Book review: The Happiness Project

Full disclosure: Gretchen Rubin is a friend. But I was a reader and fan of her blog long before we even met, and there's no way I'd have done an elaborate pre-launch pimpage post if I didn't think this book was so terrific. Also, this review was based on my reading of an uncorrected proof; there may have been minor changes in the book that ultimately went to press.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with self-help books: I love finding new ways to wake myself up, fresh strategies for altering the course of my life, novel frameworks that give me a real look at myself; I hate the dull and plodding style most of them are served up in.

Gretchen Rubin's newest book, The Happiness Project, escapes both the pedantry trap (i.e., scholarly tracts with snooze-a-licious prose) and the newage-rhymes-with-sewage, self-important, Lite Lifeâ„¢ Solutions b.s. of the quick-to-market "guru" book. Its content is both well-researched and delightfully served up, evidence of not only a fine mind and truly generous soul, but someone who reads lots of ACTUAL BOOKS for the purposes of ENJOYMENT and SELF-EDUCATION.

Like Aristotle! Montaigne! Schopenhauer!

But also A.J. Jacobs! Joan Didion! Daniel Pink!

Even Elizabeth Gilbert, that wonderful lady writer everyone now feels it's their bounden duty to crap on* because she committed the heinous sin of writing (gasp...the horror!) a P-O-P-U-L-A-R  best seller (and going on Oprah to talk about it). One of the most impressive parts of Rubin's book is the Suggestions for Further Reading, at the end, where she lists 76+ sources** that run the gamut, genre-wise, from philosophy to science to fiction.

Why is this so fantastic? Because Rubin is a synthesizer, one of that rare breed who can take things in from multiple sources, parse them wisely, and smoosh them into beautiful new ideas and practical suggestions the rest of us can benefit from. Most likely, she finds patterns without even trying, because she's trained her brain to note and sift so deftly. And then, in the case of a project like this, she finds ways to apply all this good learning to herself, further filtering it through her own experience, and finally reporting on it in such a clean, spry, engaging fashion, we don't see the work that went into it, we just get what we need out of it.***

And what do we need from a project about finding happiness?

Direction, for one. Effecting meaningful change is tough stuff, and if there's one thing that requires big-time change, it's moving from asleep to awake, from unhappy to happy, or, hardest of all, from asleep to happy. It's necessarily a self-directed, one-of-a-kind thing, since we're all special snowflakes; how do you go about teaching that?

I think we find our way by studying the great synthesizers before us, which is why I've long preferred biography and memoir to other forms of self-help nonfiction. Rubin agrees. As she says in her opening note to the reader, "I often learn more from one person's highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies."**** We read her well-told tales of struggling with exercise, with spending, with keeping her temper; we watch her apply her book knowledge in real time, see the ease that it brings, and start to look at how we might apply this learning to our own peculiar areas of fucked-up-ness. Are her solutions, a 20-minute circuit with a trainer, soliciting help from her mother to buy needful things in bulk, singing in the morning, mine? Nope. Not even close. But the process she goes through to find the solutions could be, and that she does it is inspiring.

Process and inspiration aside, the book is bursting with great, concrete ideas for changing your own life for the better. You may not recognize them as such, since Rubin is about as far from a proselytizer as you can get, but they're there, and in abundance. And there are even more at her blog, and in the communities that have sprung up around the Happiness Project Toolbox, her DIY-with-support site she's set up to complement the book. (And if you're wondering, no, the book is not repurposed content from the website, but longer stories told with more detail, with lots of never-before-seen material. It actually is an object lesson in the differences between good blog writing and good book writing.)

Before you even think about changing your own life, though, just read the book. Bask in the sunny pleasures of good writing on a useful topic.

If nothing else, this will make you happier...


BONUS! Erin Rooney Doland, who writes at Unclutterer and wrote a really great book herself recently, posted an excellent review of The Happiness Project on her blog. In addition to thoughtful observations about Gretchen's process, Erin makes some really good points about the connection between happiness and decluttering and of getting clear on your goals before you get going with any project. A great read for the start of the new year.

*Yeah, I didn't like the "love" part so much either, but you know what? That book still kicks more ass than you'll ever admit. And I love Oprah.

**The "+" part, because she's read the entire Samuel Johnson canon, no doubt, and a slew of things that probably weren't 100% salient to the discussion, so she left them off. Because, as I said, this woman is about reading for the right reasons (ENJOYMENT! EDUCATION!), not the icky ones, like trying to impress people with her bowing library shelves.

***In acting, which Gretchen also developed an interest in learning about, because she is that way, we talk about "catching someone acting." You rarely catch Meryl Streep doing this; you catch people on soaps and three-camera s(h)itcoms and even Important Oscar-worthy Films all the time. If that example doesn't work for you, think of how ice skaters make it look easy, or of the difference between the very elegant Fred Astaire and the very muscular Gene Kelly: they were both terrific dancers, but only Fred made it look easy.

****"Or talk out of their opportunist, I-have-a-theory asses." , Colleen Wainwright

Image by juhansonin via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.