In his second installment of a series on homebodies, Peter McGraw talks to Gretchen Rubin – the magpie of happiness – about creating a better home base. They discuss her book Happier at Home, and she dishes out some helpful, non-intuitive ideas about creating a more welcoming home for yourself and others.
Listen to Episode #148 here
Happier At Home With Gretchen Rubin
This is the second installment of a short series about homebodies. In this episode, I talked to Gretchen Rubin about creating a happier home. Gretchen is the author of many books, including The New York Times Bestsellers, The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project. The Happiness Project spent two years on the bestseller list. We discussed her book, Happier at Home, and she dishes out some helpful ideas to make your home base a little more welcoming should you be a homebody or simply want a more welcoming home to come home to after a long trip, to rest, recharge, be inspired, or host some company. I hope you enjoy the episode. I enjoy talking to Gretchen. Let’s get started.
Hello. I’m so happy to be talking to you.
This episode is a little bit of a mini-series. It was inspired by a previous guest and a colleague. I wanted to look at the life of a homebody, someone whose life is more focused around the house. This is something I’ve noticed in myself post-pandemic. I’ve become a little bit more of a homebody. I was one of these people who would be out and traveling all the time, and I have found a lot more enjoyment and creativity in my solitude at home. The world doesn’t celebrate homebodies. If you go on dating apps, it’s filled with people who are passport-ready and love to travel, “I’m an outdoors person,” and yet I think the homebodies are a little bit of a quiet majority and worthy of some exploration.
It is a test for a love of life. I’m not much of a foodie. I’ve noticed that people often talk about how much they love food, and if you love food, you love life. I’m like, “I love life. I’m not that into food.” It’s the same thing with travel. It’s like, “I’m enthusiastic and ready for fun, but maybe I don’t need to go that far out of my hometown to feel that way.” You’re right. It stands for more qualities than maybe it actually carries.
I share your liking of food. I like to say I eat to live. I don’t live to eat. Are you ready to help this quiet majority?
Absolutely. I love to be at home.
It’s actually something that you talk about in your book, Happier at Home. Before we get to that, let’s talk a little bit about your remarkable journey from lawyer to a writer to this book.
I started my career in law. I was clerking on the Supreme Court for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. I then had this epiphany. I would go for walks on my lunch hour, and I was staring up at the capital dome against the bright blue sky. I will often ask myself rhetorical questions. I asked myself, “What am I interested in that everybody in the world is interested in?” I thought, “Power? Money? Fame? Sex?” These ideas felt like a set to me, and all of a sudden, I became completely preoccupied with wanting to understand human nature as it related to power, money, fame, and sex. I started doing a massive amount of research.
This is something that I have done ever since I was a little girl. I will get intensely interested in something. I will do a lot of research. I will take copious notes. It was not unfamiliar to me to be seized with interest and start following it up, but this was next level. I was working after work. I was working on the weekends, and I was taking all these notes. Finally, it occurred to me like, “This is the kind of thing a person would do if they were writing a book.”
I was like, “Maybe I could be the person to write that book.” I went to a bookstore and got a book called something like How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book, and I followed the directions. I decided I would rather fail as a writer than succeed as a lawyer at this point. I really wanted to write that book, so I thought, “I’ll give it a try.” Fortunately for me, that was the first book I published, Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide. I found an agent. I’m still with the same agent I got then. That’s how I made the switch.
You sell and publish this book, and now you’re hooked and all in. One of the things that set you apart from a lot of other nonfiction writers is that you experiment on yourself. These are not little experiments. These are year-long experiments that you do. The most famous of them is your The Happiness Project, in which you experiment over the course of a year on how to improve your life and live a happier life. Happier at Home is an extension of that. How did you decide to hatch this new experiment?
The Happiness Project was my first step into the exciting world of happiness, which I’ve never left happiness and human nature. I was struggling to come up with a big broad framework to have a view and understand how to think about happiness, what mattered for happiness, and what the big principles of happiness were. One of the things that I kept saying to myself is like, “What’s true for everyone?” When you start looking, you realize there are a lot of things that are not true for everyone. There are not many iron laws in the universe. Even the idea that to be happy, you have to be happy at home, I would not say that is true for everyone. There are some people for whom that is not true.
It is also true that for most people, however they conceive of home, and there are many different ways to conceive of it, it’s hard to be happy if you’re not happy at home. I said to myself, “Why don’t I do another happiness project but focus on home?” which is the home base. I found that for me if I were going to wander freely, I had to feel I had a solid place to come home to. I wanted to feel like that was comfortable, loving, and tender. It was my physical surroundings and the emotional atmosphere of it. I wanted to go deeper into this aspect of happiness, which to me seemed to be so very important. I’ve done that ever since I zeroed in on one sub-aspect of happiness and explored that area. In this book, I was looking at the experience of home.
That idea came to you while unloading the dishwasher.
I just realized, “This is it. This is my life. This is the time. I don’t want to take it for granted.” I didn’t realize what was unfolding right in front of my eyes.
It’s funny how the mundane can bring out the extraordinary.
