The Happiness Project, by Gretchen Rubin

201001071029 Gretchen Rubin spent a year studying books and research reports about happiness and then tested out the ideas on herself to find out if they would make her happier. She wrote about her experiments in a highly-entertaining memoir called The Happiness Project, which came out last week.

Rubin was actually pretty happy before starting the project. She is a wife and mother of two children, and a successful author. They have a nice apartment in New York. What's not to be happy about? The problem for Rubin was that she wanted to appreciate the good life she knew that she had, and stop feeling annoyed so much. She felt guilty for being a nag and a complainer. "How could I discipline myself to feel grateful for my ordinary day?" she wondered. Because she knew her life was already good, she didn't want to radically change it -- she wanted to change small things in reasonable ways that made sense for her and her family. As she explains, "I didn't want to reject my life."

Rubin was a little concerned that focusing so intently on her own happiness was selfish, but she learned from her research that happy people are "more altruistic, more productive, more helpful, more likable, more creative, more resilient, are interested in others, friendlier, and healthier. Happy people make better friends, colleagues, and citizens."

One thing Rubin learned while researching happiness studies was that "people are more likely to make progress on goals that are broken into concrete, measurable actions, with some kind of structured accountability and positive reinforcement." So she came up with a chart (inspired by the 13-point chart for virtuous living that Benjamin Franklin kept) to track the virtues she was interested in. (Here's a Word doc of Rubin's charts.)

Rubin went to work tackling one major resolution per month for a year, reporting on how it affected her happiness. In January, she strove to boost her energy by sleeping more, exercising better, organizing her home and office, completing "nagging tasks," and pretending to have more energy. In February, she worked on making her happy marriage even happier. In March, she addressed work-related goals, and in subsequent months she worked on parenthood, play, friendship, money, spirituality, passion, mindfulness, and attitude.

I had fun reading about Rubin's triumphs, insights, and failures. She's honest about her frustrating experiences, which are often more interesting that her successful ones. I admire her for wanting to become a better, more interesting, and more helpful person, and for sharing her story. I'm going to apply much of what I read in this book into my own life.

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


  1. I’d be more interested in how someone living in the absolute worst conditions figured out how to find happiness. I haven’t read this book, but it sounds more like a manual on how to cope with post-Obama white, middle-class ennui.

  2. A post about happiness with an astounding degree of cynicism in the first comment. How shocking.

    I think it’s fascinating how both happiness and productivity seem to boil down to checklists and to do lists of “concrete measurable actions”. Makes me thing of David Allen and the doctor who recently published “The Checklist Manifesto” and was surprised that checklists actually helped him.

  3. Wonderful link simonbar, thank you. One weekend with that family would be impart more wisdom about happiness than a thousand self-help books and seminars.
    Commodification of existence seems bound up with a lot of the malaise people feel these days; teaching people to buy their way out of that malaise can’t be much good for most of us. Take that approach too far and you embrace scientology – and sell your house to rise to another level in some ludicrous artificial hierarchy of spiritual states.

  4. I have found that the happy people I know are happy, because, you know, they are happy. They’re not reading books about happiness.

  5. How do people know that they are “happy” in an objective sense? Isn’t the term “happy” really only meaningful as a relative measure in one’s own life? As in, “Today was better than 80% of the other days I have experienced; therefore I’m happy today”.

  6. this annoys me.

    The problem with Happiness is that it isn’t normal. It’s not a normal state of mind. Putting too many focus on “being happy” and “feeling good” just isn’t good for you. It will just make you more miserable when you’re not happy. Maybe we should try to focus on things that we have control over. In the end this will make you ‘happy’.

  7. It amuses me how a book about happiness manages to create so many unhappy replies.

    I’ve been following the author’s weblog for a few years now, and found it’s mostly about understanding oneself, and then using that understanding to one’s advantage.

    An important topic is about figuring out what happiness means. Just what is happiness?

  8. I put this book on my amazon wishlist a couple of hours ago and now I have a plethora of ads at google and amazon for local psychiatrists to cure my “depression”. I’m not depressed or unhappy, however I am now exceedingly creeped out.

  9. Oh, anonymous poster #1:

    You read an article about someone attempting to better their lives. You immediately contextualize finding happiness as:

    white (because this woman’s race is a highly notable aspect of this whole topic, yes?)

    middle class (because this is the second-most belittling attribute we can level with regards to her supposed ennui – even with absolutely no evidence in the post to concretely back up this assertion.)

