Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project

I have a wonderful life. I’m married to the perfect partner, for me. We are expecting our first child, a son.

My parents are amazing and supportive. My sister is one of my best friends.

I have a tremendous group of friends from high school, college and since. Many live in the same city I do.

I’m the only thirty-something I know who still have 4 living grandparents. (Seriously, I write about this in my gratitude journal weekly.)

The work I do is engaging, even if there’s often more of it than I like. Furthermore, I work for an organization I believe in, supporting a mission I’m passionate about.

I’m healthy and able-bodied.

In short, I don’t have much to complain about.

So why did *I* read this book?

Because, like Gretchen was, and despite all the amazing things about my life, I still tend to be discontented.

Here’s Gretchen in Chapter 11 of her book:

Did I have a heart to be contented? Well, no, not particularly. I had a tendency to be discontented: ambitious, dissatisfied, fretful, and tough to please. In some situations, this served me well, because it kept me constantly striving to improve my work and achieve my goals. In most areas of my life, however, this critical streak wasn’t helpful.

Becoming a parent forces you to examine your life; the kind of person, and the kind of parent, you want to be.

And because this is my “deliberate year,” I wanted to be intentional about becoming a happier person.

So why read about someone else’s Happiness Project?

I often learn best from people who’ve been in the battle so to speak.  Why not get advice from those who’ve been there before and came out the other side? If Gretchen and I are similar in our discontent, then I suspect there are some specifics from her Happiness Project that I can take and apply to my own life. Often these antidotes are more tangible than some ‘study.’

Perhaps, the biggest takeaway for me is that, “Happiness isn’t trivial, it’s admirable.”

What follows are the aspects of Gretchen’s Happiness Project, quotes, antidotes and takeaways that resonated the most for me.

Yours will be different, but the takeaways below will get you started and help you determine if you want to dive deeper — into your own Happiness Project.

January: Vitality (Boost Energy)

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. (Source: Daniel Pink’s book Stumbling on Happiness)

On Going to Sleep Earlier:

Gretchen’s research revealed that a bad’s night sleep was one of the top two factors that upset people’s daily moods.

Sleep deprivation impairs memory, weakens the immune system, slows metabolism, and might, some studies suggest, foster weight gain.

On Exercising Better:

People who exercise are healthier, think more clearly, sleep better, and have delayed onset of dementia. Regular exercise boosts energy levels.

The repetitive activity of walking, studies show, triggers the body’s relaxation response and so helps reduce stress; at the same time, even a quick ten-minute walk provides an immediate energy boost and improves mood.

Just stepping outside clarifies thinking and boosts energy. Even five minutes of daylight stimulates production of serotonin and dopamine, brain chemicals that improve mood.

On Tossing, Restoring and Organizing:

Eliminating clutter would cut down the amount of housework in the average home by 40 percent.

Nothing is insurmountable if you do what ought to be done, little by little.

Try a virtual move. Walk around your apartment and ask yourself — if I were moving, would I pack this or get rid of it?

Don’t postpone any task that could be done in less than one minute.

On Acting More Energetic:

Fake it until you feel it.

February: Marriage (Remember Love)

Marital satisfaction drops substantially after the first child arrives. [Ed note: True, but also bring great happiness.]

The atmosphere of my marriage set the the weather for my whole life.

On Hugging:

We hugged — for at least six seconds, the minimum amount of time necessary to promote the flow of oxytocin and serotonin, mood-boosting chemicals that promote bonding.

On Expecting Praise or Appreciation:

You have to do that kind of work for yourself. If you do it for other people, you end up wanting them to acknowledge it and be grateful and to give you credit. If you do it for yourself, you don’t expect other people to react in a particular way.

On Fighting Right:

It takes at least five positive marital actions to offset one critical or destructive action.

On How Men and Women Approach Intimacy:

Women’s idea of an intimate moment is a face-to-face conversation, while men feel close when they work or play sitting alongside someone. [Ed note: True in our house.]

On How Happiness Impacts Your Partner:

Happiness has a particularly strong influence in marriage, because spouses pick up each other’s moods so easily.

Hearing someone complain is tiresome whether you’re in a good mood or a bad one and whether or not the complaining is justified.

