Book review: The happiness project

One of my core beliefs is this: It's more important to be happy than it is to be rich. My personal experience bears this out (though I'm fortunate to be both), as do the anecdotes I receive from GRS readers. In fact, of all my fourteen philosophies, this one is most important. It's so important that I chose to open Your Money: The Missing Manual with a chapter on happiness.

No surprise then that for the past couple of years, one of my favorite blogs has been Gretchen Rubin's The Happiness Project. Rubin is a former lawyer who abandoned her promising high-paying career to follow her bliss: She decided to become a writer. She started her blog as a part of a year-long experiment to find new ways to be happy. She's now turned that experience into a best-selling book.

The Happiness Project (the book) was released in late December. I'd hoped to review it when it was published, but work on my own book got in the way. Last week, as I was happily soaking up the sun in the jungles of Belize, I finally found time to read Rubin's book. It's fantastic.

The Happiness Project

I'll admit that, on paper, The Happiness Project may seem sort of lame. Rubin decided to spend one year consciously pursuing happiness. Each month, she tackled one specific aspect of life — marriage, work, attitude, and so on — and during that month, she attempted to meet a handful of related resolutions she hoped would make her happier.

Her financial resolutions for July, for instance, were about money. Rubin is an “under-buyer”; she's frugal by nature. For this month, she wanted to indulge in a modest splurge, buy needful things, spend out (meaning to actually use the stuff she has), and give something up (Rubin stopped obsessing over office supplies).

Fortunately, the book isn't lame. Rubin's style is warm and engaging. Though The Happiness Project includes tons of info from research into happiness and well-being, this data isn't presented in a dull, dry way; it's neatly woven into Rubin's account of her day-to-day progress toward happiness (or lack thereof). She shares the research in casual prose, not in academic jargon.

Among my favorite findings, I bookmarked these:

  • “The most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they're happy and assume that you'll feel the same way.”
  • You can do anything you want, but you can't do everything you want. This insight is remarkably similarly to the one I had a couple of years ago, when I realized that I can buy anything I want, but can't buy everything I want.
  • “One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy. One of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.”
  • “Best is good, better is best.” In other words, the perfect is the enemy of the good. When you spend too much time pursuing the best, you're bound to be unhappy.
  • Money doesn't buy happiness the way good health doesn't buy happiness. When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it's not a problem, you don't think much about it. Both money and health contribute to happiness mostly in the negative; the lack of them brings much more unhappiness than possessing them brings happiness.”
  • I loved this tip from a reader of Rubin's blog: “[I] change my passwords to a goal that I've been working on, or an achievement I want. They become a constant reminder of my goals, my dreams, of what I want to achieve.”

The Happiness Project is filled with anecdotes: from Rubin's life, from the comments on her blog, and from the people she meets. These stories add a lot of color to the topics she covers, and help to show how complex happiness can be. For example, from the chapter on money, here's a story that made me laugh:

While I was thinking hard about the relationship between money and happiness, I struck up a conversation with a fellow guest at a bridal shower. I told her that I was trying to figure out ways to “Buy some happiness.” (As I explained the issue, it began to dawn on me, dimly, that I might be becoming a happiness bore.)

She became quite indignant at my suggestion. “That's so wrong!” she said. “Money can't buy happiness!”

“You don't think so?”

“I'm the perfect example. I don't make much money. A few years back, I took my savings and bought a horse. My mother and everyone told me I was crazy. But that horse makes me incredibly happy — even though I end up spending all my extra money on him.”

“But,” I said, confused, “money did make you happy. It makes you so happy to have a horse!”

“But I don't have any money,” she answered. “I spent it all.”

“Right, because you used it to buy a horse.”

She shook her head and gave up on me.

Rubin undertook her happiness project because she realized, “I wasn't as happy as I could be, and my life wasn't going to change unless I made it change.” This realization is so important. Too many folks sit back, waiting things for to improve. That's what I used to do with money. But it wasn't until I actually too charge of my own life that I was able to defeat debt and build wealth. And it wasn't until Rubin decided to be responsible for her own happiness that she was able to make the little changes that brough about increased well-being.

Making Resolutions

The section on “finding fun” — one of the subjects of chapter 5 (“May: Be Serious About Play”) — literally moved me to tears. As I read about Rubin's love of children's literature, how she rediscovered her passion for scrapbooking, and her general quest to make room in her life for fun, I realize that's something I've been missing. For the past few years, everything I've done has been very very Adult. I've reaped adult rewards for adult effort, but it hasn't been a whole lot of fun. I need to make room in my life to enjoy myself just for the sake of pleasure. So, that's one of my goals for the next few months: Find more fun.

