Laura's Reviews > 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

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
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Jul 05, 2011

did not like it
bookshelves: self-help
Read in March, 2011

I don’t know which is stranger – that people like this book, or that it was written in the first place. It came into being because Gretchen Rubin, a woman with a bizarrely charmed life, decided to spend a year devoting each month to a “theme” designed to make herself happier and then write a book about it. The whole thing smacks not only of a calculated stunt, but also of the sort of “list” approach she used for her breathtakingly trite book on Churchill. Regardless, any reasonable person would wonder why this woman was worrying about how to be “happier” than she already was with her “soul mate” husband, two healthy children, a family she likes, in-laws* she likes, plenty of free time, and money coming out the wazoo. The obvious question is: “If she wants to be happier, why doesn’t she do more service?” The question you’ll also probably ask, repeatedly, is “What could a smug perfectionist with an easy life possibly teach me?” Honestly, I have no idea, unless it hasn’t already occurred to you to.....are you sitting down?.....stash your crap in file boxes instead of leaving it strewn all over, and stop nagging your husband. Other previously unmined gems of insight: “You can’t change others,” “Exercise makes you feel better,” “Be friendly,” “Do things you like to do,” “Be grateful,” and, my personal favorite, “Money can buy happiness.”

Even better, every ten sentences or so she inserts – not to be confused with “works in” – a quotation that sounds like the first entry in its category from The Big Book of Quotations. Based on the self-congratulatory tone she doesn’t quite have the skill to avoid, I’d guess she’s deeply invested in showing she is Educated, and has Done Research. I think you’re also supposed to surmise she’s really smart, based on the number of references to editing the Yale Law Review or clerking for a Supreme Court Justice. What she never mentions, yet you can also surmise, is the fact that money is no object. Neither is time.

While being rich and leisured doesn’t disqualify her from having wisdom, it does place her situation in context. She’s not struggling to find happiness amidst real trials – illness, poverty, loneliness, relatives who drive you bonkers – she just wants to be “happier.” What’s amazing is that with all her research, she doesn’t come up with anything profound. At best, her paper-thin “insights” are merely summaries of other people’s research. And yet, inexplicably, a couple of women in my book group actually liked it! These women don’t sit around wondering if they’re happy enough – they probably wonder if they’re faithful enough and doing enough good in the world. So what did they find valuable?? A couple of them said that the organization chapter prompted them to clean out closets, which is always good, but there are at least a hundred books on de-cluttering that were written by people who were already aware of file boxes. (I know this because my sister has bought all those books and occasionally gives them away as presents, unless you’re really lucky and she just throws your stuff out without being asked.) So the organization chapter struck me as a bit silly. But not as silly as turning to Nietzsche for tips on happiness. And I think that indicates the biggest flaw – her approach is entirely secular. Joy and fulfillment (a bit deeper and more lasting than “happiness”) come through doing good and, eventually, becoming good. Every now and then she stumbles as if by accident upon versions of the Golden Rule Lite, but, naturally, in her eyes the point of being nice to others is to make herself happier.

*Father-in-law is Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. He later served on Citigroup’s board as Senior Counselor. During his eight years at Citigroup, shareholders suffered losses of more than 70%; Rubin earned over $126 million.
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Reading Progress

01/30/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 67-116)

message 116: by John (new)

John Ledesma Laura, didn't get a chance to read this book, but your review made me "happier", I got a real kick out of it!

message 115: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura Thanks John! I shouldn't be so crabby. So many people like this book, and I think the difference is two-part: they're essentially nicer than I am and thus more likely to be positively influenced, and they're less critical of writing style & tone so, again, they're more likely to be positively influenced. I think I'll just steer clear of self-help books! : )

message 114: by Ebookwormy1 (new) - added it

Ebookwormy1 @ John. I had the SAME reaction. I think i can skip this book based on Laura's review!

message 113: by Greg (new)

Greg Laurie: Laura and I were reading your review together and laughing out load. Crabby - maybe, but hilarious - yes.

message 112: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura I'm glad to provide diversions! The book does have some good points, like pretending to like a person will make you actually like him, or at least make the world a better place, and that's true -- I decided that a couple of extra squirrly little kids at church would be my very favorites and they BECAME my favorites! It's like magic. But there's way too much about the author I can't get past. When someone with experience writes a book about being "happier" as a poor, critical, over-educated, under-exercised old maid who's one cat away from being a crazy cat lady, then I'll read it. But not if it contains more than 200 quotations.

message 111: by Greg (last edited Jul 07, 2011 08:19AM) (new)

Greg So does this mean you are going to pretend to like me now?

message 110: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura I've been doing that for years! You mean I'm not convincing?

message 109: by Meowbie (new) - rated it 1 star

Meowbie “What could a smug perfectionist with an easy life possibly teach me?"

