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How Happy is Gretchen Rubin?

Gretchen Rubin’s been keeping it positive, despite the circumstances. Then again, that’s probably what you’d expect from one of the most prominent voices on the subject of happiness. Rubin is the best-selling author behind books like “The Happiness Project” and “The Four Tendencies,” and she has the distinction of being one of the earliest author-to-podcaster crossovers in the business with her podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin, launching back in 2015. Nick talks to Rubin about her interest in the subject of happiness and human nature, her podcasting work and the concept of “self-help” as a genre.

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Servant of Pod: How Happy is Gretchen Rubin? Episode 16

Thu, 11/5 1:26PM • 22:25

SUMMARY KEYWORDS

people, book, gretchen, happier, memoir, podcast, podcasters, laughter, happiness, thought, sister, writer, life, voice, author, called, research, subject, world, hear

SPEAKERS

Gretchen Rubin, "Happier" Excerpt, Nick Quah

Gretchen Rubin 00:00

The idea of being happy doesn't mean that you would be “10,” on the 1-to-10 scale, 24/7. That is not possible. That's not even a good life.

Nick Quah 00:11

This is Gretchen Rubin, best-selling author, podcaster, and a prominent voice on the subject of happiness. And yeah, happiness is a little tricky right now, given that we're in the middle of a global pandemic and a moment of racial reckoning in the United States.

Gretchen Rubin 00:27

Obviously, there are times when it's appropriate to feel angry, or resentful, or bitter, or agitated, or fearful, or uncertain, or disappointed, or guilty, ashamed, all these things. But the question is: given your circumstances, and given the events of the world, are you as happy as you can be?

Nick Quah 00:49

From LAist Studios, this is Servant of Pod. I'm Nick Quah. On this week's episode: Gretchen Rubin's empire of happiness. So, let me show my cards here for a second: I'm a big consumer of self-help books. And I realize that as I say this, I feel pretty self-conscious about it. Self-help is a contentious area. And Gretchen Rubin would be the first to admit just how loaded that term is. But does she even think that what she does is self-help?

Gretchen Rubin 01:29

I would say it's "self-helpful."

Nick Quah 01:29

Mm-hmm. [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 01:31

Yeah.

Nick Quah 01:32

Tell me the distinction.

Gretchen Rubin 01:34

I just feel like self-help... I love self-help, but for a lot of people, it has very negative connotations, as your question suggests. You could also call this a reported memoir. I think this is a form that's really catching on. I have many friends who have written reported memoirs, where you use your own story and your own experience as the underlying structure, and it gives it some narrative movement, and some suspense, and that interest that comes from one person's story, but then there's a lot of research and, for some people, actual reporting that goes into it, to widen it out and make it beyond one person's story. So it's sort of a combination of a memoir, and reporting or research. Mine fall in that camp. I do a tremendous amount of research, but I think it reads much more like, "Hey, this is one person's story." And I think that does make it more accessible or more interesting to some people.

Nick Quah 02:28

It's funny, when I hear "reported memoir," I think of David Carr's The Night of The Gun.

Gretchen Rubin 02:33

Yes. Right. Well, he really reported on himself, yes.

Nick Quah 02:36

[Laughter] Yeah.

Gretchen Rubin 02:37

Because he was like, "I don't remember, because I was a drug addict, so I had to actually go look things up."

Nick Quah 02:41

Yeah.

Gretchen Rubin 02:42

Yeah.

Nick Quah 02:43

So, calling it a reported memoir, do you think there's less baggage with that? Because there seems to be a general distaste, or criticism, or negativity towards self-help as a genre.

Gretchen Rubin 02:53

Yeah, even though it's wildly popular.

Nick Quah 02:55

Yeah, even though it's wildly popular! A little bit. I don't know. There's a lot of... like pop music, almost. I'm personally a big consumer of self-help stuff.

Gretchen Rubin 03:04

Good!

Nick Quah 03:05

I want to explore that a little bit. Why is there this disparity between, on the one hand, the consumer popularity of it, and the fact that it is helpful for a lot of people? But there's a lot of critical arguments that I think find some genuine theoretical purchase in some areas. But...

Gretchen Rubin 03:21

Sure.

Nick Quah 03:21

Talk to me a little bit about that.