But Rubin draws a distinction between goals and resolutions:

You hit a goal, but keep a resolution. “Run a marathon” makes a good goal. It's specific, easy to measure success, and once you've done it, you've done it. “Sing in the morning” and “Exercise better” are better cast as resolutions. 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.

As you know, I'm a fan of goals and, generally, I refuse to set resolutions. But I see Rubin's point. As a result, I've decided to set some resolutions of my own. I'll be tracking the following with Joe's Goals:

  • Eat real food (avoid processed food and excess sugar).
  • Be active (get regular exercise).
  • Avoid strong drinks (reduce intake of alcohol and caffeine).
  • Read for pleasure (make time to read comics and science fiction, etc).
  • Kiss Kris (be sweet and loving to my wife).
  • Write daily (focus on my calling).
  • Be tidy (I'm a slob by nature; this will be tough).
  • Purge Stuff (continue to reduce the Stuff in my life).
  • Be friendly (spend time with friends, and be amiable to people I meet).
  • Be true to myself (or, in other words, “be J.D.” instead of trying to be who I think other folks want me to be).

Some of these will be easier than others. I write nearly every day because I cannot help myself; I'm drawn to it. Tidiness? Real food? Being true to myself? These things will be tougher, but I really think they'll make me happy.

I'm tempted to say that The Happiness Project is one of the best books I've ever read, but I know that's just me engaging in hyperbole. Instead, it's probably better to say that this was the perfect book for me to read for where I am in life. It spoke to me. I can't say for sure that it will speak to you, but I'm willing to bet that for many GRS readers, a personal happiness project could lead to increased wealth — financial and otherwise.

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Chett @5k5k.org
Chett @5k5k.org
10 years ago

Good review J.D. I’m reading a book along the same lines called Gross National Happiness. Unlike the book you read, it is a little dry and packed full of statistics and research information, but it is still informative. One interesting point the book discusses is people don’t believe they need to be rich to be happy, they just want to have more money than most of the people they know. During one study mentioned respondents were asked would they like to earn $100,000 while their friends around them earned $200,000, or would they rather earn $50,000 while their friends only… Read more »

Sam
Sam
10 years ago

I read The Happiness Project in January, really enjoyed it, love the Happiness Project blog and the toolbox (which is a little buggy at times). Rubin, a Type A like myself, really spoke to me about being self directed and goal focused on happiness. For me, being happy or happier is a choice, something that I have to and want to work on each day. What I found was that little things, spending 10 minutes awake in bed snuggling with Mr. Sam, making our bed each morning, spending 15 minutes tidying up the house, 10 push ups, driving to work… Read more »

Ben Mordecai
Ben Mordecai
10 years ago

There is a Christian perspective on pursuing your own happiness called Christian Hedonism. Very interesting, and I agree with it:

http://bit.ly/bOZvTo

Molly On Money
Molly On Money
10 years ago

The book sound good and I can’t wait to read it BUT what really spoke to me in this article was your listing of goals. Making a resolution repels me too but I love goals-what the heck is the difference anyway?
Like Sam I find when I start the day with intention and doing the small things my day is happy and even the stressful things seem uneventful. It doesn’t happen every day and that’s what I’m working on now.

Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
Kent @ The Financial Philosopher
10 years ago

I imagine Gretchen Rubin learned much from her project but I also imagine that her happiness was not a result of learning and writing about happiness — it was more a result of doing something that she loved — writing. Also, being rich is not as much a function of money as it is a function of contentment — the realization that what you have now is enough. Contentment is wealth, contentment is true happiness. “We tend to forget that happiness doesn’t come as a result of getting something we don’t have, but rather of recognizing and appreciating what we… Read more »

Joseph | kickdebtoff
Joseph | kickdebtoff
10 years ago

Good Review JD! I however disagree with the bookmark #1 “The most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of action right now if they’re happy and assume that you’ll feel the same way.” If this is anything close to true, Rubin would not have quit her job since there are so many successful and happy lawyers. This is also to my opinion one big mistakes that most people make. We use other people as a mirror to reflect our goals… Read more »

sashie
sashie
10 years ago

Good review. I read the book and did not enjoy it, but I think when you said that it was the kind of book that speaks to you if you find it at the right time is really true. Thanks for the review.

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
10 years ago

You can do anything you want, but you can’t do everything you want.

