Book Reviews

The Happiness Project

Gretchen Rubin puts us in the sidecar for her wonderful yearlong experiment called the Happiness Project.  It took a while to write this review because each time I went back to look at my notes I got sucked back into a particular passage or story.  Like any good writer she is brutally honest about herself and where she succeeded and just as importantly where she failed.  While she was clearly the centerpiece of the experiment, she did not curate any of the unpleasant parts.  If anything, she is a little too harsh on herself.  That’s what makes it so approachable.  This is the opposite of a Facebook post.  The book overflows with authenticity.

The underlying theme feels like an academic study with a mindset for personal growth.  There is no painful origin story that launched this hero’s journey.  She freely admits that she is not doing this to overcome an addiction or get over the loss of a loved one or any other brutal obstacle.   Instead, she wonders, what can I do to become happier?  Is it even possible for us to change our happiness level or are we stuck with it?  In her words, “the ‘set-point’ theory holds that a person’s basic level of happiness doesn’t fluctuate much, except briefly.  My conclusion: yes, it is possible.”  Finding out how she came to that conclusion is well worth the journey.

She breaks the book down into twelve chapters, one for each month of the project.  Each month she tackles one primary issue like Boost Energy / Vitality for January then breaks this down into three to five smaller steps.  January was – go to sleep earlier, exercise better, [toss, restore, organize], and act more energetic.   Throughout the chapter she then shares her struggles and successes with each.  This is a great way, especially for us Type As, to approach any task.  Define the problem, then break it into small enough tasks that can actually be accomplished.  Solve.  She’s hitting all of the marks on setting SMART goals – specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-boxed.  Throughout this journey, she also discovers four Splendid Truths that we will explore as we go.

We’ll take this in quarters.  In the first quarter she focuses on vitality, marriage and work with the goals of boost energy, remember love and aim higher.  There was tons to learn from these chapters but I’ll focus on the ones that stood out to me.  The first was the G. K. Chesterton quote: “It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.”  She talks about this several times throughout the book but it rings so true.  Everyone knows the party mosquito that sucks the life out of every gathering.  They focus on nothing but the negative, which can actually come across as smart, but they drag everyone down.  These people typically think of themselves as ironic or counter culture but it’s so much easier to poo-poo than it is to embrace.  It also grabs the victim mindset attention that these folks thrive on.  It is far harder to be positive and to bring the group up.  Unfortunately, it also means those that bring joy often get taken for granted because nobody is worried about them.  They’re the happy ones after all, right?  Not necessarily, it takes a lot more effort to buoy than it does to sink.

That brings us to the next point, “you have to do that kind of work for yourself.  If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them acknowledge it and to be grateful and to give you credit.  If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.”  Making people happy and personal growth brings its own joy, don’t expect rewards.  This falls into another learning she was forced to acknowledge, “I couldn’t change anyone else.”  You can take people along for the journey, you can show them way but you can’t force anyone to change.  That has to come from within.

One quote that I absolutely loved is: “In fact, for both men and women – and this finding struck me as highly significant – the most reliable predictor of not being lonely is the amount of contact with women.  Time spent with men doesn’t make a difference.”  Yes, ladies, men really are a lot shallower when it comes to things like vulnerability and feelings.  Not just your man.  This doesn’t really tie into the splendid truth but it was too good not to mention.

When she takes us through work and aiming higher one of her focuses is on challenging yourself.  “One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition.  You become larger.  Suddenly you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish.  Research shows that the more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened.”  On top of that, when you’re feeling happier it is much easier to risk failure.  Failure can be fun provided that you look at with a growth mindset.  If you learn, you never fail.  Finally, she also broaches the arrival fallacy.  “The arrival fallacy is a fallacy because, though you may anticipate great happiness in arrival, arriving rarely makes you as happy as you anticipate.”  Embrace the journey.

This led to her “First Splendid Truth: to be happy, I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right, in an atmosphere of growth.”  Very Descartes.  This is the work required though – it’s easy to be heavy: hard to be light.