A constant challenge is to realize the ordinary life or day and experience and appreciate it.
I like the use of the home base. I use it a lot. It’s a powerful concept. You once had dinner with Danny Conneman. Danny was my postdoc advisor after I got my PhD. He’s a brilliant thinker. He’s out of this world scholar and was a very kind man to me. He taught me a lot through watching him work. I paid a lot of attention to the well-being work that was happening. This is in the early 2000s. A lot still needs to be done in that area. One of the things that I find problematic, which you’ve identified, is there’s this tendency to try to create a one size fits all model of well-being. Whatever someone comes up with, that becomes the way everybody should like, “You should be generous. Generosity is the way to be happy,” and whatever the thing is.
The right model is customizable to where you are in the lifespan, personality, lifestyle, and so on though there are these things that cut across that. I talk about having a good foundation for living a remarkable life. I like this idea that home can be part of that foundation, whether it be a place to be healthy, regenerate, be connected, and recover in that sense. What I want to do is talk about some of the things you explored in the book with the hope of inspiring people to be a little more intentional about their home life, creating a home base, and whatever that may look like for them.
There are some fun things that are not obvious. One of the things that were refreshing about your approach was there’s some of the obvious stuff, but then there are all these things that feel new. You start the book talking about possessions and things. You also talk about this notion of creating a shrine. It’s not an obvious place to start this idea, yet I found myself captivated by that idea. I have no shrines. I’m not a person who has pictures, so my mind started working on that.
It’s interesting about possessions because there is a tendency, and I completely agree with your point, which often people are like, “This is the right way. This is the best way. This is the secret.” Whereas in fact, there can be no one best way because people are so different from each other. There’s a strong impulse for people to say, “Possessions don’t really matter. Experiences and people matter, but stuff just gets in your way. You’ll be happier if you get rid of everything like minimalism, cut back, and get rid of it all.” This is not the common experience of mankind. I’m not saying that for some people, that’s not true. I’m saying that for many people, possessions are an important part of what they want to have in their homes.
We often use our possessions to help us remember the people, places, and activities we love. We enshrine memories into possessions. Often when you talk to people about why they’re having trouble getting rid of possessions, it’s not because they are trying to keep up with the Joneses. It’s because, “I have this hideous chair because it was important to my grandmother. I can’t get rid of it because I feel like, in some way, it’s a betrayal of my love for my grandmother.” That’s a very deep, emotional, and powerful thing to deal with. People sometimes dismiss the actual emotional role that possessions can play. One of the things I thought about creating shrines is to highlight that aspect of your environment and take something that’s important to you.
Maybe what’s important to you is France. Maybe your family’s from France, and you go back to France every summer. You love all things French, and this is important to you, so you make up a shrine to France. I remember talking to a woman who said when people walk into her home, the first thing they see is rows of her tango shoes. She’s like, “I want everybody who walks in here to be like, ‘This is a woman who loves to tango'” I remember going into somebody’s house or apartment in New York City. He had these shelves all the way around that were rows and rows of wine that he had already emptied. He just used it as a decorative motif. I was like, “This guy really is into wine.”
It’s having this way to externalize your identity, put your identity out into the world, and show people what’s important to you, so you have that for others who come in, but then also for yourself because often you love seeing these reminders of what’s important to you. There’s that impulse to take away a shell when you go on a beach vacation because you’re like, “I want to keep something. I want to make that part of what is mine.” Another is postcards. Somebody goes to the museum, and they often want to walk out with something that’s their own little piece of it. That’s very valuable. Making a shrine is a way to highlight that in your environment.
We’re using this word intentional, but it’s about where you control your possessions rather than they control you that you’re able to decide, “This reflects my identity. This reflects my values. This reflects my love and connections.”
It’s funny that you say that because I wrote a little book later called Outer Order, Inner Calm because I noticed that for most people, outer order contributes to inner calm because it’s exactly that, which is like, “I don’t intentionally want to keep a lot of this stuff. I’ve got my beloved chair, but I got a lot of junk that I don’t even remember where it came from, yet somehow I can’t figure out how to manage it.” I’m going to write a little book full of tips about how to figure out what to keep, what to give away, and what to get rid of. It’s a lot of little hacks for that. You’re right. You want to do it intentionally, but intention takes energy, effort, and thought. Sometimes people need a little bit of ideas about, “I’m with you in theory, but day-to-day, I’m not making progress.”
I did an episode on How To Tidy Up where I talked to a member of the Solo community who’s a professional organizer. We dove into this. In part of your possessions chapter, you talk about going shelf by shelf. It sounds related to this little book. Is there something that stood out to you when you started looking at this idea of shelf by shelf? As you said, it’s like, “I think it’s exhausting and intimidating to tidy up.”
A lot of people are familiar with Marie Kondo, where you take out everything from the closet and dump it in the middle of the floor. That works, but for some people, it’s unrealistic. It’s too much, disruptive, overwhelming, and messy. For some people, something big and bold is more appealing. Some people are like, “I want to go big or go home.” For me, I want to do one shelf and drawer at a time and these little tiny pieces. I noticed this, too, when I was writing my book better than before. That’s all about habit formation on how we make or break habits that we have a tendency to overestimate what we can do in a short amount of time like, “What can I get done in an afternoon? What can I get done in a weekend?”
