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My 'gigantic engine of happiness'

By Jason Hanna, CNN
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling book "The Happiness Project."
Gretchen Rubin is the author of the best-selling book "The Happiness Project."
  • Gretchen Rubin's "The Happiness Project" tells of her year testing happiness tactics
  • Book, released in January, was No. 1 on New York Times' self-help best-seller list
  • In her project, Rubin made resolutions based on her goals and research, kept track

(CNN) -- Gretchen Rubin says she hasn't created any new secret to happiness, but her test runs of the advice and research findings of others has resonated with the readers who've made her a best-seller.

In "The Happiness Project," published in January, the writer and former clerk for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor tells how she read about what scientific studies, philosophers and others said about finding happiness. Based on that research and her desires, she crafted resolutions that she tried over the course of a year.

Each month had a new theme (such as friendship or marriage), associated resolutions (be generous, fight the right way) and a chart to keep daily track of whether she hit her marks. Planning how to make herself happy and keeping score, she says, made her happier without overhauling her life, which included her husband and young daughters.

She began her project at 39. She realized that although her life was good, she wasn't as happy as she could be and was running out of time to learn how to be so.

"I realized if I wanted things to be different, I needed to make them different. They weren't going to just change on their own," the New York City resident, now 44, said last week.

She says her blog and her book are intended to inspire others to do their own happiness projects. CNN talked to Rubin about which happiness tactic surprised her, how her book compares with other happiness titles and the acquaintance who told her the book wouldn't work. Below are excerpts from that interview:

CNN: You wrote that your younger sister teased you about making the project so systematic, with charts and resolutions. It does seem to be a cognitive-heavy approach -- here's how to be happy, and here's how I'm going to do it. Why did it need to be so thought-out for you?

Rubin: That's the kind of person I am, and that's the kind of thing that appeals to me. I like a lot of system and a lot of structure.

Because I was doing so much, it helped me to have it very laid out like that. I think for most people, they wouldn't do it in such an enormous way, and maybe they wouldn't need to have it figured out quite so [thoroughly], like having a theme for every month and all these resolutions.

Maybe they would just take five resolutions that they thought were really important in their life and just do those five and see where that got them.

CNN: What is something you tried that surprised you with its effectiveness?

Rubin: I wanted to test the idea that novelty and challenge bring happiness, because this is something that I kept seeing in the research. And I really thought this was not something that would not be true for me, because I don't like to travel, I eat the same food every day. ... So I decided to test it by starting a blog.

When I started it, I'd never read blogs, I didn't know how to do a blog. ... But my blog turned into this gigantic engine of happiness for me, and now I truly believe novelty and challenge are super important to happiness.

Sometimes when people hear novelty and challenge, they think, 'Oh, I have to take up rock climbing or salsa dancing,' but it's important that you pick the right thing for you. ... I now believe that -- going through that intimidation and feeling stupid and feeling frustrated -- if you can push through that, you really do get a huge boost of happiness.

CNN: You wrote about working on the way you love your spouse -- including stop nagging and fighting right -- as a way to boost happiness. You questioned the adage of "Don't go to bed angry." You found that, for you, regular airing of grievances could be damaging. But isn't there something to be said for not letting some problem fester inside you?

Rubin: This is a matter of how people do it. If you calmly talk about something that's making you angry or that's bothering you, in a constructive way, that can be helpful. Certainly feelings of anger and resentment can show you things that need to be fixed.

But what I think a lot of people believe is this idea of anger catharsis, which is that if you are yelling, punching a pillow, slamming doors, that somehow you're going to relieve your feelings by acting them out. That is not true.

Angry actions like slamming doors and yelling is flame anger. So if you're talking about having a calm conversation about something that's bothering you, that can be very helpful, but the idea that you will somehow vent your anger or release it by acting in a very angry way, it's proved to be not true.

CNN: How difficult is it to keep these resolutions? You write that at one point during your project, you had a difficult day and seemed like you were going to chuck the whole list.

Rubin: Yeah. It's funny with the resolutions. In a way they're hard, and in a way they're easy. Some of them are very easy and fun to keep.

My favorite resolution is "kiss more, touch more, hug more," and that is pretty easy to keep and makes a big difference and is a lot of fun. But then things like "not nagging" require more self-discipline. ... But the one thing I know now is that I'm happier if I keep my resolutions, so now I really remind myself that if I snap out of it and I do what I know I should do, I'll end up being happier.

CNN: On your blog, you say you reject a happiness idea of a certain writer [Eric Hoffer]. You quote him as saying that the search for happiness is one of the chief sources of unhappiness. Why do you reject that?

Rubin: Because I don't think it's true. The minute I asked myself if I was happy, I became happier, because I realized how happy I was.

It's very easy to forget about the elements of happiness that you have, just taking them for granted. So I think that thinking about happiness, you either think about how happy you are, or you're more focused on what you need to change, which, in the end, will make you happier, too. I don't think that people hit targets by not aiming at them.

CNN: What about the pursuit of happiness do you want to pass on to your daughters?

Rubin: I think one of the most overwhelmingly important ideas that I saw with my happiness project that I would want my children to embrace is this idea that you can only build a happy life on the foundation of your own nature, which is why the first of my personal commandments is "Be Gretchen." Because you have to know what makes you happy.

It's not what other people think should make you happy or what you wish made you happy or makes other people happy. You have to know what really makes you happy. And it's very easy to lose track of that. And so with my children, I just think part of it, as a parent, I just try to stay out of their way. I don't try to convince them that they like things that they don't really like. I just, as much as I can, encourage them to recognize their own natures and act in accordance with their natures.

CNN: So many books have been written about happiness. What place do you think your book has in that literature?

Rubin: This is a really interesting thing that I realized as I was doing my research: When I started, I thought the most helpful things for me to do in my happiness project would be big scientific studies or philosophical frameworks that would talk about all human nature. But what I really found was useful was Benjamin Franklin or St. Therese of Lisieux or Samuel Johnson -- very idiosyncratic people talking about their happiness projects.

They didn't use that terminology, of course, but that's basically what they were talking about. And I think that the way my book fits into all the happiness books that are out there is that there's all this really interesting science, and there's been all these positive psychology books written, and I think people are intrigued by that, but then maybe they have a hard time seeing how they would relate it to their own life or making it real.

I think just by seeing one person thinking through very familiar situations --- your kids, your husband, your friend or your work -- and thinking about, well, what would it mean in my life, I think somehow people then are better able to imagine it for themselves.

CNN: In your book's introduction, an acquaintance at a party told you your project wasn't interesting and wouldn't translate well, partially because you're well-educated and already had a good life. Has he told you anything after the book became a best-seller?

Rubin: That was just a drive-by shooting kind of guy. It was not somebody that I knew well. I don't even know if he knows, so of course I wouldn't mind telling him. ... But I wondered if it would be true. I thought that I had something to say that other people would be interested in, [and] that's one of the reasons that it's been so gratifying that the book has found an audience, because I realize that people do relate to it.

CNN: Are you happier as a result of doing these resolutions?

Rubin: You know what? Even having started the happiness project, I have to say I'm very surprised by how much happier I am. I was basically pretty happy when I started, and my life has not really changed.

I have the same life as I had, but I am so much happier. It really does make a difference when you do all these things. It turns out it's really possible to make yourself happier.

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