I recently finished reading a fun book on happiness (or “positive psychology” to sound more sophisticated about it). In spite of its obvious humanistic tilt, I appreciated its wittiness and practical tips.
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 (301 pages), Harper, 2009.
Overview of the Happiness Project
Maybe one of the reasons why I liked the book is because I’m already interested in the field of positive psychology. Keren heard about this book, and we both listened to it (audiobook version). The Happiness Project is a positive psychology manual, sold as a self-help book, and packaged as an autobiography. The author, Gretchen Rubin, is on a quest for greater happiness which leads her into a project of life-revolutionizing proportions. The author decided that she was going to take a year to improve her personal happiness. Thus, each month, Gretchen focused on a different set of virtues that she called the “Twelve Personal Commandments.” Plus, she had “Four Splendid Truths” that she developed along the way. Here are her Twelve Personal Commandments.
- Be Gretchen.
- Let it go.
- Act the way I want to feel.
- Do it now.
- Be polite and fair.
- Enjoy the process.
- Spend out.
- Identify the problem.
- Lighten up.
- Do what ought to be done.
- No calculation.
- There is only love.
The book tracks her journey to happiness over the course of the year. Along the way, Gretchen grapples with various theories of happiness, gradually developing her own. In the end, she claims that she is satisfied (and happy) that she actually did become happier as a result of her Happiness Project.
Lessons Learned from the Happiness Project
- Despite the book being a manifesto of man’s pursuit of fulfillment apart from God, I appreciated the book for its collection of practical, folksy advice. I was also keenly interested in how she “achieved” a greater level of happiness. In some ways, this book was a lot better than some of the positive psychology stuff I’ve read, simply because it was ten times more readable.
- Rubin is no dummy. The book is easy to read, but it’s obvious that she has done her homework on positive psychology.
- One of the weaknesses (and potential strengths) of the book, was that Gretchen freely rejected or espoused ideas on her own pragmatic principles, not scientific ones. In other words, if she didn’t like a theory of happiness (for whatever reason), or didn’t find something true in her experience, she would reject it out of hand. (Didn’t work for me! Must not be true!) This probably goes to demonstrate a point about personal happiness. It’s not a one-size fits all solution that you can prescribe, describe, or explain to someone else. It’s a personal pursuit involving a personal set of idiosyncrasies.
- Being, as she is, a bestselling author, an attorney, a Yale grad, a Yale lecturer, and a U.S. Supreme Court justice clerk, she has been, by most standards, rather “successful.” Some would argue that it wasn’t hard for Rubin to be happy, because her life was already apparently pretty good.
- Of course, The Happiness Project is also a self-help book. Thus, you’ll read a lot of plain practical stuff. Tips on organizing your closet. Advice for finding your hobbies. Encouragement to get the sleep you need. She shares a lot of stuff that probably resonates with someone’s personal life experience, but just haven’t been able to put into words. Essentially, The Happiness Project is a medley of practical, folksy advice that (may or may not) improve one’s happiness.
Happiness, Goodness, and Beyond
One interesting feature (to me) of Rubin’s quest for happiness was the confluence of happiness and goodness. Although Rubin is an agnostic, she acknowledges the importance of moral goodness. Thus, her moral resolutions are an attempt to improve her goodness. Like Benjamin Franklin and children awaiting Christmas gifts, she made lists and checked them twice to see if she had been naughty or nice. The motivation for her goodness came from nothing less than her own desire to be happy.
What I’m discovering as I ply the field of positive psychology is that a lot of this secular happiness stuff is, really, pretty shallow. No matter that Rubin quotes Aristotle and pries into Thomas à Kempis to learn more about happiness. Her happiness doesn’t go deep. I admit that a cleaner closet and singing “Oh What a Beautiful Morning” at 7am may contribute to a merrier time, but is this really happiness? In reading positive psychologist Csikszentmihalyi (Flow), I’m struck by the same thing. A Christian theory of happiness, however, plunges to a far more fundamental level—man’s nature. It soars to a higher good—God’s glory. And it acknowledges personal human fulfillment—to “enjoy Him forever.”
When I read secular books written by agnostics, I do not expect them to expostulate pristine Christian theology and doctrine. As a believer, however, I can’t help but reflect on the book from a Christian stance. In order for happiness to be true happiness, it has to go even deeper — deep enough to change one’s very soul, one’s very nature. If happiness is to be found, it must be found in a life transformation that a person could never achieve on his or her own. For the Christian, any true theory of happiness must start with an honest recognition of who we are as human beings (sinful), and what Christ has done (atonement). In the end, what we receive in the atonement is not merely happiness, but an infinite gift, purchased at an infinite price, and resulting to the glory of God. Sadly, The Happiness Project as a map to greater happiness is not truly fulfilling; it will not bring real, abiding happiness. If you want to read it, and get some good tips for life, go right ahead. I enjoyed the book. Espousing Rubin’s theory of happiness (which doesn’t include God) isn’t a good idea, but your closet could probably use some cleaning, right? Or other good stuff like that.