We underestimate what we can do little by little if we do it consistently. If you do one shelf every day for two months, you will be astonished at how much you can get done. It’s just little by little. Another one of the things that I write about is the one-minute rule. Anything you can do in less than a minute, you do without delay. If you can hang up your coat instead of throwing it over a chair, or you can carry a coffee cup to the kitchen instead of leaving it by your desk, go ahead and do it.
Many people have said to me like, “This has transformed my surroundings.” You’re not taking that afternoon of your precious weekend, taking that weekend, or carving out big bunches of time. You’re just doing one shelf. You’re just doing one minute. This is for a person who feels like they don’t have a lot of time, energy, or money. They can still make consistent progress. For a lot of people, that works better.
You’re such a wonderful writer. I struggle with writing. It’s not my strength. I’m not good enough to pull it off. This perspective you has is very much of a writerly perspective. You don’t write a book on a weekend. You write a little bit every day.
That’s true. That’s a very good point.
A lot of things that are really big and impressive are the culmination of bits of time consistently. The process of fixing up your home base is going to have that same element. It’s not a weekend project. I have an audience question I’d like to share with you. People can sign up at PeterMcGraw.org/solo to be part of our community. I often solicit questions when I know I’m going to be interviewing someone.
This audience writes, “I’d be happy to hear her speak to anything related to getting rid of stuff, both from a mindset perspective as well as practical tips she may have.” You’ve already given some of those. “One of my biggest challenges now is what to do with photos and memorabilia. Older photos are nice to have, but I’m considering scanning many of them to reduce the piles. Keepsakes are even more challenging to me.” You’ve talked about the shrine and some of the stuff. Is there something else that comes to mind as you hear this question?
One thing with keepsakes is they’re meant to spark memories. You really should, first of all, be very honest about like what does spark memories. A lot of people who have accumulated a lot of keepsakes, in my observation, have forgotten about a lot of them. They’re like, “I got this on vacation ten years ago.” It’s like, “Where did you get it? What was it like?” and it doesn’t spark any memories for them. If something is holding an important memory, that’s valuable, but then you can get rid of the ones that aren’t, like the coffee cup that has the team that you worked with fifteen years ago, and you’re not in touch with any of those people anymore.
Here’s the other thing. Let’s say you want to keepsake. Do you have many keepsakes that are tied to the same memory? For example, my grandfather died. I have many happy memories of my grandfather. I could have taken his desk, grandfather clock, or pocket watch because he was an engineer on the Union Pacific Railroad, and his pocket watch was this super big deal and had to be right to the minute. It’s this old elegant pocket watch. All of them are precious to me, but I only need one. I’m going to take the pocket watch because I could just put it on my shelf. I could say I don’t need the chair or the grandfather clock.
I don’t even need the pocket watch because our memories are not dependent on these possessions, but I wanted to have something for my grandfather. You might say like, “I have lots of keepsakes from my children’s toddlerhood. I have all these toys and this paraphernalia that I associate with it.” Pick a few standout things that can stand for that time, and you can give away or get rid of the rest of them. Photo is a huge thing. There’s a big split, like what’s harder, digital photos or physical photos? People disagree, but everybody is battling some kind of photo fatigue and photo overwhelm.
I was doing an event, and somebody was asking a question and started crying. She was so overwhelmed and upset by her photos. My own view is if this is a photograph of somebody you do not know and remember, I don’t know why you’re hanging onto that. What’s happening is things are being passed down from generation to generation, and they’re being removed from the people to whom they’re meaningful. If it’s not meaningful to you, why are you keeping it? If you have a local historical society that wants it or some art department, maybe you can do that. Sometimes they like old photos. People scan them. I myself am like, “Are you ever going to look at those things?” If you’re never going to look at them, why are you spending the time and the money to scan them?
If you can’t face the idea that you would, toss them. Maybe you want to do that because you can’t face that, but be honest with yourself. Go through and get rid of the ones where they’re blurry, or there are six pictures of the same one. Sometimes people don’t have as many photographs as they think once they go through it. If you want to throw money at the problem, if this is something you can afford, there are a lot of people who will do a lot of the grunt work for you if the things that need to be done you don’t need to be personally involved.
I know that for some people, it could also be a good gift for someone like, “I’m going to give you a gift certificate for this because I don’t know what to do with all those boxes that are stuck under the bed.” Here’s a gift certificate for somebody to help you with that because this is something that is very pressing for people. Another thing to think about as you’re going through your stuff is, do you need it? Do you want it? Do you love it? If you need something, you need it. You need an umbrella however you feel about that umbrella. Maybe it doesn’t spark joy, but it does its little job, so you need it. There’s the you want it that you want to have it around. This might be a formal outfit you don’t use, but you need it when you need it.
