Sunday, February 19, 2012

Getting Control Over Your Life

I hadn’t planned on reading Gretchen Rubin’s book 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 previously read Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment by Tal-Ben Shahar and Eric Weiner’s book The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World and had thought two books about happiness were more than enough for me. Plus, there is Penelope Trunk's post where Penelope writes she wasn't a huge fan of the book and that:
Gretchen writes about her life and Gretchen's life is not all that interesting.
What changed my mind?
I read "The key to happiness is to know yourself" a post on Gretchen Rubin’s blog also called The Happiness Project. Since self-knowledge is one of my goals for 2012, I decided perhaps reading the book would offer suggestions on how to attain more self-knowledge.

What is The Happiness Project about?
One day while riding a city bus Gretchen, a married mother of two, realizes, "Time is passing, and she is not focusing on the things that really matter." Instead she is suffering from midlife malaise – a recurrent sense of discontent and almost a feeling of disbelief “Can this be me?” She also realizes she needs to work on happiness now while things are good because one day that phone call will come. Her husband suffers from Hepatitis C, a potentially fatal disease that attacks the liver. Eventually, he will develop cirrhosis and need a kidney transplant.

This moment evolved into The Happiness Project. Inspired by Ben Franklin's resolution chart Gretchen selects 12 different happiness resolutions, focusing on a different subject each month. The book chronicles this project; what she tried, what she learned, what worked and what didn’t.

My Thoughts:
Since I’ve been reading Gretchen's blog for some time, I felt the book didn't offer anything new especially in the area of self-knowledge. Plus Penelope was right; at times Gretchen’s story wasn’t very interesting. Then in the midst of reading, I received my own phone call bearing bad news. No longer able to concentrate on the book I had an epiphany. More happiness isn't what I needed, or even what I wanted. What I need to work on is confidence and strength, so when the next phone call arrives I can carry on without falling apart. On further review, I realized this was Gretchen's goal as well:
One of my main goals for my happiness project was to prepare myself for adversity, to develop the self-discipline and the habits to deal with a bad thing when it happened. (Pg. 136)
Gretchen's research revealed that change and novelty are key elements to happiness which are also the elements needed to attain self-confidence. Gretchen's husband offered his thoughts on the project:
I think this happiness project is all about trying to get more control over your life. (Pg. 289)
Was that true? Gretchen responds with:
Perhaps. The feeling of control is an essential element of happiness-a better predictor of happiness than, say, income.  Having a feeling of autonomy of being able to choose what happens in your life of how you spend your time is crucial.  Identifying and following my resolutions had made me feel far more in control of my time, my body, my actions, my surroundings, and even my thoughts.  Getting control of my life was definitely an aspect of my happiness project, and a greater feeling of control gave me a major boost in happiness. (Page 289.)
Bottom Line:
The book though not perfect isn't a complete waste of time.  If you are interested in getting more control over your life, reading the book could give you the incentive to start your own project.  If nothing else you may glean a couple of little nuggets like if you want more sleep it is best not to go to bed wearing socks and that the amount of time you smile during a conversation has a direct effect on how friendly you are perceived to be.

Is there a happiness project in my future?
Gretchen had her epiphany in April. She completed her resolution chart just in time for January 1st.  This is after spending months researching and reading about happiness.  "Happiness" is Gretchen's passion and her full-time job.  I had set a goal for myself to spend January researching and writing about self-knowledge, February's topic was to be communication. Here it is mid-February and I've accomplished almost nothing. So no there is not a happiness project in my immediate future. But I can spend the remaining months of the year researching self-discovery and what it will take to get control over my life.

Have you read the book? If so what were your thoughts?

If you enjoyed this post you may also like:
Does Happiness Have a Set Point?
Jane Pauley Gives Practical Inspiration


  1. I liked this book quite a bit when I read it last year, I think. I'm a sucker for the kind of book that shows people actively going about changing their lives -- however mundane -- and so this one hit those buttons. I'm not sure a happiness project is for me either, but it's fun to think about.

  2. Kim,
    I remember reading your review last year and it definitely put this book on my radar. What stood out was how it motivated you to put some of her resolutions into play like organizing your apartment. I wonder if I would have read this book when I had more time for a happiness project if I would have enjoyed it more.

  3. Never read it, but I do follow Gretchen on Twitter and FB. I have to agree with Penelope - she does have a kind of boring way of talking about her life. Even her Pinterest page is dull.

  4. I couldn't get through it. I cringed every time she complained about her husband. My husband, otoh, read the whole thing and got something out of it.

  5. Very nice review, Savvy. As a natural grouch and pessimist this book never really appealed to me. What I find interesting (from your comments) is that people seem to find her boring and yet still read her stuff and follow her on social media? I don't get it. Do you?

    p.s. I can't keep the easy resolutions like, you know, not eating like a pig right before I go to bed. Nebulous resolutions like "being happier" would REALLY be beyond me! :)

  6. Heidi,
    I follow Gretchen on Twitter too, but don’t include her on any of my lists. I don’t think I’ve ever read her tweets. I just looked at a few of them and you are right they are dull. I think she should stick to writing blog posts which seem to be more her niche. To date I have avoided Pinterest. I don’t need another reason to waste time on-line.

    I forgot to mention in my post Gretchen is working on a new book called “Happiness at Home” and Penelope is writing a book called “Slave to Happiness” about why Americans increasingly choose interest over contentment. Go figure.

    Nicole & Maggie,
    I didn’t like her complaining about her husband or her kids either. She came off seeming like a nag with a bit of a temper. I think her ideas worked best in a blog format rather than a book.

    I know your taste in NF well enough to know this would not be a book for you. I even thought of you while reading it – CR would not like this one. I’ve never been much for resolutions either – don’t know what I was thinking. (I can’t even keep the small ones – stop stuffing printouts of CR’s Tuesday articles between accounting reports – so I can read throughout the day.)

    Interesting question on why people read someone’s stuff and follow them on social media even if they think they are boring. Not my commenter’s of course, but other people. Here is my take:

    - Gretchen’s book was and maybe still is on the NY Times Bestseller list. Many bloggers believe they are one post away from becoming the next Julie Powell. Gretchen has achieved this dream. By following her and reading her stuff they too might figure out how it is done.

    - No one wants to post an honest negative review anymore. Instead they spin their reviews to make books sound better than they are or don’t post them at all. They are more concerned about affiliate income and obtaining free review copies than writing honest opinions. That is why I read blogs like Citizen Reader and Penelope Trunk. I want to read the truth.

    - Then there is the Facebook effect. Everyone follows everyone on Facebook whether they know or even like them, so they appear to be more popular than they are. Then they spend hours looking at touched up photos and reading exaggerated posts ‘til they feel bad about themselves. I like to refer to Facebook as the modern day “Holiday Letter” only now we receive them every time we turn on our computer.

  7. That could be -- her project is so expansive, it can seem almost over the top or impossible to achieve. I know at this moment in my life, I'd have no time for it, but I think back when I read it things were a little more calm with work and whatnot. I hadn't thought of that before!

  8. I have been wanting to read this book. Thanks for this reminder.

  9. Kim,
    In rereading this review I think I may have been too harsh. I think about this book often and know that it has influenced my life and this blog. January is such a lousy month for me, anything that reminds me of how little time I have makes me cranky.

  10. Chasing Joy,
    My pleasure.