On Proofs of Love:

“There is no love; there are only proofs of love.” — Pierre Reverdy

Whatever love I might feel in my heart, others will see only my actions.

One of the great joys of falling in love is the feeling that the most extraordinary person in the entire world has chosen you.

Gretchen’s First Splendid Truth:

To be happy. I need to think about feeling good, feeling bad, and feeling right in an atmosphere of growth.

To be happy, I needed to generate more positive emotions, so that I increased the amount of of joy, pleasure, enthusiasm, gratitude, intimacy, and friendship in my life. That wasn’t hard to understand. I also needed to remove sources of bad feelings, so that I suffered less guilt, remorse, shame, anger, envy, boredom, and irritation. Also easy to understand. And apart from feeling more “good” and feeling less “bad,” I saw that I also needed to consider feeling right.

“Feeling right” is about living the life that’s right for you — in occupation, location, marital status, and so on. It’s also about virtue: doing your duty, living up to the expectations you set for yourself. For some people, “feeling right” can also include less elevated considerations: achieving a certain status or material standard of living.

March: Work (Aim Higher)

It turns out that the happy outperform the less happy. They tend to be more cooperative, less self-centered, and more willing to help other people. They work better with others, because people prefer to be around happier people. Happier people also make more effective leaders. [Ed note: Another thing I’m focused on in ’16.]

Happiness also matters to work simply because work occupies so much of our time.

On Choosing the Right Work:

Enthusiasm is more important to mastery than innate ability, it turns out, because the single most important element in developing an expertise is your willingness to practice.

On Embracing Who You Are:

I have an idea of who I wish I were, and that obscures my understanding of who I actually am.

On Novelty as a Key Element to Happiness:

The brain is stimulated by surprise, and successfully dealing with an unexpected situation gives a powerful sense of satisfaction. If you do new things you’re more apt to feel happy than people who stick to more familiar activities.

On Expanding Your Self Definition:

The more elements make up your identity, the less threatening it is when any one element is threatened.

[Ed note: Same as diversifying investments or streams of income. Another reason to always have a side hustle.]

On Enjoying the Fun of Failure:

In order to have more success, I needed to be willing to accept more failure.

I enjoy the fun of failure. It’s fun to fail, I kept repeating. It’s part of being ambitious; it’s part of being creative.

On the “Arrival Fallacy”:

First of all, by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, so it has already been incorporated into your happiness. Also, arrival often brings more work and responsibility. It’s rare to achieve something (other than winning an award) that brings unadulterated pleasure without added concerns. Having a baby. Getting a promotion. Buying a house. [Ed note: Yeaaahhhh, looking to do all three  in ’16.] You look forward to reaching these destinations, but once you’ve reached them, they bring emotions other than sheer happiness. And of course, arriving at one goal usually reveals another, yet more challenging goal. The challenge, therefore, is to take pleasure in the “atmosphere of growth.”

On Being Open to Criticism:

“Any review is just one person’s option, and in the end the reviews vanish with the next day’s papers while the books endure.” – David Greenberg

April: Parenthood (Lighten Up)

On Whether or Not Children Bring Happiness:

Experts have found that  childcare is only slightly more pleasant than commuting. Marital satisfaction nose-dives after the first child is more and picks up again once the children leave home.

But…

When asked, “What is one thing in life that has brought you the greatest happiness?” The most common answer was “children” or “grandchildren” or both.

Two Books:

  • Siblings Without Rivalry
  • How to Talk so Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk

On the Four Stages of Happiness

To eke out the most happiness from an experience, we must anticipate it, savor it as it unfolds, express happiness, and recall a happy memory.

[Ed note: I originally read this book before my wife and I were expecting. As a result, I didn’t capture a whole lot of notes on the parenthood chapter. I’ll have to revisit now that we’re expecting the birth of our first child.]

May: Leisure (Be Serious About Play)

On Finding Time For Fun (even with work looming):

Turning from one chore to another just made me feel trapped and drained. When I took the time to do something that was truly fun for me, I felt better able to tackle my to-do list. Fun is energizing.

On Embracing Your Idea of Fun:

Relinquishing my fantasies of what I wished I found fun allowed me more room to do the things that I did find fun.

On “Going off the Path”:

“Go off the path” was meant to push me to encounter the unexpected thoughts, unfamiliar scenes, new people, and unconventional juxtapositions that are key sources of creative energy — and happiness.

