Book Review: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

photo I picked up The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin after hearing many glowing recommendations from friends and the interweb. The premise sounded interesting yet light. Rubin, not suffering from depression or any tragedy, was feeling a noticeable lack of happiness in her own life. She spent a year researching happiness and carrying out her Happiness Project. It was an academic pursuit but also a practical one – she sought to enjoy and appreciate the wonderful things already in her life after realizing she may be taking them for granted. I think we all are guilty of this a bit, having it good and expecting that to be the norm. Rubin knew she wasn’t being present in her own life, letting negative thoughts and bad moods run rampant, pushing extraneous joy away to make sure she was being productive and not frivolous. I can totally relate. I often times let my sense of duty to my own life take over, for better or for worse. I was intrigued and inspired by Rubin’s approach: setting twelve happiness goals, one for each month, and spending a year tackling the whole project.

Within the first few pages I knew I was going to love this book. Rubin felt like a kindred spirit to me with her purposeful nature, a hint of contemplation, as well as her “insatiable need for credit.” She wasn’t in the wrong for dutifully living her life, but she knew she was existing only at the surface level. Her realization that she may be in danger of wasting her life inspired her to start her Happiness Project.

I’m not going to rehash the whole book because I do think it’s worth a read. However, I do want to touch on some of my favorite themes. As I said, Rubin’s Happiness Project devoted each month of an entire year to exploring and engaging in a specific topic (eg. Boost Energy, Lighten Up, Buy Some Happiness, Pay Attention, etc.) Here are my favorite take aways:

  • Gold stars may be an idle, self righteous pursuit. Instead of wanting credit for doing good deeds, do them because you want to do them for yourself and not for the credit that is associated with them.
  • Clutter, when out of control, confronts you with your own mistakes. Rubin categorizes clutter into nostalgic clutter (yearbooks, old papers, all the birthday cards you’ve ever received), conservation clutter (things kept because of their potential usefulness), bargain/freebie clutter (i.e. usually crap), clutch clutter (old standbys that are probably junk – a paint splattered tshirt, ratty yoga pants, etc.), and aspirational clutter (my own personal biggest “mistake,” a whole closet full of things I “might be able to fit into someday”).
  • Start applying the One Minute Rule: don’t postpone anything that can be done in less than one minute (an email, tidying up, folding socks, etc.)
  • “Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact we often feel because of the way we act.”
  • Aim for a high standard of behavior (extreme nice, genuine appreciation, acting polite, little negativity, no gossip).
  • Stop thinking that in some idealistic, far reaching future you will be happier, things will be better, life will be easier. All you have is right now. The “arrival fallacy” (the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you’ll be happy) is an idea the prevents us from enjoying now.
  • “Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.”
  • We seek to control our lives, but the unfamiliar and unexpected are important sources of happiness.
  • “I have an idea of who I wish I were, and that obscures my understanding of who I actually am.”
  • Denying bad feelings intensifies them; acknowledging bad feelings allows good feelings to return.
  • Don’t overrate the fun activities that you didn’t do and underrate your own inclinations. The things that others do are no more enjoyable, valuable, cultured, or legitimate than those you do.
  • What did you do for fun as a child? Revisit those passions.
  • There is an I in “happiness.”
  • “Pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out by the teaspoon.”
  • Sometimes later becomes never.
  • Gratitude is important to happiness: it fosters forbearance, brings freedom from envy, makes it easier to live within your means, and be generous to others.
  • Irony and world-weariness allow people a level of detachment from their choices.
  • The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It takes energy, generosity, and discipline to be unfailingly lighthearted.
  • The desire to change is meaningless unless you can find a way to make the change happen.
  • Last but certainly not least, the most influential mantra I’ve adopted since reading this book: It is easy to be heavy, hard to be light. (“Dying is easy, comedy is hard.”)

These tidbits and take-aways aren’t new ideas. But Rubin’s purpose is to remind us of ways we can be more aware and appreciative of our own happiness in the present moment. I know when I get caught up in my own day to day, these basic principles are the first to go.

