRUE. It's definitely a skill that gets easier the more you do it. So if you get really nervous, remember that every time you speak, you're making things easier for your future self.

Q: I follow you on Facebook, and I’ve often seen that you post “What I Read This Week” regularly, and there’s always like 4-5 books there. How do you manage to be such a voracious reader with all of the other stuff you’re doing?

Gretchen Rubin: It's the strangest thing. I feel like I NEVER have any time to read, and yet I do get a lot of reading done. It puzzles me! I have giant stacks of books and library books, so I always have something to read, and I think that helps. I stop reading a book if it doesn't interest me, and that helps.

And of course, it is part of my work to read. I think sometimes people feel like they're playing hooky if they read. And I just LOVE to read, it's absolutely my favorite activity and it has been since I first learned to read. So I am always eager to pick up my book.

Q: What was one of the first books that made you fall in love with reading?

Gretchen Rubin: Oh wow, well so many picture books of course. The Lonely Doll, The Little Engine That Could, Goodnight Moon (which still haunts me). Early chapter books include Charlotte's Web, B Is For Betsy, Little House in the Big Woods. I just re-read Heidi last night.

Q: I found that you have two video courses. I’m curious about the contents, do they go beyond what's in the books? And also the story behind the creation of these courses?

Gretchen Rubin: Thanks for your interest. The courses have exercises, interviews, new stories, so the content is somewhat different from the books, though they follow the same structure.

I created them for two reasons. First, people kept asking me for more, more, more info and instruction about how to put those ideas to work. So I thought, how can I more effectively answer those questions?

Second, I realized that as much as I love to read, many people prefer to learn in other ways. They like the sense of engagement that comes from watching a video, so I wanted to create something for people with that preference. Also -- and this surprised me -- many people like to have a plan where they get a certain amount of content laid out over time. They like the "course" aspect of it.

Q: You received a law degree from Yale, then you went ahead and wrote a book that's called The Happiness Project. What's the story behind it? Was this something you always wanted to do?

Gretchen Rubin: I'd switched from law to writing many years before I wrote The Happiness Project. Like many people, I worked hard for a decade to be an overnight sensation. I switched to writing because I had an overwhelming desire to do the research and writing for what became my first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide. At a certain point, I figured, "I'd rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer, so I should give it a shot."

I got the idea for The Happiness Project in a very inconspicuous moment. I was stuck on a city bus, in the pouring rain, and I thought, "What do I want from life anyway? I want to be happy?" And I realized I didn't spend any time thinking about whether I was happy, or how I could be happier. "I should have a happiness project!" I thought, and I ran to the library the next day to get a giant stack of books about happiness. And really, since that day, I've been going deeper and deeper into happiness and human nature. These subjects are inexhaustibly fascinating to me.

Q: Can you tell us a bit about your Happier Podcast? What are the topics that you discuss and interesting personalities you’ve hosted on the podcast?

Gretchen Rubin: I host the podcast with my sister Elizabeth Craft, who is a TV writer and producer in LA. Each week, we talk about solutions and hacks for how to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. We draw on science, pop culture, our listeners, and our own experiences. Our podcast has been called "The Car Talk of happiness."

We talk about very concrete, practical ideas -- things you can do without spending a lot of time, energy, or money. From time to time, we have a "book club" episode, where we've talked about books from writers like Ann Patchett, Isaac Mizrahi, Dani Shapiro. We've also done interviews with people like Drew Barrymore, Moby, Ross Gay.

Q: Can you tell us about the arrival fallacy, what it means and how we can tackle it because I think that’s something almost all of us struggle with since we’re living in an age where everyone is obsessed with goals and success?

Gretchen Rubin: My father always reminds me to "Enjoy the process." If we can enjoy the process, then it matters less when and if we arrive at a certain destination. Very often, we think that arriving will bring more happiness than it does -- "When I move," "When I get promoted," "When I get in shape" -- arriving at these places often doesn't have the consequence that we imagine.

Q: Can negative emotions be beneficial for us if we learn to channel them the right way?

Gretchen Rubin: Absolutely. Negative emotions are crucial for a happy life. They show us when change is needed, or what we want.

Q: What can you tell us about the smartphone app called Better? How did you conceive the idea for an app and does it dovetail with your courses or is it an entirely separate project? 