Gretchen Rubin 03:24

Well, I think it's a very earnest form, and some people just don't like earnest. I remember when I wrote The Happiness Project, somebody said to me, "Earnest doesn't sell, you need to be ironic." And I'm like, an ironic book about this? No, that's just not gonna work. And I'm a very earnest person, too. So I think that's part of it, I think part of it is, it's often kind of light, or there's a lot of bad examples of it that are very striking and often very popular, so they're in your face. And also part of it is there's--and I'm very much caught in this--there's the astrology and there's the astronomy. So there's the astronomy of it, which I think people do take seriously, then there's the astrology of it. And many people are somewhere along that continuum. And I think if you're more on the astronomy side of it, then you really sort of dismiss the astrology.

Nick Quah 04:08

Yeah.

Gretchen Rubin 04:08

Even though sometimes those things really penetrate to people and can be quite significant to them. So I think it's kind of caught in that tension as well.

Nick Quah 04:15

Hmm. So you're saying it's like, this is a genre that's typically been defined, at least popularly, by its bad examples, as opposed to its good examples,

Gretchen Rubin 04:23

At least by the people who are criticizing it, yes. You know, the thing about things like happiness, it's like all the big ideas have already been discovered. This is too big a subject. The greatest minds in human history have thought about how to be happy. So anything that's new, or particularly flashy, is probably kind of questionable too. So I think, sometimes, to get heard in a noisy marketplace, people sort of push it too far.

Nick Quah 04:48

Gretchen argues that her work is less self-help, and more about what makes people tick. And she uses her own internal compass as guidance. Gretchen went to law school because she didn't know what else to do. While she clerked for the late Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, she found herself thinking about more than case law.

Gretchen Rubin 05:06

On my lunch hour, while I was clerking, and I was wandering around Capitol Hill, and I just asked myself a rhetorical question--you know how you do, you sort of pose yourself these questions--and I said, "Well, what am I interested in that everyone else in the world is interested in?" And I thought, well, power, money, fame, sex. It was like, "Power! Money! Fame! Sex!" And I immediately ran out and started doing all this massive research on what I consider to be one giant subject: "power money fame sex." And I often get really preoccupied with subjects and will do tons and tons of research on them just for fun. But this sort of took over, and I was just working on it all the time. And I finally realized, this is the kind of thing a person would do to write a book about a subject. And I thought, well, maybe I could write that book. And I went out to a bookstore and got something called like, "How To Write and Sell Your Nonfiction Book Proposal," and I just followed the directions. So it wasn't so much a rejection of law as it was that I felt this immense pull, and not just toward writing, but to writing this particular book.

Nick Quah 06:08

She published Power Money Fame Sex: A User's Guide in 2000, followed by two books on a couple of the most powerful men in the world: Winston Churchill and John F. Kennedy. Was that, in your mind at the time, like, "I'm gonna try to build up a publishing career here, and just gonna come up with a bunch of different ideas?" How did that phase of your writing career play out?

Gretchen Rubin 06:28

Well, you know, with each book that I write, it's almost like I become incredibly interested in a particular subject. So it's almost like I can't help but write that book. And that's something that's not uncommon among writers. A lot of times they'll have sort of a blocking project where it's so important to do a particular project, that you kind of can't help it. And it's funny, because I think looking at all my books, now, those books look sort of out of place. But to me, they fit extremely firmly within everything I've done, because they're really examinations of human nature, which is really my subject. My subject is human nature. So those books were really about how can we understand human nature better by understanding these particular lives?

Nick Quah 07:05

And so in that era of your book writing, what did writing those books help you understand about human nature? And/or, what did you understand about "power fame money sex" that you didn't before writing the book?

Gretchen Rubin 07:17

Well, I think one of the things that I really grew to understand is that with strengths come weaknesses, and usually they're the same thing. Like Jack Kennedy's strengths were in many ways, his weaknesses. Churchill's strengths were his weaknesses. His tremendous belligerence, his love of war, served him so well at certain times of his life, but at other times, he was highly criticized for it--justly. And so it's sort of like when you look at someone, you say, "Well, this is a strength and a weakness." So it's a question of like, how do you get the benefits of the strengths, but how do you understand the weaknesses that come from it? Like one of the things I understand about myself is I'm highly disciplined, but that also means that I can be rigid. So I have to learn how to... Okay, how do I shake off the bad parts of rigidity, but then take advantage of the discipline that I love? So I think that's one thing that really came... I really saw playing out in both those lives over and over.

Nick Quah 08:09

Yeah. And so that sort of exploration of human nature, eventually would bring you to the concept of happiness, right?

Gretchen Rubin 08:15

Yeah.

Nick Quah 08:16

What was that trigger? Why were you working on that idea?