My goals of balance and being present are always on my mind but sometimes it’s hard to know exactly how to achieve those things or how to measure them, if they can be measured at all. I think happiness is a great baseline measurement for any goal though. Even if it doesn’t directly relate, being happy may keep you motivated, focused, energetic. For example, when I met Joy The Baker I was feeling a little blog-dead. My creativity was low, the motivation to whip up new recipes was nowhere to be found, my desire to sit in front of my computer and edit photos was nonexistent. But then I met Joy and felt so inspired. I read her book cover to cover and couldn’t wait to get back in the kitchen. When I go back and think about the whole thing it was really the happiness I felt from the experience that reinvigorated me.

What are your happiness mantras? What keeps you actively engaged in Right Now?

Author: Domestocrat

I'm a lady who enjoys photography, football, cooking, long drives with the windows down, This American Life, kettlecorn, hot yoga, pop punk, my nephews, my cat Reggie, and my home: Boston.

227 thoughts

  1. :-D

    I keep this mantra pinned to the wall of my cubicle: “If we center our thoughts on what we are doing rather than on what others might think of it; then we will create something we can be proud of that will probably be favorably accepted by others.”

  2. Happiness is: my awesome rescue cats playing in their tube from Petco, the feeling I get when a story is published, intimate moments with the love of my life, an awesome glass of wine after a super hard day at a job that I love, a really, really hard class at the gym, taking a day off from said gym and not killing myself over it, laughing with my parents, and realizing life is NOT about comparisons and that we ALL have our own individual paths. It’s OK, and sometimes completely necessary to have super lazy, unproductive days (preferably in bed) with the person you love ;)

  3. OMG! I normally hate self-help style books like this, but I loved The Happiness Project. A), because she is such a great writer and doesn’t repeat herself that much, and B), because everything she says is very applicable – no big changes – but little things here and there that you can apply to your life. The one-minute rule is now one of my favorites. I also loved her section on fun – made me finally throw away the guilt of not finding certain things “fun,” and just appreciate what I find fun.

  4. I read this recently as well, and I too found it delightful and helpful.

    The two things that resonated with me most (perhaps because they’re challenging things that I need to work on) are the importance of spending out on occasion, and being more of a satisficer. I’m very much a maximizer.

    1. I totally agree! I love her discussion on how sometimes money can buy happiness. I think “spending out” has gotten easier for me over the last few years now that I have a comfortable salary and have the means. It’s a great feeling.

  5. I’m in the middle of that book right now! I’m trying to personalize her happiness project to try and fit my needs more exactly but following her guidelines in just the first chapter has helped to much! Great post!

  6. I love books like this. Not only do they give you ideas and help you live a better life, they also make you put your life into perspective. I always follow the 1 minute rule, I find I get so much more done! I agree that it can be hard to live in the moment and not want to be or have something *more*. Ive actually written a post recently about living in the moment, check it out if you want .

  7. My book club selected this book, as it has been on several of our to-read lists lately. It seemed a little too “Eat Pray Love” for some of us so I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed this book so much. Thanks for the review!

      1. That’s exactly why I’ve always put it down — I couldn’t finish Eat Pray Love and thought the Happiness Project would be much of the same, even though I’m drawn to it every time I see it. Will definitely pick it up next time! Great review.

    1. I’m in the (apparently) minority of people who hated “Eat Pray Love”. I thought she was whiny and intolerable. I really enjoyed “The Happiness Project”, though, I think in great part because the basic premise is that her life is good and she’s happy with it, so how to focus more on the positive than the negative.

      (By the way, the movie “Eat Pray Love” is much easier to take than the book!)

      1. Funny. I didn’t like Happiness Project at all! I found it whiny and found the author to be self-centered and pretentious. I did enjoy the book Eat Pray Love a lot though! That was an incredible journey, unlike a quest to de-clutter a home or go to they gym every day.

  8. Happiness is transient and tricky. I love Viktor Franki’s take on it:

    “Happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side effect of one’s personal dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself.”

    My blog (ohcheers.com) doesn’t make me happy. But the fact that I’ve DONE it and that I continue to DO it (and indeed when I’m DOING it), I receive happiness from it.

    Whereas when I neglect it I feel bad for not keeping up with the writing and communicative efforts.

    So here I am, wondering if I contribute to your own happiness, dear writer – Domestocrat – by responding to such a well-considered philosophic post? :)

    I look forward to reading the book itself. Great summary of action points btw!