Laura, thank you for summarizing this book so succinctly. I must admit that I do loves me some snark, and your review has delivered in spades :)

BTW, I had no idea she was married to Robert Rubin's son. That takes the cake.

message 108: by Elaine (new) - rated it 2 stars

Elaine this review summed up what I was thinking. completely. the book should have been called "how to deal with your yuppie first world problems."

message 107: by Ebookwormy1 (new) - added it

Ebookwormy1 Laura, reread this review after the two new comments. Loved it all over again, but i've already 'liked' it, so an additional comment will have to do! Keep the wonderful reviews coming! love reading your thoughts!

message 106: by Vic (new)

Vic Thank you, thank you, thank you for saving me the time of reading this. I fear I would have felt the same way about it.

message 105: by Meowbie (new) - rated it 1 star

Meowbie Laura, I finally finished this insufferable book! I wanted to come back and thank you for your great and accurate summation of The Happiness Project. I actually used it as a point of reference.

I got stuck about a quarter of the way into the e-book version by the time I first read your thoughts. I switched out to the audiobook and started over. At first, I wondered if you may have been a little harsh on Gretchen. She seemed well intended, somewhat self-effacing here and there, somewhat honest, and her project seemed to have some merit.

But once I got to, say, the final third of the book, it all started to dawn on me. Her brush with Buddhism was breathtaking in its shallowness. Each time she had a chance to encounter something profound, she politely side-stepped it. By the time she balked at loving-kindness (metta) and substituted it for politeness (because "acting politely would at least give me the appearance of possessing that quality"), I just wanted to punch her in her smug face.

And so began my inexplicable rage at the vapidity of this publishing phenomenon. She writes like a lawyer and she studiously refuses to risk anything that might break her out of her egocentrism. At least I had your words in mind as a kind of calming brown paper bag whenever I felt like I was hyperventilating about it.

Perhaps I am more cynical than most, but I view the whole exercise as a calculated stunt - from her blog, to the faux self-consciousness she demonstrates by including (IMO) faux critical voices in the book, to her omission of her life situation and relation to Robert Rubin, and even to the hokey houses on the cover, which bear no resemblance to her own Neo-Georgian apartment. I am calling bull**** on all of this.

That Rubin now appears as a kind of authority on happiness on syndicated TV is mind-blowing and speaks to a real lack of depth in mass consciousness, particularly around large questions of meaning and purpose.

message 104: by [deleted user] (last edited Dec 27, 2011 03:28PM) (new)

The Citigroup connection is stunning. Future historians should mention the irony of the bestseller charts listing an author so lacking in self-awareness when the Wall Street protests broke out.

message 103: by Dee (new) - rated it 2 stars

Dee I love your insight, once I read she was a clerk for Ruth Bader Ginsberg I had to stop.

message 102: by Lexi (new) - added it

Lexi Sometimes charmed lives are still unhappy. Everyone has problems, you can't say someone else's problems don't matter.

message 101: by Meowbie (new) - rated it 1 star

Meowbie Lexi, even Gretchen Rubin admits that she doesn't have problems.

message 100: by Cara (new) - rated it 1 star

Cara Well done and beautifully said!!

Sarah Thank you. Everything I knew but simply was too lazy to put in words because the book is so 'meh'

message 98: by Huma (new) - rated it 4 stars

Huma Rashid Oh, Laura. You win all the awards.

Sarah "While being rich and leisured doesn’t disqualify her from having wisdom, it does place her situation in context." This for me was key. Her context doesn't get changed just because she continuously interjects her memoir with how self-critical she was about not having 'real' problems.

message 96: by Lisa (last edited Apr 22, 2012 04:10AM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Lisa Laura, thanks for your honest review. I'm about halfway through the book. I picked it up at Target a few weeks back and the subject matter appealed to me. Now I'm forcing myself to finish before I'll pick up a new book. I'm glad you touched on the secular nature of her writing. That is what I found most surprising. I realize this is not found within a religious genre but I don't know how anyone could write a book on happiness without diving into the subject of a higher power. I see a later chapter is titled Contemplate the Heavens and another commenter mentioned something about Buddhism so maybe that's where the higher power is touched upon.

As I read through, I just can't help this tugging feeling that she is missing the entire point and almost, intentionally avoiding it altogether. All of Rubin's motives seem to be focused on herself. As soon as she get's to a point where she's truly helping someone else, she returns to the true motive; it made her feel very good about herself. DOH!

This isn't to say I haven't gotten anything reflective out of the book but I don't think anything she has written is groundbreaking or new.

