“The Happiness Project” by Gretchen Rubin

The Happiness Project 1Title: 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
Author: Gretchen Rubin
ISBN: 9780061583261
Pages: 336
Release date: January 2010
Publisher: Harper
Genre: Memoir/self-help
Format: Paperback
Source: Personal collection (nonfiction book club)
Rating: 4 out of 5

I am among the 44 percent of Americans who make New Year’s resolutions. I tend to think of my goals in more seasonal terms: each spring, summer, fall, and winter I rethink areas of my life that could use improvement.

But Gretchen Rubin takes this idea much, much further. And her goal, although multifaceted, is simple: In one year, she wanted to find ways to make herself happier.

Rubin isn’t depressed; she’s not even particularly unhappy. But, she figures, she could always be happier. On a scale of 1 to 5, she ranks her happiness at 3.92.

But that’s the whole point of her happiness project, Rubin writes: “One of my goals for the happiness project was to prepare for adversity—to develop the self-discipline and the mental habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened.” She wants to prepare herself for moments of future crisis by learning what makes her happy now, when there is no tragedy consuming her.

So what qualifies Rubin to become a happiness expert? Nothing, really. “They say that people teach what they need to learn,” she writes. “By adopting the role of happiness teacher, if only for myself, I was trying to find the method to conquer my particular faults and limitations.” The book is a highly subjective journey of one woman’s attempt to change the way she views and experiences her life—much more of a memoir than a how-to.

That’s a good thing, because Rubin and I seem to be quite different people. Nagging, one of her greatest faults, is, thankfully, not one of my major flaws, but I have to make a much greater effort to be organized and on top of things than Rubin seems to be. She’s an extravert who glories in planning get-togethers and establishing family traditions; I prefer a good book over talking to strangers, and I don’t really understand traditions. Nevertheless, I learned quite a bit from her account.

It’s all too easy to make lofty resolutions—“I want to be a kinder, better person”—but in order to follow through, you have to develop ways to attain those goals. Perhaps because I’m a goal-oriented person, I found the more concrete examples of the ways Rubin attempted to add happiness to her life, such as reading and writing; singing every morning; and promoting her blog.

Clearing the clutter in my life—both mental and physical—proved a difficult but extremely rewarding task. I found myself taking frequent breaks from reading  the book to make a stack of books to lend to friends, tackle items from my to-do list, and schedule dentist and eye doctor appointments.

Rubin found that adding more activities that make you happy increases your level of overall happiness. But perhaps even more important is decreasing the number of things that make you unhappy—like tackling my nagging to-do list made me feel lighter and less stressed. Furthermore, an important component of happiness is a sense of growth. “[I]t isn’t goal attainment but the process of striving after goals—that is, growth—that brings happiness,” she points out.

I was most looking forward to the section on money; after all, the idea that money buys happiness is one of our most prevalent myths. Yet the book was most disappointing in this section. Rubin seems quite well off, and although she reflects on the relationship between poverty and unhappiness, she doesn’t linger long:

When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem, you don’t think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.

Most of the chapter after this reflection focuses on the personal expenditures she makes to try to boost happiness—shopping for clothes, office supplies, and the like. She makes one short note about a donation to the local library—where she spends dozens of hours a week working on her books—and that’s it.

I don’t expect her to give away all of her belongings and go live in the trash heaps of Mumbai. But as someone who seems to experience great financial security, Rubin lives in a different world than many of us, and it’s difficult to find many lessons in her experiences. I would have liked to see much more about the happiness lift that donating to charity or helping others in need can provide. Or perhaps a study in how living without money, or with less money, can change your perspective. Since money is so closely related to happiness, I was quite disappointed in this section.

Some of her mantras, such as “The days are long, but the years are short,” began to feel a bit stale from repetition. But I found many points that spoke to me, such as:

Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.

Overall, I enjoyed the book, despite drastic differences between our personalities and the paths Rubin takes to happiness. I recommend this book to anyone trying to establish new habits or focusing on self-improvement.

Don’t just take my word for it! Buy The Happiness Project from an independent bookstore or Amazon (a Kindle version is also available). Each sale from these links helps support Melody & Words.

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