  9. Your post caught my eye because I am currently reading the Happiness Project and felt instantly the same way that you did about it! I am thoroughly enjoying it and have loved being able to think about different things within my own life that I would like to explore and make improvements to. And, after taking a look around your blog, I found that you are in Boston! I moved to Boston a little over a year and a half ago and am loving it! Cheers!

  10. I too can only agree with what others have said…..the book is great. I have had it in my bookshelf for a little while. The one thing I want to do is live in the present and try not to think about the worries that tomorrow or next month or next year brings. Those things will be here before we know it…too soon.

  11. I had such high expectations for this book, but I just couldn’t relate to the writer. I did appreciate several of her recommendations for increasing happiness – especially like the eliminate clutter suggestion – but I was underwhelmed during the entire read.

  12. Wow! Looks like you really got a lot out of this book! Good for you. I haven’t read the book myself, but followed Gretchen’s blog avidly when I was on my own personal quest for positivity. Luckily I don’t need external sources of daily motivation anymore after internalizing my aspirations. I have also heard Gretchen interviewed for a very interesting Canadian radio show called ‘Say No to Happiness?’ which was very enlightening. One part of her blog I really enjoyed was her happiness interviews–in fact, I am inspired to do my own interviews!

  13. This book IS amazing. I am trying to reach my own Happiness goals and while I do falter and fumble, I love the fact that I am consciously enjoying the process AND the results. This book and the website is seriously a must- read.

  14. I read the book a while back, as well, but it didn’t resonate with me to the extent it seems to have with a lot of people. One thing I found disturbing about the project was this whole inward-looking, focus on the self taken to find happiness; I actually think we become or remain unhappy when we focus too much on ourselves at the cost of failing to be more outward-looking or focusing on our interactions with others/community. I also question the pursuit of happiness as an outcome. I think we’re really looking for ‘meaning’, which I think represents the golden mean between happiness and misery. There is an insightful podcast on CBC radio’s “Ideas” called “Say No to Happiness”, which features Gretchen Rubin (=the author of “The Happiness Project”) alongside some eminent scholars on the topic. Well worth a listen: http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/episodes/2012/02/14/say-no-to-happiness-2/

    1. That’s an interesting take on it. My belief is that we can’t be happy, love, comfort, or cherish others until we can do those things first for ourselves. But I can understand how being preoccupied within ourselves can take over in a negative way too. Thanks for the link!

    2. I thought this comment interesting – and read something recently similarly in the book Flow by M. Csikszentmihalyi who talks a lot about the importance of meaning, of cultivating inner purpose yet focusing attention on the world (i.e. “it is difficult to notice the environment as long as most of one’s psychic energy is absorbed by the concerns and desires of the ego”. Also well worth a read. Thanks for the CBC ideas link. And to Domestocrat, very nice book review!

      1. Thanks, and actually “Flow” is on my “To read” list after having completed “Drive” by Daniel Pink. One book you might also want to check out if you haven’t read it already, which is quite profound and uplifting and often cited by other authors is “Man’s Search for Meaning” by (the late) Viktor Frankl, a concentration camp survivor and noted psychiatrist… Anything by Harold S Kushner would also be highly recommended… Also, for a great cartoon video on taking control of, or reframing, stress, check out: http://youtu.be/I6402QJp52M by Dr. Mike Evans. Cheers :-)

  15. This will be my next read. Base from your review, I’ve found out that the author and I have something in common. I started the same project in the beginning of the year and entitled it “The 2012 Experiment” and one of it’s feature is this blog where I write stories of people whose lives have touched mine. I hope i’ll be as successful as Rubin..

  16. I happened to wander into a bookstore at lunch time today and came across this book as one of the staff “picks” or featured books. The few pages that I did flip through seemed interesting. After seeing your post here, I am interested in reading it. Thanks for sharing! :)

  17. I loved the point “The desire to change is meaningless unless you can find a way to make the change happen” You will never have action without a plan….hence the term “Plan of Action”

  18. The “take away” about gratitude is my favorite. I never realized how much keeping a gratitude journal (writing down five things I’m grateful for each day) would change my life – it is powerful!

