Book review: The Happiness Project

Full disclosure: Gretchen Rubin is a friend. But I was a reader and fan of her blog long before we even met, and there’s no way I’d have done an elaborate pre-launch pimpage post if I didn’t think this book was so terrific. Also, this review was based on my reading of an uncorrected proof; there may have been minor changes in the book that ultimately went to press.

I have long had a love/hate relationship with self-help books: I love finding new ways to wake myself up, fresh strategies for altering the course of my life, novel frameworks that give me a real look at myself; I hate the dull and plodding style most of them are served up in.

Gretchen Rubin’s newest book, The Happiness Project, escapes both the pedantry trap (i.e., scholarly tracts with snooze-a-licious prose) and the newage-rhymes-with-sewage, self-important, Lite Lifeâ„¢ Solutions b.s. of the quick-to-market “guru” book. Its content is both well-researched and delightfully served up, evidence of not only a fine mind and truly generous soul, but someone who reads lots of ACTUAL BOOKS for the purposes of ENJOYMENT and SELF-EDUCATION.

Like Aristotle! Montaigne! Schopenhauer!

But also A.J. Jacobs! Joan Didion! Daniel Pink!

Even Elizabeth Gilbert, that wonderful lady writer everyone now feels it’s their bounden duty to crap on* because she committed the heinous sin of writing (gasp…the horror!) a P-O-P-U-L-A-R  best seller (and going on Oprah to talk about it). One of the most impressive parts of Rubin’s book is the Suggestions for Further Reading, at the end, where she lists 76+ sources** that run the gamut, genre-wise, from philosophy to science to fiction.

Why is this so fantastic? Because Rubin is a synthesizer, one of that rare breed who can take things in from multiple sources, parse them wisely, and smoosh them into beautiful new ideas and practical suggestions the rest of us can benefit from. Most likely, she finds patterns without even trying, because she’s trained her brain to note and sift so deftly. And then, in the case of a project like this, she finds ways to apply all this good learning to herself, further filtering it through her own experience, and finally reporting on it in such a clean, spry, engaging fashion, we don’t see the work that went into it, we just get what we need out of it.***

And what do we need from a project about finding happiness?

Direction, for one. Effecting meaningful change is tough stuff, and if there’s one thing that requires big-time change, it’s moving from asleep to awake, from unhappy to happy, or, hardest of all, from asleep to happy. It’s necessarily a self-directed, one-of-a-kind thing, since we’re all special snowflakes; how do you go about teaching that?

I think we find our way by studying the great synthesizers before us, which is why I’ve long preferred biography and memoir to other forms of self-help nonfiction. Rubin agrees. As she says in her opening note to the reader, “I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.”**** We read her well-told tales of struggling with exercise, with spending, with keeping her temper; we watch her apply her book knowledge in real time, see the ease that it brings, and start to look at how we might apply this learning to our own peculiar areas of fucked-up-ness. Are her solutions, a 20-minute circuit with a trainer, soliciting help from her mother to buy needful things in bulk, singing in the morning, mine? Nope. Not even close. But the process she goes through to find the solutions could be, and that she does it is inspiring.

Process and inspiration aside, the book is bursting with great, concrete ideas for changing your own life for the better. You may not recognize them as such, since Rubin is about as far from a proselytizer as you can get, but they’re there, and in abundance. And there are even more at her blog, and in the communities that have sprung up around the Happiness Project Toolbox, her DIY-with-support site she’s set up to complement the book. (And if you’re wondering, no, the book is not repurposed content from the website, but longer stories told with more detail, with lots of never-before-seen material. It actually is an object lesson in the differences between good blog writing and good book writing.)

Before you even think about changing your own life, though, just read the book. Bask in the sunny pleasures of good writing on a useful topic.

If nothing else, this will make you happier…


BONUS! Erin Rooney Doland, who writes at Unclutterer and wrote a really great book herself recently, posted an excellent review of The Happiness Project on her blog. In addition to thoughtful observations about Gretchen’s process, Erin makes some really good points about the connection between happiness and decluttering and of getting clear on your goals before you get going with any project. A great read for the start of the new year.

*Yeah, I didn’t like the “love” part so much either, but you know what? That book still kicks more ass than you’ll ever admit. And I love Oprah.

**The “+” part, because she’s read the entire Samuel Johnson canon, no doubt, and a slew of things that probably weren’t 100% salient to the discussion, so she left them off. Because, as I said, this woman is about reading for the right reasons (ENJOYMENT! EDUCATION!), not the icky ones, like trying to impress people with her bowing library shelves.

***In acting, which Gretchen also developed an interest in learning about, because she is that way, we talk about “catching someone acting.” You rarely catch Meryl Streep doing this; you catch people on soaps and three-camera s(h)itcoms and even Important Oscar-worthy Films all the time. If that example doesn’t work for you, think of how ice skaters make it look easy, or of the difference between the very elegant Fred Astaire and the very muscular Gene Kelly: they were both terrific dancers, but only Fred made it look easy.

