Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Review: The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin

One day, while sitting on a bus, Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany of sorts: she was, as she put it, “in danger of wasting [her] life.” This moment made her realize two things: she wasn’t as happy as she could be and her life wasn’t going to change unless she did something about it. Thus was born the idea behind 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. Inspired by Benjamin Franklin, Rubin designed a Resolutions Chart and decided to tackle a different subject every month for a year. She also came up with a list of Twelve Commandments and a goofier list of what she calls the Secrets of Adulthood.

I’ve struggled with reviewing this book for quite a while now because, quite simply, it wasn’t what I expected. I thought it was going to be more of a memoir and less of a self-help book. And I’m having trouble deciding whether my disappointment with the book stems mainly from the fact that it didn’t meet my expectations or whether Rubin’s approach weakened the impact of the book regardless of my expectations. (But maybe that distinction is moot, and I should just quit waffling and tell you what I thought...)

One of Rubin’s Commandments and one of her Secrets of Adulthood really hit home for me (and they are complementary concepts). Her first commandment is “Be Gretchen” (or be yourself), which is self-evident perhaps and yet sometimes so easy to forget. (An aside to give you an idea of where I’m coming from: When I was in high school, my mother’s best friend gave me a poster for my birthday that said: “I may not be perfectly wise, perfectly witty or perfectly wonderful, but I’m always perfectly me.” I dutifully tacked the poster to my wall but felt taunted daily by its message. As a “brainy” and socially awkward teen—and still sometimes to this day—I often felt like I didn’t know who “me” was, and I certainly didn’t feel I had the level of acceptance I needed to be “perfectly me.”) The variation on this theme that’s one of Rubin’s Secrets of Adulthood is “What’s fun for other people may not be fun for you—and vice versa.” Again, this seems obvious and yet as an introvert, I often forget this piece of wisdom and think there’s something wrong with me when I dread the party that supposed to be so much fun or would rather spend hours in a second-hand bookstore instead of hanging out in the pub.

Much of Rubin’s research on happiness is fascinating and her advice is pretty spot-on; this book did get me thinking about ways I can work towards my own happiness (and was in part the inspiration behind my 40/40 Challenge). However, I felt frustrated with how self-conscious The Happiness Project is: it always felt like Rubin was too aware of her readers; her stories seemed too pat, too constructed somehow. I wanted her to dig deeper and get messier, to share more. I was annoyed that she quoted so extensively from people’s comments on her blog (some of the quotes are pages long) instead of including more details about her struggles to follow through with her happiness project. I guess in the end I didn’t identify with her enough: it seemed like the distance she had to travel from status quo to happy (or happier) was too short—and too easy—for her approach to apply to my own life.

Thank you to Harper Collins for sending me this book to review.

Other reviews:

5 Minutes for MomA Patchwork of BooksA Reader’s RespiteAriel GoreA Striped Armchair (scroll down for review) • Bibliophile by the SeaBooks on the BrainChew & Digest BooksErin ReadsHope Is the WordLesa’s Book CritiquesLiving ArtfullyPop Culture JunkieRulyS. Krishna’s BooksSophisticated DorkinessThe Book Chickunclutterer


  1. I could have sworn I'd already read this and commented on it. I guess I'm crazy. I'm glad to see your review, because I always suspected this was too self-helpish for me.

  2. I'm disappointed that this isn't more of a memoir too. I downloaded it onto my Kindle about a month ago and still haven't gotten around to reading it. I don't usually enjoy self help books but this one still sounds good to me after reading your review.

  3. I've been curious about this book but appreciate your review and honesty.

  4. Kathy, it's my bad and I'm really sorry: you did comment on this review before! I somehow managed to post the review on April 5 instead of May 4 and then deleted it instead of just changing the date. What I didn't realize was that you and three other people had already commented on the review (those comments didn't appear online because they were stuck in comment moderation as the post appeared to be more than two weeks old). Again, my apologies!

    The earlier comments were:

    Vera from Luxury Reading said: "Interesting... I have this book and am now sort of ambivalent about reading it. I was expecting something more inspiration-based-on-my-experience than a self-help book..."

    Kathy from Bermudaonion's Weblog said: "Thanks so much for your review. I know a lot of people have loved this book but I suspected it was too self help for me."

    Amanda from The Zen Leaf said: "Hm, I think this might be a good one for me to avoid..."

    PeachyTO from BookSnake Reviews said: "Thank you for the thoughtful and honest review. It would appear that maybe the author would do well to listen to some of her own advice and be herself, or write deeper regarding her own thoughts, as opposed to including full pages of blog comments from others."

  5. Kathleen, it's not a bad book by any means, so I hope you enjoy it more than I did!

    Thanks, Jenners!

    Vera, I actually think your term is right on: it is an inspirational book based on the author's experience. It just felt a little too produced to me, which gave me the impression we were only getting the surface story. I wanted more struggle!

    Kathy, thank you. And sorry again for making you doubt your sanity!

    Amanda, quite possibly, yes!

    PeachyTO, thank you!

    Oh and by the way, I rewrote the last sentence of the review! (Hopefully this version makes more sense...)

  6. This book has an interesting perspective on those things in life we are often trying to achieve on a daily basis. It is refreshing to hear it from someone else in the same position in life and who has done some real introspection after researching the possible solutions.