Gretchen Rubin wants to change your habits

Author Gretchen Rubin says most people don’t think about happiness at all.
Author Gretchen Rubin says most people don’t think about happiness at all. Penguin Random House

Gretchen Rubin was on the phone from her home in Manhattan, talking fast and sounding happy.

“Yes, I am happy today,” she said. “I just cleaned out my desk, so I’m feeling much better.”

The “queen of self-help” is the author of the mega-selling “The Happiness Project” and “Happier at Home.” Along with her latest book, “Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives,” they have sold more than 2 million copies worldwide. She also records a weekly podcast with her sister, TV writer Elizabeth Craft. iTunes named “Happier With Gretchen Rubin” one of the top podcasts of 2015.

Rubin, 50, is the Sacramento Bee Book Club’s choice for February, in partnership with the Sacramento Public Library and Barnes & Noble.

But back to cleaning out her desk. … That task was conjoined to her personal Power Hour, one of the practices she formulated while writing “Better Than Before,” a multi-tiered, extroverted guide to adopting good habits while losing hurtful ones.

“I needed to make a habit of non-repetitive tasks, so once a week for an hour I tackle all the nagging things on my to-do list,” Rubin explained. “Like cleaning my desk, going to the hardware store, shredding documents. I’ve changed dozens of habits, everything from running down the stairs instead of walking as a way to boost energy, to standing up when I’m talking on the phone. I don’t spend as much time reading in bed as I would like, but I no longer finish a book if I don’t enjoy it.”

Given the big-ticket subjects Rubin takes on – happiness and habits – it’s counterintuitive that her background is in law, not psychology. She has a law degree from Yale (where she later lectured) and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor.

“I’m more like a street scientist or an old-time essayist like Samuel Johnson (in that) I write about what I observe,” she said. “I read tons of research and spend a lot of time trying to identify the glaringly obvious. My favorite thing is to look for those moments in everyday life and see a pattern that people don’t quite get until somebody points it out. Then all of a sudden it’s like, ‘Oh, I totally get it.’ 

“Gretchen’s logical mind is one of her great gifts, as a thinker and as a writer,” said Penguin Random House senior editor Mary Reynics. “It’s also a gift to me, as her editor. Her innate sense of order makes my task very clear – make sure the book achieves Gretchen’s overarching goal of providing her reader with an accessible breakdown of a complex idea.”

Getting to that happy place

Gretchen Anne Craft from Kansas City, Mo., met her husband, James Rubin, during her years at the Federal Communications Commission, where he also worked (she was a chief adviser to chairman Reed Hundt). Eventually the couple left Washington, D.C., for New York City.

“My husband went into finance, and I was trying to get an agent for a book proposal,” Rubin recalled. That eventually turned into the semi-parody “Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide” (2001), described as “instructive, ruthless, subversive and entertaining.”

Rubin’s devotion to children’s literature led her to establish three reading groups for children, “huge engines of happiness for me” (she and her husband have two daughters, 10 and 16).

“I’d been preparing myself to be a writer my whole life,” Rubin said. “(While clerking) I realized I wanted to be doing for work what I was doing in my free time, which was visually writing a book. I thought, ‘Maybe that should be my job.’ 

For “The Happiness Project,” Rubin devoted a year to exploring the concept of happiness and “chronicling my experiences and what I learned.” It was followed by “Happier At Home” when Rubin decided to go “very deeply into one aspect of happiness.”

“Happier At Home” was a nine-month project of “memoir, science, philosophy and experimentation” devoted to bringing more “simplicity and love” into her domicile.

“There aren’t many universals in life, but the big idea for most people is of home and the things that come together there,” she said. “If you’re not happy at home, it’s hard to be happy (in your life).”

Many people spend their lives seeking the elusive emotion of happiness. How can they find it?

“You start by asking, ‘How can I be happier?’ Then it’s a process of very thoughtfully (considering) what you want more of and what you want less of, and taking action,” she said. “For most people, the risk isn’t that they overthink happiness, but that they never think about it at all.”