In the second quarter she covers parenthood, leisure and friendship with the goals of lighten up, be serious about play, and make time for friends.  The biggest lesson I grabbed from her parenthood section was “we should acknowledge the reality of people’s feelings.”  Don’t deny what your kids are feeling or there will never be real communication.  “Crazily enough, I discovered, just repeating what my child was saying, to show that I appreciated her point of view, was often enough to bring peace.”  I can’t tell you how much this has improved my relationship with my daughters.  Telling them what they feel is sooo much easier but so toxic, “but you love carrots, just eat it” – has ended arguments in my household exactly never.

When she dives into leisure the main point I took from her was to be yourself.  She had a great quote that said something along the lines of, “we can choose what we do but we can’t choose what we like to do.”  At some point we all wish to be more sophisticated and more educated so we may trick ourselves into trying to like stuff that may not jive with who we are.  And that’s ok, because it allows us to grow.  At the same time, if you’re looking for a real break, real leisure time, acknowledge who you are.  “What did you like to do when you were a child?  What you enjoyed as a ten-year-old is probably something you’d enjoy now.”  For me, it’s fantasy novels and video games.  My tastes have evolved and my responsibilities don’t allow me to indulge often but when I do, it is super relaxing.  As a younger man, I might have been ashamed of those leisure activities but honestly are they any more ridiculous than watching grown men in matching clothes throw or kick a ball around?

When she dives into friendship she discovers her “Second Splendid Truth:  One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.  One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”  Friendship is critical as are interpersonal skills, Diener and Seligman point this out, “of 24 character strengths, those that best predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal ones.”  Who do you like to hang around, folks that bring you up or those that pull you down?

In the next quarter Rubin tackles money, eternity and books with the goals of buy some happiness, contemplate the heavens and pursue a passion.  Her findings on money were consistent with Shawn Achor’s in the Happiness Advantage – you can buy happiness but generally when you spend on experiences, on others and on services that will make your life easier, NOT on things.  She also ties money back to keeping score with a loved one.  Keeping score is a horrible way to go through life.  She comes to the conclusion that you spend out your time because it just makes you feel better.  “Spend out.  Don’t think about the return.  ‘It is by spending oneself,’ the actress Sarah Bernhardt remarked, ‘that one becomes rich.’  What’s more, one intriguing study showed that Sarah Bernhardt’s pronouncement is literally true: people who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity.”

When contemplating eternity and thereby some elements of mortality, our author comes to her “Third Splendid Truth: The days are long, but the years are short.”  She somewhat morbidly approached the topic by reading through a ton of catastrophic memoirs.  The theme of these memoirs is often, “the admonition to live fully and thankfully in the present.  So often, it’s only after some calamity strikes that we appreciate what we had.  ‘There are times in the lives of most of us,’ observed William Edward Hartpole Lecky, ‘when we should have given all the world to be as we were but yesterday, though that yesterday had passed over us unappreciated and unenjoyed.”  When enough people come back to gratitude and mindfulness as key components of happiness, you have to start taking these things seriously.

I didn’t pull a ton out of the books section as this was more her exploring a heartfelt personal hobby.  I share a lot of that same passion so I feel I’ve already learned most of those lessons.  The biggest takeaway was her “Fourth Splendid Truth: You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.”  She added a corollary: “You’re happy if you think you’re happy.”  This is a little meta but that makes it even more powerful.  You have to want happiness, and you do have to strive for it but when you do, you realize that happiness is actually a choice.  That is incredibly liberating.

In her last quarter she takes on mindfulness, attitude and happiness in summary form with the goals of pay attention, keep a contented heart and boot camp perfect.  There wasn’t a ton of revelations in this quarter as she basically just found more supporting evidence of her four splendid truths.  However, it was a good wrap up for the full experience.

She closes the book with some great cue card reminders of how best to utilized her discovered wisdom.  I use them often.  I am not ashamed to say that I will read this book again.  It was that good.  Reading it inspires you to be a better person.