A Happiness Lesson from Julia Child?


This weekend, I read a wonderful book, Julia Child’s My Life in France. It describes her first move to France, when her husband was transferred there, how she fell in love with France and French food, and how she became utterly absorbed in learning about French cooking and in cookbook writing.

I must confess that I have very little interest in the ruling passion of Julia Child’s life. Food has never been very interesting to me. I love certain foods, of course, but I like very plain food best. I don’t get much of a kick from visiting new restaurants, or from eating a wonderfully cooked meal. Some people love exploring farmers’ markets or learning about how foods’ origins or cooking – not me. One of the sad aspects of a happiness project, for me, was to Be Gretchen and to admit to myself that this area of experience, so vibrant for so many people, leaves me cold.

Given my lack of interest in food, it wouldn’t have occurred to me to read the book except that Julia Child’s work has been on my mind – because her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, has been bouncing around on the New York Times bestseller list near The Happiness Project!

So I picked up this book, and I was utterly captivated. It didn’t matter that I don’t care about cooking or food. Julia Child’s enthusiasm, her love of her subject and the zest with which she tackled even the drudgery involved, her respect for the masters in her field and her curiosity constantly to learn more, swept me along.

Enthusiasm is a terrific quality. The more I think about happiness, the more I value enthusiasm. It can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical, and it’s certainly much easier and safer to adopt that sort of stance. But enthusiasm is more fun. Enthusiasm is generous, positive, energetic, and social. It’s outward-turning and engaged. It’s unselfconscious, warm-hearted, and kind of goofy. Like Julia Child!

Julia Child’s love for French cooking was so contagious that even today, almost fifty years after she wrote her first cookbook, we still feel her influence. I’m not sure whether I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” – but enthusiasm certainly helps. What a passionate life Julia Child led! And what a marvelous flavor she left behind.

* One of my Secrets of Adulthood is “The opposite of a great truth is also true.” A thoughtful reader sent me the link to a two-minute TED talk that develops that idea in a very interesting way.

* In a book group? If you’d like a copy of the reading-group discussion guide for The Happiness Project, just email me at grubin [at] gretchenrubin [.com]. (Sorry to write in that odd way; trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “reading group guide” in the subject line. I’ll send it right off.

Other posts you might be interested in . . .

  • I felt the same way about her book. I’m not really into French cooking, but I found her enthusiasm and passion for life contagious. It turned out to be one of the best books I read last year!

  • Going through the happiness project, month by month, after reading it through for the review in December… I’ve really loved this book, but so far- March is my favorite. This post fits right in with exactly why your March chapter is so profound…

  • Gretchen – I agree with you on enthusiasm, it is the fuel that comes from being passionate about something. Enthusiasm creates an unstoppable drive and energy to throw behind an idea or project. Great post and thanks for sharing.


  • How fabulous that your book is rubbing elbows with Julia’s masterpiece! I hadn’t given Julia much thought until I saw “Julie and Julia” last year.. Meryl Streep’s Julia was so wonderful I think she (Julia, tho I love MEryl too!) became my hero, instantly!

  • cormacheron

    I endorse what Sara is saying. Julie & Julia is a great movie and Streep was excellent. Well at least I think she was. I watched the movie on a flight from Shanghai to London on Virgin Atlantic and the movie lasted a good deal longer than stated in their entertainment brochure so I missed the end. Still gutted. I bought my aspiring cook/fiancée one of Child’s books as a Valentine’s present.

  • stevebogner

    I’ve always thought of enthusiasm as a sort of emotional momentum. Julia Child was able to find an activity that tapped into her passion – and who wouldn’t be enthusiastic about that!

  • katie42

    I totally agree! I read this book over the summer before seeing Julie and Julia…I wish they would have spent more time during the movie on this side of the story! I was left wanting more!

  • elemjay

    So here is my take on some other factors that make this good happiness reading:

    – the govt keeps moving Julia and her husband to random places where she doesn’t really want to live – but she finds the good aspects and keeps on trucking
    – the dedication involved in producing the MasterWork involves years and years and multiple set backs – but she and her conspirators do not give up – perseverence and self-confidence keep them going

    • sunshinecook

      Thank you for those points! I particularly appreciated the second one. Sometimes I fall under the illusion that materworks like _The Art of French Cooking_ appeared to their creators one day and were more or less painlessly born shortly thereafter. 🙂 I am filled with patience and perseverance for my own projects when I remember how many twists and turns that amazing book went through. I really appreciate that when Julia had the choice between bemoaning how long the book was taking or to enjoying the process of creating it, she usually chose enjoyment!