April 22, 2012
I mentioned this book to someone at work and told them about my review. How I was let down by this book because it didn't truly concentrate on any spiritual points while covering the subject of happiness. This person at work came across this book at Target too and told me the next day how he could see how I would have had some other expectations about the topic. It was on the same shelf as The Boy who Came Back from Heaven, Heaven is for Real and other religious type inspirational books.

Amanda Birdwell I skipped to the Buddhist chapter, Lisa. I wouldn't hold my breath if I were you. I know as little about Buddhism as your average white girl in New York, but I'm pretty sure if you go into it trying to improve your already-charmed life through pondering your individual circumstances some more (oh my God, is that even possible?), you may be missing something.

Leslie Thank you for expressing my impression of this book so perfectly. I hope you don't mind if I borrow some quotes from your review to take to my book club meeting.

message 93: by Laura (new) - rated it 1 star

Laura Thank you! Borrow away -- I didn't say any of this at my book group meeting because several of the ladies really liked it. I did say that I liked her columns in Good Housekeeping a WHOLE lot better (maybe she's palatable in small doses?? her columns have some really nice ideas and no smugness).

message 92: by Jason (new) - rated it 1 star

Jason Cifune Dead on. Best review to date. Can you recommend any that actually serve the purpose of inspiring happiness ?

message 91: by Kayla (new) - rated it 1 star

Kayla Well said, Laura! I completely agree!

Chanel Earl Laura, I haven't read the book, but I liked your review. It made me realize that I am always living life like I am completing a happiness project (isn't everybody?). I think maybe your end comments were worth more than the advice in the book. Thanks.

Stephanie Laura, your review is so emotionally charged that at first I thought I might agree based on passionate empathy alone. And while the author does lead what we might think is a charmed life, she has, after all, her own "crosses to bear". She did work hard before becoming a housewife (with, one presumes, nannies and housekeepers); her husband has a scary diagnosis, as well as her sister, etc. She, like many, feels unhappy. I don't fault her for mentioning her work or her connections, this is autobiographical after all. Despite her cush lifestyle, she sought ways to be happier, which actually is admirable. She shared them. That resonated with people. I will take some of her messages to heart. She is not her father in law. Yes, she can be smug and trite.. who isn't (except for St. Therese, whom she tries to emulate)? The book is not perfect, but not worth the venom.

Another reviewer compared The Happiness Project to Eat, Pray, Love, which I can see but still think is a little unfair. I did find the navel gazing of that book too tiresome to withstand, but it had nothing to do with what I might think of the author's economic background (ps, lest you think otherwise, I am a 40 hr/wk floor nurse).

Obviously all of us who read the book were hoping to find some keys and truths, and some of us got something out of it. I'm going to clean out my closets now and go journal shopping later. God knows I don't have the time or money to join the gym, but maybe a restored daily constitutional with the dog.

Rachelle Right on. Absolutely spot on. If you wrote a book- I'd read it and no doubt love it.

message 87: by Lori (new) - rated it 1 star

Lori I wish I could copy your review for mine. Anyone who lives by the Golden Rule or loves their partner, spouse, child, parent, already gets the concept of hey, I'll take the clothes to the cleaners without being asked and they will do the same for me when I'm rushed, or Hey, I'll plan a special party for an inlaws big birthday. Struck me as another narcassistic society chick who has never been criticized. Really, stop nagging your husband? Make an effort to not be inpatient? OMG...Psych 101, friendships 101, so glad I didn't purchase

Holly Spot on.

message 85: by Bobby (new)

Bobby Fully agree. Very strange book what didn't give me anything. It was waste of time... but... I hoped to read amazing book what will inspire me... eh.. can I ask you.. what is the most inspirational book for you?

message 84: by Ali (new)

Ali Your review made me laugh, and I echo all the other comments. She does not come across as a very likable person. I first read this book a year ago I was fascinated by her "real life." My draw dropped when I found out how successful she is. Money does not buy happiness, but it sure does help. It's much easier to find happiness in life when you don't have to worry about your next paycheck.

message 83: by Sue (new)

Sue Vilic Honey go get you some other kind of "happy" book. Anything.

