The Happiness Project, Book Review


It’s almost difficult to disregard something bears in its title the word “Happiness”. It’s as if we are all extremely sad that anything that promises (or just reads) happiness instantly grabs our attention. I was intrigued by this same reason and I had my share of reading many books about the subject of happiness. I am ready now to tell you the reason why such subject grabs our attention – and no it’s not because we are all sad.

Anything that promises happiness, be it an election campaign, an advise, or a book like the one I am reviewing here, takes our mind because happiness is the ultimate end + we are always looking for shortcuts to it – someone/something that gives us a receipt. This is why a book with the title having Happiness in it is almost irresistible.

Experienced people know very well that happiness is a personal effort. You cannot read about it, you only create it your own. Well, you may read about it for ideas or paths of course, but I mean you cannot make it by reading about it.

For me, I always found that Happiness is ONLY a choice. It has no causes at all; in the sense of making it sustainable rather than situational. There is nothing called if I bought a house, have a health….etc. I will be happy. Tal Ben-Shahar calls this “Arrival Fallacy”, in his book Happier. We prefer to think so in order to give ourselves Hope – human is designed to live by hope; it’s something that the human mind enjoys. Happiness, I discovered from experience, is a state of inner being of your own choice without having a clear reason to be so. The reason for this belief is that if you truthfully consider this life and the world around you, you will find that there are no reasons for happiness at all. This is not a pessimistic view, but rather a realistic one. Want a proof that it’s a realistic one? Any reason of happiness whatsoever is not constant. Anything external from you is not guaranteed to remain on its specific state, whether it’s money, health, employment…etc. Thus, with everything being at constant flux of change and in the face of nothing being guaranteed to remain the same/there, how can you be happy? I made a long argument to prove the viewpoint for the sake of triggering your own mind working this out, but it’s sufficient to say that how could there be reasons for happiness with the inevitable end of death awaiting each one of us? If we are all awaiting to die at the end of the journey, then, all reasons for happiness would fall.

That’s great then. If happiness is a choice, why doesn’t everyone of us just go ahead and choose it! If happiness is the ultimate end of all action, as Aristotle declared in his Nicomachean Ethics, and each one of us has the option to choose it; then, why not everyone is simply happy? Paradoxical, isn’t it? Well, it is not as it seems, but it’s a bit not straightforward. Happiness heavily relies on alignment rather than tangible things or specific conditions. Your inner state has to be in agreement with the external world. It’s that simply put. If you are the richest person on earth and your inner self is not in agreement with the planes you own, the beautiful houses you live in, your wealth of money cannot make you happy. It is mostly about alignment because the emphasis here is your own harmony with external factors you cannot control; or challenges you have to go through or even the good things you have so that you feel their bliss. As my 2013 quote goes “The closest sensation to happiness is Contentment.” When you are in alignment and harmony between what’s inside you and what’s all around you, no matter its condition or status, you become content; and as you become content, you feel happy. Alignment, harmony, and contentment with all their sort do not happen on their own. They need deliberate action on the self inside you. The self goes astray, you exert effort to bring it back on track to alignment. And since the Self inside you is a powerful beast that needs effort and mastery to control it, that’s why happiness is easily lost with difficulty to bring it back sometimes, though the simple and easy way of making it back.

The Happiness Project caught my attention for attaching the name “Project” to it. This is because it gives the impression that it’s something to be planned for and executed. It’s not fancy preaching for happiness. There is work, which comes aligned with what I mentioned above that making happiness requires deliberate action. But did the book made it as expected beyond the cover page of the title? Let’s have a look.

The Happiness Project

By Gretchen Rubin. New York Times Bestseller. Published by Harper, 2009

The spark was noble. Sometimes you just live without your own notice of how the dynamics unfold. Then, all of a sudden you have a glimpse of questioning. The glimpse is usually triggered by an external event, ranging from seeing a specific scene or witnessing some life threatening condition. That’s what happened to book author while riding the city bus, leading her to question her own happiness. Revising her life, she found that it has everything one would need yet she’s still not having the right feeling of happiness in content with that life. She wanted to feel happy with this blessing before anything is lost. She wanted to change her life by changing her attitude about it. Starting a project! Each month, she would pick up a theme and work on it with some techniques to promote happiness throughout the month. Thus, you will find the book structured as twelve chapters; chapter for January, chapter for February, and so on. How the undertaking of each month was determined? To that end, Gretchen in her introductory chapter tells us that she first identified the areas of improvements (the theme of the chapter); then, defined resolutions for each (content of chapter). For example, an area could be Work and resolutions could be attend meetings on time, don’t check emails every minute…etc.