  • smpease

    I LOVED her book too and read it the same time as Julie Powell’s book, which made it even more fun. I do agree with Emerson, enthusiasm is what makes good great. If we’re enthusiastic about something, we are willing to persevere and go the extra mile, which usually yields a better product. 🙂

  • susan

    I LOVED her book too and read it the same time as Julie Powell’s book, which made it even more fun. I do agree with Emerson, enthusiasm is what makes good great. If we’re enthusiastic about something, we are willing to persevere and go the extra mile, which usually yields a better product. 🙂

  • I’m can relate to you because I’m not that big on going to restaurants and trying new foods. As long as it’s decent and I’m full, then I’m okay. But I have a friend who is really passionate about different foods. On my birthday, he brought me to try oysters for the first time. The oysters were pretty good, but his enthusiasm made it taste better and the experience more exciting. I think that type of positive influence was what Julia brought to the people as well.

  • WinnieMom

    In the movie, Julia is struggling to find something to do in France. Her husband asks her, “What makes you happy?”
    She replies, “Food!”

    The rest is history.

  • pamwalter

    You just have to love someone who approaches everything with such joy! http://www.satisfiedsole.com

  • Jessica

    Julie inspired me too, although it was more based on the Meryl Streep movie than the book she wrote. I wrote a blog about her, partly inspired by you, a month or so ago, and how what makes others happy doesn’t always do it for us. I’ll have to read more about her.


  • Irene

    This post (about the importance of enthusiasm for happiness, and how “not cool” it is to be enthusiastic), randomly brought to mind a lyric from REM’s song “What’s the Frequency Kenneth”

    “… irony was the shackles of youth”

    So true, don’t you think?!

  • amy

    I loved Julia’s book (and I loved Meryl Streep as Julia Child in the movie Julie and Julia). And I loved Paul and Julia’s relationship and devotion to one another. I think they would have been fans of The Happiness Project!

  • LiveSolid

    Wait … you read this whole book in a weekend? Impressive!

    We are loving your inspiring message every day, Gretchen.

    If anybody is interested in winning a FREE copy of The Happiness Project, enter this easy Facebook contest here: http://bit.ly/avD3bY.

    The contest is hosted by Live Solid, a movement to help people get on more solid financial ground.

  • Isak_D

    I saw the movie Julie and Julia, then read the book My Life in France, then read Julie Powell’s book, and finally checked out Julie Powell’s blog. Although it was serendipitous, I am glad about the order of my exposure to both Julia and Julie. As a fan of Meryl Streep, Amy Adams, and Stanley Tucci, I was primed to love the movie – it was a delight and I know I will watch it again for the pure lift it gives me. When I read My Life in France, I appreciated Julia on so many more levels than even the amazing Meryl Streep could evoke. Julia’s absolute joy de vivre bowled me over! Julia understood that both life and recipes don’t always turn out the way you like, but you don’t make excuses, you enjoy what you can, tell yourself you’ll likely do better next time, and move on. Julia and Paul made their own happiness, through their own passions (French cooking, painting, photography, friends) and through their collaboration. The Julia I saw on television in her cooking series was obviously only one facet of this remarkable women; after reading her book, it was easy to see how Paul could love her so well. Rather than liking Julie Powell’s book, I have say that I was intrigued. She writes well, and often funnily, but she did not seem happy. I know. I was expecting Amy Adams, who turned Julie into a completely delightful person. When Amy triumphed in the movie, I felt like I was placing the stick of butter myself. I gave tribute and was content. I had neither emotion following Julie Powell’s book. I was further saddened by reading her blog and learning the turns her life had taken. But Julie’s fans like her just the way she is – full of angst and irony and biting sardonic wit. Julie Powell may successfully manipulate the emotions of others, but she can’t seem to get herself to “happy.” I’ll take Julia Child – straight – any time.

    • Elvanelvan2001

       Is nt manipulating others emotions to make money is a big new thing in AMerica?-:)
      I totaly agree with you post.
      I will take Jia Child -straigth -any time,too.

  • kathid

    Enthusiasm sells, too! Imagine a 50-year-old book making a reappearance on the NYT bestseller list!

  • Stefanie

    It was nice to see your comments about your “lack of interest in food.” I, too, have the same relationship with food (thus my Feb. 2nd post on my blog http://www.whatsthebestthatcanhappen.blogspot.com.) I think I just have to accept the fact that baking is my thing and not cooking. But, you are right that a person’s passion can be contagious even if you aren’t interested in the same thing–the passion shines through. Thanks for that take on it! I am enjoying your book, by the way!!