  19. This is a really cool idea for a book, but also for life. This is something I am working on as well, searching for happiness in all corners of the globe!

  20. This is one of books I regularly come back to :) And every time I find there something new, something I have missed before. Thanks for sharing and..stay happy! ;)

  21. Read the happiness some time ago and found it to be a really inspirational book. Have tried since then to implement some of the ideas Rubin put forward (but not many achieved!!)

    If you enjoyed the happiness project then you may also want to check out The Big Necessity by Rose George or Whats in Stuff/ by Pat Thomas. read both of those afterwards (on gf’s recommendation)

    stu

  22. Congrats on being Freshly Pressed and well done on a great review. I shall definitely check it out. Finding happiness for me is in the little things: hearing my seven year old tell me stories of his day, daily chats with my sisters and friends, listening to a beloved CD again, reading my old journal entries and always seeing the funny side of all situations and actually laughing at some of them – oh and laughing out loud to stuff I hear on radio.

  23. Read this book awhile back and had forgotten some of the important parts, but this post reminded me of them! :)

  24. Just like you said — even though these aren’t new ideas, it’s still great to be reminded of them. And that’s what your post did for me, but even better because they’re all presented there in a neat succinct passage. So thanks :)

  25. The greatest thing I took from the book is the idea that personal growth leads to happiness. As long as we are working toward something or ingesting new ideas then that feeling of accomplishment leads to happiness. To me that was the whole moral of the story. She was growing in terms of looking at life differently, trying new things and taking on new challenges.

  26. Great review! (And congrats on the Freshly Pressed!)

    I loved the idea of “Pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out by the teaspoon.” Reminds me of Annie Dillard’s quote: “One of the few things I know about writing is this: Spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for a later place in the book, or for another book, give it, give it all, give it now.” Because as another of your points in the post says, later might become never.

    Two mantras I have came to mind immediately. (They also work for running, which is when I first started using them.) First is “I keep having dreams” (from Frank Turner’s song, “I am Disappeared”) and the other is “This chance to be alive and breathing” (from Tool’s song “Parabola”). Both are great reminders to me when I either need motivation or reminders why I am here.

  27. You’ve done an excellent job of summing up this book. It’s on my Kindle, but not one of my current reads. That’s gonna change in a hurry :-) I do read extensively in all the blossoming new realms of positive psychology and neuropsychobiology, but I’ve never read a book about them being put into action. Thanks for the inspiration to read this book.

    My mantras? Again, thanks for making me think about that. I’ve probably got plenty negative mantras roaming around below the surface. One somewhat neutral mantra is: Do in the opposite direction. I learned that as a kid listening to a lecture on fire safety (don’t run with the crowd getting out of a burning building–you’ll get trampled. Go in the opposite direction). It stuck ike Gorilla Glue. I don’t like running with the crowd on anything, be it fashion, reading, or even lingerie. It has served me well. Now it seems I should go in the opposite direction of the negativity that fuels my life. I’m on it, and the Kindle is firing up right now:-)

    Love this blog. It’s an excellent example to follow.

  28. I’ve been meaning to read this book for a while now, but never got around to it, and then eventually forgot about it. Thanks for the reminder and congratulations on getting Freshly Pressed! Looks like I know what to do on my next trip to the bookstore!

  29. Ooh, I bought this recently in The Gutter Bookshop in Dublin on a visit (“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” Oscar Wilde) Mostly I bought it just to buy something to support a LOVELY independant bookshop, and the more I looked at it, and the deeper it sant into my TBR pile, the less interesting it looked. I hadn’t heard anything about it until now.

    I’m glad that she includes gratitude. Since reading ‘A Thousand Blessings’ very recently by Ann Voskamp, it seems very important for fulfillment. Thanks so much for this, and a big congrats on being Freshly Pressed. Perhaps this will make it’s way to the top of my pile soon, I could do with finding my happiness :) !

  30. I read this book a while ago and I loved it! I loved that I could apply it to my own life – not all of us can be like “Eat, Pray, Love” and jet off to foreign countries for a year. Great review!

