Happiness expert Gretchen Rubin shares the habits that 'put me in a beautiful place'

·5-min read
Author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin on adopting rewarding benefits. (Photo: Courtesy of The Happiness Project; designed by Quinn Lemmers)
Author and happiness expert Gretchen Rubin on adopting rewarding benefits. (Photo: Courtesy of The Happiness Project; designed by Quinn Lemmers)

The Unwind is Yahoo Life’s well-being series in which experts, influencers and celebrities share their approaches to wellness and mental health, from self-care rituals to setting healthy boundaries to the mantras that keep them afloat.

Gretchen Rubin is the ultimate proponent of how habits can shape a happier life. The author of books such as The Happiness Project, Better Than Before and The Four Tendencies has built a career studying and writing about human nature, with her takeaway being that there’s really no one-size-fits-all approach to living well. Instead of offering the same blanket guidance to all, Rubin is all about helping people find happiness strategies that work for them.

Her latest endeavor, the Happier App, was created to help people track the habits that enrich their lives. (Yahoo readers can download the app using the code HAPPIERNOW.)

There may be no singular approach to happiness, but when it comes to how Rubin herself maintains her mental well-being, it’s all about connection. Chatting with Yahoo Life over video call, the New York City resident shares why she makes a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art a part of her daily routine, how she helps her two daughters manage stress and why she’s a big fan of the “walk and talk.”

How did the pandemic change how you think about well-being?

It deepened my understanding of how crucial relationships are to our well-being. It’s the science experiment that none of us would have signed up for, but we were all part of it. You saw how many people tried to find workarounds for when people couldn’t meet up the way they used to. You saw how bereft people were when they were cut off from the usual ways of connecting. We’re still sort of trying to figure how to make connections and give people flexibility. In some ways the flexibility from not being in the same room is great.

How did you keep your relationships intact when you couldn’t be in the same room as someone?

One of the things that I started doing, which I still do now, is doing walk and talks. The thing is, I could have done walk and talks at any point in my life, at least since I had a smartphone. But when I started doing walk and talks, I started doing them with people who lived near me, especially at the time in the pandemic when we weren’t even really supposed to be walking together. It would be like, “You go to the park, I’ll go to the park and we’ll talk on the phone.” But then I realized, “Why do these friends have to be in New York City?” I could call my friend in London, or San Francisco. It was really fun and it made me realize that this is an easy way to stay in touch with people from all over the world. Would I rather go on a walk with them in person? Of course. But, for a friend who lives in London, I don’t get that chance very often. A walk and talk is much better than nothing. It’s making me much more likely to look that person up when I do go to London, because I didn’t let that relationship atrophy for years.

Gretchen Rubin's Happier App helps one track the habits that make their life more fulfilling. (Photo: The Happiness Project)
Gretchen Rubin's Happier App helps one track the habits that make their life more fulfilling. (Photo: The Happiness Project)

Is there any habit that has made a big difference for your mental health?

Going to the Met is just wonderful. That was a habit that took me out of my own head and put me in a beautiful place. It feels very safe there because everyone has to wear masks, and there is hand sanitizer everywhere. I started that habit before COVID hit. It took me to a transcendent place, outside of time and outside of current events. There are so many reasons I love going to the Met, but it really did help me stay happier.

Reading is also really important. I’ve really been focusing on making sure I have time to read for work, and also for fun. It’s my cubicle and my playground.

How do you help your kids maintain their mental health?

One thing I do is try to focus them on foundational habits, like getting enough sleep, making sure they don’t get too hungry. I have a junior in high school, and it’s a very, very intense time. On one hand, I want her to keep up with her work so she doesn’t dig herself into a hole, but I also don’t want her to work herself into a frazzle. She can work herself up, so I’ll say, "Hey, I think we need to watch an episode of The Office." I think one of the most important things we can do is set a good example. I also try to have them understand their own natures. I’ll say, "Hey, it seems like when you hang out with this friend, you always come back and feel bad about yourself." It’s hard to understand patterns in our own behavior and our own mindset, and sometimes a parent can be really useful — not to say, "Do something differently," but to say, "Oh, I noticed this." It can be as simple as: "Hey, I noticed that you really are loving these assignments in this history class. It’s great you’re really engaged. Why is this work more interesting to you than other work?" Just to be a mirror, so they can see their reflection.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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