  • Priya Bradfield

    As someone who really doesn’t like to cook, I was never interested in reading about Julia Child. However it was the pick for our book club one month and what hit me was the way that her enthusiasm kept her marriage so alive all those years. It wasn’t just good for her cooking!

    By the way, I wanted to thank you for watching the TED talk (I was the one who sent you that link) – imagine my surprise when you shared it on your blog!

    • gretchenrubin

      Yes, her enthusiasm is wonderful — even if you can’t really appreciate the
      thing she’s enthusiastic about.

      And thanks again for sending the link — you were right, worth the watch!

      • Rachel

        I’m not sure if you’ll see this four years later, but the link to the TED Talk is now broken. Any chance either of you remember the speaker’s name? I’m interested in viewing it.


  • EscapeVelocity

    This is a really tough one for me. I learned early on that expressing enthusiasm for something was basically letting everybody within earshot know how they could hurt you.

    • megrenicker

      Velocity, that is an amazing insight. So true for so many and yet they cannot articulate it. I am going to write it in my journal and use it as a quote.
      Thanks so much for that little gem.


    • Elvanelvan2001

       Thank you.It feels good to be know .I am not alone and I am not strange I am someone who gets a lot of negativity from other.I could never figure out why. i am not mean bot a bad person .Actually opposite.I am too kind and thoughtful. .
      All I did was showing  as you put it – enthusiasm-.
      One day someone told me  and she was very nice ,large person from New Zealand .She said : Elvan ,you have too much lust for life and this could be difficult for some people to understand. There you go….

    • Elvanelvan2001

       Dear Velocity
      Also I will copy this ,too. Amazing. Nice to meet kindred souls.
      Best wishes

  • And I thought I was weird for not being a foodie. Your line – “Food has never been very interesting to me.” – hit me spot on.
    I agree with what you said about enthusiasm. It doesn’t really matter what a person is being enthusiastic about, it’s contagious and inspiring. I haven’t read Julia Child’s book yet, but I’ve seen Julie and Julia. The movie inspired me to start a blog, seeing Julia Child’s and Julie Powell’s love for writing and cooking.- http://runworkandsave.blogspot.com/

    • Petra Teunissen

      I am so glad to read I am not the only one who lacks interest in (preparing) food, nowadays its seems like you have to be ashamed to admit you don’t like cooking, at least in The Netherlands. I reserve my enthusiasm for chocolate and candy…

  • Hmm I’ve never heard of her before but sounds like a type of person I’d like to know. “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” is very powerful – I think good ol’Emerson was on the right track there. 🙂

  • I am no foodie, but I loved My Life in France. Her enthusiasm was definitely catching, and I loved her humor, can-do spirit and deep love for her husband. So glad you enjoyed it too.

  • I am no foodie, but I loved My Life in France. Her enthusiasm was definitely catching, and I loved her humor, can-do spirit and deep love for her husband. So glad you enjoyed it too.

  • foodie

    It has in the past been hard for me to wrap my head around the concept that some people aren’t passionate about food. But then I read about supertasters, tasters, and non-tasters. Duh, it’s not a personality flaw, it’s biology. See this article from the New Yorker – scroll down to the paragraph starting with “Linda Bartoshuk” http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2009/11/23/091123fa_fact_colapinto?currentPage=all

  • Kate

    After reading this post, I got the following quote in my inbox:

    “Enthusiasm is excitement with inspiration, motivation, and a pinch of creativity.” – Bo Bennett

    Very timely!

  • mcarey

    You’re so right. Enthusiasm is a terrific quality, and when we have it, it’ll take us anywhere we want to go.

    Unfortunately it can’t be faked. Before we can leave behind safe , cool cynicism, we have to find something we are truly enthusiastic about. For Julia it took her until her thirties, some of us are luckier and it happens earlier, and for some (think Grandma Moses) it happens much, much later.

    But enthusiam combined with the right attitude can get you just about anywhere you want to be.

    Mac Carey
    Enterwall LLC
    Life and Business Coaching

  • annhess

    I wholeheartedly agree. My favorite quotation is: “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes “Awww!” by Jack Kerouac. Too many people miss out on life because they are afraid to give in to their passions. I have “My Life in France,” but have not had the chance to read it yet. I saw the movie and was hoping that Meryl Streep gave an accurate portrayal of Mrs. Child because I was attracted to her enthusiasm for life!

