The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

So I’m not a massive self-help book fan – in fact this is the first one I’ve ever read. I was attracted to it by the name, the colourful cover, but most importantly, the premise. 

Amazon – Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany. One rainy afternoon on a city bus, she realized that she wasn’t as happy as she could be. In danger of wasting her days – always yearning for something more, waiting for problems to miraculously solve themselves – she realized her life wasn’t going to change unless she did something about it. On January 1, she embarked on her Happiness Project, and each month she pursued a different set of resolutions: to get more sleep, quit nagging her husband, sing in the morning to her two young daughters, start a blog, imitate a spiritual master, keep a one-sentence journal. She immersed herself in everything from classical philosophy to contemporary psychology to see what worked for her-and what didn’t.’

What a great idea – who doesn’t want to be happy? Gretchen wasn’t unhappy exactly; she emphasises frequently that she wasn’t depressed. She just felt like she wasn’t achieving her ‘happiness potential,’ and who can’t agree with that? Each month she focused on one aspect of her life (money, marriage, children, attitude…) and worked on changing her behaviour and outlook to achieve maximum happiness for herself and her family.

The baseline of the book is that happiness infects (although I’m sure Gretchen phrased it in a much less disease-ridden way…). If you act happy, your friends and family will be more positive, which in turn makes you genuinely happy. Similarly, if you snap and judge at them constantly, the resulting bad mood of your partner will also pull you down. This seems glaringly obvious, but how often do you take out a bad mood on a loved one only to end up feeling worse?

The main reason I liked this book was how honest Gretchen is. I started reading thinking what a horrible person she is and how she must be awful to live with. Then I realised, don’t we all have our bad points? Authors generally try and hide their flaws and as a result come across as slightly preachy, but Gretchen willingly admits that her Happiness Project didn’t turn her into a saint. She still snaps at her husband for no reason and thinks negative thoughts about the woman taking too long at an ATM machine – its part of life and nothing will change that.

Gretchen even agrees that her Happiness Project had some negative impacts on her mood. She became a ‘happiness bully’ by the need to lecture those around her on happiness principles even to the point of giving offence. It’s a rare ‘…-for-a-year-projecter’ that will not only notice the flaws in their theories but announce them.

‘Once I started focusing on my conversational style, I realized I had one particular characteristic that I urgently needed to control: I was too belligerent. The minute someone made a statement, I looked for ways to contradict it…. Why? Why argue just for the sake of disagreeing? Going to law school had intensified this inclination. I was trained to argue, and I prided myself at being good at it – but most people don’t enjoy arguing as much as law students do.’

This woman is me, right down to the law school. I’m terrible for arguing for the sake of it, even a point of view I don’t agree with. It was this and a few other points that made me sit up and really pay attention to Ms Rubin. The point when I really fell in love though, was September’s chapter about ‘pursuing a passion.’ Here, she talks about her one true passion in life – books. Sound familiar anyone? Gretchen says that she’s always taken compulsive notes on everything for no apparent reason, and I’m the girl who has heaps of notebooks spanning years of the same pointless note-taking.

The other thing for me (I’m beginning to gather that this review is going to be useless for anyone who isn’t, you know, me) is her method of coping with her sister’s illness and the different ways of dealing. I was diagnosed with Lupus last year and have been through all the denial/anger/throwing-things-at-the-wall stages so it was great for me to recognise them in Gretchen’s book. I may even have learned a few tips on happiness in relation to accepting you misfortune.

‘With various resolutions ringing in my ears, I tried to keep perspective and feel gratitude. “It’s so lucky they caught it when they did,” I told Elizabeth. “You’ll be eating well and exercising regularly. You’ll get this under control, you’ll get used to it, and you’ll do great.”
   Elizabeth depoloyed the downward-comparison strategy.
    “Yes,” she said. “And think about all the other things it could have been. The diagnosis could have been so much worse. Diabetes really is manageable.” What she didn’t say, was that sure, it could have been a lot worse – but it also could have been nothing at all.

Obviously I feel an odd connection to Gretchen Rubin, but I’m not sure how well her ideas would apply to somebody who wasn’t as similar – somebody who didn’t work from home and have all the time Gretchen has to fill in charts or even a man, as some of her resolutions really only suit women. The more general concepts – ‘act the way you want to feel,’ for example – can easily be applied, but the personal tone taken may alienate some readers.

My one problem is that the concept seems slightly self-defeating. Before I read this book, I would have described myself as perfectly content. Only now, having finished it, I find myself looking for problems. Gretchen states that if you have to ask whether you’re happy, you’re not. Does that not mean that the book has made me question myself and as a result made me unhappy?

I loved this book. I really didn’t expect to, but when I was lying reading it in a patch of sunlight, I felt such a wave of complete and utter calm that most books just don’t give. I am going to try some of her techniques, which is a miracle in itself. I’m usually too proud to admit self-help books may have some good ideas, but Gretchen is so down-to-earth that it seems as though a friend is giving you a bit of friendly advice over coffee.


  1. karen! says:

    I actually quite like your review especially because you admit that your thoughts on the book are so tied up with your own personal experience.

    Re. Rubin's if-you-have-to-ask-you're-not line of reason. I think that it's not as simple as happy vs. unhappy and I don't think that contentedness and happiness are the same thing (happiness > contentedness ?) and it's quite possible to be content without consciously realizing that you aren't unhappy.

  2. Hanna says:

    Hi Karen, thanks for stopping by 🙂

    I agree its not as simple as unhappy vs happy, that's kind of where the book fails a little. It's almost like The Happiness Project encourages you to think in those terms, and when you do, you decide that you must be unhappy and so you actively become so.

  3. Bex says:

    Seriously, you and I have SUCH similar reading taste! I'm sttill waiting to read this, but I've heard so much good stuff about it. Also, for me it's someone's personal response to a book that recommends it more than a detached analysis. I'm the kind of person who's been known to run around shoving books at people, going 'oh my god you HAVE to read this book, right now!' 'why?' 'just READ IT! you'll LOVE IT!'. Literally, with the capitals and everything 😛 so obviously personal and emotional response is important to me.

    And once again i'm rambling…

  4. TheBookGirl says:

    Like you, I am not a big fan of self-help books. I rarely read them, and when I do, it's more of a "skim" than a real read.

    This one does sound different though, and I like the fact that you added personal aspects to the review 🙂

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