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 —

J.D. Exactly.

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.

Gretchen Yes.

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?

As much as I'd like to share more — that's just one-quarter of the interview — I need to stop things there. Next Sunday, I'll share another excerpt from a Get Rich Slowly interview. Whom would you like to hear from? Jean Chatzky? Ramit Sethi? Tess Vigeland? Adam Baker? Mr. Money Mustache? Cast your vote in the comments!
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Maria
Maria
6 years ago

Thanks for this post! Im excited for future ones– from anyone, although I especially love Mr. Money Mustache!

Kathryn
Kathryn
6 years ago

good article – but seriously, how many times does Gretchen have to use the word “like”?

Beth
Beth
6 years ago
Reply to  Kathryn

IMHO, a lot of that could have been edited out. I enjoyed this article, but found there were parts where I was tripping over extra words.

Some publications reproduce an interview word-for-word for authenticity, while others edit out the hesitations, verbal ticks (such as “like”) and grammar mistakes for readability and to make the interviewee appear more eloquent. Different readers respond to different approaches.

sarah
sarah
6 years ago

Vote: Mr Money Mustache

Pete
Pete
6 years ago

I was thinking exactly the same thing. It sounded like articulate J.D. was interviewing a valley girl. Some of her sentences didn’t even make sense.

EDIT!

Vanessa
Vanessa
6 years ago

I used to read Gretchen’s blog years ago and really enjoyed it. I should probably start back.

I’m looking forward to Tess Vigeland’s interview. I miss her on Marketplace Money and am curious what she’s up to now. And she’s someone who’s not a financial “expert” but has reported on money a lot, so her POV should be quite interesting.

Cathy
Cathy
6 years ago

Good interview. I’d love to hear more from Mr. Money Mustache for the next one.

a frugal family\'s journey
a frugal family\'s journey
6 years ago

From my own experience, happiness comes from within. You have a lot of control over your own happiness. Sometimes we let our externalities affect our mood. Control the negative and focus on the positive and happiness will come much easier.

As for money and happiness, it definitely cant hurt to have wealth. With wealth, you are provided with many more options and thus it may be easier to control the outcome.

Steve
Steve
6 years ago

Agree with above comments on the need to edit this discussion. For what it’s worth, I also agree completely with something brought up, the importance of habit in one’s life. Habit helps with simple things like setting two alarm clocks to be sure you’re not late for work. And like emptying all your pockets in the same place when you come home from work (so you won’t forget anything when you leave for work tomorrow). Common sense, but am always surprised to hear someone say they forgot something at home they needed. And of course habit helps keep an exercise… Read more »

Laura
Laura
6 years ago

I’ll have to look at Gretchen’s website sometime, but I have to agree with the comments that this article needed editing. I lost interest and decided not to continue reading it about a third of the way through because of the meandering tone. Maybe it works for others, it didn’t work for me. I think it would have been more accessible to have written it as an article summing up the gist of the conversation with a few quotes here and there.

lmoot
lmoot
6 years ago
Reply to  Laura

I agree. I lost interest in reading the words(but not the subject because I like Gretchen’s viewpoints)and couldn’t finish it. But I do want to go back and read it when I’m not so sleepy, or hopefully when it’s been edited. I have pretty stellar reading comprehension but I struggled. The meandering didn’t bother me, but then again I am a free-writer who also likes reading free-written material so the tone wasn’t a far cry. What bothered me was reading a sentence a few words in, then it just stops and a new sentence starts. Not annoying at all to… Read more »

Life After FI
Life After FI
6 years ago

Enjoyed the interview…… Never thought of habits the way Gretchen has.

As mentioned in other comments, I agree that it was difficult to read this post. I had to concentrate a lot to read the whole post.

Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
Stefanie @ The Broke and Beautiful Life
6 years ago

I’ve been working hard to implement “happy” habits for myself and my wallet over the course of the last few years. Thank you for sharing.

Louisa
Louisa
6 years ago

The way the interview was written, Gretchen came across as a bit stupid and spacy, which is anything but the truth. If I were her, I’d be very embarrassed and wouldn’t want to be featured on GRQ again. None of us is 100% free of crutch words when we speak, but it’s simple courtesy to edit the sentences to express what the interviewee meant. Otherwise, it’s distracting and irritating to the reader. In future interviews, please go to the effort of cleaning up the copy.

J.D.
J.D.
6 years ago

Hey, all. Interesting feedback. This is a direct transcript, obviously, so our speech tics are there, warts and all. But even though I read through it a couple of times before posting, it never occurred to me that either one of us would come off as “spacey” or “unintelligent”. Maybe that’s because I actually lived the interview and the conversation and know that Gretchen is/was neither of those things. She’s highly intelligent and great to speak with. I enjoyed this conversation immensely. When I post the next transcript, however, I’m going to take your feedback to heart and edit the… Read more »

JoeyG
JoeyG
6 years ago

J.D. > Nice interview. Don’t worry about the criticism regarding the transcript. It’s pretty clear in the intro that this came from an interview, not a crafted essay. This article was refreshing and I’d love to see more like this on GRS. If I had to guess, I would bet your posts generate the most readership at the site, so it’s good to have you back…..my two cents, let’s see what MMM has to say next week…

Ramblin' Ma'am
Ramblin' Ma'am
6 years ago

Thanks for posting, J.D.! The conversation didn’t seem odd to me, but maybe I am used to reading direct transcripts, as opposed to interviews that are more heavily edited.

I really like this part:

“[Y]ou 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.”

A lot of people don’t realize how much their previous choices can restrict them in the future.

Carla
Carla
6 years ago
Reply to  Ramblin' Ma'am

@Ramblin’ Ma’am

“A lot of people don’t realize how much their previous choices can restrict them in the future.”

You got that right, and unfortunately redemption can sometimes take another lifetime.

nick
nick
6 years ago

I vote for Mr. Money Mustache, but I’m looking forward to all of them.

Crystal
Crystal
6 years ago

Mr. Money Mustache please!!!

John
John
6 years ago

Mr. Money Mustache is nauseating enough to listen to on his own blog. Keep him off of this one. I don’t know how much more trip like the following I can stand reading. “Anyone who doesn’t ride a bike is a horrible person who deserves to be punched in the face. Also, try your best to remain ignorant of the world around you and stop showering.” Profound statements from the guru himself.

J.D.
J.D.
6 years ago

Okay, MMM next week. But I’m warning you: He and I were both drinking beer during the interview. That one is likely more spacey than this one. 😉

phoenix1920
phoenix1920
6 years ago

I adore Gretchen Rubin’s interesting points on creating habits, which seems like it is new content on GRS. GRS doesn’t really delve into this, although isn’t this so important to this sort of blog? For example, a lot of people talk about the importance of keeping a budget, but I cannot create this habit because I haven’t found a good system to log daily expenses. (My kids use the envelope system, but I don’t because I rarely go to a bank or use an ATM) It is nice to see interviews, but I also really like reading JD articles and… Read more »

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