Book Review-The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

J.D. Roth

One of my core beliefs is this: It’s more important to be happy than it is to be rich. My personal experience bears this out (though I’m fortunate to be both), as do the anecdotes I receive from GRS readers. In fact, of all my fourteen philosophies, this one is most important….

No surprise then that for the past couple of years, one of my favorite blogs has been Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. Rubin is a former lawyer who abandoned her promising high-paying career to follow her bliss: She decided to become a writer. She started her blog as a part of a year-long experiment to find new ways to be happy. She’s now turned that experience into a best-selling book.

The Happiness Project (the book) was released in late December. I’d hoped to review it when it was published, but work on my own book got in the way. Last week, as I was happily soaking up the sun in the jungles of Belize, I finally found time to read Rubin’s book. It’s fantastic.

The Happiness Project
I’ll admit that, on paper, The Happiness Project may seem sort of lame. Rubin decided to spend one year consciously pursuing happiness. Each month, she tackled one specific aspect of life — marriage, work, attitude, and so on — and during that month, she attempted to meet a handful of related resolutions she hoped would make her happier.

Her financial resolutions for July, for instance, were about money. Rubin is an “under-buyer”; she’s frugal by nature. For this month, she wanted to indulge in a modest splurge, buy needful things, spend out (meaning to actually use the stuff she has), and give something up (Rubin stopped obsessing over office supplies).

Fortunately, the book isn’t lame. Rubin’s style is warm and engaging. Though The Happiness Project includes tons of info from research into happiness and well-being, this data isn’t presented in a dull, dry way; it’s neatly woven into Rubin’s account of her day-to-day progress toward happiness (or lack thereof). She shares the research in casual prose, not in academic jargon.

Among my favorite findings, I bookmarked these:

  • “The most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy and assume that you’ll feel the same way.”
  • You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want. This insight is remarkably similarly to the one I had a couple of years ago, when I realized that I can buy anything I want, but can’t buy everything I want.
  • “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.”
  • “Best is good, better is best.” In other words, the perfect is the enemy of the good. When you spend too much time pursuing the best, you’re bound to be unhappy.
  • Money doesn’t buy happiness the way good health doesn’t buy happiness. 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.”
  • I loved this tip from a reader of Rubin’s blog: “[I] change my passwords to a goal that I’ve been working on, or an achievement I want. They become a constant reminder of my goals, my dreams, of what I want to achieve.”

The Happiness Project is filled with anecdotes: from Rubin’s life, from the comments on her blog, and from the people she meets. These stories add a lot of color to the topics she covers, and help to show how complex happiness can be. For example, from the chapter on money, here’s a story that made me laugh:

While I was thinking hard about the relationship between money and happiness, I struck up a conversation with a fellow guest at a bridal shower. I told her that I was trying to figure out ways to “Buy some happiness.” (As I explained the issue, it began to dawn on me, dimly, that I might be becoming a happiness bore.)

She became quite indignant at my suggestion. “That’s so wrong!” she said. “Money can’t buy happiness!”

“You don’t think so?”

“I’m the perfect example. I don’t make much money. A few years back, I took my savings and bought a horse. My mother and everyone told me I was crazy. But that horse makes me incredibly happy — even though I end up spending all my extra money on him.”

“But,” I said, confused, “money did make you happy. It makes you so happy to have a horse!”

“But I don’t have any money,” she answered. “I spent it all.”

“Right, because you used it to buy a horse.”

She shook her head and gave up on me.

Rubin undertook her happiness project because she realized, “I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change.” This realization is so important. Too many folks sit back, waiting things for to improve. That’s what I used to do with money. But it wasn’t until I actually too charge of my own life that I was able to defeat debt and build wealth. And it wasn’t until Rubin decided to be responsible for her own happiness that she was able to make the little changes that brough about increased well-being.

Making resolutions
The section on “finding fun” — one of the subjects of chapter 5 (”May: Be Serious About Play”) — literally moved me to tears. As I read about Rubin’s love of children’s literature, how she rediscovered her passion for scrapbooking, and her general quest to make room in her life for fun, I realize that’s something I’ve been missing. For the past few years, everything I’ve done has been very very Adult. I’ve reaped adult rewards for adult effort, but it hasn’t been a whole lot of fun. I need to make room in my life to enjoy myself just for the sake of pleasure. So, that’s one of my goals for the next few months: Find more fun.

But Rubin draws a distinction between goals and resolutions:

You hit a goal, but keep a resolution. “Run a marathon” makes a good goal. It’s specific, easy to measure success, and once you’ve done it, you’ve done it. “Sing in the morning” and “Exercise better” are better cast as resolutions. You won’t wake up one day and find that you’ve achieved it. It’s something you have to resolve to do every day, forever.

As you know, I’m a fan of goals and, generally, I refuse to set resolutions. But I see Rubin’s point. As a result, I’ve decided to set some resolutions of my own. I’ll be tracking the following with Joe’s Goals:

  • Eat real food (avoid processed food and excess sugar).
  • Be active (get regular exercise).
  • Avoid strong drinks (reduce intake of alcohol and caffeine).
  • Read for pleasure (make time to read comics and science fiction, etc).
  • Kiss Kris (be sweet and loving to my wife).
  • Write daily (focus on my calling).
  • Be tidy (I’m a slob by nature; this will be tough).
  • Purge Stuff (continue to reduce the Stuff in my life).
  • Be friendly (spend time with friends, and be amiable to people I meet).
  • Be true to myself (or, in other words, “be J.D.” instead of trying to be who I think other folks want me to be).

Some of these will be easier than others. I write nearly every day because I cannot help myself; I’m drawn to it. Tidiness? Real food? Being true to myself? These things will be tougher, but I really think they’ll make me happy.

I’m tempted to say that The Happiness Project is one of the best books I’ve ever read, but I know that’s just me engaging in hyperbole. Instead, it’s probably better to say that this was the perfect book for me to read for where I am in life. It spoke to me. I can’t say for sure that it will speak to you, but I’m willing to bet that for many GRS readers, a personal happiness project could lead to increased wealth — financial and otherwise.

This article was originally published on March 1, 2010, by J. D. Roth at “Get Rich Slowly” web site:

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