Why “The Happiness Project” Made Me Unhappy

I recently finished reading Gretchen Rubin’s 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.  

It’s all there in the subtitle, really.  Except that Rubin’s book is more about how she really, really likes cleaning closets (her own and other peoples’), and less about Aristotle.

I’ve never thought of myself as a reader of self-help.  According to one of my favorite author-philosophers, “there is no more ridiculed genre in the literary canon.” According to this great review and history of the genre (by one of my favorite self-help authors, no less), I’m a typical self-help reader: relatively well-educated, relatively well-off, and relatively female.

Is self-help particularly American?  Particularly female?  Was it invented by Ben Franklin, or did it originate with ancient Greek tenets of self-knowledge and improvement?  Is self-help the philosophy of the 21st century?

If these are the texts that show us how to live our lives, I’d like to believe that we can do better than The Happiness Project.

THP follows Rubin’s year-long mission of self-improvement in month-long segments like “Vitality”, “Work”, and “Parenthood”.  Her goals are specific and realizable, and she tracks her success daily with Resolution Charts, which are practical and appeal to her love of “gold stars” (her symbol for instant affirmation).  Each month she aims to follow five or more additional resolutions, each promising (according to her extensive research) to make her happier.  By the end she’s not only happier, but is arguably a much better person.

I found the writing readable and non-obtrusive–which is the best I can say for something that I don’t perceive as particularly well-written.  She may be a great writer, and perhaps she worked hard not to demonstrate her writing chops in this particular piece. To make it more… approachable?  Maybe?  I’m really trying to give her the benefit of the doubt here.

Because this book, her whole project, made me really like Gretchen Rubin.  She seems smart, well-read, and genuinely interesting.  I love the idea of someone who quits lawyering to become a writer because she just can’t stop taking notes.  That’s so quirky and cool and nerdy!  I would love to stay up late drinking wine with her (if I stayed up late or drank wine anymore).

Early in the  book she talks about her own fascination with everything happiness and positive psychology, and even gives us a few interesting tidbits from the great philosophers of old, but she never goes into much detail, other than listing out her bedside reading.  Rather than explore the fabulous research she’s conducted, she goes off into her own life.  This really wouldn’t be the end of the world, except that I really couldn’t be less interested in an entire book about her family, her work, her friends, and her closets.  Maybe that’s my problem.

So much of the pleasure or pain of what we read comes down to expectations.  When I picked up THP I was hoping for a book-length piece of investigative journalism, a la The Omnivore’s Dilemma, but focusing on happiness.  Although the book is touted as a memoir, I blithely ignored that classification.  I wouldn’t have minded the central narrative focused on Rubin’s own life, but I really would have loved a bit more substance.  Especially from someone who can’t stop taking notes.

Or perhaps my problem with THP lies in the fact that I, the reader, really am very happy.  I know I could be a better person, and I’m fascinated by that possibility and all that it entails.  I would have loved an interesting read on happiness by way of Woolf, Schopenhauer, and Tolstoy.  But I really am wildly happy.  Right now.

2 thoughts on “Why “The Happiness Project” Made Me Unhappy”

    1. Thanks for the recommendation–I’m all about moving slowly these days. Less prescriptive and more thought-provoking sounds pretty good.
      Thanks for reading!

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