I recently read Gretchen Rubin’s 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 (phew long book title!) I enjoyed reading it because the topic of improving one’s life appeals to me in my line of work, but also because it highlighted the simple (and not so simple) pleasures of life that can be easily overlooked and forgotten. For example, singing in the morning is a sublimly simple thing to do, that Rubin found brought a lot of pleasure to both her and her kids.
This idea of launching a Happiness Project came to the author after she recognized that, while she wasn’t “unhappy”, she did spend a lot of her time feeling grouchy or wishing that the current situation was different in some way. So she set about researching and reading all she could find about the concept of happiness and came to the conclusion that if she wanted to be happier, her own attitudes and behaviors were the key to making that shift. In Rubin’s words: “I wasn’t as happy as I could be, and my life wasn’t going to change unless I made it change.”
The next step in Rubin’s project was to pick out the areas of her life that she enjoyed which could be enhanced and those areas that caused her stress which could be better managed. She came up with Marriage, Parenthood, Friends, Work, Play, Passion, Money, Energy, Eternity, Attitude, and Mindfulness and made each the focal point of one month of the year. She took these concepts, some more esoteric than others, and distilled them into concrete action items so she could measure her progress in completing the project. For example, the action items for Eternity were 1) read memoirs of catastrophe, 2) keep a gratitude notebook, and 3) imitate a spiritual master.
Each chapter of the book focuses on one month’s abstract concept, concrete action items, and the thoughts of philosophers and findings of researchers related to that month’s concept. Rubin reports back on what works in contributing to a rise in her happiness, as well as what doesn’t work so well, and what she might do next time around. The book is both practical and inspirational, in that it presents very specific ideas of how to improve one’s life and it taps into the elusive and intangible, but uplifting and energizing parts of life; it celebrates and enables the shades of gray that are often at risk of being trampled by the black and white.
While the book is a good read, you could skip it and still benefit from Rubin’s gathered wisdom. She has put together a website with a blog, guiding suggestions to starting your own happiness project, and a collection of tips for improving key areas of your life that have the potential to cause either happiness or unhappiness.
An important side note is that this book is NOT a self-help book for mental health disorders, ie depression, anxiety, etc. It is a self-improvement book suggesting a project to be undertaken by someone who has a stable foundation in place. If you are suffering from a mental illness or think you might be, or even if you feel more unhappy than driven to be happier, you would benefit from working with a mental health professional.