Book Review: Gretchen Rubin and The Happiness Project

January 5, 2010 at 2:31 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Wellness | Leave a comment

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project

It’s funny how the book that I pick up — or that comes in the mail from Amazon.com — is so often precisely what I need to read. That was certainly the case with Gretchen Rubin’s brand-spanking-new The Happiness Project.

Rubin’s book belongs to a favorite new genre of mine, blog stunt books. Like Judith Levine’s Not Buying It and Colin Beavan’s No Impact Man, The Happiness Project, chronicles a year spent carrying out a particular challenge — in Rubin’s case, the mission of becoming happier. Each month she works on a different aspect of happiness, from organization to spirituality.

In the beginning, Rubin seems a bit defensive about her project, wondering if it’s a self-indulgent reflection of pure privilege. The longer she works on becoming happy, the more confident she becomes of her enterprise, until, by the end, she’s a Happiness Evangelist, barely restraining herself from waxing pedantic about the pleasures of happiness.

I admit that a part of me was skeptical for the first chapter or two. Who is this woman to tell us about happiness, I thought, when she’s got the ideal life? She’s married to a guy who sounds great, she has two lovely daughters, and she’s self-employed as a professional writer. She took a law degree from Yale and lives in New York, for Christ’s sake. Anyone could become happy under those circumstances. What’s more, she admits that she’s never been depressed. What does she have to say to the exquisitely miserable?

Plenty, as it turns out. I enjoyed her book tremendously, and, more importantly, discovered several principles and practices that will help me with my own enterprise of becoming The Perfect Mental Patient.

Before she launches her project, Rubin reads and digests innumerable books on happiness and misery, from Aristotle to contemporary catastrophe memoirs like Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Now, here’s a woman I can relate to — her response to a challenge is to research it. She also comes up with 12 Commandments, a list of reminders which, she explains, are tailored to her own situation and psychological needs; she encourages readers to write their own. I particularly liked the First Commandment, “Be Gretchen,” which encourages her to follow her own tastes and passions. She often pushes herself out of her comfort zone, but again and again she returns to pursuits that she knows make her happy, such as reading, and turns away from pursuits that she feels she ought to enjoy but doesn’t, like listening to jazz.

What really won me over was Rubin’s modesty, humor, and eye for the details of family life. She admits that she is often snappish and sarcastic. She bickers with her husband and yells at her kids, worries incessantly about her career, and shies away from tackling straightforward technical tasks out of a misplaced sense of pride. Her kids throw tantrums that remind me of my own whiny childhood. Her husband can be neglectful and distant, but is also tremendously sweet and considerate. Throughout, she maintains respect for the complexity of her subject matter and her own aptitude for unhappiness.

Though my circumstances differ from Rubin’s (to say the least), I identified with her ultra-normal and largely happy family. Though a part of me grumbled throughout (“She has so many friends — I don’t have any friends!”), I could really see how her maxims and observations apply to just about any situation. her First Splendid Truth is particularly impressive: “To be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.” In other words, she strives to add sources of pleasure, remove guilt and anxiety, and do the right thing. Her aim in all of this is not simply hedonistic — she hopes to become a better person in every regard; this, too, resonates with me.

I especially like the growth part of the First Splendid Truth, since it acknowledges that long-term happiness often involves short-term difficulties. For example, when she takes a drawing class so as to advance beyond the stick-figure level, Rubin suffers from intense self-consciousness and frustration — in the end, though, she gains some mastery, and her pride more than outweighs her initial unhappiness. She works hard to conquer fear, and often does so; since I struggle with fear, I found her example inspiring. Her sheer imperfection makes it easy for even a grouch like me to think, “I could do that!”

Rubin’s conclusions are encouraging. She ends the year a much-improved and happier person, and I came away from her book with strengthened resolve for my own project. I may struggle more with depression as the year goes on, but I feel much more confident that I really can become The Perfect Mental Patient.

Rubin has a web site (who doesn’t?) that offers various tools for setting up your own Happiness Project. Since I’d already launched my project when I read her book, I don’t think I’ll be using these resources. I can see how they would be useful, however, and I would heartily recommend them to others.

I’ll end by emphasizing that The Happiness Project is both fun to read and a practical guide. It’s not a typical self-help book, and Rubin is not your average cheer guru. She studies her subject intensely, lives her principles day to day, and derives her ideas from her own successes and failures, which she chronicles in detail. I’m sure I’ll be returning to this book again as the year continues.

Love to all.

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