    • Elvanelvan2001

       Thanks so much I love your favorite from Jack Kerouac. I am the same . i always loved larger than life people .

  • dawn

    fanstastic book, fantastic lady {that juila childs}! when i think of enthusiasm, i remember what i read about it in a book one time: instead of trying to channel confidence, exude enthusiasm…it’s unpretentious and sends an energy that helps you to connect with others. it’s something i try to remember to be!

  • Fred


    DId you write, “A happiness lesson from Julia Child?”

    If so, I’ve never heard of anyone so disinterested in food. Never. Even people I’ve known that have to suck food thru a straw had more interest in food. You really should see a doctor about this. Good luck.


    • gretchenrubin

      I like food fine, but I don’t love it, and I don’t really like fine food.
      Oatmeal — yes. Foie gras– no. The kind of thing Julie Child loves — no.

      Do I need to see a doctor? Am I alone in my unfoodiness? Before I started my
      happiness project, I would’ve assumed that my feelings were very unusual,
      but now I know that there are others out there who are also fairly
      uninterested in food. As one reader pointed out, maybe it’s a matter of
      taste receptors. Or maybe just taste.

      • Elvanelvan2001

         Oh I am sure you do like good food.
        Maybe not rich kind like Julia but maybe fresh tasty
        starwberries or apples smell of good red tomatoe???

  • tmudder

    I appreciate your own personal enthusiasm, Gretchen, and, dare I say it, obsession with happiness. We could certainly stand a much more generous dose of happiness in the world we live in today. I also have to admit being puzzled by your Secret of Adulthood mentioned above, that “The opposite of a great truth is also true”. I appreciate the insight of TED, but must confess that, while differing viewpoints can often be equally true, merely different perspectives of the same situation, scenario, or circumstance, genuinely opposing viewpoints of the same thing never can be. For instance, the block in America does not have a name. This is true. Saying that it does have a name is false if it does not. The streets in Japan, at least in the illustration, do not have names. To say that they do is false and can lead to significant misunderstanding and frustration! I believe that one of the secrets to discovering happiness is discovering Truth. And discovering Truth is impossible without beginning to realize that there are falsehoods that often prevent us from seeing the Truth. I welcome any discussion or emails regarding this perspective. Know Truth. Be happy. And share.

  • nice cool post very useful thanks

  • I have been throwing myself into anything and everything Julia I can find – I love her story! 

    I  can thoroughly recommend ‘As Always, Julia’, a collection of Julia’s letters to her ‘pen pal’ and dearest friend Avis DeVoto. Avis was key in ultimately getting Julia’s first book published, and it’s a beautiful record of their friendship, the 9-year process to complete the book (NINE years!!), Julia’s relationship with Paul, her interesting life as a diplomat’s wife and the political scene of the time (the McCarthy era). A brilliant read.

  • ErinR

    This is personally one of my favorite books. Not for the love of food, but for the zest for life and willingness toward adventure. Julia took control of her own destiny, mind all that she was not a young girl when she started this journey. She found happiness and success in her adventure. What a great example for women of all ages. I have read and re-read this each time to my delight. A great positive role model. I am 40 years old and my daughter is 12, we both love Julia’s zest for living.

  • dineke

    Enthusiasm is such a wonderful trait. And seen as so uncool, which is such a pity. Now in my forties, I love finding enthusiastic people, and I truly do not care if I share their passions. For example Wil Wheaton with his Tabletop show on YouTube, or the great Vlogbrothers. Or Adam Savage from Mythbusters, who, again on YouTube, shows how he makes things. His love and enthusiasm is so infectious. It’s wonderful. Detached irony and snarky comments can be fun, but enthusiasm touches me deeply and makes me far happier. I always love seeing my early teen children enthusiastic, but I know that ‘cool it ain’t’, more’s the pity!

  • Molly

    I feel nearly the same way about cooking and food (I like it all a bit more than you), and exactly the same way about Julia Child! She was such a neat person and not afraid to be enthusiastic and show her passion. I try to remember her spirit as captured in that book when I am feeling down. She really shows how joy is an art, and how important it is simply to be cheerful. Even being joyful or cheerful can help us get out of our rut, open our eyes, and see what is around us.

  • Mary McHugh

    Oh yes Velocity, thank you for your comment , you have just given me insight to my own attitude towards some enthusiastic people. I have a work colleague that is enthusiastic, but I detect it is forced and false. What are your thoughts?