    Congrats on being Freshly Pressed – now I have another healthy Boston blogger to follow! :)

  31. Nice review…. very well written….

    I particularly liked the “One Minute Rule” and aim for “A High Standard of Behavior”. Very apt… I am putting these rules down into a word doc and taking a print out…..

    Will definitely read the book as well….. Thanks for sharing…..

  32. I loved this book and took my time reading it last year so I could savor it like a wonderful dessert. It’s really nice, though, to read your take-aways which are a little different from mine. Thank you for sharing!

  33. Great post. Thanks for the review of this interesting book. I like your summary. Very positive and encouraging!

  34. Glad you found a book to enjoy and learn. Lots of useful tidbits to remember at times from that book. But thanks for excerpting the useful ones!
    ■What did you do for fun as a child? Revisit those passions.

    Well, in response to above, I returned to bicycling 20 yrs. ago and look forward to several decades more of it as part of my llfestyle.

  35. “Although we presume that we act because of the way we feel, in fact we often feel because of the way we act.”
    “The desire to change is meaningless unless you can find a way to make the change happen.”

    ~These are inspiring. Thank you for sharing. I will definitely try to get my hands on this one. It sounds insightful. :)

  36. What a great review, so glad you were featured!! My mantras for happiness…I am only recently starting to think about this more & more…I feel we have no choice but to live in the moment, yet need to keep in mind ONE moment is ALL it takes to be happy, sad or make someone else happy or sad. I am happy it is mentioned not to deny yourself bad feelings; sometimes we need those in order to find our happy again=)
    “Just trust yourself. Then you will know how to live” ~Goethe

  37. Great summary! Can put some tips to use right away, but will definitely get this book. My main happiness now comes from mentoring my South African son. You can follow our journey at http://www.long-distance-dad.com. (Figuring out how to make my commenter name auto-link to my blog would make me very happy, too!)

  38. I really felt this book called to me as well. I’ve now reread it and am debating how I want to do my own “happiness project” – in some way. I think it also helps that my mom’s name is Gretchen so it really felt like the author was writing to me. Great review and congrats on being freshly pressed.

  39. I am still reading this book and I hope to finish it soon. While reading, I am also taking down notes so I can start my own happiness project :)

  40. I skin every book with the word halliness on it, thank you for giving me another I checkout and it is in the local library. You may like The Happiness Hypothesis. Jonathan Haidt. Your revew made the book sound great.

  41. I’m reading the happiness project right now, I decided to follow along with her one month at a time :) It is truly an inspiring book for which you’ve captured nicely in your bulleted highlights. I too met Joy the Baker and she helped me with insights for my blog, like being myself…don’t compare but find my voice and share that. I have her book as well and am working my way through it too. Be well ~Kristy

  42. I couldn’t stop reading all of the comments, but I need to get back to work. Great list of remarks about the book. I will look for it here, in Mexico. Hope to read it soon and thanks for the recommendation. Very nice post. =)

  43. Hi,landed here via freshly Pressed- congratulations! I am quite new to the world of blogging but think It is one of those things that will stay- my post is kind of like work in any case. Am just wondering how you find time to go through all these comments! I loved the book !

    1. You just have to make the time. My readers are extremely important to me so I have resolved to respond to each and every one of them who comments on my blog. I think it’s very important to cultivate one time readers into long term followers.

  44. Its really awesome and true review i have ever read regarding any book. But, due to my bad luck i have read after a day when i startrd with “War and Piece” so, now i have to wait for a long time to live your suggested book. i will.Thank you.

  45. I have recently read this book as well. It actually caught my eye in an airport bookshop for it’s lovely cover design. When I then read the text on the back cover, I knew I needed this book.

    I really enjoyed it but I must say that certain things of her recommendations are just not feasible when you live in a European country, simply because they are not part of the culture of that specific country and people would look at you in a strange way if you all of a sudden started applying them. Most Europeans just lack that happy-go-lucky approach to live and being positive is just defined differently.

    However, my favorite tagline from the book is “Be Gretchen!” I think most of us want to please so badly that we sacrifice our happiness trying to be somebody else when really all we can be is ourselves. I think that message is what makes this book so great.

  46. I really loved this book.. I was so lucky to read this book on December.. and now i am devising my own happiness project and hopefully follow it this year..with new goals set each month.. I recommend it for all..

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