Katherine Fully agree with your comments and commend you for taking the time to make your points-
This book is a "retread", that does not have much rubber :)

Amanda THANK YOU for this review. You've encapsulated all of my thoughts perfectly - I am impressed with neither Rubin's ideas nor her execution of the "project" (seriously lazy, by the by - how does one manage to NOT include meditation when devoting a MONTH on mindfulness when you ALREADY do yoga???).

argh. Just finished, still getting all the pent up frustration out.

message 80: by Katie (new) - added it

Katie I have read 10% of the book and I am already on the same page as this review. She seems smug in the fact that she is so proud of herself for coming up with this idea and patting herself on the back for cleaning out her closet and "exercising better". What in the hell is exercising better? How is that a concrete action item? I found myself rolling my eyes and being highly annoyed at all the references and legal jargon, not to mention all the mundane rambling. It doesn't feel sincere, it feels like she tried to come up with an idea to sell books and make more money.

message 79: by Laia (new) - added it

Laia Bobby, as a general rule I avoid self-help books because I find they rub me the wrong way, and I tend to find what seems like more authenticly shared wisdom and inspiration from other sources. However, I had to read Happiness Project for my Bookclub (all of us came to that meeting wondering if we were the only ones annoyed by the book, and found out we were all in good company.) In an interesting contrast, a month or so before, I read the first self-help book in my life that was actually a positive experience. It's entitled The Freedom of Contentment: Letting Go of Unwanted Habits and Managing Everyday Worries by Patricia Mabel. Disclaimer: the only reason I read it is because it was written by a good friend, and she surprised me one day with a copy, because she had used a snipet from an email I had once written her on the back of the book. I was nervous because I tend to hate this type of book, but felt a friendshiptorial obligation to read it...but also really didn't want to taint my wonderful relationship and perception of this friend by what I figured would be inevitable annoyance with what I read in the book.
I was kinda amazed to find reading the book to be a warm, uplifting experience that instead of making me feel like someone else was trying to foist their framework on me and tell me I would be so much better if only...., it felt like the sort of experience where you have a chat and a hug with a friend that, although different than you, makes you feel like something is good and right with the world, and with who you and they are, and you feel empowered to recognize and be the beauty that is in you, somehow without being in denial of unpleasant aspects of reality. It feels genuine.
I honestly can't say how much of my impression of the book is influenced by my relationship with her (because I know how loving, positive, giving and non-judgemental she is in person, I'm sure that carries through to my reading of the book.)
But I thought I would mention it. It's not a slick catchy NY Times best-seller, but it is a genuine, positive little sharing by a beautiful person, and I doubt those who read it would find the time or money wasted. You can find her book on Amazon as a kindle ebook or paperback for cheap. I would say if you are looking for something inspiring, give it a try.

message 78: by Laia (new) - added it

Laia Oops... I left off her last name... It's Patricia Mabel Kelley

message 77: by ERIN (new) - rated it 1 star

ERIN HICKS Yes, yes, yes and yes. I stopped reading this book and returned it to the library before the due date.

message 76: by Molly (new)

Molly Yes, yes, and yes. Spot on review.

Jennifer Andrews Spot on! Great review!

message 74: by Red (new)

Red to be happy is not a sin my dear. and how to become happier is upto you. read for example ode to a grecian urn by Keats. my fav. on the subject. is it everyones fav? don't think so.

message 73: by Vic (new)

Vic Red, you might want to try a book on English punctuation. Have you? I don't think so.

Muslimah Wow. There is a lot of venom in this review and in the comments. I liked the book. I think it was weird that she did skip on trying and talking about meditation but decided to try hypnotism. In general, I don't think there is some great answer in the sky for happiness and most of the best ideas are the ones that are obvious in the first place. What books like these do (in my opinion) is bring these common place ideas to the forefront of the mind where we consciously think about them on a day to day basis.

Sure, her circumstances lead lots of people to believe that she should be happy and have no reason to write this book. She makes that disclaimer at the beginning. I think it's more of an exercise of being more conscious and aware of the thoughts and habits one can form that over time can work to diminish happiness. That's the big takeaway from the book. Sure, there are books of spiritualism, de-cluttering, better marriage tips, and friendship tips, being kind etc. Sure, she recycled most all these ideas in this book. But why does that matter?

I understand the criticism, I just don't understand the venom.

Meowbie I'll just speak for my own reactions, Muslimah. Rubin's book has been a bestseller and something of a publishing phenomenon, so it naturally leads to some elevated expectations about its content.

The problem for me -- and I suspect a lot of the critics here -- is that it is an amazingly shallow book. Most people learn eventually that we adapt to the suckiness of life by finding meaning and purpose, particularly in things greater than ourselves. Gretchen never seems to arrive at this place, and when you understand that she doesn't really struggle or lack for anything, you start to wonder why she even wrote the book.

In the end, it felt like a stunt, and a narcissistic one at that. Hence the ill-feeling.

message 70: by Diana (new)

Diana Mccavera I have just started this for book club and I want to put a fork in my eye. Great review!

Chris Casey Thanks for the great review. I've been sharing your bafflement as I attempt to read it.

Rachel Fantastic review! I felt bad for my continuous eye-rolling throughout the portion of the book I managed to finish. The self-importance was suffocating.

Katie ze Kiten Awesome review!

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