Maybe you live in a sunny climate, but every once in a while, you need long underwear. You haven’t worn it for three years, but you’re like, “I can imagine I’m going to want that.” It’s not like, “One day, maybe the vacuum cleaner will break, and I will see this broken vacuum cleaner. I’ll go online and get the manual and figure out how to fix it.” This is like, “I’ll visit my sister and my brother-in-law in Alaska, and I’ll need my long underwear. I want that because I know that I’m going to need it.” Those are related.
Sometimes we have something that we just love. We don’t really use it, but we love it. It makes us happy. Growing up, I love the Wizard of Oz books. I have all my original set of the Wizard of Oz books because I can’t get rid of them. I have this beautiful set of hardback books of wonderful, gilt-edge color illustrations. I never look at them, but I see them on the shelf, and I love them. I love the fact that I have those books, so I need it, want it, and love it. If you don’t need, want, or love it, you don’t need to hang onto that. What’s the point? For a lot of people, those three questions eliminate a bunch of stuff.
That’s outstanding. If I may, you have a nice balance of rational and emotional. I wrote down kind ruthlessness. It’s not quite right, but you’re balancing this loving approach to your home with also a no-nonsense approach. If you want a good body, you need to work out. You’re going to have to experience some pain. The way you’re describing this process is very thoughtful and compassionate, but it also has a directive, which is to create a happier home.
One thing that stood out to me as I was studying is that there are simplicity lovers and abundance lovers. Simplicity lovers like bare surfaces, have a lot of room on the shelves, and maybe one little vase with one little rosebud. There are abundance lovers, and they like profusion and choice and a lot of stuff on the walls, collections, and piles. Sometimes simplicity lovers will say to abundance lovers, “You should get rid of all that. You’d be happier with less.” A cluttered desk means a cluttered mind. Abundance lovers will say, “That looks sterile and stripped. This looks like I’m in someone’s timeshare. Does anybody really live here? There’s nothing here.”
Back to your point about there’s no magical one size fits all solution, it’s not that one way is better, and one way is worse, or one way sparks creativity, or one way is more beautiful. It’s just that people thrive in different environments. People like to be in different environments. I’m a simplicity lover, but I have many abundance lovers in my life. One of the things I’ve noticed is even abundance lovers don’t want a lot of junk around. They might have more stuff out than is comfortable for me in my living space. My daughter’s an abundance lover. Every single thing, which is back to your idea of intentionality, everything is exactly where she puts it. She knows exactly where everything is.
To me, I’m like, “Don’t you want to clear off some of your window sill?” She’s like, “No.” She likes that look. She likes drape things. It’s a thing some people like, but they don’t like trash. They don’t like ten of something, like ten mason jars when you only use one mason jar or 40 coffee cups. How many coffee cups does one person need? They don’t need 40, but you can easily acquire 40 coffee cups. People are giving them to you for free. It’s those unnecessary redundancies, broken things, things that are out of place, things that you don’t like, or things that are fine. There are certain things like, “Are you really going to wear your fifth favorite sweatshirt?”
At least for me, I wear one sweatshirt 80% of the time, then I wear the other two sweatshirts 10% of the time. I don’t need my fifth favorite sweatshirt. I never get to that point. If something isn’t used by you, give it away. Sometimes it helps people to think like, “I have this fish platter. It’s perfectly good. I don’t know why I don’t use it. I could use it, I should use it, but I don’t use it. I’m going to give it away, and then somebody will get good use out of it, and it will live its happy little fish platter life with somebody who will put it to good use.” It’s as wasteful to leave something on a shelf gathering dust as it would be to toss it in a landfill. Sometimes people find it easier to release something when they imagine that someone else could get better use from it than it’s currently getting under their roof.
I’m a fellow simplicity lover. Anybody who reads this is not surprised to hear me say that. I like this idea of an abundance lover. They just have more things that they need, want, or love. That’s simply it. It’s a matter of more and less, not right or wrong.
You get into trouble when you have a boss that thinks that everybody should have a clean desk where it’s like some people don’t want to be in that environment. What does it matter? Why should you be able to tell somebody else how to keep their desk? I don’t know if you’ve ever walked in or worked in an open-plan office. For simplicity lovers like us, that’s overwhelming. I would find it very difficult visually to work in such a visually overwhelming space just because it’s a lot of people with a lot of stuff, and it’s all out.
If you’re two people sharing a household, like you have two roommates or romantic partners or different generations, it can be hard. Sometimes people will do things where you have your room, and you can do whatever you want there, but in public spaces, we have to come to some compromise because it’s not that you’re right or I’m right. It’s just we need to create an environment where we both feel comfortable.
This is just a snapshot of the many things you cover in this year-long experiment. You talk about the body and experiences. One thing I like is you often start with something non-intuitive. You talked about good smells and that a home has good smells.
