ARCHIVE: Happiness is a Hot Shticklet

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Why is this woman so happy? Gretchen Rubin has a real understanding of Happiness — the concept, the lifestyle, and THE HAPPINESS PROJECT, her Number One bestselling “shticklet” that she’ll be sharing from at NovelTeas Authors Aromas & Gifts this Thursday night.

By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit February 22, 2010)

So this past Saturday found us having lunch with an old friend who’s moving back to Colorado after several unhappy years in NYC; a period marked by lengthy unemployment, hospital stays, lack of any lasting relationship and a sense of “just never having felt like a New Yorker.” The two of us traded grouses and grumbles and tales of woe over coffee at friendly, sunlit Tommy’s — and before he caught a train back to the city we took him out to the local cemetery where his parents and siblings are buried. Not just in the ground, but, as it turned out, still beneath a good ten inches of snow.

All in all, a pleasant afternoon — and all the while we had to keep checking the time so we wouldn’t be late for our interview with the author of The Happiness Project.

A past editor of the Yale Law Journal and a former clerk for an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, Gretchen Rubin is a seriously credentialed attorney, daughter-in-law to a former Secretary of the Treasury, and authority on some similarly serious topics — from Winston Churchill and JFK to Power Money Fame Sex (the collective subjects of the User’s Guide she authored in 2001).

The New York-based power mom and powerblogger is also serious about happiness — and in her 2009 book on the topic, the author chronicles “the year she spent test-driving studies and theories about how to be happier,” a weaving together of “philosophy, scientific research, history, analysis, and real-life experiences” that draws some often surprising conclusions — and a phenomenon that’s resulted in fan groups, Happiness blogs (including Rubin’s own), plus a trip to the top of the New York Times Hardcover Advice best-sellers list.

A busy contributor to the likes of SlateHuffPost and RealSimple.com, Rubin has been promoting and signing the book at appearances across the nation (including a sit-down with Ann Curry on Today back in January) — and this Thursday evening, she comes to Red Bank for a personal appearance at NovelTeas Authors Aromas & Gifts, the newly inaugurated book salon/ tea room/ gift boutique established by Kim Widener as a home base and focal point for her nascent NovelTeas brand (under which name she’s brought such notable scribes to the area as Gossip Girl creator Cecily von Ziegesar and National Book Award-winning novelist Colum McCann). Admission to the 7-9pm event is, unfortunately for happy-come-latelys,sold out — but we at Red Bank oRBit are very happy to bring you this exclusive chat with Ms. Rubin, beginning with the flip of the pixelated page — an interview in which, among other things, you’ll find out just precisely what a “shticklet” is.

RED BANK oRBit: Your book seems to belong to this subgenre, which I’m not even sure they have a name for, in which the author writes about a year spent living according to Oprah’s rules or cooking every recipe in the Julia Child cookbook…

GRETCHEN RUBIN: They actually have a whole lot of nicknames! “Annualism” is a name that some people use. “Shticklets” is another. Sometimes they’re just called “Year Of” books, as in my friend A.J. Jacobs‘ book, The Year of Living Biblically. And I know Robyn Okrant, who wrote Living Oprah.

I imagine you guys all hanging out together, dreaming up ways to spend entire years. 

People who’ve written those kind of books definitely get lumped together!

So what’s the origin of your book? Did you experience some setbacks in your life that caused you to  seek happiness, or were you so happy already that you wanted to share it with the world?

It happened while I was on a bus, during one of those moments of reflection. I had put a lot of time and energy into being a lawyer. I’m glad I did it, but I came to the realization that it was the wrong choice.

I asked myself just what do I want; I didn’t specifically know, although I knew that I should have felt happy. I had all the elements that I felt were important to being happy, but I had let myself become distracted. I expected more.

What did you do as your next step, or as the first step in your personal Happiness Project? 

The way my lawyerly mind attacked it was to get a huge pile of books on the subject of happiness, and to start reading them for the answers.

One thing that I learned, as I read through these books for guidance, was that the things that most inspired me were the stories of the idiosyncratic characters; the people who followed their own path — like Thoreau when he went to Walden Pond. And Samuel Johnson was a great inspiration.

These are guys who lived during a time when happiness was something that most people could never attain — for them, basic subsistence was pretty much as good as it got. By and large, though, the stereotype of the writer is an unhappy soul — alcoholic, depressed, forever frustrated. But you’re saying that a writer can be a happy person?

Sure! When you look at it as getting to do what you want. I feel lucky, being a writer, getting to do that professionally — nowadays it’s even harder to be a professional writer. But when you make a change like that, you need to be realistic. I spent a lot of time learning about the business of publishing. And starting a blog was a major undertaking, much harder than a lot of people think.

People should be realistic about their dreams. A lot of people have “magical” ideas about starting their own business; they fantasize about what it’s like, without always having an understanding of the time and money involved in being your own boss.

But isn’t the pursuit of happiness kind of a magical idea too? Wouldn’t it be more realistic to be a skeptical, negative person? 

There is such a thing as a negativity bias — negative things have attention drawn to them; it’s easy for us to think about what we don’t like. And yet, there have been studies done that indicate that a majority of people, no matter where they live, will still say that they’re happy, or even very happy.

Still, it’s been a rough couple of years for a lot of people, and happiness can seem pretty unattainable at times. 

A few days ago I posted a piece on my blog about “How to Be Happy If You Lose Your Job.” It’s not easy, of course, but there are ways, and those ways involve choices. Life involves choices — if you want to live in New York City and you want to have a big yard, well then you have to pick one or the other. You don’t have to haveeverything to be happy. That’s a fallacy.

Another fallacy that I’d like to mention is that possessions don’t equal happiness. Well, for a lot of people possessions can make you very,very happy. I’ll give you a good example — pets. For a lot of us, our pets are a thing that we possess, and also a source of great happiness. One woman I talked to told me that she didn’t have the money for material possessions, that she spent her money on her horse. Well, that horse cost a lot of money to buy and feed and keep, so obviously she was spending her money on the thing that made her happy.

So buying a yacht can make me feel happy, instead of shallow and empty. 

That yacht can be purely conspicuous consumption for one person, and for another person who just loves sailing it can be the most extraordinary passion in their life. For somebody else it could be, I don’t know, a nice set of kitchen knives that makes them happy! Or a dining room table; a place for the family to gather during holidays.

There’s another fallacy that people keep falling for, and that’s the “arrival” fallacy — the way of thinking that says, once I get that new job I’ll be happy. Once I have a baby, I’ll be happy. It’s a very well known challenge to real happiness.

Ultimately, though, would you characterize your book not as a prescription for happiness per se, but an exploration of the idea of happiness, as you’ve experienced it?

The reason that I wouldn’t call my book a self-help sort of book is that this is what happened to me — what did I do to have more fun, to have a more peaceful home. Not “you can follow me and be successful too.” There’s actually nothing new in my book; nothing original — deep down, every one of us already knows everything that I write about. It’s just a question of, how do you bring it into your life?

We can only build a happy life on the foundation of our own nature. “Know Thyself” — those words are chiseled on the Temple of Apollo at Delphi! And the more you know about yourself, the more you can share your life.

Well, you’ve certainly brightened my day here, and I thank you for taking the time to chat for our little website in between the Today Show interviews! One more before we go — what’s next for the writer of the Happiness Project?

Oh, probably Happiness Project II — I think I still have a lot more to say about the subject!

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