Gretchen Rubin worries that she’s becoming a bit of a happiness bully. “I don’t want to be a bore that everyone runs away from!” she says from her apartment on New York’s Upper East Side. “It’s very hard for me not to overwhelm everyone with research and suggestions and thoughts. That I find effortless. Not talking about it—that I find hard. I have such strong ideas.”
Indeed, over the course of my conversation with the author of Better Than Before, her intriguing new book about understanding and changing habits, I find myself going from interviewer to subject. After I mention my weakness for sweets, Rubin, who herself adheres to an extremely low-carb diet, helps me strategize ways to curb my sugar consumption.
"If you have just one chocolate-covered almond, you want to have 15."
“The thing about sweets is the desire for it feeds on itself,” Rubin says, warming to the subject. “If you don’t have the first one, it goes away. If you have just one chocolate-covered almond, you want to have 15. One thing to try would be to say, I just don’t eat that at work.”
Rubin, whose previous books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home both hit the New York Times bestseller list, clearly has a passion for happiness. But as she considered the subject further, she realized that our happiness is inextricably linked with our habits. As her husband, Jamie, laughingly told her when she described her idea for a new book, “With your books about happiness, you were trying to answer the question, ‘How do I become happier?’ And this habits book is ‘No, seriously, how do I become happier?’ ”
“When you have the habits that work for you, you’re so much likelier to be happy, healthy and productive,” Rubin says. “When people were talking to me about some happiness challenge, I realized they were almost always talking about a habit. I think everybody realizes the connection between happiness and habits. In my other books, I talked about resolutions, but almost all of them also could’ve been framed as habits. It’s just part of the whole thing, which is: How do you live a life that reflects your values?”
Better Than Before is based on the premise that are four basic personality types (tendencies) that shape how we respond to outer expectations and inner expectations: Upholders, who do what others expect of them; Questioners, who only do things that make sense to them; Obligers, who do things because they don’t want to let others down; and Rebels, who do things their own way and resist direction.
With that foundation, Rubin lays out a whole host of strategies to build and sustain good habits, such as making something inconvenient (for example, putting your cell phone in another room so that you’re not as tempted to play Candy Crush) and creating distractions (for example, giving yourself a manicure to avoid dipping into that bag of chips).
The beauty of Rubin’s advice is that she understands not everyone has the same motivations and weaknesses. Better Than Before is packed with ideas, not all of which will appeal to everyone. But that’s the point—there’s something here for everyone, whether you tend to follow rules or break them.
But even Rubin, happiness guru, fails at times. One of the funniest parts of Better Than Before is Rubin’s failed attempt to cultivate the habit of daily meditation (she kept getting distracted, like when a scene from a Woody Allen movie popped into her head mid-breath, and she toppled off her pillow more than once).
“It just did not work for me,” she says a bit ruefully. “I really tried for several months every single day. I really hoped that it would work for me, because it sounds like it would be great. I found it to be frustrating, which I don’t think it’s supposed to be.”
Rubin had a more successful habits experiment when she convinced her teenage daughter to get up early one time a weekend and get her homework finished.
“I told her, ‘I will bring you tea, I will bring you toast, I will minister to you while you’re working,’ ” she says. “And it worked!”
Roping her two daughters, Eliza and Eleanor, into her book research is unusual.
“I don’t specifically include them,” she says. “My efforts to keep my energy up, keep my sense of humor up, have time to be silly”—all endeavors from her books—“a lot of it affects them, but only because it’s an outgrowth of me changing myself.”
Rubin is no stranger to change. After graduating from Yale Law School and clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, she switched careers when she realized she wanted to be a writer. And what a prolific writer she is: a website, a blog, a strong social media presence and several books (plus a couple of unpublished novels, which she deems terrible).
“I really love it, so it’s not that it doesn’t feel like work, it’s that it’s what I’d do for fun,” Rubin says. “I think of a friend who put a Post-It note above her computer that said ‘Down with boredom.’ If something’s not interesting to me, I just don’t get into it. So everything’s like an intellectual toy shop.”
Right now, that toy shop’s shelves are stocked solely with habits. Rubin has no idea what her next book project might be. “I’m still so deep in habits, I just can’t see past it right now,” she says. “It’s just so vast and so fascinating.”
And as for that no-sugar-at-work habit? I’ve stuck with it for three weeks—and have lost three pounds. Maybe happiness bullying isn’t such a bad thing.
This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.