The secret to happiness seems easy enough: Just do what makes you happy, right? Sure, but knowing what makes you happy is a lot harder than it sounds.
After spending a year doing extensive research and making daily tweaks in her life in hopes of becoming happier, Gretchen Rubin published the New York Times best-selling book The Happiness Project in 2009.
In an effort to spread what she's learned about happiness to other communities, Rubin teamed up with Biogen Idec to work on the MS Blueprint Project, which gives people living with multiple sclerosis an action plan for taking small steps to get involved in activities that bring more joy to their daily lives.
In honor of the MS Blueprint Project, Rubin sat down with The Huffington Post to talk about the secrets to joy, the MS Blueprint Project and how to figure out what actually makes you happy.
HuffPost: What is the MS Blueprint project, and how does it tie into all your work on happiness?
Gretchen Rubin: The MS Blueprint Project is an exciting approach that’s totally in line with "The Happiness Project." It’s highly individualized, and everyone creates their own blueprints. These MS advocacy groups put a lot of effort into thinking about the key things that resonate with the community, and then an individual picks the things they know would make them happier.
So one person might be very focused on social things if they're feeling isolated. Maybe they want to join a book group, do a video chat with their friends or go on a nightly walk with their husband. For someone else it could be more about relaxing. So some examples there could include getting a massage or lighting a scented candle.
Once you pick these things, you put them together in your Blueprint. And then you can get it and email it to someone else and get them to join in with you. Again it’s very "Happiness Project"-y. These are manageable, concrete things that can be part of your everyday life. The huge quest [for happiness] is great, but it’s really about the ordinary day.
Is there a time frame placed on this?
No, it's not time-limited. These might be things they do forever, but it’s really up to the individual person. They want to set these goals and follow through, but there’s not an expectation like it’s a bootcamp. It’s very much just for you to do this the way you want.
Charting happy activities is part of your 2009 book as well. What is it about documenting these practices that helps us be happier?
It's different for everyone. For the MS Blueprint project, part of it is greater clarity. Just picking six things you want to add to your life helps you figure out what makes you happy. And a lot of these things are activities you can do every day -- that’s very helpful.
For a lot of people, accountability is key. So if I had a plan and my husband knew about it, he would say, "Hey, you said you would take a walk for half an hour after dinner every night, what’s up with that?" Some people just want to have ideas for things to do. They want healthy treats. A lot of us give ourselves treats that are bad for us, but these are treats that are good for you. And sometimes you just need ideas for good treats.
For example, someone told me that he never gives himself treats, but then told me he buys new music every Tuesday morning. So I asked him why he chose Tuesday mornings. And he said, “Because that’s when the new music comes on iTunes.” And I was like, "See, there's your treat."
So it seems like a lot of it is identifying what makes you happy.
That’s exactly it. Because a lot of people don’t know what makes them happy. People make very different choices. We’re all very different. Whenever you see those values charts and you see it all laid in front of you, you’re like, “Well, all values are important to me.” But then you look at 140 values and you say to yourself, “Oh, actually that’s not very important to me at all.” When you see it all laid out, you can sort of get a sense of your own taste better. It’s a way, without going to therapy, to get a sense of what you want and what makes you happy. I think for some people they’ll say “Oh, that’s where there’s a piece missing. I just need to have more down time.”
OK, but say you commit to joining a book club, and you go 10 times and you're completely miserable?
Oh, totally drop out.
Right. But how can you tell if the activity itself is what's making you unhappy? For example, what if you're just socially anxious?
Well that’s something that’s key to happiness. How do we distinguish pushing ourselves out of our comfort zones and being happier in the long run from something that's a violation of our true nature? I think deep down, people know. I think the person who is really socially anxious and sees people who are really cool and fun and wishes she felt comfortable with them but doesn’t -- that’s different from someone who goes to a book club and says to themselves, "This is boring, they have bad taste in books, they make stupid comments, this just isn't my scene. Part of it is really taking the time and thinking, "Well maybe a different book group would work better. Maybe it’s these people or maybe it’s these books.'”
I had a friend who was part of a baking group. They would meet and take turns baking fancy desserts, and then they would sit around eating these fancy desserts and talk about baking. I can’t imagine anything I would find more boring, but for some people that's a great time.
But sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference. A lot of the times you have to check in with yourself and see how you feel afterward. If it’s wrong for you, you'll usually feel exhausted, diminished, bored and irritable. Every time I drive I feel exhausted at the end of it, but I’m glad that I did it. One of the weird things about happiness is that it doesn’t always make you feel happy. And that can be really confusing. Because you’re like, “How is this making me happy?”
The best example of that is a guy who had a really bad relationship with his father, to the point where two of his siblings refused to visit their father in the hospital. And this one guy went, and he’s like, “Why do I do it? I hate going, he was mean to me my whole childhood, he’s mean to me now, I hate being in a hospital. My other siblings don’t go, so why do I go?” And I told him, “You feel like that’s your duty as a son. There’s happiness in knowing you’re doing the right thing, even though it's not making you happy in the moment." And that's a very confusing concept.
Rubin's new book on habits, Better Than Before, will be released in March. You can pre-order it here.
This interview has been edited and condensed.