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The Sunday Salon: Reading “The Happiness Project”

The Sunday Salon.com I have been on the library hold list for Gretchen Rubin’s memoir, The Happiness Project, for months. So when the book came into the library a day after Madison was smashed with a giant blizzard, I didn’t think twice about trekking through the cold and snow to go pick it up the first chance I got.

I also walked through the bitter cold to a local indie bookstore to pick up the copy of War and Peace they special ordered for me so I could join a War and Peace Read-Along, but that’s just because I’m crazy.

I digress. I picked up The Happiness Project on Thursday, and I’ve been absorbed in it ever since. The book is about Rubin’s year-long quest to find ways to be happier. She notes in the beginning that she wasn’t unhappy, nor did she have the luxury to change her life in some drastic way (she has a husband and two young daughters). But what she could do is focus on the little things in life to try and find more joy in every day.

She structured her project bit like Benjamin Franklin’s self-improvement project — a series of resolutions put on a big chart, and then checking them off each day if they’ve been achieved or not. Rubin decided to focus on one part of her life each month, come up with a series of action steps to achieve happiness in that area, and then see if she could achieve her resolutions.

It’s sounds a little self-involved, but Rubin does a good job explaining why her happiness translates to making other people happy, why working on happiness in good times can help people cope with tough times, and why just changing little things can have a profound impact on the way an individual can feel about daily life.

It took me longer to read this book than I expected, mostly because I kept getting inspired to tackle some simple, nagging task in my life after Rubin showed why doing something similar made her happier.

My Saturday went something like this: I read a chapter, then I cleared some clutter off my desk. I read another chapter, then took two bags of old clothes out to my car so I’d remember to bring them to Goodwill. I read a chapter, then did all the dishes in my kitchen. Read a chapter, sorted and recycled all the unread magazines cluttering my apartment. Read a chapter, organized our front closet. Read a chapter, took out the garbage. Finished the rest of the book. It took awhile, but I felt doubly accomplished when I finally got through it.

I’ve wanted to read The Happiness Project for a long time now, not because I’m unhappy, but because it fits with this general trend in my reading of looking for books about different ways to live your life. I’ve reading about Millennials in the workplace, techniques for unplugging, reasons to eat locally, other women starting careers, and adventures in post-graduation traveling. I haven’t loved all the books, but they’ve each been instructive in their own way.

I got out of school last May after being a student for as long as I can actually remember and now have to figure out what kind of life I want to have, and that feels daunting. I’ve turned to, really, the only way I know how I understand the world — through books, both fiction and nonfiction, that address my concerns about how I live. The Happiness Project fit right into that theme, and for that reason I enjoyed reading it a lot.

I don’t know that everyone would like the book. I can see how Rubin would be a little relentlessly positive, a little too focused on herself, or a little too self-congratulatory about her achievements. But I liked it. I responded to her as an author and believe that simple things like an uncluttered desk or focusing on a positive attitude make certain people happier.

I’m not ready to do my own year-long happiness project just yet, in part because one of the biggest things Rubin realized during her year is that the best way to be happy is to “Be Gretchen” — stop worrying about things that should make her happy, and focus on the things that actually do. I’m not entirely sure what it means to “Be Kim” just yet, but maybe doing a happiness project would help me figure out.

Even if I’m not going to do a full project, I feel good about implementing some of Rubin’s happiness strategies. I keep mentioning cutting back clutter, but that’s one of the best ideas I got from the book — I know clutter makes me annoyed, so why not just work harder to eliminate it? I also love the idea of a one sentence journal (to make the habit of journaling less intimidating), and thinking about the role money plays in happiness.

I guess all that meadering is to say that The Happiness Project was a great read for me at this moment in my life. I appreciate the wisdom of trying to slowly change my habits in a way that is going to make me happier in the long-term, and I found inspiration in Rubin’s story of trying to do just that.

Rating: ★★★★☆

Have you ever tried a happiness project, or some other year-long project to change something in your life? What are some of your favorite books that speak to ways of choosing how to live you life? Big plans for the Super Bowl today? That’s what I’ll be doing tonight!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Teresa February 6, 2011, 9:48 am

    I subscribed to her newsletter for awhile but I haven’t gotten around to reading the book. Its pretty cool that it inspired you to tackle those nagging little projects that we all have. (as I sit here looking at all of the clutter on my desk). I’ll have to check it out and see what it inspires me to do.

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:08 pm

      Teresa: One of my informal resolutions for this year was to take care of tasks when they come up, rather than procrastinate and let them get out of control — laundry, dishes, desk clutter, whatever. The book was great because it helped remind me why I wanted to do that.

  • Lu February 6, 2011, 9:59 am

    In the same way that you feel like you’re deciding what kind of life you want, I desperately want to be doing that, but since I’m still living at home and still in school, I can’t! There are lots of little things I can do to make my life happier, but sometimes it feels like I can’t fully commit to anything until I live on my own! I’m excited for that to happen. (Looks like it will in May!)

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:10 pm

      Lu: That’s tough, I know! There’s so much you can’t quite control at home or while still a student. I was able to learn to control my eating habits better when I was in college, which was good, but I’m having to work on that one over again this year. Good luck once May rolls around — it’s exciting to be done with school!

  • bermudaonion (Kathy) February 6, 2011, 10:19 am

    I haven’t read the book, but do agree that focusing on a positive attitude and wanting to be happy go a long way in life.

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:11 pm

      Kathy: That was one of my biggest takeaways — sometimes the thing you need to be happier is just a change of attitude or to reframe what you’re talking about. I’m going to work on that, because it seems like a simple thing with a lot of benefits.

