Book Review: Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project


Now for book three in the self-improvement books series!

A lot of people have criticised The Happiness Project as a kind of First World Problems book and there is some validity in this criticism. Gretchen Rubin is an educated, wealthy New Yorker who is fortunate enough to have a loving, close-knit family, a couple of great careers (lawyering <—yep, I totally made up that word — and writing) under her belt, and, it would seem, a great deal of of free time in which to pursue her dream projects. Even I felt myself balking a little at a few sections of the book where I do find myself wondering at Rubin’s incredibly lucky life.

Nevertheless, putting aside what seems to be quite a charmed life, Rubin seems like a very lovely, decent person and I don’t think it’s right either if we begrudge her her good luck or slight her for being brave enough to share her personal observations with us in a candid and entertaining manner. For one thing, Rubin has also wrote about the health problems her husband and sister are encountering, and, as John Watson says, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” In other words, people who seem to us to be leading a charmed life might not necessarily be having as easy a time as you think they are, so don’t judge unless you’ve walked a mile in their shoes. For another thing, Rubin is being honest and writing her experience as it is, and that makes more sense than if she were to try to write from the point of view of say, a lesser well-off person when she clearly isn’t that sort of person. It’s sort of like Lena Dunham’s response to criticism that Girls isn’t diverse enough, that she was writing based on her own experiences and wanted to avoid trying to write from a different perspective that she didn’t feel she could trust herself to write authentically about and which might end up as nothing more than mere tokenism.

The Happiness Project, as trivial as its subject may seem, is still a NYT bestseller so, despite its First World Problem theme, it has definitely touched a note with plenty of people – as it did with me and a friend when we spotted the title in an airport bookshop in Peru and scanned the blurb on the book jacket. This means there are plenty of people out there who can relate to this issue and can derive some benefit from the exploration of the subject matter, as insignificant as it may seem in the wider scheme of things (though in the book, Rubin will be pointing out to you that seeking out one’s happiness is not necessarily as selfish or as negligent as you may think it is). And let’s face the facts, who among us isn’t seeking happiness in our lives and would like to learn more about who we can more successful pursue this?

Rubin essentially spends a year methodically test-driving all paths to happiness as told by philosophers, thinkers, psychologists, writers, statesmen and scientific research, and chronicling her experiences and her insights. Her dedication definitely shows through the book –  besides being incredibly well-researched, the book also offers the readers plenty of practical tips on finding happiness and self-acceptance as well.

Though Rubin might indeed have a charmed life that I can’t identify with, I can find myself identifying with plenty of her foibles, learning from her insights and nodding at many of the tips she gives for pursuing happiness. What she writes about ‘boomerang errands’, where you attempt to get one errand done only to find that errand merely leads to another errand and yet another errand, is completely true. Housework completely feels like that! It is also true that it is hard to be happy and uncomplaining all the time, and that people who embody these characteristics often don’t get the recognition they deserve for this.

I’ve also written earlier about Rubin’s honesty and I think most readers would appreciate the candid honesty in her book, such as when she writes of recognising that she was becoming a ‘happiness bully’ or when she realises she is yelling at her bewildered and alarmed daughter.

Finally, when you reach the end of Rubin’s book, you realise this isn’t just it. She also has a fairly comprehensive website packed full of information which connects with her book, her manifesto and happiness truths, downloads and quizzes and charts, as well as the additional books she has written as sequels to The Happiness Project.

To sum it up, not everyone can identify with the kind of charmed life Rubin has. But that won’t stop us from being able to take away from her insights, her stories and her tips – so my advice is to get what you can out of it and enjoy the read while you’re at it!

Stay tuned for the fourth book in my self-improvement review series, Love Your Enemies: How to Break the Anger Habit and Be A Whole Lot Happier by Sharon Salzberg and Robert Thurman.

In the meantime, check out the first couple of books I’ve reviewed:

The Defining Decade by Meg Jay.Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert.


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