Gretchen Rubin 08:19

Well, I was finishing up my JFK book. And I had... and I was waiting for it to come out. So I had sort of open space in my head, which I don't often have. And I was on a city bus, in the pouring rain, and I looked out the window and I thought, "What do I want from life anyway?" Which I never asked myself. I thought, "Well, I want to be happy." But I realized I never spent any time thinking about like, "Am I happy? What does it mean to be happy? Could I be happier?" So I ran to the library the next day and checked out a giant stack of books about the science of happiness, the philosophy, memoirs, anything to try to understand: what is happiness? Can I be happier? And at first, it was just something for me, I was just interested in for my own life. And I actually had the thought, like, "I should do a happiness project." So that was how the idea struck me. But then I just got deeper, and deeper, and deeper into it. And finally I thought, "Wow, this is such a big subject. It's so rich and interesting. Maybe this should be my next book." And then I've been just expanding out from there ever since.

Nick Quah 09:23

And eventually, it would become her thing. More in a minute.

"Happier" Excerpt 09:47

Hello, and welcome to Happier: a podcast that gives you strategies and tips for how to build happier habits into your daily life. We discuss cutting-edge science, the wisdom of the ages, lessons from pop culture, and our own experiences.

Nick Quah 10:03

Gretchen's 2009 book The Happiness Project became a New York Times bestseller. And five years ago, she launched her podcast Happier, with her sister Elizabeth Craft.

Gretchen Rubin 10:14

My sister and I, for years, had been saying, "We should have a radio show." So I was like, this is even better than a radio show. So I called her and I was like, this could be a big public failure. I'm just telling you right now.

Nick Quah 10:26

Yeah.

Gretchen Rubin 10:27

And she's like, "Sure, I'll do it. 100%. That sounds great." We had Car Talk as our model.

Nick Quah 10:32

Oh, really?

Gretchen Rubin 10:33

We are the Car Talk of happiness, yes.

Nick Quah 10:35

That makes a ton of sense in hindsight. [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 10:37

Right?

Nick Quah 10:38

Yeah!

Gretchen Rubin 10:39

Because part of it is that it's information. There's tons of information, but delivered in this personal way. And through this relationship of sisters, just like, Click and Clack.

Nick Quah 10:49

And when Gretchen says it's personal, she means it. She always tries out the advice she shares in her books and podcasts on herself before sharing it with her readers and listeners.

Gretchen Rubin 10:59

You know, really, when I'm writing, I'm writing for myself. You know, they say "research is 'me-search,'" and so I'm always writing what I need to know. So I'm always kind of my own guinea pig. And I think that's a really important test. Because look, you can give people tons of great advice, if you don't try to take it yourself. You know? [Laughter] And a lot of times I read stuff, and I'm like, "That sounds good on paper, but I don't know if you tested that out on very many people, because I don't... that's not what I see playing out." And I'm so fortunate that I am in constant contact with people, so I get so many examples of people that I think then can enliven it. Because a lot of times when somebody tells you a principle, it's not that you disagree with it, you're just like, "Yeah, but what does that mean for me?" and then you hear, "Well, this is what one person did," or, "This is how it played out for somebody else," then you can make it real in your own life. And so I'm really fortunate that the world is my research assistant, because I get so much richness from hearing these ideas play out with far more people than I could ever actually talk to in one lifetime.

Nick Quah 11:25

Yeah. The show started in 2015. It was produced at the now-defunct production house Panoply. That's where I met Gretchen. And she was one of the few authors using podcasting as a platform to share published content.

Gretchen Rubin 12:12

I was surprised that more people didn't do it. I mean, at that time, you have Elizabeth Gilbert's Magic Lessons, which was doing extremely well. It was a limited run series that was done specifically to promote the book, Magic Lessons. And I thought it was a huge example of a success. And I was surprised that she stopped the podcast, given how successful it was. But I remember going to a presentation and being like, "Oh, my gosh, every author is going to try to get in on this." But what you realize is that, first of all, a lot of people aren't interested in it. Second of all, like our content on Happier, which is very much tied to my written content, it really lends itself. Like, being a biographer of Winston Churchill, that wouldn't be as easy... like, we've had, this podcast has been going for five years, we've never missed a week--we're super vain about that. We've never repeated an episode, we've never done a "favorites," "greatest hits," we've never missed an episode. Because this subject lends itself to the form. So there's a great marriage between the content and the podcast--what people go to podcasts for. So I think there's a lot of authors where that would have been harder to do. But then you look at someone like Dani Shapiro, and Family Secrets, and how her book Inheritance was very specifically her story, but then she realized that there was such an appetite for this kind of story as she was traveling around the world doing her book tour, that she thought, "This could be a great podcast." And it is a great podcast. So it's not about her book Inheritance, but it definitely comes out of her book Inheritance, and it's definitely tied to her. How much she's recognized as a writer, I think.