  • Trisha February 6, 2011, 10:19 am

    I am notorious for making resolutions to improve my life and then not sticking to them. This year, I promised I would be more social; at least going out with friends every other weekend, and so far, so good. I hope to keep it up throughout the year since I am naturally such a freaking hermit. 🙂

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:13 pm

      Trisha: One thing I liked about this approach was that she picked one particular area to focus on each month, and then added a new area the next month. It seemed like that kept it from being overwhelming.

  • Ash February 6, 2011, 12:05 pm

    I’ve heard mixed things about this book but I do think it sounds interesting (and I love the cover). I think I could really use some kind of year long project in my life right now. My only New Year’s Resolution was to take myself less seriously and so far I don’t really know how well I’m doing on that.

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:15 pm

      Ash: I sort of want a long-term project now too, but I can’t quite decide what. I’m not in the mood for something huge like this, but something small may be good.

      One thing the book talks about making sure to have action steps to achieve resolutions. That aspect of the book was appealing to me.

    • faffabout February 9, 2011, 10:12 am

      I like the way it enables you to measure your goals. I know it sounds very preppy but I actually have a list of my resolutions and tick them off each day 🙂

      • Kim February 9, 2011, 6:34 pm

        faffabout: That was an important part of the book for me — it’s easy to make big goals, but I liked how well the author chronicled the ways she want about achieving the goals.

  • Katie February 6, 2011, 2:20 pm

    I enjoyed the book as well. I think the best tip that I got dealt with making sure that there isn’t any visible light when you sleep. It is actually far more restful!


    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:16 pm

      Katie: Yes, that is a good tip. I need to turn my clock around, which should be a pretty easy fix for better sleep.

  • Bex February 6, 2011, 4:16 pm

    I know what you mean about not knowing what it means to ‘be you’ yet, i’m im the same position. And i’ve just moved house to a totally new part of the country for the first time ever,which makes it even more difficult (although exciting :-))
    This book sounds like the kind of thing I’d really love!

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:17 pm

      Bex: That does sound exciting! You get a chance to start over in a new place and figure out what makes you happy, which is cool. I hope you get a chance to read the book.

  • Kailana February 6, 2011, 6:44 pm

    I really want to read The Happiness Project. It sounds really interesting.

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:17 pm

      Kailana: I liked it a lot; I hope you get a chance to read the book.

  • Gwen February 6, 2011, 8:33 pm

    I read The Happiness Project when it came out and it did have a small, yet lasting effect on me. Like you mentioned, it was inspiring while reading. I would jump up and tackle a task that I had been putting off for a long time.
    What stuck with me is that, often, happiness is a chosen state of mind and that my level of happiness really does effect those around me.

  • Gwen February 6, 2011, 8:36 pm

    and Kim, life is what happens while we are busy trying to figure it out how we want to live. I am still looking for “that” book that will make everything all clear to me, if you find it, let me know:)

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 6:19 pm

      Gwen: I agree — the idea that happiness is a state we can sometimes chose to be in was a good message for me to be reminded of, especially since I can be negative sometimes.

      And yes, of course you’re right that spending too much time figuring out how to live means we miss out on actually living, but i think it’s a good exercise to ponder it once in awhile 🙂

  • Vasilly February 7, 2011, 8:44 pm

    I loved this book so I’m glad to hear you enjoyed it. I had the same experience of stopping to clean or straighten up while reading this book. I read this book more than a year ago and I still go back to it every now and then to read a chapter.

    • Kim February 7, 2011, 9:10 pm

      Vasilly: I think it’s a book I’ll want to come back to, so I’m going to order it in paperback once it comes out, I think in just about a month. I think rereading parts might continue to be inspirational for some of the small changes I want to make!

  • Bill Carver February 7, 2011, 11:56 pm

    Great article! 🙂

    The Happiness project sounds great too.

    • Kim February 9, 2011, 6:35 pm

      Bill: It’s a book I enjoyed a lot 🙂

  • faffabout February 9, 2011, 10:09 am

    Good review!

    I’ve just started my own happiness project and have starting blogging at the same time. Instead of ‘be myself’ I’m focussing on being nice which is easier! Throwing out my aspirational clutter helped me to be myself though, it gave me to permission to stop ‘shoulding’ and just do what makes me happy. Thanks for the Benjamin Franklin link 🙂

    • Kim February 9, 2011, 6:36 pm

      faffabout: Good luck with your happiness project, and with blogging! I think it can be a very rewarding habit once you get started with it. I agree with you about aspirational clutter, it’s something I want to work on too.

  • The Girl from the Ghetto February 9, 2011, 11:28 am

    I’ve had this book on my too-read shelf for a year now. Thanks for reminding me that I stll need to read it, because I can use some happy in my life.

    • Kim February 9, 2011, 6:36 pm

      Girl from the Ghetto: I hope you get a chance to read it soon, and I hope it can help you find some happy 🙂

  • Erin February 16, 2011, 8:05 pm

    I read this book nearly a year ago and really liked it. I was impressed by how not cheesy Rubin made her book and how logical and practical her approach was. I had the same problem, though…I kept being inspired, mid-chapter, to tackle something or other!

    And hooray for having another War and Peace-er 🙂

    • Kim February 17, 2011, 7:34 pm

      Erin: I also loved how logical it was. It seems like the book will be a great model for how to set goals and try to achieve them, since she was so focused about it. Very inspiring.

      I don’t think I quite count as a War and Peace-er just yet, since I haven’t even started! But soon… I say again 🙂

  • Melanie March 24, 2012, 10:22 pm

    After reading the author’s column in Good Housekeeping, I’ve gotten pretty excited about reading the book. The idea of simply “Be Melanie” is incredibly intimidating and confusing, but I suppose that’s the point.