Book Reviews Books for Adults Non-fiction

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

I know I’m a couple years late on The Happiness Project. Better late then never, though, I suppose. And I am now 100% on the bandwagon. I’m a little overwhelmed, actually, by how much I adored this book.

Here’s how much I loved this book. I checked this out from the library and read the whole thing. And then I ordered my own copy so that I could mark it up and reread it as often as I liked. As someone who doesn’t buy many books (hello, what is the library for if not to house all the books I’d like to read), there is no higher compliment.

Also, my  phone is now full of pictures of pages where something struck me enough that I needed to mark it, and library school taught me that librarians frown on you marking up library copies.

Actually, I’m not quite as late to the Happiness Project party as all that. My mom was reading it when Ella was born and brought her copy out when she came to help and she read me large segments of the book aloud while I nursed Ella. Reading this book on my own brought back those happy memories of my brand-new baby and our tiny, sunny little apartment in Boston.

(Here is why it takes me forever sometimes to write reviews. I write four paragraphs and I still haven’t even talked about the book itself).

If you aren’t familiar with the book, Gretchen Rubin decides that, despite having a happy marriage, two healthy children, a career she loves, and a life in New York City, she isn’t appreciating her life enough. She doesn’t want to try and find happiness by leaving her life behind and jet-setting around the world (a la Elizabeth Gilbert), but rather by appreciating her own life, right there in her apartment.

As you might expect from any English-major/law school/biography-writing person, she does a tremendous amount of reading and research about happiness before launching into her own project. This could have made the book extremely dull, probably, but she works it in wonderfully. I loved the different philosophies and ideas she shared and I found myself pouring over the bibliography in the back about other people’s views on happiness, their own happiness projects, and other recommended reading.

She divides her project into twelve months, with a different area of focus each month and then three or four goals for each area to work specifically on. For instance, in March, when she focuses on Work, her goals are to “Launch a blog,” “Enjoy the fun of failure” (not something that comes naturally to her (or me)), “Ask for help,” “Work smart,” and “Enjoy now.” Some of those may sound rather prosaic or dull, but one section after another had me thinking “yes!” or “oh, that is fascinating!” For instance, in her “work smart” section she talked about trying to fight the feeling that you needed large chunks of time to get anything done. Instead, she would try to see an extra two minutes or five minutes where she could get one or two small, quick tasks done, instead of waiting until there was “enough” time to do it.

Of course, for me, the main thing that makes or breaks a memoir is how much I like the writer. And I loved Gretchen Rubin. She is highly educated and successful (Yale Law grad, best-selling biographer even before The Happiness Project became an enormous sensation), but she also seems very down-to-earth. I found her very easy to relate to. When she succeeds, I wanted to cheer for her and when she loses sight of her goals and snaps at her kids or has a grumpy day, I completely empathized. She’s the kind of writer that you just like almost immediately, and I kept liking her to the very end of the book.

The idea of doing a year-long project and then writing a book about it isn’t new (in fact, she mentions this in her book when an article comes out about this phenomenon while she’s in the middle of her project and she has to struggle to not be really annoyed and she works to shake off the feeling that she’s just an unoriginal copycat), but this one is so much better than any of the other ones I’ve read. Although I’ve read a few reviews that say otherwise, I felt like book was very authentic, rather than gimmicky, and that it wasn’t only for the sake of writing a best-selling book. I completely buy that her life really was happier at the end of the year-long project.

And I feel like having read her book has helped me be happier in my own life. I’ll just share one quick example. She talks extensively about how happiness doesn’t always feel like happiness. I realized how true this was one morning when I was feeling really grumpy. My natural inclination was to snap at Bart (for no good reason) just to let off some steam. But I knew from past experience that it wouldn’t REALLY make me happier. Instead, I’d feel both grumpy and guilty. So even though it didn’t make me happy to not bark at Bart, I eventually felt happier that I hadn’t ruined both of our mornings by being a jerk. This was really an eye-opening experience for me.

I’ve been working on incorporating other of her goals into my own life and already seen a difference in my happiness level. Here are a couple of things that stood out to me:

  • “We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day.”
  • “I have an idea of who I wish I were, and that obscures my understanding of who I actually am.”
  • “One reason that challenge brings happiness is that you expand your self-definition. You become larger.” 
  • “I wanted to stop my quick bursts of temper  – I indulge this behavior all too often, and then, because it made me feel bad, I behaved even worse.”
  • “I want to spend time on the things I already like.”
  • “If money is to enhance your happiness, it must be used to support aspects of life that themselves bring happiness to you.” 
  • “People assume that a person who acts happy must feel happy, but although it’s in the very nature of happiness to seem effortless and spontaneous, it often takes great skill.”
  • The belief that unhappiness is selfless and happiness is selfish is misguided. It’s more selfless to act happy.”
  • “Some people feel overwhelmed by the question, ‘what’s your passion?’ It seems so large and unanswerable that they feel paralyzed. If so a useful clue to finding a passion to pursue, whether for work or play is to ‘Do what you do.'”

I can’t recommend this highly enough. Unless I read ten more unbelievably fantastic books this year, expect to see this one on my Best of 2012 list in December.

Copy checked out from my local library

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  • Reply preethi February 21, 2012 at 1:35 pm

    I was anxiously awaiting this review, and now I'm anxiously awaiting my library copy. Sounds fascinating.

