Plot Summary (from B&N):
In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such asJulie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
Rubin didn’t have the option to uproot herself, nor did she really want to; instead she focused on improving her life as it was. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions: give proofs of love, ask for help, find more fun, keep a gratitude notebook, forget about results. She immersed herself in principles set forth by all manner of experts, from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to see what worked for her—and what didn’t.
Her conclusions are sometimes surprising—she finds that money can buy happiness, when spent wisely; that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that “treating” yourself can make you feel worse; that venting bad feelings doesn’t relieve them; that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference—and they range from the practical to the profound.
Written with charm and wit,The Happiness Project is illuminating yet entertaining, thought-provoking yet compulsively readable. Gretchen Rubin’s passion for her subject jumps off the page, and reading just a few chapters of this book will inspire you to start your own happiness project.
Illustrated by Memegenerator.net
As a rule, I really hate “self-help” books.
It’s not that I’m opposed to the concept. Quite the opposite: I’m very much aware of the massive abyss between Today!Jess and Ideal!Jess, and would appreciate solid, practical, actionable advice to narrow the gap. The problem is that, on the occasions when I forget my “I hate self-help books” rule and buy one of the blasted things, I always regret it because these books (I’m generalizing, yes, a bit, but come on: you know it’s true) are trying to appeal to such a wide variety of people with such a wide range of problems, that consequently the “advice” they offer is too general, too vague, and too simplistic to really be of any help. I mean, seriously: is there anyone alive, in this media-saturated culture of ours, who doesn’t know that exercising more will improve one’s self-esteem, improve sleep habits, improve concentration and focus, and possibly prevent the zombie apocalypse (I’m paraphrasing)? No, no there isn’t, so why would I be interested in any one of a hojillion books telling me to exercise more? Pick any typical self-help topic and it’s the same thing: need a career change? Do something you like! Dealing with trauma or a difficult event? Focus on the positive! Want to improve your marriage/partnership? Communicate better! Want to end world hunger? No book for you! Fix yourself first! (I jest. Kinda.)
Or, to put this in terms I’d use while on the job: these books, in general, do a fairly good job with the objective, but not with the process. They tell the reader “what” to do, but not necessarily “how” to do it. And, really, how could they, when doing so would probably alienate vast swaths of potential readers for whom the process could not be useful, given their circumstances? The problem, though, is that folks are generally smart enough to recognize what they want to accomplish…it’s the “how to get from here to there” that’s the sticking point, and where useful advice would be both appreciated and worthwhile.
|Me, at the bookstore|
As you can probably tell by now, I forgot the “I hate self-help books” rule again. I was in an airport, it was ten minutes before we were to start boarding, I forgot my e-reader, and I needed something to read. Fellow readers, I know you feel me here. The result? I bought Rubin’s book.
And I could end this review right here, because this next bit will tell you all you need to know about what I thought: I will probably do a happiness project of my own.
(No, of course I’m not going to actually end the review now. You’ve met me, Internet. You know this.)
I liked many things about The Happiness Project, but the most important one is this: the author does not approach the reader with “you should do this.” Instead, her style is “this is what worked for me, oh and here are some excerpts from comments on my blog where other people talk about what worked for them, and here’s what the literature has to say.” In that respect, Rubin’s book is part self-help and part memoir, and I think that’s why I stuck with it. She’s realistic, and talks about both the ambition of a year-long self-improvement project, and the reality: of falling short, of having bad days, of feeling less-than-optimal, and all the other pesky reality that doesn’t much care that you’re trying to effect change, dammit! She doesn’t write as a high-and-mighty expert in an ivory tower, but instead lets the reader see her own doubts, struggles, and obstacles, and I thought that made the book more relatable.
Rubin’s personal happiness project was a year-long effort, and she focuses each chapter on one monthly resolution. These resolutions start out as relatively broad objectives (such as “Aim Higher,” “Lighten Up,” and “Make Time for Friends”), but then each one is broken down into specific tasks and instructions (the “how” part). I appreciated this approach, both because “change overload” is one primary reason why I burn out on self-improvement projects and because it was interesting to see how the the author was able to translate lofty goals into daily actions. As I was reading, I found myself dog-earing the corners of several pages which contained ideas I wanted to revisit.
Part of the reason why I enjoyed this book as much as I did is because the author’s methods for processing information and tracking progress are similar to my own preferences: Gretchen Rubin is clearly a list-maker and a chart-filler-outer, and if you don’t particularly like to do this type of activity, then The Happiness Project may not resonate with you like it did with me. The author has both a website and instructional materials in the book to help readers start their own projects, and while I might be able to use these, other people who can’t or don’t work this way may find this approach challenging.
The Happiness Project is considered “stunt nonfiction,” in that it’s an account of a time-bound project that the author has undertaken. Julie and Julia and other “I’m going to take $TIME_FRAME to $GOAL” fall into this genre (which I didn’t know had a label until Rubin identified it in-text), and while these types of projects can seem contrived, I thought Rubin did well with describing how she was integrating her project into her life. While I was reading, I never got the sense that she was waiting for the ordeal to be over so she could “get back to normal,” and it appears that she did receive lasting benefit from the effort. Whether it’s a month or a year, a focus on personal happiness is an act of self-care, and The Happiness Project has convinced me it’s a worthwhile challenge.
The Verdict: Nobody is more shocked than I that I liked and benefited from a self-help book. But, there it is. I give it four out of five trips on this guy’s private jet (because you know he has one).