Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin Confirms What We Already Suspected: Dogs Make You Happier

By: Julie VadnalUpdated:

gretchen rubin
Courtesy of Gretchen Rubin

Happiness Expert Gretchen Rubin Confirms What We Already Suspected: Dogs Make You Happier

Choose the bigger life.

That point-of-view is how “happiness expert” and acclaimed author Gretchin Rubin came to adopt Barnaby, the Cocker Spaniel-Poodle mix who now owns her heart (and most of the house).

While you would think that someone who literally wrote the book on good feels—the 2009 New York Times bestseller “The Happiness Project”—would’ve already been asked time and time again about the well-established joy-boosting benefits of pet parenthood, that is not the case. In fact, eight minutes into our phone interview, Rubin interrupts herself to say, “This is so fun! I never get to talk about my dog!” And that’s a shame, she says, because, like most dogs, Barnaby is a constant source of joy in her life.

“The research is really strong: Dogs make you happier and healthier,” she says.

Photo: Heather Moore

And Rubin would know. Her books help readers lead more fulfilling lives by learning about themselves, from identifying their personality type (the subject of her book “The Four Tendencies”) to using home organization to make space for joy in her latest, “Outer Order, Inner Calm.”

Still, Rubin admits that before her family added a dog to their lives five years ago, she was hesitant about joining the puppy parent club. Ultimately, she leaned on a mantra she uses to make big decisions: Choose the bigger life. For Rubin, the bigger life included Barnaby, a pup with a laid-back personality and a mischievous squirrel-chasing streak.

Now, after years of balancing pet parenthood and a career as one of the country’s leading experts on happiness, Rubin says that the lessons she’s learned in her work are uniquely useful for pet parents.

Take Rubin’s newest book, “Outer Order, Inner Calm.” It’s a handbook for decluttering in order to make space for happiness. As any pet parent knows, dogs come with stuff—sometimes, lots of stuff.

“We trick dogs out with all these things,” Rubin laughs, noting that although Barnaby has his very own beanbag chair in their home, his favorite thing in the whole world is an old Abominable Snowman plushie that’s gone threadbare and grey from daily use. Still, Rubin says, the joy of bonding with him is worth a little extra clutter, and worth finding creative solutions for keeping it all organized. Rubin keeps a dedicated storage basket for his extra toys in the living room of her New York City home, and tends to stay pretty minimalist when it comes to everything else—beanbag chair notwithstanding.

In the past five years, Barnaby has adorably woven himself into fabric of the Rubin family. “My husband’s love language is touch, so he just loves pulling Barnaby up on his lap, or lying next to him on the bed to take a nap,” she explains. Barnaby also helps Rubin stay in touch with her daughter who’s in college: “I’ll take a random picture, like, ‘Here’s Barnaby yawning,’ and send it to her as a way to keep up.” (Her daughter’s typical reply: “I love him so much!”) Even Rubin’s parents, who live in Kansas City, frequently shop for treats and toys for Barnaby, and when a package arrives that looks about the size of a toy, he gets excited to open it to see what’s inside.

“Having a dog gives your family something in common, and something that everybody's interested in,” Rubin says, “which is really nice.”

More than just a companion, Barnaby provides routine, too. His morning walks get Rubin out of bed each day, providing some exercise and “the early morning light in my face.” Knowing that she’s doing something good for herself and her pup makes her happier, Rubin says.

Plus, the consistency of their morning walks, no matter the weather, is good for building healthy habits, one of the pathways to happiness she writes about in her book “Better Than Before.”

Barnaby brings joyful vibes in smaller ways too, just by staying close. He’s a pretty laid-back dog, Rubin says, and he shares that energy with those around him.

Photo: Heather Moore

“Even before Covid, I’d often be working at home alone, and it's completely different when there's a dog there,” she says. “It's a very comforting, calm-but-energizing atmosphere, more than just being totally alone. It's astonishing how different it feels to have a dog, how much more life there is in the room.”

To be honest, Rubin says, she can’t imagine a life without her dog—and coming from a happiness expert, that’s a huge endorsement.

"For us, the bigger life is our dog,” she says. “We just love him so much."

How to Organize Your Pet’s Stuff in 5 Minutes or Less

Gretchen Rubin’s new book, “Outer Order, Inner Calm,” explains how the clutter in our homes can have a significant effect on our happiness. Pet gear can add to the mess—but it doesn’t have to. Here are a few quick actions you can take to stay organized.

Instead of this: Throwing away all your dog’s old toys piling up in a corner.
Try this: Take a picture of the toys with your phone, then use those photos to decide which to keep and which to toss. Rubin says that a photograph gives you the distance you need to make good decisions.

Instead of this: Keep your tangled leashes—why do we have three leashes for one dog?—in a junk drawer.
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Photo: Heather Moore
Try this: Ask yourself this simple question: “Do I need more than one?” Maybe one leash is good for jogs in the park and another is better for city walks. Keep the two you need, and donate the extras to a shelter. Bonus: It’s easier to keep track of fewer items.

Instead of this: Keeping physical copies of important vet documents in a kitchen drawer, filing cabinet or that ever-growing pile of papers on your desk.
Try this: Scan and save them to the cloud. That way, they’ll be easily accessible from your phone in case of an emergency, and the hard copy won’t get lost in a drawer or file cabinet.

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Photo: Heather Moore

Instead of this: Ripping open a brand new bag of dog treats.
Try this: Open items carefully. Most packaging has a method to it that makes it easy to open and close, reducing the need for additional containers in your home. Skipping the directions means you could send dog treats flying—and also have a tough time resealing the bag.


By: Julie VadnalUpdated: