I picked up The Happiness Project last year at a garage sale. It’s a brilliant title, I’d seen the book around, and who doesn’t want to be happier?
It’s like giving away free money. Yes, please!
Despite the alluring concept, I didn’t like the book at first. Gretchen Rubin is our author/hero, and she’s seemingly got it all. A pretty happy marriage with decently well-behaved kids, a job as a professional writer (that can happen, apparently #raginglyjealous), comfortable accommodations in uptown Manhattan.
It’s not like Rubin was scrambling to make rent or juggling four jobs or caring for a disabled parent.
If she’s not in the 1%, she’s in the 2%. If she had a bad day–her croissants were served at room temperature, her valet left only 3/4 a tank of gas in the Mercedes–she could always cry herself to sleep on her gigantic pile of money.
Having the time and means to explore routes to a higher plateau of happiness came across as blatantly gratuitous, like collecting Rembrandts or digging out a third swimming pool on the grounds of your Italian villa.
Also, Rubin struck me as a perpetual perfectionist who can’t enjoy what she has, incapable of relaxing. It’s a vibe I found everywhere in the first half of my life on the East Coast, and just thinking about it today injects a totally avoidable level of stress into my life. Topping it off, Rubin didn’t really have any expertise in the field of happiness (which I imagined to be sun-blissed and full of uncut wheat and picnics), hadn’t conducted longitudinal studies, and was pretty much winging it.
In the first twenty pages, I could’ve put the book down. (I do that a lot. Time is precious.)
The payoff kept me going. And I’m glad I did. Man, Rubin’s honest. She tells you what she likes and doesn’t, she owns up when she was rude or reactive. She reminded me that life for everybody is full of countless struggles, from getting your kids not to punch each other to stoking the cauldron of love with your partner when you’re busy with a million other things. She called out what worked for others but just didn’t work for her, she let herself “be Gretchen” and listen to soft rock over jazz, despite the loss in culture points. She was rigorous and methodical, dedicating each month of the year into areas to explore like friendship, work and leisure.
She owned it.
When I read The Happiness Project, my life was pretty good. I lived in the gorgeous Bay Area, had an interesting job, had a cool girlfriend and a wonderful friend network, my health. I considered myself pretty happy.
But could I be happier? Absolutely. My family relationships needed strengthening. My brain hungered for fresh meat. And the girlfriend…well, there were issues. (More on that later.)
Rubin’s book made a dent. I think of it out of the blue–not so much any particular lessons so much as her approach. Be honest. Try things and track them. Let myself “be Matt.” And I still apply my favorite takeaway from her book: tidy up the house before going to bed. As Rubin promised, it’s an oddly calming way to wind down after a crazy day–and when you wake up, the house is tolerable.
Rubin’s gone on to create an empire, and it’s well-earned and worth checking out. My favorite part is her 1-minute podcasts. Those, I can actually get to!
Her candid, thoughtful approach and commitment to self-experimentation book were pivotal to inspire my own User Manual project. She’s easily one of the biggest influences I found out there.
Thank you, Gretchen!