Gretchen Rubin’s Happiness Project

Do you want to be happy? Sure you do—everyone does. (We’ll pre­tend that will­ful depres­sives don’t exist for the moment.) How would you like to take a year to focus on being happy? That’s what Gretchen Rubin did, and she decided to write a book (and blog) about about her efforts through­out her year-o’-happiness.

The Happiness Project

In writ­ing The Happiness Project, Rubin iden­ti­fied 11 focus areas—one for each month of the year, plus one month to focus on all 11 areas at once. January was focused on energy, because she deemed it the “basic ingre­di­ent for the suc­cess of the entire project.” Other focus sub­jects included rela­tion­ships (mar­riage, par­ent­hood, and friends, with a month for each), work and leisure (a month each of work, play, and pas­sion), and money. Mindfulness and eter­nity (spir­i­tu­al­ity or reli­gion) rounded out the top­ics. One chap­ter was devoted to each of the months.

As one might expect from a book divided into 11 focus areas, the chap­ters feel stitched together. Perhaps it wouldn’t be fair to expect  more from a book with the ambi­tion of cov­er­ing such a vast field. And of course, as Rubin notes in a prefa­tory “Note to the Reader,” “because it’s the story of [her] hap­pi­ness project, it reflects [her] par­tic­u­lar sit­u­a­tion, val­ues, and inter­ests.” Such a project would nat­u­rally be very indi­vid­ual, and she con­cedes that a grand nar­ra­tive arc isn’t quite what she’s look­ing for:

I often learn more from one person’s highly idio­syn­cratic expe­ri­ences than I do from sources that detail uni­ver­sal prin­ci­ples or cite up-​​to-​​date stud­ies. I find greater value in what spe­cific indi­vid­u­als tell me worked for them than in any other kind of argument—and that’s true even when we seem to have noth­ing in common.

(Legal-​​minded read­ers might note that both Rubin’s both approach to her hap­pi­ness project and her writ­ing style mir­ror for­mer Justice Sandra Day O’Connor’s approach to the law and to legal writ­ing. Justice O’Connor was famous for an idio­syn­cratic view of the law that was often trans­lated into con­vo­luted seven-​​part tests that were of ques­tion­able use to lit­i­gants and lower courts in need of guid­ance. It’s debat­able whether such practically-​​minded approach is help­ful in the law. But that’s a topic for another day.)

Acknowledging the lim­i­ta­tions of her book makes it stronger, since the reader feels per­fectly com­fort­able in pick­ing and choos­ing among the exper­i­ments Rubin tries. Among the ideas that yielded some suc­cess for me is “Act[ing] the way I want to feel.” As a vari­ant on the fake-​​it-​​till-​​you-​​make-​​it approach to life, this admo­ni­tion (one of Rubin’s 12 com­mand­ments) has proven empow­er­ing to me. Another admo­ni­tion that res­onated was accept­ing that “ ‘Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.’ Activities that con­tribute to long-​​term hap­pi­ness don’t always make me feel good in the short term; in fact they’re some­times down­right unpleas­ant.” These nuggets are sprin­kled lib­er­ally through­out the book: read­ing it is a bit like talk­ing to a well-​​meaning, weather-​​worn aunt who wants to make sure you avoid her pit­falls and know her lit­tle life hacks.

One thing that she rec­om­mended very strongly was cre­at­ing a res­o­lu­tions chart, a daily scor­ing chart on which she would record her suc­cess in each of her 11 focus areas. That’s one exper­i­ment that I have yet to earnestly delve into, though it makes a lot of sense to me. Although lazi­ness is the main rea­son I haven’t begun using such a chart, I’m also hes­i­tant to start mea­sur­ing myself too much. I’m a bit of a mea­sure­ment fetishist, and I often spend more time focus­ing on a mea­sure­ment than on the rea­son for mea­sur­ing in the first place.

In the end, The Happiness Project is a series of small inspi­ra­tions. I rec­om­mend to the reader who approaches it as a work­book full of optional exer­cises. And like any good work­book, the stu­dent will only get from it what he puts into it.