BOOK REVIEW: Rubin, G. (2009). The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. Harper.
On an apparently meaningless bus drive home, Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany: “I am not as happy as I could be.” She also realized that the problem might not be the conditions of her life, per se, but with how she lived and perceived it. She wondered if she could change her life without actually changing her life, and made a year-long commitment to work on improving her happiness.
Gretchen is a former attorney and now a best-selling author. She is also an avowed bookworm – and a proud one at that. Rubin began her quest by checking out every book on the topic of happiness from her library. She read authors ranging from the Dalai Lama to Martin Seligman to William James, Jonathan Haidt, Oprah Winfrey and so on. Her sources drew on philosophy, history, and real-life experiences, as well as scientific research.
That being said, Gretchen is well-informed about research. She weaves information about science-based theories and interventions quite seamlessly throughout the book. Very self-aware and quite willing to disclose her strengths and weaknesses alike, her book is light and fun to read.
As a fitness and wellness consultant, I appreciated that she started her year with resolutions to exercise better and go to bed earlier – building a strong foundation is a good idea prior to tackling the thinking part of a happiness project.
Happiness: A Sign of Poor Mental Rigor or a Difficult Responsibility?
I particularly enjoyed her reflections on whether happiness is a sign of poor mental rigor. She mentions how it may appear cooler not to be too happy – she used to be one of these argumentative, too-important-to-show-enthusiasm intellectuals herself. But then the former kill-joy realized that it was just safer to criticize than to show sincere appreciation.
She also admits that being happy can be a difficult responsibility. Yes, difficult. Stopping oneself from making negative observations and finding ways to be genuinely supportive instead can be more demanding than following habitually negative habits. And yes, it’s a responsibility. One of the “Splendid Truths” she discovered during her project was “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.” She also realized that when she felt happier, it was easier to act more virtuously. Turns out being and acting happy demands more mental rigor that being critical.
One of Gretchen’s resolutions was to “Act the way I want to feel.” I found the idea clever and tried it myself. It is quite similar to the old “fake it until you make it,” without the canny feeling that usually tags along.
Happiness from a Sense of Progress
Gretchen emphasized that everyone’s happiness project would be different — what makes one person happy might not bring equal joy or contentment to another. Still, the majority of her personal discoveries are in line with positive psychology theories and research findings.
For example, one of the experiences that brought her the most happiness was the sense of progress. Finishing a nagging task, clearing an overloaded closet, finishing a book are examples of things that made her feel especially content. And it makes sense. A new article recently published in the Harvard Business Review discusses a survey of over 600 managers that showed that it is “when workers sense they’re making headway [that] their drive to succeed is at its peak.”
Happiness from Daily Effort
Gretchen cleverly concludes her project by observing that happiness is a resolution more than a goal. A singular goal is something to achieve and then to be celebrated once you’ve finished reaching it. A resolution is something to live up to everyday. Gretchen’s year actively studying happiness taught her the mental discipline to boost her mood daily. So really, happiness is like hygiene – it requires a little effort every day.
Gretchen, you get gold stars for your dedication to this project, but even more for inspiring others along the way!
Amabile, T. M. & Kramer, S. J. (2010). The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2010. Harvard Business Review,
Images: Photo by Dave Cross