Reading 2012: The Happiness Project

February 1, 2012

As I started into 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, I had an overwhelming moment in which I suspected I was about to be disappointed by the book. Thankfully, I don’t put down a book at the first sign I might not like it (though I might pause indefinitely), and by the middle of the first chapter I was really enjoying the book. That trend continued until I finished the book, at which point I was mildly saddened that it was over. (But since the book was about happiness, after all, I knew that I couldn’t remain sad for too long. ;))

Part memoir, part positive psychology, part autobiography, part home organizing tips, and part personal productivity, The Happiness Project is a happy mix of Gretchen Rubin’s thoughts and experiments with her “pursuit of happiness.”

Gretchen Rubin wasn’t living in abject poverty, suffering from chronic depression, or going through a major life trauma when she decided to begin her “happiness project.” On the contrary, she was fairly successful in life, in a happy monogamous marriage, had two young daughters, and was not facing any major life crises at the moment. Yet, even at that point in life she considered that she could likely be living life in a way that left her feeling more fulfilled, and set about to pursue that goal over the space of a year, with one month given to focusing on a specific area to improve.

The Project

Gretchen began by categorizing and identifying the areas she wanted to improve:

Social Bonds:
1. marriage
2. parenthood
3. friends
4. eternity
5. attitude
Work and Leisure:
6. work
7. play
8. passion
9. energy
10. money
11. mindfulness
12. The final month (try to keep the resolutions for each area)
In addition to these 12 areas which Rubin planned to work on, she also gave herself “12 commandments” to apply to each of them:
1. Be Gretchen
2. Let it go
3. Act the way I want to feel
4. Do it now
5. Be polite and be fair
6. Enjoy the process
7. Spend out
8. identify the problem
9. lighten up
10. do what ought to be done
11. no calculation
12. there is only love
The meaning and specifics of the goals and commandments are elaborated in the book. Rubin decided to use January  to focus on “energy,” as she felt if she focused on energy first it would help her as she pursued her other goals. But by energy, she meant a good bit more than just eating energy bars and exercising. Eating well and exercising were part of her improvements for the month, but other energy improvements included de-cluttering her home, simplifying her lifestyle, getting enough sleep each night, and drinking a lot of water. Likewise, each of the goal areas was a multi-faceted set of goals that included many specific, related resolutions.

Helpfulness of the Book

I found this book to be packed with practical wisdom, as well as specific tips. It can be read quickly, but also used as a guide of sorts if you want to follow a similar resolution/goal-setting in preparation for a new year or simply a new phase of life. (I hope to review this book again as I progress in goal-setting and planning throughout the year and the beginning of each year.)
In her discussion on simplification, Gretchen shared a friend’s idea of trying to leave an empty shelf in her closets–it just made things feel simpler and cleaner. I found that I’d already done this in some areas of our house and realized how that it had contributed to my “feeling” more simplistic and organized. So I found a couple of other shelves and did this, too. (Of course, there are going to be spaces where this is impractical.)
Gretchen also emphasized a thought stemming from a quote by Voltaire: “Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” As simple as it is, and as much as we already are familiar with this, this was helpful to me. (Some may be familiar with the popular home decorating blog, Nesting Place, and her mantra of “It Doesn’t Have to Be Perfect to Be Beautiful.” This is a very similar concept applied to all of life.) While reading this, I was reminded of a particular project I’ve been putting off because I’d wanted to do it perfectly. I’d been meaning to make laminated, personalized labels for my girls’ ikea basket drawers. Ideally, they’d have a photo of them holding the item that goes in it and attach to each bin with velcro. Somehow, I haven’t gotten around to that, but I realized that that should stop me from writing down the item on a piece of paper and taping them to the drawers until I can make a more beautiful label. It’s been working great for several weeks, and we all know where the socks and little girl underwear go now.
In each of Gretchen’s goal areas, I found something that was personally helpful to me, and I assume most readers will be the same. Other times, someone may read a book like this and realize that someone else’s approach is not going to work for them. However, even in such situations, it is often inspiring simply to read how someone else’s was life improved by action-taking. Whether or not you declutter your closet like Gretchen, reading that she did it and the way it helped her have more energy might be enough motivation to inspire you to action in the area of organization. Or, that there is a way to better improve your parenting, your marriage, or handling your finances.


Like some have said in their criticisms of the book, Gretchen was not in a traumatic season of life when she ventured out on this project. In this way, the happiness she pursues is a happiness of life satisfaction, as opposed to happiness found during difficult times. And yet, the two are intrinsically tied together as she develops her theme of happiness. In some areas, she does focus on learning contentment, and that could very well provide a helpful framework should her life be directed through life traumas. Though there were aspects I couldn’t fully embrace, overall found it a very positive and helpful book.
Religion and Happiness
At the time of writing this book, Gretchen Rubin was a self-professed agnostic. In her happiness project, she explored teachings from multiple religions, including Biblical Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, and the teachings of men like Ben Franklin, to name a few. Certainly, I’m not an agnostic, and I am a follower of Jesus, so that did frame the way in which I read the book.
Some of the same Christians who would soak up books like 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Getting Things Done, or a host of other secular leadership and productivity books might be skeptical of this book because it contains “happiness” in its title, as there is sometimes a concern of learning about happiness from a secular source. However, even for those with such a skepticism, I believe this book holds many of the helpful concepts found in the aforementioned titles, and even the “happiness concept” seems to be wrapped in common grace.

You Might Also Like

  • Liz February 6, 2012 at 8:51 am

    I love this book! It seems so basic that if something is bothering me (ie. disorganized closets) I should try to change it and yet this book was full of “aha” moments for me. I think the biggest thing I took away from the book is to be more deliberate about how my day will play out. Great synopsis! Loving your blogs btw


    • Keren February 7, 2012 at 9:35 am

      Thanks! Glad you enjoyed it, too! I hope to go back through it again later in the year.

  • Rhythms and Practices: Making Memories from the Long Days | Keren Threlfall February 7, 2012 at 9:08 am

    […] reading The Happiness Project, I encountered the story of a father who was repeatedly distressed that his small children were […]

  • Simple Inspiration: Why Simplify? | Keren Threlfall March 22, 2012 at 5:10 am

    […] reading Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project earlier this year, I was somewhat surprised at one big way Gretchen set about working towards her goal of having more […]

  • Don’t Let A Perfect Christmas Ruin A Good Christmas | Keren Threlfall December 13, 2012 at 5:02 am

    […] Rubin highlighted this aphorism (borrowed from Voltaire) in her books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, both of which are helpful tools in establishing good goal setting for a new […]

  • Top 10 Books of 2012 | Keren Threlfall January 3, 2013 at 5:10 am

    […] glad I read it early in the year and reaped benefits through the year. I wrote a review of the book here, and reference it many times throughout the […]

  • What Are You Waiting for? The Next 30 Days | Keren Threlfall January 18, 2013 at 5:05 am

    […] is a concept that Gretchen Rubin uses and recommends in her books The Happiness Project and Happier at Home. She lists several areas of change she wants to make, and then chooses just […]

  • 14 Books I Want to Read in 2014 (And 5 Books to Reread) January 8, 2014 at 1:56 pm

    […] Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun (Gretchen Rubin) (previous review here) 5. King’s Cross: The Story of the World in the Life of Jesus (Timothy Keller) (previous […]