How to be happy for life: With Gretchen Rubin and Ramit Sethi

Ramit Sethi

When I was doing a lot of TV, I would take questions from viewers. Literally 99% of questions would fall into the same 5 categories:

  1. I’m in debt. How do I pay it off?
  2. My credit card company did X to me. What should I do?
  3. I want to buy X. Can I afford it?
  4. I just had kids. How should I save for them?
  5. I want to retire. Do I have enough?

Here’s the funny thing: To them, their questions were unique. They actually believed they had a special question that applied to just them!

But to anyone else, they were formulaic and easy to answer.

We all nod and smile, saying Ha Ha Those Funny People Who Call In To TV/Radio Shows…yet we do the same thing!

How many of us believe our situations are truly unique?

Take one of the most popular areas of psychology in the last 10 years: happiness.

How many of us have turned 30, thinking we should be flying around on jets, living in a penthouse, only to realize we’re stuck doing yet another Excel model?

What do we do? We think, “If only I got X, I’d be happy.” Another promotion, a bigger apartment, that vacation so we could post our pictures on FB.

Funny that I mention FB. How many of us have feeds FULL of pictures of friends in exotic locations? Posted on a Tuesday or Wednesday? We start to say, wait a second. How are they taking vacations ALL THE TIME? What do they know that I don’t? How come I’m not doing that?

We keep it to ourselves. Sometimes, we just stay in over a weekend. It’s not that we’re depressed…but we wonder, “How come my friends don’t call me to hang out? Why am I doing all the work?”

And on the rare occasions where we share how we feel with friends, there’s always one presumptuous jackass who says, “You should be happy! Do you know how many kids are starving in Africa?”

It’s true, nobody expects to be happy ALL the time. And it’s not that we’re depressed. In fact, rationally, we live in the best time in history. But happiness isn’t rational. It’s a different feeling…a feeling of wondering if we should be doing more…traveling more….having more…even living a different life. We wonder: Am I happy? Should I be happy?

We go through the motions. How many of these sound familiar?

  • Having too many choices and, as a result, being unsatisfied with every one because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
  • Going to a blah job, through the motions, then realizing the guy who’s 30 years older than us has been here for decades…doing the same thing we’re doing!
  • Making a bunch of resolutions each year, pumping ourselves up, then rationalizing why we didn’t do them — again
  • Hitting the snooze button several times every morning
  • Feeling lonely and socially awkward but thinking we can’t improve — that somehow, social “skills” are only for people who were blessed with them when they were born

Overall, it’s not a sharp pain — it’s a nagging feeling in the back of our mind that we’re not living up to our full potential.

So what do we do? In the midst of this cognitive dissonance, we have two real options:

  1. Admit that we want MORE, and change our behavior
  2. Rationalize, rationalize, rationalize

Which do you think we do? Check out these rationalization phrases we use:

  • “I should just be happy to have _____”
  • “I’ll work on this later”
  • “I’m tired. I earned the right to veg out this weekend”
  • “I’m just not that type of person” (fit, starts a business, works from home on Fridays, etc)
  • “Rich people are scam artists and cheaters”
  • “Everybody else is unhappy, too”

Honestly, I find these haunting. And I’ve used every one of these phrases myself!

The fact is, it’s easier to rationalize our behavior — changing nothing — than to change our BEHAVIOR.

It’s scary to admit that we’re not happy…especially because everyone in society tells us we SHOULD be happy…ALL THE TIME!

How happy are you? 1-10?

Out of curiosity…on a scale of 1-10, how would you rate your happiness?

If you’re not happy with your response — or you know you can improve — then I’d like to introduce you to Gretchen Rubin. Gretchen is the author of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, and she’s one of the sharpest minds on the psychology of happiness.

I like her because she is incredibly relatable — yet she also presents an incredibly strong framework to view happiness through. How happy am I? How do I get happier? Should I even pursue happiness?

Recently, I invited her to be a guest in my Brain Trust program, where I interview my mentors, confidants, and the most interesting people I know. 

I brought her into my studio and asked her my toughest questions on happiness. Now, as you know, I’m not the most “woo woo” guy — so I didn’t want to get someone who spent an hour talking about the meditation practice + tea ritual she does every morning.

That’s why I LOVE this interview. It’s a non-judgmental way to figure out (1) WHAT makes you happy, guilt-free, and (2) HOW to get it.

In this new video, you’ll learn:

  • How to differentiate between a real passion and “I should like _____”  so you can focus on what really matters to you
  • How you can make new friends as an adult
  • The simple test to determine what your real joys are
  • The powerful “lie detector” that instantly demonstrates the gap between your values and your daily actions
  • The hidden value of ENVY — and how it can show you when to focus your efforts
  • The trouble with spontaneity and how it can reduce your overall happiness (plus what to do about it)
  • Gretchen’s strategies for keeping work and leisure time separate so you can enjoy each, guilt-free
  • What to do when “what feels good” and “what feels right” conflict
  • The alarm you should set everyday and why. (Hint: it’s not to get up early)

This is an excerpt of the full interview from my “Brain Trust” program, where each month I unveil a new interview with my personal mentors, advisors, and confidants each month. Each month, you get access to these private interviews.