Now I’m working on a book that’s all about the five senses. It’s funny to me now when I look back on my previous work. I can see myself edging up. I then got preoccupied with color, and it’s like, “Smells, colors. I’m sensing this.” Because of COVID, people have dramatically now understood the importance and the value of the sense of smell. Before COVID, it was common in the West to very much think of smell as a bonus sense or a pleasant add-on and not take it seriously. A lot of people don’t understand that a huge part of our appreciation of flavor comes from our sense of smell. If you don’t have a smell, you’re just tasting the big five of umami, sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
It’s not very complex, and you need this sense of smell to enrich that. A lot of people don’t understand how much we rely on our sense of smell. Sadly, because of COVID, many people lost their sense of smell temporarily. I know many people who lost their sense of smell or experienced smell distortions where things didn’t smell the way they usually would. They often didn’t smell better. That did get a lot of people focused on the value of the sense of smell. It’s one of these simple, straightforward ways that you could make your environment so much more inviting and pleasant if you think about, “What are the things that I can do to add a good smell or get rid of a bad smell? We got a lot of bad smells in our house too.”
I always have fresh flowers in my apartment.
A poet once said, “If anyone asked me what luxury is, luxury is fresh flowers in the house all year round.” I love that.
It’s my little treat for myself. I pick them up at the supermarket. It’s nothing too special. For me, it’s a visually appealing thing. It’s on the counter in my kitchen. The smell goes a long way. I have started burning candles. Anybody who’s a frequent reader knows I have a close friend who has a candle company called Wax Crescent. They’ve been a sponsor of the show. I’m up in Grand Lake, Colorado. I came up here for a mushroom trip. I brought a candle with me, which is something that I now will often do when I travel to be able to create a little bit of atmosphere and a bit of a pleasant scent.
When I was reading your book, it inspired me. I have this jute, which is the term rug, in my entryway. It’s a nice rug for the entryway because it’s sturdy and hardy, but after some period of time, it gives off a weird scent. When I come into my apartment, it’s the first thing I smell. It’s unpleasant to me. You’ve inspired me. I’m going to replace that with something. Think about it. I come home from a long day, and the first thing I have is this unpleasant smell. It makes me wonder like, “Is there a mold problem in this place? What’s going on?” and it’s just this rug.
That’s a perfect example of where it would be much nicer to cross it at your threshold. I remember when one of my daughters was a baby. I bought this diaper cream or something, and it smelled terrible. I was like turning my face away. I’m an under buyer, so I hate to buy stuff, and I use stuff up. I remember thinking like, “I dislike this thing on my precious beautiful little newborn baby.” I’m like, “Even someone like me, I got to get rid of this.” It smells terrible. I got this beautiful cream which I still use nowadays because it smells so good. Often, you don’t have to put up with something that smells bad, or you can substitute or explore why something smells bad.
I grew up poor, so the rug functions very nicely. It does what it’s supposed to do, but it’s going to go when I come home.
You can say it doesn’t serve its function because it’s making you want to turn back from it.
You talked about celebrating holiday breakfast. It’s counterintuitive. Why should we do this?
It’s funny because this was an idea that I got from a friend. I’m constantly grabbing ideas from friends. I’m the magpie of happiness. I have a podcast called Happier with Gretchen Rubin, where my sister and I talk about all kinds of ideas about how to be happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative. Now we’ve even expanded it. We talk about celebrating minor holidays. The idea for all the holiday breakfasts is that the big holidays require a lot of work, energy, and time, which can get overwhelming. The thing that’s nice about a holiday breakfast is you do a minor holiday, do just a few little things, and it gives a celebratory atmosphere to your household. It marks time.
I’m a big fan of food dye. You dye the milk green, red, and the peanut butter black for Halloween. A little goes a long way. If you’re solo and you don’t want to dye your milk green, do something like buying fresh flowers, buying an arrangement, or setting out holiday decorations for yourself, and maybe making something special for breakfast. It’s a nice way to signal the passage of time and make a particular day distinctive, but because it’s not that much work, it doesn’t add to the load. Maybe you have a fun plate that you only use once a year.
This might be a good thing to do. Let’s say you’re trying to deal with mementos, and you’re like, “I’m going to get rid of all my grandmother’s stuff, except she had one Christmas plate. On Christmas day, I’ll eat my breakfast on this plate for my grandmother, think about my grandmother, and enjoy this plate. I don’t have to have all of the rest of it. All I need is this one plate. I use it once a year, but I love it, want it, and need it for that day.” You’ve marked time and preserved a memory.
That’s lovely. I’m going to make a slight adjustment for myself with this. I’m going to celebrate the holiday breakfast for dinner.
I love breakfast for dinner. What a great idea.
The last one I want to talk about before we close is a little counterintuitive because we’re talking about being homebodies, creating a good home base, and being happier in this place, yet you dedicate an entire chapter to the neighborhood to the extension of this. We were saying earlier how there’s this tendency to celebrate a certain lifestyle, the lifestyle of the foodie or the jet setter. You talked about being a tourist without leaving home. Tell me more.
Back to the clutter thing, be a tourist literally in your own home. Look on those high shelves and under the bed. What’s in there? Do you know everything that is in your house? If somebody said to you, “Where’s your masking tape? Where’s your ruler? Where are your yearbooks from your high school?” do you know where everything is? You want to have a good map of your own home. Also, a lot of times in our own neighborhood, there are many things to do and try that we’ve just ever done, like restaurants that you’ve been meaning to try for years, little stores that you’ve never walked into, a historical library, or a little gallery.
