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

by Gretchen Rubin

Harper, 2009. ISBN 978-0-061-58325-4.
Reviewed by Barbara L. Heller
Posted on 06/07/2010

Nonfiction: Memoir; Nonfiction: Life Lessons

As a reader I am happy that Gretchen Rubin switched her focus from heads of state (she is the author of Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK) to her own head—and heart and psyche in her new book 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.

This already fairly happy woman—a former lawyer who clerked for Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, accomplished author, married, mother of two well-adjusted children, living a somewhat charmed American life—asked herself, "Can I be happier?"

Rubin's book is part of the recent phenomena termed "stunt memoirs" by the New York Times and other media. Many of these start as online blogs, in which an ordinary person commits a year or so to a project such as eating locally (The 100 Mile Diet: Local Eating for Global Change); reading the encyclopedia from start to finish (AJ Jacob's blog); cooking Julia Child's recipes daily (The Julie/Julia Project); getting by without shopping (The Compact); or—in Rubin's case...becoming happier (The Happiness Project)—and writing about the experience.

Ms. Rubin makes the right disclaimers, including the necessary distinction between unhappiness and depression. She is aware that she is delving into the realm of problems of the privileged. Rubin also anticipates and counters criticisms, including the obvious, "Isn't this searching for happiness too self-indulgent?", by describing research that concludes that happier folks are more altruistic than unhappy ones.

Rubin is one of a few women who have tackled the happiness topic—most of the current research and books have been conducted and written by men. She skillfully weaves in age-old wisdom and contemporary research. The book is sprinkled with relevant quotes, although I wish she had included more by women (I'd refer her to Rosalie Maggio's section on happiness in The New Beacon Book of Quotations by Women).

Rubin methodically analyzes happiness. Her resolution charts are a helpful tool for accountability and she offers many resources. I initially found it odd when she even broke down "fun" into three distinct categories—challenging, accommodating, and relaxing—but was pleased when I saw some wisdom and inspiration in her examples.

I had previously read Rubin's blog, "The Happiness Project" and would have liked it if the book included more of the concise self-help suggestions from it. But the book focuses on her personal happiness journey while the blog is more of a help to create one's own. If Rubin's intent in writing The Happiness Project was to inspire, her descriptions of what she tried and her triumphs and set-backs, although at times tedious, ultimately did inspire me. This memoir of one women's journey is a wonderful explication of how people can change and reading it made me...well, a bit happier!

Gretchen Rubin is the author of several books, including Forty Ways to Look at Winston Churchill and Forty Ways to Look at JFK. She is a former lawyer who clerked for Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. She maintains a popular blog and e-newsletter and her author website.

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