Review: The Happiness Project

Every other Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a non-personal finance book of interest to Simple Dollar readers.

hpOne of the biggest underlying themes of The Simple Dollar is that personal finance is merely a tool to improve the quality of your life. Of course, it’s an unwieldy and dangerous tool, one that, if used without care and forethought, can add quite a lot of difficulty and pain to your life. Take credit cards, for example.

In connection with that theme, I often read intriguing books about personal happiness – take my reviews of Stumbling on Happiness and Happier, for example, both of which were excellent reads.

Perhaps the most enjoyable book on happiness I’ve yet read, though, is The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. A quick note: I know Gretchen professionally, have exchanged several messages with her over the years, and enjoy reading her excellent blog on happiness topics. Of course, if I didn’t like her writing already, I might never have read the book – which I suppose means I already knew I would like the book before I opened the cover. But enough with that…

The Happiness Project largely focuses on Gretchen’s own experience applying mountains of classic advice on happiness (from Thoreau to Epicurus to the Dalai Lama to Oprah) to see what actually worked – and what didn’t. It’s mostly written in a memoir form covering a single year in which she applied these ideas, which works really well for the material covered (and makes it engaging to read).

Although I’ve had this book for a while, I decided to save this review until the start of the new year because it relates so well to the resolutions that people make for themselves.

January – Boost Energy
It’s often hard to tackle all the things we want to do in life if we don’t have a high level of energy. If your energy is sapped, it becomes all that much easier to simply take the path of least resistance and simply not work on the important things in life, which of course contributes greatly to a sense of unhappiness. Thus, there’s a great deal of sense in beginning a happiness journey by lifting one’s energy.

The two techniques that really stood out in this chapter – and in my own life – were to get more sleep and to simply move around more and get a bit of exercise. I’ll speak for myself in saying that when I don’t get adequate sleep for a few nights in a row, I feel tired and lethargic and unable to do much of anything productive. Similarly, when I fall off the “exercise wagon,” my energy level drops like a rock after about a week.

February – Remember Love
Marriages aren’t easy. Add kids and they become even more difficult. At times, marriages can seem like an emotional negative on the whole. What works? First, don’t expect appreciation for the things you do – and don’t feel a need to point them out and lord them over your partner. It does nothing more than instigate fighting and resentment over something you chose to do. If you want something done, do it and don’t use it as a psychological weapon.

Second, don’t just use your partner as someone to dump your problems on. Don’t blame them for problems. Don’t nag them over things left undone – if it’s undone, it must not occupy a high level of importance for them. Instead, focus on ways to accentuate your partner’s positives. What do they do well? Encourage that in a positive way instead of browbeating over the things they don’t do well. You’ll both wind up happier.

March – Aim Higher
There are few things that feel better than success, particularly when that success occurs at something you never expected to be successful at. When you think to yourself, “I could never do that,” then after investing work you find that you can do that, you’ll find yourself at a big emotional peak.

The best way to aim higher and go beyond what you think you’re capable of is to simply give it a shot. You should expect to fail at first. The first ten times. The first fifty times. That’s fine – you’re learning what it takes to succeed each time you fail. The key is to not give up, to not beat yourself up over the failure, and to get up and try again. Eventually, you will succeed – and that success will lift you high.

April – Lighten Up
People are often happiest when they’re doing something. Gretchen refers to this as “fog happiness” – a sense of happiness, or at least contentment, that comes from working towards a goal. Often, that happiness is borne of a sense that what you’re doing will make others happy.

Another big piece of the puzzle is to simply act happy. Act lighthearted. One effective way to do that is to simply sing on a regular basis – Gretchen suggests doing it in the morning. Play some simple pranks on other people. Do things that make you laugh. It’ll lift everything else.

May – Be Serious About Play
Happiness is often found when you seek out sources of happiness – things you do that bring you joy, no matter what they are. Those things are different for each of us, but when you find those things, devote some serious time to them. Block out time for fishing or for playing the piano. Those times will become powerful personal refreshers for you.

If you don’t have a hobby or activity that brings you such joy, find one. Set aside time to explore potential new interests – and block that time off. Make time for it. When you find something that brings joy into your life, it often works like a “happiness battery,” charging your entire day.

June – Make Time for Friends
Friendship is an easy thing to neglect in our busy lives. We often think to ourselves that our friends will always be around, but when we look again, we find that the friendship has drifted away. Even more importantly, we get joy from time spent with friends, but because we define such interactions as “important but not urgent,” we often replace them with the “urgent but not important” things in our lives.

