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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
by Gretchen Rubin
Hardcover : 301 pages
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Gretchen Rubin had an epiphany one rainy afternoon in the unlikeliest of places: a city bus. "The days are long, but the years are short," she realized. "Time is passing, and I'm not focusing enough on the things that really matter." In that moment, she decided to dedicate a year to her happiness project.
In this lively and compelling account of that year, Rubin carves out her place alongside the authors of bestselling memoirs such as Julie and Julia, The Year of Living Biblically, and Eat, Pray, Love. With humor and insight, she chronicles her adventures during the twelve months she spent test-driving the wisdom of the ages, current scientific research, and lessons from popular culture about how to be happier.
Rubin didn't have the option to uproot herself, nor did she really want to; instead she focused on improving her life as it was. Each month she tackled a new set of resolutions: give proofs of love, ask for help, find more fun, keep a gratitude notebook, forget about results. She immersed herself in principles set forth by all manner of experts, from Epicurus to Thoreau to Oprah to Martin Seligman to the Dalai Lama to see what worked for her?and what didn't.
Her conclusions are sometimes surprising'she finds that money can buy happiness, when spent wisely; that novelty and challenge are powerful sources of happiness; that "treating" yourself can make you feel worse; that venting bad feelings doesn't relieve them; that the very smallest of changes can make the biggest difference?and they range from the practical to the profound.
Written with charm and wit, The Happiness Project is illuminating yet entertaining, thought-provoking yet compulsively readable. Gretchen Rubin's passion for her subject jumps off the page, and reading just a few chapters of this book will inspire you to start your own happiness project.
Editorial ReviewNo editorial review at this time.
Like 44 percent of Americans, I make
New Year's resolutions—and usually
don't keep them for long. How many times
had I resolved to exercise more, eat better, and
keep up with my e-mail in-box? This year,
though, I was making my resolutions in the
context of my happiness project, and I hoped
that would mean that I'd do a better job of
keeping them. To launch the new year and
my happiness project, I decided to focus on
boosting my energy. More vitality, I hoped,
would make it easier for me to stick to all
my happiness project resolutions in future
■ Go to sleep earlier.
■ Exercise better.
■ Toss, restore, organize.
■ Tackle a nagging task.
■ Act more energetic.
In a virtuous circle, research shows, being happy energizes you, and at the same time,
having more energy makes it easier for you to engage in activities—
like socializing and exercise—that
boost happiness. Studies also show that when you feel energetic, your self
esteem rises. Feeling tired, on the other hand, makes everything seem
arduous. An activity that you'd ordinarily find fun, like putting up holiday
decorations, feels difficult, and a more demanding task, like learning a new
software program, feels overwhelming.
I know that when I feel energetic, I find it much easier to behave in
ways that make me happy. I take the time to e-mail the grandparents with
a report from the pediatrician's checkup. I don't scold when Eliza drops her
glass of milk on the rug just as we're leaving for school. I have the perseverance
to figure out why my computer screen is frozen. I take the time to put
my dishes in the dishwasher.
I decided to tackle both the physical and mental aspects of energy.
For my physical energy: I needed to make sure that I got enough
sleep and enough exercise. Although I'd already known that sleep and
exercise were important to good health, I'd been surprised to learn that
happiness— which can seem like a complex, lofty, and intangible goal—was
quite influenced by these straightforward habits. For my mental energy: I
needed to tackle my apartment and office, which felt oppressively messy
and crowded. Outer order, I hoped, would bring inner peace. What's more,
I needed to clear away metaphorical clutter; I wanted to cross tasks off my
to do list. I added one last resolution that combined the mental and the
physical. Studies show that by acting as if you feel more energetic, you can
become more energetic. I was skeptical, but it seemed worth a try.
GO TO SLEEP EARLIER.
First: bodily energy.
A glamorous friend with a tendency to make sweeping pronouncements
had told me that "Sleep is the new sex," and I'd recently been at a
dinner party where each person at the table detailed the best nap he or she
had ever had, in lascivious detail, while everyone moaned in appreciation.