    Prefixed (somehow?) with Post-Obama (because every white person in America is a racist (?) who has something to lose (?) by a democratic president, or because the response poster believes the readership is racist (?) and publicly marginalizes this woman for trying to do something as benign and positive as share her personal experiences on happiness?)

    Civilly, let’s explore. Is bringing up her unsubstantiated Obama duress or her supposed middle class background intended as a a reduction of her potential relevance? Is her attempt to contribute meaningfully an impossibility due to her Obama-hating, supposedly already marginalized social standing? Is there something problematic about people striving to improve themselves if they are white, straight and female? What do these undertones infer? Ennui of a different kind?

    Dolled up bigotry detracts from the usefulness of this topic and insults the real complexities of civil rights social stratification.

    Is it a propaganda post aimed at coercing white people to fear benign liberal agendas, or a shock post with no real interest in helping the race and gender topics brought up?

    If it were just a joke I’d leave it alone, but it’s the very first poster. By immediately reducing the topic of happiness to racial and social assumptions, most of them offensive, the joke has sadly missed the point of the article and the book. Those who don’t bother to question and assign their own values to self-identity are not generally happy folks.

  10. i’m eating,no bombs falling on my head,i’m happy.till i think of kids dying of malnutrition,AK47 killing humans much like me.i’d be happier if cooperation prevailed..

  11. I’ve always believed that the path to a happier life is one of achieving goals and also turned to check lists. Its just a shame that after check lists there is the factor of money. If I had some of that, then maybe I’d get somewhere.

  12. “The most powerful thing you can do to change the world is to change your own beliefs about the nature of life, people, reality to something more positive – and begin to act accordingly.” – Shakti Gawain

    Ms. Rubin hasn’t discovered anything new, but she did discover the truth of it in her own life: The only thing we can really change is our minds. After that, everything else follows.

    I’m looking forward to reading her book.

  13. In it’s barest form, happiness is a choice. You get up in the morning and you can decide to be happy. Shit happens and you can decide to be happy or depressed, guess which one helps a little. Doesn’t mean you don’t deal with it, just means YOU are the one that decides how you face the world.

    Ultimately happiness is about accepting reality and deciding what you will face it with.

    There is however a hard part. Most people have been trained all their life to be unhappy, to take life’s little peccadilloes and let them crush their spirit. Learning to make the right choice is work and takes a while.

    Good luck to all,

  14. “It amuses me how a book about happiness manages to create so many unhappy replies.”

    Possibly because if our community is happy, or rather operating more balanced with competing energies somewhat bouncing off each other without violent consequences, then we are happy.

    On the surface, a book about happiness should be accepted. I mean, happy = good = don’t dis good(ness)!

    But to a non-American raised person, this reeks of “The main focus of my existence is to change my life to be better”. As I re-read this article, it basically looks like a “me-focused” experience. Which is, well, typical of a seemingly common USian attitude.

    I’m not totally happy, and probably won’t be. Which is acceptable.
    One gigantic reason: our lack of coordination on man-made climate change does not bring happiness. So long as we as a species refuse to grow beyond whatever-we-have, this unhappiness will not shift.

    But … it brings me to thinking of ways to act. The results in my life are likely to not do much to reverse current global trends, but it will be something, so when I go, at least I will feel satisfied I did something.

    But hearing about northern european countries downing differences and combining their renewable-energy systems to feed each other, brings me HUGE amounts of happiness.
    Hearing how south american farmers are hearing about permaculture, and putting it into place, and renewing their land, well, that makes me especially happy.

    Which beats the hell out of “concluding nagging tasks”. But I’m a minority unfortunately. (which doesn’t make me happy, but I accept it …. which means I am happier!)

  15. Just to add an extra bit. I read her Resolution Chart, and it reminds me of bread and circuses that someone like Oprah or The Secret are very good at doing.

    I doubt none of us reading this blog run any central part of government, nor corporations or parallel institutions (well, a huge assumption really…)

    Books like the one above are designed for the mass-market.
    • full of anecdotes and stories. The powerless think with their heart mostly. This is what gets their attention. The Secret also does this, starting their whole show with “My father died, my relationships were in a mess”. Works wonders on most people.
    • focuses us on the personal development side only. Whether deliberately or accidently, there is no mention of things outside of this person or their circle.
    • it ramps up struggles and challenges (only within the self), while making the journey nice and organisable. Turns attention to this ‘problem’ but makes it easy to adapt into. No REAL challenges in this. It’s about “DECEMBER’S RESOLUTION: Follow the Way of Perfection (acting with greater love)” which is the last thing to do to achieve real happiness. Who’s perfect anyway!?

