Gretchen Rubin’s New York Times best-selling memoir, “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,” documents Mrs. Rubin’s year-long efforts to make herself happier. She dedicated a year to test-driving different happiness theories in the form of age-old wisdom, popular culture, and scientific research. During that year, she committed to being a better writer, parent, wife, and friend. She cleared the clutter out of her home, and started exercising regularly. She took classes that interested her, joined clubs, and donated to charities.
In the end, Gretchen found that giving of herself to others, practicing mindfulness, and maintaining a positive attitude, made her happiest. Mrs. Rubin graduated from Yale Law School and clerked under Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor prior to leaving her law career behind to become a full-time writer. I mention these facts about her because it gives you some indication to how thorough and well-thought out her project was.
The book is divided by the months: “January: Boost Energy;” “March: Aim Higher/Work;” “May: Be Serious About Play/Leisure;” “July: Buy Some Happiness/Money;” “August: Contemplate the Heavens/Eternity;” etc.
My favorite parts of her book include:
She started a children’s novels book club. As someone who loves few things above reading, the idea of reading fantasy novels like the Lord of the Rings or reading “Alice in Wonderland” for the first time, makes me so happy. And it’s not something I would normally think of. I have a girlfriend at work who loves reading more than I do, and we have decided to do the same thing Gretchen did and start a children’s novels book club of our own.
She cleaned out/organized her closet. By doing this, we organize our lives and relieve a lot of unnecessary stress. We simplify. Plus, she gave all the clothes she no longer wanted to charity.
She studied the lives of spiritual masters. Buddha, the Dalai Lama, etc. Gretchen’s favorite: St. Therese of Lisieux.
She studied death, dying, and catastrophe. She read memoirs by people facing death…Martha Beck’s book on having a baby with down syndrome…Stan Mack on cancer…
Her husband didn’t really give a shit. I like Gretchen’s book because it reminded me why I’m doing Surfer Stoke. Gretchen’s husband was never really interested in Gretchen’s project. And he’s her husband. Her experiences resonated with me, and reminded me that while this project will hopefully make someone else happy, I’m also doing it for myself.
Below are some of my favorite excerpts from her book:
“Leaving the law to become a writer was the most important step I ever took to “Be Gretchen.” I’d decided to do what I wanted to do, and I ignored options that, no matter how enticing they might be for other people, weren’t right for me.” (p. 73 Aim Higher)
“One conclusion was blatantly clear from my happiness research: everyone from contemporary scientists to ancient philosophers agrees that having strong social bonds is probably the most meaningful contributor to happiness.” (p. 141, Make Time for Friends)
“I’d come to see that spiritual states – such as elevation, awe, gratitude, mindfulness, and contemplation of death – are essential to happiness.” (p. 195, Contemplate the Heavens)
“My ambition, however, was also a factor in leaving the law. I’d become convinced that passion was a critical factor in professional success. People who love their work bring an intensity and enthusiasm that’s impossible to match through sheer diligence… Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an exercise is your willingness to practice.” (p. 71, Aim Higher)
“One reason that challenge brings happiness is that it allows you to expand your self-definition. You become larger. Suddenly, you can do yoga or make homemade beer or speak a decent amount of Spanish… Also a new identity brings you into contact with new people and new experiences.” (p. 78, Aim Higher)
“A common theme in religion and philosophy, as well as in catastrophe memoirs, is the admonition to live fully and thankfully in the present. So often, it’s only after catastrophe strikes that we appreciate what we had… over and over, they emphasized the importance of cherishing health and appreciating ordinary life.” (p. 198 – p. 202, Contemplate the Heavens)
“You won’t wake up one day and find that you’ve achieved it. It’s something you have to resolve to do every day, forever. Striving towards a goal provides an atmosphere of growth so important to happiness, but it can be easy to get discouraged if reaching the goal is more difficult than you expected.” (p. 288, Boot Camp Perfect)
“With each passing month too, I realized the importance of my First Commandment, “Be Gretchen.” As great minds throughout the ages have pointed out, one of our most pressing concerns should be to discover the laws of our own nature. I had to build my happiness on the foundation of my character; I had to acknowledge what really made me happy, not what I wished made me happy. One of the biggest surprises of the happiness project was just how hard it was to know myself. I’d always been slightly exasperated by philosophers’ constant emphasis on what seemed to be a fairly obvious question, but in the end I realized that I would spend my entire life grappling with the question of how to “Be Gretchen.” (p. 288, Boot Camp Perfect)