Learning life lessons from The Happiness Project

By Hunter Samuelson

Remember Elizabeth Gilbert? Well if you don’t, you probably remember the 2010 romantic-comedy drama based on her bestselling novel, Eat, Pray Love.

Yes, it’s the one with Julia Roberts riding a bike with a giant basket on it.

Thirty-two year old Gilbert embarked on a move to Italy, India, and Indonesia for a radical self-improvement project, the ultimate quest for happiness, creating a memoir out of her travels, and teaching readers how to live happy lives.

Sadly, not all of us can fly out of Buffalo and spend four months in Italy, three months in India, and finish the year off in Indonesia. We’ve got bills to pay. We’ve got Bills to cheer for.

It’s easy for Gilbert to tell readers that all one needs to do is eat, pray, and love, because she went to three countries that seem to have mastered those very life themes. Regular people don’t have time or money for an Elizabeth Gilbert “Happiness Project.” They don’t have time to go off to an Ashram in India and “self-realize,” so what is the realistic approach one can take to find happiness?

This is when Rubin saves the day.

In her bestselling memoir The Happiness Project, Rubin is refreshingly ordinary. That’s right. Rubin is so human, and she isn’t afraid to admit it: she eats ice cream late at night, argues with her husband, she lets her car’s gas level fall into the “empty” zone, and she has over-the-counter pain relievers at hand on all times. The way she humanizes herself throughout the novel by admitting her flaws proves to readers that if this ordinary woman can be happy, so can we.

Rubin shows readers that you don’t need religious experiences with the medicine man in Bali to be happy; eating a cupcake is a religious experience enough.

Wanting to pursue this happiness project in her very own home, Rubin states in the first chapter of her novel, “I didn’t want to reject my life. I wanted to change my life without changing my life by finding more happiness in my own kitchen. I knew I wouldn’t discover happiness in a faraway place or unusual circumstances, [ehem…Gilbert] it was right here, right now.”

We don’t need to have some sort of dramatic transition to be happy, and with all the books who say meditating, following a religious path, or changing our entire lives is the only way to reach transcendence, people become overwhelmed.

Rubin reminds us that being happy doesn’t take all of that; lasting fulfillment happens by little changes every day in our environment, and most importantly, in ourselves: because Rubin is never in denial of her flaws. Therefore, she is incredible at self-improvement.

Though her memoir is not as exhilarating as meeting a sexy Brazilian man with an exotic accent like Gilbert did, Rubin found happiness… as an ordinary woman with bad habits, bills to pay, and cravings for sweets, just like us.

When Rubin told her husband Jamie about her project, he was confused because he thought she was already pretty happy… why do a happiness project?

And this is where the saying, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” can be proven wrong.

Though she assured her husband that she was happy, she told him that she wasn’t as happy as she could be. “I have such a good life; I want to appreciate it more.”

What makes Rubin distinct from other humans is how conscious and mindful she is of herself. We always worry about other people and stick our nose into everyone else’s business, why don’t we try to stick our nose into our own business? Why don’t we ever ask ourselves, “How am I doing? Could I be happier?” The answer is probably yes, because there is always room for improvement.

We don’t have to wait for traumatic chaos to happen to better ourselves and the life we live. We can’t just wait for a crisis to happen to remake our lives. In fact, by being happier, we can prevent the crisis from ever happening and not having it be our wake-up call.

Learning from Gretchen Rubin month by month

The power of the chart-making method

Taking an analytic and structured approach, Rubin designed a calendar on which she could record her resolutions and give herself a daily checkmark for good, or an X for bad. She took a meticulous approach involving charts and daily evaluations because she discovered in her research that “people are more likely to make progress on goals that break into concrete, measurable actions, with a structured accountability and positive reinforcement.”

The Happiness Project is the chronicling of Gretchen Rubin’s everyday adventures over the course of 12 months. Every chapter is about a different month in which she focuses on a new subject along with a new set of goals. What makes The Happiness Project eclectic and illuminating is the endless variety of scientific research that is in her novel.

There are very few times in life we will ever meet someone who is both realistic and inspirational at the same time, especially because we tend to motivate ourselves with ridiculously unrealistic photos, movies, books, and whatever else the media will offer to us, but Gretchen Rubin is this someone.

She assures us that we can still be happy without going on an expensive year-long journey, but we can create our very own year-long happiness project, and do it right in our own home.
Half of The Happiness Project in a nutshell


Subject: Boost energy

One of her goals: Go to sleep earlier.
Research found: Sleep deprivation impairs memory, weakens the immune system, slows metabolism, and might even foster weight gain.