A lot of times, there are things to do within very easy reach that we haven’t done. One of the things research shows is that novelty and challenge tend to make people happier. You can get the sense of novelty but in your own home. You have that interest that comes from doing something new. It enriches your neighborhood because now you know more about it and experiences it more deeply. The more you know, the more you notice, so you’ll feel connected to it.
I live in New York City. There’s this funny little townhouse called the Museum of the Ancient World or something like that. A friend of mine is an academic, so he knew all about it. It’s this little teeny tiny place. One day, my daughter and I went there, and it was nice to know. I’ve been in there. I know what that place is. I experienced it for myself. A lot of times, we don’t do something in our hometown unless somebody comes as a guest from out of town, and you’re like, “I guess we’re going to go do XYZ thing because we got these out-of-town guests.” There’s no reason that you have to wait for the out-of-town guests. Do it yourself.
I love this idea of traveling within your mind. I’ve been dedicating post-pandemic life to traveling in my mind more than traveling on planes. One of the things that homebodies get to do is they get to sit and read. They get to sit and write. They can be creative in this space. You get to explore ideas without ever leaving the desk, couch, or balcony that’s there. We always think about whether we have to change or go somewhere else, but we can also do it within. This is a good way to test whether you’re taking advantage of local tourism. Imagine you were going to move away. Imagine you were going to leave New York City, Denver, or wherever it is you live. What are the things that you were going to scramble to do before leaving?
That is a great question. It’s interesting because I said I was writing this book about the five senses. One of the exercises that I do is to go to the Met every single day. I’m incredibly fortunate. I live within walking distance of the Metropolitan Museum. I said to myself exactly this, “If I moved out of this neighborhood, I could not believe that I did not go to the Metropolitan Museum more often when I lived right there within walking distance. Why didn’t I go all the time?” I’m like, “What would it be like if I literally did go all the time? What if I went every single day that it was open that I was in town?” which is what I do now. I got to say, it’s amazing. That gets into the whole thing of doing something.
I’m very fascinated by repetition and revisiting places over and over. That’s a whole separate thing. Your question is extremely clarifying, “What would you regret that you did not do while you were there?” even with your home, which is an interesting thing. A lot of times, when you talk to people when they bought their home or chose their home, they are attracted to certain things like the fireplace, the sauna, and the stoop. They have this idea, “I’ll sit on the stoop with my cup of coffee every morning and watch the sunrise,” then it’s like, “That’s what you thought you were going to do. Are you actually doing it? Are you taking advantage of the things that drew you to this place in the first place?”
Often people are like, “I never really do that.” Do it because you’ll move along and think, “Why didn’t I ever sit on that stoop?” There’s another one. This is a lesson that I learned for life. I was a senior in college. I had some friends that had this apartment. You know how you have to clean out your apartment to get your security deposit back. My friend was frantically cleaning. My friend looked at me in deep thought. She’s like, “When you clean out your apartment, you realize how nice it was all along. I should have kept it clean all along.” I’m like, “That’s true.” Keep it as nice as it can be all along. Don’t wait until the end when it’s just about getting your security deposit back because she could have enjoyed it all along.
That’s excellent. By the way, my thing is balconies off bedrooms sell homes, but people rarely ever use it. It might be fun to venture up there if you have one of those because you paid extra for it.
I don’t know if you know the work of Christopher Alexander. It sounds like you might love it. There’s a book, A Pattern Language, which is the book that I most often recommend to other people and give as a gift. He has a thing about why people don’t like to go out on those balconies in apartment buildings.
I’ll check it out. Let’s finish with creating a secret place.
Perfect segue, this came from Christopher Alexander. In his book A Pattern Language, he offers all these patterns that he says link together the spaces people like to be in. Some of them have to do with the designs of towns and offices, but a lot of them are about the designs of homes. They are things like, “Your chandelier should be 33 inches off your dining table.” It’s things like ceilings at different heights, a cascade of roofs, a staircases stage, and a half-wild garden. One of them was a secret place. He said, “Every home should have a secret place that’s only known to the people who live there and the people they tell the secret to.”
The minute I heard this, I was like, “I must have a secret place.” In our apartment now, we have one very secret place. We have one place that’s pretty secret. It’s hard to know it’s there unless we tell you it’s not technically secret because if you look hard, you could see it, but most people don’t. We have other secrets. We have this faux-painted fireplace that has our initials in it, and then there are all sorts of hidden and code things. It is tremendously exciting to have a secret place.
You don’t have to give up your secret places, but what would be an example of a secret place that someone has?
A secret place might be if you had a panel that looked like books, but then it opened up, and there are shelves back there, or you have a room that’s wallpapered. It can be a wallpaper that matches, and you have one of those handles that flicks out, so there’s not a knob. It’s very hard to see. That could be a secret place. You could have something in a cabinet where there’s a closed door that’s locked, like in your kitchen or something. If you open up, there’s a picture of the people you love or something meaningful to you. Maybe it’s even something like a box. You can get these trick boxes where you have to manipulate them in a precise way to open them.