Millions of people fail to get the recommended seven to eight hours of
sleep a night, and one study revealed that along with tight work deadlines,
a bad night's sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people's daily
moods. Another study suggested that getting one extra hour of sleep each
night would do more for a person's daily happiness than getting a $60,000
raise. Nevertheless, the average adult sleeps only 6.9 hours during the
week, and 7.9 on the weekend—20 percent less than in 1900. Although
people adjust to feeling sleepy, sleep deprivation impairs memory, weakens
the immune system, slows metabolism, and might, some studies suggest,
foster weight gain.
My new, not exactly startling resolution for getting more sleep was to
turn off the light. Too often I stayed up to read, answer e-mails, watch TV,
pay bills, or whatever, instead of going to bed.
Nevertheless, just a few days into the happiness project, although I
practically fell asleep on Eliza's purple sheets as I was tucking her in, I
wavered for a moment when Jamie proposed watching our latest Netflix
DVD, The Conversation. I love movies; I wanted to spend time with Jamie;
9:30 P.M. seemed a ridiculously early hour to go to bed; and I knew from
experience that if I started watching, I'd perk up. On the other hand, I felt
Why does it often seem more tiring to go to bed than to stay up?
Inertia, I suppose. Plus there's the pre-bed work of taking out my contact
lenses, brushing my teeth, and washing my face. But I'd made my resolution,
so resolutely I headed to bed. I slept eight solid hours and woke up
an hour early, at 5:30 A.M., so in addition to getting a good night's sleep,
I had the chance to do a peaceful block of work while my family was still
I'm a real know-it-all, so I was pleased when my sister called and
complained of insomnia. Elizabeth is five years younger than I am, but usually
I'm the one asking her for advice.
"I'm not getting any sleep," she said. "I've already given up caffeine.
What else can I do?"
"Lots of things," I said, prepared to rattle off the tips that I'd
uncovered in my research. "Near your bedtime, don't do any work that
requires alert thinking. Keep your bedroom slightly chilly. Do a few pre-bed
stretches. Also—this is important—because light confuses the body's
circadian clock, keep the lights low around bedtime, say, if you go to the
bathroom. Also, make sure your room is very dark when the lights are out.
Like a hotel room."
"Do you really think it can make a difference?" she asked.
"All the studies say that it does."
I'd tried all these steps myself, and I'd found the last one—keeping
our bedroom dark—surprisingly difficult to accomplish.
"What are you doing?" Jamie had asked one night when he caught me
rearranging various devices throughout our room.
"I'm trying to block the light from all these gizmos," I answered. "I
read that even a tiny light from a digital alarm clock can disrupt a sleep
cycle, and it's like a mad scientist's lab in here. Our Blackberrys, the
computer, the cable box—everything blinks or glows bright green."
"Huh" was all he said, but he did help me move some things on the
nightstand to block the light coming from our alarm clock.
These changes did seem to make falling asleep easier. But I often lost
sleep for another reason: I'd wake up in the middle of the night—
curiously, usually at 3:18 A.M.—and be unable to go back to sleep. For those
nights, I developed another set of tricks. I breathed deeply and slowly until
I couldn't stand it anymore. When my mind was racing with a to do list,
I wrote everything down. There's evidence that too little blood flow to
the extremities can keep you awake, so if my feet were cold, I put on wool
socks—which, though it made me feel frumpish, did seem to help.
Two of my most useful getting to sleep strategies were my own invention.
First, I tried to get ready for bed well before bedtime. Sometimes
I stayed up late because I was too tired to take out my contacts—plus,
putting on my glasses had an effect like putting the cover on the parrot's
cage. Also, if I woke up in the night, I'd tell myself, "I have to get up in
two minutes." I'd imagine that I'd just hit the snooze alarm and in two
minutes, I'd have to march through my morning routine. Often this was
an exhausting enough prospect to make me fall asleep.
And sometimes I gave up and took an Ambien.
After a week or so of more sleep, I began to feel a real difference. I felt
more energetic and cheerful with my children in the morning. I didn't feel
a painful, never fulfilled urge to take a nap in the afternoon. Getting out
of bed in the morning was no longer torture; it's so much nicer to wake up
naturally instead of being jerked out of sleep by a buzzing alarm.
