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!
For more info on Gretchen’s Happiness Project and free tools to help you start your own, visit www.GretchenRubin.com or www.Happiness-Project.com.
Amabile, T. M. & Kramer, S. J. (2010). The HBR List: Breakthrough Ideas for 2010. Harvard Business 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.
Images: Photo by Dave Cross
MJ – I’m just wondering if the book applies to a “female, bookish, wealthy, ex lawyer”. Not sure if you can extrapolate it to the wider community.
MJ – I should explain the previous entry – I have checked out Gretchens blog on the odd occasion and find her outlook on the world quite bizarre.
Hi Marie-Jo, thanks for your review– I now want to read her book. I find her blog funny and entertaining. Your review is terrific — just the right tone and just the right information to help someone like me make the read/don’t read decision.
I have not read her book, but it has been at the top of the bestsellers’ lists since it came out. And she also seems to have a pretty large following in the blogosphere including being mentioned in this post on “the most influential bloggers” http://www.techipedia.com/2010/influential-bloggers-traits/. I think it’s safe to say she has a very broad appeal and has a huge following that is probably much more diverse than you imagine.
I think her appeal is that she engages others by asking them to create their own happiness project. As MJ mentions above she feels “everyone’s happiness project would be different” so even if you think some of her approaches are a bit oddball (and sometimes they are) she is modeling trying different things and giving people freedom to find their own paths to happiness.
She also is not constrained by limiting herself to empirically validated interventions a la positive psychology. Her message seems to be “try anything and everything and see what works for you.” I think she has carved an impressive niche into a space that straddles positive psychology and self help with an engaging approach that speaks to individuals and IMHO appeals to a broad audience.
Thanks for the review MJ!
Good to interact with you here!
Wayne – I have at time visited the blog as well, and will admit that much like you I wasn’t always sure about what was going on. But the book makes everything clear. You see, Gretchen has a series of resolutions, and through her project she reveals her “Secrets of adulthood” and some “Splendid Truths”. When you don’t know what is what – as it happens to someone who lands on the blog and doesn’t get the full picture, it can get confusing. But the book clarifies everything, so it no longer seems bizarre. And to Jeremy’s comment, she is one of the most influential bloggers at the moment, so it’s certainly worth taking a look at what she does.
Christine – thanks for your good feedback! Gretchen is both quirky and clever, so I’m sure you’ll enjoy the read!
Jeremy – all good points above! I wholeheartedly agree! There’s a sentence I had originally written in my article that didn’t make it to the post (ha!), and it was to the effect that us positive psychology practitioners would do well to consider what happens outside of research every now and then. Research is good and necessary and safe, but there are other useful things out there and maybe giving them more thought would increase our effectiveness.
Best to all!
I liken this to the way Ellen Langer describes her research as “designed to test possibilities”. Most research is looking for large effects that apply to broad populations but completely disregard what may or may not work for someone on an individual level. The way Langer describes it, “If I can make one dog yodel, then we can show that yodeling is possible in dogs.” What is possible for one individual may never be found through typical research methods.
Back in my computer science days, we used to refer to the one-dog-yodeling demonstration as an existence proof. Of course the problem is that you don’t know whether you have the rule or the exception that proves it (an expression I’ve always had some trouble with), but sometimes just the very existence is news.
I don’t know why, and I’m probably way off base, but for some reason this book (or maybe it’s her project) reminds me of the cooking through Julia Child’s cookbook from “Julie and Julia.” Maybe it’s the “year” angle. As I said, I’m probably wrong.
One of my all-time favorites series is the Betsy-Tacy series. Betsy, in her senior year of high school, has much the same epipheny as the author: she thinks about how her father is one of the happiest people she knows and it’s because he’s always thinking about other people and not himself. I just re-read this for the 311th time, so it’s sticking in my mind.
Thomas Wakefield has written a book as well on how to achieve happiness called “The Objective is Happiness.” The basis of just about every motivational speaker and writer is in here amidst his words; it gives people the tools (through understanding how they create failures and successes) to make change happen in their lives, their way.
MJ and Jeremy – I think Jeremy has nailed the essence of life satisfaction – “do something – anything”. Perhaps happiness is about the project – it doesn’t really matter what you do.
There was an interesting discussion on the PP list serve that suggests it’s the Behavioural aspect of CBT that’s more important than the thinking component. In other words you can’t think your way to happiness.
So the question is do you need to work on your strengths or can you work on anything? By the way PP has never tested the pathway by which strengths improve life satisfaction
I’m enjoying this discussion very much!
Jeremy, Kathryn, Wayne, you all bring up very good points: it’s not because something doesn’t apply to large populations that it may not apply to someone specific. Also, it’s not because something has not been been empirically validated that it should be discarded altogether – especially when we are trying things on our own! As practitioners, of course we want to be careful with that, but I like to think that we have enough judgment and creativity to carefully enlarge possible solutions a little. I personally find that if I only strictly stick with the interventions that are most researched, I quickly feel like a one-trick pony…. And yes Wayne, I’m with you on the behavioral part being most important. The cognitive work has a place, but often it is very energy-consuming and not quite as convincing as we wished.