  • Reply Landen February 21, 2012 at 1:55 pm

    You are right. Such a phenomenal book! You are making me want to read it again!

  • Reply Kelly J. February 21, 2012 at 1:58 pm

    This is one of my favorite books, and one I've been toying with rereading because I remember how much I loved it. It's so practical. Do you follow Gretchen's blog or her Twitter account? Worth it.

    I have had another book on happiness sitting on my shelf since grad school called "Stumbling Upon Happiness," and I've been hesitant about picking it up only because of how much Ruben's book spoke to me.

  • Reply Smallgood February 21, 2012 at 2:34 pm

    I enjoyed parts of it (same as her blog), but I ultimately sold my copy to a used book store. I found Gretchen kind of shallow and artificial. I couldn't relate to some of the things she did to work on happiness. I know I wouldn't derive happiness in the same ways. There were several things I marked as I began to read it (lots of gems tucked in there), but ultimately I was exhausted by all of the effort she had to put into appreciating all of the privilege she had.

  • Reply Creole Wisdom February 21, 2012 at 2:54 pm

    I really need to get this book. I keep hearing amazing things about it! Love the quotes you chose to highlight.

  • Reply Amy February 21, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Okay, you've convinced me. I've known lots of people who have read this book, but you're the first person who has made me actually WANT to read it…and not just because of all the hype. I will admit to some eye-rolling when I first heard about it, thinking it was probably another "one of those." But after reading your review, I think it's one I actually will like.

    P.S. One of the reasons I love your book reviews so much is because of the four paragraphs of introduction (instead of the publisher information and copied and pasted summary…hello! if I want that, I can look it up on Amazon or Goodreads), so don't even think about cutting them out! 🙂

    • Reply heidikins February 21, 2012 at 4:24 pm

      Hear, hear on the first four paragraphs! 🙂


  • Reply Ben and Summer February 21, 2012 at 3:43 pm

    I really appreciate your reviews! You're one of my only sources to find new books, so better late than never is right:) I will definitely check this one out, maybe even suggest it for book club. We just read The Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and after reading your review of it, I was much more open to it. I actually really enjoyed the book (unlike some others in the club…;) And I agree with the above comment, your personal touches make the reviews so entertaining and fun to read!

  • Reply heidikins February 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    I read this book over the summer and absolutely loved it. My copy is all marked up with a dozen sticky notes and even a few dogeared pages. I'm so glad you loved it too!!


  • Reply Packrat February 21, 2012 at 4:18 pm

    Thank you. If I can get the book at the library, I will check it out. Oh, and read it, too.

  • Reply Señora H-B February 21, 2012 at 4:44 pm

    Ok, ok, I'll read it! Your endorsement is very convincing. I'm especially hooked on the first quote: "We tend to overestimate how much we can accomplish in an hour or a week and underestimate how much we can accomplish in a month or a year, by doing just a little bit each day."

    I am stuck on this while I finish my dissertation. A little each day is what is going to get this done – not thinking I can cram it all in at the last minute.

  • Reply lifeofadoctorswife February 21, 2012 at 4:59 pm

    Well, now I want to read this!

    Loved this: "library school taught me that librarians frown on you marking up library copies." Heehee!

  • Reply Julie Anne February 21, 2012 at 5:07 pm

    Shows you how educated I am, I hadn't even heard of it! LOL (maybe I had heard the name around, but didn't have a clue what it was until this post)

    So thank you! I'm off to get myself a copy 🙂

  • Reply Kristy February 21, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Loved this book. I feel like Gretchen and I are such kindred spirits. Like, approaching such a thing as happiness with list-making, chart-keeping, and book-reading? So me. 🙂

  • Reply Lexilooo February 21, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    I do need to buy my own copy of this book! I really enjoyed it as well.

  • Reply Lisa February 21, 2012 at 5:54 pm

    I really enjoyed the first half or 2/3s, but by the end it had lost it's shine for me. The intro or first chapter was dead on for me though.

  • Reply Holly Hoffman Spears February 21, 2012 at 8:03 pm

    i just barely started this. i'm glad to know you liked it so much!

  • Reply Jodi February 22, 2012 at 12:08 am

    I'm so glad you've finally read it! I loved this book so much, and I know part of the reason is that many of the things she was trying to work on are faults I find in myself. It's like she did all the work for me, and now I just have to follow her footsteps! I've started my own happiness project, using many of the same goals as her because they were perfect for me, and it has been so amazing to see what I can accomplish and change when I actually make it a "project".

  • Reply Merrick February 22, 2012 at 2:16 am

    Definitely checking this out. Sounds like a fantastic book.

  • Reply Jenny February 22, 2012 at 3:01 pm

    love this book, love this concept.
    LOVE how it makes you think, and see happiness when you might otherwise have walked right over it.

  • Reply Chrissie February 22, 2012 at 4:09 pm

    I loved reading about how much this book impacted you personally and fit into your life. It sounds great and is sure to be one I will plan to check out!

  • Reply karmacoy February 22, 2012 at 5:08 pm

    Oh I have had this one on my to read list for some time now. I am running to the library this afternoon for sure now!! Thanks Jansen!

  • Reply Katie February 23, 2012 at 4:38 pm

    Sounds interesting. I think I will pick it up!

  • Reply Alysa February 28, 2012 at 10:33 pm

    I am overwhelmed by how much I love this book, too! Let's be friends. You know she's coming out with a book called Happier at Home this year, right? SO looking forward to it.

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