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The Happiness Ironman with Gretchen Rubin

Frankly, it’s not really like me to read a book like the Happiness Project. 
I’m usually very suspicious of books like these–they seem too self-indulgent and kind of preachy. I find I get frustrated with the voice and the perspective can’t be generalized to my own life. 

And I admit, I was clueless about the Happiness Project. Two weeks ago, I didn’t know about the Happiness-Project blog or the fact that the book by the same title was climbing its way to #1 the top of the NYT bestseller list. 

A friend called me to go see Gretchen Rubin at a book signing in Berkeley and I immediately agreed. It sounded intriguing. Through a random chain of events, I owned Gretchen’s first book from many years ago and knew of her inspired career choice as a writer.  The room was absolutely packed. More notable than the amount of people there was the amount of energy. People seemed keyed up. 

The premise of the book is simple, but the application of it is not. Rubin is crossing Manhattan in a bus and considers what she wants from her life. The answer is to be happy. It’s not a midlife crisis, she is not depressed or even unappreciative. And she certainly isn’t a whiner. A malaise has crept in and as she wonders is this it?

 In that moment, a spark catches fire. 

Gretchen decides to undertake happiness as well, duh, a project. Just like she would around the house or at work. And that calls her into action. 

The chapters that follow–with a new theme each month like Money or Mindfulness–she runs a series of ‘experiments’ of what may make every day life happier.
Some work, some don’t. 

Here are things I loved about Gretchen’s book:

1. It opened up possibilities.  
I think the world is filled with people who tell us what we shouldn’t or can’t do. One of those people is ourself. We are plagued by responsibilities, by shouldas and musts. For many of us, our die feels cast. Gretchen’s book creates a world of possibilities. As you read about the many activities she undertakes (no matter how crazy…who writes a novel in a month?) you find yourself feeling creative, explorative, imaginative. It changes your lens and makes you feel hopeful. Who can argue with that?

2. It reminds us that we are in charge. 
Self-admittedly, I have a fear that I will wake up later in life and feel like life happened. Passivity makes me crazy. Gretchen’s book reminds us that we are accountable. We are in charge. She points out we often believe in an “arrival fallacy”–when I get that promotion, I will be happy; when I buy that big house, I will be happy. That means we intrinsically are telling ourselves that happiness will be done to us and that we can’t control the outcome fully. Silly.

Gretchen puts us back into the driver seat without a lecture. She leads by example. A recent colleague of mine said: Power is not given away, power is taken. Take the power to be happy. 

3. Big change happens with small steps.
I love that Elizabeth Gilbert took a year and traveled the world in Eat, Pray, Love. Yep, that sounds awesome. But I don’t think I just get to step out of my life for a year. Rubin gives us permission to create a new reality without completely blowing off the one that surrounds us every day. She challenges us on how we will bring happiness into our lives rather than overthrow our old life for a new one. It seems a helluva lot more realistic. 

4. Working on your own happiness takes courage. 
I think it’s very easy to be cynical about the Happiness Project. Take Penelope Trunk. She writes that we overemphasize happiness instead of leading an interesting life. And further, that people with more choices are generally not as happy. Because if you live in Wisconsin, for example, there aren’t as many choices and therefore it’s easier to be happy. 

I like Penelope’s stuff–it’s witty and amusing.
But this? Lame.

Between the lines she seemed to be saying it isn’t really her fault she isn’t happy because of her big, fat, choiceful life.

Gretchen Rubin has taken a risk and not made an obvious choice. You try walking into a cocktail party and telling people you are launching a Happiness Project and not feel like a moron.

It takes courage to put very public energy into your own happiness. Because what if you fail?

Now a warning from the surgeon general.
I need to point out that this book is like the Ironman of happiness. 
Gretchen literally tries 60-100 ‘experiments’ in happiness. 

Fortunately, she did this so I don’t have to.

I would like to run an Ironman, but I know I won’t.
And I couldn’t take on half of the many initiatives she did.

But that’s not the point.

As I leave New York after an amazing weekend with my sister, (a weekend spurred on by the HP, when I decided I don’t see her enough for someone I love to be with), I think to myself:

That was sooooo easy. 

18 Comments Post a comment
  1. Yay for you!

    Being around people we love to be around is something so simple that we often overlook in our quest for happiness. Many of us look for happiness in the big-ticket items: relationships, holidays, material possessions.