Gretchen Rubin: The Better app is a place for people to exchange ideas, questions, and create accountability (Obligers, you know you want it!). I was eager to create a place where people could talk among themselves about the ideas I write about. People use it as part of the courses, and people who aren't part of the courses join it, too. Many people swap Tendency tips. A lot of people want to go deeper in certain areas like relationships, work, etc. A lot of people who work in health-care or teaching.

Q: In terms of personality types, who has the COVID-19 pandemic been the most challenging for? Is it Obligers, Upholders, Questioners, or Rebels?

Gretchen Rubin: What an interesting question. I think it's definitely been tough on everybody. In several areas -- the changes in work, home, health, general habits.

Rebels hate being told what to do, so being told that they can't do this, that they must do that, can ignite their spirit of resistance.

Questioners get annoyed if they feel like they're being asked to do something without enough justification, research, or reasoning.

Upholders find that their usual routines and patterns are upended, and that can make them very uneasy.

Obligers often struggle when systems of accountability shift, so an Obliger who might have attended an exercise class for 5 years now struggles to exercise at home. The key for Obligers: all inner expectations must have a system of outer accountability.

Q: How is technology affecting our happiness? Is it causing us to be more happy in general or unhappy?

Gretchen Rubin: I think that technology is an amplifier. It can make us more happy and less happy. It differs from person to person, and situation to situation. Every medicine can become poison, true. But especially during these strange times, I think that technology has been of huge value to us.

Q: Obligers can often feel exploited, over-taxed, neglected, ignored, or taken advantage of, and this could lead to what you have termed as “obliger-rebellion,” what’s a way for an obliger to avoid hitting that breaking point?

Gretchen Rubin: Obligers (and people around Obligers) should watch out for the building sense of anger and resentment that is the warning sign of impending Obliger-rebellion. It's important to address the source of that feeling of being overwhelmed, exploited or unheard -- because unless it's addressed, the Obliger-rebellion will follow. To be sure, Obliger-rebellion is sometimes beneficial -- it's meant to be beneficial. But often, too, it can be destructive. We should all be watching out for it, in ourselves or in others.

Q: As someone who struggles with procrastination and ends up feeling worse at the end of the day for not accomplishing the goals I set for myself, which one of your books can help me?

Gretchen Rubin: My book Better Than Before is all about how to make and break habits, and a HUGE theme is how to deal with procrastination. I'd start with that book. You are not alone. This is a major challenge for so many people. If you figure out that your procrastination is related to the Four Tendencies personality framework, as is sometimes the case, then you may want to go deeper in The Four Tendencies. But there's enough of an overview of the framework in Better Than Before that that book could get you started.

Q: What’s a typical day like in your life, and what do you do to unwind and relax?

Gretchen Rubin: As an Upholder, I do love my routines. I get up every day at 6 and come straight to my desk (well, I get coffee first). I work throughout the day -- writing, researching, processing notes, doing interviews, preparing or recording podcast episodes -- take a walk in Central Park or do high-intensity weight training, spend a lot of time reading.

My family and I are watching the TV show "Dark" together in the evenings -- which I highly recommend. Before the pandemic, this year, I was visiting the Metropolitan Museum every day. That was wonderful! They're planning to open on August 29, and I hope I'll be able to add that element back into my day. My routine is very different now given that I don't travel, and usually, I travel quite a bit for work-related things.

Q: I want to hear your take on this cliche question: Can money buy happiness?

Gretchen Rubin: Money can't buy happiness -- but it can buy many things that contribute mightily to happiness. It can help us have more control over our time, support our health, allow us to care for others, allow us to support our values. Like health, we're much more aware of money in the NEGATIVE. If you don't have money, if you don't have health, it's a big drag on happiness. But when you have it, it's easy to take it for granted and not realize the contribution it's making to your well-being.

Also, money's contribution to happiness depends on how we spend it.  Getting a dog is likely to boost your happiness. Buying your 10th pair of black boots, probably not. A bike, yes. But then you have to use it. Buying is not doing. I'd say the relationship between happiness and money is one of the most complex and emotionally charged areas within the larger study of happiness.

(Cover Photo Credits: Andy Ryan)

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