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.
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.