Nick Quah 13:38

Yeah, well, it seems like there's almost two emerging models here. One is the "author makes a nonfiction investigative series" or something like that, like what Malcolm Gladwell and Pushkin Industries is doing, and then there's this other notion of community-driven, personality-driven--not a big fan of the word "personal brand," but I feel like it's relevant to this discussion. I feel like that's the second model that's happening.

Gretchen Rubin 14:03

I can take "voice." I think "voice" sounds better for writers.

Nick Quah 14:06

That's a fair... that's a much better edit. [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 14:07

So, voice.

Nick Quah 14:07

Good edit.

Gretchen Rubin 14:10

Yeah.

Nick Quah 14:11

Yeah. [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 14:13

I run into that all the time. People are like, "I don't want to have a brand!" Like, "But could you have a voice?" Yes, we're all very comfortable with the idea of "Yes, I have a voice."

Nick Quah 14:20

Yeah. And in that situation, the product is yourself, basically. Does that ever get exhausting?

Gretchen Rubin 14:27

To me, it's really, really energizing. And again, I think it's the way that my content is always... I'm always sort of test-driving it against myself. Also, you know, having my sister as my co-host, Elizabeth Craft; I mean, my sister herself is a super accomplished writer. She's a TV writer and showrunner in Los Angeles. She's brilliant. I've called her "my sister the sage" since we were like 12 years old--I'm five years older than she is. And it's funny, because when we started, somebody said, "Well, you're gonna have to really fight with your sister because people are really interested in conflict. And if there's no conflict--"

Nick Quah 14:54

Who's giving you this advice?? [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 14:56

Oh, a lot of people! Like, one of the biggest things I had to do was figure out the bad advice and the good advice. So they were like, you have to have conflict. I was like, that's a problem, because I have less conflict with my sister than literally anyone else in my life. But what we realized is we don't have conflict, but we have differences. We see things differently, we have different experiences, we have different challenges. And so we can talk about those differences so that people will often say, "Oh, I'm more of an Elizabeth than a Gretchen." But then it also kind of gives us more things we can talk about, because she's got different issues and different takes than I have. And certainly different ideas. You know, she has so many great ideas.

Nick Quah 15:30

And as of now, has her own show, Happier in Hollywood. And you built something called The Onward Project.

Gretchen Rubin 15:37

Yes.

Nick Quah 15:37

Could you tell me a little bit about that decision to build a... I guess we can call it network, but, you know, kind of like an imprint?

Gretchen Rubin 15:44

I'd say it's kind of an imprint, yeah, I guess.

Nick Quah 15:45

Yeah.

Gretchen Rubin 15:45

That's the metaphor to use. Yeah. And so the idea is, these are shows that are gonna make your life better, in one way or another. So there's everything from Side Hustle School with Chris Guillebeau, that's basically "how to have a side hustle," which... now more than ever. And then the latest addition is Kate Bowler's Everything Happens, and she is somebody who really talks about the very, really super challenging things from her memoir Everything Happens. It's about her getting... having stage four cancer and living with that, it's about how to make your life better in all these different ways. And one of the things I really hope to do is to invest more in it, and to build it out much more. I haven't done that to the degree that I really want to do, really, to scale it up. Yeah. Because I think there's a lot of possibility there.

Nick Quah 16:27

Tell me a little bit about the thinking around that, because I think there's a... I feel like in the podcast industry, right now, we kind of moved away from this model of thinking about things in terms of podcast networks. And I think there's a lot of companies nowadays that kind of view themselves as publishers, that have multiple projects. But with something like The Onward Project, you're essentially building a stable of individual people, and individual writers, and voices.

Gretchen Rubin 16:52

Yeah.

Nick Quah 16:52

What is the, on the one hand, opportunity here, but on the other hand, what is the responsibility over working with an author that you brought into this model?

Gretchen Rubin 17:01

Well, I think one of the big key things is discovery, right? Like I can't believe we've talked this long, and we haven't talked about discovery! Because any time you talk about podcasters, all they want to talk about is discovery, because it's a huge issue. How do you help people discover stuff that they like? How do you get people to listen to podcasts? How do you help them find the content that's really going to grab them?

Nick Quah 17:20

You're, I think, one of the few podcasters that's very public about trying to solve that problem on your own terms. And you built that Gift of Podcast website, right?

