Gretchen Rubin wants you to be happiest you’ve ever been, but she doesn’t suggest any dramatic, sell-everything-and-move-to Bali stunts. Instead, Rubin urges her readers to examine a laundry list of small changes to make in everyday life that could make a big difference. Between the NYT bestselling The Happiness Project, her popular blog, and the compulsively readable paperback Happier at Home, Rubin tries these well-researched ideas and strategies out, chronicling her experiences attempting these month-long experiments. Crack open one of Gretchen Rubin’s recent books and, undoubtedly, you will find yourself looking at the world in an entirely new light.
Gretchen took a break from her book tour to speak with us on the phone about how she made the switch from clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to writing, her creative process, her forthcoming book about habits, and how she knows her happiness projects are working.
On the Town: How did you make the leap from clerking for Sandra Day O’ Connor to writing? What sparked your passion for writing about happiness?
I am a person chronically prone to epiphanies. I was going on a walk one fall October afternoon and asked myself, “If I could write a book that everyone would want to read, what would it be about?” and I came up with the subject of my first book, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide.
I was already researching for fun, and I had a specific project to write about, but it took a while to transition from working on the weekends to writing full time. I just knew I’d rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer. My husband and I were moving from Washington D.C. to New York, and I knew if I took a job [in New York], I wouldn’t have the gumption to try writing.
How do you start your research? When beginning a new book, what comes first: the research and the science, or the personal experience?
I have an unusual process. I am intensely interested in taking notes, and I become obsessed with a particular subject. As I am reading a ton and taking a ton of notes, I begin to see new material I hadn’t seen before, even in the novels I read. From all my notes I form a structure. I lump like subjects together. Once I have all of these subjects, I write the story and overlay notes about my experience over that. My writing evolves and evolves. I never have that blank page moment.
How do you know these happiness projects are working? What’s the most unlikely happiness project a reader has shared with you?
My site helps with this. When I was writing books before my blog, you never knew what people thought. Now it is so much easier to know, there is so much interconnection. Thousands of people have written to me or posted on my blog. I have heard countless stories of people switching careers.
Powell's City of Books
In Happier at Home, I got so much feedback affirming my own experience about the moderation/abstainer distinction. For some people it is easier to abstain than it is to moderate, and both types try to convince people the other type is wrong. Writing about these things deepens my understanding of the human experience. I also found this to be true with two groups of people: finishers and openers. My sister has about ten different products open in her bathroom because she’s an opener, while I would never do that because I am a finisher. There’s not one right way, just distinctions. It’s not a huge insight, but once you know it, it’s clear and helps you understand things. I look for those things that are hard to put into words but help you understand the world.
What’s been the most difficult habit you’ve developed or broken?
I found that I’m pretty typical when it comes to happiness, but I’m freaky when it comes to habits. I’m very extreme. I belong to a very small number of people that find it easy to make and break habits. The splashiest habit I’ve developed is that I became a low carb person. I read Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes and changed. Now, I don’t drink much, and eat very little fruit. Sometimes people’s thinking changes and their habits change accordingly.
What new projects are you working on right now?
I am working on my book Before and After (to be published in 2015) along with promoting the paperback of Happier At Home, and posting on my blog. I post six times a week, so I am pretty active.