Amen. Endless legions of people who have read one time management article claiming you can do it all and at last someone acknowledging reality.

beforewisdom
beforewisdom
10 years ago

“One of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy.”

A few years ago when I was in a foul mood I held a door open at a store for someone struggling with packages. Their gratitude stopped the funk for a few minutes.

Like a cool breeze on a humid day, it didn’t change the weather but it was a welcome break.

Money Reasons
Money Reasons
10 years ago

Sounds like a great book.

I recently read a great blog post in MBABriefs.com’s site called 5 ways to be happier guaranteed. I think it adds value to this post.

I usually don’t comment on post other websites, but his article goes hand in hand with this book review, and I believe it compliments it.

Thanks for posting those pictures from your trip! What a great experience! I’ll now heading over to check out your personal site to read more about your vacation! 🙂

Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
Budgeting in the Fun Stuff
10 years ago

What a timely post! One month ago I decided to try to be content with what I have – try to see the good things about every thing in my life. I am truly happy on a daily basis now. I appreciate my job, my husband and I are better than ever, I’ve been enjoying friends even more, I started my own blog, and I’ve been overreacting a lot less about little stuff that used to drive me nuts (like paw prints on our previously clean floor). Just being positive really does make your day better!

Denise
Denise
10 years ago

I read the book and liked it too. I especially liked that Gretchen decided to be happy in her current life – not on some tropical beach, and not making major changes in her life. Much more realistic for most of us. I also greatly connected with her when she mentioned her epiphany, that she wasn’t really unhappy or depressed, but instead suffering a general “malaise” as in “This is it? This is my life?” I think many of us are very blessed (and we know it), but still not generally happy – we just keep thinking we are missing… Read more »

Matt
Matt
10 years ago

Read the article from yesterday’s Sunday New York Times….I think she’s an empty grifter who as a very, very wealthy new yorker (whose “uncle Bob” happens to be Robert Rubin – one of the architects of the repeal of Glass Steagall law and the resulting meltdown of our banmking and economic systems….) has NOTHING to offer an ordinary American citizen – unless you are the kind of thinker who falls in for cults very, very easily …. Rubin is nothing more than a personality brand for whom this book is merely step one in the creation of her media brand… Read more »

Writingwapenname
Writingwapenname
10 years ago

Longtime listener, first time caller. Great. article. This is what sets you apart from all the other financial blogs & websites out there. It really inspired me not just to read the book, but to work to embrace happiness. I will pass it on to everyone I know!

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

Getting this for my husband! We really trust your recommendations. Your Money or Your Life had a big impact on both of us.

Brian
Brian
10 years ago

I really like the idea that more money can’t make you happy, but lack of money can make you miserable. One more reason to pay off the mortgage, or follow your money or your life. I think people always question the payoff of reduced risk investments, and maybe this is it.

DJ Wetzel
DJ Wetzel
10 years ago

Definitely going to check out the book. I think that there is a lot to be said for true happiness or contentment. Figuring out what truly makes you happy and content in life is probably one of the biggest assets you can have as a person.

elisabeth
elisabeth
10 years ago

Matt may be a little strong in his condemnation, but it is true that Rubin started from a very different place than most of us. It doesn’t appear that she had to give up anything else in her life when she quit her job to write, and that’s very different from most people who are contemplating a career change.
On the other hand, it seems she worked pretty hard on her project and her book etc, and probably many people could find something of use in her book/blog etc.

Michael Crosby
Michael Crosby
10 years ago

Gretchen’s happiness blog is part of my reader. I find her blog and especially Dennis Prager’s thoughts about happiness do indeed make me a happier person.

It’s almost as though we have a happiness muscle. The more we exercise it, the stronger it gets. One of my daily goals when walking my dog in the morning is to give thanks for this beautiful life, creation and day.

We are so blessed beyond our imagination.

Tyler Karaszewski
Tyler Karaszewski
10 years ago

I’ve been compiling a little list of my own “happiness tenets” in my head. I should write them down sometime and expound upon them. I’ve noticed that the more they develop, the more they sound to me like a Buddhist philosophy, but to be honest, I know very little about Buddhism, so I might be wrong. I’ve been thinking I should read a book on Buddhism to see how closely it actually resembles what I’ve been thinking of on my own. I’ve also noticed that my happiness tenets only work because I actually believe them, and they wouldn’t work otherwise.… Read more »

DreamChaser57
DreamChaser57
10 years ago

@ post #2 (Sam) – agreed sometimes just a little investment can = big payoff. my thing has been cooking new healthy meals – the wafting new aromas, curious new flavors – i actually set the table, DH and i said a blessing before our meal, i really savored that

