Gretchen Rubin is rather thorough. She decides to organize her own happiness project. She dives into lots of books on the subjects and decides on things she could do to increase her happiness. Her systematic approach is impressive, every month, for one year, she tries out different things to see what it does to her levels of happiness.
She’s not miserable when she starts, she’s not depressed, she has a law degree, she seems to be very well connected, her husband didn’t just leave her for a 20 something hardbody, she is definitely not strapped for cash, doesn’t seem to have gone through any severe emotional trauma, did not serve two tours in Iraq, didn’t lose a leg or an arm there, she was never gangraped as far as we know, she was never homeless, etc. The worst aspect of her life is that her husband has hepathitis and is almost certain to have a failing liver at some point in his life, but it’s all under control so far. In short, you would assume she’s already quite happy. She’s isn’t apparently, and there’s no harm in trying to find out how to get more happiness. It’s a human drive to always want a little bit more.
People sort of attack her for ‘indulging’ in a first world project such as this. You can guess the arguments: how can you do this when so many children are starving? Her answer is quite good: happy people give more, make other people happy, have more energy to focus on others. She is unperturbed by these critics and sticks to her project.
A good ‘trick’ she discovers is keeping score of virtues you want to develop or live by. She gets the idea from Benjamin Franklin. You draw up a list of qualities or virtues you want to have and each night you check if you stuck to them. You can see Franklin’s virtues in the picture.
She also has a list of personal rules she lives by or tries to live by. All things that Gretchen Rubin and I have in common. Even as a child I was sort of obsessed with making a rulebook for myself that would make me feel easier about my life. I never quite got there and I’m still adapating them. Some things have been become written in stone though. Such as the six human needs.
The author discovers several things about happiness. Her biggest insights are pointing towards these six human needs as formulated by Tony Robbins, only she never discovers all six.
I would say, based on this books and many others, you become happier by growing, learning things (growth) , a certain form of control over your life and daily surroundings (certainty), having a little fun (variety), interacting with people who share your interests (connection), helping others (contribution) and by feeling good about what you do in life (significance). She basically stumbles upon the six human needs, without spelling them out.
The book is well-written, though the style is nothing special, it makes for easy reading. Something odd is that she NEVER MENTIONS SEX. Gretchen Rubin is either asexual, which is fine, or a terrible prude, or a marketing genius and sells these books mainly to prude, puritanian America (very likely) or doesn’t want to embarass prude family members. At some point in the book she has a project in which she picks up three magazines, blind. To discover new things. When she picks up a porn magazine, she instantly puts it back. She does go home with a magazine about horse breeding. If you’re going to pick up three random magazines, don’t put the porn mag back. She might have actually discovered something new.
I was sort of underwhelmed by the whole book, but I was prepared for her ‘goody goody the worst that can happen in my life is that my husband doesn’t respond when I’m sharing my day with him attitude’. I’ve read one of her other books, ‘Better than before’, but still, amputating the entire aspect of sex in a happiness project is a pretty invasive procedure. I think the majority of people need at least a little sex to feel happier. It’s sort of a big deal. Well, perhaps she ranked it with food and breathing air, just basic needs not worth mentioning.
All in all it’s certainly not a bad book, her systematic approach is energizing, I think you can find quite a bit of inspiration here to launch your own happiness project. It did one thing for me: it stopped making me feel guilty about wanting to be happy even though as we speak there are refugee children drowning off the coasts of Greece and Italy, as if my being sad saves anything or anyone.
After reading some of the one star reviews I feel stupid for not doing some research on Gretchen Rubin, apparently she’s even better connected than I thought and she’s not just rich, but fabulously rich… This does put her book into a different perspective. She could have dug much deeper, and she could have talked a little bit more about her need for approval, even though she already has everything. It’s still not a bad book, but I doubt she’s being entirely honest. The whole thing seems to be very clever marketing by someone who has all the means and did everything to get the attention she so clearly craves. Nobody launches a book like this if there’s not a much deeper sadness somewhere, something she doesn’t talk about in the book. She keeps saying ‘Be Gretchen’ to herself all throughout the book, but we learn very little about who Gretchen really is, apart from the fact that she is a systematic person, well organised, and loves to achieve and win ‘gold stars’. As other reviewers have mentioned: it would be very interesting to know why she is the way she is…
I really want to copy paste a review from Goodreads here:
I don’t know which is stranger – that people like this book, or that it was written in the first place. It came into being because Gretchen Rubin, a woman with a bizarrely charmed life, decided to spend a year devoting each month to a “theme” designed to make herself happier and then write a book about it. The whole thing smacks not only of a calculated stunt, but also of the sort of “list” approach she used for her breathtakingly trite book on Churchill. Regardless, any reasonable person would wonder why this woman was worrying about how to be “happier” than she already was with her “soul mate” husband, two healthy children, a family she likes, in-laws* she likes, plenty of free time, and money coming out the wazoo. The obvious question is: “If she wants to be happier, why doesn’t she do more service?” The question you’ll also probably ask, repeatedly, is “What could a smug perfectionist with an easy life possibly teach me?” Honestly, I have no idea, unless it hasn’t already occurred to you to…..are you sitting down?…..stash your crap in file boxes instead of leaving it strewn all over, and stop nagging your husband. Other previously unmined gems of insight: “You can’t change others,” “Exercise makes you feel better,” “Be friendly,” “Do things you like to do,” “Be grateful,” and, my personal favorite, “Money can buy happiness.”
Even better, every ten sentences or so she inserts – not to be confused with “works in” – a quotation that sounds like the first entry in its category from The Big Book of Quotations. Based on the self-congratulatory tone she doesn’t quite have the skill to avoid, I’d guess she’s deeply invested in showing she is Educated, and has Done Research. I think you’re also supposed to surmise she’s really smart, based on the number of references to editing the Yale Law Review or clerking for a Supreme Court Justice. What she never mentions, yet you can also surmise, is the fact that money is no object. Neither is time.
While being rich and leisured doesn’t disqualify her from having wisdom, it does place her situation in context. She’s not struggling to find happiness amidst real trials – illness, poverty, loneliness, relatives who drive you bonkers – she just wants to be “happier.” What’s amazing is that with all her research, she doesn’t come up with anything profound. At best, her paper-thin “insights” are merely summaries of other people’s research. And yet, inexplicably, a couple of women in my book group actually liked it! These women don’t sit around wondering if they’re happy enough – they probably wonder if they’re faithful enough and doing enough good in the world. So what did they find valuable?? A couple of them said that the organization chapter prompted them to clean out closets, which is always good, but there are at least a hundred books on de-cluttering that were written by people who were already aware of file boxes. (I know this because my sister has bought all those books and occasionally gives them away as presents, unless you’re really lucky and she just throws your stuff out without being asked.) So the organization chapter struck me as a bit silly. But not as silly as turning to Nietzsche for tips on happiness. And I think that indicates the biggest flaw – her approach is entirely secular. Joy and fulfillment (a bit deeper and more lasting than “happiness”) come through doing good and, eventually, becoming good. Every now and then she stumbles as if by accident upon versions of the Golden Rule Lite, but, naturally, in her eyes the point of being nice to others is to make herself happier.
*Father-in-law is Robert Rubin, Clinton’s Assistant to the President for Economic Policy. He later served on Citigroup’s board as Senior Counselor. During his eight years at Citigroup, shareholders suffered losses of more than 70%; Rubin earned over $126 million.