Title: 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
Genre: Personal Development
Trigger Warnings: Moralizing about food, discussion of serious illness
Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. “The days are long, but the years are short,” she realized. “Time is passing, and I’m not focusing enough on the things that really matter.” In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.
In this lively and compelling account, Rubin chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier. Among other things, she found that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that money can help buy happiness, when spent wisely; that outer order contributes to inner calm; and that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference.
I’m back to “reading” audiobooks since my morning commute is now 35 minutes. And I was super excited to find this as an audiobook, because I’ve been wanting to read it ever since I’ve heard about it. I’m all about making myself happier.
Gretchen Rubin planned for her happiness project by reading all the research she could get her hands on about happiness, both from scientists who study it and from less scientific works (like Aristotle, as she mentions in the title). Then she listed out a bunch of little things they said would make people happier, grouped them into categories, and set out to tackle one category each month. These “little things” included concrete things, like writing a novel, cleaning closets, and starting a collection, and intangible things like “be a treasure house of happy memories” and “be Gretchen.” Along the way, she discovered four “splendid truths” and one general maxim of happiness.
Overall, I liked this book. Gretchen is very open and honest about both times when things went well and times when she messed up (being human, she messed up a lot). She writes in a very engaging and relatable way, and (except for a few moments where I felt awkward for her as she described herself screwing up) I thoroughly enjoyed listening.
I also think some of her principles are good, too, especially her general happiness maxim – “To think about happiness, you have to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.” Basically, to increase happiness, you have to consider what makes you feel good, what makes you feel bad, what makes you feel right (in a moral sense), and ways for you to grow. Which sounds both completely doable and like great things to consider when you’re trying to be happier.
And then we come to the problems with this book. Namely, Gretchen isn’t facing anything unchangeable that would cause her to be unhappy. She’s white and rich enough to live comfortably in New York City. She has a good marriage to a good man. She’s college-educated, working at her dream job (full-time writer), has many friends, and has no mental or physical illnesses whatsoever. She’s not facing poverty, discrimination, illness, or anything else that might make a “happiness project” less effective. She focuses purely on individual actions and completely ignores societal and systemic problems that cause most unhappy people to be unhappy.
There’s a whole essay I could write here on the problems of the Western individualist approach to health and happiness, but this is a review and not the place for it. I enjoyed reading this book, but I have doubts about its general applicability. I’d be much more interested to see a happiness project from someone poor, marginalized, and/or ill to see if individual actions really make that much of a difference when society is stacked against you.
Also, Gretchen’s happiness project sounded exhausting. She had to constantly put in so much mental energy to change the way she acted, reacted, and thought. I might incorporate some of her principles, but I doubt I’ll be doing one of my own anytime soon.