@ post #13 (Matt) – I’m not sure how the author having a rich relative undermines her credibility in anyway. no one person can even be conceivably be responsible for this recession

Chett
Chett
10 years ago

Tyler,

Try “Zen in the Martial Arts.” It’s not a book completely about Buddhism, but it has a lot of information about how its’ principles apply to everyday life (and yes martial arts).

namesarehardtopick
namesarehardtopick
10 years ago

Interesting post, J.D. One thing to note though is that happiness may not be a goal of many people who are trying to live a fulfilled life. I believe Ms. Roosevelt stated something like “Happiness is not a goal, it’s a byproduct.” So, while I think this post highlights some of what concerns you (happiness), some may see that an over pursuit of happiness equates to misery. I’ll quote one of my former professors at Texas Tech from his book The New Man: “In the Western world we are deluded by the idea that you always have to feel good.… Read more »

Peg
Peg
10 years ago

Great review! If I hadn’t already read the book, I would really want to now. I agree with what you said, that this was the perfect book to read for where I am in my life. I finished reading a library copy of the book yesterday, and I liked it so much that I had to buy my own copy. I read a lot, but stopped buying books a few years ago, when I realized that I did not need to actually own a book to enjoy it. This book, and a few cookbooks, are the exception. I read the… Read more »

me
me
10 years ago

get rich slowly should not be looked at from a purely economical view it seems. But yes happiness is more important than actually being rich. The idea of setting goals is not new, but it is still something I haven’t tried yet. I should really try it sometime. The book is probably nothing for me, but if I can find it in the library here I will definitely give it a shot. Having monthly themes seems like a great idea, more people should do that.. thematize their life, it’ll provide a nice new angle every month. Never time for being… Read more »

guinness416
guinness416
10 years ago

I finished this book recently too and am doing my best to start acting on what I learned in it. It really is very good – probably the best “blog to book” read I’ve checked out yet. Gretchen is an excellent writer and while many of her actual goals would differ a lot from my own it’s really interesting to see someone map out their own “happiness project” from A to Z. I don’t have much more than that to add to your review, but would urge others to give the book a look.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

#24 Peg– Wow, you’re right about that NYTimes review. It definitely reeks of “easy for her to say,” and makes me not want to get the book. I’ll trust JD over the NYTimes reviewer though.

Just because someone’s life is different or “easier” doesn’t mean there isn’t value to be gotten from her writing.

Leah
Leah
10 years ago

I’m really stoked to get the book from the library. For those who are on the fence (especially because of that NYTimes review), I’d suggest you go visit the blog. Rubin never comes across as high-and mighty; in fact, I had no idea about her economic status! She is very down to earth on the blog. I’ve been looking forward to this book for ages, and I should have it in the next week or two. I don’t think we need to be happy all the time, but there are definitely little frustrations that we need not have. I’ve followed… Read more »

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

I do have to say one major thing…

Having done it both ways, I am MUCH happier when I DON’T make my bed every day. Freedom from having to care about the damn bed makes the bedroom a much cozier and more comfy place. But then, I like a bit of clutter… seems much more homey (so long as the kitchen and bathrooms are clean, I’m a happy camper).

Laurie
Laurie
10 years ago

I guess I’m in the minority, but I’ll chime in anyway. I think to go about life with your main purpose as pursuing your own personal happiness indicates self-centeredness and a lack of maturity. I’ve read the book you review here and have read her blog, and both are really what led me to this conclusion. I think it’s far better to try to live a life that is in line with your beliefs and that is authentic and right. If you do that, happiness will be a by-product. But happiness as a goal — I disagree.

MRL
MRL
7 years ago
Reply to  Laurie

Perhaps because I have a different personality type, her calclulated and seemingly self-centered approach to finding happiness was a great turn-off for me. In fact, I was almost certain that the book had to end with her more miserable than when she began (and possibly divorced.) The book lacked depth of emotion and insight. Happiness is something that comes from within, and requires honest self-reflection and a sense of appreciation, gratitude, and humility. I never noticed any of these traits in Gretchen while reading her book. I can’t imagine anyone this book might be helpful to, besides Gretchen herself, if… Read more »

chacha1
chacha1
10 years ago

I check in with Gretchen’s blog from time to time … my favorite post by far concerned a project she did with a friend, a photo book of their kids inspired by a book J. Barrie did last century. Happiness is the excellent by-product of being in a position to choose what you do, when and where you do it, and with whom you do it; of, in short, choice. Which, as we all know by now, is a by-product of financial freedom. Nicole: LOL but still, I gotta make the bed. o/w there is a little pile of cats’… Read more »

KittyBoarder
KittyBoarder
10 years ago

My Dad gave me an advice on how to be happy and I think he is right on:
1) You need a career that you are truly enjoy doing. If you won lottery, you’d hesitate if you wanna quit.