It’s like a puzzle box.
Exactly. Some of these are fine. Some are more games with something inside. The artist, Joseph Cornell, would often create art that would have a drawer. It would be something in the drawer, but he would nail it shut. You could hear it rattle, but you couldn’t know what was inside unless you took apart the piece of art. I was always fascinated by that. I love the idea of something being secret or something being unknown. Part of the fun for you is to think about how you would do a place. Maybe you would interpret it in a different way. I was extremely literal about it. I bet people could come up with all sorts of interesting ways to have a secret place. Do you know false back on a cabinet, false bottom on a drawer, and lock drawer in a desk?
That’s wonderful. That’s very fun. Do we have time to do a couple of audience questions?
This comes from the Solo community. It’s a question when welcoming guests into the home, “I really have made my home such a happy place. I do not like guests coming and staying multiple nights as it disrupts my happiness. I would like to find a better balance that allows me to welcome people more gracefully.” That’s a vulnerable question. I’m glad that it was asked. I recognize that tension in myself, so I’m also eager to hear your thoughts.
I don’t know if this person is saying, “How do I nicely tell them only to come for one night? How do I change my outlook so that I welcome them for more nights?”
I think it’s how they can be more gracious. Let’s pretend it’s me. I’m very good at saying like, “You got to go,” kind of a thing. How do you be more gracious so that you know that having them stay longer could be fulfilling and good and so on?
I wonder if the question is like, “How do I not let them get annoying me because they’re disrupting my patterns and my routines?” I identify with that. If this idea of being gracious is more like how I deal with that, I would almost say if you can deal with it with humor. If you’re like that, that is probably not a secret to the person who is your guest. They probably know that you’re pretty particular. They probably know you’re pretty wedded to your routines. Maybe you could be like, “You know what I’m like. I got to get up at 6:00 AM. I got to do my yoga thing in the living room and try to keep it quiet. You know me. I can’t skip a day. What are you going to do? I got to be me.”
Try to make a joke of it rather than feeling like you have to be apologetic or disrupt what’s important to you for them. Often people are more tolerant than we might give them credit for, and raising it with humor and a little bit of poking fun at yourself. You can still be honest. To give you an example, I’m a very low-carb person. I eat a low-carb diet. There are many situations where I’m a guest in someone’s house, and I simply won’t eat the food they’re offering. If it’s the main dish and it’s something like lasagna, I’ll eat some of it. I won’t eat dessert. I won’t eat bread.
Everybody knows that about me. It doesn’t hurt anybody’s feelings because they’re like, “Gretchen’s not eating my dessert, and she doesn’t eat anybody’s dessert. She never eats dessert. It has nothing to do with me.” They might kid me about it, and I’m like, “Kid away. I’m not going to eat your dessert because I don’t eat dessert.” Nobody cares, and nobody says a word. If you’re like, “You know me. I got my weird ways. You got to let me be me. I’ll try to make it nice for you too,” and people might be like, “Okay.”
If this person is close, they understand you. I’d like to talk about the difference between compromise and coordination. I think this person is really vulnerable, and they could do this. Some of this is about having a conversation around the challenge. It’s like, “I love you, but I know that after a certain period of time, it’s going to start to wear on me. Not because anything’s wrong with you. It’s just about who I am. How can we coordinate so that we can have our space so that you can accomplish what you want to accomplish with this visit and that I can welcome you into my home and be a good host?”
That’s so true. A lot of it is managing expectations. It’s interesting because in my family, when I go home to Kansas City to be with my parents, we are together morning, at noon, and at night. You eat together, hang out together, and talk together. It’s constant. My husband, whose parents live right around the corner from us, we’ll see them for a couple of hours, and then we don’t see them for days. This idea that you would spend all day long, he was like, “What is happening?” I’m like, “This is our way.” It makes sense because I see them more rarely.
It is the nature of the different people involved. You can sometimes say like, “I need a lot of time to myself, so let’s get breakfast, and I’ll see you for dinner. The rest of the time, I need to be on my own.” You’re right. If somebody is close enough to you to be a guest, this is not going to be a surprise to them. You need to frame it, so it’s like, “It’s not you. It’s not the relationship. It is me.” I always say to myself like, “If I want to have them in my house at all, I have to make it work for me because otherwise, I’m going to end up saying no.”
One more question, when traveling, particularly for longer periods and needing to travel light, do you have any rituals or other steps to help “bring home with you?”
I do not, but I remember reading an account of Margaret Mead, who traveled a lot. She’s a famous anthropologist. I’ve heard of other people doing this sense where she had a couple of photographs and a little statuette, and she would put those up. I hear about that for people who travel all the time, like consultants, salesman, and people like that, where they’ll have a couple of framed photographs and maybe something. You mentioned traveling with a candle. It would have to be a small candle because they’re heavy and can be bulky. People will do that because that smell will often also cue you and make it feel like it’s yours.
