Putting theories into practice: Notes on The Happiness Project

The Happiness Project is the second of Gretchen Rubin’s books that I read, but it’s actually the first in her self-knowledge series that includes Better Than Before, Happier At Home, and The Four Tendencies.

This book has grown beyond one woman’s quest to find happiness, and has inspired a whole movement of folks searching for happiness and creating their own happiness projects. So today I wanted to share a few of my comments about this book, which I highly recommend to anyone who hasn’t read it yet!

In her Note to the Reader at the start of the book, Rubin observes:

“During my study of happiness, I noticed something that surprised me: I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experience than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies. I find greater value in what specific individuals tell me worked for them than in any other kind of argument – and that’s true even when we seem to have nothing in common. In my case, for example, I would never have supposed that a witty lexicographer with Tourette’s syndrome, a twentysomething tubercular saint, a hypocritical Russian novelist, and one of the Founding Fathers would be my most helpful guides – but so it happened.”

She turns to various scientific studies for guidance on choosing projects for her own happiness, but she also puts to the test items she has read in novels and various kinds of philosophical and religious ideas about happiness, in order to see whether they will work for modern-day people like her.

Perhaps one of the things I enjoyed most about Rubin’s book was her willingness to explore both her positive and negative traits, in order to seek out the kinds of things that would make her, personally happy. Many self-help books seem to try to fit everyone into a specific box of Happiness that is meant to apply equally to everyone, but Rubin’s book is quite different. She designs her own Happiness Project around things that she already knows bring her joy, as well as pushing her own limits by trying new things that are touted as happiness-inducing. Ultimately, her goal is to “Be Gretchen,” which means to embrace her own likes and dislikes, but also work to make herself the best she can be, by knowing her strengths and weaknesses and always seeking to improve – but without bending to whatever happiness fads and trends are currently taking the world by storm.

Much like the Marie Kondo “Does it bring joy?” question for cleaning house, Rubin asks whether different activities or practices bring her joy. If they don’t – even after modifications to suit her personality – out they go. I like this approach, because it leaves room for trying new things, but also acknowledges that we may not actually like EVERY new thing we try, and that’s totally okay.

I also really enjoyed the way Rubin decided to structure her project as a year-long exploration, with monthly themes. She assigns each month a different quest (Vitality, Marriage, Work, Parenthood, Leisure, Friendship, Money, Eternity, Books, Mindfulness, Attitude, and “Boot Camp Perfect”), and challenges herself to focus on different elements of happiness throughout the year. This kind of monthly theme for life and work is something I’ve started to emulate this year with my Buttontapper Challenge (which is focused on Positivity during the month of March). Viewing life as a series of challenges is an interesting way of looking at the world, and when I get to set my own challenges, it feels quite exciting and empowering.

In the month of December, Rubin attempts to draw all of her findings and self-improvements together for “Boot Camp Perfect“: the application of all lessons learned to her real life, as best she can. As you can imagine, this is quite a feat! While she doesn’t always succeed at attaining perfection, it’s inspiring to hear about how she is able to learn from her failures and still bring a positive perspective to situations that would otherwise plunge her deeper into unhappiness.

Ultimately, it’s the cumulative effect of tracking her happiness over a year that helps her achieve greater happiness each day. Which is also what people who Bullet Journal are trying to do, so naturally there is a Happiness Project Journal to go along with the book!

So, if you’ve ever thought about your own happiness – or that of those around you – this is a great book to pick up. Give it a whirl, if you’re looking for some new ways to change your life!