Talking with Gretchen Rubin about money and happiness
As part of the Get Rich Slowly course (out this Tuesday!), I interviewed 18 of my favorite financial experts (and non-financial experts). Combined, these interviews comprise over eight hours of audio and more than 200 pages of written transcripts, all of which will be available as part of the package.
For instance, I had a fantastic 40-minute conversation with my friend Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling The Happiness Project and its follow-up, Happier at Home. (She also has a great blog where she writes about happiness and personal development.) Here are some excerpts from that conversation. (It was tough to trim this. The entire interview is great!)
J.D. Roth A lot of times people think that pursuing money itself, pursuing wealth, will make them happy. And yet from what I found, that's not necessarily true. It's not the money, itself, that makes you happy. It's the things you can do with the money obviously. And maybe it's the same kind of thing that you're arguing with the direct pursuit of happiness and indirect pursuit of happiness.
Gretchen Rubin Well, the thing about money is that money, itself, does not buy happiness. But money buys many, many things that do contribute mightily to happiness if you spend it wisely. So money — one of the biggest luxuries that money can buy is the freedom not to have to think about money all the time —
Gretchen — which is a tremendous luxury.
J.D. It's a safety net, a security point.
Gretchen Yeah. A feeling of security, a feeling of being able to give to others, a feeling of being able to help. If your child needs extra lessons in something, you can pay for that. If you want to have a party, you can have a party. You can buy towels without waiting for them to go on sale. You can take better care of your health. You can join a gym that's a little bit more expensive and that it's so much more convenient. But then you'll go. But I mean if you're buying your 50th pair of leather boots, that's not a wise choice.
And I also think — and I bet you've seen this — is that money affects happiness much more in the negative. It's like health in that way. When you don't have your good health and you don't have money, you feel very dragged out. Then when you have it, it's very easy to take it for granted and not think about how much the absence of it would affect you. And so it's something that is like it weighs down more than it boosts up, I think.
J.D. I think that's an interesting insight. One of the things that I've seen in the research is that money can buy happiness up to a certain point. And then once people have a certain amount of money or a certain amount of material comfort, that additional money only brings on a marginal increase in happiness, so —
Gretchen Yeah, but it's true that as people get wealthier they do get happier.
J.D. Yeah, absolutely.
Gretchen And one of the things that I really — there's sort of a figure. I don't know, I should trace it back. But there's of a figure like, “After $75,000 there's no difference in happiness.” And you know this is obviously not true because $75,000 represents such — that's a meaningless number in a way. Because I live in New York City and $75,000 means one thing. But my grandparents lived in North Butte, Nebraska. $75,000 has been a lot different then. I have two kids; you have 12 kids; you have no kids. I want a horse; you want a turtle. I like to rent movies; you like to collect modern art. I have two elderly parents with a lot of health issues. Your parents are young and strong.
I mean there's just so many ways in which that money, just it's like — that's like saying that the best height to be is five feet, six inches. That's the happiest place to be. Well, do you play basketball? Are you a jockey? There's so many factors that go into it for an individual. It might be true on a statistical level. But it doesn't really help you, as an individual, to know what's statistically true in that framework.
J.D. Well, I think what's most important, actually, is relative wealth and —
Gretchen Yes, absolutely. That's — you put your finger on it.
J.D. Yeah, so how much money do you have compared to your neighbor, compared to your friends, compared to your family? And beyond that, more than just relative wealth. It's what are your expectations and how does your reality fit those expectations. So if you don't have a — I know people who don't have a lot of money. And yet they're happy as can be, even though their friends are wealthy, because their expectations are lower and they don't want a lot. They're happy with what they have, and it's a choice they make.
Gretchen Yeah. I have a friend — two friends who are married. And they said that they deliberately constructed their life so that at any point if they wanted to work for the government that it wouldn't affect their lifestyle. They wouldn't have to move to a different house or go to — have to send their kids to different schools.
They always wanted to feel free, because they're very dedicated to government services, so they go in and out of government all they time. And they said they didn't want to — because a lot of times — and this is your point about expectations — you build yourself into a certain income. You make choices that mean that you have to earn a certain amount of money. And if you made different choices you would feel much freer not to make that amount of money.
So I thought that that showed a lot of forethought on that — on their side that they realized, “Well, we've gotta construct it so we won't feel trapped in the private sector, because we don't want to feel trapped. We want to feel like we can always make the other choice.” You know because with government jobs, it's like sometimes it's the right time, sometimes it's the wrong time. You bounce around a lot. And so they just always wanted to preserve that option.
J.D. I think that's so smart. One of the things that I've come to realize over the past few years — we always hear the advice that in order to prepare for retirement and to make sure that you've got a buffer, you should save 10 percent of your income or 20 percent of your income. And I'm not going to say that it's bad to save 10 or 20 percent of your income. But it's better to save even more, which can be difficult for some people. But if you can save 50 percent of your income, you create this huge gap between what you need or want and what you actually have available, and that allows you so much more freedom.
Gretchen Yeah. That's the thing is I think one of things that money can represent to people is freedom. And that's part of why it's — money, what — there's this wonderful Gertrude Stein line where she says, “Money is money, and everyone has to decide sooner or later whether money is money. And they always decide that money is money.” And then it's like money is money.