****”Or talk out of their opportunist, I-have-a-theory asses.” , Colleen Wainwright

Image by juhansonin via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Great review, Colleen! I’m about 1/2 way through the book right now and it’s pretty awesome. It’s been really exciting to read a book written by someone who has written a blog that inspired me to create my own. I love it. Bloggers making books is awesome (and a dream of mine). So when’s your volume of poetry coming out?? :)

  2. The whole idea of happiness is a great one. With a focus on enjoyment – that sounds like even just reading the book is a happy experience. That probably speaks volumes to the material that is in there – a happy experience, coupled with a bit of learning along the way – awesome!

  3. Colleen — your incredibly kind, wonderful review makes me so HAPPY! You are the ideal reader that I fantasized about as I wrote — someone who would love all the same quotations, ideas, strategies that I did. It is unbelievably gratifying to read something so…so…I can’t even think of a word to describe it!

    One of the reasons that The Happiness Project has made me so happy is that it has brought me into contact with creative, cool people who I would never otherwise meet — like you! on the other side of the country! You and I were friends in blogland long before we met, and we would never have met except through our blogs. I love the internet!

  4. Now I know where the B&N gift card my family gave me for Christmas is going. Thanks Colleen. I’m inspired to read The Happiness Project. You’ve done the book and Gretchen Rubin proud. Carolyn B.

  5. Rocking review.

    The way you describe it, it sounds like it’s not all the things I don’t want a book to be, and is all the things I do want it to be.


    And… I could get it right now with my new Kindle.

    *starts to worry about where this Instant Book thing might lead…*


  6. Thank you for another great book recommendation. I purchased several of the books you recommended in your interview on Danielle LaPorte’s blog and they have all been fabulous. Love your blog and am so glad I found you. Happy New Year!

  7. Normally, I’m deeply suspicious of anyone offering me advice on how to be happy – I’m reminded of what Oscar Wilde said, that “the best thing one can do with advice is pass it on. It’s never of any use to oneself”.

    Instead, I’ve chosen to find happiness on websites that tell me how to make a better bouillabaisse, or explains the advantages of coating the friction surfaces of a motorbike engine. But I’ve been mired of late, and an unlikely source of comfort has been Gretchen’s blog. Her relentless, metastasizing optimism has helped soften my calloused heart.

    Still got a ways to go, mind you, but maybe the book will help. Can’t wait to read it.

  8. You writing a review of Gretchen’s book. Now that is my happiness formula: great, heartfelt but not sappy review writing about a great, heartfelt but not sappy book about happiness.

    I just re-read another chapter of her book in the bathtub and it was about as close to nirvana as possible.

    Happy, big warm lovey hugs to you for the new year!


  9. It sounds like a good book, so I hope Gretchen’s ready for the snottiness of the lit-crit crowd about this topic.
    I took Tal Ben-Shahar’s course on positive psychology (nick-named Happiness 101) while I was at Harvard a couple years ago. It was the most popular course on campus, it gave undergrads a set of skills they needed in a big way, and old guys like me could see how it would set loose a generation of students with a useful mission in their mind…and he was flat turned down for tenure.
    Hurray to Colleen for advocating for this book. I’ll be sure to look for it, as a result of this.

  10. PP – Soon, I hope. 2010? I hope.

    Lance – That’s exactly it: the book embodies the joy and discipline of the journey. There! You just helped me write the Twitter Review!

    Gretchen – That I am your ideal anything makes my day; that I am your ideal reader is beyond. You are a joy. My world is better for having you in it. (Okay—the rest of the world can have a bit of you, too!)

    Andrew – Yeah. It’s why I *don’t* have a Kindle. I can’t afford the maintenance. :-)

    Carolyn – You will love it, my friend.

    Denise – I’m so happy you’ve liked them! 2009 was the non-suck because I got back into reading books. And because of so much lovely support. Thank you thank you thank you!

    Chris – 100% agreed. As a reformed Doler-Outer of Unsolicited Advice, what is so refreshing about Gretchen is that it’s *never* presented as advice—simply what she went through, offered up to be used if useful. She’s genius. You’ll love it.

    Pamela – How much do I love it when my worlds collide like this? A LOT.

    Dean – Something tells me she’s ready. :-)

    Ladyfriend ain’t no dewy-eyed dope, that’s for sure. She’s old and wise enough to know what’s worthwhile, and what should be brushed aside or outright ignored.

    I still get shaken and care what people think too much, but I’m learning. And mostly what I’m learning is that I’ve got a reasonably good compass. Plus a good crew who will pull me back on course if I veer off.

    Good to hear from you, my old friend!

  11. Colleen, thanks for a great review. I can’t wait to read it! And thanks, as well, for defending Elizabeth Gilbert. Even though I didn’t like the love section as much as the rest of it, that book is still one of my “reread once a quarter or as often as necessary, whichever is more” books.

  12. Colleen, what a fantastic review. Thanks so much for sharing it. 2009 was such a tough year for so many people that Gretchen’s book has arrived at the perfect time.

    Kind Regards,

    Alexandra Levit
    Columnist, Wall Street Journal

  13. I’m a follower of The Happiness Project blog. The one thing that works best for me is the lack of judgment in Gretchen’s work. It is presented in a way that you want to give it a try. But, at the same time, it made me feel free to say, “Good idea, but I don’t think that is going to work for me.”

    Gretchen’s willingness to share the techniques and her personal ability to integrate those techniques into her life was very inspiring for me.

    Thanks for sharing your opinions.

    Warmest Regards,

    Denise Burks

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