    Happiness is inside us. It materializes when we are grateful for those we love to be around, sunsets, waterfalls, flowers, baby birds, – anything!!

    Live Life Happy!

    February 8, 2010
    • It’s the gratitude for things that we all need to practice for sure. Thanks for your post.

      February 8, 2010
  2. I am one of the many people temperamentally cynical when it comes to this type of book, but I have now read so many positive reviews of The Happiness Project that I feel compelled to check it out. I appreciate the spirit of your review: your dubious, but respectful interest and your willingness to give credit to Rubin for her boldness at a cultural moment when we sometimes conflate happiness and lack of intellect.

    February 8, 2010
    • I have to say a big driver to get over skepticism was the fact that you know Gretchen Rubin is no lightweight. She is discerning and analytical etc. and that made a difference to me. Go get it.

      February 8, 2010
  3. Carole Cornell #

    I just finished The Happiness Project – and I also thought it wasn’t going to be the kind of book I would like. But something prompted me to give it a try and I LOVED it. I’m trying to implement steps that Gretchen took and launch my own HP. I feel better already!

    February 8, 2010
    • See? It prompts action. It challenges you to think differently.

      February 8, 2010
  4. Beth #

    I stubled upon the Happiness Project blog through one of the Real Simple blogs. And decided to read the book along with the Real Simple Book Club. I, like Gretchen, and not unhappy, but feel I could be happier. I like you was a bit skeptical of the book, but I think the small step approach is great because it makes the whole thing a less intimidating thing to think about. That through small changes everyday, I can get where I want to be, and don’t have to wait for something big to happen to reach my “happiness potential”. I am only on chapter 4 (April), but am looking forward to the rest of the book, and maybe starting my own happiness project.

    February 8, 2010
    • Not only is the big picture intimidating, it is a safe place to convince ourselves its too big to tackle. When Gretchen Rubin starts with just her closets, you think to yourself: “I guess I could try a few things”….

      February 8, 2010
  5. Katy, thanks so much for your kind words! I’m thrilled to hear that my book resonated with you — especially because you wouldn’t usually read a book like this one.

    I was especially HAPPY to see that you were inspired to go visit your sister. That’s just the kind of thing that my happiness project nudged me to do — it’s so easy, it’s such a happiness boost, you wonder, why didn’t I ever do this before?

    Again, I so appreciate your enthusiasm!

    February 8, 2010
    • Author cameo!

      Hey, there was a lot to like.
      So many different kinds of people can find a thread to grab onto.

      Also, thanks for including some of the moments where you were feeling “this isn’t working” or you snapped at those around you. Otherwise, I would have been my cynical self : )

      February 8, 2010
  6. If you’re interested in a new approach to boost your happiness based on the latest positive psychology research, check out our iPhone app: Live Happy; it’s based on the work of Dr. Sonja Lyubomirsky, author of “The How of Happiness” and provides a unique method to create a personalized program to increase your happiness.

    You can also learn more about the iPhone app on our Facebook page.

    February 8, 2010
  7. I’ll check it out–thanks for your post!

    February 8, 2010
  8. Just finished The Happiness Project and your review really captured my thoughts. I, too, am not much on reading self-help stuff, but Gretchen’s blog really resonates with me. Probably because her research-based approach and voracious reading are the same things I do when interested in a topic. And I like the idea that you don’t have to make a radical change to improve your life. I mainly bought the book to support a fellow blogger but was pleasantly surprised that the print version provided a different experience than the online.

    As for Penelope Trunk, my enthusiasm for her is waning. And her response to this book–and the happiness issue–was, as you put it, quite lame.

    February 10, 2010
    • Well said! Agree that the ‘smartness’ of the approach made it much easier to digest…

      February 11, 2010
  9. Julie Schuetze #

    Timing is everything, Katy! I just read your post and will head to the bookstore (yes, bookstore and not turn on my Kindle!) to purchase this book. Might be just what the doctor ordered! Glad to hear you and MB had a great sisters weekend in NYC.

    February 12, 2010
    • Let me know how you like it. I think you’ll dig it.

      February 14, 2010
  10. Cynthia Dunn #

    I read the book and I just signed up for a watercolor painting class. Something I would never in a million years have done if it wasn’t for Gretchen Rubin. And I’m going to read it again!

    February 19, 2010

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  1. Alice Munroe: Ain’t Too Much Happiness Here. « BookSnob.

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