Also, there is something called First Night syndrome or something where you sleep worse on the first night you are in a place. It has to do with the brain being vigilant. Sometimes people who travel a lot, if they often travel to the same place, will request to have exactly the same hotel room because then the brain doesn’t have the sense of novelty because it’s like, “This is familiar.” It could be possible that you would do something like that. It’s maybe always sleeping on the same side of the bed and trying to arrange things as much, so it feels like, “This place is set up the way I wanted.” It’s not something that I do, but I have talked to many people who find it to be very helpful as they’re settling into a new place.
That’s great. I call it nesting. Whenever I travel, I go into a hotel room or at Airbnb. No matter how excited I am about the place, I prepare my space. I get rid of the throw pillows off the bed.
You and I are the simplicity lovers of all the magazines, pieces of paper, and remote control. Put it in a drawer. Get rid of it all.
I could go on and on. I iron all my clothes. I set up my, “This is my space for now,” kind of thing. I talk to you about bringing the candle. I don’t always bring a candle, but I have a very nice Bose mini speaker, which is a little bulky and heavy, but it’s worth bringing with me. I do that because I’m always playing music in my house. It’s like the soundtrack for my life. When I go to a hotel, I can’t do that, so I bring the speaker with me and bring it into the bathroom when I’m taking a shower and shaving. I can move it around and have that soundtrack that I wouldn’t normally be able to have. That’s my version of that.
Here’s a drive-by hack. I can’t resist because you mentioned the ironing board. If you’re in a hotel room and there’s not enough counter space for you, you can use the ironing board.
I have done that.
If you’re doing a video call or you want a standing desk, you can often put it.
That’s clever. Gretchen, you would be a wonderful house guest of mine. It would be very easy to incorporate.
I’d probably want to go around and clear clutter. That’s my favorite thing to do when I go to somebody’s house. “Let’s clear clutter.”
That’s wonderful. Here’s a final thought. There are many ways to live a remarkable life, which we’ve touched on. You don’t have to be a jet setter or a foodie. You may not have the means or the inclination. What we’ve talked a little bit about is whether you’re a homebody or homebody adjacent, just some ways to go about being a little happier at home. Reflecting on this conversation, is there any last takeaway if you were to speak directly to the readers?
If there’s one thing I would say, I will come back to something you said at the beginning, which is there is no magic one size fits all solution. There’s no tool that fits every hand. There’s no one right way. If you feel like, “Everybody else could do this. Why can’t I do that?” there’s nothing wrong with you. Probably many people are in the same boat. Many people are clutter blind. We talked about simplicity lovers and abundance lovers. You may be clutter blind. My sister doesn’t see it.
She would never close a kitchen cabinet door as long as she lived if she didn’t live with other people. She just doesn’t see it. She has stacks and stacks of mail out on her counter. It doesn’t bother her. If that’s you, maybe that’s just you. If it doesn’t bother you, it’s not a problem, and if it doesn’t bother anybody else, there’s no reason you need to change. These are preferences. If you’re paying your bills on time, who cares? It’s this thing which it’s not about what’s the right and the best way but about understanding ourselves. The great challenge in our lives is to know ourselves.
Gretchen, I’ve read your works. It’s a pleasure to talk to you. I look forward to your next book. It’s called Life in Five Senses. Perhaps we’ll get you back on, and we can talk about more than just smell.
It’s wonderful. Thank you very much. I enjoyed our conversation so much.
- Gretchen Rubin
- The Four Tendencies
- Better Than Before
- The Happiness Project
- Happier at Home
- How to Sell, Then Write Your Nonfiction Book
- Power Money Fame Sex: A User’s Guide
- Outer Order, Inner Calm
- How To Tidy Up – Previous Episode
- Wax Crescent
- Happier with Gretchen Rubin
- A Pattern Language
- Life in Five Senses
About Gretchen Rubin
Gretchen Rubin is one of today’s most influential and thought-provoking observers of happiness and human nature. She’s known for her ability to distill and convey complex ideas with humor and clarity, in a way that’s accessible to a wide audience.
She’s the author of many books, including the blockbuster New York Times bestsellers The Four Tendencies, Better Than Before, and The Happiness Project. She has an enormous readership, both in print and online, and her books have sold over 3.5 million copies worldwide, in more than thirty languages. (The Happiness Project spent two years on the bestseller list.)
On her top-ranking, award-winning podcast “Happier with Gretchen Rubin,” she discusses happiness and good habits with her sister Elizabeth Craft.
She’s been interviewed by Oprah, eaten dinner with Daniel Kahneman, walked arm-in-arm with the Dalai Lama, had her work written up in a medical journal, and been an answer on the game show Jeopardy!
In her work, she draws from cutting-edge science, the wisdom of the ages, lessons from popular culture, and her own experiences to explore how we can make our lives happier, healthier, more productive, and more creative.
Gretchen Rubin started her career in law and was clerking for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor when she realized she wanted to be a writer. Raised in Kansas City, she lives in New York City with her husband and two daughters.