On Creating a Happiness Box:

Start a “happiness box” and collect all sorts of little trinkets meant to trigger happy thoughts and memories.

[Ed note: My wife and I have a private, ‘happiness’ Tumblr with photos from our time together, screen captures of fun text conversations, milestones, etc. It’s a great pick me up during a bad day.]

Fun Falls into Three Categories:

Challenging fun, accommodating fun, and relaxing fun.

June: Friendship (Make Time for Friends)

Everyone from contemporary scientists to ancient philosophers agrees that having strong social bonds is probably the most meaningful contributor to happiness.

Not only does having strong relationships make it far more likely that you take joy in life, but studies show that is also lengthens life (incredibly, even more than stopping smoking), boosts immunity, and cuts the risk of depression.

On Being Generous:

Your happiness is often boosted more by providing support to other people than from receiving support yourself.

On of the most generous acts is to help someone think big. Words of enthusiasm and confidence from a friend can inspire you to tackle an ambitious goal.

Gretchen’s Second Splendid Truth:

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.

Striving to be happy isn’t  a selfish act.

On Cutting People Slack.

We tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters and to overlook the power of situation to influence their actions, whereas with ourselves, we recognize the pressures of circumstance.

On Making New Friends:

First impressions are important, because when people evaluate others, they weigh initial information much more heavily than later information.

To mark the half way point in her happiness journey, Gretchen asked people to share their personal happiness commandments. The two below were my favorites.

  • Imagine the eulogy: how do I want to be remembered?
  • Own less, love more

July: Money (Buy Some Happiness)

Money satisfies basic material needs. It’s a means and an end. It’s a way to keep score, win security, exercise generosity, and earn recognition. It can foster mastery or dilettantism. It symbolizes status and success. It buys time — which can be spent on aimless drifting or purposeful action. It creates power in relationships and in the world. It often stands for the things that we feel are lacking: if only we had the money, we’d be adventurous or thin or cultured or respected or generous.

On relative wealth (vs. absolute wealth):

Making more money than others in their age group tends to make people happier.

A study of workers in various industries showed that their job satisfaction was less tied to their salaries than to how their salaries compared to their coworkers’ salaries.

Money doesn’t buy happiness the way good health doesn’t by happiness:

When money or health is a problem, you think of little else; when it’s not a problem you don’t think much about it.

On the Limits of “Buy Some Happiness”:

I knew I’d better not overlook the effects of the hedonic treadmill, which quickly transforms delightful luxuries into dull necessities (i.e. if you have room service all the time you would not appreciate it nearly as much as the rare occasion when you allowed yourself to indulge.)

[Ed note: Michael Norton’s TedX talk shares fascinating research on how money can, indeed buy happiness — when you don’t spend it on yourself.]

On Material Growth:

We’re very sensitive to change. We measure our present against our past, and we’re made happy when we see change for the better.  A sense of growth is so important to happiness that it’s often preferable to be progressing to the summit rather than be at the summit.

On Making Decisions:

Studies suggest that satisficers tend to be happier than maximizers. Maximizers spend a lot more time and energy to reach a decision, and they’re often anxious about whether they did in fact make the best choice.

On Spending Out:

Pouring out ideas is better for creativity than doling them out by the teaspoon. (Leverage James Altucher’s 10 ideas/day technique).

“When one loves, one does not calculate.” – Saint Thérèse of Lisieux  (i.e. stop looking for a return)

People who give money to charity end up wealthier than those who don’t give to charity.

Spending out creates a wealth of love and tenderness, while calculation and score-keeping build resentment.

“Life is too short to save your good china or your good lingerie or your good ANYTHING for later because truly, later may never come.”

On Deciding to Give Something Up:

Happiness experts point out that merely making and sticking to a decision is a source of happiness, because it gives you a feeling of control, of efficacy, of responsibility.

August: Eternity (Contemplate the Heavens)

Studies show that spiritual people are relatively happier; they’re more mentally and physically healthy, deal better with stress, have better marriages and live longer.

On Reading Memoirs of Catastrophe (i.e. becoming more aware of the preciousness of ordinary life):

A common theme in religion and philosophy, as well as in catastrophe memoirs, is the admonition to live fully and thankfully in the present.

