Rubin starts with the realisation that although she was not unhappy, she also was not appreciating everything in her life which she felt she should, so she set about methodically researching happiness and its causes and came up with a list of what her own priorities were. She dedicated a month to each topic – eleven topics in all, with December being the chance to put them all into practice – and worked out how she could use that month to explore and appreciate her life more. She says early in the book that ‘I wanted to change my life without changing my life’, a theme which marks her out from many of the famous life-changing biographies such as Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love or biographies about loss, such as Joan Didion’s A Year of Magical Thinking, and this is precisely what holds its charm. Few of us could take nothing whatsoever from this book, with topics that range from vitality (January) to marriage (February) to money (July), and certainly in my case even when the topic had no obvious connection to me – I have no children, which she spends April appreciating – there were still things that made me think about how I relate to other people in general.
For me, the most important point made is about how deep the connection is between your relationships with other people and your own happiness. This may seem natural and particularly apparent with how you interact with your partner, your parents, your children and wider family, but it also includes your friends, people you encounter only briefly, your critics, and even the way you gossip – or preferably don’t. She quotes Tolstoy, who said ‘nothing can make our own life, or the lives of other people, more beautiful than perpetual kindness’, and she does this throughout without seeming holier-than-thou; in fact, her frustrations and stumblings are part of what makes the book so relatable, and certainly make you feel you are not alone in finding it difficult to resist gossip, or not snapping when you have had a bad morning. In many ways it is about being aware of what is happening in your life and recognising whether or not your actions will contribute to your happiness, rather than attempting to live a life of impossible virtue.
Rubin suggests that a key part of being happy is to be yourself, and to be true to yourself. Do not worry about what you ‘should’ like, or think you should like, but invest in discovering what makes you happy. It could be a hobby, probably similar to what you enjoyed as a child, or it could be cutting out something you feel obligated to do but is not necessary or helpful. An oft repeated truth that she finds is that ‘one of the best ways to make yourself happy is to make other people happy; one of the best ways to make other people happy is to be happy yourself.’ So if it is weight training, if it is foreign policy, if it is Barry Manilow – wonderful. Find that passion and pursue it.
Throughout the book she gives examples of other people’s experiences with their own happiness projects as well as mixing in her research, which gives the reader a chance to think about how to apply these deeply personal resolutions to themselves (always resolutions rather than goals – you achieve a goal in a way which does not apply to every day happiness), and this is followed up by notes at the back which help you to set up your own happiness project. She has set up a website (www.happinessprojecttoolbox.com) which will help you decide what your priorities are without all her painstaking research – for example, her current front page article talks about making sure your habits are right, something she talks about in her book. She recommends four things; sleep, exercise, external order, and managing eating and drinking, things which she works on throughout the book and which do make a difference to her. She also talks here about her other books on happiness at home, and her forthcoming book about breaking habits.
When I first read this book I felt energised and motivated to change small things in my life. I started thinking about how I could do what I really wanted and implemented the one minute rule – if something can be done in a minute or less then do it. My desk is now almost always clear and has been since that first reading. The second time I read it, only a few months later, I made further plans and did some things which I would not have done otherwise – I jumped from a boat into the ocean because it scared me, and that was as important to me as keeping my temper when someone was deliberately provoking my anger. But in reading it again for this review (which only took about a day, on and off – it is a quick read) I have made the biggest changes. I was already much happier than I was when I first read the book, that is true, but rather than taking small actions I have taken bigger steps. I have contacted people about a children’s literature book club I had been considering for a while but not made time for, I asked my mother if she would like to do a happiness project with me next year as a way to keep in contact when we are in different countries, and I have thought about whether I am actually really helping people when I give my time to tasks which don’t make much difference, even if I feel virtuous, or if there is a better way I could try to help.
So would I say the book is for everyone? No, probably not. But if, like myself, you thought that owning one self help book would immediately spiral into a Bridget Jones-esque binge of life-changing intentions and no real action then I would urge you to try this. Gretchen is happier, I feel happier, and there is a real chance that you could too
By Alice Croot