One powerful way to maintain friendships is to schedule regular events with them. Start a weekly potluck dinner at your house and invite several friends (something we’re in the process of setting up). Another effective tool is to avoid gossip – don’t talk negatively about people behind their backs.

July – Buy Some Happiness
This chapter more or less focuses on one of the major themes of The Simple Dollar – the connection between money and happiness. Without directly touching on it, Gretchen touches on the idea of the fulfillment curve – that everyone has some point that maximizes the enjoyment they get from their spending. Spend too much and you’re not happy. Spend too little and you’re not happy, either.

How do you find that balance? Focus on just buying things you know will bring value into your life, but don’t chide yourself constantly for doing so. Look at your true passions and focus on things that complement those passions and don’t spend as much on the rest.

August – Contemplate the Heavens
Spirituality is another interesting beast in the stable of happiness. For many, there is a lot of solace in contemplating the mysteries of life. If you find peace in seeking these answers, seek them. Gretchen suggests reading about the lives – and beliefs – of spiritual leaders of all stripes (like the Dalai Lama or the Pope or any of a huge number of historical figures).

I find a lot of power in keeping a gratitude notebook. Simply by writing down five things I’m grateful for each day, I keep in mind how many gifts and blessings have found their way into my life. It also often opens a window into religious exploration for me as well.

September – Pursue a Passion
In a way, pursuing a passion builds upon many of the themes already in this book. If you discover you’re passionate about something, chase it. Dig in deep.

For me (and for many others), one great way to build upon a passion is to embark on a big, ambitious project that requires us to dig deep. Write a novel. Build a new deck. Master a particular technology. Start an ambitious blog. To do these things, you have to set aside time – but the projects themselves provide a lot of spiritual happiness and personal reward.

October – Pay Attention
Quite often in life, it’s easy to feel as though we’re swept along by currents largely out of our control. Yet, just as often, if we study our lives, those currents make sense. We have a surprising amount of control over them as well. Most importantly, that awareness can be a real source of happiness.

One effective way to do this is to meditate a bit each day. Spend some time doing nothing more than emptying your mind of all of the mental junk you’ve picked up and clear out that space. Looking at the world with fresher eyes makes all the difference.

November – Keep a Contented Heart
If you’re finding more happiness in your life, how do you maintain it? To put it simply, just pass it on.

It’s very easy to do this. Laugh when others are around. Help others out. Use good manners and be polite. Be positive when you talk about things. Surround yourself with people who do the same thing. This will all add up to a lot of reflected happiness in your life.

December – Boot Camp Perfect
If all of these changes seem overwhelming or impossible, remember one thing: the perfect is the enemy of the good. Take small steps and do them when you think of them or when you can do them. Put these ideas into your calendar and mark off some boundaries for your happiness – but don’t despair if something happens to take one of them out.

The key is to put little positive steps into your life and let the aggregate of those steps help you reach a higher level of personal joy.

Is The Happiness Project Worth Reading?
Regardless of any value you might get out of the advice, I think The Happiness Project is worth reading for the pure entertainment factor. I was sucked into the narrative and wound up reading it much more like a novel than like the nonfiction books I typically read for The Simple Dollar. In fact, this book has found its way into my “to-be-read” pile for purely personal re-reading, a rarity for the books I review for The Simple Dollar.

The advice itself throughout the book overlaps well with many of the books I’ve read on happiness. I think the real key comes through here: listen to yourself carefully and act on what you hear. Your mind is often telling you what you need to be happy, but we often overrule it because of what we’ve consciously decided makes us happy. We buy stuff when we don’t need it and get ourselves into financial pinches. We hang onto relationships too long. We stick with old tired patterns. Quite often, we know these are choices that will make us unhappy, but we don’t listen.

The Happiness Project is a very enjoyable read. It takes a topic – personal happiness – and runs with it, making it personally engaging and entertaining. Drier books fail to entertain at times and fictional narratives often fail to inform – this balances the two quite well. If you’re seeking your own happiness, read this one. You’ll enjoy it.

Trent Hamm
Trent Hamm
Founder of The Simple Dollar

Trent Hamm founded The Simple Dollar in 2006 after developing innovative financial strategies to get out of debt. Since then, he’s written three books (published by Simon & Schuster and Financial Times Press), contributed to Business Insider, US News & World Report, Yahoo Finance, and Lifehacker, and been featured in The New York Times, TIME, Forbes, The Guardian, and elsewhere.

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