Third splendid truth: The days are long, but the years are short.

On Imitating a Spiritual Master:

  • Think of two or three people you admire
  • Identify the specific characteristics/things you admire about them

Knowing what you admire in others is a wonderful mirror into your deepest, as yet unborn, self.

On Appearing Happy:

People assume that a person who acts happy must feel happy, but although it’s in the very nature of happiness to seem effortless and spontaneous, it often takes great skill.

It is easy to be heavy: hard to be light.

Acting happy and, even more, being happy is challenging.

Happiness is Not Selfish:

Of course, it’s cooler not to be too happy. There’s a goofiness to happiness, an innocence, a readiness to be pleased. Zest and enthusiasm take energy, humility, and engagement; taking refuge in irony, exercising destructive criticism, or assuming an air of philosophical ennui is less taxing.

Happiness takes energy and discipline.

If you think you’re happy, you are.

September: Books (Pursue a Passion)

[Ed note: Gretchen’s passion is books, but yours could be sports, improve, cooking, politics, etc.]

Happiness research predicts that making time for a passion and treating it as a real priority instead of an “extra” to be fitted in at a free moment (which many people practically never have) will bring a tremendous happiness boost.

On Forgetting About Results:

One thing that makes a passion enjoyable is that you don’t have to worry about results.

Happiness sometimes comes when you’re free from the pressure to see much growth.

On Accepting Your Own Nature:

“I was happier when I accepted my own real likes and dislikes, instead of trying to decide what I ought to like.”

Fourth Splendid Truth: You’re not happy unless you think you’re happy.

Corollary: You’re happy if you think you’re happy.

October: Mindfulness (Pay Attention)

Mindfulness — the cultivation of conscious, nonjudgmental awareness.

Mindfulness brings many benefits: scientists point out that it calms the mind and elevates brain function, it gives clarity and vividness to present experience, it may help people break unhealthy habits, and it can sooth troubled spirits and life people’s moods. It reduces stress and chronic pain. It makes people happier, less defensive, and more engaged with others.

Echoing What James Altucher told me in 2013:

You cannot look outside yourself for happiness. If you want to find happiness, you have to carry it with you.

Examine True Rules.

Example of a True rules:

If you’re willing to take the blame, people will give you responsibility.

I have plenty of time for the things that are important to me.

Interesting Exercise:

Record yourself telling yourself something that you can listen to when you’re angry, frustrated, et al.  Listen to it on your iPhone or record it in your notes so you can revisit when necessary.

Here’s one I used to use a lot:

Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy: Activities that contribute to long-term happiness don’t always make you feel good in the short term.

November: Attitude (Keep a Contented Heart)

Fourth Splendid Truth: No one is happy who doesn’t think himself happy, so without a “a heart to be contented,” a person can’t be happy.

On cultivating a light-hearted spirit:

It’s easier to complain than to laugh, easier to yell than to joke around, easier to be demanding than to be satisfied.

On Being More Agreeable and Kind:

I looked for opportunities to make comments that showed my interest in other people’s viewpoints.

On Giving Positive Reviews:

It’s much harder to embrace something than to disdain it.

On Finding an Area of Refuge (i.e distracting yourself):

Studies show that distraction is a powerful mood-altering device, and contrary to what a lot of people believe, persistently focusing on a bad mood aggravates rather than palliates it.

December: Happiness (Boot Camp Perfect)

I never expect to be done with my resolutions, so I don’t get discouraged when they stay challenging.

The feeling of control is an essential element of happiness — a better predictor of happiness than, say, income. Having a feeling of autonomy, of being able to choose what happens in your life or how you spend your time, is crucial.

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If you’re interested, here are my other book reviews. Apologies for the chronological list. That page has grown significantly and is in desperate need of re-organizing.

  • Steve McDaniel (“Dr. Mac”)

    My wife and I are currently at a cancer treatment facility, getting treatments for her cancer. Along with medical treatments, a major emphasis here is the importance of positivity in healing. As the Bible says in Proverbs 17:22: “A cheerful heart is good medicine.” I love the theme of this book. And I appreciate your summary and points of emphasis. There are certainly many more life benefits to being a non-complaining, happy, positive person than the alternative.

    [Reply]