Woman Around Town: Gretchen Rubin—Happiness Project

If Gretchen Rubin can’t be happy, what chance do we mere mortals have? To coin a common cliché, she had it all. Or so it seemed.

Pretty, accomplished, sophisticated and well-educated (Yale undergraduate; Yale Law School; Yale law review), this Manhattan mother of two adorable daughters and married to the handsome, dashing love of her life, led a charmed life.

Except something was missing: a degree (or two) of that ethereal concept of happiness. Defining it, researching it, practicing it in various forms for a full year and, finally, writing about it, has catapulted The Happiness Project to the top of the New York Times bestseller list, currently enjoying its 12th week on that literary ladder of success.

Now Gretchen’s on a mission and a whirlwind book tour, and nabbing her for an interview took some doing, and, even then, we had just 30 minutes. (Clocking out after only 27 felt like the end of an aerobics class.)

Tracing her early life in Kansas City, Gretchen was the elder of two girls, the daughter of a successful attorney and a mother who could be home while they were growing up. Her memories of childhood are, refreshingly, happy, close and loving. Refreshing, because in today’s culture, it’s sometimes uncool to have such good things to say about one’s parents.

Gretchen grew up in comfort, and she remains close to her sister and parents (a Google search of her father suggests the acorn fell close to the tree). Pleasing her parents (or in her parlance, earning gold stars) was easy: she got good grades and was encouraged to indulge her love of reading. It was assumed that she would “go east to school”. When the Yale recruiter came to town, she was “cool, smart, confident and happy,” and Gretchen wanted to be just like her. She set out for New Haven, where English literature was a natural major, and law the obvious career choice for this clearly confident woman. In her second year, she won the plum assignment to clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, with whom she remains close.

She also earned a huge gold star: meeting her future husband, Jamie. Though both were involved with others at the time, they shared back-to-back carols in the law library at Yale, and the spark was lit. Was it love at first sight? “We both were seeing others, but before long, we were seeing just each other.” Upon graduating, they moved to Washington, D.C. where each had stints with the Federal Communications Commission. As if on cue, they concluded the law was not their calling, and both embarked for New York City. Marriage and family soon followed. Jamie joined the private equity industry, and Gretchen yearned to write.

A favorite maxim she’s fond of quoting throughout The Happiness Project is “we can choose what we do, but we can’t choose what we like to do,” pointed her toward her path. While some parents might secretly express chagrin at such a sharp career turn after a pricey Ivy League education, hers, by contrast, were enthusiastic. “I’m lucky to have parents tolerant of risk,” she says, affectionately.

While walking one day she wondered what she could write that others would want to read, and soon Power Money Fame Sex hit the bookstores. Her research for that book included writings by Winston Churchill, and soon her book, Forty Ways to Look at Churchill followed, earning good reviews and even better sales, as she traced the dichotomies of arguably the greatest statesman of modern times. On a roll, she was invited to join the clubby Council on Foreign Relations, and her next project followed that political theme. Forty Ways to Look at JFK fared a different fate, however, perhaps owing to the enigma of this complex man. Her conclusion, that JFK was “both great and dreadful, and that Oswald acted alone,” was not what her readers bargained for, so sales were somewhat disappointing.

This setback, and its concomitant reflection, focused her first step in a brand new direction. While wending her way home one afternoon, Gretchen mused on her life and wondered why something seemed lacking. Despite the trappings of a story-book-perfect existence, she knew something was awry, and thus the birth of The Happiness Project, must reading for all who’ve occasionally recognized that same familiar feeling.

Is happiness illusive, ephemeral, indecipherable? Can money buy it? Gretchen quickly clarifies the meaning of happiness by paraphrasing Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s often quoted “I know it when I see it.” While happiness may be hard to define, she clarifies that its opposite is unhappiness (and not depression, a serious condition that she carefully cautions requires treatment). Happiness, like anything this determined lady undertakes, can be studied, quantified, improved, practiced and disseminated. And this she does in spades.

Like the scholar she is, Gretchen began her odyssey by reading the mass of literature available on the subject, ranging from Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama, (and even found a fortune cookie’s message, “Look for happiness under your own roof”). Her favorite guru: Saint Therese of Lisieux, a Carmelite nun, who, in her short life of just 24 years, practiced the Little Way, or daily doing small acts that made her, and others, happy. Seems so simple, yet therein lies the challenge.

Believing that successful change demands structure and accountability, and cribbing from Benjamin Franklin’s Virtues Chart, Gretchen began by listing dozens of resolutions she was determined to accomplish, and dividing them among the twelve months of the year. Her list of Twelve Commandments would guide her process. Supplemented with a list of Secrets of Adulthood, a distillation of the personal (and often simple) lessons learned throughout her life, she then overlaid it all with Four Splendid Truths, a sort of subset of simple ground rules on the topic. Finally, she crafted a chart for each month, complete with boxes next to each to monitor, the grown-up rendition of striving for gold stars.

