Monday, March 30, 2015

'The Happiness Project' by Gretchen Rubin


2015 Reading Challenge, Week 13 - A Book with Bad Reviews

Although this book has had many positive reviews, it's also had critical ones into the triple figures, some of which have been liked by over 1000 others. The themes of most of them are similar. 1) Rubin, living her charmed life in a multi-million-dollar-earning family, has a nerve to think she can tell normal strugglers how to be happy. 2) Some of her advice is trite, such as clear up your clutter and don't nag your spouse. 3) Why does she claim to be unhappy in the first place, given her rosy circumstances?

I'd already written my review before coming across these negative reviews and articles. Although I had the impression from her book that she was well-to-do, I had no idea of the full extent of Rubin's wealth. In her chapter on money, she admits, 'Jamie and I are in the position not to have to worry about our spending habits' or something like that, which turns out to be the understatement of the century. Some critics suggest the book was written in such a way that readers wouldn't find out, which seemed sneaky on the part of both author and publisher. Why bother hiding the fact of an author's prosperity unless they thought it would cause backlash in the book's reception? It got some flak anyway, but would it have happened to the same extent if they'd been straightforward about her luxurious circumstances? 

I admit, I toyed with an impulse to change my review to fit these new facts. I understood the reviewers who wrote that changing her career from law to writing wasn't the sacrifice she made it sound when money was no issue. In her book, she often likes to say, 'I've got to be true to myself and be Gretchen.'  Since the real Gretchen is rolling in dough and she deliberately hides that fact, I get why people may question whether the real Gretchen matches the Gretchen in the pages of the memoir.

But at the same time, I enjoyed the book. I decided not to change my review. Why should the fact that she has lots of money change the overall impression I had when I didn't know? It happened to be a very good impression. Most of the positive tips I picked up will work regardless of our income. Whether or not she and her publisher made a wise move by deciding to conceal it remains a matter of debate.


Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.

In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such as Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.


The author herself calls this memoir genre 'stunt non-fiction.' They've been abundant in recent years. Their authors spend a year doing something noteworthy and writing about it. In Rubin's case, she decided to boost her happiness level by focusing on a different possible method each month, to determine which worked best. Like many of us, she wasn't clinically depressed but knew there was plenty of room to increase her sense of well-being. I've read quite a few of this genre, and this one turned out to be one of the more helpful and interesting ones. Here's why.

1) She works it around her normal domestic life rather than going off and doing things which would be impossible for many of us. No quitting work or buying rustic old mansions in the country. No pilgrimages to spirituals centres of the world. Her experiences are practical and easy for us to emulate, should we feel inclined.

2) She's not one of those wordy, dry experts in fields such as psychology or cognitive therapy. This means the book isn't crammed with tiny print, waffly language and tiresome graphs, tables and other statistics. The content is lots of memoir and personal anecdote, which I find far more readable and appealing. Instead of expecting us to slough through the heavy stuff, Rubin has done it for us, and made the path far easier to follow.

3) Most importantly for me, she's helped me understand where I've gone wrong in previous happiness attempts. For example, honestly being true to ourselves means we must cross off activities which always sound as if they might be lots of fun, but aren't really designed for us. Rubin mentions having a glamorous wardrobe, fly fishing, steamy jazz clubs, artist studios and collections would be off her list. Mine too. We've got to regret these things, acknowledge that they are not really us and move on. (Personally, I always thought it would be cool to start a non-profit charity or organisation. A book blog, although not half as 'good' sounding, is probably a better fit for me.)

What's more, I unconsciously thought being happy would involve some total personality makeover which I hoped to achieve some day. I'd be happy if I was more out-going and more easy-going, but that cool, chilled character isn't really me. That doesn't mean I can't be very happy my own way, taking into account the levels of introversion and neuroticism with which I seem to have been dealt. In her stories, Rubin repeatedly makes the point, 'I was still basically me.' It's not about changing ourselves but figuring out how we can maximise our personal happiness, given our raw material. That gelled with me.

The eye-openers continued. Through her experiences, Rubin challenged me to see that I shouldn't be deploring my true passions just because they don't strike me as adequate, or seem to yield impressive results. Like her, my main one is books. Reading, writing, blogging, book reviewing, and even the excessive note-taking about apparent trivia which might not seem to interest anyone else. Hey, if it makes me happy, I don't need to excuse it.

This book made me want to chase up some of the references. It made me take too many notes to squeeze into one review. I was left wanting to read over several points again, and buy my own copy. A hard-copy at that. I was actually expecting to scoff a bit at this book, thinking that anyone like Gretchen Rubin, who isn't lacking money or work prestige, isn't really in touch with those of us who struggle with these things. But it turns out the subjects she works on are things any of us can master. I think this book may be life-altering, paradoxically by showing that these changes aren't designed to be life-altering at all, but simply life-enhancing. It deserves full marks.

5 stars. 


  1. Thanks for the review Paula. I think I shall give this one a go.

    1. Hi Josephine,
      It's well worth a read. I like reading literature on happiness from time to time, especially to see where they agree with each other.

  2. Sounds interesting. I agree that her financial status should not be an automatic reason to hate the book. If all rich people were happy, you would not see the level of drug and alcohol abuse, depression, and divorce once you reach a decent income. I've lived long enough to know my inspirations can come from anywhere, as long as I'm open to being inspired. :)

    1. I completely agree, Cristina. In fact, it's the sort of book which got me thinking that basically, our conditions for happiness are basically the same, regardless of our financial status. And as you say, those with plenty often seem to have more problems than those with a more moderate amount.
      Gretchen Rubin actually lives in an apartment in New York city. You'd be familiar with her district, while I, of course, am not.