The Happiness Project-or how I spent a year chasing myself with a bunch of rules on how to live

Okay, that isn’t the subtitle of the book, it is actually Or, Why I spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun, but it is what I would call it.   I loved this book when I saw it on the shelf.  I liked it when it came in the mail from Amazon; it has a great jacket design.  A New York Times bestseller, I had to order it because there was a wait of over 70 people at my library to read it.  I still liked it one quarter of the way through.  Over half way through?  I got frustrated.  I didn’t like the format, or the tone of the writing.  The end and the conclusions she drew made me annoyed.  It became a book I wanted to push away and not let near my head space.  Okay, I’m getting a head of myself.  If I learned anything from Gretchen and her book is I should make lists and stick to them for a month and here it is week two of the reviews and I’m already off on another format.  I am creatively unfaithful.

Who is the writer?

Crazy but true-Gretchen Rubin was a clerk for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor and left that job to become a writer.  She lives in the ultra cool and sexy city of NYC with her two kids (two young girls who fuel a lot of the happiness struggle stories) and her husband Jamie.  Previously she wrote political history with a book about JFK and Winston Churchill.

Why did she Write this Book?

Gretchen had her epiphany on a bus.  She was “in danger of wasting” her life she realized.  For any of us who have had that thought we won’t be surprised that she had it on a bus.  Something about gazing at others lives as you casually drive by really makes me think about how I perceive their life and why or why not I would or would never live that way.   It also draws attention to the curtains you always wished you had bought I find.   And if you have ever thought about your wasted life, you probably have thought, as Gretchen did – “What do I want from life, anyway?” and “I want to be happy. But I had never thought about what made me happy or how I might be happier”.  You won’t be suprised to learn that Gretchen is a woman of ” a certain age” as they say.  She reviews her happy married life and her kids and career and wondered why she still got irritated by the cable guy or still experienced bouts of melancholy and insecurity.  She decides to take on the task to jump into her Happiness Project.

After she gets us started with her premise she lays out her chapters by the month and each month has a different happiness focus.  They have themes like Boost Energy and then the to do list to accomplish this:

  • Go to sleep earlier
  • exercise better
  • toss, restore, and organize

To facilitate all this she has created her own 12 Commandments for living and written up her Secrets of Adulthood as well.  Mixing the writings of others and her own thoughts an reflecting on her own commandments, secrets of adulthood and experiences  each month create the narrative.

Who is this book for?

For all of us actually.   How can it not be for all of us?  Who, when asked if they wanted to be happy, who would say “No thanks, no more happiness for me, I’ve got enough”.

Like other books of this popular genre (The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, and Living Oprah, My one Year Experiment to Walk the Walk of the Queen of Talk) a normal person casts themselves into a world with a set of rules for living and the writer reports back to the rest of us what can be transformative about this.  Like the ultimate personal shopper, these writers live lifestyles for us and then tell us if any of it is useful for us or if we can just continue on in our own rut fairly happy with it.

Gretchen writes in a very transparent and fearlessly honest style about her inner journey, marriage, friends and experiences.  She generously shares her foibles and character flaws and unfailingly continues to attack her Happiness Project with great devotion and commitment for each monthly chapter.  We travel with her on her journey which is fleshed out with quite a lot of serious research of thinkers like Benjamin Franklin, Aristotle and Saint Therese of Lisieux (makes sense considering the historical/political books she wrote before) a very healthy dash of clever quotes (Samuel Johnson is a favorite of hers) and starting in March when she launches her blog, the comments and stories of readers following her Happiness Project.  This style really allows us to feel like we are either a friend having coffee with her or like her mother who found her diary and can’t help reading it.

What I’m Taking from this Book and putting into my Toolkit

I found a great book in her book, which she referenced and it is on the reading list this summer, Martin Seligman’s’ Learned Optimism.  I just started it and I love it.

I also talk in workshops and with clients about knowing what matters to you as the way to make choices that give you peace and happiness in life.  Calling them 12 Commandments and Secrets of Adulthood is really appealing.  I’m always looking for new ways to name these things so it can help as many people as possible and I like both of these titles.  They have a real sense of fun in them.

The other thing I really appreciate is the sharing of a journey, which reminds all of us that no journey is perfect and we are more alike than different.  We share doubts, fears, joys and perspectives with so many others, which is the bonus of the blog responses.  It is not unlike the book club after a bottle of wine sitting around and chatting.

I love this Part

I can’t say love, but I will say ‘like’.  I like that she came up with the power of being yourself.  Somehow packaging them as rules helped her become herself.  Permission to ‘be Gretchen’, the first of the twelve commandments, is a very valuable piece of learning.  Some of her other realizations are powerful to remember.  Amongst them:

Do the thing that is in front of you

Being made uncomfortable is a secret to growth and happiness

Repeat and acknowledge what others say to you.  It makes for very effective communication.

Words of Caution

At times I felt Gretchen used her own process as a way to whip herself.  The list of ideals sometimes lapsed into a list of ‘shoulds’ and therefore left her feeling a failure in meeting her ideals some months.  Motivational lists or goals can really help you get your head together about what is important, but my word of caution is to be sure that what is on the list is intrinsically important to you.  Otherwise our lists can be just tools to beat ourselves up.  Watch out for the inner critic who always sees you falling short.

What Bugged Me

Her wrap up of her learning at the end explained what had been bugging me for about 8 chapters.

“The feeling of control is an essential element of happiness-a better predictor of happiness than, say, income.”

As a performer this is a dangerous drug she is offering.  Control.  How unhappy and miserable the illusion of ‘control’ has made me on numerous occasions.  As a young singer I absolutely tried to run my career on the goal list.  If I am in the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, and I do Merola, if I have an American agent, a really good one than how can my Met debut be far away?  Well, I had all those things and I still haven’t had my Met debut.  Several of my serious emotional crashed came from the expectation of what I should be getting because I did all the right things, and then my expectation not being met.    So for me, that statement about ‘control’ is a hot button.

I began to feel that her Happiness Project was a hamster wheel that she couldn’t get off of.  It had pass and fail and gold stars on the chart at stake.    The ‘how’ overtook the ‘what’ sometimes and I always find that doesn’t help people get where they want to be, whether it is to be happy, peaceful or get a new career started.

Wrap Up

I don’t know if her reflections on happiness help me, but she does have some good ideas in the book and offers points of discussion.  Funny, but her failures interested me much more than her successes.  I guess this is one of my Rules of Adulthood-

We don’t grow from our successes, but from our failures.   When I look back, I see the gifts in the struggles of  my  past.

A fast, easy beach read that can perhaps start you thinking about your own happiness, but I think Gretchen Rubin would agree, remember to take your own path to get there.

Rating: 2.8/5

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