Each month, one of the Twelve Commandments is a theme. For example, January’s is to “boost energy”, and among the resolutions was to “tackle a nagging task.” A flurry of purging closets and clutter ensued. Tossing cast-off toys and clothes with a vengeance (although she sentimentally retained the exercise t-shirt that matched Justice O’Connor’s), Gretchen learned that the mere act of clearing space created room for things that brought more happiness, and she began faithfully to chronicle her findings each day on her blog, often obtaining feedback from her readers.

Surrounding herself with reminders of happiness helped, and the famed blue bird of happiness flies across her website and watches over her when she’s at her desk. An orange-scented candle is another prop, as is organizing family mementos and keepsakes in brightly colored file boxes. Simple, little things, but the results are huge. Quick to note that happy people are nicer people, she found she was more loving to family and friends, and even faced a family crisis with courage.

Paramount in her process, Gretchen discovered that happiness starts with being who you are, not what your parents, peers or friends think you should be. She gave herself permission to Be Gretchen, and in doing so, became comfortable admitting who she was not, for example, a lover of classical music).

Weaving Midwest values into the fabric of her Upper Eastside lifestyle, the contrasts are remarkable. She often takes the subway to her beautiful Georgian apartment just off Park Avenue, wears mostly white T-shirts and yoga pants, (although trendy boutiques on Madison Avenue, just steps away, are well within her budget), and loves saving pennies on purchases whenever possible.

Perhaps practicing this self-discipline led to one of the more interesting of her Twelve Commandments: “spend out,” in which she traces the relationship between money and happiness. (Read: money can create more happiness.) Her resolution to indulge in a modest splurge manifests in both the simple and lavish (buying a better pen; contributing to charity), each contributing to more happiness in its own special way..

Too numerous to note all her secrets for happiness, here are but a few:

1) Don’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. That’s one for the ages, and in this city of ours where the emphasis always is on being the best, may be particularly poignant.

2) Recognize the difference between satisficers and maximizers – those who select what pleases them versus running ragged chasing down every conceivable option before deciding. (She sites the lady holding up the line testing every flavor of ice cream before selecting the first one, after all.)

3) Make small changes in an ordinary day, “Taking care to appear happy and especially to be so” –a direct quote from Saint Therese, of Lisieux. Act as if, and you shall be.

So, how to know what makes us happy? Gretchen’s word to the wise is simple: ask yourself two questions: 1) what did you like to do at age 10? (she loved to read) and, 2) what do you like to do on a Saturday afternoon when you have no plans (she still loves to read!). Answer those two and you’re off and running – and the world is a better place for it. Happy people are nicer people. Still unconvinced? Just imagine happy people on the subway platform during rush hour!

What is her next book project? Not surprising, something more in the happiness field. Clearly, Gretchen Rubin, this week’s Woman Around Town, shows us how, in a host of little ways.

Woman Around Town’s Six Questions

Favorite Place to Eat: Eli’s Taste at 80th and Third
Favorite Place to Shop: Nowhere; “I hate shopping.”
Favorite New York Sight: The Gates Exhibit in Central Park three years ago; I could see it from the window of Mt. Sinai where I had just given birth to my daughter, Eleanor.
What You Love About New York: Walking the streets fills my inner soul
What You Hate About New York: Cramped, crowded grocery stores.

About Merry Sheils (62 Articles)
Merry Sheils won the New York Press Club’s Journalism Award for best business writing in 2011 and 2012. As a portfolio manager for private clients, she writes a financial column for WomenAroundTown.com as well as features and profiles. She frequently writes economic and capital markets commentary, including white papers, thought leadership pieces and investment reports, for companies and investment managers. Prior to becoming a writer, Merry worked as a senior portfolio manager and investment analyst at BNYMellon and Wilmington Trust Company (now M&T Bank). A SUNY graduate with a degree in finance, she is the author of “Debt-Based Securities” and has been published in The Financial Times, Forbes and Chief Executive Magazine, and has appeared as a guest on CNBC. She founded First New York Equity, Incorporated, an investment advisory firm, and sold it to Price Waterhouse (now PricewaterhouseCoopers). She divides her time between New York City and her 18th century house in Columbia County, NY, where she is active in the North Chatham Free Library, the Old Chatham Hunt Club and the Columbia County Historical Society.

1 Comment on Woman Around Town: Gretchen Rubin—Happiness Project

  1. This a well written and fascinating introduction to Gretchen Rubin’s life and work. I look forward to reading her new book on happiness. It seems like it will be a refreshing look at the meaning of happiness. I’ve developed an honors course on Economy, Marketing and Happiness to teach at Brooklyn College where I teach business. It traces the pursuit of happiness up through today’s consumerist culture. Even business schools have begun teaching courses on happiness. We have another course on Happiness in the Workplace, taught by the deputy chair Hersh Friedman. Students love the course.

    Couldn’t help smiling when I read that “She also earned a huge gold star: meeting her future husband, Jamie…”

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