These are all reasons why I thought Gretchen’s book was clever and refreshing!
Liz, for some reason the Happiness Project also made me think of Julie & Julia! The one year aspect is certainly a big factor, but also in both cases, the blogs started from nothing, discussed self-improvement, and turned out to be a huge successes. So there are a lot of similarities. Back to Wayne’s comment, maybe happiness is really about doing something aimed at self-improvement – what that is may not be quite as important as the fact that we are actually doing something?
MJ – I’m not sure if the activity even has to be focused on self improvement. Is having a conversation with your elderly neighbour or going for a walk with the dogs about self improvement?
What’s wrong with just being?
You’re right, Wayne. I guess I should have been clearer: it’s about doing something healthy, positive, adding value – and certainly connecting with others for the pleasure of it is part of that. I was just trying to rule out destructive behaviors.
MJ – sorry I was just getting on my “high horse” about the wests obsession with self improvement. I can see that you were trying to make the distinction about destructive behaviours
We’re on the same page, then! 🙂
I am equally irritated with the notion of just being. To me that is one of the weakest and lamest philosophies of life. It is something that beach bums do. Just being is a waste and while there is room in a full life for relaxation and down time, there’s nothing wrong with ambition. All the good things in life are a result of ambitious endeavors. Hard work, including self-improvement, is important and shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
Improving yourself could be done through chatting up that elderly neighbor and smelling the roses. That’s building relationships and savoring, respectively. That fits the strengths model nicely.
Jeff, I’m not equating being with apathy. I’m just suggesting that you might miss lots of magic moments while you are striving for self improvement.
I suspect there is a balance between striving and being – they might actually complement each other. After all its the journey that matters and you have to stop every so ofetn to take in the landscape. The beig might actually sustain you for the striving.
I realize that I sounded harsher than I wanted to. What I intended was to say that those who espouse a radical version of being versus doing bother me. So too with those who are overboard with striving. That balance point is critical. I agree 100%.
Where I’m from (Maine, USA), those who are extreme being are on welfare (state financial assistance). Those who are extreme doing are paying for the welfare. The latter are angry. Our economy supports the striving treadmill that sometimes I’d like to step off, but I can’t afford to not strive and strive hard. Especially in this economic downturn, it is hard to envision really enjoying life and feeling at peace. If you lose your job, then you’re in trouble and may be for quite a long while.
So practically speaking, do you have any tips for effective being in a striving environment?
Jeff, it’s interesting that countries thatr have a strong welfare system such as the Netherlands seem to be more satisfied. Perhaps America needs to catch up with these countries and support welfare reforms. The welfare system in oz is ok and I think Australians (where I live) generally believe that we have an obligation to support those who are less well off.
So how can you be in a striving society – play arond with some mindfulness, stop and smell the roses, understand that their are other paradigms
Well, let me comment on your comment. At the risk of sounding political, I have always admired countries with strong social care systems, especially in northern Europe. We do need to catch up, no question about that. The divergence is what way is the best way to go about it.
Some here feel that individuals should pay their own way. Another camp believes that we should care for the less fortunate. Both systems have intriguing merits. On the one hand, taking personal responsibility has a practical effect of allowing individuals to be accountable for their actions (or lack thereof).
On the other hand, welfare systems support populations that traditional free market systems appear to ignore or don’t seem adequately equipped to deal with (mentally ill, chronic & severe substance abusers, generationally poor).
Speaking of broadening positive psychology, I’d like to see analysis of the scientific impact of political systems, like you mentioned with the welfare systems. What are the pros and cons? The talk of Bhutan in some of the popular pos-psych books (Lyubormirsky’s The How of Happiness, the Dieners’ Happiness book) shows that the authors can’t escape tangentally describing the merits of certain political systems for positive emotions. Seligman’s description of life in East and West Germany in Authentic Happiness is a third example.
Regardless of objective benefits, because of personal preferences some governments are hell to one and heaven to another.
It’s interesting. Americans when they come to Australia comment that we are over regulated. Yet as an Asutralian I don’t see it that way. I guess its what you get use to.
As an aside the assumption is that welfare takes accounatibilty away from people – perhaps it give people opportunities.
When I worked in the states many years ago I was amazed at the extremes. I remember sitting next to a beggar on the underground in new york who had really bad leg ulcers that need medical attention. But he couldn’t afford it. I know our medical system is not great in oz but you can still get access to heathcare no matter what your financial circumstances.
In coerts article https://positivepsychologynews.com/news/bridget-grenville-cleave/201002269520 he is makes many interesting observations about egalitarioan societies and wellbeing.
Money is like muck, not good except it be spread.