Breda O’Brien: I am breaking up with Gretchen Rubin, her world is too tidy

Being human is not a project with one self-improvement experiment at a time

I am breaking up with Gretchen Rubin. I don't think she will be too upset. The Happiness Project author has many, many simultaneous relationships. It's not that she is promiscuous or anything. It's just her effortless ability to do the impossible.

I will miss her. Once a week, no matter at what ungodly hour I finally finish this column, I check in with her. She is always there, reliable and faithful, with something interesting to say. For example, she is a voracious reader. I always end up buying something from the list of 20 to 30 books she reads each month. (Of course, she promotes independent booksellers.)

Those who prefer to make your dwellings under rocks (or who are, perhaps, male) may be confused by now. Rubin is not only a New York Times best-selling author, and an award-winning blogger and podcaster, she also made that video: The days are long but the years are short.

After years, it has slowly percolated through my brain that we are fundamentally incompatible

Yes, that reflection on the need to appreciate the moment because children grow up so swiftly. It is guaranteed to reduce postpartum mothers to gulping, snotty sobs as they fold freshly washed bundles of tiny clothing.


The rest of us would be afraid of accusations of sentimentality, but Rubin is fearless. She has a kind of invincible innocence despite being smart enough to have clerked for Ms Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and smart enough to leave it all behind when she realised it was sucking the soul out of her body, one billable hour at a time.

Rubin is lovely. It is just that after years, it has slowly percolated through my brain that we are fundamentally incompatible.

It is not because Rubin is an upholder. I am old enough to have lived through the narcissistic complexity of both the Myers-Briggs (16 personality types) and the Enneagram (18 personality types). Darn it, if the four personality types that Rubin invented don’t make more sense. There are rebels, whose first response to any suggestion, good or bad, is "You can’t make me.£

There are questioners, who will do something only once they have questioned every aspect of it and decided that the data justify making a change. There are obligers. They will do absolutely anything for anyone, even at the expense of their own health and wellbeing, but are utterly hopeless when it comes to doing anything solely for themselves, no matter how necessary or worthy.

And then there are upholders. Once upholders see the value in something, they do it immediately and never look back. For example, Rubin gave up sugar overnight and has never eaten it since, despite being whippet-thin both before and after. She does this even when obligers have stayed up until 3am icing cupcakes for her. She just tells them that she does not eat sugar.

She ruthlessly instigates new habits for herself and they stick forever. Me? After a long, long period of thought, I came up with one habit I have stuck to. I had to go back to when I was 13. I stopped scuttling along, head down, trying to be invisible, when I saw another teenager doing the same and realised it made her more noticeable, not less. I quit on the spot.

Notice, I did not say I developed good posture or self-confidence. I just started walking with my head up. Is it pathetic that this is the only example of consistently adopting a better habit that I can come up with? Yes. Particularly since nine-tenths of Rubin’s blog that I read once a week is dedicated to developing better habits.

This may be bringing us closer to the reason why I am breaking up with her. Reading about creating good habits is an excellent displacement activity for actually creating any.

Too much tidiness also leaves too little room for grace . . . In the words of Bono, who occasionally says something profound, grace makes beauty out of ugly things

But there is an even more basic incompatibility. Rubin's world is fundamentally tidy. She is too smart not to realise the darkness in life. She often showcases people such as Kate Bowler, who wrote Everything Happens for a Reason and Other Lies I've Loved, which is about living with stage-four cancer and finding that faith gives no neat, predictable answers.

Rubin’s world, nonetheless, trots along on a predictable track, where life can be improved by one incremental strategy after another, such as a daily visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art. There is nothing wrong with her world view but it is not enough.

Being human is not a project, leading inexorably upwards and onwards, one self-improvement experiment at a time.

Life is at once more bleak and majestic than that. There are some tragedies in the face of which self-help can only slink silently away.

Too much tidiness also leaves too little room for grace, unearned and unprogrammable, but no less real. In the words of Bono, who occasionally says something profound, grace makes beauty out of ugly things. Grace patiently brings good from our fumbling and our failures. Grace reminds us that even though we are anxious and troubled about many things, only one thing is needful.

That’s why, somewhat ruefully, I am breaking up with Gretchen Rubin and taking up (again) with grace.