Gretchen Rubin on the Secrets to Living a Happy Life
There are many ways to live a healthy life. The Health Diaries is a weekly series about the habits that keep notable people living well.
In year 2009, Gretchen Rubin became one of the most influential voices in self-help with The Happiness Project, a bestselling book that chronicled her year of dedicating every waking moment to finding happiness. She sang in the morning, cleaned her closets, read Aristotle, and tried to embrace the idea of “fun,” in addition to interviewing dozens of experts on the topic of life satisfaction. But Rubin didn’t always intend to become a happiness authority; rather, she started out as the editor in chief of the Yale Law Journal and even clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra O’Connor, before moving on from law several years later.
Rubin followed her first book with a series of others about how to find happiness in everyday life: Happier at Home, Better Than Before, The Four Tendencies, and her newest (published March 2019), Outer Order, Inner Calm. She also hosts an award-winning podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, and has created video courses and an app called Better to help people understand themselves in order to build happier lives.
Rubin delivers her wisdom with lots of relatable personal stories and a dose of scientific research to back it all up. This week, she spoke with Elemental about how she’s incorporated her research into her own life, why she recently became obsessed with the art of organizing, and her identity as “one of those crazy low carb people.”
I wake up at 6 a.m. every day, all the time. Holidays, weekends, while traveling. The first thing I do after I get dressed is take my dog, Barnaby, for a walk. I have the early morning slot and I really like that because it gives me a reason to go outside and experience the weather. Then I grab my first cup of coffee and sit down at my desk. I know a lot of productivity experts say that, especially if you’re a morning person, you shouldn’t use your high value morning time to do things like email. But I cannot start my day until I’ve gone through my email! After that, my family starts to get up and get ready for school or work.
I always eat three scrambled eggs for breakfast with some kind of meat on the side. I’m one of these crazy low carb people that you read about. It’s a big theme of my day and one of my hobbies.
I had a true lightning bolt moment when it came to my diet. I read a book called Why We Get Fat by Gary Taubes. Then overnight, I changed everything about the way that I ate. It was the greatest thing that ever happened to me! It totally got rid of my sweet tooth and it had all kinds of good health effects so I’ve eaten that way ever since. For lunch or dinner, I have something like salmon, a burger, or cobb salad. I eat a lot of eggs in all different forms, like quiche or frittata.
Between 8 and 9 a.m. every morning, after breakfast, I go for a long walk in Central Park. Twice a week I either do yoga or a high intensity weight training class, too. My mornings are my exercise time.
I would love to have the life of a Benedictine monk. That’s my fantasy, to have a schedule where everything happens in exactly the same way every day at the same time. But my days aren’t like that at all; in fact, they’re very irregular. My schedule depends on where I am in the book cycle. For example, if I’m writing a book, I’m spending three hours every day writing. I’ll often go to a library by my house called the New York Society Library. If I’m on a book tour or I have a book that’s just come out, I’m doing interviews and traveling. On other days, I’ll have meetings leading up to a book launch. I also spend a lot of time on my podcast right now, which means going to the studio to record (which takes like two-and-a-half hours).
I love what I do and I’m very self-directed, so I can just sit down and be productive. That’s fortunate because I don’t need a lot of deadlines. I’m pretty good at telling myself what to do and doing what needs to get done.
In the afternoon, I start doing things like scheduling, which I feel is a little bit less demanding. If I’m having coffee with somebody, I do that around 3 or 4 p.m. And then it’s about quitting time. My exact stopping point really depends on what else is going on in my house that day. If my younger daughter is home from school, I try to kick off work then. But if she’s got a rehearsal for a play and my husband’s not home yet, I might work later just because I’m home by myself.
I wish I had more routine in the evening than I do, but it’s different every night. Usually I’m puttering around or coming home from something. Sometimes I’ll watch reruns of The Office with my husband or children.
I don’t really have trouble falling asleep but my husband does, so he and I will listen to the podcast Sleep with Me before bed. It’s amazing. I also don’t read before bed because it’s not a good time for me to concentrate. I might read a magazine, but I wouldn’t read a novel or a work of nonfiction. I always try to go to bed by 10:30 p.m. or earlier.
As far as habits go, I try to read and write every day. I love not eating sugar. I make a big point to feel in close connection with my parents and my sister — and now that I run the podcast with my sister, it’s easier to connect all the time. I picked these habits because there’s overwhelming research that these things lead to happiness. Exercise, relationships, sleep, reading. All of those things are not subtle, and no one doubts that they are good for you!
I think a lot of people push back on the idea of balance because it suggests that if you get the proportions right, you can do everything. I really don’t think we can do everything. I believe balance is more about the long term. Like, over a period of a month or six months, do things balance out in a way that you feel is helpful? For example, I was on a book tour this month so I was away a lot. That’s not sustainable and I wouldn’t want to live my entire life like that, but it was okay to do it for a brief period. Now it’s summer, which is more of a family time. Right now I’m not running on empty in any particular thing, which feels right.
I’ve spent years helping people sort out happiness and good habits. And over that time, I’ve noticed a special energy (maybe you’ve noticed it too) around outer order, decluttering and organizing. It makes people really excited. So one of my secrets of adulthood is that for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm. But here’s the thing: In the context of a happy life, something like a crowded coat closet is really just not a big deal. And yet the kind of exhilaration that people feel is completely disproportionate. But I know it’s real. I cleaned out a utility closet about a month ago and, I mean, I was walking past that thing every day just admiring it. I felt so great.
I wanted to explore that in my new book, Outer Order, Inner Calm: How could I create order and then maintain it? Because it’s one thing to create it, but we’ve all had the experience of cleaning out your office and two weeks later it’s like nothing ever happened. What are those little habits that we can cultivate to make order last? I wanted this book to make you feel like you can get tons of ideas, but without any clutter around them. My hope is that after people have read a third of the book, they’ll just throw it over their shoulder and race to the medicine cabinet yelling, “I gotta go, I gotta clean this thing out!”