J.D. It's a tool. So in writing about happiness, you discovered that a lot of the — what you were writing about was actually related to habits. So your next book is going to be about habits. And I find it interesting that you say that “Habits are the inevitable architecture of everyday life and a significant element of happiness.” So what do you mean by that?
Gretchen Well, you know it's interesting. When they do research on habits, it's something like 40, 45 percent of our everyday life is governed by habits. So, clearly, they're important for happiness just because they're happening all the time. That's the way work is 'cause it's why you spend so much of your time at work. Of course it's going to affect your happiness.
But also, as I was looking at people and people who are happier and people who are less happy, and also when I would talk to people about what their happiness challenges were, I would see, over and over, that people who had habits that worked for them were happier. And people who had habits that didn't fit, were not working for them, or when they were really struggling to make or break a habit, it was a serious happiness issue for them.
And I began to see that if you can get a grip on your habits, then you're much better able to construct a life that is going to support your happiness. Because like with savings — perfect that you just mentioned — it's a perfect example. That's something that you can either automatically do it and it takes no effort, no thought. It just runs, just happens. Or you can be deciding every time or trying to make yourself do it and, more or less, succeeding or failing. And so I became very — and I was so puzzled by some things about habits that no one else seemed to be — couldn't notice or be concerned with.
J.D. Like what?
Gretchen Like there's this assumption — when you read all the habit stuff, there's kind of an assumption that everyone has more or less the same aptitude to form habits. And that's just clearly not true. If we could just look around at people in our life, that's just not true.
J.D. I can look at myself.
Gretchen And there's — yeah, and there seems to be also an assumption that people have the same attitude towards habits. Well, I love habits and embrace them, but I have friends who fear them and resist them. So they have a whole different attitude towards habits.
And then there are things where people at some point in their life they will easily have a habit. And then, at some times, they won't be able to form they won't be able to form the very same habit. Like a friend of mine who said, “When I was in high school I was on the track team. I never missed a track practice. Why can't I go running on my own now?” Same person, same habit. Why not?
And then also, a lot of them do — people like, “Oh, I really should go to a spin class,” but they can't make themselves go. But you're like, “Well, you don't really want to go to that class, so I sort of see why you don't.”
But then there are people who are like, “I love going for a walk with my dog after work. I look forward to it with pleasure. I enjoy it. I look back on it. It's good for me. It's fun. Why can't I make myself go for a walk with my dog?” I'm like, “Why can't you?” So that you know there seem to be all these big mysteries of habits, and I just became determined to try to plum the mysteries and figure it out for myself, so.
J.D. I'm eager to read this book. It sounds like it starts — well, the happiness stuff and the habit stuff kind of is related to the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and his concept of flow. And I'm not going to get into that here, but I find his work on flow just so fascinating because it — he talks about building purpose and meaning and finding happiness and how habit can help us do that.
Gretchen Yeah. Well you know flow is interesting because flow is sort of — when you're in flow, you're neither happy nor sad because you're not really — you're really so outside yourself. It's interesting. It's a very — it's related to happiness, but it's not the same thing as happiness.
J.D. Oh, that's an interesting insight, too, because to me, in my head I equate the two, and I'm going to have to go back and read the book. I really like it. So it sounds to me as if, when you're talking about habit, you're kind of talking about routine. Are habit and routine the same thing, or are there differences?
Gretchen Well, I think a routine is a series of habits. So you have your morning routine which is your series of habits. And then some people will be like, “Well, what's a ritual?” A ritual is a habit that has a transcendent meaning. So for most people brushing their teeth doesn't have a transcendent meaning. But if you say a prayer of thanksgiving for your teeth as you're brushing your teeth, then that could become a ritual. Or something — or hand washing, or something like that could from being a habit to a ritual.
So what I try to do is lay out 21 strategies that I've identified that people can employ to make or break a habit. Because maybe for you, three of those strategies would work, and for somebody else a different three would work. Because you're different from me; we have different challenges, different personalities, different things work for us. You're a night person; I'm a morning person. There's a million things that you kind of have to take into account as you're thinking about it.
J.D. I think that's so smart too. My main motto at Get Rich Slowly was always do what works for you.
J.D. And by that, I meant there's no one right way to accomplish any task. You have to — I feel like too many people in the financial world try to lay down these laws and say, “This is the one right way to get out of debt,” or “This is the one right way to do a budget.” And it's just not so.
Gretchen Well —
J.D. There are — there's more than one way to accomplish anything.
Gretchen No. And I think it's so true. There's like this impulse to come up with a one-size-fits-all solution. And I think that this is why a lot of people don't succeed is they're like, “Oh, well. I know that the way to exercise is to do it first thing in the morning.”
And it's like, well, that doesn't work for you if you're a night person. Morning people, that would work for them, but it's not going to work for you because you can barely get up at 9:00 a.m. right now to get ready for work. There's no way you're going to get up at 8:00 and go for a run. It's just not realistic at all. So why are you wasting your time. So you might feel like, “I can't for the habit of exercising.”
But, in fact, if you tried to go after work, even though a lot of people say, “Oh, that's terrible. It'll interfere with your sleep and you won't do blah, blah, blah,” well, you know it might work for you. And so I think you're exactly right. The first thing to do is to start with self-knowledge. To say, “What kind of person am I? What's worked for me in the past? When have I failed in the past? What sounds appealing to me? What sounds doable to me?