    Just to break it down:
    Jan – “my” and “heavens” (boost energy)
    Feb – “my” (marriage)
    Mar – (career and leisure)
    Apr – me (become better parent)
    May – (friendships)
    Jun – “myself” (challenge by eating a peach)
    Jul – (consumerism)
    Aug – (spirit)
    Sep – (writing)
    Oct – “find shortcuts” (hypnosis)
    Nov – “my” (laugh more)
    Dec – “perfection” (greater love)

    terrible terrible! Here’s some ideas that could replace July, October, June and September.
    Jun – make sure you local forest isn’t destroyed – eg go and cook for people manning a forest blockade
    July – help your local community and their financial struggles – eg work with others directly voluntarily who have been hit by the recession
    Sep – spread messages with fun – eg chalk the pavement with positive thoughts on people thinking outside of their “i” existence
    October – concentrate on what humans do to f*** up their own home – eg read up about climate change and be inventive on how you can influence other humans (work out how to buy out polluting companies, plant more trees, invest in alt. fuel research, get others to invest.) or talk to others about the Second African War in the Congo and jointly coming up with ways to contribute to happiness in the Congo, or learn an indigenous language (that was displaced by the white occupiers)

    NOW ….. we have a well rounded life, and possible happiness.

    But, this book is not meant to really empower people, but to keep the feeling of being ’empowered’ without the basis of community and state democracy with it.

    For a real democracy to flourish in people’s minds, means turning away from the “I” only, and since I don’t witness any enmasse interest or conversation in making our western democracies more democratic (like on the train, or on the street), this books take their place. Personal journey = a struggle worth making.

    This book, like most self-help ones, help us “feel” empowered, without really changing much, and reinforcing people’s biases towards personal comfort and ease. And that’s how to sell a lot of books.

    Ok, stupidly long post over. Thanks for reading.

  16. already there has to be some christian saying “She may be looking in the wrong direction….” with a link to his religious spiel. what a clueless moron.

  17. you may be aware of this already, but there is a musician from Toronto by the name of Charles Spearin that did a wonderful music project called “The Happiness Project”. He interviewed his neighbors asking them what makes them happy and then put those interviews to music

  18. To poster 20 and 21:

    Perceived short-comings of the book by stereotypical criticism towards the author may not be fully considering the implications of a strong social fabric at the micro-community level. Belittling an author for championing integration at the grassroots level could logically mean hecklers don’t earnestly care if their posts encourage a more inspired and far-reaching positive social result.

    Maybe they don’t see the author and other middle class white women as capable of planning socially responsible activities, which is why they would fail to infer the link between close personal relationships discussed in the book and a nation as a whole able to come to a positive balance interpersonally so that they can provide more meaningful support politically and socially. I suggest the book has merit for this reason.

    The insinuation that the author’s supposed race and presumed consumerism prevent her work from having social merit is lacking this interpersonal relevance, especially considering the already-implied blanket presumption by poster #1 that white, middle-class women stereotypically oppose their black President and suffer not from the profound capability to realize the problems of the world, but from the petty ennui presumed by misogyny as the end limit to feminine intelligent capacity. It would almost appear that racially-driven personal attacks at such a benign author could even be attempts to further the readership impression of white, middle-class American women as superfluous, or more simply perhaps such responses are meant to heighten white fear for political purposes. Either of those reasons misses the point of the book.

    To poster 23:

    I think “with a link to his religious spiel” was an intended direction to you, and was perhaps not provided as a direct textual copy paste fragment. Go slower with your accusations of who is showing their intellectual cards unless you are hungry.

    Coincidentally “spiel” is of German etymology, defined as “a usually high-flown talk or speech, esp. for the purpose of luring…”

    Have a nice day :)

  19. want more happiness in your daily life? think and read about good things happening around the world – they are happening, we often just choose not to pay attention to them, or we are too bombarded with all of the negative events from our daily sources for news. i’ve been a follower of this site, for along time. it’s through them that i found out about the happiness project. check out the review below:

    very candid and relevant. also with links to other happy things.

  20. My little addition to the happiness subject: “A Short Guide to a Happy Marriage” – it’s a good place to start!

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