What she changed: Because she wasn’t getting enough sleep, Rubin read that even the tiniest light from a digital alarm clock can disrupt the sleep cycle, so she blocked the light from all the little gizmos in her bedroom. She was able to fall asleep easier.


Subject: Remember love

One of her goals: Don’t expect praise or appreciation.
Research found: Marital satisfaction drops substantially after the first child arrives.

What she changed: Rubin knew she could not change her husband, so instead, she made changes to herself. Having an aching need for her husband to give her praise for her work, she was disappointed every day when he just wouldn’t. She realized that she couldn’t “bully Jamie into changing his ways.” It’s amazing how much more pleasant we are to be around when we stop nagging for gold stars.


Subject: Aim higher

One of her goals: Enjoy now.

Research found: The arrival fallacy, or “the belief that when you arrive at a certain destination, you will be happier,” is a fallacy because by the time you’ve arrived at your destination, you’re expecting to reach it, therefore it has already been incorporated into your happiness. (Also, arriving at the destination brings on more work and responsibility. Although we all anticipate happiness in arrival, arriving only makes us as happy as we anticipate.)

What she changed: Rubin always feared Internet criticisms of her novels, and her anxiety resulted in spoiling her pleasure in her writing career, and weakened her writing. Instead of letting a harsh review on her JFK biography make her angry and depressed, she wrote a friendly e-mail to the critic to show herself that she was confident enough to take criticism. Being able to deal with criticism of her work made it easier to enjoy the process of her work, and easier to enjoy now. The happiest people emotionally handle criticism the best. In fact, they might not even take it as criticism.


Subject: Lighten up

One of her goals: Be a treasure house of happy memories: depressed people have as many nice experiences as other people – they just don’t recall them as well.

Research found: Much like the five stages of grief, happiness has four stages: 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.

What she changed: Rubin knew that if she wanted a treasure house of happy memories for her family, she needed to be the one to build it. She also needed to embrace her role as “the family reporter,” and she did so by e-mailing informational notes with updates from pediatrician’s visits, school event reports, or funny family moments that happened. Rubin said that “by sending everyone a quick, fun e-mail, I can give everyone in the family a lift, even myself.”


Subject: Leisure

One of her goals: Take time to be silly.

Research found: In a phenomenon called “emotional contagion,” we unconsciously catch emotions from other people— whether it’s good ones or bad ones.

Taking the time to act silly means infecting one another with cheer.

What she changed: Being preoccupied with her work, Rubin became more humorless than she used to be. She aimed all of her goals at controlling her temper, but it wasn’t enough: “A happy atmosphere isn’t created merely by the absence of nagging and yelling, but also by jokes, games, and tomfoolery.” Throughout her day, Rubin looked for opportunities to see the ridiculous side of things.


Subject: Make time for friends

One of her goals: Don’t gossip.

Research found: Having strong social bonds is the most meaningful contributor to happiness, and of 24 character strengths, those that best predict life satisfaction are the interpersonal ones. The greatest wisdom provided for living one’s entire life in happiness is the possession of friendship.

What she changed: Although Rubin knew her gossip was an important social function and was certainly fun, she knew she needed to stop telling unkind stories, making unkind observations, or being too inquisitive about sensitive subjects. She tried to veer away from tricky forms of gossip like, “I am worried about her. She seems down, do you think she’s having trouble at home?” She even stopped listening to gossip.

Before her project, far-reaching principles began to emerge while Rubin created her monthly resolutions, and they turned into a list of 12 commandments that can be significant advice to high school students:

Rubin’s 12 Commandments:

1. Be You.
2. Let it go.
3. Act the way you want to feel.
4. Do it now.
5. Be polite and be fair.
6. Enjoy the process.
7. Spend out.
8. Identify the problem.
9. Lighten up.
10. Do what ought to be done.
11. No calculation.
12. There is only love.

And as we advance toward the path of adulthood, Rubin reveals her Secrets of Adulthood, a list created from the difficulty she faced growing up:

Secrets of Adulthood

1. It’s okay to ask for help.
2. People don’t notice your mistakes as much as you think.
3. Do good, feel good.
4. It’s important to be nice to everyone.
5. By doing a little bit each day, you can get a lot accomplished.
6. Soap and water remove most stains.
7. If you can’t find something, clean up.
8. You can choose what you do; you can’t choose what you like to do.
9. Happiness doesn’t always make you feel happy.
10. No deposit, no return.

What you do every day matters more than what you do once in a while.

Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
You don’t have to be good at everything.


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