Did the two “get-happy” books have roots in her own discontent?

“I did not come from a place of deep unhappiness, but I wasn’t as happy as I could have been,” she said. “A lot of what I was trying to do was manage myself better, so that I would be a tender, lighthearted presence instead of nagging and high-strung, which is where I more easily go. A lot of what I do to make my family happy is behave myself better. One of my 12 personal commandments is ‘lighten up.’ 

Rubin did much more than merely write the how-to memoirs; she literally lived them, which altered her perspective of and participation in the world.

“I have so much more fun, more friends and spend more time doing the things I love,” she said. “I also have much less guilt, boredom, resentment and anger. The experience of my life is much happier, even though I’m still the same person underneath.”

Finding the route to good habits

“The Happiness Project” and “Happier At Home” are very much intertwined with “Better Than Before,” said Rubin.

“That’s because people would say to me, ‘I love (to do certain things) that make me happy, and yet I never do them.’ Well, why not change your habits to find that happiness?”

Rubin’s “habit-to-happiness epiphany” came when a friend casually remarked, “I was on the track team in school, so why can’t I go running now? I don’t get it.’ 

“That was a revelation that rocked my world,” Rubin said. “Why couldn’t she go running? Same person, same behavior, how do you explain that? Why don’t people do the things they like to do? And why do they hang on to the things that cause them grief? I became very preoccupied with the role that habits play in making our lives happier, healthier and more productive. It took me a long time to figure out the answers (which are at the heart of the book).”

In “Better Than Before,” Rubin writes, “Habits are the invisible architecture of a happy life. ... The secret of changing habits is first we must know ourselves.”

“It sounds so obvious, but it’s revolutionary,” Rubin said. “The ‘habit experts’ unanimously suggest a one-size-fits-all solution: ‘Start small. Give yourself a cheat day.’ I’m saying you start by (categorizing) yourself. Are you a morning person, or a night person? A rebel, or an upholder? You don’t need a laboratory with undergraduates eating marshmallows to know that the same things don’t work for everybody.”

As an example, Rubin points to her weekly workout. “I go to a high-intensity weight-training program once a week, and that suits me in so many ways,” she said. “I like quiet and regularity. Other people want to go to exercise classes where there’s music and crowds and action. They want a scene. OK, if you like that, don’t sign up for what I do. Take the path that works for you.”

One of the questions Rubin dissects in “Better Than Before” is, “Why are good habits so hard to keep?”

“One reason is loopholes,” she said. “We are amazing advocates for ourselves about why we should be let off the hook of keeping a good habit. ‘I have to eat this brownie because I’m at your house and I’ll hurt your feelings if I don’t.’ That’s the ‘concern for others’ loophole. There are many to choose from.”

“Better Than Before” asks readers to answer lists of questions concerning their values, traits and preferences. The questionnaire “My Current Habits” includes this: “If I could magically, effortlessly change one habit, what would it be?”

Rubin considered her own question. “I would stop twisting my hair, but that’s a nervous habit,” she said. “If it was another kind of habit, hmm. … It sounds so trivial, but I’m not good at putting away my clothes at the end of the day and it drives my husband crazy. If I really wanted to work on it, I could.”

Allen Pierleoni: 916-321-1128, @apierleonisacbe

Bee Book Club

with Gretchen Rubin

The presentation begins at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 11, at the Tsakopoulos Library Galleria, 828 I St., Sacramento. Doors open at 5:15 p.m. It’s a free event, but tickets are required. Please do not phone the library for tickets; it does not distribute them. Go to to register and download free tickets (two per guest).

Barnes & Noble will sell “Better Than Before” for 30 percent off the retail price at the Bee Book Club event (Broadway, $16, 320 pages). Also, these bookstores offer the same discount through Thursday: Barnes & Noble; Avid Reader at the Tower in Sacramento; Avid Reader in Davis; Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills; Time Tested Books; Underground Books; Hornet Bookstore at California State University, Sacramento; the UC Davis Bookstore; and the Bookseller in Grass Valley.