Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin’s book, tellingly (if awkwardly) titled 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 offers a wonderful combination of productivity advice, happiness research, and personal memoir.

Part of what makes this book distinctive amidst a sea of other books on happiness, productivity, and closet cleaning, is Rubin herself. Trained as a laywer, she clerked for a Supreme Court justice before giving up law to devote herself to writing (including two biographies, Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK). She’s a writer and a researcher through and through, weaving together quotes from classical literature, philosophy, and current neuroscience alongside anecdotes about her personal struggles to be nice to her family when she feels tired and snappish. One of the most appealing elements in this book for me was her obvious enthusiasm for all kinds of knowledge and her delight in making connections and figuring things out for herself.

This book is the published account (started on her Happiness Project blog) of a year-long project Rubin set herself after realizing one day that she wanted to be happy, but didn’t really know what that meant or would entail. So she set herself a number of resolutions, organized around twelve themes like Energy and Friendship for each month, and tracked her progress in keeping them as well as what kind of effect they had on her. These resolutions were specific things like getting more sleep, walking more, and singing to her children. She also drew up a list of personal commandments, which include things like Be Gretchen and Do It Now. These broader principles encompass much of what she learned from taking specific actions towards happiness.

Rubin’s book offers plenty of specific advice and ideas for anyone looking to improve their mood and quality of life. What makes it especially appealing to me is that she’s not afraid to admit when things don’t work for her, or what her personal flaws and failings are.

Personally Speaking
I know that naming specific actions and tracking them is very helpful for me (and many people) so Rubin’s approach to her project made a lot of sense for me. I saw myself in some of her anecdotes (I too sometimes postpone going to bed just because washing my face seems like too much work), though not in others (what’s this fake food she loves so much?) I loved her idea of keeping an empty shelf or drawer somewhere in your house, though I freely admit to not having yet achieved that level of organizational zen. Reading this book inspired me to really make an effort to get more sleep, which I’ve been getting better at in part through tracking my behavior.

Do It Yourself
It’s important to emphasize that despite her love of principles and lists, this is not a prescriptive book. Rubin wants you to design your own resolutions and principles — to use her method to discover your own path to greater happiness. To this end, her website offers resources and guides for people wanting to start happiness groups or to connect with like-minded people online.

Which would make you happier: getting more sleep or clearing out your closets? Let us know in the comments!

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