This program is closed right now. If you’re interested in getting on the wait list, you can add yourself here:


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  1. Drew

    Ramit, thank you for sharing. I have been reading your material for a long time and have used IWT the book to save a ton of money. I don’t comment very often on any blogs, but this is a topic/mentality that I pay a lot of attention to.

    FB is not just a huge waste of time, but it can also seriously effect your happiness when you see what everyone else is doing. People usually only post the positive stuff to show off their things and experiences to impress their friends and make their life seem so much better (while probably going deeper into debt). I don’t see very many pictures of cubicles or spreadsheets. Nowadays I try to stay away from FB because I really just don’t care what everyone else is sharing. I have more time to work on things that matter and don’t wish I could have things I don’t actually want.

    I have rationalized instead of changing my behavior, but if there are things that I want to change in my life I work hard to actually do it. I went from 130 lbs. to 190 lbs. and was featured on TV and in Maxim. I’ve learned how to manage my finances and how to generate additional income aside from my full time position. I don’t want to rationalize and talk a big game, I want to be a doer.

    There are a few things that have helped me become a generally happy person. Getting rid of clutter and not wanting “stuff”. Avoiding all the negative media and ads for “stuff” (or just not watching TV). Truly enjoying time with the people I love and experiences that make me happy, like going to the beach. Not having high expectations and practicing contentment (Thanks Leo Babauta).

    Thanks again for sharing, I look forward to hopefully seeing the whole interview!

  2. Sunil @ CPA Career

    excellent article Ramit.

    an age old topic and one that addresses and constant pursuit. reason being is that state of mind, feeling and happiness changes with time, experience, exposure and maturity.

    Drew makes a great point about externalities impacting our own state of happiness, and eliminating one aspect that impacts that (FB) is a big step in improvising. by the way I do agree that FB is mostly a waste of time – however i do use it very successfully for business to interact with my readers, students, coachees, other professionals, teachers and universities. it’s mostly a marketing tool for me.

    loved the videos and the practical actions she takes to find her happiness. while this varies for everyone, her methods can be applied and one will find that a lot of them will help in finding true happiness.

    at the end of the day it is constant awareness, knowledge/learning, trial and error to really find what makes us tick and truly happy. then it is about focusing more on those things that bring us that happiness and continue to get rid of aspects that don’t such as FB. sometimes that is not very easy because the factors of negativity tie back to our families, relationships, etc.

  3. Dona Collins

    This is a great topic, and I’ll definitely be checking out The Happiness Project this week as well. Thank you.

    For me, it’s not a matter of always asking myself if I am happy. I find that at my happiest times I never even ask myself. Even when I am only content or moderately satisfied, I don’t find myself questioning my mood. But when I go to bed at night or find myself standing in my kitchen thinking, “Geezus, I feel awful today,” or “When is something going to finally give for me.” I know I’ve changed my frame of mind and I ultimately take a step back to reassess (and make a change).

  4. Pablo

    One of the best posts this year. Thanks!

  5. Ken Tan

    Great post and interview, Remit. Love reading all your work!

  6. KRA

    I liked how Gretchen discussed that happiness isn’t necessarily all happy happy, joy joy, super fun times… all the time. I frequently have to hold back an urge to punch the type of people who think EVERYTHING is the GREATEST THING EVER! (WHOOO!!!!) I’m convinced that kind of behavior is completely fake and acted out of some need to not be seen as ‘negative’. Which is really just other people’s BS invading your brain and your behavior.

    In a similar vein: gratitude. It’s not that true gratitude is bad (who wants to hang around a totally ungrateful a-hole?) And neither is taking a moment to get some perspective on your situation, and to acknowledge the good things you do have. My problem is that I see too many people using “gratitude” as a way to brainwash themselves into accepting a life they don’t want. I can tell you I’m definitely much happier when I’m working on a new project or progressing toward a new goal, than I am convincing myself that things aren’t really all that bad right where I am. Even if it’s harder, more mentally painful, and has the potential to not work out at all how I thought it would; there’s far more reward in the act of trying.

    Seriously virtually-every-woman’s-blog-I’ve-ever-read, stop shaming your readers for wanting more. Sitting still in life isn’t a particularly admirable goal. And I doubt it’s really making many people happy.

  7. Cat

    I loved the video with Gretchen. I feel like I’m constantly on this search for “happiness” and it’s so complex yet so simple at the same time.

  8. Peter Hedstrom

    To be honest, I think it’s a mistake to assume that happiness is caused by what we’re doing. It’s not – it’s a state of mind, a way of being. You could be doing all those things (travelling to exotic lands, driving a yacht, having lots of money, dating a supermodel) and still be miserable. So happiness is clearly an internal matter.

    Happiness is more about how you relate to life and the meaning you give to the events you experience. I find its also highly linked to ones sense of self-esteem and a feeling of “have I contributed to someone or something other than just myself?” Surprisingly, I also find happiness is linked to a certain ability to appreciate the mystery and beauty in life.

    In fact, the whole struggle to find happiness relates to whether or not we can find a sense of meaning and purpose in life. At the end of the day, we find that no experience in life is too difficult to go through, as long as we’re able to frame it in some kind of meaningful way, and I speak of that having gone through some pretty tough stuff myself (such as even close family members committing suicide). By the way, an experience like that really tends to cut through the bullshit and make you focus on what the essence of life is really all about…