Nevertheless, despite all the benefits, I still struggled to put myself
to bed as soon as I felt sleepy. Those last few hours of the day were
precious—when the workday was finished, Jamie was home, my daughters
were asleep, and I had some free time. Only the daily reminder on my
Resolutions Chart kept me from staying up until midnight most nights.
There's a staggering amount of evidence to show that exercise is good for
you. Among other benefits, people who exercise are healthier, think more
clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. Regular exercise
boosts energy levels; although some people assume that working out is
tiring, in fact, it boosts energy, especially in sedentary people—of whom
there are many. A recent study showed that 25 percent of Americans don't
get any exercise at all. Just by exercising twenty minutes a day three days a
week for six weeks, persistently tired people boosted their energy.
Even knowing all these benefits, though, you can find it difficult to change
from a couch potato into a gym enthusiast. Many years ago, I'd managed to
turn myself into a regular exerciser, but it hadn't been easy. My idea of fun
has always been to lie in bed reading. Preferably while eating a snack.
When I was in high school, I wanted to redecorate my bedroom to
replace the stylized flowered wallpaper that I thought wasn't sufficiently
sophisticated for a freshman, and I wrote a long proposal laying out my
argument to my parents. My father considered the proposal and said, "All
right, we'll redecorate your room. But in return, you have to do something
four times a week for twenty minutes."
"What do I have to do?" I asked, suspicious.
"You have to take it or leave it. It's twenty minutes. How bad can
"Okay, I'll take the deal," I decided. "What do I have to do?"
His answer: "Go for a run."
My father, himself a dedicated runner, never told me how far I had to
run or how fast; he didn't even keep track of whether I went for twenty
minutes. All he asked was that I put on my running shoes and shut the
door behind me. My father's deal got me to commit to a routine, and once
I started running, I found that I didn't mind exercising, I just didn't like
My father's approach might well have backfired. With extrinsic
motivation, people act to win external rewards or avoid external punishments;
with intrinsic motivation, people act for their own satisfaction. Studies
show that if you reward people for doing an activity, they often stop
doing it for fun; being paid turns it into "work." Parents, for example,
are warned not to reward children for reading—they're teaching kids to
read for a reward, not for pleasure. By giving me an extrinsic motivation,
my father risked sapping my inclination to exercise on my own. As
it happened, in my case, he provided an extrinsic motivation that
unleashed my intrinsic motivation.
Ever since that room redecoration, I've been exercising regularly. I never
push myself hard, but I get myself out the door several times a week. For
a long time, however, I'd been thinking that I really should start strength
training. Lifting weights increases muscle mass, strengthens bones, firms
the core, and—I admit, most important to me—improves shape. People
who work out with weights maintain more muscle and gain less fat as they
age. A few times over the years, I'd halfheartedly tried lifting weights, but
I'd never stuck to it; now, with my resolution to "Exercise better," it was
time to start.
There's a Buddhist saying that I've found to be uncannily true: "When
the student is ready, the teacher appears." Just a few days after I committed
to my resolution to "exercise better," I met a friend for coffee, and she
mentioned that she'd started a great weight training program at a gym in
"I don't like the idea of working out with a trainer," I objected. "I'd feel
self conscious, and it's expensive. I want to do it on my own."
"Try it," my friend urged. "I promise, you'll love it. It's a super efficient
way to exercise. The whole workout takes only twenty minutes. Plus"—she
paused dramatically—"you don't sweat. You work out without having to
This was a major selling point. I dislike taking showers. "But," I asked
doubtfully, "how can a good workout take only twenty minutes if you're
not even sweating?"
"You lift weights at the very outer limit of your strength. You don't do
many repetitions, and you do only one set. Believe me, it works. I love it."
In Daniel Gilbert's book 'Stumbling on Happiness", he argues that the
most effective way to judge whether a particular course of action will make
you happy in the future is to ask people who are following that course of
action right now if they're happy and assume that you'll feel the same way.
According to his theory, the fact that my friend raved about this fitness
routine was a pretty good indicator that I'd be enthusiastic, too. Also, I
reminded myself, one of my Secrets of Adulthood was "Most decisions don't
require extensive research."
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