The Happiness Project

“Maybe Happiness Isn’t the Most Important Part of a Well-Lived Life”

Penelope Trunk is one of the most interesting and provocative writers about career happiness—and happiness in general. (I think it’s almost impossible to untangle these two issues, but Penelope might disagree with me on that.) She wrote a terrific book, Brazen Careerist ; she writes a very popular blog also called Brazen Careerist ; and she’s the CEO of, an online community and consulting firm.

The thing about Penelope is that, yes, she is brazen. She’s unusually honest about her views and her experiences (for example, she wrote a lot about going into marriage counseling), and unlike many highly opinionated people, she packs her writing with solid information and backs up her perspective. I always get a lot out of reading her material—I don’t always agree, but I’m always fascinated.

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Penelope: There is nothing simple that I can rely on to make me happier. Yoga always makes me happy, but getting myself to do it is difficult even though I’m always happy I did it. Kissing someone I have a crush on always makes me happy, but finding the crush and orchestrating the kiss is tricky.

I want to tell you that expressing gratitude always makes me happier. I know that research says this is true. But I think we could debate forever how much increase in happiness is so small it’s not even worth talking about. I’m not sure. But a kiss with a crush is always worth talking about.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18?
My happiness levels in life don’t particularly change depending on where I am in life. I have sort of a setpoint. I veer from it in the same way I veer from my regular weight the day after Thanksgiving—I always go back to that setpoint.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?
Eating bread is what I’m working on right now. I’ve been off gluten enough to know that it makes a difference in my anxiety levels. I am calmer with no gluten. But bread is so yummy, and also it’s the food I turn to if I want to do emotional eating. Over the course of a day I am happier if I don’t eat bread, but over the course of a minute—when the bread is in front of me—it’s hard to make the right decisions.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful?
I tell myself that happiness is not about making good choices or having success; it’s about being resilient when we mess up.

If you’re feeling blue, how do you give yourself a happiness boost?
I eat bread. And then I have the problem above. If I am really, unhappy I go to bed. Severe unhappiness generally goes away with time.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness or detracts a lot from their happiness?
I see a lot of bullshit around me. So I am sort of cynical about the discussion of happiness. I am not sure that I think the discussion of “Am I happy?” is productive. I think life is extremely difficult, for everyone, and that in order to get through life we have tricks for ourselves to continue the journey, and happiness is sort of a trick. I don’t think there is a lot of happiness in life. There is a lot of hopefulness and interest in how things unfold, and there are spurts of happiness. Sometimes I think that happiness is maybe not the most important part of a well-lived life. But I’m not sure.

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy? And why?
Always the same. I have earned $300,000/year in NYC, and I have earned $45,000 a year. And there was no change. I have been married and divorced, and there was no change. I have had lots of friends and very few friends, and no change. I am generally upbeat and optimistic, and I am an optimizer. And nearly none of those things ever changes.

Do you work on being happier? If so, how?
Yes. By reading the research and watching how it applies to my life. Right now I am consumed with the idea that one of the biggest impacts you can have on happiness levels is going from no sex to having regular sex with a regular partner. Working on that one. Forget daily gratitudes. Those don’t impact happiness nearly as much.

Have you ever been surprised that something you expected would make you very happy didn’t—or vice versa?
I thought money would make me happy. It didn’t. I still think money would make me happy. There is cognitive dissonance, and I think it might be part of our DNA. Here’s an irony: That in order to spend days implementing the happiness research, you’d do best to have someone else supporting you financially, so you can focus on happiness. I get stuck on thinking like this. I’m not sure how right it is; I just know that people—most people—are stuck on the money issue, even if they won’t admit it.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just e-mail me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.