An Untimely, Completely Biased Review of The Happiness Project and Happier at Home

I was inclined to hate Gretchen Rubin. It’s a natural response to someone who is living your dream life.

From what I can tell, Gretchen came from a family with money (at least, a lot more money than my family had), got her law degree at an Ivy League school, married a man with money, practiced law with a Supreme Court judge, then moved to New York City and became a published author. Oh, and she’s now a wildly popular blogger who seems to have made friends with tons of people I admire.

When I describe what I write about to people for the first time, I almost always hear some version of, “oh, like Gretchen Rubin?”, which is the same thing as telling a writer to unplug her laptop and think about going back into marketing.

In other words, my envy-fueled dislike was totally justified.

All that being said, it seemed irresponsible to continue to write about happiness without reading the day’s most popular book on the subject. Also, I couldn’t very well explain how I was different from Ms. Rubin if I hadn’t actually read her books. And so, almost two years after it’s release and a full year after it had hit the best-seller list, I finally picked up 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*.

The book details Gretchen’s own “happiness project”, a year-long, methodical pursuit of happiness. Rubin tackles a different area of her life every month with a handful of resolutions inspired by extensive research on the things that are supposed to make us happy. She covers her physical well-being (get enough sleep), her marriage (kiss every night), parenthood (go on weekly adventures), and nine other areas that I can’t for the life of me remember now.

The book contains no earth-shattering wisdom, but I wouldn’t really expect it to at this point in human evolution. I mean, haven’t we been thinking and talking and writing about happiness forever? It does, however, chronicle the story of a woman who decides to take a proactive approach to her life. That’s not a bad thing.

One thing that troubled me about The Happiness Project, however, was it’s focus on fixing things that Rubin perceived as wrong with herself. Her approach to happiness was less about acceptance and more about trying to become a perfect person, which drove me nuts. Still, I admired her resolve to actually do something rather than just theorize. In the end, I didn’t hate the book or Gretchen, and I appreciated the format, but I wasn’t rabidly recommending it.

Despite my lukewarm response to her first book, I had to pick up the second. You can’t write about happiness and declare 2013 the year of the home and not read a book called Happier at Home: Kiss More, Jump More, Abandon a Project, Read Samuel Johnson, and My Other Experiments in the Practice of Everyday Life*.

I liked this book much, much better.

The format was the same: a month-by-month system to creating a happier home and life through a series of resolutions. The sticker chart she uses daily to monitor her progress with each resolution makes a comeback, as does her obsession with research. But this time, her methodical approach made sense.

Maybe it’s because I’m focusing on my own home right now.

Maybe it’s because I’m more comfortable with the idea of perfecting a place instead of a person.

Maybe Gretchen herself was just a little more accepting and confident this time around. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed this memoir so much more that I was actually compelled to tweet my good impressions to the author (and she responded, like a real person. WHAT?!?!).

Before and since reading these books, I’ve been asked both what I thought about the books and how I’m different from Gretchen. I won’t get into our differences, but I will say that the books are worth a read. No, she doesn’t approach happiness through the same lens that I would, but she does so much more than approach it. She stalks it, studies it, and vows to master it. I appreciate her enthusiasm and her commitment, as well as her complete willingness to be accountable for her life.

That is, ultimately, the best thing about both the books and Gretchen’s blog. She encourages readers to take responsibility for their own happiness. And whether you pursue happiness through introspection or a daily regiment of well-researched tasks, it’s taking responsibility for the journey that matters most.

Have you read either book? What did you think?

*These are Amazon affiliate links; I checked out both books from the library.

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  1. While I like obsessive research and action, I also love introspection and naval gazing. Mostly, I like that you didn’t just gush about the books. I may have to check out the second one although I may be more of a quiet joy person, my home could go the way of happy.
    Alex@LateEnough’s most recent post: As A Mom, My Dream Is Not To Look Like A Teenage Girl

  2. Man, I love this review – as I too was inclined to hate GR. (Insanely jealous she gets to read and write for a living.) But in addition to her success, she seems like an extremely nice person. It would appear that she personally emailed copies of her resolutions charts a few years ago. Classy.
    That said, I liked book #2 better as well, though I love both, and reread #1 during my last pregnancy. I’m of the mindset that there is always room for improvement, so I suppose I am less about self-acceptance, and more about striving for perfection (not necessarily a good thing). I suppose that is why she resonates with me so much.
    Melissa@Total_Mama’s most recent post: Two Fabulous Ways to Start Your Day

  3. I’ve read the first book but not the second and now I’m intrigued – and who couldn’t use a happier home?
    Megan (Best of Fates)’s most recent post: Then I Climbed To The Top of Mt. Christie, A Mystery Conquerer

  4. Niki says:

    I had, in fact, never heard of Gretchen Rubin, her books or her blog when I picked up The Happiness Project at a thrift store outlet. It sat on my shelf for a month until the day I noticed it again. I needed to hear many things in this book. I felt inspired and saw things in my life a different way than I had before; I found ways I could improve myself. I’m not striving to be perfect, just better. I still haven’t finished the book (I think I’m on October) after months of on and off reading but it does resonate with me.

  5. Megan says:

    Hee hee. I totally get what you are saying about Gretchen. Oh, the envy!

    I have only read the first book (I will eventually break down and get the second – I’m not buying books now but I can make an exception). My impression was not that she was trying to “perfect” herself, but that she was taking an honest look at who she is and trying to work within those parameters to be the best Gretchen possible. For example, she gets cranky when she’s cold or hungry, so she does what’s necessary to make sure she avoids those states.

    What I liked best about the book was the introduction of happiness theories I’d never considered and how it seems to be the little things, all together, that bring the most happiness.

    I can’t wait to see your book – your approach will be more from the heart, a perfect compliment to the cerebral approach.
    Megan’s most recent post: Now, Such As It Is

  6. I suppose I am out of touch, never heard of her. Sounds interesting though. There should be more people blogging about happiness.
    Corey Feldman’s most recent post: Alex Kagan Books

  7. Britt I just LOVE your writing style.
    This is a book review, but to me it’s more about you than the book.
    I hope one day I become like you!
    Great work. :)
    Sulagna – Keep your relationship exciting’s most recent post: How I Coped with Being Dumped and Why That’s NOT Going To Help You

  8. Thanks so much for this review! I’ll look into the second book it sounds more like my style. I need steps and sequence, someone to tell me what to do and Ill do it! :)
    Isra {TheFrugalette}’s most recent post: Easy Homemade Alfredo Sauce Recipe

  9. Jb says:

    You know I don’t have that blog book marked – I have yours though! I have not read her books – I have felt her happiness project originated in a place of – privledge – sort of – I mean – she was comfortable and went looking. I feel like you version of happiness seeking is much more Brave – and much more real world. I will likely read her second book on your reccomendation. I do have the Raising Happiness site bookmarked because I feel like they offer very grounded – in daily life – ways to raise our kids happier. And that I value. You too have a book in there – and I for one look forward to reading it.

  10. I feel these are – both – two books I could really benefit from reading. I am not a good organizer, nor unwavering enough and i could use a little extra boost…

    Of course, I am perfectly pleased when I get the chance to read your blog, I am always a little happier when I am done. :)
    World traveler’s most recent post: Adventure travel tips for beginners

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