2) You have a loving family and group of close friends

3) You have a hobby or two that you love.

And to accomplish all of that, you need to have enough money. Not a lot, just enough.

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

chacha1– Cathair is comfy! And it blends in better with our sheets than the bedspread. Our cats have clawcaps (http://www.softpaws.com/) so no worries about toe pickings.

Amy
Amy
10 years ago

Thanks for the head’s up on Joe’s list (I missed your first post about it, obviously) — it’s as if it was designed for me.

Sierra Black
Sierra Black
10 years ago

Now I’m all excited to read this book. It was already on my list, but your review pushed it right to the top. I was also struck by your insight about buying anything, but not everything.

You can do anything, but not everything has been a motto of mine since I was a teenager. Applying it to purchasing choices is a nice little light bulb for me!

De Mott
De Mott
10 years ago

Weekend before last, I read this book in one sitting while fighting off a cold. It was engaging enough that I found it hard to put it down – and now I’m reading it again more slowly.

I’ve started applying some of her ideas, and the one that seems most helpful to me is the resolution chart. Just thinking about not being able to write in that X makes me behave almost every time. I can also relate pretty strongly to her 12 Commandments – most particularly Be Gretchen, Identify the Problem, and Do It Now.

Ken Siew
Ken Siew
10 years ago

I definitely agree that the ultimate goal is happiness. Money is important in the sense that it helps us to stay comfortable and secure so that we can focus on what really matters instead of worrying about the next meal all the time.

I do agree that it’s more important to be happy than to be rich, as much as I want to say they’re both important. There’s happiness that can be bought by money, and there’s happiness that can’t. If we have both, we’ll live a truly rich life (both personally and financially).

Great post JD! Thx.

David/Yourfinances101
David/Yourfinances101
10 years ago

“Best is good, better is best” I find most applicable to purchasing items.

You can chase around the “best” price out there forever and never find it–better to find one of the best prices out there and make your move.

Just my two cents

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

This is the story about a whale… No!

J.D. Roth
J.D. Roth
10 years ago

Nicole, is that a Moby Dick reference? I’m confused!

Nicole
Nicole
10 years ago

No, Ren and Stimpy! (Though perhaps the Ren and Stimpy reference is to Moby Dick)

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QqGsxwQpa_g

Perhaps it is after your time…

I could have gone with, “I’ll teach your grandmother to suck eggs”… I can’t be the only person who has had this stuck in her head since yesterday. C’mon children of the early ’90s.

John Steed
John Steed
10 years ago

While some of our “happiness” is a function of our material wealth (or lack thereof), health and other circumstances, I find that true contentment and deep inner peace comes from my attitude/outlook on life. I am reminded of the first part of the Serenity Prayer by Reinhold Niebuhr: God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change; courage to change the things I can; and wisdom to know the difference. Living one day at a time, Enjoying one moment at a time. (read the full prayer at http://www.cptryon.org/prayer/special/serenity.html) Focus on what is truly important – the people… Read more »

Tracy
Tracy
10 years ago

J.D., thanks for your take on goals vs. resolutions. Unlike you, I am not so good at setting goals — which makes it difficult to achieve them! But I have always been leery of resolutions because they seemed like something too easy to dismiss. Much like Rubin’s argument for happiness itself, I guess the key to a resolution’s worth is in the level of intention and devotion given to it. Perhaps if I consider resolutions to be micro-goals, to be achieved on a daily basis, I might approach them with more sincerity. With practice, I could work my way up… Read more »

Nick1254367
Nick1254367
10 years ago

Good book! I completely agree. However, I think that “happiness” is a tricky word. I had a shot at trying to define it in a more “scientific” or “objective” way, despite it being a subjective feeling:
What is happiness?

I would love to hear your thoughts!

Thank you,
Nick

finally frugal
finally frugal
10 years ago

Interesting NYT article about Ms. Rubin is here: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/28/fashion/28rubin.html?pagewanted=1

Kim
Kim
7 years ago

I was interested to read Rubin’s book before I read this…

http://www.amazon.com/gp/aw/review/006158326X/R150R3ZQQ7M81I/ref=mw_dp_cr?cursor=3&sort=rd

Now…not so much.

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