Gretchen Rubin, an author and mother, has spent the last eight years trying to get happier.
On her blog and in her bestselling books, including The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, Rubin chronicles her quest to make life more joyful for herself, her family, and her friends.
Lately, she’s been focusing on the link between happiness and habits.
“Habits are the invisible architecture of daily life,” she writes in Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives, which was published this week. “We repeat about 40 percent of our behavior almost daily, so our habits shape our existence, and our future.”
“If we change our habits, we change our lives.”
In a recent interview, Rubin, who lives in New York City with her husband and school-aged daughters, told me about the habits she’s cultivating in herself, the ones she’s suggesting to her parents, and what she does every day to help her kids and their grandparents bond.
In Better Than Before, you describe your efforts to eat well, get fit, and help your parents do the same. How successful were you at impelling them to form better habits?
I wanted to help my mother form the habit of exercising more, and I think I was helpful.
She’d been walking twice around a park near her apartment, but hadn’t been doing it regularly. I suggested that she just go once around the park—and that she does far more habitually. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good! I also showed her how to listen to audiobooks, and that made walking more enjoyable for her.
I hadn’t set out to try to get my father to change his eating habits, but after I read Gary Taubes’s book Why We Get Fat and completely changed my own eating habits to be very low-carbohydrate—to very positive effect—my father became intrigued.
He read Taubes’s work and slowly changed his diet to be low-carb, too. He’s had amazing results.
He loves eating that way, is never hungry, has lost more than 30 pounds (he now weighs what he weighed in high school), has had his medications cut in half or discontinued, and his heart health is vastly improved.
It’s been so gratifying for him. To see all your numbers improve so much, when you’re in your mid-70s … very encouraging.
It’s great to think that I helped them form better habits.
Can you name a good habit you picked up from one of your parents or one of your in-laws? Have you stuck with it?
A long time ago, my father gave me the habit of regular exercise.
When I was in high school, I wanted to redecorate my bedroom, and he said, “Okay, but you have to do something for 20 minutes a day, four days a week.”
He wouldn’t tell me what it was.
I decided to agree to the deal—and I was actually relieved that he’d given me the push to start running. I knew I should exercise, but I needed something to get me going.
It was a habit I knew I wanted, and he got me started.
In Happier At Home, the sequel to The Happiness Project, you discuss how important your daughters and their grandparents are to one another. Now that the girls are older and busier, do you have to work harder to make sure everyone stays in good touch?
Yes, this is very important to me.
We live right around the corner from my in-laws—literally—so that’s easier. My mother-in-law often picks up my daughters from school (we live within walking distance to school); they have sleepovers at their grandparents’ apartment; and we have family celebrations for birthdays and holidays. It’s so easy, when the grandparents are so nearby.
Plus we take two vacations with them each year, at spring break and at Labor Day.
My parents live in Kansas City, so we take a different approach. We see them less often, but for longer periods of time.
We spend a week there every Christmas and summer, and my parents often come to New York City. And every summer, each of my daughters goes to Kansas City for a week by herself.
For Better Than Before, one habit I worked on building was the habit of sending frequent photos to the grandparents—so they can see the new haircut, the school show, us eating lunch at a diner. It’s a good, easy way to feel more connected to each other.
You’ve been vacationing with your in-laws for years. Can you offer any suggestions for making three-generation trips a success?
Yes! My suggestion is: don’t let anyone get too hungry!
When you have three generations, when to eat seems to become an issue. I realized that if we weren’t careful, it was easy for someone to get “hangry” (hungry/angry), so I pay close attention to that. And I travel with a lot of almonds.
What sort of relationships did you and your sister have with your grandparents, and how would you compare them to the relationships your daughters have with theirs?
My sister and I were very close to our grandparents.
We were lucky; since our parents are both from North Platte, Nebraska, whenever we went to North Platte, we could see both sets of grandparents very easily. We could ride bikes from one house to the other.
We went there every summer—the long car-rides to Nebraska loom large in my memory of childhood—and my grandparents often visited us.
It’s interesting, though: I think that now people are older, younger and younger, older—meaning that young people are more like adults than they used to be, and older people are more likely to share interests and habits with younger people.
My parents and in-laws are far more youthful in their habits and interests than my grandparents were, and that makes it easier for them to have an easy, close relationship with their grandchildren.
For instance, my mother and my daughter talk about fashion. That wasn’t true for me and my grandmothers, for sure.