Gretchen Rubin 17:27

Yes, giftofpodcast.com! Podcasters, listeners: this is like... it's a cheap... you just, I'll email you this PDF, and you can fill it out like a gift certificate, so you can put a ribbon around it, give it to somebody for their birthday, or for a holiday. And you're like, "I'm giving you the gift of podcast, I'm giving you the gift of 20,000 Hertz, because I know you love music and you love sound, you'll love 20,000 Hertz!" Because it's free, anybody who has a smartphone can listen to a podcast. Finding a podcast that you love, or discovering a podcast for the first time, is like the most mind-blowing, exciting thing. So everybody go to giftofpodcast.com and we can grow the pie. Yes, I'm getting on my high horse. Grow the pie!

Nick Quah 18:05

[Laughter] It's like a--

Gretchen Rubin 18:06

Let's get more people listening to podcasts!

Nick Quah 18:07

Well, that's one thing I really like about you, you're--

Gretchen Rubin 18:11

Share 'em here! Let's fight for it!

Nick Quah 18:11

[Laughter] You're really, really giving back to the community in this way. And I appreciate the earnestness of it. Like, every time I try to phrase things in that way, I feel very self-conscious about it. [Laughter]

Gretchen Rubin 18:20

Well, it helps all of us. It helps great content to get discovered, which it's harder, and you talk about this all the time in your newsletter and on Servant of Pod, as more and more people come into it, it's harder and harder for independents, unique voices, people who don't already have a huge hook to get heard. But one way we can help is by shining a spotlight on things that we know other people would like. And if you you... maybe you've got a giant newsletter, or maybe you just give it to a friend... Believe me, every podcaster's like, "Tell a friend, that would really help me out." I mean, how many people say that in their in their closing? "Please be sure to subscribe, rate, and review us, and tell a friend. That really helps listeners find our show." Right? We've all done it.

Nick Quah 19:01

This might be a non sequitur question, but it's really not--and I'm just curious: to what extent do you view your work--either as an author or a podcaster--to what extent do you see it as a form of service?

Gretchen Rubin 19:15

Well, I think it is a form of service in that what I hope is that I make it feel easy, and possible, and enticing for people to do the things that would make them happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. And I think a lot of times there are things people could do that just haven't occurred to them. I mean, one of the things that the research shows is, sometimes there's this idea that if people are happy, they just want to like drink margaritas by the beach all day long. But research shows that happier people are more interested in the problems of the world. They're more interested in the problems of the people around them, they're more likely to vote, they're more likely to donate money, they're more likely to volunteer their time, they make better leaders and better team members, they're more likely to help out if somebody needs a hand, and so I think that it's one way to try to help people have the energy and the wherewithal to turn outward. If you feel like you're "good," then you can turn outward and think about, well, how can I help other people?

Nick Quah 20:14

Okay, so what do you think is a way that we can help ourselves, so we can help other people, given the state of the world right now?

Gretchen Rubin 20:23

So we talk about “Power Hour,” which is when you set aside an hour every weekend to do all the nagging tasks that you never... things that can be done at any time, or done at no times. So these... that's when you do like, go to the hardware store for that weird light bulb or whatever. So a listener proposed a wrinkle on that, which it turned out people keep talking about, which is “Empower Hour,” which is when you take an hour every week, and you think of something to do to put your values into the world. So people have done things like write their congressman, or research organizations to donate money to, to support causes that they believe in, reading books about, you know, policy that maybe you're not going to... you'd have to set aside time to study those books because they're not just your average "read a chapter before bed every night" type of book. So that's a way where we also try to show to listeners ideas for how to make ideas real. Yeah, you say you want to be an anti-racist. What does that look like for people? What are they actually doing? Maybe that'll give you an idea of your own life. Maybe you can actually make change real.

Nick Quah 21:22

Gretchen, thank you so much for taking time to talk to me. I really appreciate this.

Gretchen Rubin 21:25

Oh, Nick, I always love to talk. Thank you for having me.

Nick Quah 21:28

My pleasure. Servant of Pod is written and hosted by me, Nick Quah. You can check out more episodes at laist.com/servantofpod. The show was produced by Andrea Asuaje, Jessica Alford, and John Perotti at Rococo Punch. Web design by Andy Cheatwood and the digital and marketing teams at Southern California Public Radio. Logo and branding by Leo G. Thanks to the team at LAist Studios, including Kristin Hayford, Taylor Coffman, Kristen Muller, and Leo G. Servant of Pod is a production of LAist Studios.

This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people.