So far so good. I liked the structured approach to the problem: reflection, areas, improvements; well-planned. I liked the focus of dedicating a whole month to a specific area and its resolutions, though I was a bit doubtful about this fixed time as some areas and resolutions might need more than a month. I was also wondering about whether the areas she came up with were coincidentally 12 matching the months of the year, or she made them just 12 to have one month for each? The second is more accurate I guess and to that end, I wondered in doing so, did she had to let go of things or compress things? From looking in this structural element critically, if you would like to follow the same pattern of structure, this tells you that you have to make your own pace. That is, it doesn’t have to be one month. It doesn’t have to be one year.

Now, the content. The book has one uniform pattern that serves as its source of success and also as the source of failure, depending on the type of readers and their expectations out of reading that book. That said, the book is not serving wide audience. What’s that pattern? It’s extremely subjective to the extent that it becomes pointless and boring for you, the reader, knowing how her husband responded and how they bought a notebook and how her sister starred…etc. Well, the book is about her happiness project, she already said that in the first page, so it’s her right be that subjective – fair enough? No. Happiness is a subjective thing in nature even when dealing with the same principle or same technique, my details would differ from your details. However, when writing a book on the subject, you have to be general enough to address wider audience. This approach has rendered the book as a kind of gossip between two ladies in the barber shop. You cannot extract anything other than the names of areas and titles of techniques. On the other hand, I declared that this same thing served as the source of success as well because some people like to visualize from someone’s else life, though I would challenge those readers to step out from the mere reading pleasure and try and adopt what’s written in the book to their own life. At that point, they will start to feel the extreme subjectivity blocking their way. Well, I am not saying that the author has invented what’s in the book and discussed them in subjectivity. No. You can still benefit from the titles yet fill them out with your own details. Reading the author’s details won’t serve much. A major flaw in the book is the poor research. Content is merely based on author’s own formulation, which makes them mediocre and useless out of context sometimes. Much details are irrelevant to the reader’s benefit.

The book is good as a personal project yet I would doubt its benefit in coming out as a book. Author should have thought about audience more than thinking that her own project experience is enough to make the book useful for all. At the end, the author’s project experience didn’t lead her to a successful life – we don’t know. For example, I am sure we would love to read subjective project experience of those like Leonardo Da Vinci, Einstein, or Napoleon Bonaparte. This is because their life is a testimonial of success in some areas and surely their project had a mean in this. But, clearly, this is not the case for the book at hand.

Let’s take a look at what others are saying. The book was rated 77,946 times on Goodreads. I look at 5-star and 4-star at the high end and look at 1-star for the low end. 16,057 gave it 5 stars. Surely, I didn’t go through them all, but glancing and skimming through, those readers were satisfied with the book for the same reason I mentioned above. They felt it more humane and engaging – the element of sharing that tight subjectivity. It made it sound like real and even made some people see themselves in it. 25,768 gave it 4 stars, again for the same reason. What I liked in many of the reviews is that many people are admitting that the book is not adding more knowledge to the subject. Again, subjectivity made it more appealing to the human aspect in readers. That type of readers are trustful to personal experience or a normal author more than reading for notable philosopher Russell’s The Conquest of Happiness, for example. Fair enough, as I noted, that’s a success factor to the book.

Veering to the opposite end of the spectrum, 1-star reviewers, 3,516 only, were sick of the extreme subjectivity – calling it highly self-absorbed. Most of them couldn’t finish the book! Some accused it for being a book on happiness for the creme de la creme, people who has everything and comfortable in their life yet need something to fill in their shallow lifestyle, un-appreciation, and disorganization. Well, this is exactly what the author conveyed, intentionally or not – a luxurious lady in the fancy lady’s club preaching on how she made herself conscious of the luxury in her life and subsequently became happy.

If you are someone serious about your life. If you are someone whose life is taking a meaningful route with pressing challenges. Or if you are someone whose life is really hard and trying to be happy, don’t read this book. This book is not for creating happiness nor is it a pleasurable reading at your leisure time.